Here are some items from the LCMS church activities last Sunday:
A. The pastor told a couple of notable anecdotes. One was about an elderly woman who was angry at Jesus for forgiving the thief on the cross and letting him into paradise. That man lived his life as a thief, maybe even a murderer, and he got saved at the last minute. She, by contrast, tried for decades to live a good life, not going to parties. Why do all that work, if one can be saved at the last minute? The pastor said that the thief on the cross recognized his desperate need for God’s mercy, which we all need. The pastor also talked about people at the gym who are proud of their body and strut it around, and he likened them to the proud Corinthians. Others, however, have a poor body image. The white robe of Christ’s righteousness covers believers, though, and they do not have to worry about whether it makes their hips look too big! I thought of an episode of Dennis Kiszonas’s “Grace for Today” radio program that I listened to last night. He said that we all need God’s grace, so no one person is better than another.
The pastor told another story about an elderly woman he would visit. Every time, she would tell the same story about how she became a Christian when she was young and helped bring her whole non-believing family to Christ. It all started when a friend invited her to Sunday school. The pastor would tell her that her story was cool, but it was also cool that the friend invited her to Sunday school.
The theme of the service was the church being one body, Jesus’s body, which Jesus builds. The first story relates to that because having a sense of superiority can hinder harmony in the church, as was the case with the Corinthians who bragged about their spiritual gifts. The second story relates to it because it shows how Jesus can build his body through the ordinary and through interpersonal connection.
B. The Sunday school class revolved around the fourth century Codex Sinaiticus, which contains half of the Septuagint and the entire New Testament.
Codex Sinaiticus was found at St. Catherine’s monastery at Mount Sinai. The teacher told us the story about who St. Catherine was. She lived in the fourth century and was tortured on a Roman wheel. She managed to survive that ordeal, which was rare in those days, so the Romans beheaded her. According to legend, angels took her head and her body to Mount Sinai. Monks later found them and named the monastery after her. It was attacked by bandits, but Justinian in the sixth century, with the authority of the Byzantine empire, built the building of the monastery there. St. Catherine’s became an autonomous monastery when it broke away from Russian orthodoxy in the sixteenth century. This is in contrast with Benedictine orders, which send monks from monastery to monastery. Tours at St. Catherine’s were discontinued in 2013 due to problems Al-Qaeda was causing, and that hurt the monastery, which makes money from the tours.
The teacher then gave us a history of monasticism. Prior to Constantine’s conversion, Christians tried to demonstrate their conviction by publically proclaiming that they were Christians and getting arrested. We have sermons in which pastors attempt to discourage congregants from trying to get arrested! After Constantine converted, people became Christians, and one reason some did so was in order to rise in the imperial ranks. There was no longer martyrdom of Christians in the Roman empire, so Christians sought another way to demonstrate their seriousness about their faith. Monasticism emerged in Syria and Egypt, and monks would deprive themselves of food, sleep, and sex. In Syria, the monasticism was largely solitary, as monks lived in caves. In Egypt, by contrast, there was a communal element to it.
The teacher told the story of Konstantin von Tischendorf, a nineteenth century scholar. von Tischendorf went to St. Catherine’s and studied the manuscripts of Codex Sinaiticus. He says that he was allowed to take forty-four manuscripts, so he did so and published them, without saying where he got them. The next time he went to St. Catherine’s, the monks were cooler towards him. von Tischendorf got more manuscripts, and his initial claim was that the monks threw them into the garbage, so they were there for the taking. He then claimed that he bought them: he worked with Tsar Alexander to buy them and the Tsar would protect the abbey. In 1933, the Soviet Union sold many of them for $500,000 (that time’s value) to the British Museum.
The Codex Sinaiticus also contains the Shepherd of Hermas and the Epistle of Barnabas, which demonstrates some fluctuation in the canon in the fourth century. Communities differed on whether to accept twenty-seven or twenty-nine books in the canon. Some books were controversial: some communities wanted Hebrews, some did not. Half of the church wanted Revelation, half did not. Books were deemed canonical when it was concluded that they were especially used by God to touch people’s lives. The Epistle of Barnabas dates to around 130. It is a Christian interpretation of the Old Testament, like Hebrews. Like the Gospel of John, it has dualistic themes such as light and darkness, which would become prominent in Gnosticism in Egypt. The Shepherd of Hermas dates to the late first-early second century, around the time of the Gospel of John. Hermas was a freed slave from Rome; Christianity was full of slaves at that time because Christianity gave them hope when their situation appeared hopeless. An angel appears to Hermas as a shepherd and delivers Christian ethics, which related to the situations of churches at that time. One commandment was that, if a man’s wife commits adultery and she repents, then the man must accept her back. The text implies that the shepherd may actually be Jesus. The Shepherd of Hermas also has symbols, like Revelation: the church is a tower with repentant sinners.