Many years ago, I read the book Lamb, The Gospel according to Biff, who was Jesus childhood friend. I remember literally at the same time laughing out loud and finding deep meaning in the book. Usually those two don’t always go together so when it happens I pay attention. Of course the backdrop to the story are the gospels stories of Jesus of Nazereth in the Christian Scriptures. This book imagines what it was like to grow up as Jesus friend and what happened during those formative years between the ages of 12 when in the gospel of Luke he is talking with the rabbis in the temple and the age of 30 when again in the gospel of Luke it states he starts his ministry.
Biff is Raised from the dead and locked into a hotel room by the Angel Raziel who has commanded he write a new gospel that the world is waiting for. The angel is not portrayed in the best of lights. He becomes infatuated with Spiderman and considers asking God if he can become Spiderman. Raziel sits around watching soap operas and WWF wrestling all day, thinking they are real to the point where Biff complains the angel guards the remote control like it’s the arc of the covenant. But in truth the angel doesn’t want Biff to be influenced by modern day interpretations of Jesus. I think that is an interesting point. Even if you are not Christian it is hard not to to be influenced about what people think about Jesus of Nazereth. Biff however being ever resourceful finds the Gideon Bible in the drawer, and points out inconsistencies but really is constantly wondering why he is not mentioned in the stories.
So first let me say that this imagining of what Jesus was like in his early years and the lost years is not a new phenomenon. We know that as early as the second century, there is mention of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas which tells stories of Jesus doing magical things as a child. Lamb for the most part seems to focus on the positive ones such as smashing the heads of lizards and then bringing them back to life. In the infancy gospels of Thomas there are stories of bringing clay pigeons to life, but also of Jesus striking other children dead if they crossed him in some way. Some dark stuff. But this book is more humorous than dark.
The infancy gospels show though that even back then, people saw the disparities in the gospels and in good Jewish Midrash tradition imagined what might have been.
Much of the book Lamb focuses on the Lost Years of Jesus between the age of 12 and 30 and follows the 19th and 20th century imaginings of some academics and mystics that Jesus travelled to India and China. Lamb, throughout their journey, focuses on the relationship between Biff and his best friend Joshua. (the Hebrew name for jesus).
I must warn you if you decide to get the book it is a bit crude. Biff has a constant fascination with sex. He works hard but to no avail trying to convince Joshua to keep adultery out of the list of sins.
Josh at the very least is curious about sex, and required Biff to sleep with prostitutes and then explain how it feels to him. After explaining sex to Joshua Joshua replies,
“But that doesn’t seem right. Why would the Lord make sin feel good, then condemn humans for it.
Biff replies: Wouldn’t it be funny if you weren’t the messiah? I mean if you abstained from knowing a woman your whole life, only to find out that you were just a minor prophet?
Or when Biff and Joshua are in India and while Joshua is studying yoga with a Hindu Master, Biff is studying the Kama Sutra which is an ancient Hindu Text on human sexuality –
In talking about the kama sutra with Josh, he asks “are you sure it doesn’t bother you talking about this stuff when you’ll never be allowed to do it? No Josh replys…its interesting. It doesn’t bother you when I talk about heaven, does it?
It goes on, “Mankind, I suppose is designed to run on to be motivated by temptation. If progress is a virtue, then this is our greatest gift. For what is curiosity if not intellectual temptation. what progress is there without curiosity.”
To me this is a point the book and I believe one of the points the gospels bring front and center. Being curious is a good trait. Not accepting tradition on face value, not confusing ritual with truth and meaning, but merely pointing towards it. Sort of like pointing to the stars but everyone is looking at the finger that is pointing. Jesus in his day, broke with the tradition of his culture. Whether it was the food laws, or healing on the Sabbath, or being with the unclean, the lepers, the tax collectors, the Romans. He looked at his religion in a new way. We who come together here, have come to look at the world and religion in a new way, to look at Jesus of Nazereth in a new way, not in the ritualistic way of Christianity’s finger, as the only way, but to what the story of his life actually points to.
And what it points to is the ethic of love. One of the things I also love about this book is that it portrays Mary Magdalene as a strong person who is a leader in Jesus’ Ministry. On meeting Mary Magdalane as a child Biff speaks of little boy love, “it seems the cleanest pain I’ve known. Love without desire, or conditions, or limits. A pure and radiant glow in the heart that could make me giddy and sad and glorious all at once. Biff goes on to laments “that Joshua taught us that we should not hate, a lesson that he was never able to master, along with geometry.”
But radical love was the message Jesus gave to us in the gospels, as highlighted in Luke Ch 6.
“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again, Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
Good lessons all. And I want you to keep that thought of love and giving in your hearts and minds, as we take our offering today.
The crux of the story is the journey that Biff and Joshua take to find the three wise men in hope of finding Joshua’s purpose in life. The trip takes them to Afghanistan, China, and then India. It is interesting how the writer weaves the stories to show how each tradition informed Joshua in his future ministry. In Afghanistan he finds Balazaar who taught them the wisdom of Taoism.
“The three jewels of the Tao are compassion, moderation and humility. Compassion leads to courage, moderation leads to generosity and humility leads to leadership.” It is easy to see how this connects to Jesus Ministry.
They then set off to China to find Gasper who is a Buddhist Monk. As they approach the great wall of china Biff of course complains and wonders how long could the wall be, lets go around it. A month later they find themselves returning to the same gate. . Joshua states
“ A wall is the defense of a country that values inaction. A wall imprisons the people of a country as much as it protects them. One can’t be free without action. Change comes with action. There is no such thing as a conservative hero. You have to let tradition fall sometimes. You have to take action, you have to eat bacon.”
Of course Biff pushes Joshua that as messiah he will need a stronger message than its ok to eat bacon. But it starts with Bacon. It starts small and builds.
So I ask you, what walls have you built up to keep danger out of your life. Often to avoid emotional pain we build walls to keep others from hurting us, but when we build walls, we also keep out the positive emotions. We are more willing to avoid pain than to experience pleasure. What action are you committed to make change in your life, to make change in your relationships, and in this Congregation. Its time to break down some walls and create change and to risk pain, so that we may experience love.
When Joshua and Biff finally find the Monastery they are forced to wait three days in the freezing cold before they are allowed entry. This is an old Buddhist tradition to ensure the sincerity of the questioner. However Joshua sees this differently and states
“When Im in charge, if someone knocks, they will be able to come in. Making someone who is seeking comfort stand out in the cold is a crock of rancid yak butter.”
Thus the tradition of radical welcoming became a part of Jesus’ ministry. They spend the next number of years practicing meditation and martial arts to discipline and focus their thoughts.
“Sitting was what we did. To learn to sit, to be still and hear the music of the universe. Was why we had come halfway around the world, evidently. To let go of ego, not individuality. You drill us every day in the same movements, we practice the same brush strokes over and over, we chant the same mantras, why? So that these actions will become natural, spontaneous, without being diluted by thought. Compassion is the same way. Love is not something you think about. It is a state in which you dwell”
Think about what it would mean to dwell in a state of love. To have love in your heart, mind, soul and actions for everyone you meet. To actually recognize the inherent worth and dignity of every person.
Now Biff is continually lamenting about the cold weather.
“Why couldn’t you just go to the rabbis and learn to be the messiah like everyone else. Do you remember any snow in the story of Moses? No Did the Lord appear to Moses in the form of a snow bank? I don’t think so. Did Elijah ascend to heaven on a chariot of ice> Nope. Did Daniel come forth unharmed from a blizzard? No Our people are about fire, Joshua, not ice. I don’t remember any snow in all the Torah. “
So it is an interesting juxtaposition, how do we a people of history, a people of hope for the future stay in the present moment. How do we transcend our past, our conditioning to become who we are meant to be. This is challenge which Biff recognizes,
“It’s hard for me, a Jew to stay in the moment. Without the past where is the dread. And without guilt and dread, who am I?”
This is how we are conditioned. Who are you? Who are you without all the baggage of the past. Who are you, how do you act, how do you want to act right now, in the present moment. It is the only moment we have. We must break free of our fears. We must forgive ourselves and others of our trespasses. As activist Bryan Stephenson said, Each of us is more than the worst thing we've ever done."
And so upon these realizations of living in a state of compassion and love, they head off to India to find what they need to learn from the third wise man, who is Yogi. On their way they experience the death cult of Kali, where the wealthy sacrifice the poor and the people have accepted their lot in life in hope of being reborn into a higher caste. Joshua realizes that just as it is not right to condemn anyone due to the caste they were born in, so too was it not right to condemn someone whether they were gentile or jew and thus imagines why Jesus opens his ministry to all. “To bring God to everyone, asks Biff. At least after a nap,” responds Joshua.
Their last bit of knowledge is learning from the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita the Hindu sacred texts. “Those who sees in me all things, and all things in me, is never far from me, and I am never far from them” The independent web of existence of which we are all a part of. That the spark of the divine resides within each of us. That we just need to find that spark within us and realize there is something eternal in everyone. May it be so.