A Sermon Given at a Sacrament Meeting
(the worshop service in a Mormon church), in Naperville Ward, Naperville, Illinois in late 1977, by Abe Van Luik.
I had moved to Naperville to work at Argonne National Laboratory, so the reading that supported this talk was done while I was still at Utah State University in Logan, where I had just completed my Ph.D. (went back to my graduation the next June). The very next year, in Illinois, is when I became disillusioned with my faith. I tell that story elsewhere on this website (if you really want to go there, click here, but the story there has nothing to do with Early Christianity):
So, here goes that sermon from late 1977, it has no title:
A dictionary definition of a "Christian," is simply one who believes in Christ. Yet – just who Christ is, and what the consequences are of Him being what He is, divides so-called "Christianity" into as many factions and divisions as there are Christians almost. In seeking reliable information on the identity of Christ, whom can we trust? One scholar observed that there are as many studies on the life of Christ published as there are leaves strewn in a deep-woods brook in autumn, and the flow continues still. Yet to whom do these searchers go for reliable answers? To those who can give firsthand information, preferably; second-hand information runs a close second; and those who were close to these primary sources of information in time and/or in ecclesiastical authority are third in preference.
Some of these primary sources, they who have experienced the presence of the Lord, are the great patriarchs, the Old Testament prophets, and the apostles of the New Testament. That the God of the Old Testament was the same God as that revealed in the New Testament we have from a primary source: Matthew in the New Testament quotes the Lord as saying: "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, . . . and ye would not!" And John in the same book represents Christ as saying that: . . . "before Abraham was, I am," where "I am" is widely recognized to be another name for Jehovah, both names meaning "The self-existent one," or the "eternal one."
In addition to these sources, there are others, revealed to us through scriptures long lost to the world, but brought forth in recent times.
In a book of scripture which we call the Pearl of Great Price, we find the actual content of the knowledge given by the Lord, personally, to such great men as Moses, Abraham, and Enoch. In the Book of Mormon we find that the Lord also spoke with many men on this, the American, continent over a period of time ranging from 2000 BC to 400 AD. And even more exciting than these ancients, we have the modern scriptures, the revelations recorded in the book of Doctrine & Covenants, being the dealings of this same Jesus Christ with two men of our own age – Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. And perhaps most exciting of all, we have the teachings of our modern prophets, based upon insights gained through this selfsame medium of revelation, of personal contact with God by a man of our own day and time.
We claim these things to be true, we claim to be the only Church based on specific and ongoing revelation, and if this claim be true, then what do we have to offer in the way of explaining Jesus Christ which others, using the Bible as their only source, do not have?
This is a legitimate question, if we claim new knowledge, we must be ready to teach and explain it, else what good is it?
In Acts 1:3, we read that after the resurrection, for 40 days, Jesus returned and taught his disciples "the things pertaining to the kingdom of God." Yet aside from this reference, nothing else pertaining to this particular facet of Christ's ministry appears in the Bible. A good question is – why not, and what was taught?
Now, if we are the Church that is directed by revelation from the Savior, we should have those answers, and we do.
It is very interesting that after the death of the apostles there was a struggle for authority in the primitive Church, and one of the factions who claimed to be the continuation of the true authority based their claim on possessing that knowledge which "Christ taught to the apostles after the Resurrection." One of the earlier Church fathers, Clement, mentioned that there was a certain body of knowledge which he did not know conveyed to the general authorities of the Church, and to no one else; he calls this body of knowledge the "gnosis", and those who claimed authority by possesing this knowledge were called the "Gnostics". Here is all that Clement says on the subject: "To James the Just and to John and Peter after the resurrection, the Lord conveyed the gnosis, these handed it on to the rest of the Apostles, and the rest of the Apostles in turn to the Seventy."
If we look at the parallel ministry of the Savior on this continent, in the Book of Mormon, we find His teachings described very similarly as in the New Testament, so similarly in fact that the "gnosis" (we are looking for) to borrow Clement's word, is also missing in this work, but with the following explanation: "The twelve He had chosen were given special knowledge by means of a great vision, and they were forbidden to alter that which they saw and heard," and this is how their subsequent ministry is described: "They did minister upon the face of the earth; nevertheless they did not minister of the things which they had heard and seen," . . . "because of the commandment which was given them." . . .
And in case this is a great disappointment, the prophet Nephi gives this promise to the reader of his book – speaking of the knowledge of the Lord which is contained in his record: "And when they shall have received this, which is expedient that they should have first, to try their faith, and if it shall so be that they shall believe these things then shall the greater things be made manifest unto them."
So by the testimony of Clement and Nephi, we know that special knowledge was given the Apostles, and from Nephi we hear that we may also receive this special knowledge, after we receive the knowledge of the Savior which is already available, and develop faith in Jesus Christ.
Now, if we are the Church of Jesus Christ, as we claim to be, and have been organized as in former days, with prophets and a quorum of twelve apostles as before in both the old and the new world, then we, too, should have some special body of knowledge, kept and administered by the apostles and the presiding three, as described by Clement, and also available to the general membership after they have accepted the more basic teachings and demonstrated faith, as described by Nephi. Yet the ministering of the apostles upon the face of the earth should not be pertaining to these greater things of the kingdom as Nephi says. We have just such a body of knowledge, administered only in a certain sacred place, and not spoken of outside of that place. And only by obedience to the public teachings of the Savior and by demonstrating faith in Him through active service to your fellow men may you, also, be allowed into this sacred edifice to receive this special knowledge pertaining to the kingdom of God.
Joseph Smith received the ordinances to be given in the temple by revelation, and taught them to the apostles – these are his words: "The communications I made to this council were of things spiritual, and to be received only by the spiritually minded: and there was nothing made known to these men but what will be made known to all the Saints of the last days, as soon as they are prepared to receive, and a proper place is prepared to receive them . . . ; therefore, let the Saints be diligent in building the Temple," . . . .
In view of these things, when Paul in the New Testament uses the sacred temple ordinance of baptism for the dead to jack up Corinthians' sagging belief in the resurrection, is it any wonder that no explanation or elaboration of the ordinance itself is given?
If you think this whole claim is maybe a bit farfetched, it is very instructive to read that which the gnostics of the second century threw into the face of the Church as proof of their having the secret doctrines taught only to the apostles: their books, the Gospel of Phillip, the Pistis Sophia, the Odes of Solomon, etc., are literally filled with descriptions of ordinances and sacred rituals which bear a most striking resemblance in form and meaning to the ordinances and sacred teachings we today receive in the holy edifice we call the temple. In the same speech referred to earlier, Joseph Smith refers to the keys for understanding the things received in the temple (for physically receiving the ordinance does not necessarily imply spiritually understanding it) as being "patience in all meekness, faith, perseverance unto the end, knowing assuredly that all these things referred to . . . are always governed by the principle of revelation."
It is my testimony to you that through this Church you may come to know not only the Jesus Christ of the New Testament, whom the world after these many years is still attempting to explain and understand, and not only the Jehovah of the Old Testament, who is the same God, and who is so sadly misunderstood by the modern world because of a severely limited exposure to His dealings with men only in the Old Testament. But most importantly, through this Church, through its basic teachings and tenets and thereafter its higher teachings given only in certain sacred places, you may come to know and understand the Jesus Christ of today, and know for a surety that He lives, and that He does still communicate with righteous men whem we call our prophets and leaders, and most importantly, that His whole mission and concern in life is not to restrict your activities and fun, but to expand your minds and hearts to infinity, that you may become as He is, filled with knowledge, love and compassion, and share with Him the only real life in the universe, eternal life.
In this context, I leave this testimony to us who are members of this Church to stimulate you to ponder: therefore, what manner of men ought we to be?
And I leave this testimony to you who are not members of this Church to stimulate you to ponder in your hearts: can this be so? And if you will approach this question humbly and prayerfully, you will be opening your hearts to that selfsame spirit of inspiration and revelation, although it will be a small stirring in comparison, which inspires and prepares for revelation those holy men who communicate with God today, whom we love and revere and call our prophets.
THIS WAS MY LAST TALK AS A TRUE BELIEVER.
Imagine my surprise when in 2003, stuffed into one of the reference books I consulted for this review of writings on Early Christianity, I found the above sermon again!
I was surprised that i did not see anything terribly wrong with the historical parts of the discussion I re-read after 26 years. But the context into which I placed that history is wrong, or at least I no longer agree with it.
What would I change about it today?
(1) I would certainly not confuse the Gnostics and their Gnosis, knowledge that saves you by virtue of your obtaining it, with the "true gnosis" (the saving knowledge of Christ's redemption of humanity on the cross) that Clement described.
(2) I would tone down the claims that the Gnostic descriptions of secret rites were the same as the Mormon's secret/sacred rites, although the correspondence is still surprising to me, and worthy of further study.
(3) I would certainly never again write such a male-centered sermon, I can't believe I never once stopped to add "women" to my use of "men" in that piece. I was blindly patriarchal.
(4) I do not anymore believe that one Church, one Religion, is right and has all Truth, and that all other religions have only portions of Truth. No religion has a unique claim to possessing truth, none have all truth, or Truth. Truth is to a large extent ineffable and can be experienced, but it cannot be condensed into doctrinal statements and rules for living.
(5) Finally, revering certain very specific men as prophets is something I would not ever do again. It is part of our nature as human beings to be able to tap into the Divine Nature in us, if we choose to, and work at it. There is no such thing as a Prophet in the sense the word is used in religions from Old Testament times until today. There is no such thing as a man being visited by an anthropomorphic God to set in place legislation and doctrines for a people to obey. There is only the gift of discerning what is and what is not in concert with the Divine Nature. Some have this gift in greater abundance than others and can be legitimate teachers. But it gives no authority, and is not restricted to a certain sex or class or race. It is a human thing.
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