April 14, 2019 – Palm Sunday
Just because something is fantastic does not mean it’s not true or real. This week a world-wide network of scientists and radio telescopes produced the first picture of a black hole, in a galaxy 55 million light-years away. The radio telescopes, including one at the South Pole, were linked into a network which made them virtually one telescope as big as the earth.
The idea of black holes is utterly fantastic, but it has now been empirically verified and we have a picture to prove it. And as we contemplate the Easter story, we’re prone to ask, if scientists can verify fantastic claims on the other side of the universe, can it prove or disprove that one person two thousand years ago was raised from the dead after being crucified, appeared to his disciples and other eyewitnesses, and that his death worked a forgiveness of the sins of all who believe in him, before, during and after his time on earth? It’s a fantastic story. Is it true? Wouldn’t we like to have a picture to prove it one way or the other?
Over the years I have been here, people ask me “where do you really stand, are you a Christian?” This will likely be the last Easter I will be serving this congregation, so I thought it might be time to try to answer that question, to give you all something to remember me by. And because it’s a complicated answer, and because I haven‘t done a sermon series in several years, I am doing it in two sermons, this Sunday and next.
Both Unitarians and Universalists historically called themselves liberal Christians, but none of us has to accept the label Christian today; most would not, but most of us also would be uncomfortable if we did not celebrate Easter, if we treated Easter Sunday as just any other Sunday. How do we live in this tension? What I’m going to do in these two sermons is give you my own take; as is our tradition, I do not speak for each of you or for the denomination or tell you what you ought to think.
I have seven points I want to make in these two sermons about the resurrection and all that it implies. First, in trying to understand anything, we are committed to the use of reason. Unitarianism in its British and American branches and Universalism are both post-Enlightenment faiths, and we can’t fully commit to anything unless we can grasp it rationally. This applies especially to scripture as well.
Second, the common experience of our lives as well as everything we know from science tells us that death is a one-way street. Neither the physical resurrection of Jesus nor the resurrection of his followers at the last judgment or before is scientifically possible.
Third, the Christian scriptures, interpreting the Hebrew Bible, try to make the case that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah who was foretold in Jewish scripture, except that he was not sent to just release the Jews from the yoke of Roman oppression but to liberate all who accept him from the bondage of sin. But the Christian writers do this by totally misinterpreting the Hebrew Bible, making the case for Jesus as the Messiah, or Christ, unconvincing.
Fourth, if the Christian scriptures are not convincing that Jesus was the promised Messiah, they are even less convincing that he is God. A divine being is immortal, that is the whole point of being divine in the religions with which we are familiar. Thus it is nonsensical to think of killing or sacrificing a divine being.
Those are the points I will cover in today’s sermon. Next week, I will go on to consider the last three:
Fifth, if we consider Jesus just in his human aspect, his sacrifice for the sins of humankind makes no sense. From the point of proportion, how does one human death atone for all the sins committed by every human from the beginning of time as well as all which are to be committed by future generations? And there is a horrible history hinted in the Hebrew Bible of sacrifice of the first-born son; it is rightly called an abomination, yet the orthodox Easter story elevates it to a great blessing for humankind.
Sixth, the Gospel accounts of Jesus’s arrest, trial and execution all have Jewish leaders urging a reluctant Pontius Pilate to crucify him when Pilate can find no basis for a charge against him. This has fed Christian anti-Semitism for two thousand years. It is much more likely that the push for execution came from the Romans because they saw Jesus as a threat.
Seventh, despite all the offense to logic and reason, the Easter story rings true in a deeper sense: for love is stronger than death.
So that’s a summary of where I’m going this week and next, with the first four points in what remains of our time this morning and the other three on Easter Sunday.
First, we are committed to the use of reason in looking at any religion, and in reading the scriptures on which that religion may be based.
Now it just so happens that we have an important anniversary coming up in the history of Unitarian thought. As of May 5 it will be exactly 200 years since William Ellery Channing preached his sermon “Unitarian Christianity” at the installation of Jared Sparks at the Unitarian Church in Baltimore. There are some copies of it at the back that you can take home.
Channing’s classic statement of American Unitarian thought begins with a defense of reason in religion and the use of reason in reading the Bible. Back in the 13th century, St. Thomas Aquinas had held that there were two sources of truth for humans, reason and revelation. The Bible was an example of revelation, that is, God revealing God’s self to humans. How, then, to apply reason to revelation.
Channing was forthright: “Our leading principle in interpreting Scripture is this, that the Bible is a book written for men, in the language of men, and that its meaning is to be sought in the same manner as that of other books.“ So the approach to scripture is not different from the approach to science: we use reason as a way to make sense of it. Channing said, “Now all books, and all conversation, require in the reader or hearer the constant exercise of reason; or their true import is only to be obtained by continual comparison and inference.”
We understand today that reason itself has its limits. The faculty of reason resides in the prefrontal cortex, the seat of learning, language and logic. But there are other, more primitive structures in our brains and these are linked with emotional states and physical states. Reason is not always in the driver’s seat and must share control with feelings such as sexual desire, jealousy, fear and anger.
As it pertains to Jesus, what I will say here is what careful modern scholarship tells us about who Jesus was and the purpose of his ministry, but most of us who grew up in a Christian tradition will already have an emotional relation to Jesus. Some of us may talk to Jesus, consider him our friend or pal or guide or support. In what I have to say this morning, I don’t want to rob you of your favorite Jesus.
And I can’t forget one story involving two of our dear departed parishioners here who were both brought up Jewish, Bonnie Robinson and Ellen Cowan. Bonnie suffered from dementia the last few years of her life and was at the Epoch facility in Brewster, which is where her friend Ellen went to see her one day. Ellen told me afterwards that there was a visiting Christian minister and he had the whole day-activities-room on the Alzheimer’s ward walking around and singing “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so,” and the one singing loudest was – Bonnie Robinson.
In other words, the encounter with the stories in the Bible invokes many layers besides the strictly rational. Yet I agree with Channing when he says “We profess not to know a book, which demands a more frequent exercise of reason than the Bible.” We will confront scripture through the lens of reason, but first let us move on to the second major point, the finality of death.
As a matter of common sense, of life experience and of science, we know few things more surely than that death is an irreversible process. I call it the Humpty Dumpty principle: once the egg is broken, all the king’s horses and all the king’s men can’t put it together again. Or stated scientifically, the Second Law of Thermodynamics tells us that entropy is always increasing, that the natural progression of systems is from order to disorder. Just look at my office. And while living beings are exceptions to this rule, they are so only while alive, and once dead, the mind, so far as we can tell, ceases to exist and the body starts rapidly to decay into its component chemicals.
Against this everyday truth, we have scriptural accounts that Jesus in fact rose from the dead and appeared to many witnesses, and we have 2000 years of church doctrine based on this reported fact. That doctrine, rooted in that scripture, holds that the true significance of Jesus’ resurrection was not just that a human being came back from the dead. It is that the whole crucifixion and resurrection on the third day was a turning point in world history by which God sacrificed his own Son in order to atone for the sins of humanity. And that Jesus’s “victory over death” will lead to eternal life for all who believe in him.
What does scripture have to say about the Humpty Dumpty principle? The earliest writings of the Jesus movement which have survived to the present day are the Epistles of St. Paul, and Paul takes up a whole chapter of his First Letter to the Corinthians defending the resurrection. He starts by saying
3 For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, 4 and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.”
Then Paul lists a bunch of other people, totaling five hundred, he said, who supposedly saw Jesus after his resurrection, and includes himself at the end. Yet Paul never met Jesus in life, so including himself as an eyewitness to Jesus’s resurrection appearances is a puzzle.
Paul say he’s handing on what he received, but he doesn’t say from whom he received it. We would be glad of a footnote here pointing us to another ancient source, but we don’t have it.
We don’t have time to go into Paul’s essay at length here, but I will make two points for later note: first, he seems to be talking about a spiritual rather than a bodily resurrection and second, he makes Christ into a sort of reverse Adam. If you remember, Adam and Eve were kicked out of the garden of Eden for eating the forbidden fruit, and one of their punishments was mortality, that all humans would face death. Paul comes up with the brilliant idea that Jesus reverses this universal human death sentence, saying that as in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive. Four centuries later, these words would lead to the doctrine of original sin.
Now let’s consider Messiah-hood. The word Messiah is Hebrew, and its best translation is the “anointed one,” since Hebrew kings and others were anointed with oil as a symbol of divine favor. The Greek word for messiah is Christos. So when we use the title Christ for Jesus, we are subtly affirming the idea that he was the Messiah, and the term Christian by this logic, implies an acceptance of Jesus’ status as messiah. That is why I am not comfortable calling myself a Christian though I think very highly of Jesus as a teacher.
The actual use of the term Messiah in the Hebrew Bible is quite limited. Yet the four canonical Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, were all written to try to prove that Jesus was the Messiah. And so the writers of those accounts frequently throw in a phrase, “according to the scripture,” or “to fulfill what was written.” They are trying to make the case that Jesus’s role was ordained by God years before.
To try to pin down these references, it is useful to have an annotated Bible, and I have the best, the Oxford Annotated Bible. The footnotes in the Gospel accounts will usually point you back towards the Psalms, or Isaiah or one of the other prophets. You who have sung Handel’s Messiah have encountered this, because much of the libretto of that work consists in quotations from the Hebrew Bible that are alleged to have been written about Jesus only several centuries before.
But if you go back and read these passages in their original context, you can tell they were talking about something entirely different. For example, the short summary passage I just read from Paul’s essay on the Resurrection has two references to scripture, that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures and that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures. The footnote to the first reference directs us to one of several passages in Isaiah which are called the Song of the Suffering Servant, but in context the servant pretty clearly means the nation of Israel as a whole, which at that time had to resurrect itself from its decades-long exile in Babylon. The reference to scripture in three days of the resurrection points to a passage in Hosea which reads as follows (Hosea 6:1-2):
1 "Come, let us return to the LORD;
for it is he who has torn, and he will heal us;
he has struck down, and he will bind us up.
2 After two days he will revive us;
on the third day he will raise us up,
that we may live before him.
First, the prophet Hosea is in the historical context of the eight century BCE when the great threat to the northern kingdom of Israel is the Assyrians. Second, pay attention to the persons; who is being raised up is not the Messiah but “us,” the people the prophet is addressing, the people of Israel.
If a lawyer had made such flagrant misuse of precedent as Paul and the Gospel writers make, he or she would be disbarred.
The most important piece of the Messiah puzzle that I have come across is a promise that God made to King David. David was the height of the fortunes of the nation of Israel. The book of Samuel relates that when David was settled in Jerusalem, he wanted to build a permanent home for the Ark fo the Covenant, in which God had dwelt since the old days in the Sinai desert. God speaks to him through a prophet, Nathan, and tells him not to worry about building a temple, he will have David’s offspring build the temple, and David’s son Solomon did build the temple. But God also promised David that his kingdom would be forever: “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.”
This is why the Gospel writers wanted to establish that Joseph, Jesus’s earthly father, was descended from King David and that the child had to go to Bethlehem, the city of David, to be born.
Matthew Mark, Luke and John were written in the depths of Jewish despair. The Jews of Palestine had suffered for decades under Roman rule and a stifling Jewish hierarchy, and Second Temple Judaism had basically come to an end with the Roman crushing of the Jewish uprising of 59-60 of the Common Era. To seal their victory, the Romans had not only destroyed the Temple, the seat of God on earth, but before destroying it they had desecrated it by sacrificing to Jupiter in it. How could God, who made a covenant with Abraham to make his descendants a great nation, have let the Israelites sink so low? Judaism as a religion was in complete disarray, and it was out of that anguished period that accounts were written of the life and ministry of Jesus which had occurred four or five decades earlier. It is understandable that the writers would want their subject to be a special person anointed by God to deliver God’s chosen people from the yoke of Roman oppression. The ideal candidate would be Judas Maccabeus, the warrior hero of the Hanukkah story, who had actually defeated the Greek oppressors two centuries before. But alas the dynasty he founded proved to be corrupt.
Jesus, however, didn’t really fit the role either. He not only had failed to throw off the Roman yoke he had been completely crushed by it. The only way to argue he was ordained by God was to say that he was a ruler of a kingdom not of this world. It may have been a convincing argument in the first century, but it dose not convince me now.
A Messiah would be at least a mortal human being. The Gospel of John, however, goes further than claiming Jesus as Messiah and claims him as a part of God. This is the beginning of the doctrine of the Trinity.
The big problem I see with that is that Gods are immortal. Immortal means you can’t be killed. Sacrifice, on the other hand, demands that the sacrificial animal be killed.
Think about Achilles in the Homeric tale. He was born mortal, but his mother wanted him to be immortal, and so she dipped him in the River Styx. Except that she had to hold on to one heel, and so he was 98% immortal, but had a mortal heel, and – wouldn’t you know it – that was where the arrow hit him that killed him.
It is to get around this logical objection that orthodox theology argues that Jesus has two natures; he is both fully God and fully human. This idea was skewered by Channing as follows:
“According to this doctrine, Jesus Christ, instead of being one mind, one conscious intelligent principle, whom we can understand, consists of two souls, two minds; the one divine, the other human; the one weak, the other almighty; the one ignorant, the other omniscient. Now we maintain, that this is to make Christ two beings. To denominate him one person, one being, and yet to suppose him made up of two minds, infinitely different from each other, is to abuse and confound language, and to throw darkness over all our conceptions of intelligent natures.”
So for Channing, Jesus was fully human and not divine at all. Emerson, eighteen years later, held that Jesus was divine, but only in the sense that each of us is. In his Divinity School Address (1838) he said, “One man was true to what is in you and me. He saw that God incarnates himself in man, and evermore goes forth anew to take possession of his world.” Orthodox doctrine holds that only in Jesus was God incarnate, but Emerson is preaching, in effect, universal incarnation.
In the Divinity School Address, Emerson showed a keen appreciation for how religious insights received first-hand in one generation become encrusted in the next generation with doctrine and rituals and lose their spiritual immediacy.
“[Jesus] said, in this jubilee of sublime emotion, `I am divine. Through me, God acts; through me, speaks. Would you see God, see me; or, see thee, when thou also thinkest as I now think.' But what a distortion did his doctrine and memory suffer in the same, in the next, and the following ages! There is no doctrine of the Reason which will bear to be taught by the Understanding. The understanding caught this high chant from the poet's lips, and said, in the next age, `This was Jehovah come down out of heaven. I will kill you, if you say he was a man.' “
And in fact that has happened. Exactly 440 years ago yesterday, one Matthew Hamont was burned at the stake in Norwich Castle, England, for denying the divinity of Christ. I’m glad they don’t do it now.
So here we are more than halfway through my seven points, and I want to remind you that I first said that reason is important in the assessment of religion. Second, I said that death was usually considered final among us, and that St. Paul’s arguments on the resurrection in First Corinthians 15 don’t show a way around the finality of death. Third, the scriptural attempts to paint Jesus as the Messiah prophesied in the Hebrew Bible fell short of being convincing, though they did evidence the yearning of the Jews to be free of Roman oppression. Fourth, the double nature of Jesus as fully human and fully divine at the same time was self-contradictory and made the sacrifice for the atonement of sins impossible, because you can’t kill a being who is immortal.
Please do not read these thoughts as some sort of Grinch who wants to steal your Easter joy. My problem is with certain areas of Christian doctrine, not with people who want to embrace those areas. I do not claim to have ultimate wisdom as to any of these and will gladly engage in discussion with anyone over anything I say this week or next.
Sophia Lyon Fahs said in the reading we did today that it matters what we believe. That is true, but it matters more what we do. The important thing is whether you have committed to bringing about the beloved community, to making the world a better place. I have worked on social justice projects alongside many orthodox Christians who are just as committed to exemplifying love in their lives as I am.
My frustration with the orthodox approach to Easter was expressed in my Matters of Faith column which appeared in the Cape Cod Times today, and I’ll close with these words:
“[It is] tragic .... that this emphasis on the supernatural effects of Jesus’s death ignores his life and teachings, which is what can really save humanity. ... I take the core of Jesus’s teaching to be the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord’s Prayer, the Beatitudes and the parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. Love your enemies; turn the other cheek; forgive others their trespasses, judge not that ye be not judged. Blessed are the poor, the meek, the persecuted. Love the foreigner in your midst.
These are hard precepts to follow, but if anything will bring about an earthly resurrection of this human race, these will. If you sing Alleluia for anything at Easter time, sing it for these.”
Tune in next week for a hard look at sacrifice and salvation.
Reading: Excerpt from “Unitarian Christianity” by William Ellery Channing, Baltimore May 5, 1819
Whilst, however, we differ in explaining the connexion between Christ’s death and human forgiveness, a connexion which we all gratefully acknowledge, we agree in rejecting many sentiments which prevail in regard to his mediation. The idea, which is conveyed to common minds by the popular system, that Christ’s death has an influence in making God placable, or merciful, in awakening his kindness towards men, we reject with strong disapprobation. We are happy to find, that this very dishonorable notion is disowned by intelligent Christians of that class from which we differ. We recollect, however, that, not long ago, it was common to hear of Christ, as having died to appease God’s wrath, and to pay the debt of sinners to his inflexible justice; and we have a strong persuasion, that the language of popular religious books, and the common mode of stating the doctrine of Christ’s mediation, still communicate very degrading views of God’s character. They give to multitudes the impression, that the death of Jesus produces a change in the mind of God towards man, and that in this its efficacy chiefly consists. No error seems to us more pernicious. We can endure no shade over the pure goodness of God. We earnestly maintain, that Jesus, instead of calling forth, in any way or degree, the mercy of the Father, was sent by that mercy, to be our Saviour; that he is nothing to the human race, but what he is by God’s appointment; that he communicates nothing but what God empowers him to bestow; that our Father in heaven is originally, essentially, and eternally placable, and disposed to forgive; and that his unborrowed, underived, and unchangeable love is the only fountain of what flows to us through his Son. We conceive, that Jesus is dishonored, not glorified, by ascribing to him an influence, which clouds the splendor of Divine benevolence.