This is the second of two sermons trying to lay out my views on the central theological issues of orthodox Christianity, since it is likely that this is the last Easter I will serve you as minister. Let me repeat that under UU polity, what I say here is one person’s opinion; there is no such thing as speaking ex cathedra or ministerial infallibility. You take what sounds convincing to you and reject what does not.
Let’s start with the central orthodox Christian claim that not only did Jesus rise from the dead and ascend into heaven after being cruelly and publicly killed, but that this death and resurrection was a turning point in world history and altered God’s plan for humanity because his death atoned for the sins of the human race going back to Adam and forward to the end of time. Last Sunday’s sermon covered four of seven points, and today’s will cover the remaining three. I referred to Rev. William Alar Channing’s classic statement of faith in his sermon “Unitarian Christianity” which will be 200 years old in early May, and I have some more copies of that classic if you want to take it home and study it. It is also available online.
First I said, as Channing had said, that we believe in the power of reason generally, and particularly the use of reason when reading the Bible. Reason is only one of the components of understanding, but without it, we cannot apprehend what is true and what is not. Thus propositions which many Christians are willing to take “on faith,” we will require some proof.
The second point I made was that our common experience is that death is a one-way street; I called it the Humpty-Dumpty principle, and it has science behind it. Against that principle, the claim that Jesus rose from the dead has only scripture and church tradition, which is based on that scripture. The earliest-written scriptural passage on Jesus’s death which survives is Paul’s essay on the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15, which is ambiguous as to whether he meant resurrection of the spirit or of the body. Paul’s claim that Jesus’s resurrection was a victory over death itself is hung on the dubious metaphor that Christ was the new Adam; that idea eventually led to the pernicious doctrine of Original Sin, condemning most of the human race to eternal torment in hell.
The third point was that scripture is unconvincing that Jesus was the Messiah, a human leader foreordained to lead the Jewish people out of oppression, and the fourth point was that it is even less convincing that Jesus was divine, since it makes no sense to have an immortal being serve as a sacrificial animal.
So let’s start from there with my fifth point, in which I will channel the great Hosea Ballot, the chief theologian of Universalism, with his 1805 book, A Treatise on Atonement. The orthodox Christian claim, rooted in 1 Corinthians 15, is that Christ’s death was a sacrificial atonement for the sins of the world. I participated in the Nauset Interfaith Association’s Good Friday service day before yesterday at Brewster Baptist Church, and can attest that the idea that Jesus died for our sins is alive and well among our orthodox Christian neighbors. But as Ballot pointed out more than two centuries ago, the claim makes no sense.
The conventional Christian explanation is that God sacrificed his only son to atone for the sins of the world. In at least some of the sin of the world, God is the injured party. It is God who is dissatisfied, and God who must be appeased. Why does the one who needs to be appeased become the one who makes the sacrifice? What kind of appeasement would happen from a sacrifice to oneself? It’s as if you owe me money and come to say “I can’t possibly repay you,” and I respond, ‘that’s OK, I’ll just pay myself back.”
Back in the beginning of the book of Genesis, God gets really fed up with the human race, so fed up he destroys it in a world-wide flood, saving only Noah. Throughout the travails of the Jewish people with the Assyrians and Babylonians, God instructs the prophets to tell Israel that it’s the bad fortunes are sent from him because the Israelites have forgotten him. So God has ways of dealing with his anger towards humans by killing most of them or encouraging their enemies. Jesus is not the new Adam, Jesus is a reverse Noah. Noah is saved while the rest of the human race is destroyed, while Jesus, in the Christian idea, is destroyed in order to save the human race. In both cases there is a problem of proportionality, to put it mildly.
The system of ritual that God set up for the Jews while they were wandering in the desert acknowledges that everyone sins, and sets up a mechanism for atonement. Classically in Jewish thought, sin was of two kinds: sin against God and sin against one’s fellow humans. Jewish law prescribes a period of atonement for both kinds of sins once a year, in the period between the New Year, Rosh Hashanah, and the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. For sins against your fellow humans, you are supposed to seek out the party you have sinned against and ask for his or her forgiveness and perhaps makes some restitution for any damage the sin caused. For offenses against God, you pray and participate in the group ritual.
That Yom Kippur ritual is spelled out in Leviticus, and takes the form of sacrifice. The word sacrifice comes from roots which mean “make holy,” and the idea of sacrifice is found in many religions,. Including those practiced by the neighbors of the Jews in the Ancient Middle East. The basic idea was that you set aside something precious to you, such as food, and deprive yourself of consuming it, but dedicate that portion to God. This is how you show your devotion and loyalty to the unseen divinity.
Sacrifice more generally might be described as giving up the thing you desire in favor of something you desire more. How many of us in love relationships have been asked by our partner, “who do you love more, me or that bottle; or me or her.” To prove you love someone all the way, you might have to give up something you hold precious.
Sacrifice could be used to show devotion and loyalty to God regardless of sins, but where there had been sin or disloyalty, sacrifice was particularly important. For the Yom Kippur ritual, the law laid down by God prescribes particular animals that must be slaughtered and what to do with the blood of those animals. Among the animals are two goats. One is killed and the blood placed on the part of the Holy of Holies called the Mercy Seat. As to the other goat, which is named Azazel, the High Priest places his hands on the goat’s head and transfers to the goat the sins of all the people, and then releases the goat to wander in the wilderness. This animal, called the scapegoat “shall bear on itself all the iniquities [of the people of Israel] to a barren region, and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness.”(Leviticus 16:20-22).
The scapegoat figures in one modern theory that tries to explain the violence that is said to be at the core of all religion. This theory is the brainchild of a French scholar named Rene Girard, who taught at Stanford University for his academic career. He started out in literary criticism, moved into anthropology and ended up in religion.
I have talked about Girard’s theories before. He believes that fundamental to conflict and violence is human desire, and that desire is imitative. He calls his theory mimetic theory after the Greek word for imitation. It is basic that our desires are aroused when we see others desiring a person or thing. The dresses are out on the sale rack, but we didn’t have a thought in the world of wanting that pink one until we saw that other person reach for the pink one.
In community life, this often leads to a conflict of desires, because there aren’t enough pink dresses, enough desired objects, to go around. One way to resolve the confect might be a kind of sacrifice: I’ll let you have the pink dress to keep the peace, because I love peace more than I want the pink dress. But not everyone is willing to sacrifice, and as Mick Jagger used to sing, you can’t always get what you want.
Conflict of desires can bring on a crisis which threatens the very existence of the community. That crisis escalates until someone makes a case that there is one person or group of people who is to blame for bringing it on. That person or group is then made the scapegoat and the notion becomes accepted that the scapegoat must be killed or driven out of the community for peace to be restored.
Now the rhetoric of my Christian colleagues at the Good Friday service, consistent with Christian theology through the ages, was that God’s sacrifice of God’s own son showed how much he loved the human race, because he was willing to lose the being most precious to him. Many of the songs about the crucifixion emphasize the “precious blood.” But if Christ was immortal, Christ was not going to die in the end anyway. However, God would be forced to watch as the human side of Christ suffered an agonizing death.
But there is a deeper and darker level when we read this Christian story against the backdrop of the Hebrew Bible: sacrifice of the first-born son has a horrible history there. The Israelites’ neighbors, the Ammonites, were considered abominable because their kings sacrificed their first-born children to Molech, and even Israelite kings were said to have followed this awful pagan practice.
On the one hand, God forbids this practice in the strongest possible terms in the law, saying not only that anyone who practices it shall be stoned to death, but anyone who allows it to happen shall also be stoned to death. Yet in Genesis, God also commands the patriarch of the Jewish nation, Abraham, to sacrifice his only son Isaac, and Abraham does not even argue. Isaac’s life is spared when a lamb is found to substitute. By some accounts, this near-sacrifice of the ancestor of the Jewish people takes place in Jerusalem at the exact spot where Solomon will later build his temple, which later Jewish rulers will rebuild, where Jesus taught during the week before he died, and from which Mohammad will ascend to heaven. A place sacred in three faiths was the site of a near-sacrifice of the first-born son.
But now let’s go back to the Exodus story, which is celebrated at Passover. After nine plagues fail to soften Pharaoh’s heart to free the Israelite slaves in Egypt, God kills the first-born son in each Egyptian household, passing over only the Jewish households which have a lamb’s blood smeared over the door. This is not a sacrifice, for the Egyptians have no say in it. Rather, it mirrored the murder which Pharaoh had committed a generation earlier by killing the first-born son of the Jewish slaves. The tactic works, and the Israelites leave Egypt, but barely are they gathered in the desert after their escape when God reminds them of the foul deed he just committed against the Egyptians and in recompense, claims the first-born son of each Israelite family as priests of the tabernacle to conduct sacrifices to Him. The lamb’s blood was said to have redeemed these first-born sons.
That’s the back-story on sacrifice of the first-born son; the lamb which is celebrated as the symbol of Christ at Easter has a bloody history.
Rene Girard thinks that Jesus’s actual mission was to wake up humankind to the realities of the scapegoat mechanism. Instead of accomplishing that, he fell victim to it. The tragedy of Good Friday is that the one who tried to warn us against making scapegoats himself got scapegoated, and the church which survived him continued the practice of scapegoating and lost his message.
This is seen in the sixth point I want to make, about the blame for Jesus’s execution. All four Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – have narratives of the death of Jesus and the resurrection appearances. All four place the principal blame for the execution on the Jewish hierarchy, who are portrayed as acting to thwart a rival to their power. The problem with this idea is that crucifixion was always a Roman method of execution; Jewish law provided for execution by stoning. It’s not plausible that Jewish leaders prevailed upon a Roman Governor to execute a man whom the governor believed not guilty.
Why then, would the gospel writers try to pin it on the Jewish leaders? Because they were writing in the late first century, in the aftermath of a brutal Roman crackdown on Jewish liberties, and to put the onus on the Romans might have invited personal persecution for the Gospel writers and at a minimum, the suppression or destruction of the writings, at a time when they were trying to use the writings to promote the new religion.
And this casting of the blame on the Jewish hierarchy placed an anti-Semitism at the heart of the orthodox Christian Gospel, which was what continued the scapegoat mechanism, in a powerful way. Many people who were nominal Christians over the centuries have used the Gospel accounts as an excuse to oppress and even murder Jews, whom they call Christ-killers. It is a complete perversion of what Jesus taught to try to avenge his execution centuries later by beating up on any Jews who happen to be living nearby.
But what does it all mean? In constructing these arguments and putting them out in the public in these past weeks, I have encountered some push-back from friends who consider themselves Christians, but do not recognize themselves in the picture I am drawing. I want to reiterate what I said last week: these are issues I have with Christian orthodoxy itself, not with those who practice it. It is the creeds which emphasize the sacrificial atonement doctrines and the divinity of Christ with which I disagree. But most Christian churches allow their parishioners and their clergy to choose what Jesus they want to follow, and many try conscientiously to live up to the love Jesus preached and taught. There are many many Christians living lives of love and justice.
The Jesus baby is separate from the Jesus bathwater, and the baby I take to be the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord’s Prayer, the Beatitutdes, the mission instructions and the parables of the Good Samaritan and Prodigal Son. These put together a coherent ethic which is demanding and which few of us will be able to practice all the time, but which serves as a benchmark for our conduct.
It is, not coincidentally, the portion of the Gospels that modern New Testament scholarship generally believes to have the best claim to being the actual teachings of Jesus, if an historical Jesus ever existed.
The scholars have looked deeply into the text of the Gospels and have come up with a text behind the text they call Q. Q is certain verses from the Gospels of Luke and Matthew. Q may represent an older layer of sayings of Jesus. There is another text called the Gospel of Thomas which may also be an earlier version of material which eventually was incorporated into the four canonical Gospels.
The important thing about both of these possible earlier versions of the Jesus story were that some elements which the later church took as essential are missing. There is no account of the execution or prophecy about the impending execution, there is no claim of divinity for Jesus or even Massiahood, there is discussion of the Kingdom of God, but it is not clear that this means an afterlife, in fact it is all around us. What you get is Jesus, a sort of nature poet, a simple person preaching about love and forgiveness. 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.
Which brings me to my last point: despite all my convictions that the later Christian church got Jesus wrong, and my rejection of the resurrection and atonement, I think in the larger sense, the Christian claim is correct: love is stronger than death.
I am not saying that your individual love will give you a life after your die, or that you will be reunited in some way with all the people you have loved and lost; though that’s a beautiful thought and arises out of our love. But Death is a natural and a beneficent part of life, and though we don’t know what’s waiting on the other side of that door, I put my bet on the idea that I will return to the same state of non-being which I was in before union of egg and sperm which brought me into existence.
What I’m saying is that we each have the power to speak and to do words and actions of love every day in our lives. Those words and actions have an effect on those around us. It’s like throwing a stone into a pond. You know the stone will create ripples. If the surface is still, your can watch the ripples radiate out from the spot where the stone entered the water. But if there is any breeze, the ripples will soon get caught up in other motions of the surface.
Yet they don’t go away entirely. I’ll bet the scientists who were clever enough to make a virtual radio telescope as big as the earth in order to take a picture of a black hole 55 million light-years away could make a camera that would show the ripples continuing to spread in a windy pond.
But I’m not really talking about science here; I’m talking about faith. I think love is stronger than death because that’s what I want to think, not because that proposition is susceptible of proof. The best translation for the word “God” as Jesus used it, is not an angry bearded guy in the sky who wants to torture most of us all for the rest of eternity, but simply love. If there is anything that can save the human race, it is love. We are the hands and eyes and ears and conscience of love. Through us, love’s way in the world is made concrete. Make straight in the desert a highway for love.
Jesus died on the cross, yes, but an important part of him was also resurrected through the movement of his followers: his teachings about love and forgiveness.
As my late colleague Forrest Church said,
“[T]he essence of the Easter experience [is that a] transformation occurred. Jesus was reborn in the hearts of his followers. Death was the occasion, love the medium, and forgiveness the catalyst.”
Reading from Rev. Dr. Forrest Church from Love and Death (Boston: Beacon Press 2008) pp. 70-71
I am quite certain that Jesus suffered, thirsted, and felt forsaken in the anguish of his dying hours. I am equally certain that his followers were devastated when he died. They expected for him to live and save them. But then a miracle took place. Jesus did not live to save them. He died and saved them, which is all the more powerful, however you choose to interpret it. Jesus suffered, wept forgave, and died. His followers failed , scattered, wept, found forgiveness and lived, reborn of his death, children of his undying love. For him and for them, even after death, in his love Jesus lived on. In his disciples hearts he reigned as never before. Everything that mattered about his was theirs now. The way he cast out fear with faith. His love of God and neighbor. His astonishing humility. His disdain for pretense and cant. His courage and his passion. Each was more present now than ever before because Jesus lived within them, not simply among them. That is the essence of the Easter experience. A transformation occurred. Jesus was reborn in the hearts of his followers. Death was the occasion, love the medium, and forgiveness the catalyst.