What should a Unitarian Universalist minister talk about on Easter Sunday? Particularly after the week we’ve just had? It’s a real dilemma. What can the story of the death and resurrection of an itinerant Jewish rabbi say to people looking for hope, in what looks like one of the darkest times in the history of the world, if we don’t believe in the literal truth of resurrection? Our closest Christian cousins say “Love wins.”[i] They say that is the whole point of the resurrection story. Love wins.[ii] But if, as we UU’s tend to believe, Jesus was metaphorically rather than physically resurrected, how exactly did love win? Why think about the story at all, when we could just be celebrating the emergence of new life in spring and singing alleluias?
Well, you know, we do love to celebrate spring. We do love to sing alleluias. And…we also love to poke around in the mythologies of the world and find common motifs and see what they tell us about the human condition. For example: the resurrection motif. A divine being goes into a cave or a tomb, into the world of the dead, and then comes back, bringing salvation. Think of the story of Persephone, whose disappearance into the land of the dead causes her mother, Demeter, to grieve so deeply that all the earth’s vegetation dies. But then Persephone re-emerges from the land of the dead for several months each year and Demeter is so happy that the earth comes back to life.
At the time Jesus was alive, this story was the center of a whole Greek religion. The Romans had their own version. There are dozens of other examples from all over the world. The seasonal death and rebirth of plant and animal life was profoundly important to long-ago peoples. It was a great mystery that affected the people’s survival, and it had to be marked and explained and celebrated.
Nowadays, we have a scientific explanation for the seasonal death and rebirth of life. If our food comes from stores, and our heat comes from natural gas and electricity, we might find the resurrection religions quite strange. We might find it easy to forget just how important it is that the plants come back to life after winter. But our own bodies instruct us, don’t they? Doesn’t it feel like a miracle when the sun starts to come back out? Doesn’t it feel like the stone over the tomb of our own souls has been rolled away, and we are newly awake?
Well, normally it does… except that such horrific things are happening in the world, many of them caused by the leadership of our own country, that I don’t know about you, but right now, instead of feeling like the stone has been rolled away from the tomb, I feel like the stone is repeatedly being rolled over my heart, and also bashing me over the head.
And so I want to talk to you about the story of Jesus. I know some of you love and revere Jesus as a teacher. Others of you are allergic to the mention of his name, because you were harmed by the version of Christianity in which you were brought up. Either way, I think there is great value in taking a new look at the story of this radical rabbi. First, if we want to be agents of change, we have to be able to speak intelligently with people outside our own faith community about someone whose life and teachings have been so significant in the history of the world. And second, recent scholarship about Jesus and the beginnings of Christianity have revealed much that is of value in our search for hope in these very dark times.[iii]
Like many of you, in my youth I was taught a version of Christianity that was focused almost entirely on the afterlife. It sanctified violence and oppression, as well as human domination and exploitation of the earth. It encouraged me to turn the other cheek when I was abused, so that I could go to heaven after I died. This version of Christianity has been responsible for an enormous amount of suffering in this world, for many centuries. It is symbolized by the crucifix. Not the cross, but the crucifix, because the focus is on the redemption of humankind through the bloody, tortured, sacrificial death of Jesus. In this version of Christianity, the resurrection of Jesus is important because it represents the transformation of earthly suffering into the reward of everlasting life after death. It understands the earth and the body as sites of evil and temptation. It makes violence against both necessary, and suffering redemptive.
So why do I insist on talking about this now, when we could be talking about caterpillars turning into butterflies?
Well, bear with me while I ask you a couple of questions. Here’s one. Did you know that there was no such thing as a crucifix until the 10th century of the Common Era? That symbol, which focused the attention of Christians on the idea that God planned to redeem humans through the bloody sacrifice of his only son—that symbol did not show up in any churches or cathedrals until almost a thousand years after Jesus died.
And here’s another. Did you know that until relatively recently in world history, most people did not know how to read and write? Which means that most people who thought of themselves as Christian had no access to the Bible or the Gospels or the letters of the apostles. The Bible wasn’t widely available in print until the 1500’s anyway.
So, what do these two things have to do with one another? Well, think about this. How would people of the early Christian church express their understanding of their faith and what the life of Jesus meant, if they didn’t read or write? Through art and craft. Through music and storytelling. Through ritual and ceremony.
That means that if we want to understand early Christianity, and how most Christians understood their faith, instead of reading the Bible, we have to look at early Christian art and its symbols. We have to go to the earliest places of worship, the earliest churches and cathedrals, and see how they are decorated. We have to study the liturgical practices of the community, their worship life and rituals. This is exactly what Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker did in researching their book Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love for This World for Crucifixion and Empire.
And when they did, they found that the crucifix is conspicuously absent. It does not exist. What they found instead of the crucifix was image after image of paradise. Not an otherworldly paradise, representing the afterlife, but shimmering, brilliantly colorful mosaics depicting paradise on this earth. Jesus is shown as the person who welcomes the people into paradise: a paradise where all feast at common tables, laughing together, surrounded by sun and moon and stars, fountains of water, animals and plants and birds of all kinds. And also surrounded by the beloved family members and friends who have already died; they are close by, in their own paradise, close enough to commune with. In this earthly paradise, lovers entwine and give one another flowers.
Many of these images of Paradise come from the ancient Jewish tradition from which Christianity was born, and that tradition had very little, if anything, to say about an afterlife. It was all about this life here and now. Salvation in Jewish tradition was never about what happened after you died, it was always about the conditions under which you were living. As we saw last week in the Passover story, salvation was political and economic: It meant freedom from slavery, freedom from the violence of empire, freedom to eat and drink and love in peace. Salvation was also about healing, about salving the body and mind, heart and soul. Jesus was a Jewish rabbi and he was teaching and healing Jewish people. He was speaking Aramaic. When he made references to abundant life in his own language, in the context of his culture, the people would have understood him to be talking not about an afterlife, but to the life of the body. They would have understood him as referring to the kind of earthly life described in many of the lyrical Psalms, or in passages like this one from the Song of Solomon:
“Arise, my love, my fair one and come away, for lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone, the flowers appear on the earth, the time of the singing is come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth her figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.”[iv]
It was in this context of a focus on earthly life that early Christianity developed. Scholars who did know how to read and write recorded many of the ritual practices of early Christian communities. From them we learn that not only did they decorate churches in ways that visually brought the whole community of life inside, but whenever they gathered to worship, they brought boughs of greenery and flowers in to lay on the floors, to surround themselves with their fragrance and color.
We also learn that baptism into Christian community was understood to be the portal into paradise. It was a sensual rite that celebrated the beauty of the body and drew it into loving communion with the earth, Jesus, God, and the other members of the church.
In order to be baptized, people first studied the teachings of Jesus and the church leaders for months—again, not through reading and writing, but through storytelling, memorizing, and discussion. Then it was time for the ceremony. First, the people renounced sin, and committed to living in covenant with the community. Then the community went to the water together and the people to be baptized were undressed completely, men and women all together with no shame, as if in the Garden of Eden again. The removal of their clothing symbolized the shedding of the burdens of sin. Then their bodies were rubbed with olive oil from head to toe, and then they were cradled in loving arms and completely submerged in the water three times. After they emerged from the water, they were clothed in new white linen robes to symbolize their becoming a new person, and everyone joyfully feasted together.
Have you ever gone swimming naked in a river or a lake with someone you loved? With a lover or a friend or a group of beloved friends? How did you feel afterward? Did you feel reborn? Did you feel cleansed? Whenever I do this, I experience a communion and a righting of my relationship with the water and the rocks and the trees and my beloveds. I am refreshed and made new. I imagine that old rite of baptism to have felt like this. In the early years of Christianity, baptism had nothing to do with original sin, which also had not yet been invented. Baptism had nothing to do with making sure you went to heaven after you died. It was instead a ritual that welcomed people into community by enacting the righting of their relationship with the whole of life, and becoming someone new.
And then there was the way the Christians actually lived once they were baptized. They gave all they had to the community, and the community provided for them. They took care of the poor, the sick, the widows, the orphans, and even the dead, burying bodies that otherwise would be left outside of city gates. And, they didn’t just feed and care for their own people, they fed and cared for anyone in need. They offered the feast of life to all who hungered for it.
To understand just how radical this was, you have to understand three things about the time. First, the Jews and the early Christians were trying to survive in places occupied by the cruel and violent Roman Empire. Attracting attention to your nonconforming religious group was not a good idea—it was dangerous. Second, most cultures very strictly defined in-groups and out-groups, and people in the in-group were supposed to shun people in the out-group. Third, the causes of sickness and disfigurements were not yet understood. A person with any kind of sickness or disfigurement was considered unclean or contaminated by evil; it was thought that they or their parents had done something evil for which they were being punished by God or the gods. They were cast out of society.
But Jesus taught that none of this was what God wanted for people on earth. He dared to claim that God’s love was more powerful than the empire was. He taught his followers to welcome and love everyone and to heal the sick and disfigured. No more in-group or out-group, no more outcasts. Everyone was to be loved and included in the circle of community, everyone was to be considered equal—including women. Living in this way was what brought about paradise.
In churches, Jesus is shown as a shepherd and a teacher and a healer. Sometimes he carries a book. Sometimes he holds a shepherd’s crook. Other symbols referring to Jesus included the tree of life, an anchor, and a cross. The cross was understood in quite a different way than was the crucifix later on. It reminded Jesus’ followers of three critical aspects of his story. One was that he lived and died resisting the violence of empire. He taught active nonviolent resistance, and he knew that as his following and his reputation grew, his life would be in danger. But he did not stop. He gave himself entirely to his cause and his people, and his life ended when the empire executed him on the cross.
The second was that his death did not stop the movement he started. His humiliating public execution could not stop his revolutionary love. It could not stop his followers from continuing to spread his message and living their understanding of paradise now. Love did win.
The third was that the empire could also not stop Jesus’ followers from developing a resurrection story about him. Like the other resurrection stories of the time, in this one the semi-divine being goes into the realm of the dead and returns with salvation: in this case salvation from the violence and cruelty of empire. Salvation from the long and sorry history of human unkindness to out-groups. Salvation from poverty, and the salving of suffering bodies and minds.
The resurrection story did not originally appear in the first version of the first Gospel to be written down, the Gospel of Mark. In that story, which was written in about 70 of the Common Era, the women leave the site of the tomb terrified because Jesus is not there. That’s it. End of story. Only in later copies of the text did new endings show up that alluded to Jesus appearing to his disciples after his death. And then it was later still, by several more decades, that the other Gospels were written down and given endings that talked about Jesus’ resurrection. So the resurrection story took some time to develop. Once it did, it became important to believers because it said to them that Jesus had a power of life and love that transcended the power of earthly authorities, especially the Caesar. It said to them that Jesus’ life and his teachings truly did usher in Paradise.
All of this was what the cross symbolized for the early Christians. But it was only one of many important symbols and was not used particularly often.
So how did we get from cross to crucifix? How did we get from Jesus as bringer of Paradise to Jesus as bloody sacrifice to an angry father God?
Well, it’s a long story involving the rise and fall of various empires. I used to keep The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire next to my bed for when I couldn’t sleep, because I would nod off after just a sentence or two. So I won’t go into detail. Suffice it to say that in the ninth century, the First Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne, converted the pagans of Europe to Christianity by force. Not only did his troops kill anyone who would not be baptized, but his troops cut down and destroyed the pagans’ sacred trees and groves.
One group that suffered greatly was the Saxons. Their descendants carved the oldest-known crucifix, in the tenth century. To them, the Christian religion was about suffering and death and hoping for some reward in the afterlife. After Charlemagne died, his empire did not hold together well and the many different peoples of Europe began feuding between themselves. Pope Urban the Second wanted to unify Christendom so he decided to begin the Crusades. War now became holy, and the reward for killing Muslims and Jews was going to heaven after you died. And the rest, as they say, is history.
But even throughout that long and bloody history, there have been people who understood the message of Christianity differently. Irish Catholic mysticism is deeply rooted in pagan religion, and its adherents believe that the beauty of life on earth is a sign of its divine nature. Hildegard of Bingen, 12th century German abbess who wrote the first known opera, called God the force of life, and Jesus the power of greening, or viriditas.
And then, in 19th century America, came the Unitarians and the Universalists. They carefully studied all they could find about the story of Jesus and the early Church. They used what they learned to deconstruct later Christian theologies rooted in violence and suffering. Universalist Hosea Ballou wrote: “The …belief that the great Jehovah was offended by his creatures to that degree, that nothing but the death of Christ, or the endless misery of mankind, could appease his anger, is an idea that has done more injury to the Christian religion than the writings of all its opposers, for many centuries.”[v] He argued that Jesus was not sent to be an atoning sacrifice, but rather as a model of how to live in love, so people could be happy.
Unitarians replaced violence-centered theologies of original sin with the idea that humans were created in the image of a good and loving God. They said that the resurrection story was meant to be understood figuratively, and the important thing about Jesus was what he taught by how he lived. Following his teachings was the way to salvation. Moreover, nature—life on earth—was a manifestation of the divine mind, and all we had to do to know God was to go outside and see all the beauty around us.
Well. I hope you are beginning to see the point of what I wanted to share with you. The version of Christianity that I was taught in my youth is apparently a version that was corrupted by Empire. It turns out that the original Christianity was about abundant life here and now. It was about welcoming everyone in love, and taking care of one another. It was about enjoying and celebrating the beauty of the earth and the body. And it was about nonviolently resisting those forces of empire that would threaten abundance and love and beauty.
Isn’t that what we most need at this precise moment in history?
I think it is, and so I look around at you and I am in awe. The stone has gone; hope takes its place. Here we are, the religious descendants of the Unitarians and Universalists who drew on the teachings of Jesus and the very earliest Christian church. Here we are, coming together to welcome all in love, to share our lives, to care for one another and be cared for. Here we are, celebrating the beauty of the earth and bodily life. Surrounded by trees and earth and river and sky, dressed in our beautiful colors and bringing our fragrant flowers, we lift our jubilant voices in song. We will rise up in love and we will resist the forces of empire.
Looks to me like resurrection is happening here. Looks to me like salvation. Looks to me like paradise.
May it be so. Blessed be.
[i] Bell, Rob. 2011. Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell,and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. Harper Collins, NY.
[ii] Melton, Glennon Doyle. 2016 Love Warrior: A Memoir. Flatiron Books, NY .
[iii] Brock, Rita Nakashima, and Rebecca Ann Parker, 2008. Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love for This World for Crucifixion and Empire. Beacon Press, Boston. All of the historical information about Christianity featured in this sermon comes from this book. It is worth reading cover to cover, including the footnotes. It is long but not at all boring.