On this Easter Sunday, our year-long journey through the world’s great religious traditions, appropriately enough, stops at Christianity.
But it would be an important stop for us at any time of the year, since Christianity is our direct spiritual ancestor; its very specific spiritual DNA is ours.
Judaism is our grandparent tradition, and we have made every other world religious tradition a part of our chosen family. But out of Christianity, Unitarian Universalism was born.
So, this morning, our goal is trying to understand our parent faith. I want to emphasize this by playfully imagining today’s sermon as a look through Christianity’s photo album. Remember times you looked through family photo albums? One such time comes to mind for me: it’s the 1970s, and I was at Baba’s house, and she handed me a family album, and it was spiral bound in wire, and the cover looked like a black velvet painting of some idealized Hawaiian sunset, and, opening it, I flipped from one page to another, and I found myself looking, hungrily, for pictures of my parents, because I wanted to understand them better, and I wanted to understand myself better.
I was young enough to hunger for that, and—to bring us back to our present purpose—only some of you might actually be feeling that way this morning. You don’t know much about Christianity but you are positively curious. Or, you grew up Christian and had a good experience.
For others of you, on the other hand, the thought of flipping through the pages of Christianity’s photo album fills you with trepidation. Christianity has hurt you before; it may be hurting you now. There’s personal baggage there. Flipping through the photo album, what if you find a picture that triggers trauma? It may be hard, in fact, to acknowledge that your Unitarian Universalism could ever have been the child of such a hurtful tradition.
Even if, for you, there’s more positive interest than not, still, there’s yet another reason why flipping through the pages of Christianity’s photo album might bring discomfort. This reason has to do with Unitarian Universalism’s age. Unitarian Universalism was born in 1961, with the coming together of the separate, older traditions of Unitarianism and Universalism. That coming together, and the resulting birth, happened only 60 years ago, and 60 years, from the perspective of the other world religions (some of which are three or four thousand years old) is peanuts. It’s miles away from maturity. Miles away from adulthood. 60 years makes us more like a teenager; and, I don’t know about you, but for me, being a teenager made me very impatient with my parents. Being a teenager was all about trying to establish myself as an independent person, separate and apart from them. Yet at the same time, there was a very real dependence on them, too, and this could often feel humiliating.
What I am suggesting is that our teenager faith of Unitarian Universalism has been and is right now very busy in trying to establish itself as independent. We are standing on our own two feet as the independent post-Christian, more-than-Christian religion that we are. We are busy, establishing our own traditions and rituals and stories and symbols and on and on. So, when we flip through our parent Christianity’s photo album, the pictures might bore us, or make us impatient. The reason is developmentally appropriate and understandable: we are trying to differentiate and discover ourselves. But we can go overboard in our quest for independence. We can think everyone else has wisdom for us, but not Mom. Not Dad.
Taoism? Confucianism? Islam? Judaism?
Yes! Yes! Yes! and Yes!
“Mom!!” whines Unitarian Universalism at its Christian roots. “Mom, Dad, stop embarrassing me!”
These are just some of the things we might be bringing to today’s stop in our year-long world religions journey, on this Easter Sunday. Some of us feeling positive and curious, others of us feeling trepidation, and still others with mixed feelings. And, maybe many of us feeling all teenager-y. Christianity is as boringly familiar as Mom and Dad and we are impatient to strike out on our own!
For a moment, let’s just hold all these perspectives with compassion.
No judgment, just compassion.
We are indeed trying to do something very difficult this morning: to see our parent with an open heart and a clear mind, despite baggage, and despite our collective teenage tendencies. And it’s critical. It’s critical we do this. Every other world religion is of course important to us; and Judaism is our grandfather and grandmother. But Christianity is our parent, which means we won’t grow as a people unless and until we find ways of being ourselves even as we accept how our parent has gotten underneath our skin and in our bones–accepting that we say some of the same things it says and we do some of the same things it does and that we have its eyes and its nose. Accepting that we just won’t thrive as a religion unless and until we honor our parent’s hard-earned wisdom despite all its other shortcomings which we’ve seen up close and know only too well.
So now—here we go.
We are opening up our parent Christianity’s photo album—I just hope the cover looks a lot better than my Baba’s 1970s black velvet Hawaiian sunset cover…..
We open the album, and here is the first picture:
The gospel story that goes with this picture goes as follows: Jesus went out and saw a tax collector named Levi sitting at the tax office, and he said to him, “Follow me.” So Levi left everything, and rose and followed him. Later they met at Levi’s house, and there, a great feast was prepared, and a large company of tax collectors and others happened to be there too, at the table with them. At some point, a group of Pharisees with their scribes came by, and Jesus could hear them murmur against him and his disciples. They complained, “Why do you eat with tax collectors and sinners?” And Jesus answered them, saying, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire compassion and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
That’s the story, and I have to say, so often when I come across a picture in an old family album, I have no clue who the people are, what the associated story is, why my parents or grandparents cared so much that they kept the picture…
The main reason why this picture is in Christianity’s album is that it gives us an authentic glimpse of Rabbi Jesus. Fact is, Jesus did not say everything or do everything that the Christian Bible says he did. That’s why today’s biblical scholars are hard at work discerning who Jesus the Rabbi really was and what he really said, as opposed to what was put into his mouth. But there is consensus on Jesus’ practice of table fellowship. Jesus eating with the “wrong” people is considered to be one of the his most historically reliable actions recorded in the Gospels.
It is utterly and uniquely Jesus.
But what made sharing a table with Levi the tax collector and others sinners as “wrong”? Why was it so radical to share a meal with the “wrong” people?
In Jesus’ day, being a sinner had little to do with ethics as we understand that today. Being a sinner back then meant that you were not following Jewish ritual law (or “halakha”) and so were forgetting God in your life. Break a religious rule (like taking too long a walk on the Sabbath, or not observing the ritual washings before eating) and you became impure. Belong to a certain kind of social group (as in, you are a tax collector or a shepherd or a gentile) and you were, by definition, impure. Didn’t matter if you were, ethically speaking, a really good person. Didn’t matter what was in your heart, or the kindness of your actions. Right mindfulness of God—purity—was all about following religious law.
Couple this with the additional insight that, in the Middle East, to eat with another person is to signify acceptance on a very deep level, and we have our answer: Rabbi Jesus eating with the wrong people telegraphed the radical message that God doesn’t care about the halakhic purity system. Absolutely nothing separates us from the love of God.
Doesn’t matter who you are, or what you do.
Now, I don’t want you to go away thinking that the Pharisees criticizing Jesus were heartless. Phariseeism was a first century religious movement in Judaism that contained within it a lot of diversity, and the story portrays Jesus confronted by some hard-liners. What made them hard-liners was the larger culture war they were fighting with Rome. Jew after Jew was giving up the traditional Jewish way of life in favor of taking up Roman habits, Roman patterns of thought and dress and relaxation. So, the Pharisees looked to Jewish law and halakhic rules as a way of fighting back. Jews would save their way of life if they resisted the temptations of Rome and practiced Jewish religious law faithfully.
That’s how God’s chosen people would survive.
In short, the hardliner Pharisees believed that Jesus was betraying his own culture and helping to erode the entire Jewish way of life.
And maybe Jesus was. But he was willing to run the risk. It was because of his experience of God. Jesus’ experience of who God is triumphed over every other consideration. “Go and learn what this means,” he said to the Pharisees: “’I desire compassion and not sacrifice.’” We just don’t get the radical quality of this statement until we know that the word “compassion” in Aramaic—the actual language Jesus spoke—meant “womblike.” Jesus’ God is not like a man, in other words. Jesus’ god is like a mother’s womb. Jesus’ God is life-giving, all-encompassing, all embracing, all inclusive.
So, when Jesus sees the tax collector Levi who by virtue of his social class is impure, Jesus says, “Come follow me.” How could he not? Jesus will happily eat with this man and he will happily eat with the “wrong kind of people” because that is what the Kingdom of Heaven is like, the Kingdom that unites all that the world divides through socialization and through systemic oppression. Jesus was heralding the coming of this Kingdom, which would shake up all our understandings of so-called “right” and ”wrong.” Understandings of Kings also. The King of God’s Kingdom, Jesus pointed out time and time again, comes in the form of the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the poor, the sick. “Whatever you do for one of the least of these,” said Jesus, “you do for God.”
This is why the picture of Jesus eating with Levi the tax collector and other “sinners” is a keeper. Christianity our parent shows us this page of its photo album proudly. Absolutely nothing separates us from the love of God. Doesn’t matter if you are the “wrong” kind of person.
And now we, Christianity’s child, turn the page.
The snapshot here is of the Apostle Paul, who was instrumental in the growth of the Christian faith and whose influence on Christian thought has been arguably greater than any other Christian Bible author. In the picture we see Paul teaching a group of people who are not Jewish, with his hands upraised. If we had been there, we would have heard Paul saying, “There is one Lord: Jesus Christ.” The people in the picture, hearing this, respond in all sorts of ways. Some look bored. Some look like they are receptive. Others look like they are about to pray. Still others point at Paul; perhaps they are astounded, or even offended.
Why? What is happening?
What does it all mean?
Today, we are very familiar with this Christian language of Jesus as Lord, Son of God, Savior of the world, whose story comes as a Gospel, or Good News. But most of us have forgotten the historical context out which Paul spoke. Before Paul—before even Jesus–Romans spoke of a Gospel, but it was the Gospel of Imperial Rome, which proclaimed that the Emperor Augustus Caesar is Lord. Yes, this is true. Augustus as a Roman emperor was considered divine and called Son of God, Lord, Redeemer, Savior of the world, Lord of history, cosmic Savior. Everywhere you looked—coins, cups, statues, altars, temples, and forums—you saw it. It was how Roman imperial theology was communicated to the masses.
And the essence of Roman imperial theology and Caesar is Lord and all such proclamations was this: Rome wins wars. Rome conquers. The enemy is defeated. The enemy will be defeated. Embrace Rome, if you haven’t yet already, or you will die.
A Roman inscription from a few years before Jesus’ birth heralded this Good News of empire: “Augustus was sent as Savior…the birthday of the son of the god Caesar was the beginning of his good news.”
An additional aspect of the “Caesar is Lord” good news is about peace—how it comes only as the Roman way of life, which was rigidly hierarchical, with the Emperor at the top of the pyramid, then wealthy men right below. Only these people had inherent worth and dignity, and everyone else was used to serve them. The people at the bottom: poor women, poor men, slaves, the conquered. People at the bottom: controlled, subjugated, humiliated. No compassion. Women in particular were relegated to home, silence, and childbearing. There was nothing egalitarian about Roman good news at all. But it was the way of Rome, the way (said Imperial theology) to a unified empire, the way to true peace.
Roman imperial theology also said that “no one shall have gods to himself, either new gods or alien gods, unless recognized by the state.” That’s the great Roman legislator Cicero talking, probably a decade or so after Jesus died. In other words, follow any God you want, unless that God starts disagreeing with Rome. Believe as you like, unless you start believing that it’s OK to share a meal with the wrong kind of people, or that God actually cares for the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the poor, the sick.
Romans called belief in Gods not sponsored or approved by the state, “superstition.” They just did not use that word like we do today. For Romans, “superstition” wasn’t so much about irrationality as it was about beliefs and actions that undermined the power that the Emperor and wealthy men had over everybody else.
So, can you imagine what Rome felt about Paul and his proclamation that Jesus is Lord, not Caesar? Or, what Rome must have felt about Paul’s non-hierarchical egalitarian teaching, inspired by his Lord Jesus, that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”? How everyone has inherent worth and dignity, not just some?
Teachings like this made Paul and every person who believed them criminals. Calling Jesus Lord—following a different vision of peace—was outright treason.
And we already know how Rome responded—with bloodshed.
Christianity spread anyhow. Jesus’ Kingdom message of radical hospitality—his Kingdom message of peace through Justice—would not die. People at the base of the social pyramid, suffering the greatest miseries under the thumb of Rome and its imperial theology, found their lives transformed. Justin Martyr, one of these early Christians, who lived around 70 years after Jesus’ death, testified, “We who formerly valued above all things the acquisition of wealth and possession, now bring what we have into a common stock, and communicate to everyone in need; we who hated and destroyed one another, and on account of their different manners would not live with men of a different tribe, now, since the coming of Christ, live familiarly with them, and pray for our enemies.”
Today, two thousand years later, most forms of Christianity seem totally defined by right belief—as in, if you don’t believe the right things you don’t belong. But back when the Christian religion was a teenager itself, and trying to define itself as distinct from its parent of Judaism, what attracted convert after convert wasn’t right belief. It was the Christian community’s vision of justice and radical hospitality. “Wrong” kind of people, all over the world, under the thumb of Rome, could make their Lord Jesus, and this meant being accepted and loved for who they were. And the churches who gathered in loyalty to their Lord Jesus made it their purpose to recreate that experience in Levi’s home, where Jesus is sharing a meal with anyone who’s hungry.
Where love wins.
This is our parent at its finest. Christianity our parent. Behind and beneath our Unitarian Universalist Seven Principles is the inspiration of Jesus’ welcome table and the example of those ancient churches which were more about love to God and love to humankind than dogma and doctrine. This is our parent’s undying gift to us, us Unitarian Universalist children.
How can we not give thanks?
But we are not done with the photo album. There is more yet to see.
The page turns, now, to this picture.
What we are seeing is from the 6th century, about 450 years after Paul was murdered by Rome. Paul is here joined by a women named Thecla. Both are of the same size, and according to the logic of iconography, it means that they are of equal importance. Both have their right hands raised in a teaching gesture, meaning that both are of equal authority.
But now, look more closely: do you see how the eyes and upraised hand of Paul are untouched, while Thecla’s eyes and upraised hand have been scratched out? The message is clear: Paul’s and Thecla’s equality is unacceptable. Only the man gets to be an apostle. The authority women have has been taken away.
Just listen to what scholar John Dominic Crossan says about all this: “The authentic and historical Paul, author of the seven New Testament letters he actually wrote (Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, Philemon), held that within Christian communities it made no difference whether one entered as a Christian Jew or a Christian Pagan, as a Christian man or a Christian women, as a Christian freeborn or a Christian slave. All were absolutely equal with each other. But in 1 Timothy, a letter attributed to Paul by later Christians though not actually written by him, women are told to be silent in church and pregnant at home. And a later follower of Paul inserted in 1 Corinthians that it is shameful for women to speak in church, but correct to ask their husbands for explanations at home.” John Dominic Crossan concludes: “Those pseudo-Pauline, post-Pauline, and anti-Pauline obliterations of female authority are the verbal and canonical equivalent of that visual and iconographic obliteration of Thecla’s eyes and hand…. But both defacements also bear witness to what was there before the attack. Pauline equality was negated by post-Pauline inequality.”
There’s a lot going on here, so let’s pause for a moment. We are hearing several things: that the original Kingdom message of radical equality and hospitality in Christ was over time sanitized by Christians themselves. We are hearing that lots of words were put in Paul’s mouth, after he died, words that are directly counter to what he said in his authentic letters. We are hearing that the Christian church, which was supposed to enact Jesus’ practice of table fellowship, started to limit who was welcome.
It’s very rare when we see a picture of shame like this in a parent’s photo album. We don’t usually keep pictures like this. But here it is. Christianity, at some point in its growth, wanted to become socially respectable. Jesus is Lord, yes … but Rome’s not so bad after all.
The conversion to Christianity of the Roman Emperor Constantine in 312CE proved to be a big factor in this. One of his main acts was to impose uniformity of Christian belief across his empire, which he did through the Council of Nicea in 325 CE. But if this isn’t Rome all over again, together with its sensibility of social control and rigid hierarchy, then I don’t know what is.
Fact is, neither people nor religions are undamaged by the circumstances of their upbringing. Think of your own flesh-and-blood parent or parents. Christianity our collective, spiritual parent recreated, over time, the very same oppressive dynamics that the religion originally aimed to transform and transcend. Imperial Roman theology is behind the scenes every time we hear that salvation is only through the right kind of Christianity, never through the wrong kind of Christianity and definitely never through any other world religion or belief system. Rome’s logic of control is between the lines whenever we hear the message that it’s not OK to have your own ideas and to believe as reason and conscience lead. Rome’s ruthless patriarchy and systemic oppression is there whenever so-called Christians in our state legislature refuse to make room at the welcome table for the wrong kind of people—like voters who are black or brown. Rome is right there when so-called Christians in Congress create tax laws that help the rich get richer and punish the middle class and punish the poor.
In Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of heaven, the King himself comes to us in the form of the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the poor, the sick. But in today’s America, too often we slam the door on the King.
Right in his face.
This is the mixed legacy of our parent, Christianity. Countless instances of persecution and murder in Jesus’ name. Conquest, slavery, and genocide in Jesus’ name.
In Jesus’ name.
Which is why Christianity our parent has, over the years, given birth to many children who objected, saying, This is wrong. Jesus would never have wanted that.
Lots of followers of Christ today, objecting.
If ever there’s a religion that is well schooled in self-criticism, it’s Christianity.
In fact, that’s where we come from. Where we come from. When our parent gave birth to us, during the Protestant Reformation, one word was on our infant lips: REFORM.
Go back, said our Universalist and Unitarian ancestors, to the vision of “love wins.”
Go back, they said, to Jesus sharing a meal with the “wrong” kind of people, because nothing can separate us from the love of God, ever, in this life or the afterlife.There is no such thing as eternal hell!
Go back to Paul, our Unitarian and Universalist ancestors said, to when he proclaimed, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female. And now current Unitarian Universalism asks us to add this to Paul’s list: “there is neither gay nor straight, there is neither Christian nor Buddhist, there is neither transgender or cisgender, there is neither atheist nor theist.” For all are one in the Spirit of Life, the Spirit of Love, which bears all things, hopes for all things, endures all things, is greater than faith, greater than hope, never ends.
And now we go forward, as a religion formed from the combination of Universalism and Unitarianism just 60 years ago; but we can only do that—go forward—because our parent has gifted us so greatly, because our parent is in our blood and bones.
We flip one more page in our parent’s photo album, and look: there we are.
So may it be.