You may recall the main theme of the book of Proverbs in the Bible: Bad things happen to bad people, and good things happen to good people.
For thousands of years, this has been a major strand of wisdom in Judaism.
So along comes Jesus, around year 30 of the common era. His ministry of teaching and healing took place in violence-torn Palestine, and his pronouncement that “the Kingdom of Heaven was near” was repeatedly misunderstood. Misunderstanding was the order of the day, in fact, for his closest followers, the twelve apostles, who were bumpkins and bumblers. One of them even betrayed him.
As for the Jewish religious leaders of the time: mostly they despised him. His ministry lasted only three years and ended with his execution by the Romans, who murdered him in one of the most excruciating ways possible.
Those are the facts.
What might we say, then, about this Jesus, if we were to judge him from the perspective of the book of Proverbs, which says:
Righteousness delivers from death.
The perverse get what their ways deserve, and the good, what their deeds deserve.
No harm happens to the righteous, but the wicked are filled with trouble.
Did you know that Christianity is the only major world religion in which the founding leaders were executed? Here, I am not speaking only of Jesus, but also of Paul of Tarsus, whose role in beginning Christianity was second only to that of Jesus. More on Paul in a moment.
For now, consider all the things I have just said, my suggestion being this: Christianity’s beginnings were in no way promising.
But Christianity grew anyhow. Thirty years after Mary Magdalene and Mary the Mother of James and Salome went to the tomb where Jesus’ body was laid
and found the stone at the entrance rolled away
and no body
and they fled in terror and amazement—
thirty years after this—the Jesus movement had an estimated 2000 adherents.
Forty years beyond this, in year 100 CE, the number had grown to 7500 adherents, which came from every level of society. It was this in particular that made the Roman upper classes anxious, and they used their power to fight it. Pliny the Younger, governor of the Roman province of Bithynia (on the north coast of modern Turkey) wrote to Emperor Trajan about 110 CE, describing the official trials he was conducting to find and execute Christians: “The matter seems to me worthy of your consultation, especially on account of the numbers of defendants. For many of every age, of every social class, even of both sexes, are being called to trial and will be called. Nor cities alone, but villages and even rural areas have been invaded by the infection of this superstition.”
And momentum would only keep building….
There was just something about the message of Christianity that defied the simplistic judgment of the book of Proverbs, or of Romans like Pliny the Younger. There was just something about Jesus that made his teachings persist, despite all. People were choosing to be eaten alive by lions in the local amphitheater, rather than give up their so-called “superstition.” People were giving it their total loyalty and commitment.
People like Paul of Tarsus, whom we read about in this month’s chapter from Marcus Borg’s book, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time.
Paul, who was second only to Jesus in his role of giving birth to Christianity.
Paul, whose importance in spreading the Jesus message into the Gentile world was indisputably first.
Paul gave his complete loyalty to the work, over the course of his 25 years of missionary work. He traveled 10,000 miles across Asia Minor and Greece, and this mostly by foot, only occasionally by boat. He endured incredible adversity. “Five times,” he says, “I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches.”
This is Paul’s ministry. Total loyalty and commitment, despite incredible adversity.
But here’s when things might really surprise us today: when we consider how Christianity grew to infiltrate all social classes and how people were willing to sacrifice everything for it, and yet: the early Christians were all over the belief map about who Jesus was and what he taught. Scholar Gregory J. Riley makes this fascinating point. He calls it “one of the more astonishing and least well-known realities of the Christian movement—the movement centered on the person of Jesus, yet from the beginning Christians could not agree on who he was.” “They disagreed on whether Jesus was a man, or a god, or an angel, or something else. They differed on his manner of birth, whether natural or divine; or perhaps he had not been born at all but descended full grown from above. They disputed whether he had a real human body, or a ghostly spiritual one, or one like that of the gods themselves. The argued, therefore, over what kind of resurrection he had, whether spiritual or fleshly. They could not even agree on whether he had actually died. The Christ was not supposed to die; perhaps he only appeared to do so, or some substitute made to look like him died in his place. And before that, what kind of man was he? A philosopher? A prophet? A teacher?”
Gregory Riley goes on to say, “Jesus certainly taught and his message was essential, but many of his words were curiously transformed by his own followers, placed in different contexts and given different meanings, while new sayings were composed and attributed to him. People apparently did not follow Jesus for his words. For all the attention given to the sayings of the historical Jesus, his precise words seem hardly to have mattered at all.” That’s Gregory Riley. The precise words indeed seem hardly to have mattered at all. Precision, clarity, unanimity about Jesus seem hardly to have mattered. Christianity just kept on growing, even as its pagan critics clearly saw the self-contradictions and the confusions and very loudly pronounced the whole thing nothing but superstition, confusion, foolishness.
So: what explains Christianity’s improbable triumph?
Let’s begin by looking at the work of the earliest writer of the New Testament. Pop quiz: true or false: that writer’s name is Matthew, because he is the writer of the book that appears first in the Christian Bible.
False, and for two reasons. One reason is that we don’t know the actual name of the writer of the Gospel of Matthew. Names weren’t assigned to the gospel writings until sometime in the second century. “Matthew” is just a creative way of saying “anonymous” and to distinguish it from “Mark,” “Luke,” and “John.”
As for the second reason why the pop quiz question is false: because the writings of the Christian Bible are not arranged in chronological order. If they were, this is what you would see when opening the pages of the Christian Bible: I Thessalonians, then Galatians, then I and II Corinthians, then Philemon, then Philippians, and then Romans.
Did you know that? That the Christian Bible writings are most definitely not arranged in chronological order?
And as for the writer of those earliest books I just mentioned?
Paul of Tarsus. He wrote them in the decade of the 50s, some 20 years after Jesus’ death.
It is from Paul that we will glean an answer to the big question before us: what explains Christianity’s improbable triumph?
Consider something Paul says to the church community in Corinth: “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, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” This is what Paul says is of “first importance.” Not anything that Jesus actually said—not the Lord’s Prayer, not the Beatitudes, none of his amazing parables, but that Jesus had an early and tragic end, and that he rose from the dead.
That is what’s of first importance, in Paul’s mind, above anything else….
Why might this be so? To understand, we need to get inside the minds of people like Paul who lived in the decade of the 50s, when Paul wrote his letters. Gregory Riley can help us. He reminds us that in the first century, it was basic common sense that “Jesus’ kind of life required his early and tragic death. If he had not been killed like one of the heroes, it would have meant that he was not worthy of that status, that he was not a son of God, that he was not valuable enough to draw down on himself the jealousies of the gods or fate or the wrath of the powers and their religious authorities.” As for the issue of resurrection, again, listen to Gregory Riley: “Many uninformed Christian teachers today have claimed that the resurrection of Jesus was the one most unique feature of the gospel, that of all the other gods and heroes of antiquity Jesus alone rose from the dead. That … is not even close to true. All the heroes, or nearly all, rose from the dead and ascended to heaven. But this was an impossibility for a mere human….”
What is of first importance, in other words—what gave the Jesus story intelligibility and credibility—is that it conformed in key ways to how the ancient world understood what it meant to be a hero. In that ancient world, the story of the hero is bound up with tragedy: the hero has remarkable talents, dies early with honor, is raised up into immortality, and then, after this, serves to protect the living, serves as an example to follow. Hercules, the most widely worshipped hero in antiquity, had this kind of story, and so did the “most renowned” savior of healing, Asclepius. In the early years of the Christian movement, both were serious rivals for people’s loyalty and commitment. But the very fact of the rivalry suggests that above all what people were looking for was a hero to worship, and they sensed this bare possibility equally among all three figures.
It’s exactly why Christian apologists like Justin Martyr and Tertullian and others would, in spreading the faith, or defending it, openly compare Jesus to Greek and Roman heroes. For example, in the second century CE, the Christian apologist Justin Martyr would defend the faith to the Roman Emperor in this way: “In saying that the Word, who is the first offspring of God, was born for us without sexual union as Jesus Christ our teacher, and that he was crucified and died, and after rising again, ascended into heaven, we introduce nothing new beyond those whom you call sons of God.” Note the echoes here in what Paul said to the Corinthians, in his letter from 100 years earlier: the items of first importance remain, and some are added, like that of the virgin birth. The virgin birth motif was added, in fact, to strengthen the case that Jesus is just like one of the heros of old….
This helps to explain, then, why early Christians being all over the belief map wasn’t an obstacle to growth of Christianity. Diversity of belief about who Jesus was and what he taught did not disturb the burning steady essence of what Jesus was, the burning essence that was changing lives left, right, and center: the burning essence that Jesus was a hero, a son of God, the Christ. Being “in Christ” just meant becoming a hero in your own right.
Everyone believing the same things was, in other words, irrelevant back then. Original Christianity was all about giving people an adventure—giving people a way of life. “I have been crucified with Christ,” says Paul to the Galatian church. “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” “There is no longer Jew nor Gentile, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
The gift of Jesus to the ancients was the gift of being elevated above the mundane and living a hero story in their own right.
It was Epictetus, Stoic philosopher of the early second century, who said that two types of people were in the habit of having no fear of death and “considered material things as nothing”: insane people and Christians. This was just one of the ways in which people experienced the new freedom of living “in Christ”—a phrase Paul uses in the New Testament 165 times. It’s one of his key ideas. Life in Christ—“It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me”—gave people, among other things, a peace that passes understanding in the face of death.
One way to really grasp this is to compare the situation with one of Jesus’ rivals, Asclepius. “Asclepius,” says Gregory Riley, “was the healing savior, but he could not overcome death: he himself was killed for raising a dead man. Death was a defilement to him: no one was allowed to die in a healing center of Asclepius. He forced those who were not healed but dying to go outside the walls of his precincts, to face their last and greatest trial alone.” But the case of Jesus—when you talk of life “in Christ”—it’s altogether different. “In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells Peter, ‘You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.’ To the ears of the ancients, that is an astonishing thing to say! Everyone know that the gates of Hades’ house—the place of death–were locked and permitted no release. Only a handful of heroes had ever entered and escaped alive,” like Dionysius, and Orpheus, and Heracles—and even though they are gods or sons of god, the task was hard, it was perilous…. But not for Jesus. “Jesus promises that Hades’ gates will not be able to hold the Church; that is, when members of the Church die, they will be released from the kingdom of death and gain immortality. Their hero had himself died, gone into Hades’ realm, and returned by resurrection and ascension. This same promise is held out to his followers. He had made a way through the wall, opening the gates. His disciples were but to follow him, through death into life. This,” says Gregory Riley, “is the message composed in and for the Greco-Roman world.”
And now, 2000 years later, the world is completely different, requiring a different message. Our understandings and assumptions are all changed; physical resurrections, we know, are impossible. Yet one thing has not changed—and that is the perennial human hunger for hero stories. Hero stories still find an eager audience, are still compelling beyond anything. Hero stories die in one form only to be reborn into another. Luke Skywalker. Bilbo Baggins. Katniss Everdeen. Harry Potter. On and on. At one point in the classic Bill Moyers interview with Joseph Campbell, entitled The Power of Myth, Bill Moyers asks, “Why are there so many stories of the hero in mythology?” And Joseph Campbell replies, “Because that’s what’s worth writing about. Even in popular novels, the main character is a hero or a heroine who has found or done something beyond the normal range of achievement or experience. A hero has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself.”
Besides supporting a better understanding the leadership of Paul in the early Christian church, my goal today is really to say this: that Unitarian Universalism, which is a child of Christianity, and which around 150 years ago opened its doors to the scriptures and wisdom of religions beyond Christianity—this child, WE, have nothing to fear about being conceptually messy and all-over-the-map about what we believe. We have nothing to fear about this. Our parent tradition—its history—proves this.
Equally, it proves that if, today, Unitarian Universalism can help people enter into a pattern of living that is hero-like in a way that people today understand and value, we will thrive. People today want to give themselves to something bigger than themselves and we are pointing the way to that with our Seven Principles and perhaps an Eighth. But what is primary is the experience of being truly alive. People want renewal and rebirth—you and I want renewal and rebirth—especially when we’re feeling all burned up, burned to ashes. That’s what we want.
Whether or not you believe in the traditional, Western version of God; whether or not your preferred name for the Sacred is the Goddess, or the Universe, or the Inner Light; the passion for spiritual aliveness is one and the same. “No one ever told us we had to study our lives,” said poet Adrienne Rich,
But there comes a time – perhaps this is one of them-
when we have to take ourselves more seriously or die,
when we have to pull back from the incantations,
rhythms we move to thoughtlessly,
and disenthrall ourselves, bestow
ourselves to silence, or a severer listening, cleansed
of oratory, formulas, choruses, laments, static
crowding the wires. We cut the wires,
find ourselves in free fall, as if
our true home were the undimensional
2000 years ago, Jesus cut the wires, Paul cut the wires, and people found themselves in free fall, and they fell into a way of life that became to them their true home. And we must do the same, in our time. Forget all the anxiety about our theological messiness. Yes, belief is important, but even more important is the feeling of aliveness, the journey, the heart that beats justice-heartedness.
Showing the way to that
in the brave new world we find ourselves in today:
that is our purpose.