“Who Was This Jesus Guy Anyway?” a sermon by Rev. Brian J. Kiely October 27, 2013
It’s probably a bit odd to be looking at Jesus today, the Sunday closest to Samhain, a significant pagan holiday, but today is when our church calendar allows me to start this three part course, so there you are. And in one wee sense it’s not as odd as it seems. Hallowe’en today is a day when we dress up in all kinds of disguises in order to have fun, scare away ghosts, or just because becoming someone else for awhile is appealing.
Jesus has been well disguised over the centuries with a surprising array of masks. A little over a century ago, Alberta Schweitzer wrote in The Quest for the Historical Jesus, “Each successive epoch found its own thoughts in Jesus, which was, indeed, the only way in which it could make him live, for typically, one ‘created him in accordance with one’s own character.’”
Entire libraries of books – and not small ones either – entire libraries have been written about the life and character and meaning of Jesus, a guy from some remote part of Galilee. He is at once a most celebrated and the most obscure figure. There is not one line of text anywhere in the world written by anyone who actually met the man. Everything we have only began to be written at least 20 years after he died based on the remembered accounts of some few people who knew him.
Think about that for a second. Think about someone who was always talked about by your parents or grandparents, someone you never knew, but someone who became revered in your family circle. What could you say about them that would be accurate? Not very much. You could only relate the story of how they affected the person who told you the tale.
Unless you believe that Paul and the authors of the Gospels were divinely inspired as they sat down to write, then that is the situation we have in describing Jesus. We just don’t know.
In the interests of disclosing my own biases as we go into this course, I want to tell you about the Jesus I think I know. And he is an awful lot different from the Jesus I thought I know when I was a devout Irish Catholic kid a lifetime ago. We have to choose for ourselves.
I see Jesus as a Jew and not as a proto-Christian. I think Jesus saw himself as someone trying to fix his own religion. He would have been terribly surprised to find any new faith built around him as a divine figure. I think he would have been even more surprised to see the size of that faith and both the wonderful and terrible things done in his name.
Jesus was born in a time when three different powers exploited Israel. First, there was the Roman Empire, a ruthless group with high taxes and harsh punishment. Second there was the local King Herod Antipas who handled most of the direct taxation both to maintain the king and to pay Rome. And thirdly, there was the Temple, a collection of high ranked castes each comprised of families with a lifestyle to maintain under the justification of religious observance.
Between the demands of these three, the local people were kept impoverished and subjugated by taxes, secular laws and religious laws. We can have little sense of what it was like to live in a world where religion determined the work you did and when you did it, with whom you could be friends, how you married, when and how you had sex, how you raised a family, what you ate, where you slept and how and when you prayed.
I believe that Jesus was born out of wedlock and was therefore an outcast. Many scholars agree that Joseph was a fictional figure created by the Gospel writers to explain away his problematic birth. Most liberal scholars hold that the two birth stories were complete fabrications. The tradition of great men and demi-gods at the time required a miraculous birth…much like a superhero today has to wear a flashy costume.
From the get go, the bastard Jesus would have been shunned by the purity obsessed Temple authorities. Not surprisingly, he identified himself as a downtrodden peasant with little to lose and a thirst for freedom and respect. He was, I think, a pretty bright and charismatic guy, but also a compassionate one who never lost touch with the other outcasts.
I do believe Jesus had a mission, but I don’t think it was to save humanity from sin. I doubt he ever dreamed of opening the gates of heaven, for heaven is a minor concept within Judaism. I think, rather that he was trying to loosen the restrictions of the Temple on the people. After all, what had the temple ever done for him, but tell him that he was unclean? He was seeking a measure of freedom so people could live and love and work and play with a lot less scrutiny.
The Gospel accounts contain several stories of Jesus clashing with the temple hierarchy and calling them hypocrites. When he said that he came to destroy the law, he meant Jewish law, not Roman law. With goals like the Quebecois Catholics of the Quiet Revolution 70 years ago, Jesus sought a loosening of the power of the Temple to regulate every aspect of daily life. The kind of oppression he fought was the kind of the Taliban imposed on Afghanistan.
For Jesus, Temple obsession with purity and ritual missed the point. It was a gross misinterpretation of the will of Yahweh. In the face of this oppression he preached a radical new idea. He spoke of a loving God, not a judging one. His was primarily a gentle paternal figure loved all his children and was willing to forgive them, who did not care how perfectly people practiced ritual. He resurrected – to borrow the word – a simple and ancient Jewish core rule of love your neighbour as yourself. It isn’t very different from our first Principle affirming the inherent worth and dignity of every person.
These beliefs probably led him to a new kind of Gnostic spirituality developing in the desert, one that threw off the trappings and called for a simple, clean spiritual world. In fact, it is likely that he embraced the radical idea that God was within each human being and not outside of us at all. Spreading that belief would have been an enormous threat to the Temple.
I believe Jesus wanted a simpler, freer and more personal Judaism. And I believe he failed miserably. For his trouble he was killed, and his Jewish following melted away within a generation under the reactionary and growing orthodoxy of the Jewish elite. The Temple would dominate for another four decades until violent revolution caused the Romans to destroy the Temple and disperse the Jews.
But I do believe that Jesus mattered, for he touched many lives. He spread ideas. He moved hearts and brought hope… for a time. He had an inherent worth and dignity and celebrated the same in others, so he mattered. But by any measurable sense, he failed to change Judaism. In that sense he didn’t matter.
But as we all know the story about Jesus did not end with his death. After his execution a Greek-educated man named Paul began to tell the story. And he took the message outside of Judaism to the non-Jewish Gentiles. In fact there is good evidence that Paul was at odds with Jewish Christianity, but it was not a long lasting dispute, for Jewish Christianity disappeared not long after the fall of the Temple.
The Christianity of Paul extracted the elements of Jesus’ message that most fit the Greek philosophy that ruled the Gentile world. Whatever Jesus taught, and scholars are far from certain about what he did teach, was slowly adapted by Paul to fit the non-Jewish empire. Along the way, Jesus acquired a miraculous birth – kind of a requirement for Roman religion. He also became divine, an expectation in Greece and Rome and a shocking blasphemy in Judaism.
Did he rise from the dead? That is a matter of science and faith. I doubt it. The earliest Christian writings – those of Paul who predated Gospels by many years – speak only of a spiritual rebirth. It is the spirit of Jesus that inspired Paul, not a physical presence.
The first Gospel, that of Mark, written 30 or 40 years after Jesus died, did not contain a resurrection story. A skimpy one was added later to make it more orthodox. It isn’t until four or five decades after Jesus died that we can find the first resurrection account. And none of the four Gospel tales agree with each other.
The conclusion by most who take a rational approach to religion is that there was no bodily resurrection. In the first 3 centuries after Jesus there were a good many who saw Jesus as prophetic, perhaps even divinely inspired, but not as divine himself. They did not believe that he was brought back to life and taken into heaven. They didn’t need to. They believed in the message of Jesus crafted by Paul without the magic or the miracles.
But, others were heavily invested in that magic, and so great debates ensued for two centuries. Why? Because a divine Jesus made the claiming of earthly power easier. It wasn’t until the Council of Nicea in 325CE – backed by the first Christian Emperor, that the Trinitarians won and established the creed affirming resurrection and the divinity of Jesus as a requirement of faith. Before that it was all open to debate.
But after that fateful date of 325, Jesus the man finally faded in importance completely. His motivations and most of his actions were reinterpreted to convey the new message. His attacks on Temple culture were turned into an attack on Judaism as a whole. His quest for justice and respect for an impoverished people was spun into a celebration of poverty and humility (and subservience) in order to perpetuate the power of imperial Rome..and the newly growing church. Everything political Jesus may have done or tried to do was transformed into moral virtue. Every promise of a better future was transferred from the earthly realm to the afterlife. His calls for social change became exhortations to personal transformation.
I don’t think this was nefarious or evil. It is the nature of religion to adapt to the social landscape. Making Christianity a religion of the personal quest for saintliness and right relationship with God allowed the faith to come up from the underground and thrive in the Roman world.
In the centuries to come the Church would do as much to protect the people from their rulers as it would exploit the people for the growth of the church. But most often it succeeded because it gave the people a moral framework and set of beliefs that did deliver hope and solace, comfort in times of strife and strength in times of adversity. It gave answers to life’s everyday questions, and that is ultimately the mission of any religion.
Jesus the man doesn’t matter much anymore, except to scholars who make a living writing about him and the sceptics who want to argue unprovable facts. What he did or did not do is really not known. It has been filtered through time, though translation and transcription, through theology and church structure. Jesus the man is lost to us.
But the legend of Jesus, the belief that has shaped the world, forces us to acknowledge his impact. And that’s a problem. Many find it hard to think well of Jesus because they don’t trust the reliability of the accounts in an age when we want hard facts instead of mystical truth. Many look at the history of faith and see only the wars, the corruption, the injustice and the subjugation of classes, races and the entire female gender. They see a faith badly perverted. Some find it necessary to reject the whole thing out of hand.
But the fact is, well, the fact of Christianity just IS. Trying to dismiss it is, I think, misguided. Much of our culture and its core values arise from this faith. It is hard to discuss self-sacrifice, that the poor and oppressed have value, the call for us to become justice makers, or even the very notion of hope for a better world without bumping into Christian theology. Western culture is dualistic because Christians borrowed the idea from Greek philosophy. So we see things in terms of right and wrong, life and death, good and evil, grace and sin, greed and sacrifice and so on. The Christian framework pervades every part of our culture.
When I meet people who claim that Jesus doesn’t matter, I feel sad more than anything else. To deny the importance of Jesus is to dismiss huge parts of our cultural inheritance. To suggest that our children need not learn about him is to deny them entrance into a rich heritage of art and story, of morality plays and cultural iconography.
It is possible to teach Jesus without teaching belief in what Jesus has come to mean. It is possible to study his life without bowing before the limited vision of the orthodox. I suspect that we Unitarians even have the capacity to appreciate the irony that the man who stood up to orthodoxy gave rise to a new faith that became mired in it. We are smart people. Surely we have the ability to reclaim the good that this man brought to the world. If we don’t, we risk letting the orthodox corrupt his vision forever.