Saturday, April 21, 2007

Jesus For Unitarians

...Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore keep awake – for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake. Mark 13: 33-37 NRSV

Don't you find people who talk this way irritating? “Beware, keep alert...” For what? It's bad enough that we get stressed out by things in everyday life: our jobs, traffic, the news, our kids, our neighbours, our health without piling some bigger but hypothetical concern on top of everything else. That must be the way a lot of people feel about environmentalists: “look I realize that we need to do something about pollution. But there's nothing I can do about it right now so quit bothering me!” That sense of urgency. It can really get under your skin because after all we've gotta get on with our lives, no matter how urgent worldwide problems are. And it's hard to know if what we do can ever make a real difference.

.....It is like the mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground; is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade. Mark 4: 30-32

But what if you heard some guy saying stuff like that and you dropped everything you were doing and followed him. Your family and friends would be saying: “Get real. Are you crazy? You've got a job, you've got responsibilities. Get over it.” But no. All of a sudden you've got a sense of purpose. You want to help save the world and nothing else matters. Are you crazy? Maybe, but there's something about this guy. You've never met anyone like him before. He cares about people, forgotten people, the ones that have been left behind and he doesn't defer to any big shots or the rich.

Not very likely that we would drop everything and follow such a person is it? And two thousand years ago when Jesus told these two parables it wasn't very likely either. Let's face it, his group of followers was small. The New Testament exaggerates his influence when he was alive because, well, that was the writers' job. During his lifetime Jesus was essentially an unknown. His teacher, John the Baptizer was much more well known than him and had a bigger following. How do we know? Because we have reports about John from an independent source: Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews. Be that as it may, what was Jesus' message?

The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed onto the ground and would sleep and rise night and day. And the seed would sprout and grow, he knows not how. For the earth brings forth fruit of herself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle because the harvest has come. Mark 4: 26-29 NRSV

According to Mark, Jesus starts his ministry by proclaiming: The time is fulfilled , and the kingdom of God is at hand, repent, and hear the good news. Like the man in the parable, Jesus doesn't bother with explaining why the time is fulfilled, it just is. The Gospel of Mark is the only one of the four New Testament Gospels that shows that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet. Apocalypse was a kind of perspective among certain groups of Jews in the first and previous century – particularly the Essenes, the Pharisees, and the followers of John the Baptizer. This perspective is oriented towards the near future when God will destroy this world along with all the evil people in it and create a new world populated with the few righteous people left. It's basically wish fulfillment for seriously oppressed people. Jesus preached that the apocalypse was immanent, eg., “The kingdom of God is at hand....”, which might explain his spontaneity and sometimes rash judgment.

Apocalyptic thinking has had a pernicious influence, right up to this very day. And that sense of urgency to speed things along – the “Let's have an apocalypse now.” mentality is alive and well in the Christian Right's neglect of the environment and encouragement of war.

Jesus taught that very soon the coming of God's kingdom would result in a radical reversal of fortunes. The Gospel of Mark in the New Testament quotes him as saying “The first shall be last and the last shall be first” And he practiced what he preached. He befriends notorious sinners and outcasts. His disciples are poor and illiterate. He tells a rich young man who wanted to join him to come back after he gives all his wealth to the poor. Of course the rich young man does no such thing. So Jesus loses a potential convert. But he doesn't care. He tells his disciples: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” People walk away amazed by what Jesus says or they are outraged.

He acts spontaneously. He picks his disciples on the spot and they decide to follow him – a bunch of fishermen: Andrew, James, Peter and John; a tax collector, Matthew; a zealot named Judas. (Zealots were the first century equivalent of terrorists) Perhaps being spontaneous he sometimes makes errors of judgment.

According to Mark, Jesus taught in parables. These are short stories that are often kind of earthy, often about farming or some aspect of nature: planting seeds, running a vineyard, feeding the pigs.... all of them ostensibly simple but all with a paradoxical twist at the end.

This tells us something about Jesus. He's not a philosopher or a theologian. He doesn't lay down his beliefs deductively. Parables are open-ended – they create ambiguity in the listener's mind because the conclusion is left open, so it invites active participation from the audience. It gets people to think about things in a different way.

The apostle Paul's letters are the first surviving Christian documents. But the Gospel of Mark is the first written narrative about Jesus. It was probably written about thirty years after his death. My Mennonite friend believes that it is a first person account of Jesus – as if to say that Mark was one of the disciples who hung around with Jesus, writing down everything he said or did with a quill, a bottle of ink and a papyrus notebook.

But if you read Mark with an open mind you will find, like reading any other book, it has a point of view. And that point of view rejects the authority of Jesus' disciples. So it's not likely that Mark was one of them.

Mark never tires of pointing out how the disciples didn't understand what Jesus was really talking about. It doesn't matter how clearly and simply Jesus explains what he's about, they just don't get it. They're a bunch of dimwits. According to Mark, even Jesus' family think he's a nut-case and want to get him committed. Jesus most important disciple, Peter, who Mark acknowledges is the first person to recognize that Jesus is the Messiah – still doesn't understand what his being the Messiah actually means.

(Jesus asked:) “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.” Then he gave them strict orders not to tell anyone about him; and he began to teach them that the son of man had to undergo great sufferings, and to be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and doctors of the law; to be put to death, and rise again three days afterwards. At this Peter took him by the arm and began to rebuke him. But Jesus turned around, and, looking at his disciples, rebuked Peter. “Away with you Satan,” he said, “you think as men think, not as God thinks.”

Mark 8 29- 33

This passage is the key to Mark's Gospel. According to Mark, what Jesus' closest followers didn't get is that Jesus was supposed to be crucified. Being a Unitarian my theory about this is that Jesus didn't get it either. He had no idea that he was going to be crucified. Why then was he crucified? I think Mark gives us a pretty good indication, although for his own reasons he doesn't treat it that way.

Passover, is the Holy day when the Jews celebrate their covenant with God through the retelling of the story of Moses and their deliverance from slavery. On the day before Passover Jews from all over the Roman Empire have gathered in Jerusalem to make sacrifices in honour of Passover, and all such sacrifices take place in the Holy Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. Within the precincts of the temple there are stalls of money changers, sacrificial pigeon sellers, etc. But Jesus has a thing about money. He is quoted as saying: “You cannot serve two masters... You cannot serve God and money.”

Jesus goes up to Jerusalem on the day before Passover and walks into the Jewish Temple. He sees the money changers stalls, the pigeon sellers. He is insulted that people are openly making money in the precincts of the Holy Temple. Jesus is not a violent person. At a previous time and place he tells people that if someone strikes you you should turn the other cheek instead of striking back. He tells people that the meek will inherit the earth. But this time something in him snaps. Impulsively, he kicks at their stalls, and overturns them. Money is spilling all over the floor. The stall owners are yelling at Jesus. People are running over to see what's happening and sacrificial pigeons are flying off in all directions. There's general pandemonium, and in the confusion Jesus somehow slips away. That afternoon a woman comes to visit Jesus and she pours an entire bottle of expensive perfume over his head. His followers are incensed at the waste of money, especially Judas. But Jesus defends her. It's the last straw for Judas. That night he goes to the Jewish authorities who are gunning for Jesus for his causing a riot and tells them where they can find him. The next morning they apprehend Jesus and turn him over to the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate who has him crucified the same day. All of Jesus' disciples are completely dispirited and flee the city.

This is not a very flattering portrait of Jesus: on the last few days of his life his own followers are bickering with him, while one of his hand-picked disciples betrays him to his enemies, When he's apprehended his followers scatter to the four winds. It's all the more reason to believe that this actually happened, because why would people who worship Jesus as the Messiah make these things up about him? But it's also a strong reason for Mark to incorporate damage control into his story. It all happened this way because it was supposed to happen. And Jesus followers were not united behind him because they just didn't get it. But Mark and his readership do know better and that's why he's telling the story. So that we can get it, so that we can achieve closer access to Jesus than his own disciples did. It's pretty exciting stuff, even today, two thousand years after this story was first told.

Being a Unitarian I'm interested in the story of Jesus, I'm fascinated by hearing what he did and said, but I'm skeptical about Jesus' divinity. If Jesus was just a person why would he know that he was supposed to die? No-one can know such a thing. Still I don't deny that there is something very significant about who Jesus was. And there is plenty of evidence in the New Testament that that's the case, especially in the accounts of his resurrection.

But being a good and skeptical Unitarian how can I possibly use the accounts of his resurrection as evidence? What was the resurrection all about? According to all four gospel accounts in the New Testament no-one saw Jesus actually rise from the dead. The most ancient accounts of the gospel of Mark do not include any accounts of his resurrection, but the entire gospel implies that he did rise from the dead. In later versions of Mark , and in the other three gospels and the book of Acts there are numerous accounts of Jesus' followers experiencing Jesus as alive after he was crucified – people see him , talk to him, eat with him, and even touch him.

There is no doubt in my mind that people experienced Jesus as alive after he died for two reasons. First, in being crucified, Jesus died a shocking and horrific death. But, if that's all that happened why was a religious movement born out of it? There must have been some collective experience that was powerful enough to bring a scattered and demoralized group of his followers back together to form the first Christian church. Secondly One of the authors featured in the New Testament claims that he himself experienced the resurrected Christ and his account is independently corroborated by a different author. This is an account written by the apostle Paul in his letter to the Galatians and first letter to the Corinthians describing his experience and also in several places in the New Testament book of Acts which was written by somebody calling himself Luke. In these famous accounts Saul, who never met Jesus during his lifetime, is riding to Damascus in order to persecute Christians there, when he is suddenly blinded, falls off his horse and hears Jesus voice speaking in Aramaic: “Saul, why do you persecute me.” Instead of persecuting the Damascus Christians as he had intended, he meets with them, converts to Christianity, changes his name to Paul, hangs out in the desert for a while to think things through, and a couple of years later goes back to Jerusalem to meet with the apostle Peter and James the brother of Jesus.

What is behind the resurrection experiences? For those who knew Jesus there must have been something about him as a person that was very special – perhaps his spontaneity, or his selfless generosity, or his unconditional love for people who were normally despised and rejected. In any event it must have been profoundly personal for his followers to have experienced his resurrection.

But for someone like Paul who never knew Jesus personally, the reasons for his resurrection experience must have been more in a theological vein. After all, he started out by persecuting Christians, so he must have had a reason for that. Paul tells us that he studied under a famous Pharisaic teacher named Gamaliel, and Pharisees figure prominently in the New Testament as intellectual opponents of Jesus. There are discussions about what ought to be allowed or disallowed on the Sabbath, where Jesus' authority comes from, whether it's right to pay taxes to the Emperor, and so on. They are the kind of discussions that could have gone on between friendly rivals. But there was obviously some sticking point, some area of intense disagreement, or Pharisees like Saul would not have been persecuting the early Christians.

Jesus' saying, “The Last shall be first and the first shall be last.” comes to mind. For it could be seen to imply that non-Jews or Gentiles could be more easily saved than Jews who follow the Jewish Law. And that could have been hard to take for someone like Paul who spent the first part of his life learning to be a pious Jew. The fact that Paul later appoints himself as the apostle to the Gentiles, points to this kind of reversal in his philosophy. There are universal elements in Judaism, elements that imply that God's Justice ought to reach all peoples equally and this comes out in Jesus' teachings and may have spoken directly to Paul, first enraging him and later converting him.

The interesting thing is, what was Paul thinking about during those two years he spent in the desert? Bart Ehrman, a New Testament scholar, suggests that the process of Paul's thought goes something like this: If Jesus is resurrected from the dead then he must be the Messiah,(the Messiah being a Jewish Apocalyptic figure who was thought to be the person who God chose to rule the world and vanquish all evil.) But Jesus was crucified by the Romans. But God wouldn't have allowed his Messiah to be crucified unless he meant it to be that way. But why would He have meant it to happen that way? Paul reasons that it couldn't have been for anything Jesus did so therefore he was meant to be crucified because of what everybody else has done. God was making the ultimate sacrifice in order to save all of humankind, both Jews and Gentiles together if they accepted Jesus as Lord.

I believe that it is significant that Paul states in his first letter to the Corinthians that he received the idea of the ceremony of the Eucharist from the resurrected Jesus himself. The Eucharist which is the symbolic sharing of Jesus' body and blood is a reenactment of Christ's sacrifice of his life. It would make sense that if Paul was the person who created the idea of Jesus dying for our sins he would also have created the ceremony which physically reenacts that sacrifice.

Most Christians believe that the Eucharist was passed from Jesus to his disciples at his last supper, the night before he died. That's because it's part of the passion narratives of all three synoptic gospels. I admit it makes for a great story but being a Unitarian I'm skeptical, (we're such killjoys).... First Jesus was Jewish and Jews do not believe in human sacrifice. Of course Paul was Jewish too. But he is known to have stretched the rules by not requiring gentile Christians to eat kosher or gentile males to be circumcised. And what's more interesting is that Paul tells us in his letters that he did this in opposition to the Jerusalem church. Indeed, Paul argues logically that because Jesus saves us through his death on the cross, Jewish laws such as keeping kosher and circumcision are no longer necessary.

He's got a valid argument if you accept the premises. So why did the Jerusalem church not see things the same way? After all they were the ones who sat in on the last supper. Boy are they ever stupid! Jesus tells them all this stuff about his having to die for us and they still don't get it. Or, maybe they didn't get it because they knew Jesus and he never said those things because he had no idea he was about to be crucified.

The only place in the Bible where someone says Jesus told me This is my body....” is in Paul's letters. Everywhere else it's in the third person, it's “Jesus told them...” Could it be because all the narratives about Jesus were written under Paul's direct or indirect influence? The vast majority of Biblical scholars agree that Paul's letters predate all of the Gospels. And the last half of the book of Acts, which is written by the same author who wrote the Gospel of Luke, is basically a narrative about Paul spreading the Christian gospel to the far corners of the Roman Empire. The one gospel with the least influence from Paul is the gospel of John and , oddly enough, it's scene of the last supper has no mention of the Eucharist.

You don't need to go outside the Bible to some esoteric interpretation of Jesus sayings to learn that things are not as they seem. When you think about it the New Testament is simply an astounding treasure trove of documents. You've got Paul's letters. You've got four different narrative versions of Jesus' life to compare and contrast. You've got a biography of Paul. The only thing you don't have is anything written by Jesus but that's because he never wrote anything.

I admit it's a bit of a dilemma trying to figure out what Jesus really said and did. It makes things a lot more complicated than if you just believed everything that's written in the Bible is true. But it's the doctrine of the atonement that is crucial here because it's how one treats this doctrine that ultimately determines how you look at everything else. And I mean “everything else”. Fundamentalists believe that all that's really important about Jesus is that he was the son of God who was born a human male and died on the cross so that our sins could be forgiven. Liberals and Unitarians believe that what Jesus actually said and did during his life is important enough to know that it is worth the risk of eroding some of the basic tenets of Christian faith to find out. It was liberal Christians who, in setting out to uncover the authentic Jesus, became the first religious group in history to critically analyze their own sacred texts. And Christian fundamentalism evolved out of a widespread reaction to the liberals' critical text analysis. Unfortunately, by holding the atonement above everything else, fundamentalists have backed themselves into a corner that they can't get out of. That's why they insist on the literal truth of everything that's written in the Bible and that's why they reject the theory of evolution and a lot of other scientific knowledge.

Fundamentalists were more motivated by the fear of change than by the pursuit of truth and so they closed their minds to the truth. But now they have grown in power. They have taken over all three branches of the U.S. government. Their leader is George W. Bush. Unlike Jesus, his message is: “Stay the course.” Let's continue to wage war, let's continue to create social inequality, let's continue to pollute and degrade the environment, and let's continue to consume more and more of the earth's resources. “Stay the course.” “Stay the course....” And if we do, in less than one hundred years our global civilization will collapse. Much faster than what happened to the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire lasted four hundred years after Jesus died so his timing in claiming that the apocalypse was to happen within the lifetimes of his audience was a bit off. But in some important respects Jesus had it right. If we want to have a future for the human race we must reject inequality, war, and overconsumption and embrace simplicity.

Someone asked Jesus, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus Answered, “The first is, “Hear O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” The second is this, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no other commandments greater than these.” ( Mark 12: 29-31, note also Deuteronomy 7: 4-6)

There are no other commandments greater than these. We can follow him or we can persist in misunderstanding him. And we don't have much time to choose.

1 comment:

  1. I too believe that it is quite likely that Jesus was crucified as a result of his protest in front of the Temple in Jerusalem. Some things never change. . . No worries I have no expectation that Montreal Unitarian U*Us will succeed in their latest efforts to misuse and abuse the Canadian Criminal Code in their outrageously hypocritical attempts to force an end to my peacerful public protest in front of the Unitarian Church of Montreal.