First, the children’s story, then the homily, then the song.
Once upon a time there was a little boy named Jesus son of Joseph, who lived in a small town in a place called Judea. The people who lived in Judea were mostly Jews.
At the time Jesus was born, his people were under the control of the Roman Empire. The Romans had conquered all around the Mediterranean Sea and they made all those conquered countries pay tribute, which means they made war on their neighbours until they gave up and handed over all their money and luxury goods. This is not the same as paying taxes so you can have roads and water and doctors when you’re sick. This is having your money stolen and used for things that won’t help you, like if somebody steals your lunch money at school. There were two kinds of people in Judea, those who hated the Romans, and those who were helping the Romans steal the wealth of Judea.
The Romans usually made all the countries they conquered worship the gods the way the Romans did. The people of Judea, who are our spiritual ancestors, refused to do that. So the Romans made a special deal; in exchange for being able to worship they way they wanted to, the Jews took care of their own business and prevented angry Jews from trying to kill Romans. This didn’t always work and there were always rebellions and rioting, which the Romans and the Jewish authorities fought back against.
When the little boy called Jesus was growing up, he learned to read the Torah, the holy book of the Jews, and he learned to be a carpenter like his father Joseph. He read awesome stories about how the Jews were once great warriors and conquerors. These stories would have been just like your favorite action movies. He would have imagined himself as the hero in these stories. He heard wise and gentle men talk about God’s love and how we should all be good to each other because of God’s love. He read God’s laws, and there are over 500 rules in the Torah which Jews are supposed to obey. That’s a lot of rules.
Every day he would see Roman soldiers, and it really, really bothered him that God had once loved Judea so much they were free, and that somehow God was angry with the Jews to make them slaves to the Romans. So Jesus listened very carefully to the wise men, and he read the Torah, and he watched the leaders of the Jews betray their own people, and when he was thirty, he couldn’t stand it any more, he had to do something to help his country. Most big strong guys who hated the Romans became warriors. Jesus never wanted to hurt another living human being in thought or action, but he really hated what had happened to his country. He left his job as a carpenter to tell stories to the people.
The truth is we’ll never know for sure if Jesus was a real person or a story. But millions and millions of people think that he was, and that he still is, and so the story of Jesus is a very important one, even if it’s not one we have to believe ourselves.
The stories he told were about love, and forgiveness, and kindness, and how wonderful God is. There were lots of people telling stories at that time, but Jesus was different. He and his followers showed their love by healing and comforting the sick. They took care of each other and shared everything they had. They showed love that the Romans didn’t have and the authorities didn’t have. The ordinary people, looking at Jesus, would see somebody close to God.
In the end, the Romans got angry with Jesus for gathering crowds and for saying and doing things that the Romans really didn’t like. Roman punishment for many crimes was crucifixion. They nailed him to a big wooden cross and left him to die. The Jewish leaders didn’t help Jesus because they were scared of the Romans, and his followers were farmers and fishermen, not soldiers.
His followers believe that Jesus went up in to heaven and they continued to tell his stories. Over time, what he said was written down by lots of different people in different ways, and the stories stopped being just for the Jews but for any person who would listen. Eventually they had so many followers that they took over Rome. It took about three hundred years. The Romans may have put Jesus to death but they couldn’t stop his message. A great message doesn’t care how old it is.
Jesus is an important teacher for us. Love, and kindness and forgiveness are important and we need them in the world. Patience is important too. And I thank you for the patience you have shown me this morning.
Good morning, everyone. Happy Easter. Jesus of Nazareth has always been a troubling enigma for Unitarians. Michael Servetus, one of UU’s spiritual ancestors, was burned alive for saying that there was no biblical support for his divinity. We can go from one end of the church year to the next scarcely mentioning Jesus’ name, except, as noted by Don Hauka recently, if somebody trips and falls down the stairs. And we do like him at Christmas. Unitarians love their Christmas carols. Baby Jesus is a lot more appealing in some ways than his older incarnation.
Very few contemporary Unitarians consider Jesus their saviour, and there are probably people in this room who don’t believe he ever existed, considering that nothing about him appears in any corroborating documents from the period when he was generally considered to be alive. I personally believe Jesus walked this earth, spoke truth to power, and got nailed to a cross for his trouble. If he was the Son of God, he was no more or less so than anyone in this room, and if he never existed, it’s important to understand the circumstances under which his story had to be invented. Hundreds of millions of people believe in him and so whether we like it or not, his story is important and its effects on the speech, beliefs and actions of hundreds of millions of people are even more so.
Unitarians have been moving away from the Bible for a long time, as it is not a document most of us feel much kinship with. Even so, Jesus is not going to go away as an important religious and mythic figure, and the more we know about him the better off we’ll be when confronted with people who use Jesus to bless their hatred, support their idolatries and prop up crony capitalism as all being self-evidently Christian.
The more we know about Jesus, the better off we’ll be when confronted by Christians who loathe and despise us and the more compassionately we’ll be able to argue that love is indeed better than hatred, that we are responsible for being compassionate and kind to those around us, whether they necessarily like us or not, and that we are called to be simple and kind in word and deed. For Jesus preached all those things, and that makes him a Unitarian hero.
It is as a Unitarian hero that I would today like to reframe Jesus, taking as my text, not the Bible, but a very interesting and challenging work of fiction by Robert Graves, called King Jesus. In this work, Graves calls out five specific roles for Jesus that were prophesied in the scriptures, that would have been part of the background assumptions of the culture in which a historical Jesus would have existed. I am trying to make it clear that even before his arrival, Jesus was controversial. And hey, UU’s dig controversy, right?
The Jews were expecting a Messiah, but different schools of thought believed different things. Two thousand years ago, many people believed the prophecies pointed to a King of the House of David who would appear, have his pedigree accepted, and boot the Romans out of Judea. This was according to Ezekiel. Even though two thirds of the Jews would be killed during a horrible war, in the end he would triumph, gather up the faithful survivors and reign for four hundred years of peace and plenty. They weren’t expecting it to be a cakewalk but at least the Romans would be gone.
The second Messianic notion was a tribal thing. He was predicted in Isaiah. The northerners believed that they too would have an ass-kicking Messiah, but he’d be of the house of Joseph. This meant that essentially any Jew might qualify, and was a challenge to those who believed that the Royal House of David would yield up a Messiah, seeing as how it was the Royal House of David who’d dropped the ball when the Romans had shown up. My point in using such casual language is to hint that all of Judea was on the lookout for a Messiah, but they weren’t all looking for the same guy, and that the arrival of the Messiah was an accepted part of popular culture.
There was a wrathful UFO Messiah, who would ride into Jerusalem in a chariot of fire as foretold in the book of Daniel, but as you can imagine, a Messiah who was a forgotten king was a lot more likely than that, so only a few whackos paid attention to that theory.
Only the really intense scholars of scripture believed in the fourth Messiah. There was a book called the Testament of Levi, which foretold that the Messiah would be a priest king. (Just to be clear, the oldest version of the Testament of Levi dates back to just around the time Jesus would have been alive and was in Aramaic and not Hebrew, but there is reason to believe the prophesy was part of an older apocalyptic tradition in Judaism from the book of Malachi.) This version of the Messiah would have all the wisdom of Solomon and the warfighting ability of David and he’d reform the calendar, institute peace, revise the scriptures and cleanse the people of their sins. Now that’s what I’d call an all-purpose Messiah. Also he’d be of the house of Levi, note that it’s the Testament of Levi we’re referring to here. So once again, squabbling between the tribes of Israel impacted how they interpreted scripture regarding the Messiah, which would have spilled over into discussions among Jews after Sabbath worship, because every Rabbi would have a different idea about who the Messiah was going to be. The Messiah was like the Stanley Cup of Judea; even people with no skin in the game had an opinion.
The fifth Messiah was just plain weird. He was foretold in Isaiah and also Zechariah, he would be scorned, mocked, reviled, made the scapegoat of the people and put to a shameful death. He was the suffering servant, who took on the sins of his people, and only after he was gone would the people weep over him as over a lost child.
What, you might ask, has any of this to do with how modern Unitarians could review their understanding of Jesus?
I think the most important thing to remember is that whoever Jesus was, he couldn’t publicly claim kingship or priestliness. As such, no matter his nobility of purpose as he brought comfort to the spiritually needy and ailing people of rural Judea, there was no way most Jews would accept him as a Messiah because he simply didn’t show the signs.
As a consequence, much of the writing in the New Testament is there to answer the Jews — the early Christians wrote of his pedigree, his understanding of the Torah, and his magical powers to raise the dead and make the blind see, all of which were used for the glory of God, to bolster his claims to be the prophetic Messiah whom the Jews were wrong to reject.
This is why he’s recorded to have ridden into Jerusalem on an ass, which was crucial to prophecy, wearing special clothing, also crucial to prophecy. Candidly, I don’t think that it matters whether he walked or skateboarded into Jerusalem, but a lot of people around 100 AD sure did, and that accounts in part for why the stories are written with prophecies in mind.
From before his conception to the present day, Jesus is the pick one from column a, one from column b, Messiah. With each new uprising in Judea, or immediately after the destruction of the second Temple, another version of Jesus was written about, to answer whatever political and social firestorms were going on all around the writer. All these stories were coloured by the ethnicity of the man writing them, and centuries later were revised and bound together by the early Christian church. Many of the writings that were most lunatic in their assertions were kept because they managed to meet the needs of the church leaders who at that time were assembling the New Testament. They kept an eye on which writings most closely matched the prophecies of the old testament, and in so doing, left us with a lot of different visions of Jesus. Which version of Jesus do you claim for yourself?
Now we are faced in our daily lives with people who assert that they take every word of the bible as true, when we know from our own experience that to accept the bible as literal truth is to subject ourselves to the whims and cruelties of a culture thousands of years old, with no reference to our common heritage as human beings, science or even contemporary laws regarding social justice.
We need to reclaim Jesus not as saviour but hero, for he is a hero, and he should be celebrated as such. He died for our sins, as have many others, many, many others over the course of human existence. To learn from and act on his example in the smallest way, in kindness or defense of the helpless, is to live his legacy as a hero.
He prevented a prostitute from being lynched. He healed people who were sick. He gave hope to people who were terrified of the Romans and disgusted by their own leaders, both religious and secular. He didn’t suck up to rich people at the expense of the poor and indeed told them to prove they’d had a change of heart by selling all they owned for the poor, a comment that was just as popular then as it is now. He preached love and mercy and forgiveness and the kingdom of heaven to people who wouldn’t even be allowed into the local synagogue, let alone the temple at Jerusalem. He whacked the moneychangers in the temple for cheating poor people when they came to make offerings, and he was especially angry with those who sold doves, the cheapest offering and thus the one that bilked the most money from poor and elderly women. He allowed women to be his disciples. He walked from town to town with a bunch of farmers and fishermen, gathered some pretty big crowds, and got the reputation of being both more approachable and more truly filled with God’s love than anybody else. And when his followers were asked who he was, or wanted to know who Jesus was, they had a lot of answers, because everyone had a different opinion. And so will we! He will be what we read into him; he will be what we choose to learn about him, or to emulate in life.
I call Jesus a hero, because in his short and memorable ministry to a small corner of an empire thousands of years ago, he made it pretty clear whose side he was on.
Jesus is one of our spiritual forebears. Like the rest of his flock, we pick and choose our way through his message; unlike the rest of his flock, we’re honest enough to no longer call ourselves Christian since it is the social justice message of Jesus and not his supposed divinity that is of most importance to us. We have many heroes, and divine or not, real or not, Jesus is one of them.
May we carry light and justice out into the world from this place. Amen.
Now I’d like to sing a song about all the heroes whom we honour. I wrote it thinking of the mission of Jesus, but it is for every hero we hold in our hearts. I will have welcome assistance from a few people so give us a few moments to get ready. Immediately after this song we’ll join in singing Jacob’s ladder together.