Today is Palm Sunday. The 6th and final Sunday of Lent, 40 days after Ash Wednesday. On Palm Sunday, we recall that Jesus the Christ, some 2000 years ago, rode into Jerusalem on the back of donkey. As he entered the city, the people welcomed him singing, waving or maybe laying palm fronds in his path in sort of a middle-eastern red carpet. The entry into Jerusalem is said to have fulfilled prophecies of the messiah and began the countdown to the final Passover Seder, the Last Supper meal that happened on Maundy Thursday where Jesus compared bread and wine to his body and blood and asked his closest disciples to remember him in the gestures of eating and drinking. This, of course, gives rise to the ritual of Holy Communion. The following day, known as Good Friday, he was tried, crucified, and died. On the third day, we are told, he rose from the dead and appeared to his followers. Having died for our sins, the Son of God cleansed us, and prepared the way for us to enter the Kingdom of God through his ultimate sacrifice. The resurrection of Jesus is, of course, to most, the central element of Christianity. As Paul states in Corinthians 15:14 "If Christ was not raised, then all our preaching is useless, and your trust in God is useless" But the Gospel tells us that he did arise and appear to some of his followers. Amen and all praise be to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
All that said, like a lot of UU’s, I have a hard time with Christianity—and we are in the thick of the Easter season. Millions upon millions will celebrate the triumphant conquering of death and sin made possible through the painful death of Jesus. Christmas at least sort of has it own rewards, that is to say presents—and I rather like some of the songs.Easter is harder for me—now that I’m an adult I have pretty good access to chocolate year round. Easter is also hard commemorating as it does the aspects of Christian faith that I understand least, let alone believe. But, for better or worse I live in a society that is predominantly Christian and a city that is home to some of the most conservative Christians on the planet—or at least it feels that way.
I can trace some of my lack of ease with Christianity to my upbringing. Growing up in an orthodox Jewish setting made me a little leery of Christians. I was taught that Christianity was a mistake, and that most Christians were, to some extent, anti-Semitic—a fear that in a post-Holocaust world seemed justifiable. There is also the simple fact that I didn’t actually go to a church service until I was in my twenties. Christianity was and is, in many ways, quite foreign to me. My wife Julia and I almost didn’t stay at the UU church we walked into in Boston some years ago because of the none too small gold-painted wooden cross that was up front—although it turned out almost everyone was uncomfortable with but it had been a present from a former minister’s family and so was more family heirloom than religious symbol.
But more than cultural elements, I think my discomfort with Christianity stems from some elements implicit in its theology. I have never agreed with the doctrine of Original Sin, I resist the idea that we are fundamentally flawed, perverted, and unable to be good on our own.
I’ve also never understood atonement theory—the idea that Jesus had to die for my sins. I have certainly made mistakes in my life, but none that should require anyone’s death. And let me get this straight, God, for some reason, creates a son, who is fully God and fully human, and then kills him/himself to redeem humanity. Seems kind of a round about way to do things for a supreme being. Don’t even get me started on the Holy Spirit and how the Three are actually One. I’m bad at math to begin with.
Now none of this would really be a problem—if Christianity weren’t so ubiquitous and if I didn’t want to get along with the Christian faith. I spend too much time with Christians to write it off entirely—so what do I do.
In chaplaincy we sometimes talk about “reframing.” Now reframing is not what you have to do when you build a house wrong the first time, rather it is trying to take a certain set of circumstances and help someone understand them in a new way. This is a glass half-empty half-full sort of thing. Yes there is an element of psychological and spiritual sleight-of-hand inherent, but it is also true that how we think and feel about the world determines reality far more than actual facts do.
I’ve been trying to reframe Christianity and the story of Jesus—and I want to share some of what I’m thinking with you.
Years ago I might have balked at this, Academic that I was, I would have been concerned that I would distort the tradition too much, so much so that it would cease to be recognizable to an actual Christian. I would have worried that endeavoring to reframe Christianity would be like going to a Mexican restaurant and ordering nachos but asking the waitress if you could have that without the cheese, meat, salsa or chips but with long noodles and tomato sauce instead. I would worry that if you deconstruct something too far, it isn’t really what you started with in any meaningful way. But, you know, I just don’t care about that much anymore. Reframing in this way isn’t about being true to the tradition, it’s about coming to peace with it inside oneself. Christians can understand their tradition the way they want to, I’ll understand it how I want to.
One place we can start for help in this reconstruction project is with people like Paul Tillich. Tillich was a German theologian who came to America after disagreeing with the Nazis. Deeply influenced by French Existentialists, he believed that the old stories and symbols needed to be interpreted anew. The old ways of understanding them were clearly limiting and, in many cases, impossible in light of the modern world.
Tillich reinterprets, takes the meaning of the potent symbols of Christ and Original Sin and represents them, re-presents them differently. His understanding of Original Sin departs from moral judgment or damnation and focuses instead on a more psychological, though still profoundly spiritual interpretation. In sin, Tillich sees estrangement from, as he puts it “the ground of …being, from other beings, and from him [or her] self.” We can see some of this in the ancient story of Eden. In the story there is at first harmony between the earth, the animals, humans, and the Divine. The first sin, which some might see as disobedience, can also be seen as the creation of distinction. Humans, having eaten the fruit now know the difference between good and evil—that is to say they now see the world as divided, binary, no longer one but now separated into good and evil, male and female, self and other, sacred and profane---the loss of unity, of harmony. The creation of distance is the first sin.
So many philosophers and theologians, especially of the modern age, speak of this estrangement, separation, division, loneliness, anxiety that characterizes the modern human. Hegel, Kierkegaard, Tillich, Sartre, Nietzsche all speak to the deep unease that seems to fill the modern mind and soul. Although more modern thinkers seem to focus on it, the sense is not necessarily new: the Buddha spoke to it 2500 years ago when he spoke of Dukkha—the deep dis-ease that so often afflicts us.
Some attribute it to the breakdown of social roles, to the rise of dehumanizing technology, to the industrial and commercial homogenization of the human spirit. While all that plays a part, it is simply a truth that to be free is to have a certain amount of anxiety. We are free to choose our lives—for good or bad. Plato noted this many centuries ago when he says in The Republic, “the life which he chooses shall be his destiny… The responsibility is with the chooser – God is blameless.” Through this angst we lose our sense of connection to our Self with a capital S, our deepest sense of who we are and our connection to the whole.
I don’t think we need turn to philosophy to teach us this truth; I think we feel this disconnection intuitively. It strikes us hardest during adolescence when we are least certain of who we are, but stays with most of us to some extent throughout our lives. We know when we are aligned with the flow of life and when we are struggling against the current. Here the idea also leans toward the original Greek word for sin, Harmatia—missing the mark, as an archer might miss her target. Original Sin reinterpreted in this fashion moves away from the judgmental indictment of man’s supposedly fallen nature and instead points toward an acknowledgment of the pain and anxiety that are inherent to being a human being in the world.
Tillich sums up this disconnection when he speaks about how modern humans live mainly in the horizontal dimension and have lost our sense of depth. It is this depth dimension that makes a picture into art, a bunch of words into literature, and human life full of meaning. Without this deepening of our experience, our understanding, our spirits, we become simply “a things among things.” Items simply to be manipulated. Without this dimension of depth, we spend our lives pursuing money for its own sake, fame for our childish egos, and shallow connection instead of deep relationship to others, our planet, and ourselves. The loss of the depth dimension of life is the real Original Sin, the true Fall of humanity.
For Tillich, the reason that Jesus is the Christ, the Anointed One, the Savior, is not because of his crucifixion, but because Jesus had not lost this connection to the ground of being, to the source. He was aligned with the river of life. He had recaptured that fundamental harmony, was unaffected by the sin of false dualisms. Tillich calls Jesus the “new being”—a being that lives in the vertical fully as well as the horizontal planes of engagement. His death and resurrection not only remind us to look around during this time of year for the real miracle of spring and the true rebirth we see happening around us, but the resurrection also reminds us of the constant opportunities we encounter to die to what we were and be born again as what we might be. Jesus leaving the tomb is not about a redeemed animated corpse or escaping the fate we all eventually face, but rather it is about the potential inherent in each of us to come into harmony with ourselves and the world around us and in doing so become part of a larger life--a larger life that is, in very real ways, unending, loving, forgiving, and, yes, even potentially redemptive. Jesus becomes a symbol directing us to something deeply internal and external, inviting us into a deeper, more intimate relationship with the holy and ourselves.
Many of us here dig in a bit and reject such characterization of Jesus as perfect in any way. He was just a man, a moral teacher. I often hear UU’s speak of Jesus in this way—as an important ethical teacher, a social rebel, but they get nervous when any transcendent wisdom or spiritual powers are ascribed to him. What would it mean to be a person whose inner and outer being were in complete harmony and in harmony with the world around him? I think such a person would be called a Sage in the Taoist tradition, perhaps a great shaman or medicine man in the Native American tradition. One might say that the individual who was in such a state of harmony has awakened in some profound sense. There is a Sanskrit term from India for such an awakened being--“Buddha.” Strangely enough, I rarely hear people get upset about characterizations of the Buddha as having special insights or powers and we flock to hear spiritual gurus and healers from around the world
Now I can’t talk about Christ without talking about Christians who, truth be told, can be the harder part to deal with. Gandhi once said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. They are so unlike your Christ.” They sin in consigning Jesus and the wisdom to be found in the Bible to the musty tomb of 2000 years without acknowledged growth or change. Jesus himself challenged the prevailing wisdom of the time, tore down barriers to unity and died for his beliefs. I think we all know how much courage it takes to be a real agent of change. Those individuals who have the strength and clarity to really have an impact are rare—and so, some of us, afraid that we ourselves may be called to such challenging tasks, make Jesus separate—not a man, who might in his shared humanity require us to act in a similar way, but instead he becomes a all-powerful God, strangely rendered far less threatening once he is all-knowing and all-powerful and eternal and not very much like us lowly creatures.
It is not as if Christianity has not adapted and changed before. It is no real surprise that the Christian holiday marking resurrection tends to fall right around the Vernal or spring Equinox. The goddess celebrated during this time is named Ostara. Yes, that is where we most likely get the word Easter from. The early church realized it was easier to co-opt or at least compete with the holiday then to try and eliminate the pagan practice all together. The historical Jesus was likely born in September, not December, but December, and December 25th in particular was an important date for various ancient religions. And while the fluid nature of the dates might further discredit Christianity, we can reframe this as well. Christianity is not now nor ever has been a static tradition. It has grown and changed, adapting to and adopting from different times and cultures. Those who wish to lock it down and embed it in stone are the ones who miss out.
Christianity’s symbols are potent ones: flesh, blood, death, rebirth, sin and salvation, the possibility of human growth—maybe not perfectibility but certainly transformation. The story is a captivating one: a young, innocent woman, a humble birth, a brave prophet with a powerful teaching, apparent defeat, and then a triumphant end. The story of Jesus is not unique—it is echoed in and echoes the story of the hero in many cultures. We need not reject it, just because it is a dominant myth in this culture.
I had thought about offering communion today, but decided instead to invite you into a different sort of communion ritual---one that is found in the world’s contemplative traditions. When you leave here and go have lunch as most of us will, I’d like you to take a moment and take a sip of whatever beverage you are drinking and really taste it, savor it, be present to it and yourself. When you take the first bite of whatever you are going to eat, really take a moment to appreciate the flavor, the texture, the temperature. Eating has become an activity that is mainly horizontal in Tillich’s terms—we eat quickly and without much thought. Take a brief moment and turn it into what it is, a life-giving activity. Appreciate the cycle of death and rebirth that happens in your body in every moment. Walking on water is nowhere near as amazing as what is happening in your body at this very moment. Appreciate your freedom. Do this in memory, not of me certainly, and not even of Jesus, but of yourself—of who you are, who you want to be and the depths of possibility within you. Amen and Blessed Be.