Some time ago–in a different era–one of the basic, most essential courses in our Unitarian church schools was called, ‘Jesus the Carpenter’s Son.’ (The new curriculum that has come out of the UUA is called: Jesus, Kingdom of Equals).
The title of the old course, which was the title of a book by Sophia Lyon Fahs, Jesus the Carpenter’s Son, suggests our Unitarian Christology. The assertion that Jesus was the son of a carpenter makes him human. Unitarians always said that Jesus was a mana regular guy, so to speak. Not a god.
In the days when Jesus the Carpenter’s Son was taught in our church schools, Jesus was held up as a model for what we humans might be. He was a good man, which is what our religion sought to make each of us. He taught that ‘your religion is the way you live your life.’ That’s what teach.
Our Universalist forebears had a more traditional Christology. They were comfortable with conservative religious language. They didn’t hesitate to call Jesus Lord, or The Good Shepherd, our Savior.
But Universalists did not fit the Trinitarian notion of Jesus as ‘God.’ Most Universalists were unitarian in their theology, (small ‘u’) asserting that God is One, and Jesus was human, not God.
Universalist pulpits and sanctuaries often had a simple theology carved or painted on the pulpit or in the sanctuary: God is Love.
This, of course, is a Biblical quotation. It’s from a passage in the first epistle of John. The fourth chapter of I John says: “Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God; for God is love.” I John 4
It goes on to explain: “No man has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us…God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.”
Then it nails the point to its core, saying: “If any one says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.”
This brings us back to ‘Jesus the Carpenter’s Son,’ the question about the nature of Jesus, and, to some extent, the question of what it means to be human. The Psalmist, talking to God, asks, “What is man that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that thou visitest him?”
For 2000 years people have been asking about Jesus: “Who was that man?”
I’m reminded of The Lone Ranger. “Who was that man?”
Before television, we watched the Lone Ranger series in the movies, and listened to him on the radio. The Lone Ranger was introduced to television on a September night in 1949, the same year that our congregation was formed. So I think it’s only fitting that we make some significant connection between that show and our Westport congregation.
You may think it’s a stretch, but, “Return with us now to the thrilling days of yesteryear. The Lone Ranger rides again!”
At the end of every episode someone would find the silver bullet, which he had strategically placed. As the Lone Ranger road away on his trusted white horse, Silver, someone would say, “Who was that masked man?” Then, off in the distance, we’d hear, “Hi-ho Silver, away!”
He was the mystery man. He was a hero and a savior. He was a do-er of good deeds; a righter of wrongs. He brought justice, honor and goodness where there had been a great injustice and evil. The bad guys always lost. You could always tell the bad guys–they wore black hates. The good guys, with the white hats, always won.
In those days the women were always vulnerable and needed to be saved, plucked from harm’s way just in the nick of time, like Pauline tied to the railroad tracks.
I don’t know when or how Tonto joined up with the Lone Ranger, but they became partners, which is interesting, to have a Native American at a time when racism toward Native Americans was rampantnot that it isn’t still alive and well, but I think the story of the Lone Ranger helped move us a step away from that old thinking.
In 1949, when the show started, it was cowboys against the Indians. Being one of the younger kids on our block I was often assigned to play an Indian in our game of cowboys and Indians. I came to like it. Tonto was a model, and being the Lone Ranger’s partner he was a kind of apostle, to go back to the Jesus question. Tonto helped pioneer a change in the racist attitude so prevalent at the time.
Bruce Chilton, author of Rabbi Jesus, which he calls ‘in intimate biography,’ responds to the question, “Who was that man?” A lot of us have been reading Chilton’s portrait of Jesus with a sense of appreciation, but with some sense of confusion.
Chilton is an Episcopal priest. He paints a portrait of Jesus as a man and a Jew who had no intention of starting a new religion. Chilton’s Jesus does not claim to be the Messiah, but attempted to give new meaning to the concept of the Messiah. Chilton’s portrait of Jesus is painted the way Lincoln instructed: ‘warts and all.’
Chilton’s paints a family portrait of Jesusa mamzer: who Chilton explains was ‘…an Israelite of suspect paternity. Such men and women lived in a caste apart, unable to marry within the established bloodlines of Israel, and so were often excluded from the mainstream of religious life.”
Chilton’s Jesus is an outsider or even an outcaste.
A mamzer was a man with whom a woman was prohibited from having sex, so her offspring was ‘silenced’ and had no voice in the congregation. Chilton says that “…Jesus negotiated the treacherous terrain between belonging to the people of God and ostracism in his own community.”
This explains how he became an itinerant preacher, a prophet without honor in his own town who questioned many of the strict rules, saying, “Is man made for the Sabbath, or is the Sabbath made for man?”
Unitarians often identify with Jesus, feeling somewhat estranged from the religion of the family of origin, and questioning the rules.
In response to the question, “Who was that man,” those of us who say that Jesus was a man, born in a natural way, willing to stand up against those in power, willing to go against tradition, were given the name unitarian, as an epithet, an accusation and an insult.
At one time such ‘unitarian heretics’ were burned at the stake (eg. Michael Servetus, Giordano Bruno, etc.), so it’s a little confusing to read Bruce Chilton’s ‘intimate biography of Rabbi Jesus, whose divinity, Chilton confirms, was invented long after his untimely and violent death.
We really don’t know much about the historical Jesus, so Chilton uses his imagination to paint a portrait. But he also uses his extensive scholarship and linguistic prowess to provide a more believable Jesus, and certainly one that is very ‘Unitarian friendly.’
He calls Jesus ‘rabbi,’ which means teacher, and asserts that this teacher was illiterate, but literacy was not common; you didn’t need a graduate degree from an accredited seminary to stand on a hill and say, “Love your enemies…turn the other cheek.”
Chilton says, “It may be counterintuitive to us, but for Jesus it was the spoken rather than the written word that was sacred.”
He knew how to use that spoken word, and he had a liberated imagination. He needed that facility with language to summarize what is expected of you by creating parables, like the parable of the Good Samaritan the ‘outsider’who helps the wounded man who has been beaten and robbed and is lying on the road. The man from Samariathe prototypical outsiderhelps, in spite of the fact that he’s not even ‘one of us.’ Jesus often challenged his contemporaries in that way.
He needed a liberated imagination to summarize the notion of forgiveness or unconditional love by making up a story about a Prodigal Son who leaves home, squanders his inheritance and is welcomed back by a forgiving father. And he left it to those who heard the parable to see for themselves that the forgiving father is God, the God of Love that Jesus taught.
This is the Jesus our Unitarian and Universalist forebears held up to our children in the aforementioned course, Jesus the Carpenter’s Son. It’s the Jesus I learned about growing up in a Congregational Church, and that most main-line Protestant church’s taught, and still teach today.
One of the signs held up at the recent peace rally in Washington, D.C. asks, “Who would Jesus bomb?” This is a variation of the popular ‘what would Jesus do’ bracelet that are worn by some Christians, and the ad for hybrid cars that asks ‘what would Jesus drive?’
In other words, ‘what’s the right thing to do?’ Jesus is the model or reference point.
The Christology question, which is so important to Christian Fundamentalist groups, didn’t emerge until the fourth century, at the Council of Nicaea in the 325th year of the common era. The Nicene Creed was intended to give a definitive theological structure to Christianity. The folks who were gathered in Nicaea, invited by the Roman Emperor Constantine, said, “Jesus was God; Jesus is God. He came to offer salvation, and he’s coming back to usher in a thousand-year reign of peace and prosperity.” That’s when Jesus the man became Christ. Orthodoxy was invented to defend against the Arian heresythe root of modern day Unitarianism.
Our Unitarian forebears, represented by Bishop Arius, said, “Jesus was a man. A special man. A fully realized man, but a man, nonetheless, not God, or a god.”
Our Unitarian forebears insisted that the Trinity was a human invention. They said, in essence, that man created God in his own image. So true then, and it’s still true today. If you must create a god, at least make it a God of Love, or Loving God, not a Monster who chooses favorites and stokes the fires of hell to punish unbelievers.
We don’t know much about the so-called historical Jesus. But we do know that he existed, that he lived around 2,000 years ago, that he died young, by the hand of the Romans in response to his rabble rousing.
We know, too, that he was a Jew, who had no intention of starting a new religion in his name. He wanted to reform the way his Jewish religion was being practicedhe was concerned that it had become corrupt, or that the temple leaders had strayed from the basics.
We know the history of Christianity, but we don’t really know very much about Jesus, except that the new religion would be attributed to him. We know that he did not try to start a new religionPaul and others invented Christianity.
My Old Testament professor in seminaryan ordained Methodist ministersaid that Christianity, as set down in the New Testament, at least, was simply a re-telling of the Old Testament. He said, “There is nothing new in the New Testament. It is a theology of the Old Testament.”
Bruce Chilton, in his wonderful portrait of Jesus, which he calls an ‘intimate biography,’ says: “A failure on the world stage in his own time, Rabbi Jesus also fell short of making a lasting mark within Judaism. Dead at thirty, nonetheless he generated a new religion.”
Notice Chilton’s choice of words here: “Jesus generated a new religion.” He didn’t invent a new religion; he didn’t even intend to start a new religion, according to Chilton. We can speculate on what he intended to dowhether he wanted to reform the Judaism of his time, or whether he even cared about a reformation, but simply hoped to be a teacher who would help others to understand the religious or spiritual aspect of life.
We all have our own idea of Jesus. For me he was more like a Buddhist, in that he wasn’t attached to some specific outcome, but was living in the moment, living in his time.
The Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh says it prayerfully:
Our true home is in the present moment.
To live in the present moment is a miracle.
The miracle is not to walk on water.
The miracle is to walk on the green Earth in the present moment, to appreciate the peace and beauty that are available now. Peace is all around usin the world and in nature, and within us; It is in our bodies and our spirits. Once we learn to touch this peace, we will be healed and transformed.
It is not a matter of faith, it is a matter of practice.
Bruce Chilton says: “Jesus taught others to see as he saw, to share his vision of God, so that even after his death he appeared to his disciples as alive, a human presence…”
Notice how Chilton puts it. He says that to his disciples, he appears to be alive, even after his death; he continues to be a presence, as Chilton puts it; he continues to influence them.
Are there people who were in your life who are no longer alive but who continue to influence you? That’s the Jewish notion of life after death.
I depart as air. I shake my white locks at the runaway sun, and I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags. I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love. If you want me again look under your bootsoles. You will hardly know who I am or what I mean, but I shall be good health to you, nevertheless, and filter and fibre your blood. Failing to fetch me at first, keep encouraged. Missing me one place, search another. I stop, somewhere, waiting for you (From Song of Myself)
Here it is againthe idea of the ongoing influence: “I shall be good health to you…and filter and fibre your blood.”
I shall be an ongoing influence, but you have to figure it out for yourself. “Failing to fetch me at first, keep encouraged. Missing me one place, search another.”
Understanding doesn’t come all at once. The true religious or spiritual life is an unending series of little epiphanies.
Back to Chilton and his Rabbi Jesus. Chilton says that Jesus “…remains a measure of how much we dare to see and feel the divine in our lives.”
Florida Scott-Maxwell, in her wonderful autobiography, quotes someone as saying, “I don’t mind you telling me my faults, they’re stale. When you tell me what I could be it terrifies me.”
To see the divine within yourself and others can be terrifying. It’s a big responsibility. And this, I think, is the essence of the religion of Jesus. He said, “It’s not easy being a person. It’s a big responsibility.”
Chilton’s Jesus says that the meaning of communion is “…to share our suffering, pain, and disappointment, as well as our joy, pleasure, friendships, and the love we feel for one another (which) can enable us to realize who we are in God’s presence.” That’s what our candle lighting is about. It’s our form of communion. Community.
Chilton says, “The rabbi from Nazareth never claimed he was unique. His Abba (father) was the Abba of all.” This is basic universalism.
Chilton says, “By exalting Jesus as the only human being to sit on the right hand of God, many theologians have denied heaven to others.” That’s the old religionthe idea of the chosen, or the ‘only true religion,’ or the idea that Mohammed it the final prophet and anyone who doesn’t agree is an infidel, destined for hell. Fundamentalist Christians, Jews and Muslims make that exclusivist claim. It’s the fatal flaw in all orthodoxies, and we Unitarian Universalists must be very careful not to suggest that we are ‘the only true religion!’ We’re not. We’re as fallible as the rest.
In an understatement, Chilton says, ‘the great goal’ of the Jesus movement, to bring the kind of love and peace Jesus taught, ‘has yet to be achieved.’
Last week, when I introduced our service on the Sufi mystic Rumi, I said that there is an important distinction between the theological assertion that says, ‘There is one God,’ and the more spiritual, universal affirmation that says, ‘God is one.’
Jesus said, “I and the Father are One.” In the furthest stretch of my imagination I cannot conceive of Jesus, the Jew, saying that he himself is God. That’s the most basic of all the commandmentsthe commandment against idolatry.
I hear Jesus, in a moment of ecstasy, say, “Look, don’t you seewe’re all part of this amazing Oneness, we’re part of the interacting verb we call the Universe, we’re all connected with one another because we are all part of this Oneness, this universe, and when you put it all together it is God; God is in each of us, just as God is infused in every part and particle of life. This is it. Heaven is in your midst if you will choose it…the source of peace is within you, if you will enter it, and you can be there now.”
This sense of connectedness this what Laurel Clark, our Unitarian sister who went down with the Columbia said in her final email the day before the disaster:
Hello from above our magnificent planet Earth. The perspective is truly awe-inspiring…I have seen some incredible sights: lightning spreading over the Pacific, the Aurora Australia lighting up the entire visible horizon…the crescent moon setting over the limb of the Earth, the vast plains of Africa and the dunes on Cape Horn, rivers breaking through tall mountain passes, the scars of humanity, the continuous line of life extending from North America, through Central America and into South America, a crescent moon setting over the limb of our blue planet.
Every orbit we go over a slightly different part of the Earth. Whenever I…get to look out, it is glorious. Even the stars have a special brightness. I have seen my “friend” Orion several times. I feel blessed to be here…
May we, too, feel blessed to be here. Peace.