In the Gospel of Mark Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do men say that I am?” And they told him, “John the Baptist; and others say, Eli’jah; and others say one of the prophets.” And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Mark 8: 27 – 29
If someone asked, who would you say Jesus is, or was?
Speaking for myself, I would say that there are three aspects of Jesus – the man from Nazareth, born of woman; the mythological Christ who is said to have been born of a virgin, walked on water, healed the blind and sick…fulfilling the Jewish notion of a Messiah — a god, in the tradition of the many gods of mythology; then there’s the message or ‘teaching’ of Jesus as contained in the New Testament, summarized in the famous sermon on the mount and the wonderful passage from the Gospel of Matthew: ‘I was hungry and you fed me…etc. and his famous response: ‘as you did it to one of the least of these, my brethren, you have done it unto me.’
So, there’s the man, the myth and the message, and that’s as close to a Trinity as this Unitarian can get. I speak for myself, and since I speak only for myself, let me say a few things about where I’m coming from – some personal reflections on the Jesus who was central to my early religious education, and my present view of Jesus.
I grew up in three Congregational churches. The first was when I was knee high to a grasshopper – in West Medford, Massachusetts.
Somewhere (I wish I knew where) there’s a photo of me standing with three of my brothers on Easter morning in the mid-40’s when the four of us we were baptized at that church. (Three of the four of us had already been christened in the Catholic Church that was my mother’s heritage. My father’s early religious training was Protestant – a word we don’t use so much now…my parents had ‘a mixed marriage, Catholic and Protestant.)
I have vivid memories of the Sunday school classes in my earliest Congregational Church – a place I loved – I cherish the memories.
In every classroom there was a picture of Jesus. I remember two in particular: one with Jesus holding a lamb – I assumed he was a shepherd, now I understand it was about the lost sheep; and the other was a picture of Jesus under a big tree with children sitting by his feet – he was talking to the children: ‘suffer the little children to come unto me for theirs is the kingdom of heaven…unless you become as a child you cannot enter the kingdom…’
I remember the stained-glass windows in the sanctuary, one portrayed Jesus holding a bible in his left hand and his right hand was raised with two fingers held up together. Our Sunday school teacher told us that Jesus was telling us to be quiet when we come into the sanctuary.
Reflecting on that early experience with Jesus I decided to google the West Medford Congregational Church, to which I haven’t been back since 1949, when we moved. I was pleased to read this on their website:
“We believe God’s love and grace are offered to all and should be shared and celebrated by all. Therefore, everyone is welcome here and honored as a vital and integral member of God’s family. We are an Open and Affirming congregation of the United Church of Christ, with an ONA statement that reads:
“The Congregational Church of West Medford, United Church of Christ, is a community that strives to live according to the teachings of Jesus Christ and to share in the costs and joys of discipleship. We unconditionally welcome and affirm people of every age, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, race, culture, ability, and economic circumstance, and invite everyone into full participation in our church life and ministry.”
“We minister to the wider community through the many activities of this church and the interactions of our daily lives. We minister to one another, caring for and about each other, in our gathered times — in worship, prayer, committee and team work, study, and volunteer service. And we hold and support each other in prayer when we are absent from one another.
“The mission for each of us, and as a faith community, is simple yet profound. We pray, we learn, and we do — seeking to boldly enact the Prayer, Mind, and Deeds of Jesus.”
Of course those were not words they would have used in the 1940’s, when I was there, when homophobia was rampant and racism and sexism were plowed into the religious and cultural soil. The good news is that change happens.
The influence of the Congregational church in West Medford is with me still – they attempt to practice the religion of Jesus, not the religion about Jesus.
When I was in the fourth grade we moved from West Medford to Woburn, Massachusetts, which is about ten miles away…further from Boston…it was like moving to the other side of the world to me. We joined the Congregational Church of Woburn, where I went to Sunday School – religiously.
What stands out for me about that church is the steeple with a bell, which we explored, and the prize I won in seventh grade for memorizing the most psalms.
A couple of brief-but-memorable moments: One of those moments was on a Sunday morning a few minutes before the service when I had my turn at ringing the bell.
To ring that bell you had to pull on the rope, let it ride up, and then pull it down hard…I had to ride the rope up, and come down hanging on. The minister, Dr. Grey (I remember thinking of him as the closest thing to God I knew) who was standing there, and after I got through ringing the bell he put his hand on my shoulder and said, ’Frank, have you ever thought about becoming a minister?’ Powerful.
Another moment that stands in a kind of stark contrast to the Dr. Grey question-to-me moment was in one of our weekday afternoon sessions when we were dismissed from school early so we could go to the religion of our choice and several of us played spin the bottle. You got to kiss the person the bottle pointed to when it stopped spinning. It was the first time I got to kiss a girl – I remember it well! She and I left the little group, went to a stairwell and completed the assignment.
That was the extent of my human sexuality class! Dr. Grey was not around for that lesson, of course. (He might have withdrawn his question!)
In my seventh grade Sunday school class we read the psalms and the teacher offered a prize for the one who memorized the most psalms; I won. The prize was a silver ID bracelet.
I have fond memories of the Woburn Congregational church, which was organized in 1642. The building was constructed in 1860, the same year Lincoln was elected president 1860. Their website says:
“The First Congregational Church in Woburn is a Christian church located on the corner of Main Street downtown. It offers two weekly services each Sunday—one in the morning, in English, and another in the evening, in Spanish. This church performs special ceremonies like weddings, funerals and baptisms. Religious education courses are offered for children and confessions are heard here as well. Visitors are welcome.”
An evening service in Spanish? That suggests the change in demographics since the early 50’s when I was there. I worked at McCue’s farm and Johnson Brothers green house where there were some workers from Puerto Rico at the time, but the Hispanic population was very limited.
After five years in Woburn we moved to Wilmington, even further from Boston. I didn’t go to church during those high school years, but later joined the Congregational Church in Wilmington when I was in college, and married, and soon became the advisor to the youth group.
I attended Sunday worship regularly, usually by myself, and one day the minister, Bob Saunders, asked me if I had ever considered ministry.
I loved the church, and I especially appreciated listening to sermons. But I struggled with the Jesus question, though no one ever asked, ‘who do you say he is, or was?’
In particular I remember reciting and struggling with the Apostle’s Creed, which we recited together every Sunday morning, saying:
I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
the Maker of heaven and earth,
and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord:
Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,
born of the virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, dead, and buried;
He descended into hell.
The third day He arose again from the dead;
He ascended into heaven,
and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Ghost;
the holy catholic church;
the communion of saints;
the forgiveness of sins;
the resurrection of the body;
and the life everlasting. Amen.
At first I simply ‘went along’ with the recitation of this creedal statement; then I started to omit certain lines – the virgin birth, for example, and the descent into hell. Eventually I simply stood without uttering any of it. I didn’t speak with anyone about my misgivings.
For the second time, however, I was asked if I had considered ministry. Our minister, Bob Saunders, who I admired very much, asked me about it, and suggested I attend a weekend retreat at Andover Newton seminary for those considering ministry.
I asked to speak with him one-on-one. We met in his office on a Sunday afternoon. The conversation was brief. I cut to the chase and said, “If I go to seminary to prepare for ministry do I have to believe the things we say every Sunday…literally?”
He asked me to explain what I meant. I said, “You know, the Apostle’s creed…you don’t believe everything in it literally, do you?”
He was clearly offended, and said that he did believe each and every thing in it, then looked at me with a penetrating stare and I said, “That’s what I was afraid of. To me they are metaphors, not meant to be taken literally.”
He was not pleased. Sitting behind his desk, he pointed an accusing finger at me and said, “You sound like a Unitarian!”
My question about believing in the Apostle’s creed was answered, and my inner quest was begun that day.
The next Sunday I attended a Unitarian church. There was no Apostle’s creed – or any other kind of creed or dogma…but there was a 19th (1870 – 1920) century statement of faith on the wall beside the pulpit:
“We believe in the Fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, the leadership of Jesus, salvation by character and the progress of mankind onward and upward forever.” James Freeman Clark
I was glad to find a place where I could be accepted without compromising myself, but not feeling the need to join until the older of my children asked ‘what am I?’ meaning what religion do I tell people I am when they ask…and in kindergarten they asked!
I was a bit surprised at the extent to which the church from which I was, in essence, evicted fifty years ago has become so narrow…evangelical.
Their website says that among other things they believe in the literal truth of the Bible – the inspired word of God, they say. They say that they believe, and I quote:
“That the shed blood of Jesus Christ and His Resurrection provide the only ground for…salvation for all who believe, and only such as receive Jesus Christ are born of the Holy Spirit and, thus become children of God.”
“That only those who are, thus, members of the true Church – those who accept Jesus Christ as the only means of salvation — shall be eligible for membership in the local church. “
They say, we believe, “In the bodily resurrection of the dead; of the believer to everlasting blessedness and joy with the Lord; of the unbeliever to judgment and everlasting conscious punishment.”
That last one is a kicker: that the unbeliever in each of those things is condemned to judgment and everlasting conscious punishment.
It’s hard for me to believe that I once belonged to that church, and that of the three Congregational churches in which I grew up, this one is so extreme that it’s an embarrassment..
I’m interested, too, in the differences between those three churches: the first in W. Medford is the most open, the second in Woburn is sort of ‘middle of the road,’ and the third provides a concise summary of why I left and why I felt no need to call myself a Christian.
Leaping forward fifty years, I now can say a few things about my beliefs as they relate to Jesus: man, myth and message.
Briefly: Jesus was a man, fully human.
The idea that he was ‘the son of God,’ or ‘sent by God’ moves him from the human to the mythological. The truth in the myth about Jesus – and myths always contain truths – is that we are all ‘children of God.’ We’re all ‘sent’ – we can learn from everyone, we can be inspired or influenced by anyone.
We know very little about the historical Jesus, the man; the Biblical reference to his miraculous birth is pure mythology. It points to the deeper truths about what it means to be human – to be born, to grow up, to struggle, to suffer and to die. (Unless you can find yourself in the story you don’t understand the myth, or mythology in general.)
I believe that to be human, in a philosophical or theological sense, is to have compassion and to express compassion in the way you live your life.
The belief that God condemns people to suffer (consciously!) for eternity for not believing in him – that belief is enough to drive a thoughtful, compassionate person away from religion altogether.
To believe in such a god threatens the essential attribute that makes a person human – compassion. It is a hateful, harmful statement…a monstrous idea – literally…it makes God a monster. It is offensive – it is an embarrassment. It has the color of the crusades and the scent of the inquisitions.
To be human has something to do with being rational, and it has something to do with the inner life, not only the life of the mind – the thinking part of the brain – but the evolution of one’s individual life, as well as being part of the human species that has been evolving on planet earth for millions upon millions of years.
Jesus was one of us. Human. Mortal. Born of woman. Suffered, as we suffer. Died.
The human Jesus would, I believe, be highly offended at the theology that persists about him.
Jesus railed against hypocrisy, especially the hypocrisy of religious leaders, namely the Pharisees of his time.
The mythological Jesus, summarized in the Apostle’s creed and other theological assertions, was created after his death.
The mythological Jesus was one of many who were said to be born of a virgin, able to perform miracles, and were immortal. Among them are Osiris, Dionysus, Adonis, Attis, and Mithras.
I believe that our ancestors invented all the gods and all the religions.
Like good poems, great novels or essays, the writers were inspired. I’m fascinated by inspiration. The phrase, the inspired word of God, expresses what I mean, but it’s meant to be a metaphor, highlighting the very idea of inspiration. “And God blew the breath of life into the man and he became a living soul.” Genesis
The message of Jesus is the challenge to live a good, decent life; it’s about morality and ethics.
I’m not suggesting that it’s clear and easy to see the moral or ethical choices that have to be made, but that those decisions determine the ethical life – determine what a good person is. “Two Roads Diverged in a Wood…and I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”
Jesus taught that ‘the Sabbath is made for man, man is not made for the Sabbath.’ It’s one thing to follow the letter of the law, it’s another to follow the spirit of the law.
Jesus countered the letter-of-the-law of Moses, summarized in the Ten Commandments, with the spirit of the law.
The Gospel of Matthew has Jesus go up to a mountain to give a sermon summarizing the spirit of the law of Moses – Moses went up to a mountain to get the law, the Ten Commandments. Matthew makes Jesus the new Moses. In the sermon on the mount Jesus said:
“And seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain: and when he was set, his disciples came unto him:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.
“Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.
“Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill.
“Ye have heard that it was said of them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.
“Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That … whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.”
In summary: Jesus the man was a human, fallible human person, responding to his time and place. You are, too!
Jesus the myth was born of a virgin, brought the dead back to life, walked on water and was bodily resurrected, and so forth.
The message of Jesus is to live a good decent life – you will fail from time to time, but keep at it.
My friend Donal Donnelly, who died last year, did a one-man play of George Bernard Shaw, and he has Shaw say: “This man Jesus has not been a failure yet, for nobody has been sane enough to try his way…he taught that evil should not be countered by worse evil but by good; that revenge and punishment only duplicate wrong; that we should conceive God not as an irascible and vindictive tyrant, but as an affectionate Father.”
Shaw says, “By every argument, legal, political, religious, customary and polite, he was the most complete enemy of society ever brought to the bar. It can be argued that Christianity died on the cross with him.”
May the human spirit that was in Jesus help give some direction to our days.