Jesus, UU and You!
Rev. Jane Page
October 28, 2007
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Statesboro
(Sing) ♪ Jesus, Jesus, Oh Jesus! There’s just something about that name! ♫
♫Oh, how I love Jesus, Oh, how I love Jesus, Oh, how I love Jesus – because he first loved me.♪
♪Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me – for the Bible tells me so.♪
We do so want to be loved. And for many of us, to be loved by some supernatural man who reached into our very hearts and souls was – and for some still is – very comforting.
And that story of the resurrected Jesus – alive, inspiring, powerful Jesus – is why Christianity spread and is still so powerful today.
Is the story of Jesus a TRUE story? That depends on your definition of true. If you mean is it based on fact? Is there historical evidence? Would it stand the test of scholarly inquiry? The answer is no.
I’m not going to give you a course in the origins of Christianity today. No time for that. But suffice it to say, that the evidence we do have today – especially since the translation of the Dead Sea Scrolls – supports the idea of an early Christian movement based on many diverse views of the teachings of Jesus, none of which were written down during his lifetime. In fact, all of the gospels – either those that made it into the New Testament Canon are those left out – were based on oral tradition – or hearsay. Now one can understand that for the Old Testament stories, many which existed before historians began recording events. But if Jesus was as famous and influential as the stories told later suggest, why was there no written evidence of him based on eye witness accounts or even recorded by others during or soon after his actions on this earth. I have one seminary professor who is pretty convinced that Jesus never really existed. Many of the stories told about him appear in other religious writings about others as well – and this professor believes that Jesus is a compilation of many of these stories told about various teachers, prophets, and so-called gods. He could be right. We don’t really know. But my bet would be on a real person named Jesus who did teach in Palestine and did have a small following of disciples. Jesus is said to have said himself that he did not come for the gentiles, only for the Jews. But this small Jewish sect died out. What did live on was a religion developed by Paul and enhanced by others through the ages. That living, resurrected Jesus is the one that I sang about it my youth and that I can still feel today if I can shut down that thinking side of my brain – which is very hard for me to do.
But there are many who connect with Unitarian Universalism because of our socially progressive values that also connect with Jesus in important ways. Do we honor this connection? You know in our efforts to be supportive of folks on spiritual paths, we’ve come to really appreciate and honor many eastern religions and even ancient pagan religions. Buddha is welcome here. Gaia is welcome here. Is Jesus welcome here?
That was a question that haunted me after one of the friends of our fellowship expressed her perception to a member a few years ago when the member noted that we had missed her in our services. This friend of the fellowship said, “Well, you know – I need Jesus, and I don’t think Jesus is welcomed there.” Wow. That hit me pretty hard – because when I looked at our services and the language we used, and the tone of some of our talkbacks, I understood what she meant. Since that time, I do think this congregation has made progress in expanding our acceptance of spiritual paths that are meaningful to all our members and friends, including Christianity. We now regularly include stories told by Jesus or about Jesus in our services and our sacred texts group read through the New Testament last year. This is especially important if our own heritage has any meaning for our faith.
Unitarianism and Universalism were both Christian denominations. Now, indeed, many mainstream and fundamentalist groups believed they were heretical Christians, but they were Christians nonetheless. And the Unitarian churches in Europe are still much more Christian centered than those here.
Unitarianism in Europe developed during the Protestant Reformation. Some radical reformers saw it as a return to Early Christianity before the doctrine of the Trinity became mandated by the church. The common notion of Unitarianism is a doctrine centering on the belief in on God in one person as contrasted with the Trinitarian belief, of course, in one God in three persons. Also included in early Unitarian doctrine was the closely related belief in the true humanity of Jesus. Unitarians in America, however, developed as a branch of the Puritan church or the “churches of the standing order” in New England and the folks that ended up identifying as Unitarian were really more a product of the enlightenment. Although they generally agreed with the doctrines put forth by Unitarians in Europe, they attached much less importance to these or any other particular doctrine and instead emphasized certain fundamental principles such as freedom and reason.
The Universalists were growing in America at the same time preaching a doctrine of universal salvation. They did not believe that a loving God would condemn anyone to hell.
Both of these groups still identified as Christians and had creeds or statements in which Jesus was specifically honored – although both encouraged free thinking and study of all religions. Many of the transcendentalists were members of Unitarian churches and had a great deal of influence on the direction that those churches took theologically. By the time of their merger in 1961, most of the Unitarian as well as Universalist congregations had moved to a more humanistic stance and they decided not to adopt ANY creed. They would never have been able to agree on one anyway.
However, there are a few groups that still use the term Christian as their major theological identity. And, there is an affiliate group of UU’s who have organized to proclaim their message that Jesus is relevant for Unitarian Universalism today. But the Jesus they hold up and honor is one that is much more radical than the Jesus that I sang about as a child. Actually, the Jesus they look to for encouragement is probably closer to what the historical Jesus may have been like. The congregational hymn that we sang this morning entitled, “O Young and Fearless Prophet” portrays this Jesus. One of these folks encouraging a new look at Jesus is the Rev. Stephen Kendrick, senior minister of First Church in Boston and author of the UUA pamphlet on “The Faith of a Unitarian Universalist Christian.” Here is how he explains his Christian identity.
It is difficult to explain the label Unitarian Universalist Christian, yet it expresses the simple truth that Jesus and his life, message, charisma, and death haunt me. I find Jesus of Nazareth a compelling teacher, master poet, troublemaker, and insistent companion on the ‘narrow path,’ which is to say reality. Jesus is a spiritual genius, one of many we may choose to learn from, but still the one who most compels me to become the person I am meant to be.
I do not believe Jesus is the sole revelation of the Divine, and I do not know, but seriously doubt, if he was raised from the dead, or for that matter, ever meant to create something called Christianity. He came into his own troubled time proclaiming that the Kingdom of God is present. If words like Kingdom trouble us today, the better translation of what he said is, “The realm of Abba dwells among us now.” When asked what the realm of God was, he did not spin metaphors about golden gates and heavenly vistas, but simply replied, “The Kingdom of God is within you.” I believe it still is.
Now there are those of us who have a more difficult time exploring and honoring Christianity than we do other religions, simply because this is the religion in our culture which has been used often by those who would oppress and spread intolerance for diversity. However, those same folks would have used whatever religion was dominant in their culture. Kendrick finds it ironic that those who hate would use Christianity as their springboard. He states:
I can think of no more misunderstood and misjudged figure. I find him more compelling and inspiring as a human being who suffered and loved and claimed that no one is perfect but God than as the magical entity some of his most devoted followers worship.
He also sees irony in the rejection Jesus gets from some Unitarian Universalists. He says:
It is equally ironic that this prophet of liberation and spiritual freedom, who said that the poor shall inherit the earth, is misunderstood by people attracted to the free faith and justice-seeking tradition of Unitarian Universalism. The world around us is deeply influenced, for good or ill, by the spirit of Jesus. We need to be familiar with this insistent and determined character if we are to live and do our work in this world. We will benefit by wrestling with him, not ignoring or bypassing him. There is no doubt that Jesus is troubling, provocative, even annoying at times, but we Unitarian Universalists are known as troublemakers as well. We should understand this kind of personality!
Kendrick and other UU Christians are not pushing for Unitarian Universalism to “become more Christian.” Instead they encourage us to have a faith which continues to be open to learning from many sources, including Jesus.
When Jesus was asked how best to follow him, he did not offer guidelines for creedal acceptance or ask for signatures on the dotted line. Rather, he asked, did you feed the hungry? Visit the widows? Go see the prisoners? If you did, you served him in the highest sense. These are still good questions, and how we answer tells us more about our relationship to Jesus today than any coffee-hour discussion or theological quarrel.
Indeed, we are a faith of deeds, not creeds. Christianity provides lots of teachings that lead many to good deeds. Perhaps the teachings of Jesus and Paul and others have little meaning for you. Or perhaps they do. You know sometimes some folks use that EVOLVE fish to make fun of the Christian fish – so for that reason, I don’t like it that much. But on the other hand, it does seem to me to be a symbol of Christianity in Unitarian Universalism. It is an evolved Christianity. Not the Christianity of my childhood – but perhaps one I can respect and connect to in my adulthood.
The title of this sermon is “Jesus, UU, and You!” And we’ve shared about Jesus and Unitarian Universalism – but what about YOU and Jesus. I sent a survey out to our members and friends that you could respond to anonymously. And by Thursday evening, 22 of you had responded. Here’s what I found out with those four questions.
(Show results with projector)
I kind of like that wording in that last comment. Perhaps we don’t identify as a Christian denomination, and perhaps all of us don’t follow a spiritual path that can be described as Christian, but we can all strive to be Christian-comfortable. So move over Buddha and Mohammed, move over Gaia and Shiva, move over Socrates and Darwin, and move over Black Elk and Mary Oliver – ‘cause we’ve still got plenty of room here for Jesus.
(sing) ♫ Jesus, Jesus, oh Jesus – yes, there’s something about that name. ♪
© 2007 Jane A. Page, Statesboro, GA.
All rights reserved.
All rights reserved.