My 5 (almost 6) year old niece recently asked her mother: “Who’s Jesus?” My sister tells me that she did her best to answer, but told her daughter: You might want to take this question to auntie…
While my sister and I were raised to value something greater than ourselves, we weren’t raised with any formal religion. And my niece and nephew aren’t being either. But you can’t live in America, or maybe anywhere really, without hearing something about this guy named Jesus. And you hear about him in relationship to Christianity. But it’s important to remember that Jesus himself never heard of Christianity. Because it didn’t exist in his lifetime. Jesus of Nazareth lived and died a Jewish man.
In order to understand Jesus, we have to understand the teachings that formed him. Even at a young age Jesus was able to interpret and powerfully teach the Hebrew scriptures he’d been steeped in since birth. When asked which commandant was most important, Jesus answered by quoting Deuteronomy and Leviticus. He said, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
Jesus didn’t care about piety or empty ritual. Jesus taught us that the most important thing was to love God with everything we’ve got and to enact our love by giving it to our neighbors.
In order to understand Jesus then, we have to learn how to love. Which means we have to be present, fully present, with the reality of the world around us. Not just the parts of the world that are valued and celebrated, but the parts of the world that are despised and tossed aside. Jesus didn’t search out the powerful. He walked with the outcasts. He touched the leper and he blessed the bleeding woman. He dined with people he wasn’t supposed to. And he stood up to people he was supposed to revere.
In order to understand Jesus, we have to step outside the boxes we’ve decided to live in. These boxes limit our view of the world. They keep us stuck and small. Our families, of course, gave us our first boxes. And our society is always creating more for us. And through our experiences, assumptions, fear, and habits we’ve created some boxes of our own. But in the stories attributed to Jesus, all we see is expansion and defiance. Jesus refused to be trapped in a box of tradition and meaningless law. Jesus called us toward an ever moving Spirit.
In order to understand Jesus, we have to stop allowing the powerful to scare us into hating each other. We have to go to the places that Jesus would go. And we have to figure out how to be of service. We have to love God with everything we’ve got and give this love to our neighbors.
If you want to know where Jesus would be today, simply ask yourself: “Who do the powerful tell me to fear and judge?” Jesus would be having dinner with Muslims. He would be at the Mexican/American border fashioning a whip to beat down walls. He would be working the phones at the Trevor Project supporting gay and trans teenagers considering suicide. He would be in Syrian refugee camps carrying a basket that never seemed to run out of food. He would be with children terrorized by adults who refuse to protect them from gun violence.
If we want to understand Jesus, we can’t look to the institutions of power—of Christianity and government. We have to look to Jesus’ actions. We have to follow his Way and love God with everything we’ve got and give this love to our neighbors. Author Brian McLaren writes that Jesus: “leads people away from religious structures and controversies that divide people into in-groups and out-groups; instead, he leads people to a different space entirely, where we can all experience the same Spirit.” Later McLaren says that: “Whenever people encounter justice, joy, peace, creativity, comfort, liberation, holiness, beauty, love, or any other good things, they are in some way encountering the Spirit, … [which] is bigger than any particular religion or religion in general. Nobody has a monopoly on Spirit.”
So in answer to my beloved niece’s question: “Who’s Jesus?” I would have to say, he was a Jewish teacher that lived some 2,000 years ago. He did his very best to love God and to express his love of God by leading his followers out of their self and societally imposed boxes toward freedom. He taught people to listen inward and follow the movement of Spirit in their lives. Jesus is an example from long ago that teaches us to fight against unjust systems of power—systems that benefit from the oppression of others. In the Lord’s prayer—a prayer we’re told Jesus taught—he asks that God’s will be done on earth. This prayer places our feet firmly on the ground and brings us back to the most important commandments. It brings us back to Jesus teaching us to love God with everything we’ve got and to enact our love by giving it to our neighbors. Jesus taught us that love is the most important quality to cultivate in our lives and our world.
And that’s where I’d like to end this sermon. But it’s Easter. And today, of all days, we can’t talk about Jesus without talking about crucifixion and resurrection.
And my, oh my, are these complicated topics of violence and hope.
Jesus of Nazareth died a painful death. What happened next has been debated for centuries. And I have no interest in arguing whether or not the resurrection is a historical fact. Because no matter what, the story of Jesus’ resurrection is very real. And stories are powerful. Stories change the world. Jesus did rise from the dead, at least in the religious narrative of Christianity. And within this powerful narrative, belief in Jesus’ death and resurrection are commonly said to bring a person salvation. The problem with this concept of individual salvation stemming from a God who apparently views justice as a punitive bargain, is the effect it has on humanity’s relationship to God, suffering, and sin.
My theology stems from an embodied, relational state focused on love and justice. Hence, the commonly held Christian understanding of salvation doesn’t work for me. I do believe however, that there’s another way for the concept of salvation to be useful. And we’ll explore it next week, on Orthodox Easter. For now, I leave you with Easter blessings in the form of a reminder that spring always follows winter.
I’m good at wrestling with big questions. But I’m not necessarily great at distilling what I learn in ways that will make sense to a 5-year old. As I shared last week, my young niece recently asked: “Who’s Jesus.” I did my best to answer her in last week’s Easter sermon, but my sister’s probably gonna have to do some translating work for me. And this week’s sermon, which is a continuation of the conversation about Jesus, takes us into even more complicated territory. Sorry sister.
Today, on Orthodox Easter, we’ll pick up where we left off last week…
Let me begin by reading the end of the Gospel of Mark, which is the resurrection story I read every Easter:
When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
I love this story because it’s both utterly normal and utterly strange. The women were coming to anoint the body. And as they walked, they wondered how to move a rock. All such normal aspects of life. But the rock had already been moved and the body they had come to anoint was gone. There was a man, who simply said that Jesus had been raised. And, oh yeah, he’ll meet you in Galilee. The women ran away in terror and amazement, telling no one. This strange, abrupt ending to the Gospel of Mark (and please, don’t read those later add on endings) is designed to leave the reader with questions. It’s designed to send us immediately flipping back the pages to the beginning. To read the story again, this time with an understanding that Jesus is somehow different.
I love Easter because of the potential I find for hope and justice in its story. The story of Good Friday, the story of Jesus’ death, tells of the evil present in our world. Innocent people are tortured and killed everyday. Those of us lucky enough to escape this kind of suffering must be brave enough to look it in the face because otherwise we will never be brave enough to stand against it. Easter Sunday, the story of Jesus rising from the dead, ignites our imagination toward the possibility of rising out of the evil that plagues us. We must have faith that evil doesn’t get the last word. Death doesn’t win. This story can help us muster the courage to work for a just world.
The stories found in religious scriptures, holidays, and liturgies were written by people just like you and me—people trying to do their best to deal with the oddly beautiful, complex, chaotic, often evil world in which they lived. We can use their stories as we attempt to do the same.
But we must be careful about how we use these stories. Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead, at least in the story of Christianity. And within this powerful narrative, belief in Jesus’ death and resurrection are commonly said to bring a person salvation. The problem with this concept of individual salvation stemming from a God who apparently views justice as a punitive bargain, is the effect it has on humanity’s relationship to God, suffering, and sin.
In the words of theologian Rita Nakashima Brock: “To make claims that any person’s tragic, painful death is divinely willed or necessary for others to be saved mutes our ability to be angry about unnecessary suffering.” If we live with the assumption that we are saved, that evil has already been defeated, and that salvation can be offered to all of humanity by offering them belief in Jesus’ death and resurrection, how are we to fight the hidden and explicit injustice and suffering that exists in our world? We can’t; but the bigger problem is that we often don’t even think we need to.
When the Christian narrative is interpreted through the lens of capitalism, we start to believe in a punitive God balancing a score. If we understand the crucifixion and resurrection as stories of debt being paid to balance the books, we can easily assume that our salvation and the defeat of evil have already been handled. And we are excused from the very real work that needs to be done here and now. This understanding of the Christian narrative allows for the acceptance of—rather than the salvation from—suffering. If we are to be saved, we have to work out our salvation together.
In the most basic of terms, salvation refers to an act of saving, of preserving from disaster or harm. What kind of disaster or harm does humanity need to be saved from? Well, for starters, how about the sins of greed, violence, racism, misogyny, homophobia, and oppression that lead to poverty, hunger, loneliness, and fear?
Jesus’ message was to love God with everything we’ve got and to enact our love by giving it to our neighbors. Following his Way, we must take responsibility for how our belief structures and our work and our actions impact the world. Only then will salvation be possible for ourselves and our neighbors. Salvation isn’t about clearing debt. It’s about abundant love. Every time people, influenced by the Spirit of love, generosity, and kindness, actively stand against violence and oppression, humanity is brought one step closer to understanding the meaning of salvation in our lives. It’s not about any one of us. It’s about all of us together.
Discussing Guatemalan poet Julia Esquivel’s work entitled “They Have Threatened Us With Resurrection,” Parker Palmer writes:
For Esquivel, there is no resurrection of isolated individuals. She is simply not concerned about private resurrections, yours or mine or her own. Each of us is resurrected only as we enter into the network of relationships called community, a network that embraces not only living persons but people who have died, and nonhuman creatures as well. Resurrection has personal significance—if we understand the person as a communal being—but it is above all a corporate, social, and political event, an event in which justice and truth and love come to fruition.
To which I say, Amen! In the privileged West, the culture to which I belong, almost nothing is valued more than individual personhood. And while I fall victim to this mode of thinking too often, I’m never able to fully suppress the feeling that I am but a small part of the mysterious Unity that is all things. You and me and everything else. We’re all small parts of the mysterious Unity that is all things. And it is in this Unity that we will find the Spirit of God and the grace of salvation. We are never saved alone. The more we connect with one another, the more we’ll be able to work together for our communal salvation—where “justice and truth and love come to fruition.”
Religion and its stories and symbols do not exist for individuals or individual salvation. Together, we must remember the sacred mystery that is our existence. Together, we must work toward our collective resurrection. We must rise up against oppressive systems. If we want to make the Easter story matter in our lives, we can follow the Way of Jesus and learn to love. We can love God with everything we’ve got and give our love to our neighbors. All of our neighbors. Together, from the Spirit of God that exists within us all, we can work toward abundant love and shared salvation.