Over the last couple of months about 20 of us here have been making our way through the gospels of the New Testament with the Rev. John Buehrens, former president of the Unitarian Universalist Association and a biblical scholar, as our guide. His book, Understanding the Bible, is premised on the notion that too often we liberal religious folk abandon the Bible to conservative voices who insist on reading it with a narrow, literalist bent. In recent decades, he notes, there has been fine scholarship by progressive voices who offer a more nuanced reading of the Bible, taking into account cultural and historical context, that has opened that text as a source of meaning for people of many theological perspectives.
So, his invitation to us is that we open the Bible with curious and critical minds, letting go of baggage that we may carry from our childhoods, turning aside from pinched or oppressive readings that others may offer, and engage it for what it is – rich, complex and sometimes contradictory testimony of how we humans might understand the source of meaning in our lives and our duties to one another.
Since our focus in this class was the New Testament, our conversation inevitably centered on the figure of Jesus. As the cover of your order of service suggests, the images of Jesus these days run the gamut: The shepherd, the avenging hunk, the Jedi warrior, the Semitic trickster and wisdom figure, and more. In some respects, each person reading the Bible creates her or his own image of who Jesus was and what his life and teachings mean to them.
As we read and reflect, listen and share, dig into the latest scholarship and get in touch with where our own hearts are leaning those images evolve. The roots of Unitarian Universalism lie in the Christian tradition, but we no longer insist that Jesus is central to our faith, and we have no received understanding of who Jesus was. Still, he remains a challenging, provocative, and for many inspirational figure.
So, as we were working through this material I invited members of our class to reflect on the shifting image of Jesus over time and consider for themselves how they might reimagine the figure of Jesus for themselves. Who was or is he for them? Here are some of their thoughts.
My intent from the study group was to learn biblical history about Jesus’ time in the world– and that I have done. The vision of him specifically is still growing in me
My image of Jesus is:
- in part, the gentle Jesus of my childhood who walked by the Sea of Gallilee and loved little children
- then, a teacher I vaguely dismissed to the ranks of many religious seers
- now evolving into an historical and inspirational picture of an activist and teacher protesting pomp and injustice, preaching goodwill to all people—and who did not intend to start a cult!
I was raised in a Lutheran church in Connecticut. I don’t remember anything particularly significant from Sunday School; I went because my parents drove me, dropped me off and then picked me up again an hour or so later. Beyond the required church attendance, I don’t recall having a lot of deep theological thoughts while growing up or even in early adulthood. Honestly, I never really put all that much thought into my belief system until I moved to the south and realized my children would be going to school with a lot of evangelical Christians and I wanted to have a response to questions that might come up.
So what began as an exercise to ward off the Pentecostal church members down the road from our house has become a quest of sorts to try to understand what the idea of Jesus means to me and how I’d like to present him to my children.
I hesitate to identify myself as a Christian because I don’t want to be associated with the typical or stereotypical Christian we often think of when we hear that word. But, I’m also not willing to let those quote unquote Christians be the ones who define Jesus because I think their interpretation is often wrong. So when asked I do identify myself as a Christian and if a conversation follows I expand on my beliefs. Some of my beliefs, as I stand here today, are as follows:
I believe in God, as defined by the major monotheistic religions. I believe that a man named Jesus lived about 2000 years ago and I believe he had a good and powerful message to share. From the class we just had, I discovered that the writings spoken words attributable to Jesus were written decades after he died but that the words apparently have multiple independent sources. That doesn’t necessarily convince me Jesus was the Son of God or that he rose from the dead but it does convince me that people who knew him when he lived believed that he was special enough to continue to preach his gospel long after he died. And while I think powerful men used and still use his teachings to control people, for me this doesn’t take away from the power of his message or mean that he should be blamed or dismissed for the mis-use of his words.
The Jesus of my understanding was a teacher of peace, a protector of the lesser (the poor, women, the sick) who, if he were alive today would not be happy with some of the things said and done in his name. I don’t believe that Jesus is the Jesus of the Westboro Baptist Church or Jerry Falwell or any number of other, less known quote unquote Christians who quietly preach hate and intolerance. I also don’t believe that Jesus is a war-mongering bigot who only loves Americans.
I don’t believe that Jesus is egotistical and that the only way to a salvation of any sort is through a belief in him. I believe that Jesus was a Universalist in that everyone will be saved and no will be eternally condemned by God.
As I did some research in preparing this, I came across the words of a 19th century Unitarian, Rev. William Channing. He said that the words of Jesus are good and true. But that these words are not good and true because Jesus said them but instead, that Jesus said them because they are good and true. He also preached about one loving God who made humans in his own image of goodness and how the man Jesus, in his wisdom and compassion, was the best example to us of how a person should live.
That strikes me as a pretty good summary of my take on him. Thank you.
I grew up a social gospel United Methodist. God was love. God was acceptance. And Jesus, being the human representative, did the walkin’ and talkin’ of that message. It was the 70s and both my minister and my Sunday School teacher favored guitars and autoharps as their preaching media. So my introduction to Jesus was through music:
- Jesus loves me this I know…
- What a friend we have in Jesus…
- And he walks with me and he talks with me and he tells me I am his own…
Sweet. Comforting. Somewhat Innocuous. Though the love part was definitely a good message, the “Invisible Man Friend” seemed a bit of a contradiction to the “don’t talk to strangers” warning.
- Jesus Christ, Superstar, who are you, what have you sacrificed?
- When wilt thou save the people, O god of mercy, when?
In high School, the first play I ever directed was Godspell. Its music, and that of Jesus Christ Superstar, both helped me see Jesus in a different way. His message was still about love, but it wasn’t a sweet, Mr. Rogers kind of love. It was a powerful, radical love that questioned authority and literally turned the tables on the status quo. Of course, the teenager in me loved this Jesus.
When I was a teen, we made mixtapes. You’d pick a bunch of different songs and shape them into an arc that got across a message or juxtaposed one song against another. Of course it would take you a gazillion hours to record a mixtape. Now, with iTunes and ipods the process has been greatly simplified. Of course the challenge is all gone, too. Perhaps that’s why the “mashup” has become the craze. From real DJs sampling tunes live …to anyone with garageband overlaying, cutting and pasting tunes on the computer. Now you can blend songs literally one on top of the other. Really mashups aren’t anything new. It’s just the newest way to describe how humans like to retell, recycle and recreate with the existing thoughts and inspirations around us. Which brings me back to Jesus.
In seminary I learned a lot more about Jesus. Or really more about his followers, about politics, about who Jesus was not, about Christology (that’s theology about Jesus) including Black, Feminist, Eco, and Liberation christologies. And I learned some new songs.
- We’re gonna sit at the Welcome Table…
- We are a gentle angry people…
- And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on, (2x)
While in seminary, I found myself writing plays about Jesus. Retelling the crucifixion story in light of 9-11 and Guantanamo Bay and finally the growing anti-gay practices of the United Methodist church I had been planning to serve as a minister. This faith that taught of Jesus as Emmanuel/God With Us. Except if you’re gay. The had taken over my social gospel church. That’s when I walked away from Jesus. I saw my friends and congregants and fellow seminarians—all being abused, rejected, and judged by this so-called Christian faith which seemed to have completely forgotten all that Jesus preached about.
When at last all those who suffer find their comfort, [hymn: “Cuando el Pobre/
when they hope though even hope seems hopelessness, When the Poor Ones”]
when we love though hate at times seems all around us,
Then we know that God still goes that road with us,
Then we know that God still goes that road with us.
So what’s a former United Methodist, now Unitarian Universalist, believe about Jesus? I could just outright reject Jesus; erase him from my memory. But his story is a big part of my story; he’s part of my life soundtrack. If I never heard his story and wrestled with its meaning, I’m not sure I would be the person I am today. Does that mean I think everyone needs to tango with Jesus? No, definitely not. There are other teachers of love and tolerance out there; there are other stories of redemption…. but there is something pretty provocative about Jesus. And I think it’s because he’s the ultimate mashup.
He’s this real, imperfect, human visionary who lived thousands of years ago; who challenged assumptions, gathered followers, hung out with slaves and prostitutes, preached in riddles, confused a lot of people, but also empowered a lot of people – a guy who questioned his religion and its dependence on rules instead of love.
Then he was executed by the state. He was a troublemaker. That’s when the true resurrection happened: not a man rising from the dead, but people taking the story of the execution of this powerless Jewish guy who lived under Roman occupation and spreading this story, tweaking it, enhancing it —as we humans are wont to do with stories… And this rabbi who spoke of peace in the midst of Roman authority and how the poor would inherit the earth in the midst of huge wealth disparity (all sounding a bit familiar?)…. well, this guy becomes a bit of a savior – a symbol to anyone on the bottom. Of course, like Moses before him, and every other cultural superhero before and hence, his story becomes so amplified and mutated, it’s hard to find the true message under all the layers of crap. And yes, I say crap, because so much was heaped upon this guy — far more than the weight of a wooden crossbeam. Salvation of the world. Deliverer of the masses. Judge of the living and the dead.
This is the traditional Christian mashup: Jesus the teacher, Christ the Savior. Through the years these two themes—Jesus Christ—have sometimes brought comfort and liberation to the oppressed, and sometimes, too many times, have brought persecution, terror, and abuse.
O for a world where goods are shared [tune: O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing]
And misery relieved, [lyrics by Miriam Therese Winter]
Where truth is spoken, children spared,
I felt my Lord’s Atoning Blood, [tune: O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing]
Close to my soul applied; [lyrics by Charles Wesley]
Me, me He loved, the Son of God,
For me, for me He died!…..
What a horrible remix this is! Far too many layers. The bass is overpowering. The harmonic message lost in the cacophony. What can we salvage from the remnant mashup that remains from this man’s life? from this faith which has repeatedly liberated while simultaneously enslaving?
In our bible class, the question was asked, “Why are we studying about Jesus in this way, if this is not the Jesus that the religion is based on?” Well it is the Jesus; the guy lost under the religious rhetorical rubble. But we don’t really know who he was. We don’t know what he would think of Christianity, the faith formed out of his story. All we can do is follow our 4th principle: search for truth and meaning. Meaning is still to be found in Jesus’ teachings–about love, justice, compassion—these still resonate today; these still challenge us to be our best selves. And these teachings resound in our UU principles. Jesus is one of our Sources.
And as UUs, we possess a great privilege: we get to be the Deejays. We get to do what a really successful mashup does—take the best parts and fit them together in a way that improves each and sets them in conversation with each other. Teaching this class reminded me that I can, if I want, still include Jesus in my spiritual journey and in my beliefs. But I will have to become a new storyteller and I’ll definitely have to create a seriously improved mashup.
INVITATION – Mark Ward
Early in our Bible class we had an exercise where we invited members to tell of their history with the Bible and to name any baggage they might be carrying about Jesus. Like Elizabeth, many had childhood experience in a Christian church and some were carrying heavy stuff – disappointments from childhood churches, arguments with ministers, difficult interactions with family members.
For me, though, there wasn’t much to tell. I grew up in a Unitarian Universalist church where I remember learning vivid creation stories from the Bushmen and acting out Greek myths, but I don’t remember much about Jesus. I’m sure I had contact with Bible stories at some point, but they didn’t much of an impression.
As an adult my spirituality has long been centered in a kind of Emersonian wonder in nature and a humanistic ethics. There was much to fill my reflections, and I didn’t see what the Bible would add to it.
So, it wasn’t until my first year of seminary that I dove into it in any serious way. Scholarly study of the Bible was really quite fascinating. I especially enjoyed learning about the historical context of Jesus’ life and the early church, how the different gospels emerged from different factions within the church, the apocryphal gospels that didn’t make the cut and the tumultuous times in which Jesus’ life played out.
The journalist in me was and remains fascinated with efforts to nail down, as it were, the historical figure of Jesus, clearing away the accretions of church teachings and the projections of preachers across the ages and cobbling together as realistic picture as we can of who this figure was and what he truly said and did.
What I found I had no taste for was high Christology that argues that Jesus died to save me from sin, or that he sits on the right hand of God where he mediates my salvation. Still, I definitely came away with renewed respect for the rabble-rousing, wisdom-speaking, boundary-crossing teacher in more ways than I never had before.
Unlike my friend and colleague Michael Carter, who you heard from a couple of months ago, I did not come away from my study of the Bible a follower of Jesus. I respect those within our Unitarian Universalist orbit who have, and I know that includes some of you here. Indeed, it is my hope that one outcome emerging from this class will be the creation of a study and reflection group to examine what it means to identify as Christian in a UU context. If this interests you, please let us know.
In a congregation as diverse as ours it’s important that we provide opportunities for each of us to explore paths that deepen our faith. Similar groups have met or are currently organizing around the notion of what it means to be a UU contemplative or a UU humanist.
But whatever our spiritual center, as Elizabeth said, we are joined by our 4th principle, which calls us to a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. The way forward for many of us is often a process much like Elizabeth describes of mash-ups, where we sort through widely varying material to find a thread of meaning that rings true.
Of course people have been doing this with the Bible for many years. Our spiritual ancestor, Thomas Jefferson, gave us one example when he took a scissors to his Bible. And after all, when you study the Bible with its diversity of sources from conflicting communities, you find that in many ways it’s one of the biggest mash-ups of all.
But to return to Jesus: to say that I don’t consider myself a follower of Jesus is not to say that he doesn’t intrigue and challenge me. The image of Jesus that works on me is the visionary preacher seeking to bring into being what he calls “the Kingdom of God.” It is a phrase scattered across all four gospels and is generally regarded by scholars as one of the most authentic teachings attributed to him.
Over the years, many have read these passages to refer to heaven, some place distant from the here and now, but I think they mistake his meaning. Look closely and the phrase is often couched in a context such as: the Kingdom of God is at hand, or the Kingdom of God is within you.
The image it seems to me he is conjuring using a powerful metaphor of his time is not of a place in this world or any other, but a way of seeing the world around us that regards it as precious and beloved.
It is an image that lies at the heart of our own first principle, affirming the inherent worth and dignity of all, and arguably our seventh principle as well, respect for the interdependent Web of existence of which we are all a part. It is a reminder that the source of our own and all worth lies not outside, but within us and all things. It is inherent to them. The trick is learning to see it.
Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est: where love and charity abide, there is the center of our hope, the greatest thing. Whatever path we take, we are led, in the end, to love.
It is a radical notion, and it poses a question that resonates deep within me. How would it be to live in such a way that I would see truly no separation between myself and every other person, between myself and every other being? I puzzle and wonder over that. It is something of Jesus that enters my mash-up, where it joins bits and scraps from other sources that make up my own evolving faith.
All this is part of the reimagining of our religious lives that helps us integrate what touches us with what we know. It is the kind of work we exist as a congregation to support each other in doing. And Jesus is part of the mix, as is every other avatar across human history urging us to waken to deeper living, to see a larger duty in our brief lives beyond ourselves, to join in building communities of healing and hope.
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