Have you ever played the Telephone Game? You know, the game where a group sits in a large circle? One person starts the game by whispering a short message into the ear of the person sitting to the right of them. The message is whispered once, then the new messenger passes the message on to the next person, and so on and so on. When the message reaches the person to the left of the person that started the game, the message is announced out loud, and then the first person announces the original message. The final message is always very different than the original message.
If you are involved in our congregational life I guarantee you’ve played the game. For example, I might say, “I wonder if we could have the outside surfaces of the piano cleaned.” And one week later I am asked why I dislike the piano and want it removed from the sanctuary. This is very human and quite amusing to me. I mention that game because in studying scripture related to the resurrection of Jesus I feel like I’m trapped in the Telephone Game. You see the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, all have different stories. There are a few similarities but each gospel presents a different account.
I’ve decided to use the account as written in the gospel of Luke which reads: “On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were wondering about it, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, "Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: 'The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.' "Then they remembered his words.”
Today our focus is on the phrase “he has risen!” Now before you get your coat and leave I assure you we will simply be using the text of the gospel as a story. There will be no conversions, baptisms, resurrections, or any other supernatural tricks. We are simply reflecting on a very popular story being told around the globe this weekend.
After the women had experienced the resurrection they of course ran to spread the news. People then visited the tomb to see it with their own eyes and because at that time it was the law not to trust what women reported because, well, they were women. No, Indiana wasn’t the first to have problems. Anyway the most noted followers of Jesus that rushed to the scene were Peter and another man, likely to be John. Jesus’ followers were not dismayed, concerned, or affected by the missing body. They knew that the physical body was gone but what was left in the world and in the time they were living was Jesus’ ministry. A ministry of love, compassion, equality, generosity, and freedom.
Sounds like Unitarian Universalism to me. But I’m a heretic what do I know? All these and a multitude of other points of ministry abide in Unitarian Universalism. We practice a living faith and agree that a religion should be fully lived, not simply believed. This is, of course, what early Christians believed, oh so many years ago.
Author Brandon Ambronsino writes, “Some 2002 years ago, or thereabouts, a child named Jesus was born to Mary and Joseph in Palestine. From age 30 to 33, this Jewish man taught a new way of approaching the Torah, seeing the Eternal One, not as a jealous vengeful God, but as a Loving, Beneficent Parent God summoning us to our own divinity. He was killed because he threatened the status quo and commanded such compelling personal power that those who would otherwise rule over the masses became afraid.” The followers who survived Jesus witnessed to his extraordinary ministry and carried on his message as best as they could, by word of mouth, written testimony and letters, calling themselves various names until the label "Christian" stuck.
For 300 years theological debates could be heard in small circles at any time, in the field, in the house, in the marketplace, outside the temple. Sometimes it was dangerous to wonder aloud and other times the gathered had secured a safe place. Who was this Jesus some name the Christ? Was he the Messiah of the Jews? Is he God? Who killed him and why? What does his gospel mean? How shall we carry out his mission? There were no set rituals, no statement of belief, no standard of meeting.
Christians endeavored to live their faith through service and study of Jesus' ministry as they received it. They made their priority love of neighbor and of creation and believed this was the way to enter into the Peaceable Realm which they thought would happen in their lifetime. As politics would have it, when Christianity became more popular and compelling to the masses, the Holy Roman Emperors saw opportunities for government. Sound familiar? Enter Constantine, who believed in ruling by absolutism. By the time he became emperor, the debates about Jesus were heated, causing much strife and confusion amongst church leaders. So the Council of Nicea was called to order which created a doctrine. Gone were the days of living your faith.
The root of the word "heretic" means "to choose." So, either you professed to the Nicene creed or you were a heretic, choosing to believe differently. And with the power of government behind that way of thinking, you could be killed, tortured, imprisoned, exiled or excommunicated for your choosing to believe differently. Does that sound familiar? It marked a significant point in Christian history, because from that point forward, mainstream Christianity changed from a religion that valued first how you lived and treated one another to valuing first what you believed. Because of the mixing of church and state, it became far more important to know what to say rather than live what you believe.
Ambronsino tells us, “Ironically, this change of emphasis weakened the Christian ministry, because people could profess a creed out of fear or expedience and yet not follow through on the precepts of the faith. Blurt out what you have to say to get into the door. Remember, Christianity was compelled to change, not because of a new prophet, but because of an emperor trying to control his empire. The authority that could be wielded by religious mandate was and remains powerful. Political leaders the world over, given that opportunity, could not resist it.” We can witness its temptation in our government today with all the evil speak that's rolling off tongues. It is the work of trying to win and control the soul of a nation toward a certain mandate -- but that's another sermon.
“He Has Risen!” for us today meant something similar to early followers. Unitarian Universalists don’t necessarily believe in the miracles and supernatural stories, but we do believe in no doctrine, and that how we live and treat one another is our religion. We believe just as the followers showing up at an empty tomb that love, compassion, and freedom must be alive in our present world, not a future world to be revealed after death. Just as with early Christians ignorance, power and greed are destroying freedom of belief, the separation of church and state, and the inherent worth and dignity of each person.
“What’s radical about Easter, then, is not that Christians claim a dead man rose from the dead. What’s radical is what that means — specifically, what it meant for Rome, and, by implication, what it means for all kingdoms everywhere, including the ones we live in,” writes Ambronsino. Jesus’ resurrection marked the end of Caesar’s way of doing things. It established a new kingdom in which enemies are loved, the marginalized are given primacy of place, and the poor are blessed. In that kingdom, hierarchies are subverted, concentrated power is decentralized, and prodigal children are welcomed home. Black lives matter here, as do LGBTQ lives and the lives of the undocumented within our borders -- “Remember the stranger in your midst” is a common refrain in that kingdom.
Many with political agendas are guilty of branding their particular ideologies with the name of Jesus, both on the right and left. But there’s no denying that, at least in recent U.S. history, conservatives have been ready to marry God and government. As a result, Christianity has come to be associated less with policies aimed at helping the poor — and more with those that often serve to keep them down -- keeping everyone down.
“The gospels, philosopher John Caputo writes, invite us to imagine a new way of life where the poetics of that early ministry are transformed into political structures: “What would it be like if there really were a politics of the bodies of flesh that proliferate in the New Testament, a politics of mercy and compassion, of lifting up the weakest and most defenseless people at home, a politics of welcoming the stranger and of loving one’s enemies abroad? What would it be like if there were a politics of and for the children, who are the future; a politics not of sovereignty, of top-down power, but a politics that builds from the bottom up, where “the nothings” enjoy pride of place and a special privilege?” Caputo then asks this frightening question: “Would it not be in almost every respect the opposite of the politics that presently passes itself off under the name of Jesus?”
What would Jesus do if he showed up today, say, in Washington, D.C.? Would he turn a blind eye to racial injustices in Ferguson and elsewhere? Would he lobby to ensure that entire swaths of our population continue to feel as if they don’t belong in their cities, in their religious congregations, in their local bakeries? Would he, interested as he is in the physical bodies of all he encounters, enact policies that bar people from the health care they desperately need?
But Easter doesn’t deny our broken world. For us as Unitarian Universalists it is not about resurrection, but the rising of a faith, a tradition, a time where our faith and religion are lived and not indoctrinated. What Easter teaches is this: Even in the midst of the world you’re living in, it’s possible to actually pledge loyalty to a different one. Two thousand years later, the promise of Easter has not lost its power. The hope from the risen, then as now, invites us to live in this world as if it is somehow a different world. A world created and influenced by all that we hold so dear. May it be so.
Risen, a sermon delivered by the Rev. CJ McGregor at 1stUUPB on Easter Sunday, April 5, 2015.