Saturday, March 30, 2013

Easter: What Did Early Christians Believe?

(It may not be what you think or believe today).

Easter is the high holy day of Christianity and deservedly so.  It defines the relationship between humanity and the divine, life and death, sin and redemption in a complicated faith story.  Believers hold that God sacrificed his only Son, to take away the sins of the world, as the ultimate scapegoat, who then ascended to heaven in his human form.  By doing so, he enabled humans to follow, and participate in everlasting life.

 Naturally, other religions don’t share this view, and, more to the point, are puzzled by it.  Maybe you are, too. Monotheists, like Jews and Muslims, see a vast, impassable chasm between God and humanity.  God is other.  The combination of man and God in one being is incomprehensible.  

Polytheistic traditions, however, are very familiar with gods popping down to earth in human form, procreating, fighting, blessing, miracle making.  Think of Zeus fathering most of the heroes, like Perseus, Theseus, and Heracles, by young virgins, like Alcmene and Danae. They don’t see anything particularly unusual about these trips back and forth between heaven and earth, or of Jesus being both god and man. 

 What may interest you, and you have surely inferred this from the readings of the Canonical and non-Canonical Gospels and the title of today’s service, is that for hundreds of years, people who considered themselves Christians didn’t believe the Easter story as we currently know it, either.  The range of interpretations of Jesus’s death and resurrection stories encompasses the full range of monotheistic and polytheistic views – not unlike the range of beliefs represented by Unitarian Universalists in this or any congregation. 

Some believe that he was a wholly human teacher who died, and whose lessons live on.  Others believe that he was wholly human, was never crucified (or was crucified and survived) and went on to live a long life, traveling as far away as India to preach.  Still others believe that Jesus was never human, but a spirit (this is called Docetism) in human form, and that this spiritual form watched as someone else was crucified, laughing at the deception (which I think is rather awful).   Some of these views are expressed in the Gnostic Gospels, which I’ll talk about later. 

 If you recall the Canonical Gospel accounts of the Resurrection (in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), they vary widely.  Jesus eats fish and bread and appears human in one, is a spirit one cannot touch in another, is unrecognized but seemingly human in a third.  He appears to people for various lengths of time, from a day to a week to several months after his death, and in different cities around Palestine.  The names of the people who see him vary from story to story. 

 But the crucifixion and resurrection is a faith story, so I am not personally concerned with these inconsistencies, or truth or falsehood, history or metaphor.  Language inevitably falls short when it attempts to convey deep emotions or beliefs.  I would not challenge you as a liar if you told me that you had the most beautiful grandchild in the world any more than if you told me that your husband or wife meant more to you than the sun and the moon and the stars.  I’d get the idea that love had transformed your life.


What interests me, though, is WHY people believe what they do, because we have choices.  We adopt or adapt interpretations.  Why is it so important to some people that Jesus suffered and died like a man?  Why was it equally important for others to believe that he was a spirit, never human at all?  Considering that question establishes the context of that faith.  And we can extrapolate those questions to ourselves.  At Easter, I want you to contemplate not simply whether you do or don’t believe it, but rather what YOU believe about the relationship between humanity and the divine, between life and death, and between the body and spirit.  Those are the issues that Christianity attempts to answer with its Easter theology.  In fact, those are the questions that all religions wrestle with.   

 Let’s look at just two points of view – first the contemporary view, that Jesus seamlessly combined all the elements of humanity and divinity in one being, so he suffered and died like a man even though he was God.  And second, that he suffered not at all. 

The suffering of Christ and the idea of a sacrificial death were compelling themes for many Christians for two historically grounded reasons: Roman persecution and Jewish history.  I want to talk about these points a bit because if you grew up in a Christian household, you may have focused on the theology of the resurrection and not the history of those who wrote those resurrection stories. 

 Roman persecution.  Although the term martyr originally meant simply “witness,” Christians  were being tortured and killed when they witnessed for their faith during the second and third centuries.  They were allegedly blamed as scapegoats for the fire of Rome during Nero’s reign, were accused of cannibalism (probably because of the body and blood Eucharist language) immorality, and all sorts of socially despicable behaviors.  For these martyrs, the Gnostic idea that Jesus would have escaped the cross and laugh at the experience was understandably abhorrent.     Familiar with that belief, Bishop Irenaeus argued several times around the year 200 CE that Christ never would have exhorted His disciples to take up the cross if He in fact had not suffered on it Himself, but flown away from it.   

  We still hear this argument ourselves,about presidents who did or didn’t serve in the armed service.  The logic grants greater credibility to a commander in chief who experienced the same sacrifice he asks of other men and women.  

For Christian believers enduring all sorts of atrocities, a historical, human Jesus, suffering like them was very comforting and validating.  Naturally, though, Christian theology goes further than simply saying that the man suffered and died.  It teaches that Jesus died as a sacrifice.   Now many religious traditions involve the sacrifice of pure, young men and women to an angry god.  But the Christian concept is very different, and grounded in a significant Jewish historical change. 

You may recall that until 70 CE, or some forty years after Jesus is supposed to have died, Jews traveled to Jerusalem to sacrifice animals at the Temple of Solomon, which must have smelled like a huge barbeque.  Jews weren’t even allowed to slaughter and eat meat elsewhere in the country if they could travel to Jerusalem.  Jewish men bathed in a large public bath in a ritual ablution for purification, and sacrificed an unblemished animal, which varied depending on their affluence.  The scent wafted into the air, pleasing God, and the priests were paid, in part, with some of the meat.  This ended in 70 CE, when the Romans suppressed a Jewish rebellion in Jerusalem.  They razed the temple and large parts of the city, and took so many Jews (and Jewish Christians) into slavery that, according to the histories of Josephus, the cost of a Jewish slave fell below that for a horse.  Not only did the businesses associated with the temple, like animal husbandry, currency trading, travelers’ services cease, but the centralized Jewish faith, located in that temple and city shattered.  It would be as though the Vatican or Mecca were blown up.

 The Gospels of Matthew, Luke and John are widely presumed by scholars to have been written after the fall of Jerusalem (and Mark possibly, too).  This timing is important to an historic understanding of the language of Easter, because it explains the faith story of Jesus as a sacrifice. 

   After 70 CE, Jewish Christians interpreted Jesus’s death as a replacement for the animal sacrifices no longer feasible in Jerusalem. This turned upside down the concept of sacrifice.    Instead of people enabling the killing of pure animals to bridge the gap to God, God enabled the killing of his pure son to bridge a gap to humans.  It is like that odd offertory reading I shared. I can’t think of a similar act or concept in other religions.  Naturally, for humans, sacrifice involved pain, blood, death.  So, too, Jesus’s death. 

  In contrast to this view, Gnostic Christians did not exploit sacrificial imagery.  In fact, their writings demonstrate a singular disinterest in the events of the crucifixion and resurrection.   Some Gnostic Gospels, like Thomas, focus wholly on Jesus’s teachings while he was alive.  114 sayings.  Very little biographical information, and nothing about his death.  Others dismiss the crucifixion and even mock it, as we heard.  The First Apocalypse of James says, “    "Never have I suffered in any way, nor have I been distressed. And these people have done me no harm."19   The Gospel of Truth "sees the crucifixion as death to one’s physical self and an occasion for discovering the divine self within."   A resurrection is enthusiastically affirmed in the Treatise on the Resurrection: "Do not think the resurrection is an illusion. It is no illusion, but it is truth! Indeed, it is more fitting to say that the world is an illusion rather than the resurrection."24  The Testimony of Truth actually ridicules the whole emphasis on sacrificial suffering and martyrdom.  “Is God a cannibal?  Martyrs destroy only themselves, ignorantly believing that if they “hold fast to the name of a dead man” as they describe Jesus, “they will become pure.”  Self-sacrifice is not the price for salvation. Even the nature of the post-resurrection appearances differs from the biblical accounts. Jesus is disclosed through spiritual visions rather than physical or historical circumstances.  If you think about it, this was Paul’s experience on the road to Emmaus, several years after Jesus’s death.


Just as we considered why it was important for some Christians to believe that Jesus suffered just as they suffered, and so as God, could sympathize with them, why was it so important for the Gnostics to not dwell on the crucifixion and resurrection?

To them the Orthodox stories stress way too much the importance of the body.  We have two aspects – a physical self and a spiritual one, but they are not co-equal.  Gnostics tend to be rather dismissive of the value of the material world.  We all suffer in life, but there is no salvation effect from that.  In fact, we tend to suffer BECAUSE we focus too much on the body (many Buddhists agree).  For this reason, they don’t belabor the suffering or the death of Jesus.  In fact, the whole concept of resurrecting the body after death struck Gnostics as bizarre and distasteful, like reanimating Frankenstein’s monster.  The Gnostic faith story is that God IS SPIRIT and is within all of us and everything else. He/she/it is not locked in the body of one man or one set of believers.   What is locked in any body is one’s potential spiritual self.  Each of us can become born anew, and according to the Gnostic texts, while we are alive, not after death.  While orthodox Christians applaud, “Hallelujah, Christ has Risen,” Gnostics might say, “Hallelujah, I have Risen.”  Evangelical Christians who describe being born again are using this very imagery.  But whereas born again Christians often describe the transformation as happening TO them, as though from without, the Gnostics would say it can occur to any of us, by an active, intentional process of going within.      

Many Unitarians reject the man/God duality as unique in Jesus.  Yet, those who describe themselves as theistic invariably express beliefs in a soul or a spark of divine within, often connected with all that is.  The language of Ralph Waldo Emerson on this topic, and other mystics share concepts with Buddhists and the Gnostics.  Easter is an opportunity to assess our own individual theologies.  Do you believe in a body-soul unity or a body/soul division? Your opinion can dictate steps you can take to better explore your views.  If the Gnostic concept of potential/actual spirit resonates with you, then find opportunities to withdraw from the distractions of the body and mind and world, to listen to that quiet voice within and around you.  Make time for silence, meditation, reflection.  Cenacle Retreat House in Memorial, offers weekend retreats for women or men, often in silence, but also with instruction.  Buddhist Meditation Retreat Centers are springing up all over Texas, as are meditation classes sponsored by secular and religious organizations. 

If the other Christians ideas of more unified body and spirit ring true for you, the view that both aspects are important and interconnected and neither should be undervalued, then seek out physical opportunities to connect with your spirit, through movement or action.  Some people meditate through dance or movement. Others don’t meditate at all but pay attention to what their bodies tell them about their emotions and spirit. Even suffering has merit as a teacher.  Many people believe that faith without action is meager indeed – put the body to work in order to express the spirit within.  I like the Unitarian description that we believe in deeds, not creeds. 

Easter is an annual reminder of our potential to be spiritually resurrected.  The Gnostics believed that this occurs when we work at it.  As Unitarian Universalists we have the right and responsibility to initiate that process ourselves. 



1 comment:

  1. As I look back on my motherhood, I realize that the hardest advice to follow is the advice I give my sons...because it is the best advice I can muster. One thing I taught them was to face hardships head on. "You may believe your problem is unique, the only one in the world. It matters not the uniqueness of your problem. It matters how you handle it...and I will up the ante on you. It matters not so much what others think about how you handled it as much as what YOU think. In other words, live by your own core values." Our deeds reflect those values. Our deeds are not for the show to others...but the validation to ourselves that we are on our own right track. I studied the Bible as literature in college not religion. The original language often had no direct translation to English. From those studies, I got the strong sense that Jesus was all about authenticity and being real with self. Humanity makes him out to be something I think he would chuckle to discover. Seems he was a hippie, anti-establishment kind of guy. Nice sermon. - Victoria