This was my Easter sermon at The Park Church in Elmira, NY — the church of the early abolitionists, Thomas K. Beecher, and Sam and Annis Ford Eastman, and of people who understand the radical message of Christ’s all-welcoming love.
Taking a lesson from Howard Baker, eminent politician and ranking Republican on the panel investigating Richard Nixon – the question is: “What did he know and when did he know it?”
Nixon protested that he didn’t know about the Watergate break-in until a year after it happened. But when evidence surfaced that he was involved from the onset, it wasn’t long before he chose to resign rather than be impeached. Now, it seems to me that if the question of what Nixon knew and when he knew is was a critical one for U.S. politics in the 20th century, the question of what Jesus knew and when he knew it has been a critical one for … let’s see … almost 2,000 years!
What Jesus knew and when he knew it might also clarify the bigger issue of what he believed in. Why would he allow himself to go to the cross with nary a protest? If we can determine what Jesus believed in it might help us determine what we should believe in.
Did he, for example, believe that he was the one and only true son of God? Did he believe he would reign from heaven after death? Did he believe that 2 millennia after his death, one out of every three people would profess faith in – and often be willing to die for – the values he espoused? In short, did he – nailed to that shameful and vicious cross – have any notion that his death would change the world for all time?
If he had an exalted sense of himself as the son of God and just a few breaths away from heavenly paradise, then, in a certain way, that trivializes the viciousness of Good Friday. And if the horror of Good Friday is diminished, so also is the elation of Easter morning. If nothing much happened on Easter, what are we doing here? Why are we baptizing Tristan James – why do we call ourselves Christians, and why do we make certain life decisions and not others?
Something did happen on Easter morning – something very big indeed. But I don’t believe that it has a whole lot to do with Jesus’ bodily disappearance from the tomb. As important as that is, I question whether it is the true source of our faith. Let’s consider the bigger picture.
Many people assume that the bodily resurrection of Jesus is the singular act that defines our faith. For them, his disappearance from the tomb on Easter morning is incontrovertible proof that he was the Son of God. Anyone who questions the physics behind the Easter miracle is, by definition, not a Christian.
Others say that Jesus’ body was removed by stealth or that his followers concocted the story. Some scholars note that Jesus was not the first or the last person to be resuscitated after death – in fact, we have Biblical stories of Elijah and Elisha, to say nothing of Jesus’ raising of Lazarus and Jairus’ daughter. Later, his disciples reportedly raised some people from the dead. There were also resurrection stories in Egyptian, Greek, and Assyrian cultures circulating at the time of Jesus. So the disappearance of Jesus’ body was not the single most important fact that gave birth to the most powerful religion in the world for all known time.
Equally problematic is the idea that Jesus was a willing sacrifice for our sins. This idea – called substitutionary atonement – posits that Jesus was a ritual offering intended to appease God from wreaking greater havoc on the rest of us. In dying a horrible death, some people argue, Jesus took on the sins of all so that we will have everlasting life in heaven with God, regardless of our sins on earth. But did Jesus believe that he was the scapegoat for our sins? Did he believe God to be a sadist demanding such appeasement? — I think not.
Then there’s the idea that Jesus thought himself the son of God, which would explain his willingness to go to the cross as proof of his divinity – sort of “I double dare you….” But I don’t believe that, mostly because – with the exception of the gospel of John, which was written much later than the others and has a decidedly Platonist influence – Jesus never calls himself the “son of God,” but rather “son of Man.” He doesn’t call himself the Messiah either, except to urge his disciples not to refer to him by that name. This suggests that Jesus thought himself fully human, fully able to suffer, fully able to die as all mortals do. So did Jesus think himself the only son of God? – Well, that notion doesn’t work for me.
Another question is what Jesus thought about the “second coming” and the “kingdom of God.” Scholars argue mightily on the issue of whether Jesus expected to return to earth in his human body, so I don’t know what to say about that. Fortunately, there’s more clarity about the “kingdom of God,” so often illustrated by Jesus in parables. The kingdom of God might (or might not) mean a future paradise in some far-away heaven, but it certainly does mean a loving and just world in the here-and-now. This understanding of a generous and God-loving society undergirds Jesus’ every act and statement.
So, if Jesus didn’t believe himself the son of God, and if he didn’t believe he was the scapegoat for the sins of all mankind, and if he didn’t believe that he would come back to earth and vanquish all of his foes, and if he didn’t believe in a kingdom of God as happening only in some fairytale time and place, then what did he believe?
Writing 600 years earlier during the Babylonian captivity – a time of cruelty and dislocation for the Hebrew people – the prophet Jeremiah gives us a clue. He assures the Israelites that God has not forgotten them and will come again in the future to restore their hopes and dreams.
“At that time, says the Lord, I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be my people…. I have loved with an everlasting love; I have stayed faithful.”
Like Jeremiah, Jesus believed in the goodness and faithfulness of God. That’s the big one. Jesus believed that God’s love trumps human fear and cruelty.
But was that enough? Was that enough to give him courage to patiently endure a vicious and unjust death? What did he believe that somehow got transferred to his followers to help them follow in his footsteps, often going to their own vicious and unjust deaths? What did he believe that changed the world for all time?
As I was struggling with these issues, I discovered a sermon by Annis Ford Eastman, one of few women ministers in the 19th century, and a revered preacher and pastor here at The Park Church. She begins her message by considering Satan’s understanding of mankind, as expressed in the conversation between him and God in the Book of Job. The devil’s doctrine is this: “All that a man hath will he give for his life.” According to Satan, life – and the more comfortable the better – is man’s prize possession.
But Jesus proved the devil wrong. People are not driven only by love of life. It’s not all about living for me and mine. Jesus felt that if he could illustrate the kingdom of God to decent, ordinary people, they would strive to change themselves and society so to create equity and opportunity for all. He believed miracles happen whenever individuals become agents of divine love, transforming the world through generosity of heart, mind, and spirit.
Jesus believed that we want to connect with God and each other. We are happiest when we are doing good – not for ourselves only – but for each other and for God. He knew that, despite the fear and cowardice that gripped his followers on the day of his crucifixion, their experience of transformation in his presence had forever changed them. It was only a question of time before they emerged from their dark caves of mortal fear to follow his lead in bringing the kingdom of God to this earth.
In short, Jesus believed that selfless love can never be crucified or buried, but will rise again and again throughout our lives, throughout the centuries, throughout the millennia, whenever people give of their own pride and their own needs – and yes, their own lives – to become witnesses for and agents of divine love.
Jesus believed in the resurrection of the dead precisely because he – and any and all of us who give our lives to God – never ever really die. Connection with God cannot die. Goodness cannot die. Love cannot die. Even when our physical bodies disappear into the ground, the love we have shared and the goodness we have birthed live on through the ages. This is the power of Christianity. This is the miracle of Easter.
So, in closing, what did Jesus believe? What did he believe in so fervently that he could endure condemnation and crucifixion? What did he believe in so passionately that it would change the world for all time?
In a word, Jesus believed in God , most especially the transformative power of God’s all-embracing love.
and he believed in … us!
… and that has made all the difference. Hallelujah!