It was about a thousand years after Jesus’ crucifixion that the idea of substitutionary sacrifice – the idea that Jesus died for human error – took form in a writing issued by the Archbishop of Canterbury.
The earliest “followers of the way” (the term “Christianity” doesn’t appear in your Judaeo-Christian Bible) certainly wouldn’t have related to such a suggestion.
Even the statement that Jesus gave his life a ransom for many is best understood to say that his vision of a kingdom marked by equality, inclusion, peace, plenty, justice – not just for the few, but for the multitudes – was not for sale at any price.
So, perhaps this alone is the gift that needed to get today. If you read this with decades of guilt because Jesus died for something you did wrong, allow this to be the very moment in which that psychic burden is cast to the cleansing winds of new understanding.
On a spring Sunday in the year 30, or so, we are told that two processions entered Jerusalem. The collision of a royal procession led by Pilate and rooted in imperial supremacy and bloody violence, and a peasant procession led by Jesus and rooted in universal equality and unconditional love – inaugurated Christianity’s beginnings as the epic climax to some 1,000 years of escalation.
In other words, Christianity began with tension – with an old way of being colliding with a new way of being.
It is said that on Monday, Jesus cursed the fig tree, drove the buyers and sellers from the temple and overturned the tables of the money changers while saying, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations?’” Jesus was emphatic. Impassioned. Irritated.
On Tuesday, according to one of our accounts, Jesus participated in an ongoing game of trap, escape, and counterattack with the authorities.
“Should we pay taxes to Caesar?” asked one, to which Jesus’s “yes” would have alienated his peasant audience, and to which his “no” would have legitimized his persecutors. So, there’s the attack. And Jesus responded, with, “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and render unto God that which is God’s.” And there’s the escape, you see, for it was understood by Jesus and many of his contemporaries that everything belonged to God.
So in response to the question, “Should we pay taxes to Caesar?” Jesus cleverly answered, “Caesar should get everything Caesar deserves.” And there’s the counterattack.
Can’t we always count on the old way to rise in resistance to the new way, whether within our individual minds or our entire societies?
The narrative continues that on Wednesday, an unnamed woman poured expensive ointment over Jesus’ head (as in a burial ritual) and received a stunning accolade when he said, “Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” For of all who had heard the prophecies of his death and resurrection, she was the first one to believe him.
And this isn’t surprising, for woman disciples were there from the beginning of his ministry, and we continue to live in the painful throes of pretending – for so long - that they weren’t.
So, this woman is, for the writer of the gospel named Mark, the first believer and by extrapolation she is the first Christian.
So, from that original tension through decision and resistance, we find our Jesus narrative acknowledging the important role of finding another who would believe in his ministry, finding another who would believe in his wisdom, finding another who would believe in his vision.
As the narrative continues, Thursday was marked by the Passover (Last) Supper, prayers in Gethsemane, Peter’s three denials, the arrest, the interrogation and the condemnation.
And while Thursday easily could have been themed as betrayal or fear or disappointment, I choose to suggest that it’s commitment that found Jesus standing upon that threshold between what had been and what would be (between the old way and the new way) and choosing to step across that point of no return.
By Thursday, Jesus certainly knew he would die. He could have left the festival and lived to fight another day. But he didn’t.
And so it was that on Friday, Jesus was delivered to Pilate’s soldiers. He was tortured and humiliated, even undergoing something of a mock coronation in which they clothed him in a purple cloak and crowned him with thorns. He was crucified – a form of public terrorism reserved for those who deny imperial authority – and he was buried.
Now, until this moment, the story of Jesus might have slipped into anonymity along with those of countless other Jews crucified by the Roman Empire; countless other Jews whose bodies were left suspended along the streets as dark reminders of the sweep of that imperial supremacy and bloody violence.
But from Sunday’s account we read, “When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome brought spices, that they might go and anoint him.
And 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 from the entrance to the tomb?’ When they looked up, they saw that the stone had already been rolled back.”
And in was in that moment, that the story of Jesus established its firm place in history.
Now, prior to the Enlightenment (late 17th century to early 19th century in Europe), the truths of a tale were never perceived to be dependent upon its facts. And this is certainly true of the culture from which this narrative arose. In other words, it would have been well understood in both Jewish and early Christian cultures that 40 meant something beyond 40, that regaining sight meant something beyond regaining physical sight, that haircuts meant something beyond haircuts, that dragons and beasts and horsemen meant something beyond dragons and beasts and horsemen.
So, while a modern loyalty to facts might stomp its feet and demand, “Was there really a Good Samaritan who rescued a man?” and “Was there really a wayward son who returned to his father?” and, “Was there really a whale and a giant and an ark and a leper and seven horses?” and “Can women really turn into salt?” an informed loyalty to truth stands in resolve and answers, “It simply doesn’t matter.”
It simply doesn’t matter because an informed loyalty to truth understands that the spiritual value of these stories is neither inflated nor deflated by their facts.
There are universal stories that are particularized by noble souls such as Dorothy from Oz and Frodo from the Shire and Rocky from Philadelphia and Jesus from Nazareth alike.
And because the stories are universal, it doesn’t matter whether the noble souls who particularize them are real or not. It doesn’t matter because there’s something within us that recognizes and relates to truth regardless of the factuality or non-factuality of the messenger.
So, while this narrative in the Christian Bible can be seen as being about a singular event in time and space which can be celebrated by some, I would ask us to embrace it as a universal story about an ongoing process across time and space which can be celebrated by all.
I would suggest we regard this as a universal story that tells each of us that as evolving, unfolding souls, we will ultimately stumble upon points of tension in our lives. We will reach the very edges of the only lives we’ve known only to draw lines in the sands of consciousness as if to say, “I may not know which direction is next, but I do know it won’t be this direction any longer.”
It’s the story common to every addict who’s reached bottom, every abusee who’s had enough, every visionary who’s discovered a dream. An old way will collide with a new way, you see.
I would suggest this be understood as a universal story which tells each of us that as evolving, unfolding souls, we will ultimately have to upset the tables of the money changers of the way things have been for far too long. We will ultimately have to challenge the stale status quo, whether within or without; that stale status quo that thrives on the known and the knowable, that stale status quo that would leave us suspended in that abyss between enough pain to prompt change and enough fulfillment to prompt growth, full well knowing that this stale status quo will use every possible vehicle to express its resistance.
One need not look too far to see this dynamic playing itself out in today’s world.
At which point I would suggest this as a universal story that tells each of us that, as evolving, unfolding souls, we will do well to seek some peace and to garner some encouragement from the company of those who love us, from the company of those who support us, from the company of those who believe in us.
Jesus needed the woman who anointed him, Dorothy needed the Lion and Frodo needed a Sam. We will ultimately have to cultivate the support of souls willing to share the weight of whatever it is that’s rising within us. Have you surrounded yourself with those who love you, who support you, who believe in you? I hope so.
I would suggest that this is one such universal story which tells each of us that as evolving, unfolding souls, we will ultimately have to stand upon that threshold between what has been and what will be, recognizing that the choice is no longer both/and but either/or. We will ultimately have to stand upon that threshold between what has been and what will be and decide whether we will retreat to the comforts of the remembered past or step into the unknown of the imagined future. We will ultimately have to make a commitment, you understand.
And in the end, I would suggest that this is a universal story which tells each of us that as evolving, unfolding souls, we will ultimately have to release that which has been for that which will be. We will ultimately have to die to the old that we might be born into the new.
And Jesus approached this final dynamic and embraced perhaps even this darkest of human fears (he stepped even beyond his human life, you see) that he might be able to whisper to each one of us, “Every beginning requires something of an ending. Don’t be afraid.
“Every dawn requires something of a dusk. Don’t be afraid.
“Every spring requires something of a winter. Don’t be afraid.”
“Every resurrection requires something of a crucifixion. Don’t be afraid.”
So yes, it’s Jesus’s story. But you know what? I don’t think Jesus walked his walk to show us what was possible for him. I don’t think any truly enlightened being is about his or her own specialness. I think Jesus walked his walk to show us what’s possible for us.
I think we lost something and I think it started with the early church. I think we lost something when a politicized patriarchy distanced the ministry of Jesus by replacing follow me with worship me.
I think we lost something when a politicized patriarchy distanced the ministry of Jesus by minimizing you are the light of the world for I am the light of the world.
I think we lost something when a politicized patriarchy distanced the ministry of Jesus by abandoning do as I do, and the kingdom is within, and these and greater things shall you do.
I think we lost something when a politicized patriarchy distanced the ministry of Jesus by reframing a timeless example as an ancient exception.
We do not honor Jesus by gathering in churches on holy days, uttering rote words and performing prescribed rituals. We honor his life, his mission, his ministry by recapturing something of what was lost – by following his footsteps, by testing his promises, by embodying his examples.