Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

Martyrs and Easter Flowers — Sermon by the Rev. David Pyle

Last preached on April 8th, 2012

 

Though both the Universalist Church of America

and the American Unitarian Conference,

the two denominations that merged fifty one years ago

to become today’s Unitarian Universalist Association,

began as Christian churches,

they have certainly grown into more than just a Christian church.

 

While the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth

remains an important part of who we are,

one of our foundational sources,

it is joined by religious traditions

such as Buddhism, Humanism, Paganism, Judaism and others.

Our faith has grown to be less about what you believe,

and more about how you act within the world.

 

There is probably nowhere you see this difference

between our faith and the Christian churches we grew from

than in the celebration of Easter.

 

When I was a Southern Baptist child,

I remember we would get up very early on Easter morning,

and spend the whole day at the church…

with a Sunrise service depicting the crucifixion of Jesus

on posts on the hill behind the church,

one of our thirty year old church members tied to the cross.

There would then be Sunday School,

and then another service in the Sanctuary at 11am.

We would be dressed in new clothes,

and the women would all be wearing flowers.

After church there would be a BBQ,

and some baseball and volleyball,

interrupted by the occasional prayer.

The day would end with another worship service

on that hill at Sunset, and we would go home.

 

Now, while I have never seen one,

I am told that there are Unitarian Universalist Churches

who do have a sunrise service on Easter morning,

but I doubt if we would have one of the young men of the church

tied to some posts behind the church.

Actually, our churches often have many different kinds

of Easter Sunday services, which I think is fitting,

considering the history of Easter…

 

Easter began, not as a Christian holiday,

but as a Pagan one.

Among the Pantheon of Germanic Pagan gods and goddesses

is Eostre, Goddess of Spring and Fertility.

The spirit animal of the Goddess Eostre is a rabbit.

Not much is known about these early Eostre festivals,

except that they were held on the Spring Equinox,

usually around March 21st,

they involved large bonfires, a

nd there was much wild partying.

Today, German Christians sometimes still include

large bonfires in their Easter celebrations,

but not so much the wild partying.

 

The early Christian leaders, in working to spread this new faith,

realized that they would have a lot more success

if they did not try to replace the local holidays

that the people were used to,

but rather to just give those same festivals

some different practices and some different meanings.

 

And so, as the pagan festival of Yule

was replaced with Christ’s Mass… or Christmas,

the pagan festival of Eostre was replaced

with this celebration of the central miracle

of the early Christian Church,

the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

 

We don’t know what time of year

the young man named Yeshua was executed.

We have come to know of him

by the Greek and English spelling of his name, Jesus,

from the small coastal town of Nazareth.

It really does not matter, because it is in this time

that we celebrate his life, his death,

and the resurrection of his message after his martyrdom.

Now, I’m going to talk a little bit about my beliefs

as a liberal Christian about Easter,

and about the Crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth.

Some Unitarian Universalists may agree with me

about what this holiday means to me, but others might not.

You might not agree, and that is not only okay, it is wonderful.

These are the beliefs and ideas I have come to

through studying the Christian Scriptures and Christian History,

as well as the other historical accounts

of Judea and the Roman Empire,

and through my understanding of human nature…

but I am not asking you to believe as I do.

 

I am only asking that you think about it,

that you apply the ability to reason that we all share,

not just to these religious thoughts,

but to all of our religious understandings

about ourselves and the world.

 

I believe that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified,

not by the Romans, but on the orders

of the religious leadership of Judea,

because he represented a threat

to their established political and religious order.

I do not believe he was crucified as a blood atonement for sin,

neither his own nor ours.

He was crucified because he dared

to stand by his ideals and beliefs

when confronted by that religious leadership,

and because he had gained a popular following

among the people.

He was made a martyr because he was a political threat.

 

When, on what we now think of as Palm Sunday,

Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem on a donkey,

it was a profound statement.

People stood on the side of the road

waiving palm branches and calling his name.

The only person who was ever received

in a town of the region that way was the Roman Emperor.

 

By riding into town being hailed by the masses,

Jesus was saying to the Religious

and Secular leadership of Judea

that he had come to replace them.

He was saying he had come to claim

both the religious and the secular leadership in Judea

that the Roman Emperor exercised in Rome.

 

This was certainly what his followers expected to happen.

They expected Jesus to overthrow the temple priests,

name himself high priest and King, and name them

the new priests and leaders of Judea.

They might have even expected him

to kick the Roman Legion out of Judea.

When he entered the temple and threw the moneychangers out,

that seemed to his disciples to be a good start,

but only a start.

They expected to take over Judaism,

not found a new religion.

I believe it was what Jesus expected too,

but it did not work out that way.

He was arrested, tried, and sentenced to crucifixion,

not because he was God, but because he was a rebel.

 

I believe that in the aftermath of his crucifixion,

the followers of Jesus were left in disarray and shock.

They had expected Jesus to overthrow

the religious leadership of Judea

and take over as high priest of the temple.

Now, they were hunted, Jesus was dead,

and they had to come to a way of making meaning

from what had happened.

I don’t believe that Jesus rose from the dead physically,

I believe it was his message that rose from the ashes of defeat…

a message that would profoundly change human society.

 

I believe that Jesus’ disciples

began seeing the teachings of Jesus all around them,

and began meeting the spirit that he showed

in the lives of people.

With his death, his teachings

were no longer a religious philosophy…

the seriousness of what they were involved in

had been made clear to the disciples.

They were involved in the beginning of a cultural revolution.

They too had become rebels.

 

I believe they met together, shared his teachings,

and felt his presence.

By dying on the cross when he did and how he did,

Jesus in many ways became immortal.

His death as a martyr led to the explosion of the faith…

to disciples and apostles going out to spread the message

that Jesus had taught. “Love thy neighbor as thyself”,

“If you bring forth that which is within you,

that which is within you will save you”,

and so much more that was very radical for its time…

or our time.

 

I believe that the resurrection that occurred on the third day,

and in the days that followed

was not the physical resurrection of the body,

but the resurrection of the message of Jesus,

and its subsequent dispersal throughout the world.

 

The later attempts to deify Jesus,

to show him to have never really been like us,

never really human, were in effect attempts to kill his message…

not to promote it.

As Unitarian Ministers have claimed throughout our history,

I believe that Jesus was a divinely inspired man,

but essentially a man,

who against all odds stood up to the powers of the day

and was martyred for his commitment …

it is to me one of the most profound examples of living one’s faith,

no matter the cost, that has ever occurred.

 

By making a God of this divinely inspired man,

the early Christian church leaders said

“you can’t hope to be or live like Jesus, for he was God.

All you can do is ask for forgiveness and grace.”

To me, this was a perversion of the message

that I find in the life and sayings of Jesus…

that the Kingdom of God can only come to existence

by loving one another, by realizing our own interconnections,

and by having faith in both God and ourselves.

 

With the deifying of Jesus came a message

that reinforced the power and authority

of the Christian bishops of the second and third century

as they sought to suppress the many times many

different understandings of the teachings of Jesus that had arisen.

 

The opening words, and the reading today

come from one of the least known of the non-canonical gospels,

known today as the Gospel of Thomas.

It is a gospel that was declared heretical

and ordered burned by those early Christian Bishops

of the second and third century.

As far as we know, only one copy of it survived,

and that only because a group of Christian monks

near modern day Nag Hammadi, in upper Egypt,

chose to bury these texts in a jar near their monastery

rather than burn them as they were ordered to.

They lay buried in the ground until 1945,

when a farmer plowing a new field found them.

 

All or part of 13 Gospels of the life of Jesus of Nazareth

were buried in that jar, including the Gospel of Thomas,

and a fragment of the Gospel of Mary.

 

Among them though, my heart and imagination

has been captured by the Gospel of Thomas.

Dr. Elaine Pagals, a biblical historian at Princeton University,

has done extensive writings and research

into all the Nag Hammadi scriptures,

but specifically into the Gospel of Thomas.

One of her theories that I find credible

is that the Gospel of John, which is in the bible,

was written to oppose the teachings of the Gospel of Thomas.

There are many ways that this can be shown,

but here’s the big one.

 

The main message of the Gospel of Thomas

is that Jesus is telling his disciples that they,

and by extension we, can be like Jesus

in living a life that will transform the world,

whereas the Gospel of John says

that Jesus was divine, special,

and that none of us can ever hope to be like him.

 

Some early Christians believed,

as I do today, that Jesus was primarily a teacher and prophet,

who taught us how to live in a divine way

and challenged the unjust society in which he lived.

Some believed that Jesus was God,

not in the sense of the Trinity,

but as if all of God had appeared as a human.

Some believed the Jesus was both God and man.

All of these different groups wrote gospels and stories

about the life of this man who changed the world,

many without ever having met him.

Only a few of those stories have come to be in our modern Bible,

most of those being ones that affirm the power

of the priests and bishops that were on the committee

that chose what books would be in the Canon.

 

The crucifixion that I remember on Good Friday

was the death of a man who had dedicated his life

to finding a new way for humans to treat one another,

to live together in right relationship

both with each other and with God.

 

The resurrection that I celebrate

was the resurrection of the message of faith, hope, and love

that occurred among the followers of Jesus

after the disarray caused by his death,

and the subsequent spread

of that message throughout the world…

even if I wish that message was based more

in the Gospel of Thomas than in the Gospel of John…

that each of us can have a direct relationship

with that which is holy “without mediator or veil”,

as Ralph Waldo Emerson put it.

 

I hope for a new resurrection as well…

one that lets go of much of the myth and superstition

surrounding the life of Jesus of Nazareth,

and returns to a message of unity, justice,

freedom from oppression, peace, and right relationship

that was the core of what he taught in life.

 

There is another meaning in the resurrection for me,

and that is that hope never dies.

In the way the disciples and apostles of Jesus carried on

after his death, there is the message that,

even when the worst has happened, there is hope.

The message, the experience will transform and evolve,

but for people of faith there is never an end,

only transformation and hope.

 

It is that message of transformation and hope

that is most commonly celebrated

in many Unitarian Universalist Churches

on Easter or another spring morning,

by the participation in a short ceremony

known as the Flower Communion.

In 1923 Rev. Norbert Capek,

a Unitarian Minister in Czechoslovakia,

desiring a new and different kind of communion

for his congregation, performed the first flower communion.

 

This annual service in many of our congregations

represents many things…

the hope and possibility in the message of Jesus of Nazareth;

the hope and new life of spring;

the sharing of ourselves by the flowers that we bring;

the birth of beauty from the cold of winter;

and even the celebration of fertility

once dedicated to the Goddess Eostre.

 

On Easter Sunday, or whenever a congregation

holds their flower communion,

members will bring flowers from their home gardens,

from the roadside, even from the store…

flowers that they like and find beautiful…

flowers that represent hope and possibility and new life to them.

Flowers that represent the resurrection of life each year,

as the message of Jesus was once resurrected

by his followers after his death.

 

Rev. Norbert Capek, became a martyr for his beliefs and faith,

in the tradition of Jesus.

In 1942, after many years

as a Unitarian Evangelist in Czechoslovakia,

he was executed with his daughter

in a Nazi Concentration Camp at Dachau.

He stood up for his beliefs, and he was martyred for them.

So, when we celebrate the Flower Communion at Easter,

we are not only remembering the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth,

but indeed of all those who have died for their faith and beliefs.

 

We remember the Unitarian Martyr Michael Servetus,

the Spanish theologian who in 1553

was burned at the stake by John Calvin in Geneva,

for daring to challenge the doctrine of the trinity and declaring,

loudly and repeatedly, that God is One.

 

We remember the early Christian Bishop Arius,

who left the Council of Nicea in 325 AD

because he could not agree to the doctrine of the trinity,

and was later killed by a mob of fellow Christians

on the streets of Constantinople.

 

We remember Francis David,

who brought the Kingdom of Transylvania and its King,

John Sigismund, to embrace Unitarianism.

After the King died and the orthodox Christians

regained control of the kingdom,

Francis David was placed in prison, where he died in 1579.

 

We remember Thomas Aikenhead,

a medical student in Scotland who in 1697

was executed by the state for disrespecting the trinity.

 

We remember Viola Liuzzo,

a 39-year-old white mother and a civil rights worker

from the First Unitarian Church of Detroit

who went to Alabama to help with voter registration.

She was murdered March 25, 1965

en route to a civil rights meeting.

 

We remember Rev. James Reeb,

a Unitarian minister who was murdered in Selma, Alabama

while taking part in the March on Montgomery

led by Martin Luther King, jr.

 

We remember all the Unitarians and Universalists

who died on the battlefields of the Civil War,

moved to serve the Union because of their opposition to slavery.

 

We remember Toribio Quimada,

founder of the UU Church of the Philippines,

who was murdered on Negros Island in 1988,

apparently by the Paramilitary for his liberal faith and politics.

 

And…

 

We remember Greg McKendry and Linda Kreager,

members of Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church

in Knoxville Tennessee who,

on a Summer Sunday morning,

were killed when a man angry at liberals

came into their church’s sanctuary

during a children’s play and began shooting with a shotgun.

 

We remember all of those who have died for their beliefs

in the Unity of the Divine,

in the hope of Universal Salvation,

in the idea of an Interdependent World,

in the inherent worth and dignity of every person,

in the hope for tomorrow’s child,

in the importance of reason in religious life,

and for the call to justice, mercy, and peace.

 

Please join me in a moment of silent memory…

 

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