I used to meet with a small group of Orange County UCC clergy on a fairly regular basis to work on sermon preparation.
These gatherings were always fun especially when we met on Friday afternoons at one of the local pubs. But they were most interesting when we got together to talk about our pending Easter sermons. Most of us liked to keep up on the latest scholarship and had been to liberal seminaries. We often made jokes about the shallow thinking of the religious right. But when it came to Easter Sunday most of us in the group got a little more serious.
“So what are you going to do with Easter this year?” was the common question around our table. Often we were looking for brilliant ways to work around a particular scripture that dealt with the resurrection with some new perspective on the meaning of resurrected life. It can be a challenge for progressive clergy Easter exciting, real and meaningful. As we were bouncing ideas around one colleague, would always jokingly chime in: “So where is the resurrected body in that?”
After one long pre-Easter session, one of the more quiet members of the group asked if I could walk back to our cars together. It was clear that he wanted to talk to me. After we had walked for a few minutes he said: “Do you think the Easter Story is true Fred?”
I never got a chance to respond, however. While I was formulating my response he answered his own question. “Fred, it must be true. I don’t think the church would have survived for 2000 years if it wasn’t.”
I don’t know why he wanted me specifically to hear what he had to say but clearly he had said his piece. He just turned the corner and walked to his car. Of course he never explained what he meant by “it” when he said that it must be true. But I presume he meant the traditional Christian story-the cross, the death, the resurrection.
As I was driving home I kept thinking of his words and his unflinching conviction. “It must have been true or the church would not have survived for 2000 years.”
For years I thought about that conversation. I would find myself having an ongoing discussion in my head. The biblical scholars who I respect have demonstrated that the physical resurrection is midrash or mythological. Even Paul seems to go out of his way to debunk those who believe in the physical resurrection when he writes in Corinthians15: “of course the resurrection was spiritual. What goes into the ground is physical. What comes out is spiritual.”
On the other hand it seems like my friend had a point. We often say things like “Time will tell.” Or, “It has passed the test of time.” I mean, it is not a bad assumption to think that something that has passed the test of time is true or truth.
But it seems to me that if we use the same test for a truth in religion we have a bit of a problem. For there are at least five or six major religions active in the world today like, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Taoism, and Shintoism, that are older than Christianity. Are they therefore “more true” according to my friend’s test of truth I wondered? I realized that the followers of those ancient traditions probably do not think too highly of the traditional Christian idea that Christ is the one and only way.
Then it hit me. In a way he is right! Christianity has survived the long time because the message is true; the teachings are true. I am not necessarily speaking here about the mythology that the ancients wrapped around the story of Jesus to try and communicate to others who he was to them. Nor am I presuming that what we read about Jesus in our scriptures is historical fact the way we judge “facts” today.
What is true are those timeless lessons that Jesus left his followers and ultimately us. What is true is that is that anyone can experience the “Kingdom” or the Realm of God if they are willing to behave and think a certain way. What is true is that if we ever experienced that Realm, we would not want to live any other way. And then he told his followers how to do it.
He told us that he could not do it for us. It is up to us to choose to walk the path. It is up to us to learn live a certain way, to think a certain way and to be a certain way. It is up to us to develop the eyes to see the ears to hear our world imbued with spirit and to live the message as if every living being is part of the Sacred Unity.
What is true is that when we learn to take responsibility for our actions, make amends for those whom we have harmed and change what we have to change, so that it will not happen again, then our lives will be different. We will begin to live more harmoniously with the Ultimate Creative force and with all creation. And we will begin to experience a true freedom.
What is true is that if we begin to trust the Universe filled with an energy that wills the well being of all creation, we might discover that every thing that we do, every action we take, every mistake that we make becomes a new lesson and an opportunity-a lesson we needed to learn. And if we learn from those lessons and put them in perspective we will begin to live a full and spiritually fulfilling life.
What is true is that if we want to stop feeling lonely, if we want to stop feeling isolated, if we want to discover the divinity within others and in ourselves, we have to learn how to stop judging others. For as long as we are judging others, we are judging ourselves, we are judging the world and we are judging God the Creator.
What is true is that learning to forgive others and ourselves is the first step to true freedom. If we want to move forward with our lives, if we want to lift the burdens from our back and remove the stones from our hearts, we must learn to forgive those who we believe have harmed us. Carrying the weight of anger, of judgment, of hurt around, because we can not let it go, is simply debilitating.
What is true is that is the need to love with divine nature, with the love of mother for her unborn child. When we learn to love our neighbor, even our enemies as we love ourselves, all of the false barriers, the humanly created tribal lines will fall away. When we reach out in compassion to one who needs us or can learn from us, or can be healed by us, then we discover the spark of divine in another and in the process the spark of divine in ourselves. And then we will realize the truth at some level that we are one. And we know that we are no longer isolated amebas floating around in space. We will never feel alone again.
What is true is that if we want to experience the Realm of God, we need to live with a generous heart. We need to be generous with our love, with our time, with our assets. When we hold back, when we hold on, when we try and control and horde anything, it will rot in our hearts; it will spoil in our storage units; it will build up spiritual cholesterol in our lives. We were taught that we should not worry about what we eat, what we drink or what we wear or how long we will live. What is true is that when we live with a generous heart we learn that our attachments can become our prison and we can discover how to be free.
What is true is that Jesus taught that life is a gift-it is a rare and precious opportunity. If we treat it like a gift to be cherished, to be celebrated, to be appreciated, our lives will take on new meaning. Our death will have no sting. Life is an opportunity, not a chore that we must simply get through.
Jesus did not necessarily do something for us through his death; he did something for us through his life. He taught his followers with parables and ultimately he became a parable. And then he told his followers to “go and do likewise.” In other words the rest is up to us. We still have to live it; we still have to risk it; we still have to become it.
It means that we have to rethink our values, our priorities, our lives. It means we have to learn to trust the sea of infinite mystery; to give up some of the control we tenaciously hold on to. It means we have to let go of the attachments that we believe define us. It means we have to stop trying to be number one or feeling badly because we are not number one and learn how to live as one with the universe. It means that we have to stop valuing who and what we are by what we have and what we control and start valuing ourselves by who we are within; by how we learn to love…as children of the Universe, a child of God.
Jesus shared the truth that the Realm of God, that ultimate relationship with God and with each other was available to anyone. That is the “good news” that we that we should celebrate on Easter Sunday; that is the good news that we should celebrate every day.
How can you know that it is true? Jesus said: “You will know by the fruit that it bears.’ In other words, you will know by the peace, the fulfillment, by the contentment, by the joy that it brings to you. You will know it by living it.
And to that I say, alleluia!