A Reason to Celebrate Easter

Last week I spent five days at the Westar Institute Spring Meeting. As I milled around with scholars, clergy, retired people and otherwise interested followers of the Jesus Seminar, I realized that for me these events have become more like an annual homecoming event than a scholarly pursuit. Of course, as always, there was plenty of opportunity to learn something new and to be stimulated by some clear thinking scholars. However, so many of the scholars and other regular attendees have become friends over the decades. I find myself looking more forward to visiting and catching up with friends than I do sitting through another lecture that might likely focus on nuance.

I probably need to make a confession. I was once told by a seminary professor, who I admired, that I did not pay enough attention to detail. He admitted that I understood the material and had unique ideas that seemed to interest others and even stimulated conversation. But he told me, “You do not spend enough time studying the details.” In other words I am more interested that the Book of Thomas was discovered than whether it was written before or after Mark. I just like the book of Thomas.

The professor used a painting on his wall to demonstrate my “faults.” He said before he bought the painting he studied it and other paintings by the same artist until he understood why he was attracted to the artist and to the painting. Only then did he buy it.

“You,” he said, accusingly, “would just look at the painting and decide you like it. Then you would go out and buy it without analyzing it or even knowing why you liked it.” So there you have it. I am short on details and long on big pictures. Perhaps I just know what I like or what makes sense to me. He agreed that I still deserved an A in the class and I agreed not to take any more classes from him.

I share this because some people have found it surprising to hear that I love the Easter holy days. As a progressive clergy person from my first day in the pulpit, thirty years ago, I always felt that everything from Lent to Easter Sunday was the most important and exciting season for Christians. It was another opportunity to teach and even to practice the path of kenosis, to move beyond our familiar boundaries of mind and body by learning to let go and change. What is not exciting about that?

I often felt badly for clergy who found it necessary to stay in an old and outdated paradigm talking, praying and singing about the resuscitation of a body that had been buried in a tomb for three days. I cannot tell you how many times one of them would call me and ask what I was going to do about Easter with a sense of urgency and sometimes of panic. Far too many times they would find themselves trying to make sense out of something they no longer believed.

More importantly I felt badly for the people who missed an opportunity to discover the powerful and life transforming path Jesus left us that is the very foundation of his teachings and his life. It is sadly a path that has been buried in the crust of creeds, camouflaged by power struggles and dogmas and reinterpreted by ego driven personalities.

Ironically the very path of kenosis Jesus offered us is a path intended to free us of the confining and often conflicting mindset that allows our fears, our wants, our hungers, and other ego needs to control and separate us. It is a path of self-emptying love that has been available to us for centuries. And the best part is there is no better time or way to investigate that mindset than during the period of Lent leading up to an Easter celebration.

Of course we all know the Lenten season is often wasted on prideful stunts like giving up sweets, sex, alcoholic drinks or meat. But the true kenotic path is much tougher for most of us. It really refers to emptying of self—of self-interest and even of self-preservation. It is about learning to love dangerously and recklessly without any expectations in return. It is about letting go of judgment and anger. It is about letting go of self-righteousness and becoming a willing servant. It is about letting go of power to control or even to influence for self gain.

I want to be very clear. This path is not about who gives up the most nor is the goal to make some giant, measurable sacrifice. It is not about making the biggest donation to the Easter fund. I am referring here to a path of self-discovery. It is a path to discover who and what we already are but have not had the eyes to see or the ears to hear. It is about losing yourself in order to find yourself.

If we allow the Easter story to be what it was intended to be—an allegory—it makes a lot more sense than a story about a time in history that never did make sense. When we let the Easter story become a lesson instead of a piece of Christian history, we gain something important. We learn that real freedom and new life happens when we are willing to give up our old ways of thinking and being and move toward a new self. It means that as we journey toward an awareness of our true selves and another reality, we must first die to the old. I believe the author of John understood this when he put the words into Jesus’ mouth that we have to die to be born from above or from spirit.

Obviously, we do not have to wait for the Easter season to move toward this revelation. It can be a weekly, even daily practice. For most of us, this is a challenging path but what a wonderful reward to discover who we really are. We are floating in one giant pool of amniotic fluid that flows like a River of Wonder and Life. We come from a long line of slippery, slimy single-celled ancestors who swam in ancient seas. We have evolved from ancestors with fur and funny faces who had no concerns about over-population, global warming or their 401Ks.

We now know that we are all made up from the same stuff as the sun, the moon and the stars. And apparently we are trading that stardust—and a lot of other things that can’t even be measured—with each other as we move through this plane, on this planet, at this moment.

When we identify those things that are separating ourselves from others, we can discover we are indeed part of one connected universe both instant and eternal. When we let go of those things that are ego driven, even without us realizing it, we can find something even more special. We are not only part of the beautiful divine creation but we are indeed divine.

In fact in spite of how we might feel about ourselves sometimes, no matter how isolated, no matter how alone, no matter how broken, no matter how separated, we have always been connected. We are part of a river that has flowed through time and space as vast as the universe itself.

This means there is more to you than you have probably given yourself credit for. This means you are capable of marvelous things you cannot even imagine. Hard as this may be to believe, you have the wisdom of the ages within you, dancing to the music of the Universal angels.

Easter, spring and Jesus’ teachings are all about rebirth, the renewal of spirit, and transformation. They invite and encourage each one of us to dive back into the River of Life, the River of Wonder we sometimes call God and open ourselves to all kinds of new possibilities.

Now that is the big picture and something to celebrate.

Review & Commentary

  • Tom W

    As I struggle to find a sermon in John’s story of the “triumphal entry”, I keep coming back to the parade as mockery – a king on an ass! No military might, no powerful steed – just a dirty rabbi on a beast of burden and the people in the story maintain their roles and toss robes or tree branches before him! Could it be that Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman (google them you of few years) had it right when they confronted the military might and power of congress with toy guns and “yippie” followers? The peaceable kingdom, the beloved community is to be built not on a foundation of assault weapons and drones but on humorous understandings of how ridiculous it is to think that God calls us to dominate and dictate. Maybe the parade passes us by and too often we just stand and gawk rather than toss our coats on the road! Thank you, Fred, for a thought provoking article.

  • Clark Wills, All Saints’ Episcopal and All Pilgrims’ UCC

    Thanks, Fred. My message for Palm Sunday is succinct: that Jesus on the donkey is indeed mocking all the Empire’s soldiers and weapons, as being just another manifestation of what Walter Wink has aptly called “the domination system” that has ever been among us and surely is yet today. That system is fueled by individualism and the will-to-power. Jesus’ way lets go of all that in favor of human community

  • Ken

    If find Christmas and Easter hard to get through every year. I was raised Catholic, but I am very much evolved to Bishops Spongs teachings. I love the Christmas lights and songs, but the traditional events even among so called enlightened minsters fearful of losing some of their flock disappoints. Easter and the whole Lenten and Holy Week thing are a major turnoff for me. This stuff happened 2000 years ago lets move on. Isn’t it time that we grew up and put salvation theology behind us. Bishop Spong is helping with this, but the bible belt is alive and well. So called New Age churches do not have as many adherents as main stream. We have advanced in our science and technology. What must we do to advance in our religious beliefs and get this salvation theology monkey off of our backs once and for all? Just wondering.

    • Fred Plumer

      Yes I think we are slowly heading in that direction although it is always easier to sell fear than it is love. It is always easier to be negative and afraid than it is to be positive and fearless. The big guns in the Christian tradition have understood this human condition for over 16 centuries and have played it well. However I am not certain we want to give up what you call salvation theology. Salvation early on meant “to make whole.” I think people who were truly following the Christian path of compassion, love and healing could go a long way in a making our earth whole again. We just have to rid ourselves of “substitutionary salvation.” No one is going to do it for us.

  • Wallace C

    I think your interpretation of the Easter story is very good and I appreciated it. I do thing we need to let go of who we think we are and embrace, as much as we can understand, who and what we are.
    I have a problem considering however, that the author of of John actually had that much awareness and that if he did, why didn’t he be more open with your point rather than risk the resulting consequence of a story of a vengeful god, which is still being taught in our churches each year.
    Do you think the story was written to be understood as a personal act of growth when it was written and later understood to be that of our original sin requiring Jesus to die?

    • Fred Plumer

      First you have to remember that the author of John was a Jew writing on behalf of a messianic Jewish movement that was in distress. I believe this author was truly a mystic and moved more to the inner journey with his understanding of the Christian story. By the 2nd century there were several forms of what we call Christianity. However at the risk of over simplification I believe they could be broken into two larger groups. One was a religion that would organize society with moral codes, ethics and beliefs systems and the other was a more contemplative, spiritual and focused on an experience of the Holy Other. These folks were labeled Gnostic and by the forth century were pushed out of the mainstream. Bishop Spong has a new book coming out on John, who he refers to as a mystic Jew. I think you will find it fascinating.

    • Fred Plumer

      Do you think the story was written to be understood as a personal act of growth when it was written and later understood to be that of our original sin requiring Jesus to die?

      The simple answer is yes. But I believe the intent of all of the gospels has been misunderstood, probably John more than most. The problem of course is that we cannot possibly get into the skin of 1st century, Palestinians who are living under brutal, unimaginable circumstances. Even the smart ones believed the world was flat and small, that stars were Yahweh shinning through, that women were subhuman, and an entire child was in the sperm of a man and women were merely incubators (unless the could not produce a male child).
      I think we will all have a better idea about the author of John when we get a chance to read Bishop Spong’s new book on John.

  • Marilyn

    Thank you for the insight. I’ve always found Lent and Easter somewhat uncomfortable since I was raised by the descendants of Puritans and chapel people who taught me that Christ on the Cross was a Papish thing to be avoided, so Easter was avoided, for the most part, too.

  • Day Piercy

    I’m looking forward to the day when we move beyond the path that begins with birth of Christ spirit, goes through a journey that requires persecution, crucifixion and resurrection. For too many years, inspired by Jesus’ journey, I believed that this was the path to live as a Christian. When I discovered my Celtic lineage, I found a different way to live that celebrates the spirit of life throughout the year as the river of life flows continuously. I learned to embrace a path defined by the idea that while we can’t control many things, we can know that the river flows even in the night, that flowers bloom in spring and that sustaining life and love is the path that leads to learning, affirming and liberating my full humanity and soul spirit of who I really am. For me, as a woman and survivor of rape and abuse, this path affirms and restores my creative female selfhood, power and leadership that Christianity destroyed. It is this creative female spirit whose loss I grieve on Good Friday and whose restoration I celebrate on Easter.

  • John R Huff Jr

    Very well thought out and delivered with deep understanding. Thanks.

  • Ian Paul

    Thank you Fred. I always find your articles insightful. I am a Catholic and I live in Sydney, Australia. You say, “Easter, spring and Jesus’ teachings are all about rebirth, the renewal of spirit, and transformation.” Well, here in the Southern Hemisphere Easter is the end of summer, beginning of autumn, so that analogy doesn’t really work for us. Like dreaming of a white Christmas in 80-plus degree heat! These Northern-centered analogies seem to spring from a ‘flat earth’ understanding of the Bible and make it difficult for us ‘Down Under’ to localize these Bible stories into our story.

    • Fred Plumer

      Ian, you are not the first person from “down under” who has called my attention to this blind spot I am afraid that far too many of us have. Unfortunately the “holy writings” we call scriptures, the metaphors, and the allegories were written by people who were living in the middle east in the Northern hemisphere. So the examples, metaphors, calendars, including seasons are all euro-centric and we are stuck with them. I have chatted with Rex Hunt about this dilemma several times and still have no clear solution. I am clear that the primary message of Jesus was if we want to experience the Divine Experience of the Infinite Mystery, we must first die to our tribal, egoic nature before we can discover our true selves. Spring is a wonderful example of that process of death and rebirth whatever time of the year it happens. Thanks for reminding us of another example of our self centered nature.

  • Rev Claudell County

    I am always amazed that Christianity has taken this turn to logical, rational, yet beautiful thinking. I might not have left had I know this when I was 18. Now that I am 66 and a Unity minister I am pleased for the potential dialogue we can have. Unfortunately I am not in a traditional DMin program and having to deal with some of the same attitudes you write about. I tend to assimilate what other people write if I agree with it. None of this compare and contrast stuff. I will learn it but it is tedious. Thank you so much for this particular column. I look forward to reading more.

  • Barbara

    I’m hesitant to take issue with any part of this beautifully written article, Fred, primarily because I am a great follower of yours. Furthermore, I completely agree with your theological interpretation of the resurrection event. As a clergy woman and mother, I must add that many of the women I encounter in pastoral care are already empty shells because they have poured out so much sacrificial love for their children. We are in most cases the care-givers often caring for older parents as well as children. Many of us are emotionally and spiritually bankrupt because we have emptied ourselves caring for others. Our most urgent challenge is to somehow include ourselves in the circle of loving — to be on the receiving end of some love and care.

    It has been my experience that men often miss this point. Feminist theologians have tried to reinterpret Scripture that was essentially written by men who had no knowledge of the feminine psyche. Some injunctions in scripture just don’t fit.

    Also I note that all of the comments have written by men. I’d like to hear from some other women, especially those in ministry.

    • Fred Plumer

      Barbara thank you for writing and for your important perspective and your salient point. I too wish we had more women responding and frankly writing for the progressive movement and for our organization. I admit that I have a perspective that misses a lot. That is not new for me. I was shocked in my first year of seminary in 1984 at forty years old, when several female students and one female professor took it upon themselves to let me know, some in a very gentle way, that I had lived a privileged life as a white, straight, educated male and therefore had no understanding of what life for others “who were not at the top of the food chain’ had to deal with life. It was a painful but life changing awakening for me that continues, including today.

      At the risk of admitting another blind spot, do these women exhaust themselves as care givers because of a love for the other, some sense of duty or a need to be the best mother/caregiver. I know there is not one answer but one’s motivation might explain how they see themselves and who they are in the process. Is there something that these exhaustive caretakers could have given up if they were not dealing with “oughts?” For over ten years, I was the primary caretaker of my elderly parents from their mid eighties until they both died in their nineties. I had to ask myself that question every day.
      Three of the books that have influenced me the most in the last couple of years are; Coming Back to Earth, by Lloyd Geering; Like Catching Water in a Net, by Val Webb; and Wisdom Jesus by Cynthia Bourgeault. I am still working at getting it and thanks for the help. I hope this opens a longer dialogue perhaps in a different venue.

    • Day Piercy

      I am a woman.

      • Fred Plumer

        Thanks Darcy. I hope you continue to contribute. I am certain Barbara feels the same way. My wife had some of the same feelings when she discovered her own Celtic roots. When my granddaughter was four years old and saw the Celtic cross we hung on the Christmas tree for the first time, my wife asked her if she knew what it was. She answered instantly; “It is a Celtic cross and they put it where dead people are buried. I used to talk to them. There are lots of them.” Neither her mother or daddy knew what a Celtic cross was and we could find no one who had ever mentioned it to her.

  • Edward

    I do not believe that, when Paul passed on to the Christians at Corinth the account of Jesus’s appearances after his death (which he had almost certainly got from Peter when he spent a fortnight with him in Jerusalem not more than a few years after the Crucifixion), he was intending his account to be an allegory. I have my doubts about the stories of the physical body of Jesus being present, which Paul does not suggest – they come from the evangelists writing 20-40 years later, who may, like later writers, have embroidered the resurrection accounts with a view to giving them greater credibility to their readers. In the many instances in which Jesus has appeared to people in the 20th and 21st centuries, it is very seldom if ever that it has been suggested that the appearance has been of a physical body.

    If this is right, there is, of course, a question What happened to the body? It was not in the tomb when Peter and John went there, though the shroud and the sudarium (now at Turin and Oviedo) were. The most plausible explanation that I have met is provided by the Jewish scholar Joseph Klausner , who suggests that the laying of the body in the tomb after it was taken down from the cross was only a temporary measure – the Sabbath was about to start and they could do no more than lay it on a piece of good quality cloth and fold the cloth over it – and that Joseph of Arimathea or his servants removed it after sunset on the Sabbath and gave it a decent burial elsewhere. There is no other reference to Joseph in the bible, and nothing to suggest that the disciples would have been on close terms with him; and anyway, after the resurrection appearances they would not have been very concerned about the whereabouts of the physical body: they had no doubt that Jesus was alive in some sense that enabled him to communicate with them, and the fact that the tomb was empty was sufficient corroboration of the fact.

    There are, of course, some who doubt more of the gospel stories than I do, even to the extent in some cases of denying that any such person as Jesus ever lived; but I regard Paul as transparently truthful, and I believe Peter would have been too in his conversations with Paul during the latter’s fortnight stay with Peter. The evidence for life after death is very strong, and has become more so with the greatly increased number of near death experiences in recent years. They are no allegory; nor in my opinion is Paul’s account of the resurrection appearances. I do not regard it as any part of Progressive Christianity to deny the resurrection appearances listed by Paul. Christianity would never have got off the ground if something of the kind had not happened.

    • Fred Plumer

      Edward, I agree with much of what you say. However I am unaware of any respected biblical scholar who believes that Paul and Peter would have had any agreements let alone spend time together mapping out the future. If you get a chance take a look at Robert Price’s book, Deconstruction Jesus (pg 23-25) you will see that he goes into detail about how far apart these guys were on everything to do with the movement, let alone agreeing on who and what Jesus was for either of them. Quoting the scholar F.C. Baur, Price writes…the New Testament only made sense once you realized there was a major conflict between two rival Christianities; one Jewish in orientation, led by Simon Peter; the other Gentile, led by Paul. Pg 23.
      Legend has it that Peter literally tried to beat Paul to death when Paul made his trip to take money to the disciples. Later writings in Luke and Acts, 1,2 Peter were nothing more than an attempt forty years later to reconcile the two, now deceased antagonist. Just information that I hope will help you on your journey.

  • Edward Nugee

    Well said Ken (21 March). The doctrine of penal substitution is, as Jeffrey John said in a memorable BBC talk for Holy Week in, I think, 2010, “monstrous”, and quite incompatible with the picture of a loving God that is given elsewhere in the New Testament. I started a thread a little while ago on the Ship of Fools website by asking “From what are we saved?” The answer which evolved in the following comments, with which I agree, was that we are saved from alienation from God; the corollary being that if we faithfully follow Jesus’s teaching and example we shall enjoy an increasingly intimate relationship with God, both after death and also in our lives (give “God” whatever meaning you think fit). According to a most interesting recent book, Moral Transformation – the Original Christian Paradigm of Salvation, by AJ Wallace and RD Rusk, this, and in particular the eternal life which Jesus is said so often to have promised, was the kind of salvation for which Christians in the first three centuries AD hoped, and “faith” generally meant “faithfully following Jesus’s teaching and example – even if necessary to martyrdom”; and if the penal substitution doctrine was held at all it was much less prominent than after Augustine. I think this fits in with Fred’s statement that salvation early on meant “to make whole”, though perhaps it takes its meaning a little further.

  • Wong Weng Hon

    The most meaningful Christian praxis in celebrating the Easter is the contemplative prayer of the Heart or Kinosis meditation to resurrect the Christ in the Heart Core of the Gnostic Christians. The purpose of Resurrection of being born again to know who we really are or what God really is. Christian Kinotic Contemplative meditation is compatible with Buddhist Zen meditation on Emptiness (Sunyata) to rediscover the True Self of humanity. Since Christ is True Self, Gnostic Christianity and Zen Buddhism meet esoterically. I rejoice in the esoteric Unity of progressive Buddhism and humanistic Buddhism .

  • Jack Senter

    Wrting #105 was very much to the point it seems
    .why is there. so much fear re. new looks at “old doctrines” ?? I relish in a new look at the resurrection event