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It is Easter Sunday once again, and this gives us another opportunity to think about what is celebrated today in Christianity, the resurrection of Jesus, this the central mythos of Christianity. I know that some people would say seriously, and others jokingly, that what happens on Easter is that Jesus walks out of the tomb and if he sees his shadow it means six more weeks of winter. Now this would certainly be a belief, and though it would be an erroneous one, you could make the argument that at least it isn’t a harmful one, whereas you can’t say that about the traditional Christian interpretation of the meaning of Easter. That belief can be and has been and still is very harmful.
I’m sure the grand theological structure and the cosmic drama of Christianity--a drama that reaches its climax today with the resurrected Jesus--is totally familiar to all of you. According to traditional Christian theology, humanity had fallen into a hopeless state of sin and separation from God. Everyone was doomed to live in this sin and thus to live separated from God for all eternity in Hell. God was very angry and demanded satisfaction for our sin, so he sent into the world his own special son, who through his suffering and death paid our penalty, satisfied God’s righteous anger against us, and reconciled us once again with God the Father. This was God’s plan all along, and Jesus as God’s son knew that, and he obediently carried out his Father’s plan all the way through to the crucifixion on Good Friday. And on Easter God raises his Son Jesus from the dead so we can all know that our penalty is paid, that we are now reconciled with God again because Jesus has covered our sins with his redemptive blood. And now things are all right, because this is all God’s master plan for creation, and God has really been in control of everything all the way through. And now we have to understand and believe this and be consoled by this, and if we do affirm it and believe it we too can become God’s special children and live eternally with Him in heaven, and we can be consoled even now by knowing that whatever happens, Jesus’s resurrection shows that God is really in control of everything that happens. Anything that happens--no matter how terrible or tragic--was really made to happen by God.
All of us here I am sure have our own experiences with this traditional Christianity, our own reasons for disagreeing with it, and our own attempts to overcome it. We might try to overcome this traditional Christianity by agreeing to say together that "some beliefs are like walled gardens, encouraging exclusiveness. Some beliefs operate like a cloud over the human spirit, that they are divisive, that they separate the saved from the unsaved, that they act like blinders over humans’ eyes, that they weaken a person’s sense of selfhood, that some beliefs are as rigid as death itself."
I wonder what you would say if I asked you: what experiences have you had with this traditional Christianity that stand out most clearly to you and have caused you to disagree with it, reject it, want to overcome it? Is your disagreement with Christianity purely philosophical and theological, or is it rooted in real experiences you’ve had in your life where you were confronted with the realization that the traditional theological framework of Christianity is not only wrong but harmful?
I’d like to be inside of all of your minds to know all of those experiences. One of mine that brings my rejection of traditional Christianity and my desire to overcome it into sharpest focus goes back to my graduate school days in Chicago and my friendship with a young black man named Marshall Patterson.
I was at that time a poor grad student, and I worked every morning starting at 6:00 as something like a doorman of the Business School of the University of Chicago. Now Marshall Patterson was a black man from the black neighborhood adjacent to Hyde Park who was at that time about 30 years old and the janitor of the building. Now the janitor and the doorman of a building at 6 in the morning have a lot of opportunity to hang out together and talk, and so Marshall and I had become friends. One thing we talked about is that even though Marshall worked in various university buildings full-time, the university considered him only a part-time employee, so it wouldn’t have to pay him health care benefits. Later that year, Marshall took very sick with pneumonia and died without seeking or receiving adequate medical care.
I went to the funeral very angry. Everyone there was very much in pain and sorrowful. The family was crying, but the Baptist minister wasn’t angry or even particularly sorrowful because he wanted us to know about Jesus’s redeeming blood, and the sacrifice he paid already for our sins. He wanted us to know that our sorrow and suffering were already taken care of, and that what happened with the very premature death of this young black man was God’s doing because God was in control of everything and everything was all right. Really, sometimes you want to overcome Christianity out of a sense of philosophical or theological disagreement, and sometimes you want to overcome it because you hate it.
One of the jokes about Unitarians is that we don’t sing hymns together very well because each one of us has to read the words first to see if we agree with them. A couple of days ago I was at the community Good Friday service, and true to this remark about Unitarians, I read the Unison Prayer printed in the program before we were to say it together. One line in particular struck me, thinking as I was about Marshall Patterson, and Christianity, and the difficulties of human existence. The Unison Prayer would have us all say: "Lord God, whose blessed Son our Savior gave his body to be whipped and his face to be spit upon: Give us grace to accept joyfully the sufferings of the present time, confident of the glory that shall be revealed."
"Give us grace to accept joyfully the sufferings of the present time." I wonder if Martin Luther King had his congregation say those words on Good Friday. Would he want the blacks suffering the sting and humiliation of segregation to say that? Would he want poor people in our own country or around the world to say give us grace to accept joyfully the sufferings of the present time? Would he want the Jews during the Holocaust, the victims of Stalin, the countless victims of "ethnic cleansing" in our century, including the Bosnians, the Kosovars and Albanians to pray "Give us grace to accept joyfully the sufferings of the present time?" Surely not, yet the same country that makes of Martin Luther King a national hero and his birthday and national holiday, we still gather in our Christian churches and the minister summons us all together to pray together: "Give us grace to accept joyfully the suffering of the present time."
The difficulty Martin Luther King had with the white Christian churches is well known. We know that he said they were more white than Christian. We know that he eloquently expressed his frustration with white Christian leaders in his famous "Letter from Birmingham Jail, and that he said that the most pervasive mistake he made was in thinking that the white ministers of the South would rally to the cause of racial justice. What is less well known is that he also experienced the Christianity within many of the black southern churches also as something that had to be overcome. Black Christian ministers should not preach the glories of heaven while ignoring the real suffering on earth. The traditional Christian theology that spoke itself so clearly on Good Friday in that unison prayer exerting us to joyfully accept the sufferings of the present time, this traditional theology that was such an important part of King’s own religious background and upbringing, is also what King felt he and the movement he led needed to overcome.
King in 1960 reflected on how he grew beyond his own conservative Christian religious upbringing. Here is how he describes it: "Having been raised in a rather strict fundamentalistic tradition, I was occasionally shocked as my intellectual journey carried me through new and sometimes complex doctrinal lands. But despite the shock the pilgrimage was always stimulating. . .My early theological training. . . knocked me out of my dogmatic slumber" (p. 35).
Dogmatic slumber. . . uncritically, unthinkingly saying what we have been taught to say, what we may not really believe, what we may think, if we really thought about it, was not only wrong but actually even harmful to believe. There was a lot of dogmatic slumber in that Unison Prayer, in having the united Christian community gathered in Quincy even in 1999 to remember Jesus’s suffering on Good Friday in order to make us more joyfully accepting of human suffering. And Dr. King tells us his theological training knocked him out of his dogmatic slumber, which is why I do not think in his Christian church in his Good Friday service he would ever want his congregation to sleepily say: "Give us grace to accept joyfully the sufferings of the present time."
I made my way to that Good Friday service as I do every Good Friday because to me each person’s understanding of Easter depends upon his or her understanding of what happens on Good Friday. So if you want to envision what Martin Luther King would say about Easter if he were your guest this year for dinner, you might want to begin by asking him about Good Friday. We know the traditional Christian view of Good Friday. Jesus knows the plan. We knows what he has to do. He has to fulfill his Father’s plan. He suffers, but he knows why. He knows what God is accomplishing through his suffering. So even at the summit of his suffering he looks up to heaven and says triumphantly to God: "It is finished."
And what does Martin Luther King say about Good Friday? He remembers the real grief and bitterness of the day a bomb exploded in a Birmingham church and killed four innocent girls in Sunday school and how the bomb blew the face of Christ out of the stained glass window. This destruction was symbolic of how "sin and evil blotted out the life of Christ" (347).
And if you said to Martin Luther King at your Easter dinner, what do you mean "sin and evil blotted out the life of Christ?" Where’s the divine plan? Jesus’s willing obedience and sacrifice for sins? Where’s the redeeming blood shed for us? Isn’t the whole drama of Holy Week God’s plan for our salvation? God Himself provided the lamb who was slain?" I don’t think Martin Luther King would be embarrassed about explaining to you how his theological training knocked him out of all this dogmatic slumber.
And if you said to him, now if this is what you think happened on Good Friday, real sin and evil blotted out the life of Christ, that the crucifixion wasn’t some divine plan but that Christ was a victim of human violence and ignorance and aggression, just like the four little girls and the people being ethnically cleansed today in Kosovo, then wouldn’t this make Christ like all the victims of oppression from all times and places? And King might say, "Now I think you are beginning to understand the mature Christianity I have come to beyond my youthful period of dogmatic slumber."
And then we might want to ask him: but what about Easter? Why celebrate Easter? If what happens on Good Friday is not the carrying through of a divine plan to save us wretched sinners, what is it? What is there to celebrate on Easter if Jesus was another victim of ethnic cleansing whose life was blotted out by more powerful and violent forces? He would say: we celebrate Easter not because God is a big Being in the sky who is satisfied by the blood sacrifice of his obedient Son, but because God is a loving spirit who is with all who suffer, and he works with and on the side of all those who work to overcome injustice and oppression. All who work for justice have cosmic companionship; they work alongside of the divine spirit who works always for justice, the divine Spirit who doesn’t want you to accept joyfully your suffering but wants all suffering and injustice to stop and works with all who strive to overcome it. And that affirmation, that faith in God as the sprit who offers us cosmic companionship in helping us overcome the malevolent forces that blotted out Christ’s life and the lives of so many others is what Easter is all about. God as a spirit who helps us overcome is the meaning of Christ’s resurrection.
And if we said to him: "Now how do you know that? How do you know that God is a spirit who works with us to overcome injustice and that we all have this cosmic companionship in our mutual work of overcoming injustice, oppression and violence." And King would say: "I know it because I have experienced it in my work for justice for my people and for the poor. I have experienced God as the spirit who strives with all people everywhere to overcome injustice."
And what would we say to that?
The Quincy Unitarian Church Home
The list of Selected Sermons.
More Sermons from the Rev. Dr. Rob Manning.