Christianity, Our Parent (with Pictures!)

I begin with a quote from writer Oscar Wilde: “Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older they judge them; sometimes they forgive them.”

I begin with this because Christianity is the direct spiritual parent of Unitarian Universalism, and as such, we bring to it the same kind of “stuff” we might bring to understanding our own parents. Even if, as individuals, we have good stories about our experience of Christianity, we are still influenced by the collective status of our faith tradition, which is this: just 50 years old. From the perspective of other world religions, 50 years old is miles away from maturity. Miles away from adulthood. We’re more like a teenager whose very real dependence upon his elders can at times feel utterly humiliating. “Mom!!” whines Unitarian Universalism at its Christian roots. “Mom, stop embarrassing me!” The reason is developmentally appropriate and understandable: we are trying to stand on our own two feet, as the independent post-Christian, more-than-Christian religion we are becoming. We are busy establishing our own traditions and rituals and stories and symbols and on and on. But we can go overboard in our quest for independence. We can think everyone else has wisdom for us, but not Mom. Not Dad. No way!

So we’re trying to do something very difficult this morning: to see our parent with an open heart and a clear mind, despite our collective teenage tendencies. And doing so is urgent. Every other world religion is of course important to us; and Judaism is our grandfather and grandmother. But Christianity is our parent; its specific DNA is ours. We just won’t grow as a people until we find ways of being ourselves even as we accept how our parent has gotten underneath our skin and we say some of the same things it says and we do some of the same things it does. We just won’t thrive as a religion until we honor our parent’s hard-earned wisdom despite all its other shortcomings which we’ve seen up close and know only too well.

So we start with the Jesus story we heard a moment ago. Goes like this: Jesus went out and saw a tax collector named Levi sitting at the tax office, and he said to him, “Follow me.” So Levi left everything, and rose and followed him. Levi made him a great feast in his house; and there was a large company of tax collectors and others sitting at table with them. But the Pharisees and their scribes murmured against his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat with tax collectors and sinners?” And Jesus answered them, saying, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire compassion and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” That’s the story, and I have to say, it reminds me of one of those old pictures in my Mom and Dad’s photo album that’s odd and needs explanation. Why did you care so much, that you kept the picture?

One reason is this: It gives us an authentic glimpse of rabbi Jesus. Fact is, Jesus did not say everything or do everything that the Christian Bible says he did. That’s why today’s biblical scholars are hard at work discerning who Jesus the rabbi really was and what he really said, as opposed to what was put into his mouth, for one reason or another. But there is consensus on Jesus’ practice of table fellowship. Jesus eating with the “wrong” people is considered to be one of the most historically reliable actions recorded in the Gospels. It is utterly and uniquely Jesus.

But what made the tax collector and others sinners “wrong”? Why was it so radical to share a meal with the “wrong” people? In Jesus’ day, being a sinner meant that you were not following Jewish ritual law (or “halakha”) and so were forgetting God in your life. Break a religious rule (like taking too long a walk on the Sabbath, or not observing the ritual washings before eating) and you became impure. Belong to a certain kind of social group (as in, you are a tax collector or a shepherd or a gentile) and you were, by definition, impure. Didn’t matter if you were, ethically speaking, a really good person. Didn’t matter what was in your heart, or the kindness of your actions. Right mindfulness of God—purity—was all about following religious law. Now, couple this with the additional insight that, in the Middle East, to eat with another person is to signify acceptance on a very deep level, and we have our answer: rabbi Jesus eating with the wrong people telegraphed the radical message that God doesn’t care about the purity system. Absolutely nothing separates us from the love of God. Doesn’t matter who you are, or what you do. Love wins.

Now I don’t want you to go away thinking that the Pharisees were heartless. Phariseeism was a first century religious movement in Judaism that contained within it a lot of diversity, and the story portrays Jesus confronted by some hard-liners. What made them hard-liners was the larger culture war they were fighting with Rome. Jew after Jew was giving up the traditional Jewish way of life in favor of taking up Roman habits, Roman patterns of thought and dress and relaxation. So the Pharisees looked to Jewish law as a way of fighting back. Jews would save their way of life if they resisted the temptations of Rome and practiced Jewish religious law faithfully. That’s how God’s chosen people would survive. In short, the hardliner Pharisees believed that Jesus was betraying his own culture and helping to erode the entire Jewish way of life.

The Pharisees had their reasons. But so did Jesus. For Jesus, it all had to do with his experience of God. That experience trumped every other consideration. “Go and learn what this means,” he says to the Pharisees: “I desire compassion and not sacrifice.” We just don’t get the radical quality of this statement until we know that the word “compassion” in Aramaic—the actual language Jesus spoke—meant “womblike”: God is like a mother’s womb, God is life-giving, God is all-encompassing, all embracing, all inclusive. So when Jesus sees the tax collector Levi who by virtue of his social class is impure, Jesus says, “Come follow me.” How could he not? Jesus will happily eat with this man, he will happily eat with the “wrong kind of people” because that is what the Kingdom of Heaven is like, the Kingdom that unites all that the world in its cruelty divides, the Kingdom that shakes up all our understandings of right and wrong, the Kingdom in which the King himself comes to us in the form of the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the poor, the sick. “Whatever you do for one of the least of these,” says Jesus, “you do for God.”

This is why the story of Jesus eating with Levi the tax collector is a keeper. Christianity our parent shows us this page of its photo album proudly. Absolutely nothing separates us from the love of God. Doesn’t matter if you are the “wrong” kind of person. Love wins.

And now we, Christianity’s child, turn the page. The snapshot here is of the Apostle Paul, who was instrumental in the growth of the Christian faith and whose influence on Christian thought has been arguably greater than any other New Testament author.  In the picture we see Paul teaching a group of people who are not Jewish, with his hand upraised and his mouth open. A caption underneath the picture says, “There is one Lord … Jesus Christ.” That’s all the caption says. But what does it mean?

Today, we are very familiar with this Christian language of Jesus as Lord, Son of God, Savior of the world, whose story comes as a Gospel, or Good News. But most of us have forgotten the context out which Paul spoke. In Paul’s time, the only other person ever described in such terms was the Roman Emperor Augustus. Augustus as a Roman emperor was considered divine and called Son of God, Lord, Redeemer, Savior of the world, Lord of history, cosmic Savior, God of God. Everywhere you looked—coins, cups, statues, altars, temples, and forums—you saw it. It was the Roman imperial theology, and, as scholar Keith Hopkins points out, it’s how Rome unified all its conquered lands: “The stories told about emperors,” he says, “were the currency of the political system, just a coins were the currency of the fiscal system. […] The unity of a political system rests not only in shared institutions, taxes, and military defenses, but in shared symbols, in the minds of men. Emperor cults, and all that they involved … provided the context in which inhabitants of towns spread for hundreds of miles throughout the empire could celebrate their membership of a single political order and their own place within it.”

It’s Roman imperial theology. Peace comes only through the Roman way of life, which was rigidly hierarchical, with the Emperor at the top of the pyramid, then wealthy men right below. Only these people had inherent worth and dignity, and everyone else was used to serve them. The people at the base: women, poor men, slaves, the conquered. People at the base controlled, subjugated, humiliated. No compassion. Women in particular relegated to home, silence, and childbearing. Nothing egalitarian about this at all. But it was the way of Rome, the way (said Imperial theology) to a unified empire, the way to true peace. Fight Rome on this, and it’s go-time, it’s war.

Imperial theology also said that “no one shall have gods to himself, either new gods or alien gods, unless recognized by the state.” That’s Cicero talking. Follow any God you want, in other words, unless that God starts disagreeing with Rome. Believe as you like, until you start believing that it’s OK to share a meal with the wrong kind of people, that God actually cares for the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the poor, the sick. Follow a God like that, and, says Rome, you’ve fallen into superstition. Romans did not understand that word like we might today. For them, superstition wasn’t so much about irrationality as it was about beliefs and actions that undermined the power that the Emperor and wealthy men had over everybody else.

So you can imagine what Rome felt about Paul and his proclamation that Jesus is Lord. Paul’s non-hierarchical egalitarian teaching, inspired by his Lord, that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Everyone has inherent worth and dignity, not just some. Teachings like this made Paul and every person who received them criminals. Calling Jesus Lord—following a different vision of peace—was treason. And we already know how Rome responded—with bloodshed.

But Christianity spread anyhow. Jesus’ Kingdom message of radical hospitality—his Kingdom message of peace through Justice—would not die. People at the base of the social pyramid, suffering the greatest miseries under the thumb of Rome and its imperial theology, found their lives transformed. Justin Martyr, one of these early Christians, who lived around 70 years after Jesus’ death, testified, “We who formerly valued above all things the acquisition of wealth and possession, now bring what we have into a common stock, and communicate to everyone in need; we who hated and destroyed one another, and on account of their different manners would not live with men of a different tribe, now, since the coming of Christ, live familiarly with them, and pray for our enemies.” Today, two thousand years later, most forms of Christianity seem totally defined by right belief—if you don’t believe the right things you don’t belong. But back when the religion was young, and finding itself, what attracted convert after convert wasn’t right belief. It was the Christian community’s vision of justice and radical hospitality. “Wrong” kind of people, all over the world, under the thumb of Rome, wanting to be accepted for who they were. Churches knew what their true purpose was back then. To recreate that experience in Levi’s home, where Jesus is sharing a meal with anyone who’s hungry. Where love wins.

This is our parent at its finest. Christianity our parent. Behind and beneath our Unitarian Universalist Seven Principles is the inspiration of Jesus’ welcome table, the memory of those ancient churches which were more about love to God and love to humankind than dogma and doctrine. This is our parent’s undying gift to us, the child.

But now the page turns, to this picture.

What we are seeing is from the 6th century, about 450 years after Paul was murdered by Rome. Paul is here joined by a women named Thecla. Both are of the same size, and according to the logic of iconography, it means that they are of equal importance. Both have their right hands raised in a teaching gesture, meaning that both are of equal authority. But do you notice how the eyes and upraised hand of Paul are untouched, while Thecla’s eyes and upraised hand have been scratched out? The message is clear: Paul’s and Thecla’s equality is unacceptable. Only the man gets to be an apostle. The authority women used to have should be taken away.

Just listen to what scholar John Dominic Crossan says about all this: “The authentic and historical Paul, author of the seven New Testament letters he actually wrote (Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, Philemon), held that within Christian communities it made no difference whether one entered as a Christian Jew or a Christian Pagan, as a Christian man or a Christian women, as a Christian freeborn or a Christian slave. All were absolutely equal with each other. But in 1 Timothy, a letter attributed to Paul by later Christians though not actually written by him, women are told to be silent in church and pregnant at home. And a later follower of Paul inserted in 1 Corinthians that it is shameful for women to speak in church, but correct to ask their husbands for explanations at home.” John Dominic Crossan concludes: “Those pseudo-Pauline, post-Pauline, and anti-Pauline obliterations of female authority are the verbal and canonical equivalent of that visual and iconographic obliteration of Thecla’s eyes and hand…. But both defacements also bear witness to what was there before the attack. Pauline equality was negated by post-Pauline inequality.”

There’s a lot going on here, so let’s pause for a moment. We are hearing several things: that the original Kingdom message of radical equality and hospitality in Christ was over time sanitized by Christians themselves. We are hearing that lots of words were put in Paul’s mouth, after he died, words that are directly counter to what he said in his authentic letters. We are hearing that the Christian church, which is supposed to enact Jesus’ practice of table fellowship, started to limit who was welcome.

It’s very rare when we see a picture of shame like this in a parent’s photo album. We don’t usually keep pictures like this. But here it is. Christianity, at some point in its growth, wanted to become respectable. Jesus is Lord, yes … but Rome’s not so bad after all. The conversion to Christianity of the Roman Emperor Constantine in 312CE proved to be a big factor in this. One of his main acts was to impose uniformity of Christian belief across his empire, which he did through the Council of Nicea in 325 CE. But if this isn’t Rome all over again, together with its sensibility of social control and rigid hierarchy, then I don’t know what is.

Fact is, neither people nor religions are undamaged by the circumstances of their upbringing. Christianity our parent recreated, over time, the very same oppressive dynamics that the religion originally aimed to transform and transcend. Imperial Roman theology is there every time we hear that salvation is only through the right kind of Christianity, never through the wrong kind of Christianity and definitely never through any other world religion or belief system. Rome’s logic of control is there whenever we hear the message that’s it’s not OK to have your own ideas and to believe as reason and conscience lead. Rome is behind the scenes when so-called Christians in our state legislature refuse to make room at the welcome table for the wrong kind of people, people like illegal immigrants (whose only hope is to create a better life for themselves, and if we can find ways of supporting them, the result can only add to our prosperity as a nation). But no! Rome says no. Rome is right there when so-called Christians in Congress make cuts to the national budget that punish women and their reproductive rights and punish the poor and punish the middle class (who are the least able to pay) because tax-cuts for the rich are hands-off, corporate welfare is hands-off, the people at the top of the pyramid (who are the most able to pay) are hands-off. The governor of Wisconsin blaming state employees and unions for the budget crisis, when the blame actually rests with Wall Street. State employees seeing salaries and benefits slashed and jobs cut, while Wall Street titans paid out more than $20 billion in bonuses last year, and Wall Street profits totaled more than $27 billion, the second highest total on record. In Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of heaven, the King himself comes to us in the form of the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the poor, the sick. But in today’s America, too often we slam the door on the King. Right in his face.

This is the mixed legacy of our parent, Christianity. And over the years it’s given birth to many children who objected, who said, This is wrong. Lots of followers of Christ today, objecting. If ever there’s a religion that is well schooled in self-criticism, it’s Christianity. That’s where we come from. When our parent gave birth to us, one word was on our lips: reform. Go back, said our Universalist and Unitarian ancestors, to the vision of love wins. Go back to Jesus sharing a meal with the “wrong” kind of people, because nothing can separate us from the love of God, ever, in this life or the afterlife. No hell! Go back to Paul when he said, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female”—and then add to this: “there is neither gay nor straight, there is neither Christian nor Buddhist, there is neither atheist nor theist.” For all are one in the Spirit of Life, the Spirit of Love, which bears all things, hopes for all things, endures all things, is greater than faith, greater than hope, never ends. Love wins. Going forward, as a religion formed from the combination of Universalism and Unitarianism just 50 years ago, that’s what we say, and we say it because our power to say it is in our blood, in our DNA.

We flip one more page in our parent’s photo album, and look: there we are.