Seeking Resurrection

First, let’s be clear, resurrection is not resuscitation. Despite the fact that I had a student pastor who, one Easter, compared Jesus with a zombie during children’s time, resurrection was – and is – a mystical experience. Unfortunately, Christianity has often turned resurrection into resuscitation. In fact, in the early 1900s, bodily resurrection was one of the ”Five Fundamentals” that one had to believe if you were to declare yourself a “real” Christian.

(For the full audio version, click here.)

Paul’s Jewish heritage and theology may have had a lot to do with shaping Christianity’sEaster-Tulips views on Jesus’ death (which we talked about Friday night), but his writings, which are the earliest Christian writings, say nothing about a bodily resurrection – a resuscitation of the body where all functions begin working again. In fact, Paul sounds positively mystical, and it seems that what he truly speaks of is transformation. He says things like this:

  • We shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye (I Cor. 15:51-52)
  • “flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God” ( I Cor. 15:50)
  • That which is “mortal” must “put on immortality” ( 1 Cor. 15:54)
  • Trying to describe mystical experiences is near impossible, they are ineffable by definition, but Paul tries to do so by speaking of a “spiritual body” and saying that “Christ being raised from the dead , will never die again; death has no dominion over him… The life he lives he lives to God” (Rom 6:9-10)

Paul clearly believed that God raised Jesus to new life, but nowhere does that mean resuscitation of his body. The Gospel of Mark, the earliest of the four gospels, holds no such concept either. It isn’t until Luke (circa late 80s, early 90s) that Jesus can walk, talk, eat, interpret scripture and be touched.

No, resurrection was about something completely new, an expanded horizon, consciousness, and life.

Think about your life for a minute… when have you experienced what you felt was ultimate failure? Perhaps ultimate loss?

You found yourself without hope, without knowing what to do next, or even wanting to do something next. You were lost, aching, confused, bereft, sapped of life and energy. You were filled with questions: What had gone wrong? What had you done wrong? Or what could you have done differently? What on earth had you been thinking? Why?

And then, probably slowly, over days, months or even years, out of the ashes you began to rise, dust off, see possibilities and opportunities and a chance for new life. Perhaps it was a job loss, a lost relationship, the death of a loved one, or a horrible mistake on your part, but with time you moved on, healed, loved again, made amends, learned and grew, found new, maybe even better, jobs and relationships. Where a door had slammed shut in your face, a proverbial window had opened.

Hope hadn’t died. Life was still available and in abundance, but things had changed. You had stepped into the unknown and the uncertainty until clarity emerged.

And, hindsight being the wonderful gift that it is, when you finally looked back, you could see how your failure or loss had helped to bring forth a deeper, wiser, more courageous part of yourself. You could see your transformation. In a deeply metaphorical and mystical way, you had died to something and been reborn, experienced resurrection.

When Jesus died, many would have seen him as a failure. Their hope died. He wasn’t what they thought he was… he said he was One with God, but then he died. How could that be? God didn’t die. God was infinite and powerful. But Jesus was finite… his love, his forgiveness, his life… all bound by those moments in time. It was over. He was not the Messiah. He was dead. The Jewish authorities said good riddance. The Roman government was happy to get rid of another troublemaker. And his followers were probably ready to chalk it up to a gross error in judgment on their part. Jesus was a failure. As much as they may have loved him and believed in him, his death confirmed it.

Or so it seemed…

Because then… out of death came new life… it was the ultimate transformation and confirmation for John that what Jesus had been saying was true. In the mystical experience his followers had of him after his death, they knew everything he had taught them had been true. He was One with the Divine; this world did not have a hold on him. They just hadn’t quite understood. It was not about inhabiting a body, it was about a spiritual oneness with the Source of life and love, and it was unbounded, unlimited… that life and love could not be stopped, even by death.

The thing is, we often find ourselves very Peterish in the face of what we can’t be certain of or can’t see. In the Gospel of John, after Mary of Magdala discovers the empty tomb, Peter and the “beloved disciple” rush to see for themselves. The “beloved disciple” takes one look in the empty tomb, sees the grave cloths discarded, or wrapped and placed to the side, and believes. But it doesn’t say that Peter believes, it just isn’t that easy for him! Then they went home, not understanding, the author of John says, “the scripture that Jesus was to rise from the dead.”

Peter is truly the epitome of the human struggle between what we yearn to be true, and what lived reality seems to tell us. It is the struggle to believe in transformation even in the midst of pain. And, it is the struggle to believe beyond what we can see. I’m sure Peter wanted to believe that everything Jesus had said was true, but instead, Peter was full of doubts… maybe someone did just steal the body? Maybe it was a set up? Who knew?

We all react differently when we experience what appear to be failures, or loss, in our lives. Sometimes we are quick to believe that resurrection is possible, that we will find new life, a new way of being, and that there can even be abundance there. Sometimes our fears and doubts and the lack of certainty and physical evidence (I’ll believe it when I see it) holds us back.

But the resurrection message of Easter is that death does not end us. In whatever form that death takes, it does not end us, resurrection is not simply possible, but probably. And in that resurrection there is always an expanded consciousness, a new perspective, and broadened horizons.



Day of Tears

Some of you perhaps think I’ve pushed the envelope too far by presuming to rename one candlespiralof the most sacred days in the Christian tradition. And, despite declaring myself Queen of the World (or at least of Sacred Journeys), and renaming Good Friday, The Day of Tears, I still find myself compelled to explain it with the parenthetical “aka Good Friday” (which makes me cringe every time I do it).

(For the full audio version, click here.)

There is little agreement about where the name Good Friday came from, and in fact, in some areas of Europe it is called Sacred or Holy Friday. That, at least, makes a little more sense to me. But the bottom line reason that I felt compelled to change the name was that I objected to the underlying reason most Christians will tell you it was a “good” day.

I think it is safe to say that most Christians will tell you that what makes Good Friday good is that it was the day that Jesus willfully submitted to God’s plan of dying on a cross in order to bear the punishment for the sins of the world, which he took into himself, a sinless man. In this act, human mortality, which was part of Adam and Even’s punishment for eating the fruit, was erased. All people would now be able to experience eternal life with God because justice had been served.

My heart, my soul, and my mind simply cannot find any sense in this theology.  The God that Jesus showed to us – a God of compassion, forgiveness and unconditional love – would never demand a violent death as payment for eating a piece of fruit (which was part of a mythological story in the first place) or any other sin for that matter.

Much of this faulty theology comes from reading Paul too literally. Paul gave us our earliest Christian writings, but all that he wrote about Jesus was through the lens of his very rigid and devout Jewish upbringing, customs and traditions.

For example, Jesus is called the “Lamb of God” because Paul metaphorically saw in Jesus the Passover celebration, in Yom Kippur, and in the suffering Servant of Isaiah. And now we can buy little lamb butters and lamb cakes at the grocery store for Easter thanks to Paul!

Passover celebrates the Hebrews’ escape from slavery in Egypt.  In that story, to convince the Pharaoh to let the people go, an angel of death visited the city to kill all the first born, but passed over the doors of the Hebrews who had sacrificed a lamb and put lamb’s blood on the doorpost. That lamb, which came to be known as the Paschal lamb, had the power to banish death.

Yom Kippur is the Jewish day of atonemenet. On that day two perfect, blemishless animals are required for the ceremony. A goat, upon which the people symbolically placed their sins before driving it out into the wilderness (hence we now have the term “scapegoat”). And a lamb, which was sacrificed as an offering of appeasement to God for the sins of the people.

Isaiah 53 was a metaphorical description of Israel as the suffering servant who was taken into exile to bear the sins of the people. Many of the phrases bear a remarkable resemblance to Jesus.

Please remember that Paul and the gospels were written hundreds of years after these traditions were established and Isaiah was written. They fashioned their stories using words, and images that were familiar to them. Paul metaphorically used these images and non-Jews took them literally.

In the gospel of John, which we’ve been studying for the last 6 weeks, there is no doctrine of atonement. And John takes a decidedly different approach to Jesus crucifixion than the other three gospels.

John’s Jesus is completely in control at this point in the story: there is no sorrow, no fear, no anxiety that we sense from Jesus like there is in the other gospels. There is no Last Supper, per se, with the request to “remember me.” There is no going off alone to pray in the Garden of Gethsemane with a plea to take the cup away.

There was no fear in Jesus because, as John understood him, “the world” had no power over him, and could not kill the essence of who he was.

Perhaps for John it was a “good Friday” because John firmly believed that the death of Jesus on the cross was the ultimate revelation of the glory of God. Why? Because Jesus freely gave his life and his love away. Not because God required it, but because he was living in deep integrity to the God of love that he lived in oneness with.

Every year Christians around the world relive the story of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. And there is power in it. But with it usually comes the self-flagellation of guilt and sinfulness. “Jesus died because of me” most traditional conservative theology wants us to believe.

My Good Friday services have told the story over and over again for 19 years. It was tradition. Last night we didn’t read the story. Instead we read reflections of his life and remembered the man, instead of the way he died.

For John, instead of dying for our sins, Jesus died so that we might achieve an expanded humanity.

Jesus’ life and death were not about salvation from sin and death, but salvation to life… bringing us back to ourselves. Helping us to know that we are much more than we think we are. At our core there is divinity which is brings us into Oneness with our Source, our God, with Love, and with the rest of creation. Our true humanity is life, light, and love… and an abundance of it.

Jesus calls us beyond this world, beyond our egos, beyond the negativity, beyond the fear, beyond the guilt and grief. He calls us to a place of love that ever ends and love that has no limits. Love that accepts each and every one of us because it sees the beautiful soul deep within.

We forget so easily.

Yes, it is a Day of Tears. We’re sad that this world couldn’t see Jesus for the master and teacher that he was. We’re sad that the Jewish and Roman authorities thought it would be better to eliminate the threat of difference and change, instead of embracing the wisdom he had to share. And, perhaps we’re even sadder that the world doesn’t seem to have changed much, and that we let ourselves get too caught up in the world sometimes.

That’s why we have today. That’s why we gather on Sundays. To remind ourselves that there is more, that we are more. To let the eternal Christ presence continue to guide, teach and lead us.




Relationships NOT Religion

(This is the fifth week in a sermon series based on John Shelby Spong’s recent book, “The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic.”)

During all these weeks studying the Gospel of John have we ever seen Jesus proclaiming the accolades of religion? Telling people to just follow the laws of Judaism? Or encouraging people to start a new, better religion and maybe name it Christianity, after him, of course? No. Not once.

That’s because it was never about religion for Jesus, it was about relationships. Relationships with all other people – Samaritans, Gentiles, Jews, Romans, rich, poor, men, and women alike – and a relationship with God. And the two were intimately tied together. If one said they loved God, but did not show love, compassion and caring for other people – no matter who they were – then they clearly had no clue what it really meant to experience and share the love of the Divine.

Yesterday was Palm Sunday, but that story is merely a blip on John’s radar screen. The much bigger story is the scene John sets the night that Jesus is betrayed. Unlike the other three gospels, there is no Last Supper, no pleading with God in the Garden of Gethsemane to “take this cup away,” and no disciples falling asleep. What we have instead is a beautiful story of Jesus washing the disciples feet.

There is no record of the foot washing incident anywhere other thafoot washing 2n John. Like the other stories unique to the fourth gospel, scholars believe it was not a factual event, but that it had deep symbolic meaning and “truth” for the author and its intended audience. Remember the last editing of the Gospel of John was written around the year 90 after a group of Jewish followers of Jesus were finally banished from their synagogue for their beliefs. Presumably they had been trying to reform their synagogue and religion from within for a number of decades, but the many who would not believe, and did not want their traditions and religion to change, had finally had enough. It was time for these heretics to go.

The parallel between the original disciples and those outcast followers is striking. All of them would most likely have lost family and friends in their decision to follow Jesus. The first disciples left businesses and homes, had no stable place to lay their head and subsisted on the generosity of people who believed in Jesus and his message as they traveled from place to place. The thought of losing their leader would have been devastating. When the Johannine followers were kicked out of the synagogue, it made them unclean and an anathema to talk with, work with or perhaps even deal with on a business level. Plus they lost their place of worship and followers of Jesus were openly persecuted. What would their future look like now? How would they go on?

So, the scene of the foot washing and the farewell discourses that follow, use the story of Jesus to inform the issues of this exiled group.

In the finely crafted story of the foot washing (John 13), Jesus helps prepare the disciples for his “going away” by bringing all of his teachings together in one powerful act. As the “one who will betray him” is also a recipient of his humble act of service, so they are reminded of Jesus’ policy of inclusion of all people. As Jesus serves those who have considered him their “Rabbi,” the disciples are shown once again that all boundaries need to be brought down. Status, worthiness, laws, gender… none of these exist when one lives in oneness with God. Most importantly, Jesus gives them a stunning example of what it really means to love as God loves – unconditionally, without limits, wastefully (as John Shelby Spong says).

The relationship with God was not a passive “believing” it was an active participation in love.

Over and over in this gospel, we’ve heard the message that we should strive to be one with God as Jesus was one with God. I found myself looking for further instruction about this within the book of John. Is there a process? A procedure to follow? Is there a perfect prayer or way to worship that will achieve this? Basically, no. The answer is much simpler, and much harder, than any of these. To love, as Jesus loved, without limits or reservation, is to be One with God. We need to get our prejudices, fears, negativity and judgments out of the way.

And there’s a flip side. Not only do we need to love without limits, we need to accept love.

Remember how Peter tried to get out of Jesus washing his feet? Perhaps he felt he wasn’t worthy, or it wasn’t his place to be served by his mentor, or maybe he had ugly feet and felt a little embarrassed and vulnerable about that. Regardless, Jesus made it clear, “If you don’t let me wash you, then you have no part in me.”

Have you ever tried to give someone a gift and had them reject it? It feels awful doesn’t it, like your very being has been rejected? I figure this is how Jesus felt. Jesus was essentially saying to Peter, “I’m giving you my very being, my love, which is God’s love (as we are One). I know who you are and I love you without judgment or qualification. But unless you receive my love, we can’t be one, and then you can’t be one with the Divine, either.”

As John Shelby Spong put it, “Love is the power that binds us to God and to one another” – giving and receiving.

The gospel of John leads us to understand that God permeates all things, including ourselves. The Divine is within. But it is almost as if we’ve got God handcuffed and locked in a deep dark closet of our souls unless we release God by tapping on the power of unconditional love.

If we want to be One with God, it is not about saying the sinners prayer and inviting Jesus into our hearts. It is consciously accepting God’s love for us (as imperfect as we are) and then choosing to do and be the loving thing (as imperfect as everyone else is)!

It is about letting go of the negativity. It is about not judging. It is about dealing with our own anger, fear, insecurities, and triggers, so we don’t take our stuff out on someone else. It is about not taking things personally, and not bashing others for their opinions. It is about doing the most loving thing we can do in any situation.

The more we live in love and offer love – wastefully – the more we are one with the Divine.



Who was this Jesus guy?

(This is the fourth week in a sermon series based on John Shelby Spong’s recent book, “The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic.”)

Who was this Jesus guy?

To those who believed in what he taught and how he lived, he was the Light of the World, the Living Water, the Bread of Life. He brought healing and wholeness through a ministry of love, compassion, kindness and forgiveness.light of the world

To those who were fearful of change and were determined not to believe, he was a sinner, a rebel and a heretic. He broke their most sacred laws. He included people who were considered unclean and unrighteous. And, he spoke as if he knew God intimately.This last was met with equal parts scorn, anger and cynicism.

At this point in my sermon series, we find ourselves in chapters 8 and 9 of the gospel of John. Tension between the followers of Jesus and the Pharisees who condemn him has continued to grow. Jesus has begun to speak openly about those who plan to kill him. Clearly, he says, “my message has found no room in you.” And so, despite the fact that he has brought them light – clarity, vision, a connection with the Divine – they would die separated from God and empty. Truth and freedom were offered, but they preferred their laws and their egos.

The final split of these two factions, Spong suggests, is metaphorically depicted in the story of the man born blind in John 9. Just as the blind man comes to see with the help of Jesus, refuses to deny him, and is subsequently kicked out of the synagogue for it, so it was for the followers of Jesus in the Johannine community circa 88 CE.

I suppose the message for us it two-fold. Where in our lives are we holding tight to old ways simply for the sake of security and fear of change? And where do we need to have the courage to risk rejection and isolation for standing up for what we believe in?

Will we choose darkness or light? Security or freedom? Blindness or sight? Laws or compassion? Ego or new consciousness?



Mystical Communion

(This is the third week in a sermon series based on John Shelby Spong’s recent book, “The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic.”)

The Gospel of John is the only gospel that does not have the familiar scene of the Last Supper.

Chalice with wine and bread. Background with copy space

Chalice with wine and bread. Background with copy space

There is no breaking and sharing of bread, nor is there a blessing and sharing of wine. But what we do find in John is language that has heavily influenced the doctrine and liturgy about Communion or Eucharist.

(For the full audio version, click here.)

At this point in John’s gospel, Jesus has just fed the multitude and followed the disciples to the other side of the Sea of Galilee before the crowd carried him off to crown him king. But the crowd of people simply follows Jesus and when they gather around him Jesus essentially says, “You’re not here because you recognized a sign of something more, you’re here because you ate your fill of bread. But, seriously, you shouldn’t work for perishable food, but for food that lasts for all eternity, which I can give you.” (John 6:26-27)

They don’t quite track what Jesus is saying. “Give us another sign,” they demand, “like Moses giving manna from heaven.”

In paraphrase, Jesus responds, “Listen to me!  I AM [ego eimi – the original Greek which echoes God’s works to Moses at the burning bush] the bread of life. No one who comes to me will ever be hungry. No one who believes in me will be thirsty.”

Then Jesus uses a graphic metaphor that seems to go badly. He says, “If you don’t eat my flesh and drink my blood you won’t have life in you.”

Wow. That’s just a bit much. People can’t get over the graphic images, they can’t leave their literal minds behind. Verse 66 tells us that many of his disciples broke away after this. He still had the Twelve (John reassures us), but many people just couldn’t hang with this kind of language and imagery. Can’t say as I blame them.

It is precisely this language and imagery, taken literally, that was the impetus for the doctrine of transubstantiation in the Catholic Church. The doctrine that says that the host and wine actually turn into the body and blood of Christ. Children are indoctrinated in this belief in second grade when they participate in their First Holy Communion.

What is drastically wrong about this, is that it was never meant to be taken literally.

In the Gospel of John there are layers of meanings, references to Old Testament stories and themes, and mystical concepts that repeat over and over again… most of it couched in characters, language, and situations that are symbolic in nature. But without deep knowledge of the Old Testament, of the situation going on at the time of the last editing of John, or knowledge of Jewish mystical concepts, all we are left with is a literal reading, which doesn’t do justice to any of the stories in John.

Symbolically, Jesus was the great prophet that Moses promised in Deuteronomy 18:15-17.

Symbolically, Jesus was so connected with God, was such a conduit for the Divine that the book of John is full of “I Am” statements to remind us.For John, Jesus and YHWH were ONE in mystical union.

Symbolically, John’s Jesus was using flesh and blood language to entreat his followers to take his life into their life. Sometimes we hear people use the phrase “I gave my heart and soul” or “I gave my life” to the company, or to their family, or whatever. Jesus was basically saying the same thing. He gave his heart, his soul, and his life to helping people connect with God in a way that was beyond religious and social boundaries, beyond religion and rules, beyond gender, beyond the synagogue.

This paradigm shift was huge. This was radical and heretical thought for the Jews. God was not up in the sky, but within each person. Faith was not about following the laws and traditions, but about believing that oneness with the Divine was possible.

How do we get there? How do we achieve oneness with God? Believe… to believe is the first step. Believe that the core of our beings is light and goodness, peace and joy. Believe that Oneness already exists within us, we’ve just covered it up. Unity with the Essence of the Universe and therefore with all things.

Every major religious tradition (at least the mystical sect of each) will tell us the same thing. God is within. Christians mystics call it the Christ nature. Buddhists call it your Buddha nature. Hindus call it Atman, the indwelling God. Jewish mystics tell us that the essence of divinity is found in every single thing. The Tao de Ching states, “We know that each part is the whole, and the whole is in each part.” And the Islamic text, the Hadith, says, “He who knows himself knows his Lord.” All these refer to the mystery of self-knowledge, or going within and discovering one’s true nature.

If only believing this wasn’t so difficult for us humans who have our egos and baggage to deal with.