Was Jesus a UU?
Rev. Bob Janis-Dillon
The First Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Hunterdon County
You may have heard the one about the two strangers who met while crossing a narrow bridge. They got to talking, and soon discovered they both were Christians. “That’s wonderful!” one man said. “What denomination?” “I’m a Baptist.” “Me too! Northern or Southern Baptist?” “Southern.” “Wow, me too!” “Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?” “Northern Conservative Baptist.”
“Me, too! Northern Conservative Great Lakes Baptist Regional Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Great Lakes Baptist Regional Council of 1912?”
“Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Regional Council of 1912.”
So the second man said, “die heretic scum!” and pushed him off the bridge.[i]
Emo Phillips first wrote that joke, and it’s been retold many times, because it gets at a long-standing truth. Christians have been arguing with each other about whose is the “real” Christianity for over two thousand years now. Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox Catholic. Lutheran Protestant or Calvinist Protestant. Christianity has split more often than a couple on a soap opera.
Many of these schisms have occurred over the true nature of Jesus. In our tradition, Unitarians became their own group, and got their name, over the belief that Jesus was a great man, but not a god. There was only one God: hence the name Unitarian. Universalists, back in the early 19th century, believed that Jesus saved all souls, not just believers. They got the name Universalist because they held to Universal Salvation, all people reaching heaven through Jesus.
Nowadays, Unitarian Universalists live in, and embrace, a scientifically literate and religiously pluralist age. Because so many of us have doubts about the resurrection or the virgin birth, and because so many of us find truth to not be the exclusive province of Christianity but present in Buddhism and Paganism and many other religions as well, many Unitarian Universalists do not self-define as Christians. Some Unitarian Universalists, I’m sorry to say, even denigrate Christians en masse as a group that believes outlandish fairy tales, or a group that hypocritically espouse one set of values while living another (as if we’ve never fallen short of our ideals.)
I don’t want to contribute to the divisive, “us and them” view of humanity that is so prevalent in the world today. And yet I titled this sermon, “Was Jesus a UU?” I did this because I wanted us to not be so quick to throw Jesus of Nazareth out of our faith just because there are Christians we disagree with on certain issues. Yes, few of us believe the world was created in six days, as some Christians do. We are perfectly fine with the phrase “Happy Holidays” and tend to push the point a bit further by pointing out the pagan origins of the Yule Log and the quote-unquote Christmas tree. We don’t believe Buddhists are going to hell – in fact, as Universalists we believe whatever happens to us after we die, we are in this together, now and henceforth.
However, we don’t need to disavow Jesus for any of this. There are no instances of Jesus claiming that the world was really created in six days, nor did he make a big deal about his own birthday. And the only time he mentions Heaven and Hell is when he is urging his followers to feed the poor and welcome the stranger and visit the prisoner. “That which you do to the least of humanity, the least of the King’s brothers and sisters, you do to me,” Jesus says.[ii] In other words, you want to take care of me, take care of those who need help the most.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. For the sake of us reclaiming Jesus as our own, I will now make a case that Jesus may have been at least in sympathy with the Unitarian Universalist point of view. And, in deference to the Christian tradition of preaching, I’ll do it as a four-point sermon. First: Jesus was opposed to dogma; second, that he was tolerant; third, that he was radical about social justice, and fourth, that he was mystical about heaven. Ready? Here we go.
First: Jesus was opposed to dogma, an iconoclast of the highest order. In the Gospels, the Pharisees tell Jesus he can’t heal on the Sabbath; Jesus replies that man wasn’t made for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath for man.[iii] In other words, religious traditions like the Sabbath are meant to be of help to us, not the other way around. Time and time again, Jesus breaks the religious laws of his day, for a greater purpose. He speaks up in Temple when he is supposed to stay quiet; he has dinner with people no good religious person is supposed to sit down at a table with. The Pharisees are horrified by this. According to the Gospel, they are the most upright, particular followers of the law that there are. They have dotted every I, crossed ever t on the road to holiness.[iv] But Jesus says, it’s not about following the rules. Don’t try to get 100 percent A+ in holiness, because it can’t be done. What’s important is how you treat your sisters and brothers. Not whether you observe this religious law or that one.
Even what you believe isn’t as important as what you do. Jesus didn’t say this in so many words. He used parables. In his most famous parable, the Good Samaritan, a man on the street who has been attacked and left for dead is helped by a Samaritan. The Samaritan tended to the man’s wounds with own hands, pouring healing herbs on, wrapping him in bandages. Then he picks him up, puts him on his donkey and takes him to an Inn, and pays for a room so he can recover.[v] Now, it’s significant that this man was a Samaritan. In first-century Palestine, a Samaritan was a nobody, less than a nobody. They aren’t considered real Jews; in fact they are considered dangerous outsiders. It’s like a white person being rescued by a black person in the 1950s, or being rescued by an Arab the year after 9-11. So here is Jesus saying, the person who reaches out to her neighbor is really the good person. Doesn’t matter that they live somewhere else, are of a different tribe, believe something else. We’re all in this together. All neighbors, and what matters is how we treat each other, not dogma. Jesus is very clearly saying: the person you disparage today may save your life tomorrow.
Which brings us to my second point: Jesus was not only opposed to dogma, he was strongly in favor of tolerance. He hung out with everybody. He ate with tax collectors and sinners, talked with prostitutes; had women in his inner circle in a male-dominated society; healed the sick in an age where no one went within five feet of lepers and other outcasts. Tolerance and respect for all is a pillar of our Unitarian Universalist tradition, and Jesus is certainly a source of that tradition. He saw people as far too quick to condemn others based on what they felt was right and wrong. Far too quick to play God. “Judge not, lest ye be judged,”[vi] he said. Don’t take notice of some fault in your neighbor without noticing your own.
The religious people of his day responded to this, “but Jesus, what about people who are doing wrong? Don’t we have to judge them?” Well, Jesus answered that with the woman who had committed adultery. The proper judgment of the day was that a woman who had committed adultery should be stoned to death (actually, the definition of adultery at the time was different for women then for men). And Jesus responded, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”[vii] Of course, as you can imagine, no one picked up that rock. Jesus is very clearly sending a message: we’re all human, all of us do some stuff right and some stuff wrong, and any of us who think with certainty that we can judge the actions of others is suffering from hubris. We’d be a lot better working on our own faults, then looking around for someone else to call a sinner or an evildoer or a bad person.
Now, Jesus did think we should strive for good. My third point is that Jesus had a vision of justice that was dangerous to the established order, then and now. You heard the words of the reading, Jesus famous sermon: “Blessed are the poor.”[viii] These words, from the book of Luke, are so scandalous that Matthew changed it to “blessed are the poor in spirit,” which reads a lot better to middle-class tastes. Blessed are the poor in spirit; a nice sense that anyone of us who have hard times can be a part of the kingdom of God. But Jesus not only says “blessed are the poor”, not “poor in spirit” in Luke, the word he uses in Hebrew for “poor” means someone who is a destitute beggar. It’s as if he is saying blessed are the homeless, they are the chosen ones in heaven. Scandalous! The homeless junkie on the corner; the street preacher; the borderline insane woman at the bus station? Theirs is the kingdom of heaven?
For a long time, Western Europe and America has fostered this myth of a kind of middle-class Jesus, not too rich, not too poor, that espouses some good deeds: you know, giving a little money to charity now and then, but at the end of the way gives heaven to people who believe the right way, and belong to the right church, the people who are proper. This is simply not who Jesus was. First of all – and I’m indebted the scholarship of John Dominic Crossan here[ix] – first of all, there was no middle class in first-century Palestine. Secondly, if Jesus was a carpenter and the son of a carpenter, in First-Century Palestine that would mean that Jesus was even lower than a peasant. The peasant were subsistence farmers, 2/3 of their crop went to the rich. Those who couldn’t even rent a plot of land to farm on were artisans. A carpenter was not a middle-class profession but a nobody. Jesus gathered around him fisherman, unemployed relatives, and tax collectors, who were sort of an equivalent of debt collectors and loan sharks today – they did a necessary job but were maligned by everyone. As John Dominic Crossan put it, Jesus’ Kingdom of Heaven was a kingdom “of nuisances and nobodies.”[x] When Jesus says the poor shall inherit the Kingdom of God, he is turning the established order on its head.
Nor is this a mere philosophical exercise. There were, in fact, numerous revolutionary movements in that era, poor people’s revolts where apocalyptic preachers gathered hundreds, sometimes thousands of followers and attacked the Roman rule. All were extremely unsuccessful, in military terms; thousands of people in Palestine and Egypt and other places were crucified by the authorities, just as Jesus was.[xi] The royal powers-that-be thought it ludicrous that the poor thought they could be in charge in society in any real way. This is a conversation that is still ongoing. Jesus’ call for radical poverty – to give all one’s possessions to the poor and seek a different kind of success than material success – is often ridiculed, but it is still a part of the conversation.
Jesus was more than just an apocalyptic, poverty-proclaiming rabble rouser, though he was that. The Jesus of the Gospels outlined a religious perspective that was as beautiful as it was mystical. “If you only had the faith of a mustard seed, you could move mountains.”[xii] But what is this faith, that so little of it could change the world? Well, Jesus answers this question in parables and riddles, speaking of the Kingdom of God, the true, hidden nature of the universe in which the first shall be last and the last shall be first. This is of course paradoxical, but Jesus insists this paradox is the true, ultimate nature of the universe.
In a much misquoted passage, Jesus says if you want to live life to the fullest, you must first give it up.[xiii] What does that mean? To really live, you must first give up life. Many people have their own view on this enigmatic passage. I think of it through the lens of Buddhist non-attachment. Jesus didn’t know of Buddhism, as far as we know, but he did seem to espouse the view that clinging to the material things of this life wasn’t the way to happiness and inner peace. You have to be able to give life up to get the most of it. He said this again and again using different metaphors. The kingdom of heaven belongs to the servant, the one who serves others, he says to his disciples. The kingdom of heaven belongs to those who are like children – to the innocent, to the helpless, to those who are willing to live in wonder and dependence. The kingdom of heaven belongs to the poor.
And Jesus said that the kingdom of Heaven was at hand. Some take this to mean that the apocalypse could happen any minute, but I prefer to take it more literally, that the kingdom of heaven is near enough to touch, to taste, to feel, near enough that we can live in it this day, today, today, if only we let go to hanging on to the existing structures of this life, the things we have, the things we want, the things that protect us from nameless fears; and letting go and embracing that all that really exists are meaningful relationships. Give away our lives and live in love.
So there you have it. The four point sermon on why Jesus was Unitarian Universalist: he attacked dogma; he preached and lived tolerance; he advocated a radical egalitarianism of justice for all, starting with the poor; and he used poetry and parables to hint at a world where the good life was accessible to all, at a moment’s notice. In short, Jesus may not have been officially a member of the Unitarian Universalist Association, but he wasn’t a million miles away from us, either.
It’s an interesting argument. But I must add that my sisters and brothers of the Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912 would probably respond to this sermon by claiming that I had chosen texts selectively from the Gospel, and preached those texts from my own skewed interpretation. I suspect they’re probably right on both counts. Everyone, throughout the history of Christianity, has constructed their own Jesus from the texts and traditions, according to what they want to see. I am no exception.
Are their texts in the Bible that are more dogmatic in nature, less centered around tolerance and justice? Of course. There are reasons why conservative evangelicals always start with John 3:16, “I am the Way the Truth and the Light” and rarely with “Blessed are the poor.” Almost every statement you can make about Jesus, you can find a text somewhere that seems to disprove it. One of the reasons Jesus has been such a fascinating figure for the millennia is that he is not monolithic. You can find many different Jesuses through the ages, and all have something to say to somebody.
So I would ask us to be humble enough to recognize that we don’t know that our Jesus is the true Jesus. And I would ask us to be bold enough that we can claim Jesus in our own tradition, that there is, very clearly, in the Gospels a Jesus outlined who follows his own drummer, loves everybody, tries to make the world better for those who are the worst off, and has a vision of the good life here and now, right in the midst of our troubles and woes. Does that make him Unitarian Universalist? I don’t know. But this is the Jesus our Unitarian and Universalist ancestors proclaimed, and the world is not so divided that no one would pay heed to such a Jesus today. To all who would listen, let us speak of a radical love for all that responds even to hate, a world led by servants, children, nuisances and nobodies, and a heaven near enough to touch.
Blessed be, AMEN
[ii] Matthew 25:31-46
[iii] Mark 2:23-27
[iv] Whether the Pharisees were really so dogmatic, to the point of forbidding healing, has been questioned by modern scholarship, both Jewish and Christian. It could be that later writers made them out to be so to prove a point.
[v] Luke 10:25-37
[vi] Matthew 7:1
[vii] John 8:3-11
[viii] Luke 6:20
[ix] from Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, John Dominic Crossan
[x] ibid. The “class status” of Jesus is much debated in historical Jesus scholarship. Other scholars, such as Geza Vermes, suggest that tekton (“handyman” or more specifically carpenter) might instead be a reference to a highly literate rabbi.
[xii] Matthew 17:20
[xiii] Matthew 16:24-26 The King James translates it, famously as “what profits a man to gain the whole world, but lose his soul?” This is beautiful poetry but a poor translation: in reality the same word, psyche (life, being, the whole of a man) is used where KJV puts “life” and “soul”. In King James Jesus’ echoes between Matthew 16:25 and 16:26 are lost.