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April 5, 2009: “Jesus Asks in Every Age: Who Do YOU Say That I Am? “

From For Christ’s Sake, Tom Harpur
The Spring of Living Waters: A Parable for Our Time

            There was once a vast, rocky wilderness, void of all vegetation but the hardiest thorns and briers.  Through the middle of the desert stretched a rough highway along which the whole of humanity was making its pilgrimage.  They straggled along footsore and thirsty, tired and frightened by a myriad of nameless fears.

           But at one point along the way a clear spring of running water bubbled up out of the naked rock.  No one knows who first discovered it; that secret has long since been lost.  Yet for countless generations the people journeying along the road stopped to refresh themselves there.  And as they did so, they found to their surprise and delight that the waters not only slaked their thirst, but satisfied deeper needs as well.  Somehow in drinking at that source they found their minds and bodies healed, their hopes and courage growing strong again.  Life became rich with fresh meaning.  They found they could pick up their various burdens and take to the way once more with new hearts.  They called the spot the place of living waters and the spring itself, the water of life.

              Now, as time went on various people began to roll up boulders around the spring as monuments of gratitude.  As the generations and centuries passed, these monuments became more elaborate and ornate, until at last the spring was totally enclosed, arched over by a great fortress like cathedral and protected by high stone walls.  A special caste of men, with special robes and a language all their own, came into being to set rules for preserving the purity of the well.  Access was no longer free to all, and disagreements as to who could drink there, and when, and how, sometimes grew so bitter that wars were fought over them.

          The victors always put up more monuments and safeguards in gratitude for winning, and so it was that, as the years rolled by, the spring itself was bricked over and lost from view.  No one remembered when exactly it was done or by whom.  But when the pilgrims complained about the loss and many were found fainting or even near death on the road, those now in charge either mocked their cries or simply ignored them.  Beautiful ceremonies were carried out inside the holy place to celebrate what the well had done for pilgrims many years before, while at the very gates people were dying of thirst.

            Eventually other water was piped in, at great expense, from distant places, but it seemed a mere shadow compared to the reality that once had been there for all to enjoy.  From time to time strange men came in from the wilderness saying that those who guarded the ancient well should repent and tear away all the obstructions so that the masses might drink and be restored.  Later they would be called prophets and honored greatly in the shrine.  But at the moment of their protest they were rejected.  Indeed, many were put to death.

               And so in the end the vast majority of people who journeyed along that route avoided the now-sacred place of living waters and survived by whatever way they could.  Many, when they passed the shrine and recalled the stories they had learned in youth about the hidden spring, were seized with nostalgia and longings too deep to utter.  Others struggled on embittered by cynical doubt that the healing waters had ever existed.  But sometimes in the night, when all the chanting and ceremonies were stilled, those few pilgrims who stole into the shrine to rest for a moment in some corner out of sight were sure they could hear an almost miraculous sound.  From somewhere deep under the foundations of the great rock structure there came the faint echo of running water.  And their eyes would brim with tears. ...

 The great painter, Rafael, having been engaged by the Vatican to paint frescoes in various churches and cathedrals, was once visited by a couple of cardinals (the clerical type, not the bird type) who were known to be quite demanding and quite fussy. Sure enough, they began to criticize his work, finally complaining loudly: "The Apostle Paul has much too red a face!"  Rafael, impatient with the interruption as well as their attitude, answered them brusquely: "He is blushing to see into whose hands the church has fallen."

Rabbi Harold Kushner is the famous writer rabbi and was once asked who he thought Jesus was. It's very hard for me to know who Jesus was because we have so little reliable information and much of what we do have was written long after he lived and filtered through the belief systems of the people who were writing. My understanding of Jesus is that he was Gods instrument for bringing the moral teachings of the Torah to all of humanity rather than having them having be the property of the Israelites alone

 Then he was asked about the Second Coming: Since I don't believe in the First Coming, I cant very well believe in the Second! I do have friend who says the argument between Jews and Christians will be resolved very easily. Just wait for Jesus to come, and then ask him if he has ever been here before.

 A rabbi that I got to know in San Antonio wrote a wonderful book about Reform Judaism titled, Making the Timeless Timely, and he also said some interesting things about Jesus, and about Unitarian Universalism. First, about UUism he devoted a chapter and said that we are the main competition for Reform Judaism; it's the next step especially for agnostics or atheists reform Jews! But he also said that Jesus taught nothing new. He taught nothing that was not taught in the Torah. What was new was that he taught it with a new kind of authority. And I think that  is one of the things that made Jesus special, not divine, but special. I will argue, that Jesus made the Torah, the Law, as well as Love itself. Human; yes, one could even say that Jesus made God human.

 You see how I changed that around? Not that Jesus was divine, part of the Trinitarian formula that has challenged logic for millennia forcing the choice of faith or frustration, not that Jesus was the Messiah, but that Jesus was the one that said we are ALL God, or that the Kingdom of God is within us.

What I want to talk about this morning is the question that Jesus is reported to have asked his disciples- Who do you say that I am? It is a question that is at the base of Christianity, but is asked in every age. The answer has often become cloaked in mythology or orthodoxy where the wrong answer might result in death. We religious liberals have shied away from that question, but I submit that it remains to be asked and answered by us as well. It comes from the Gospel of Matthew when he asks his disciples Matthew 16: 13-19

“Who do people say the Son of Man is?” It is as if it is a trick question. And of course, the gospel writers, whoever the anonymous writer or writers of this gospel may be are not above that, because this is all about proving points and reading back into answers.

They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

“But what about you?” he asks Peter, who remember in the Catholic Church will be seen as the first pope and partly because of this answer-“Who do YOU say I am?”
Peter answers “You are the Christ (or the Messiah) the Son of the living God.”
Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church. Peter, by the way, means rock. The Catholics then believe that this means this is the Jesus starting the church with Peter as first pope as you will, though Protestants view this differently.

But the  answer to the question often is the beginning of the definition of whether we are a Christina and accept the Christina belief that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God, and then further, accept the doctrines of the church, though Jesus never required the,. of course.

The problem with answering the question is that there are many ways to approach it, There is the human and historical Jesus of Nazareth and there is the Christian Christ of the Church; can they be the same?

Gandhi- would say about Jesus I have never been interested in a historical Jesus. I should not care if it was proved by someone that the man called Jesus never lived and that what was narrated in the gospels was a figment of the writers imagination. For the Sermon on the Mount would still be true to me.

Do we concentrate on the ministry of Jesus, the miracles, the cross, the resurrection, the atonement, that sacrifice for our sins, the incarnation where God dwelt within him and came down to earth? Do we talk of that second coming in a time of science and rational thinking, though studies show a majority of people still don't believe in evolution in this country, though they do in Europe!

 From what we know, Jesus was at the very least, a radical reformer and brought a new experience or a new expression of the divine. Historically, Jesus represented a shift in paradigm, a new practice of religious living more radical than the earlier Jewish prophets who also, by the way, were reported to have performed many of the miracles attributed to Jesus. Indeed, had early Christianity remained a Jewish cult, Jesus might have become just another great prophet.

Yet the Moslem scholar, Mohmoud Ayoub, in an essay from a book called, The Experience of Religious Diversity, says:  "There are rare individuals who seem to live up to ideal goals which all religions strive toward. The goals are universal truths in relation to the universe and the transcendent, whether it be an ineffable power, the God of Creation, wisdom and love, or a state of bliss and fullness of being, nirvana, heaven, and the like. The prophet, sage, or saint, is one, who, having himself realized the goal, becomes a teacher, guru, guide, murshid, or transmitter of the divine will to humankind, a prophet or messenger of God."

Instead, his followers opened up a new religion, but one firmly rooted in Judaism, to the whole world instead to just the chosen people of Israel. It should be noted, however, that many of the sayings of Jesus speak of coming only for the Jews and not the Gentiles. Jesus' message about the kingdom or reign of God being within us, rather than something above or beyond us was a universalizing element in the opening of Christianity to all. It seems strange, then, that Christianity would come to see itself as the new chosen people and would come to believe that only through Christianity and right belief could one be saved from eternal damnation.

Yet for me the Universalist part of our heritage was that concept that a loving god would not create original sin and search the scriptures high and low   and see if Jesus teaches such a thing. Indeed, neither the Jews nor the Moslems, though they too share the story of Adam and Eve come up with the idea of original sin. Thank Augustine for that Idea; by the way, as far as I can tell it was actually original to him! Jesus did not teach it, nor did he teach that he was a sacrificial lamb, because none was needed! Instead of the atonement, as I've said before, and its not original to me, pronounce it at-one-ment and it then becomes a teaching of Jesus trying to explain that we are one with God. And yes, it must be said of course that we all find our own interpretation of Jesus teaching, because we must use our own reason. But Jesus also did not claim to be divine.

Emerson shocked Unitarians even in his 1838 Harvard Divinity school Commencement address  when he really opened the salvo of Transcendentalism which I fin d myself resonating to still , " Jesus Christ belonged to the true race of prophets. He saw with open eye the mystery of the soul. Drawn by its severe harmony. ravished by its beauty, he lived in it, and had his being there...He saw that God incarnates himself in man and ever more goes forth to take possession of his world... But what a distortion did his doctrine and memory suffer in the same, the next, and the following ages...The understanding caught this high chant from the poet's lips and said in the next age, 'This was Jehovah come down out of heaven. I will kill you, if you say he was a man' ... Christianity became a Mythus, as the poetic teaching of Greece and of Egypt, before."

Though he began as A Unitarian minister, he had left the parish ministry to become a writer and lecturer, but that's how he was answering the question. Another Unitarian minister, profoundly influenced by Emerson, Theodore Parker, who had been one of those Divinity school graduates by the way. wrote But if, as some early Christians began to do, you take a heathen view. and make him a God, the Son of God in a peculiar and exclusive sense, much of the significance of his character is gone...His death is an illusion, his resurrection ut a show. For if he were not a man but a god, what are these things? Parker in the mid 19th century  started an early megachurch with his radical U views and these words from his famous sermon  The Transient and the Permanent in Christianity three years later in 1841 and questioned the divinity of Christ. His followers finally had to rent an auditorium in Boston because he had thousands of people attending his sermons!

As I talked about a couple of weeks ago we don't really know what Jesus actually said, so we always are interpreting and always bringing in our own agenda, if you will, but that's one of the reasons why I always use so many different sources in my sermons, so that you can see that there are other people who have thought similar ways.

Marcus Borg, one of the scholars from the Jesus Seminar writes:  Jesus was a mystic and the Christian Messiah. He was a Jewish mystic in the sense that he had vivid and frequent experiences of the sacred. His mysticism was the foundation for everything else he did....He was a healer, an enlightened wisdom teacher like the Buddha and Lao-Tzu, and his wisdom came out of his mystical experience....He was a  social prophet an a movement initiator because of the charismatic presence that comes from being a  mystic in the Jewish tradition.... I see Matthew, Mark, Luke as a mixture of history remembered. on the one hand and history metamorphosized on the other hand. ....By history metamorphosized, I mean the gospel writers are interpreting the significance of Jesus as well, and the language they use to do the interpreting is the language of symbol and story, not a conceptual language. In other words they use a metaphorical narrative.... Central to his teaching was the notion of a life centered in the sacred and not in tradition-the how-to is, a to large extent, the content of his wisdom teaching. His wisdom teaching regularly invites a radical perceptual shift, a radical change in the way you see reality and some of his teaching seems deliberately to use the language of paradox to do that..

Jesus taught as someone with authority scripture says over and over, and the Jewish priesthood and other authorities were always trying to trick him catch him, it seemed. Jesus was, if you'll pardon the pun, Un-orthodox in his teachings! It was not that the Torah was wrong, but that the traditions sometimes had become hide-bound and more important than people! Love was more important than Law and here the word Law is capitalized because the Torah can be interpreted as Law, but also Love. Jesus personified Love, if you will. In the Gospel of John, the latest one written, probable as late as the beginning of the 2nd century of the Common Era, and the one written to prove Jesus was the Messiah and the only one where Jesus is saying that as well says that God is love, so here we can see why we could say that if God is love and Jesus personifies love, then Jesus is God is Love. Jesus is Love incarnated! But that said, I don't mean supreme being Father in heaven , etc. Godhead of the trinity. Even his healing, he does out of love, not so people will worship him or believe in his particular brand of God, but out of compassion.

    Religious writer about mysticism, Andrew Harvey writes:  People who think Jesus was a Christina have lost their minds. Jesus was beyond all religions, because all mystics wake up to the reality of the Divine presences in themselves... How could this real; realization be constrained by any word? That's why I call it the Christ Path. What we are talking about when we talk about Jesus in the Christ is a realization that transcends all signs, names, forms, and possibilities of the human imagination.... Christ consciousness has nothing whatever to do with dogmas. Laws, rules, or any kind of elitist authoritarian structure.... Jesus fused what the Buddha knew with radical wisdom of the sacred heart that he himself came to discover and embodied. He produced a wholly new, wholly original vision.

            Harvey, who is gay, talks about Jesus' androgyny, describing it as his "complete combination of feminine and masculine powers, of mercy with justice, tenderness with force, authority with the radiance of tolerance and forgiveness." With what someone describes as a soaring mystical conviction, Harvey argues that it is only by fully accepting  the force of the Sacred Feminine, the way   Jesus did, that the contemporary religious imagination can experience the birth of true Christ-consciousness, "an all-embracing, all-infusing power that could, if allowed to, transfigure the life of the world."

  One of Jesus teachings was that he brought a new commandment Love one another. Now if you remember, from my last sermon, the Jesus Seminar doesn't think he really said this, but I disagree with them. I believe he did! And yes, maybe its because I want him to! But I also think that instead of arguing about whether we should post the 10 commandments in the courthouses, Id like to suggest that we just post this one. Especially at the Pentagon! Even in the school rooms. Maybe not put Jesus name on it if that's a problem. Just those simple words- LOVE ONE ANOTHER. The people that Jesus hung out with would have included the gays and lesbians of his time, no doubt. 

Obviously when Jesus was killed, his spirit, his teachings, his love, if you will, did not die. That, to me, is the story of Resurrection and Ill talk more about it in terms of how it is also related to the turning of the cosmic clock of spring as well with the Easter rabbit and colored eggs. But Jesus asks in every age Who do YOU say that I Am as the religion that has grown up around him for the last 2000 years has changed the world and profoundly influenced billions of people, yet no two people answer the question the same.

 I view Jesus as human, but a deeply inspired prophet, mystic, rabbi, healer, reformer, and spiritual guide whose teachings on love, especially that part about loving your enemies, each other,  forgiveness, and spiritual search that was important than religious rules, especially when they become hidebound by an older age. Jesus is also -, not THE way-show-er, a piece of the cosmic jig saw puzzle which each of us must put together finding pieces as we go along.  I think of him as a Unitarian, preaching the unity of God, and remember, for me, that means the spirit of Love, as well as a Universalist preaching the love and forgiveness of all humankind that the world today desperately needs to hear, from our own government to the terrorists who seem to think they are also being religious. I was called to ministry while attending the church dedicate to the teachings of Jesus though looking back I sometimes think they concentrated more on the teachings about Jesus, today I am more interested in the teachings of Jesus and the incarnation of love, that God or love or the Spirit of Life dwells within us, calls us to live in a way that may yet transform us and the world if we will be true to our better selves and inner voice. No, we don't have to come to church to hear the word of Jesus, but we need to be in beloved community if we are to express the love which Jesus taught and we cannot do that alone nor on the golf course, no matter how beautiful the day or good the game. We can find inspiration and spiritual nurture in nature in mediation in other places or even books, but I believe that it is in beloved community and we must find the beloved community where we truly belong that we will at last find our religious hoe of love and belonging.

And lastly, Jesus is important to me because I was brought up with him as a teacher in so many different ways and for many of us in the Western Christina tradition we don't need to throw him the baby out with the holy bath water. On the other hand, if we were not raised with him he have a choice on whether or not we wish to explore his wisdom because it is enshrouded within a religion which has so much baggage for some. Jesus represents my family and my tradition, and I still find meaning in exploring the many metaphors and religious meanings of the holidays around that tradition, so I will always have a special place in my heart for Xmas and Easter, for instance. SO I will always find both communion and the Seder supper meaningful. I believe in the message of love and I try to live by that message and to love even the unlovable even as I try to behave in such a way that I might be loved in return. We do not need to think alike to walk together and most importantly, to love one another, all else is details.

Amen, Peace, Shalom, (Peace in Hebrew), Assalaamu Alaikum (may Peace be upon you in Arabic), Abrazos a todos (Hugs all around) Namaste, (A Hindu greeting the divinity within you) Blessed Be, and let me add one more blessing that I adapted from the Spanish long before I went in to ministry. Vaya con Dios is Spanish for Good-bye, but literally is Go with God, SO I adapted it to say Vaya Con Su Dios, Go with your idea or interpretation of God.

Amen, Peace, Love, Shalom, Salaam, Blessed Be, Namaste, Abrazo a Todos, Vaya con su Dios