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First Unitarian Universalist Church of Berks County

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Reading, PA 19602
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UU Church of Berks

Who Owns Jesus?

Rev. Sandra Fees

Dec. 4, 2011

In 2008, an Armenian monk and Greek Orthodox monk got into a brawl next to the site of Jesus’ tomb. Israeli police rushed in and arrested them. Both were taken away in handcuffs. A news report said, “The feud is only one of a bewildering array of rivalries among churchmen in the Holy Sepulcher.” Six Christian sects divide control of the ancient holy site and regularly fight over it. (“2 Clergymen Arrested After Brawl Between Monks Next to Jesus' Tomb Site,” Nov.10, 2008, Associated Press, www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,449150,00.html#ixzz1fImWZqlK)

Last fall, Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, and someone considered a leader among evangelical Christians, questioned the compatibility of Christianity and yoga. As you may know, yoga has become quite popular among American Christians. Mohler said,

To a remarkable degree, the growing acceptance of yoga points to the retreat of biblical Christianity in the culture. Yoga begins and ends with an understanding of the body that is, to say the very least, at odds with the Christian understanding. Christians are not called to empty the mind or to see the human body as a means of connecting to and coming to know the divine. Believers are called to meditate upon the Word of God — an external Word that comes to us by divine revelation — not to meditate by means of incomprehensible syllables. (http://www.albertmohler.com/2010/09/20/the-subtle-body-should-christians-practice-yoga/)

The past June, billboards across Sydney, Australia, carried the message: “Jesus: a prophet of Islam.” The campaign was created by the Islamic group “MyPeace.” MyPeace says it was simply trying to show that Islam follows the teachings of Jesus too. They say the purpose was to encourage interfaith relations between Christians and Muslims.

Catholic bishop Julian Poreous, of the Archdiocese of Sydney, didn’t agree. He said, “In Australia with its Christian heritage a billboard carrying the statement `Jesus: A prophet of Islam' is provocative and offensive to Christians.”  For Christians, he explained, Jesus was “more than a prophet.” He concluded, “He is the Son of God. He is acclaimed Lord and Savior of humanity.” Diaa Mohamed of MyPeace, however, reported that the campaign received “overwhelmingly positive feedback from Christians, atheists, Muslims, everyday Australians.” (“Jesus: A Prophet of Islam” – Muslim Group Runs Provocative Billboard Campaign, Daniel Blake, Christian Post, Jun. 01, 2011, www.christianpost.com/news/jesus-a-prophet-of-islam-muslim-group-runs-provocative-billboard-campaign-50722/)

Those examples raise any number of questions. One I wonder about is “Who owns Jesus?” Does anyone or any tradition have a special claim to him? If so, do they have authority over what others will make of him? You know the easy answer to the question of who owns Jesus. Of course, no one owns Jesus. And it seems clear that it isn’t possible to manage the message, at least not entirely. There’s no trademark on Jesus. Where there is a free market place of ideas and freedom of religion, it’s not possible for anyone to have exclusive claims.

However, even though no one person or tradition has exclusive claims to Jesus, Christianity seems to hold the largest stake in how Jesus is understand, at least on the surface. Christians, on the whole, afford more devotion and study to Jesus’ life and teachings than adherents of other religious traditions are likely to give. So it may seem that Jesus belongs to Christians the way Buddha belongs to Buddhists and Krishna to Hindus and so on. The reality is more complicated, more intriguing, and holds more possibilities and also more risks.

Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar, says that when he was writing his book, American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon, he discovered “how beloved Jesus had become among non-Christian groups in the United States.” He went on to say, “Jesus’s status here as ‘the man nobody hates’ initially led me to see the United States as even more of a Christian country than I had previously believed it to be.” But ultimately what he concluded is that Christians have little control over how Jesus is seen and used by other religions – or vice-versa. (“My Take: Who owns Jesus? Who owns yoga?,” CNN Belief Blog)

We Unitarian Universalists are likely to agree with Prothero. Even so, conflicted feelings arise among us about the person and meaning of Jesus. We wonder whether our religion can still have Jesus and if so, which Jesus? How much is too much Jesus for our faith? How little is too little? And which Jesus is okay and which isn’t?

For some, Jesus comes with too much baggage. Jesus carries the blame for oppressive acts done in the name of Christianity, for bigoted messages attributed to Jesus, and for traditional authoritarian attitudes. Some individuals can’t get past their personal religious histories, no matter how hard they may try. It can be more comfortable for us to turn to eastern traditions – like yoga - to pagan rituals, to science, to Sufi mystics like Rumi – who we’ll be exploring next week – for inspiration and spiritual sustenance. It can be more comfortable for us to turn to these other traditions and, in the process, to leave Jesus behind.

Even though our Unitarian Universalist tradition recognizes Jesus as a teacher, prophet, and historical figure, interpretations, meanings, and tradition have been layered onto Jesus and Christianity for thousands of years. It’s challenging to try to sort through all that.

Even in his own day, it wasn’t obvious who Jesus was. Jesus himself recognized that the people around him had many different opinions about him. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus asks his disciples, “‘Who do people say that I am?’ And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” (Mk 8:27-38)

It really isn’t that surprising that there’s sometimes uneasiness about our relationship, or lack thereof, with Jesus.  We’re uneasy for the various reasons I’ve already mentioned. But we’re also uneasy because of our Unitarian Universalist history, which bears the marks of a religion that ran headlong into a clash of interpretations over who Jesus really is and what relationship, if any, we have with him. Our historic Unitarian position declared that God is one, not three in one. Jesus, our forebears concluded, was not God. This made us heretics, people of choice.

Though our religious ancestors did not deify Jesus, they viewed him as a person of superior character. Some even said he was God’s messenger, though not God. Most recognized in him a prophet and teacher, an exemplar of divine living. Contemporary Unitarian Universalist minister, Erik Walker Wikstrom, describes this perspective well. He says,

The man we know as Jesus was so in touch with the sacred as to be as one with it, yet he was ever and always a human being.

      He was a God-intoxicated man who offered others a living example of what it is to live in God’s basileia, what it is to live in God. But one must dig through a great deal of tradition that obscures this image. …

      …this man – like Siddhartha, like many saints and sages since – offers a Way. Interestingly, this was the name Jesus’ followers first claimed for themselves: Before they were “Christians” they were “people of the Way.” In his life and teaching, even in the way his life and teaching are interpretively remembered in the Gospels, Jesus offers a vision and a challenge. Still, I do not believe that the call to “follow” is a call to worship the man who issued it. It is, instead, just what it appears to be: a call to follow him, to follow his path, to live as he lived. (“Jesus and the Modern Seeker,” UU World, Jan./Feb. 2004)

Even those among us who want their religion without God can still make a claim on Jesus. That may seem odd to you. Let me tell you how that can work. Last week, I spoke about why atheists come to church and the Unitarian Universalist understanding that there can be religion without God. Unitarian minister Charles Potter was among those who pioneered the idea that God was not essential for religion. Nevertheless, he retained a strong interest in studying Jesus from a humanistic stance.

His view was this: “If ‘Jesus’ refers to the historical man from Nazereth, and if ‘Christ’ designates the savior of Pauline Christianity, … [then] Christ was a theist and Jesus was a humanist.” Potter saw Jesus as unique not because of the early church’s deification of him, but for his “markedly developed personality.”  Potter provides a useful framework for religious humanists who want to honor Jesus. He said:

The Humanist attitude toward Jesus is that Jesus was an unusual personality, and in his self-development, self-direction, self-giving, a marvelous person whom we admire ….

…. since the development of personality is the aim of Humanism and since Jesus developed his and sought to help others in that way, we honor him and study his life … for a suggestion of the method of self-development which he employed. (Religious Humanism, Mason Olds)

This is a religious community where we are committed to nurturing each other on our various spiritual paths, a path that can include Jesus as a central figure. Part of our commitment to each other is to honor and respect the theological choices we each make and strive to learn from one another. The person sitting next to you may hold Jesus dear. The person sitting next to you may have been injured by ideas about Jesus. Our aspiration is to grow in acceptance, compassion, and wisdom for these different ways and to heal the wounds of the past.

Our religion does not exist as a place to escape from Jesus, not as a place where we relinquish our claim to him, but instead as a place to enable a relationship with him that is freed of dogma. This makes Unitarian Universalism a different kind of choice, religiously speaking.

Our religious way is broad. Revelation is open – even to Jesus. Our covenant calls us not to adhere collectively to a single theology but to live our lives guided by ethical principles. Compassion, fairness, human worth and dignity, truth-seeking and meaning-making, freedom of religion, care of the earth, acceptance of one another – these are touchstones of our faith.

May we affirm and promote them in our religious community. May we allow them to transform our lives. May we allow them in turn to help to build the world we dream about.