Easter marks the end of Holy Week in the Christian calendar and the high point of the Christian year: Easter, the holy day marking the resurrection of the Lord. As Unitarian Universalists who prefer to question rather to embrace blanket faith statements, this is, perhaps, the day that questions the most significant assertion of the Christian faith: “What do you mean by that?”
Today, I’d like to provide some provisional answers to this large question, knowing that such questions generally lead to more questions.
We can’t provide a thorough overview of the life of Jesus of Nazareth and the teachings of Christianity here today. We do have time to look at some of the traditions that include resurrection stories and see where the Christian resurrection story fits in that larger context.
Long before the time of Jesus, the Ancient Egyptians had among their pantheon of gods, Osiris, who was the god of regeneration and rebirth. The myths surrounding Osiris are several, and some are quite complicated.
The essence of each is that Set, the brother of Osiris, conspired with others to assassinate him. Isis, the wife of Osiris, is able to find her beloved no matter how many pieces his body had been torn into. She is able then to reconstitute the god from the pieces.
The Egyptians believed that death was a transition, that the ka, or life-force, left the body at the time of death. Osiris was identified with grain, the staff of life. The great mystery festival that commemorates Osiris also commemorates the death of the grain when it is planted as a seed. “The death of the grain and the death of the god were one and the same: the cereal was identified with the god who came from heaven; he was the bread by which man lives. The resurrection of the god symbolized the resurrection of the grain” (Wikipedia: Osiris).
Life, and the means by which life is sustained, are thereby coupled. “The annual festival involved the construction of ‘Osiris beds’ formed in the shape of Osiris, filled with soil and planted with seed” (Ibid.). “The germinating seed represented Osiris rising from the dead” (Ibid.).
In the Hebrew Bible, there are three references to persons who are “brought back from the dead.” The first is in 1 Kings 17:17-24, in which Elijah raises the widow’s son:
“Now it came about after these things, that the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, became sick; and his sickness was so severe that there was no breath left in him.
So she said to Elijah, ‘What do I have to do with you, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my iniquity to remembrance and to put my son to death!’
He said to her, ‘Give me your son.” Then he took him from her bosom and carried him up to the upper room where he was living, and laid him on his own bed. He called to the LORD and said, ‘O, LORD my God, have you also brought calamity to the widow with whom I am staying, by causing her son to die?’
Then, he stretched himself upon the child three times, and called to the LORD and said, ‘O, LORD my God, I pray You, let this child’s life return to him.’
The LORD heard the voice of Elijah, and the life of the child returned to him and he revived.
Elijah took the child and brought him down from the upper room in the house and gave him to his mother; and Elijah said, ‘See, your son is alive.’
Then the woman said to Elijah, ‘Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the LORD in your mouth is truth.”
(New American Standard Bible)
There is respect granted to those who can show that they have the power to bring a dead person back to life. Compare this with the work of Elisha in 2 Kings 4:32-37:
When Elisha came into the house, behold the lad was dead and laid on his bed. So he entered and shut the door behind them both and prayed to the LORD.
And he went up and lay on the child, and put his mouth on his mouth and his eyes on his eyes and his hands on his hands, and he stretched himself on him; and the flesh of the child became warm. Then he returned and walked in the house once back and forth, and went up and stretched himself on him; and the lad sneezed several times and the lad opened his eyes.
He called Gehazi, and said, ‘Call this Shunammite.’ So he called her. And when she came in to him, he said, ‘Take up your son.’ Then she went in and fell at his feet and bowed herself to the ground, and she took up her son and went out.”
(New American Standard Bible)
And finally, from 2 Kings 13:21: “As they were burying a man, behold, they saw a marauding band; and they cast the man into the grave of Elisha. And when the man touched the bones of Elisha he revived and stood up on his feet.” (NASB)
So, in the mythology of Ancient Egypt and in the mythology of the Hebrew Bible, there are stories of those who come back from the dead, who are resurrected. In Ancient Greek religion, an online encyclopedia tells us, it also happened that certain figures were brought back to life after their death. “Asclepius was killed by Zeus, only to be resurrected and transformed into a major deity. Achilles, after being killed, was snatched from his funeral pyre by his divine mother Thetis, and resurrected, (and) brought to an immortal existence” (Wikipedia: Resurrection).
The theme of resurrection does not originate with Christianity. I think as Unitarian Universalists who value reason as well as revelation, it is important that we establish that.
So, how do we make sense of the resurrection of Jesus? Or do we dismiss it entirely? Much has to do with how you interpret scripture and what you learn from the history of the development of Christianity.
Certain Christian denominations insist on a literal understanding of scripture. Others lean toward a symbolic understanding. Some of us find inspiration in the teachings of Jesus as presented in the gospels, but find the emphases and interpretations of Saul of Tarsus, later called St. Paul, to be problematic, even wrong-headed.
The gospel of Mark was the earliest of the gospels to be written. You may know or you may not that in its original version, the gospel ends with tomb empty of Jesus’ presence. Only a young man in white is there to address the mourners.
Here is Mark 16:1-8:
When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome brought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb.
They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back.
As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”
So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” (NRSV)
The New Revised Standard Version of the New Oxford Annotated Bible tells us, in an introduction to the gospel, that “In the earliest Greek manuscripts and versions (Latin, Syriac, Coptic, Armenian) the author’s account breaks off suddenly with the words ‘for they were afraid’ (16.8). Later manuscripts provide as a more suitable close for the book: either a shorter or longer ending, or sometimes both… Whether Mark was prevented by death from completing his Gospel, or whether the original copy was accidentally mutilated, losing a portion at the close, no one can say” (p. 47 NT).
The version that is presented to us in today’s Bibles includes Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene, appearing to two disciples (who were not believed), to “the eleven themselves as they were sitting at the table”; Jesus “upbraided them for their lack of faith and stubbornness”. He further tells the disciples to “‘Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.” He tells them, too, that “the one who believes is baptized and will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned.”
Believers will be able to cast out demons, will speak in new tongues, will pick up snakes in their hands, will be able to drink deadly things without being killed, will be able to heal the sick by laying hands on them. Then, he “was taken up into heaven and sat at the right hand of God.” And then the disciples “went out and proclaimed the good news everywhere.”
So, somewhere along that list of supernatural events, I find my “willing suspension of belief” to be suspended. This is more than my rational mind can accept or should accept, I believe. The claims are too far-fetched. They feel like a desperate attempt to get me to believe something out of amazement or fear or wonder. They go too far. They seem much more likely to be pieces that were added after the fact. I think Mark’s original version in Greek, Latin, Syriac, Coptic and Armenian ended with verse 8: “for they were afraid.”
So, how do we make sense of Jesus’ claim to eternal life and the promise of such eternal life to believers? Here we have a rich variety of sources to draw from, namely every theologian that has ever taken on the task of interpreting scripture.
So, are you convinced by Karl Barth, by Paul Tillich, by Reinhold or Richard Niebuhr, by Bultmann or Crossan or Borg? Or by any of several hundred others? I certainly don’t know all these theologians well enough to cite them. The interpretation that resonates with me, that I have affinity for, that makes deep sense to me is that of George Barker Stevens, a 19th-century American theologian and professor at Yale Divinity School.
What does “salvation” mean in the Christian tradition? Well, if you ask a dozen ministers in Bowling Green, you’ll come up with a dozen answers, though most would fall along a similar line, I think.
If you ask the same question to ministers of the Baptist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Nazarene, Disciples of Christ, Methodist, United Church of Christ, or Episcopalian traditions, you’ll be sure to get different answers. Clearly, there is a subjective factor in our understanding of theological terms. (I would argue that there is a subjective factor in our understanding of anything, but that’s neither here nor there– it’s everywhere).
The Easter story is a salvation story. “Salvation” has a myriad of definitions across the theological spectrum. Let’s use a simple one, fairly generic: “Salvation is… the saving of the soul from sin and its consequences” (Wikipedia: Salvation). How is one saved from sin? By entering the “Kingdom of God” or entering into “eternal life.”
The synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke) tend to use the term the “kingdom of God.” The gospel of John uses the term “eternal life.” They mean essentially the same thing: deliverance from sin or perhaps the sinful nature of humanity.
Not terms we bandy about much in the UU church, right? But they are essential to the Christian religion, and both Unitarianism and Universalism have their roots in the Christian tradition. Besides that, we live in the Bible Belt. It’s a useful and salutary thing to have an understanding of what our neighbors believe. Besides, it’s very interesting, I think.
Christ came to bestow saving benefits, primarily, eternal life. In what way did he do this? How can we avail ourselves of these benefits? What is the essential nature of this eternal life? What are its characteristics?
Jesus says that he is the bread of life, and if humanity eats of that bread, we will live forever. Strange words and interpreted in many ways. Stevens claims that it is “more natural to interpret the language of (Christ’s) discourse in a symbolic or mystical sense, as expressing the idea of the appropriation of Christ himself in faith and love.”
The Jews of the time demanded that Jesus give a “sign” so that he may be believed. His reply, the substance of his reply, is that he would give no sign except himself. He was both the thing and the sign of the thing. Stevens says, “His own person and work, when they are truly understood constitute the true sign from heaven. (p. 226). No sign… should be given except the sign of ‘Jonah,’ that is, his own presentation of divine truth in his person and teaching.”
Jonah brought a divine message and promise to the Ninevites; Jesus says that the promise that he brings is the sign of his authenticity.
The being of Jesus is inseparable from the teaching of Jesus: the two are, for all intents and purposes, the same. Stevens tells us: “Those who spiritually receive (Jesus) as the bread of their souls, enter into loving fellowship with him and make him their guide and inspiration, thereby attain eternal life (p. 227). Jesus refers to his death on behalf of men … in order to secure their salvation. ‘The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep’.”
A shepherd is willing to make a great personal sacrifice for his sheep from danger, so Jesus undergoes a self-denying death for those whom he loves. Stevens thinks, and I with him, that we are not being told that it is necessary for Jesus to die for humanity to be saved. He is saying that Jesus’ love for his fellow man is so great that there is no boundary to it; it extends even unto death, so great is this love. Stevens says: “He consecrated himself absolutely to his saving mission in order to ensure an analogous consecration to truth and duty on the part of his followers.”
A well-known saying of Jesus is: “Except a grain of wheat fall into the earth and die, it abideth by itself alone; but if it die, it beareth much fruit.”
The dying that Jesus speaks of is (according to Stevens) “regarded as the culmination of service and self-giving. This law of service applies to him, but to his disciples as much as him. The death of Christ is presented as the consummation of his work of love and the chief source of his matchless power in the world. The thing that makes all this real on the part of those who hear it is faith. “He that believeth have eternal life’.”
Stevens asserts that faith is “spiritual fellowship with the redeemer” (p. 229). The most beautiful evocation of this that I know is in John 15:
I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will even be more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.
I am the vine, and you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and I remain in you, ask whatever you wish and it will be done for you…
As the Father has loved me, I have loved you. Now remain in my love (NIV).
Remember that the self that Jesus refers to, is not the personal, ego-centered self that we tend to think of when we hear the word “I” and “me”. The self that Jesus refers to is the same as the teaching. And the teaching is love-filled. Jesus offers himself as the embodiment of God’s love; believers benefit from that love, just as the branch bearing grapes benefits from the vine carrying nourishment.
“The knowledge of God is communion with God; eternal life is the blessedness, the increasing perfection, which flows from that communion. Eternal life is a gift… the knowledge of God” is the way in which that gift provides a benefit. It is only by our being receptive that the gift of eternal life can be made available. Faith is the juice that allows the flow of love from vine to branch to fruit.
“Salvation is spiritual life.” The way that it is realized is a spiritual way. “It is an eternal life. It has nothing to do with time or place. It is realized in this world, where its spiritual conditions are fulfilled” (p. 231). “Eternal life” here “stands in contrast to… the ethical destruction of the soul,” which is “the forfeiture of (a human being’s) true destiny as a (child) of God.”
The life that is realized in fellowship with God is eternal, not merely in the sense of imperishable or endless, but in the higher sense of the true Godlike life, which (because of) its kinship to God is raised above all limits of time and place” (p. 231).
“Eternal life is life like that of God, who is its source… Salvation is not a matter of time and place, but a spiritual attitude and relation to God. It is unaffected by the change we call death… Eternal life is fulness and richness of being, the realization of the divinely appointed goal of existence through union with God and likeness to Christ” (p. 233). “Eternal life is the life whose essence is love.”
Eternity exists in the here and now. The here and now exists in the heart of eternity. Being present to love, whether you call it God’s love or not, allows eternity to make itself manifest in you. This is the great teaching.
As I searched for texts to help me with today’s sermon, I had hoped to benefit from the Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology. Though it had some nice things in it about Egyptian mythology, Greek mythology, Roman, Teutonic, Celtic, Chinese, and Indian mythology, I found nothing about the mythology of Judaism or Christianity.
Robert Graves explains why in his introduction: “Mythology is the study of whatever religious or heroic legends are so foreign to a student’s experience that he cannot believe them to be true. Hence the English adjective ‘mythical’, meaning ‘incredible’; and hence the omission from standard mythologies, such as this, of all Biblical narratives” (p. v).
So, I guess we are expected to believe that all we read in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament are not foreign to our experience. Yet much in those texts is foreign to my experience. I think that there is great value in these stories, but only if we understand them to be stories. Understand that mythical language is symbolic language. Symbolic language can be remarkably evocative and effective in getting across the beauty of spiritual truths that, anyway, are not mundane enough to be captured by prosaic language.
We have a tendency to start with persons and work back to the natural world. In reality, pagan traditions are the earliest. They start with the natural world, and pagan rituals revolve around natural cycles, birth and death, the movement from season to season. Other myths start with the natural world, too, personifying its elements in order to make sense of it and our lives.
The resurrection myth of Osiris is a myth of regeneration and rebirth. Dionysus was ripped to death by the Titans and given rebirth by Zeus. He came back to be the god of the grape harvest, wine-making, and fertility.
Death leads to rebirth in the natural world, and the mythologies of the world try to capture that. So, if you identify as pagan or neo-pagan or as an Earth–centered humanist, that is a message for you today. And if you are a Christian or interested in living your life according to Christian principles, put your faith in the love that Jesus offers through his embodiment of the love of God and realize that in so doing, you are living in the midst of eternity.
That is your salvation.
- Wikipedia.org: “Osiris;” “Resurrection”; “Resurrection of Jesus”; “Salvation”
- Biblegateway.com: “1 Kings 17:17-24 NASB”; :2 Kings 4:32-37 NASB”; “2 Kings 13:21 NASB”; “John 15:1-17 NIV”; “Matthew 16:4 NIV”
- The Theology of the New Testament. George Barker Stevens, Ph.D., D.D. Charles Scriber’s Sons. NY, NY. 1922.
- Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology. Translated by Richard Aldington and Delano Ames. Prometheus Press. NY, NY. 1959.
By the Rev. Peter Connolly.
Presented at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green, Kentucky on Easter Sunday, March 27, 2016.