Romans 5:1-5 (Scholars’ Version)
So then, since we have been counted as right in the sight of God on the basis of putting our unconditional confidence in God, we are at peace with God through our lord, Jesus, God’s Anointed. He is the one through whom we have gained access to the divine favor that has given us our new standing and we boast in our hope of seeing the splendor of God’s majesty. And that’s not all. We also boast about hardships, because we know that hardship produces fortitude and fortitude shows character, and character reinforces hope. This hope will not embarrass us because our hearts have been filled with the love of God through the gift of God’s presence and power.
Here we are. It is December 2nd, the First Sunday of Advent. The wreaths are up. The paraments are royal blue. We have trimmed the tree. It is off to the races. Christmas time’s a comin’.
Christmas can be fun, especially when we don’t take it too seriously. You know what I mean about taking it too seriously, don’t you? I am thinking of the admonitions of the faithful to remember the true "reason for the season" and to “keep Christ in Christmas.”
On Facebook, someone posted a picture of the character Han Solo from the film Star Wars. The caption under his photo said,
“Remember to keep Han in Hanukah.”
The irony surely hasn’t been missed that the two biggest seasons of the traditional Christian calendar, Christmas and Easter, are about events that never happened. From what we know of Jesus, he died. Since he died he must have been born. We have a few of his teachings and parables that we think we can trace back to be close to his voice.
It is possible that his death was violent by execution. Thousands were crucified by imperial bullying. If this happened to Jesus, he was one of many. But the trial of Jesus, the theological meaning attached to it, and the resurrection are all elements of religious legend. The same is true with all the stories surrounding his birth. Angels announcing his arrival, virgin birth, a star moving through the sky and landing over a house, are all constructs of the human imagination. All of these stories are developments in which a human being is given characteristics associated with a god.
None of this is new or surprising to you, of course. It may raise an eyebrow among some who haven’t heard me say these things that a minister says them from the pulpit. The reason that is surprising is because fundamentalism has been so dominant.
In the early 20th century, concerns by the pious were raised over modern biblical criticism. They felt the faith was being attacked by modernists who embraced the scientific theories of Charles Darwin and in religious studies, biblical historical criticism. These true believers came up with five "fundamentals." These were things that Christians needed to believe. For a time, ministers were forced to accept them in the Presbyterian Church. Thankfully cooler heads prevailed. Those fundamentals are still loud and proud today.
These fundamentals of the early 20th century include the inerrancy of the Bible, the Virgin Birth, Jesus’ death as atonement for sin, the miracles of Jesus including his bodily resurrection, and the belief that Jesus will come again. None of these are historical of course, or even true. Only in a bizarre twisting of the word truth, do these assertions have any reality to them.
The doctrines as they have been handed down over the centuries might be seen as metaphors for changes that happen within our own lives. For example resurrection might be a symbol for new hope from a hopeless situation. The miraculous birth can be seen as the birth of recognition that our lives are holy and sacred. We certainly can get some mileage out of understanding these doctrines as symbols of the unconscious a la Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung.
Nevertheless, these stories and doctrines are certainly fiction, not history. They are not things that one should need to "believe" as true. Yet they have been used as litmus tests for piety and right belief. We are told again and again even by mainstream guardians of the faith that we need to believe this stuff literally to be Christian. This is one of the reasons I think that Christianity in this country is headed off to crazy land. This is bad news and it is serious news.
When polls tell us that more Americans believe that Jesus will return from heaven in their lifetimes than affirm evolutionary theory, it shows that we have work to do. This is why I think it is crucial for Christians, both clergy and laity, to think critically about religion and to embrace religious scholarship and to keep honesty at the center of their worship life. We begin by being honest about our texts and our traditions.
Since today is the First Sunday of Advent and the theme is hope, it would be good to see what that meant traditionally and what it might mean for us today. The Christian calendar begins with Advent. Last Sunday was the end of the church year. It was called Christ the King. That alluded to Christ being the King of the universe now and at the end of time. It is the final happy ending.
Then we start the year again with Advent that anticipates the coming of Christ the King. It anticipates his birth, but more importantly, it anticipates the end of time when Eden is restored and humanity is reconciled fully and finally to God.
Then following the Christmas season and Epiphany is Lent and Easter with the death and resurrection of Jesus to Pentecost and the mythical start of the church, to the season of ordinary time, to Christ the King again. There is precious little about the human being Jesus in any of this overarching narrative. You could substitute Krishna, Zeus or Augustus Caesar for that matter and it would be six of one and one half dozen of another.
The church’s framework is an apocalyptic tale. There is no Jesus the precocious socialist who told people to love enemies, who ate with outcasts, and who lived in the muck, the dirt, and the joy of real life with real people. That Jesus has to be rescued from the mythological trappings. That has been the work of religious scholarship, particularly my friends with the Jesus Seminar.
Imagine with me for a moment the first 15 centuries of the common era up to the time of Columbus and Luther. The world was the center of the universe. Outside beyond the stars was where God lived. Columbus calculated the beginning of creation a few thousand years before his birth and creation's end which he thought would happen within a hundred years or so of his death. He was immersed in the same yearly cycle, Advent, Christmas, Easter, Christ the King, that we are. The difference is that it was literally possibly true. In fact, Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492 in order to get gold from China so that he could finance a crusade to take back Jerusalem from the Muslims so that Christ would come and establish his eternal kingdom. Columbus wasn’t weird. He wasn’t out of the main stream. He was intelligent, educated, and pious. That was his time.
In his time, Earth was the universe. God existed outside of it as creator and as a being who comes down and intervenes. Jesus is God incarnate who saved estranged humanity from original sin that happened in a literal garden populated by Adam and Eve. Jesus dies on the cross for the sins of the world because we are so bad and need saving. He rises from the grave, goes up to heaven, and sends his spirit to run the church to keep us in line until he comes again.
Christian hope was based on Christ coming again and establishing a new heaven and a new earth. That narrative held literally through the Reformation and has been slowly dismantled since. Fundamentalists hold this view of course as do a majority of Christians, it appears. Yet none of it has any truth except perhaps in a metaphorical sense. It is a belief and a narrative that is fit for a museum.
We know now when we look outside and see the stars that they are suns like ours, millions of light years away from us. We know the universe is nearly 14 billion years old. Earth is 4.5 billion years old. Human beings are recent pilgrims. We did not come via a garden. We have evolved from our ancestors. We are not estranged by sin from God. We are who we are. There is no end, certainly not in human time. When the last human being breathes her last, Earth will continue to spin on is axis and the universe will continue expanding and expanding.
The knowledge to which we have access is astounding, overwhelming. Every day by just poking buttons on your phone you learn more and more about anything you want. You can fact check anything I say immediately. There is no use of me trying to fib with you, you can look it up.
He just said the universe is 14 billion years old. Actually it is 13.7.
Yet in church we tell the same story year after year, again and again, as if none of these amazing changes in our thinking have occurred. Here comes Jesus. In a few weeks he’ll pop out of a virgin’s womb and then in a few months, he’ll pop out of his tomb. Womb to tomb and up to heaven and someday he’ll come again. Really? Then we fight over whether to say, “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays.”
It is no virtue to deny reality by hiding in tradition for tradition’s sake. It does no service to our youth to pretend to believe in things that aren’t true and then wonder when they grow up why they are not interested in the church.
My guest on my radio program this week and next is historian of religion, Phyllis Tickle. She says we are in the midst of a great emergence. This is a time of transition in which everything is up for grabs. We are letting go of baggage and finding treasures of wisdom. Right now it is all mixed together. So we have traditional Advent and Christmas songs and symbols and we have modern poetry, and a focus that is more centered around humanistic principles rather than supernatural ones.
One of those treasures of wisdom in our tradition is the human being, Jesus. As he is being discovered as a wisdom teacher, not someone to worship, not divine, but as a sage who embraced a vision of life, he is offering to modern people a way of living. He isn’t the source of what to believe or think or of what to do, that is all up to us. It isn’t about escaping the world or our lives, or in pretending that there is supernatural help for us, but he provides the wisdom to engage life as it is. It isn’t all about him, either. He is a figure in our tradition from whom we can draw wisdom. He is one of many.
Christmas is fun and good for us. The Jesus myths and Santa and the Grinch are great. If you think about it, most of our celebrations are secular and we may give a nod out of duty or out of longing to Jesus in the manger. Despite the calls to keep Christ in Christmas, we know they are a bit out of tune. Yet we can find meaning in these legends that surround the birth of Jesus. They are the early creations of those who discovered strength and hope in Jesus for them in their time. But they really are not very fun if we are chided into taking them literally.
As a source for spirituality and meaning, I think we might do well to examine the real person of Jesus as opposed to the mythical figure. As more light shines on the human Jesus, and the mythological trappings of the church fade to metaphor and symbol and they make their final resting place in the Christian museum of legends, we may begin to embrace a sense of hope that is not supernaturally focused or end of the world focused but human focused and Earth focused.
This hope is not about a utopian future, it is more of a practice of ways of living in this life with all its contingencies, struggles, and disappointments. Hope is living through our grief and hardship with a whole heart. In our reading for today from Paul, after a lot mythological and theological stuff, he writes:
We also boast about hardships, because we know that hardship produces fortitude and fortitude shows character, and character reinforces hope.
I don’t know if that is always true. In fact, I am pretty sure it isn’t. Hardship does not always produce fortitude and character, but I do know that it is a hopeful way to look at hardship. Hope is resilience and compassion. Author Brene Brown writes about resilient people:
“They are resourceful and have good problem-solving skills. They are more likely to seek help. They hold the belief that they can do something that will help them manage their feelings and to cope. They have social support available to them. They are connected with others, such as family and friends.” The Gifts of Imperfection, p. 64.
That is the kind of real life stuff that was ultimately modeled by Jesus the human being who lived in Nazareth, and who spent time with people, eating with them, encouraging them and being encouraged. The hope of the world is not some future utopia or some heavenly existence that is the work of a divine being. At least for me it isn’t.
The hope of the world is finding meaning today in what I do, in whom I meet, in what I see, and hear, and feel. It is trying to be a blessing to others and myself. It is forgiving and seeking forgiveness not from God or some abstraction but from actual people with whom I relate. It is trying not to take hardships personally. It is living in this moment, not closing the door on my past, nor being haunted by it. It is living with an awareness that this life is holy and sacred, so I shouldn’t miss a moment.
That’s my hope.