Dr. John Young, Unitarian Universalist Church of Jacksonville, Florida
Jesus and His Christian Lost Sheep
Advent is the four weeks in the Christian calendar before the anniversary of the birth of Jesus. Celebrating Advent, it is important to consider who Jesus really was, what his actual teachings were, and how the religion that identifies him as their central teacher has articulated his image and teachings and have put Jesus and his ideas into practice.
It appears that Jesus was a Jewish prophet who lived for thirty-some years in the first decades of our era. He was from Galilee, the son of Joseph, a carpenter, and Mary, and one of several children. He was of the common people until he was baptized by John the Baptist in the river Jordan when he was about 30 years old. He, then, embarked upon a three year wandering ministry and developed a modest fame. Many people came to hear him, and quite a number were moved and changed by his ideas and actions. In the third year of his ministry, Jesus entered Jerusalem, and taught and challenged the authorities in the temple. After a week or so, he was condemned by he Jewish religious authorities, the Roman rulers, and the Jerusalem mob, and he was crucified for perceived breaches of Jewish and Roman law. Few of his followers stood by him at the time of his death. There is no direct evidence that he ever thought of himself as more than a Jewish reformer.
Jesus wanted to replace the ethics of an eye for an eye with a love ethic and with justice for all. He wished to transform spirituality into a practical, life-affirming, common-sense way of life in which every one could participate. Jesus believed that every person was a child of God. He believed that the kingdom of God was always among us, and that we simply needed to realize that God loved us, that life blessed us, and that we could live surrounded by universal love.
“One cannot overemphasize how Jewish the Christian movement was during the first hundred years of its existence. Since Jesus failed to return, converts reverted to Judaism in practice. There was no consistent voice and no one strand of orthodoxy. In the first century, when a Christian referenced Scripture, he or she would be referring to the Jewish writings. Christianity probably only had about 7500 adherents, almost all of them Jews, in 100 A.D. They seemed to be facing extinction.” [Dr. John Van Hagen, Fourth R, Jan-Feb, 2006, pp. 19-21]
First century Christianity took a variety of competing forms, with fundamentally different concepts of Christian faith. Their visions of Jesus varied tremendously; they preached different and conflicting gospels. For much of this time, nothing was written down; people learned by word of mouth, remembering the gist of what Jesus had said. Many of the early Christians thought that Jesus had been resurrected, was alive and continued to make new pronouncements through the early Christian prophets. These new words were considered as valid as Jesus’ teachings while he had been alive. When written Gospels finally began to appear they combined these remembered sayings of Jesus the prophet with these other sayings inspired by a risen Jesus through the early Christian prophets. For instance, the Great Commission at the end of the Gospel of Matthew [28:: 19-20] that “they should make disciples in all nations and teach them what Jesus had commanded,” were not the words of Jesus while he was alive, but were words inspired by him in the mouths of later prophets.
Paul, who had been an anti-Christian mercenary and had never met or known Jesus, ended up writing over half of the New Testament. Paul disagreed with Jesus’ inner circle of Peter, James, and John. So, they agreed that Paul should continue to preach to the Gentiles, and they they should continue their work with the Jews. The Jewish Christians emphasized the continuity of Jesus with Judaism. Paul argued instead that new Christian converts should not be circumcised, could not become righteous by following the Torah, and that the heart of faith was not to follow the Jewish law but to trust in Christ. Paul thought that if a person could justify himself by keeping the law, that then Christ has died to no purpose. Christians were not under law but under grace. Many of these differences persisted in written versions in the New Testament, even within the different Letters of Paul himself. In Romans 1:3-4: Jesus is a human being adopted by God and appointed as his son, not pre-existing as the Lord. In Philippians 2:6-11, Jesus is a divine figure coming from heaven. In Hebrews 4:15: Jesus was in every respect tempted, yet without sin. Yet, if Jesus is not like us how could he be tempted? Even if he was raised from the dead, how would that help the rest of us?
Now, we know that there were 50 or more gospels; most of them were ‘sayings gospels,’ collections of aphorisms, like the Gospel of Thomas and the Q Gospel on which it appears the Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke were based. The Gospel of Judas, for instance, is a critique of the apostolic leadership and a symbolic picture of the disciples, arguing that the teachings of Jesus can exist outside of the self-centered Christian mainstream of its day. In the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, Jesus takes Mary Magdalene aside to teach her the truth in private that the men cannot bear. The Gospel of Thomas, with its focus on everyone as a child of God, a child of the light, and upon the kingdom of God as always present if people could only see, is a Christianity of life affirmation, human unity, a human Jesus, and experience. This is very different, even over against the Gospel of John, with its emphasis upon a Christianity of heaven, the elite of the Christian saved, a divine judge, and faith. None of these written texts were written by people who had personally known Jesus, heard him actually teach or heal, but rather were later scholars that, in many cases, simply took the name of the disciple with which they particularly identified. [Dr. Charles Hedrick, 4th R, July-Aug. 06, pp. 3-8].
After the destruction of the Jewish Temple in 70, Judaism reinvented itself, and shunned the Jewish Christians. The Jews responded to the Roman oppression with revolts in 115 and again in 133; hundreds of thousands of Jews were killed or enslaved. They lost privileges and were barred from Jerusalem. The weakening of Judaism may have enabled Christians to set more distance between themselves and their parent religion. Marcion, a Roman ship owner who converted to Christianity in the midst of the second century, was the earliest Christian to propose a distinctly Christian canon and to argue that Jesus announced a new God of love who replaced and superseded the harsh God of the Jewish Scriptures. Marcion and Justin Martyr, a second century philosopher, emphasized Jesus bringing new knowledge that addressed the needs of all times and cultures.
Dr. John Van Hagen argues that Judaism and Christianity arose out of these traumatic contexts. A successful response to trauma requires the survivor to invent a new identity that can make sense of the traumatic effects, but trauma, as we each know from our personal experiences, can nurture short-term solutions that create huge long-term problems. Both Judaism and Christianity have an Achilles heel. Each argues that certain events are foundational to its religion which actually happened in history. For Jews, it is the exodus from Egypt, yet the facts show that Israelites did not in fact conquer the Canaanites; they were the Canaanites. In telling the story of Jesus, Christians developed the position that Jesus not only challenged the Jewish religion, but ultimately began a new religion with himself as its center. However, there is no historical basis for such a description. Jesus and his original followers were not Christians. They were Jews. Just as Judaism created a new religion and identity after the destruction of the temple in 586 BCE and the Babylonian captivity; so, Christianity formed a new religion and identity in the second century AD after the new destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. With its super-secessionist claims, its hijacking of Jewish rituals and scriptures, and its contribution to emerging anti-Semitism, Christianity became a new faith, but it was a faith founded on a lie. Van Hagen argues that both Judaism and Christianity can grow beyond their traumatic roots, give up being so defensive and become more open to the thoughts and practices of others. They can learn to evaluate other religions more on the lives lived by the practitioners than by the beliefs they hold. [Van Hagen, 4th R, J-F, 06, pp. 19-21].
The scriptures of the Jews, collected in the biblical Old Testament, often make use of the image of a shepherd and his sheep standing for God and his people. This image was appropriated in the writings about Jesus and his followers in the Biblical books of the New Testament. Jesus becomes the shepherd and his followers become his sheep. When many Christians hear the beginning of Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd,” their mental picture is of a benevolent Jesus with his gathered followers.
As Unitarian Universalists, we have believed for more than 400 years that: 1. God is a unity and that Jesus modeled the personal relationship he felt that all people had with God, and 2. that God is good and Jesus was loving and that everyone will be saved, that there is universal salvation, without a hell or a devil. For us, in a theological sense, there is not, never has been, and never will be any lost sheep. All human beings are children of God, unique and important elements of evolutionary Creation. Every one who lives by Jesus’ teachings of love, peace and justice are his followers, whether they ever identify themselves as Christians or practice any Christian liturgy. This fits with what we now know to be the best of contemporary scholarship.
As Unitarian Universalists, we do not think of ourselves or other people as sheep. Every human being has moments of their lives when they feel lost, and hope they can be rescued from their bleakest circumstances, like the proverbial shepherd leaves his flock to fend for themselves while he seeks out a lost sheep. But giving in to this traumatic mentality nurtures a view of life and faith which is unrealistic and ultimately unhealthy. Since Unitarian Universalists focus on personal freedom and personal responsibility, we would usually visualize the lost sheep finding her or his own way back to their flock, and being welcomed after their return from their explorations or adventures. The image of a shepherd would seldom be a useful one for our sense of God or the powers of the universe. We usually see Jesus as a model, teacher, and mentor, rather than as a savior, judge, or shepherd. We are saved by inspiring teachings, ethical people, and loving communities, including our chosen congregation. We are saved by our own and others’ works, not by faith. We are saved by the ways we live not by our dogmas or manners of worship. We are not sheep blindly following a shepherd. We are liberated people choosing responsibly to: act with love, do justice, and live in peace. The proverbial Biblical image does not even do justice to sheep, since, in fact, it is normally the shepherd that is, in fact, following his or her freely wandering sheep. As I ‘lead’ you by doing my best to keep up with you.