Not sameness but kaleidoscopic variety - a meditation for Easter Sunday

The Cambridge University Botanic Garden in blossom
Readings: Mark 16:1-8 [The Shorter Ending of Mark]

From Cliff Reed's book, "Unitarian. What's That?" - Do Unitarians Celebrate Easter?

From "Jesus Through the Centuries – His Place in the History of Culture" by Jaroslav Pelikan (Yale Univ. Press, 1985, pp. 1-2)

Regardless of what anyone may personally think or believe about him, Jesus of Nazareth has been the dominant figure in the history of Western culture for almost twenty centuries. If it were possible, with some sort of super magnet, to pull up out of that history every scrap of metal bearing at least a trace of his name, how much would be left? It is from his birth that most of the human race dates its calendars, it is by his name that millions curse and in his name that millions pray. 
"Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever. Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings" (Hebrews 13:8-9). With these words the anonymous (and still unknown) author of the first-century document that has come to be called the Epistle to the Hebrews admonished his readers, who were probably recent converts from Judaism to Christianity, to remain loyal to the deposit of the authentic and authoritative tradition of Christ, as this had come down to them through the apostles of the first Christian generation, some of whom were still living. 
“The same yesterday and today and for ever" eventually came to have a metaphysical and theological significance, as "the same" was taken to mean that Jesus Christ was, in his eternal being, "the image of the unchangeable God, and therefore likewise unchangeable." 
But for the purposes of this book, it is the historical, not the metaphysical or theological, import of this phrase that must chiefly engage our attention. For, as will become evident in great and perhaps even confusing detail before this history of images of Jesus through the centuries is finished, it is not sameness but kaleidoscopic variety that is its most conspicuous feature. Would we not find it more accurate to substitute the first-century formula "the same yesterday today and for ever" the twentieth-century words of Albert Schweitzer? "Each successive epoch," Schweitzer said, "found its own thoughts in Jesus, which was, indeed, the only way in which it could make him live"; for, typically, one "created him in accordance with one's own character." "There is," he concluded, "no historical task which so reveals someone's true self as the writing of a Life of Jesus.”


In our second reading and second hymn (found at the end of this post), both written by the Unitarian minister Cliff Reed, we encountered the basic interpretation of Easter that is generally held by most members of this church community. It holds that Jesus died on the cross but that Christ, that is to say the love, spirit and vision of Jesus, was "resurrected" in the form of the whole community that continued to live by his example; the community became itself the "resurrected body of Christ". In other words, to be absolutely clear about this, the word "resurrection" is not being used in this church in a literal but, instead, in a metaphorical way. The headline joyous message of Easter for us being that, in so far as we still try to live honestly by Jesus' example we, as both individuals and a community, continue to experience and share in the resurrection and the life.

On past Easter Sundays I have expanded on this idea in various ways and I direct you back to them if you are interested in exploring that further (e.g. here).

But this year I feel it's worth noting something additional, it's related to the obvious truth that what I have just outlined is, of course, AN interpretation of the resurrection; in our case a naturalistic one based on the classic Enlightenment desire to achieve greater truth and knowledge based on the methods and findings of the natural and social sciences and, the general use of human reason.

I, myself, hold to this broad, metaphorical, naturalistic interpretation of the resurrection and "Christ" because, for all my genuine respect for other interpretations of the event, I think it says something more true, useful and believable than those on offer in most other conventional church settings. There's no point shilly-shallying about and pretending otherwise. I simply add to this point the fact that the motto of this church - one I wholly endorse - tempers my stance by reminding me that "We need not think alike to love alike."

But, to repeat, although I strongly feel my liberal Christian interpretation of the meanings of the "resurrection" and "the Christ" are more convincing, truer, more useful than ones I find elsewhere, my interpretations remain just that, interpretations. Though I may often wish otherwise, there is no way I can prove absolutely that my interpretation is right and the others are wrong; the same is true,of course, in reverse. I - we - have to accept and live creatively with the empirical fact that people of evident good will, intelligence and character think differently to me/us.

With this point I can begin to turn to the phenomenon I'd like us to ponder upon today and let's try to approach it through the human Jesus who lived and died in first-century Palestine.

In principle, even if not always in practice, if you did not understand who Jesus was and/or what his teaching meant, you could seek him out and ask him directly. Jesus' puzzled disciples were doing this all the time; witness, for example, their constant questioning of him about the meaning of his strange parables or whether he was the prophet Elijah returned or the long-expected Jewish Messiah, the Greek word for which is, of course "Christ."

It seems that Jesus was often deliberately and provocatively obscure in his answers which played the question back into the court of his questioners demanding of them that they interpret things them selves (cf. Matthew 12:57) — an approach to teaching he seemed to value right to the very end, even before the Council and Pilate.

My point here is simple: even though Jesus seems to have relished the value of provocative obscurity in his answers, whilst he was alive, you could always in principle seek him out and try to find out what he meant. The need to engage in an ongoing process of dialogue with him, to ask him a question and of being provoked by his answers to do some more thinking and interpreting yourself, seems to have been utterly central to his teaching.

What this meant in practice was that, whilst he was still alive, even among his closest companions there were developing eleven different positive and one negative (Judas Iscariot's) interpretations of who Jesus was and of what his teaching meant.

This situation changed radically after Jesus crucifixion and death. In the first instance, and most obviously, this was because he was no longer around — he had died and had been buried. His disciples could no longer seek him out directly and try to clarify with him some definitive meaning of any of his actions or teachings.

But then there occurred the puzzling event known as the "resurrection" in which, however you interpret it, Jesus was believed to have "risen" in some way from the dead. We see that Jesus" was, in fact, believed still to be around and someone with whom one could converse.

But, whereas Jesus was clearly a single, individual human being, the post Easter, risen Jesus was not — the resurrected Jesus, now often with the title "Christ" (the "Messiah" or "Anointed One") added to his name, was unimaginably plural. It seems clear that every early Christian community experienced a different Jesus. Some believed they had experienced him as an individual in a real, physical body, others believed they had experienced his simply as an individual spiritual being, still others seem to have seen him as a corporate spirit, which Paul christened (pun intended) the body of Christ.

After the Easter event, when an early Christian puzzled over what Jesus had meant by this teaching or that action, to which risen Jesus should they go to for an answer? There had been only one human Jesus to whom they could go to but, now, risen Jesuses were proliferating at an astonishing rate. There were the different Jesuses of Matthew, Mark and Luke's gospels and the very different Jesus of John's gospel; there were the different Jesuses of St Paul, St James and the author of the letters attributed to John; there are the different Jesuses of the authors of Hebrews and the Revelation. This is only to rehearse the different Jesuses recorded by the New Testament, but don't forget the other Jesuses we have found in the various early, non-canonical gospels and letters collectively, but often misleadingly, called the "Gnostic Gospels".

The proliferation did not stop in the first century - it simply continued unabated. The important and influential church historian, Jaroslav Pelikan, in his book "Jesus Through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture" (1985, Yale U. Press) writes powerfully about this and I thoroughly recommend it to you. But here let me read to you simply the contents page of this book which can stand as a kind of litany of the various post-resurrection Jesuses which human kind has experienced through the centuries:

1) Jesus as "The Rabbi" - as teacher and prophet in the setting of first-century Judaism.

2) Jesus as "The Turning Point of History" - the significance of Christ for human history.

3) Jesus as "The Light of the Gentiles" - Pagan anticipations of Christ, especially Socrates and Vergil.

4) Jesus as "The King of Kings" - the lordship of Caesar verses the lordship of Christ in the Roman Empire of the second and third centuries.

5) Jesus as "The Cosmic Christ" - the Logos as the mind, reason, and word of God and as the meaning of the universe in the Christianised Platonic philosophy of the third and fourth centuries.

6) Jesus as "The Son of Man" - the incarnate Son of God as the revelation both of the promise of human life and of the power of evil, according to the Christian psychology and anthropology worked out above all by Augustine in the fifth century.

7) Jesus as "The True Image" - the inspiration for a new art and architecture in Byzantine culture and the artistic and metaphysical meaning of the icons in the eighth and ninth centuries.

8) Jesus as "Christ Crucified" - in literature and art and as the "power of God and the wisdom of God" in the Middle Ages, metaphors for the saving work of Christ in the language of the tenth and eleventh centuries.

9) Jesus as "The Monk Who Rules The World" - the Benediction definition of "love for Christ" as the denial of the world, monasticism and politics in the medieval Western society of the eleventh and twelfth centuries.

10) Jesus as the "Bridgegroom of the Soul" - Christian and non-Christian sources of Christ-mysticism and the problem of the relation between secular and sacred in mystical language and thought.

11) Jesus as "The Divine and Human Model" - the rediscovery of the full humanity of Jesus through Francis of Assisi, "the second Christ" and the Franciscan image of Jesus as the inspiration for demands in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries that society and the institutional church be radically transformed.

12) Jesus as "The Universal Man" - the Renaissance of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, with its image of Jesus, as the rebirth of the Christian gospel, "sacred philology" and "the philosophy of Christ" in Erasmus and other humanists.

13) Jesus as "The Mirror of the Eternal" - Protestant and Catholic Reformation images of Christ as the mirror of the True, the Beautiful, the Good.

14) Jesus as "The Prince of Peace" - the resurgence of pacifism in the face of the religious wars of the Reformation.

15) Jesus as the "Teacher of Common Sense" - the quest for the historical Jesus in the scholarship and philosophy of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, the effort to go beyond (or behind) the Christ of dogma to the system of morals he represented.

16) Jesus as "The Poet of The Spirit" - Idealism in the philosophy of the nineteenth century and Romanticism in its art and literature; their protest against both orthodox rigidity and rationalist banality, and their portrayal of the beauty and sublimity of Jesus as the "bard of the Holy Ghost" (Emerson).

17) Jesus as "The Liberator" - Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, from Tolstoy to Mahatma Gandhi to Martin Luther King, the use of Jesus' prophetic opposition to the economic and social injustice of his time as the dynamic for revolutionary change in the ordering of human relations, public as well as private.

18) Jesus as "The Man Who Belongs to the World" - the unprecedented circulation of the message of Jesus, during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, into Asia and Africa, the relation between Jesus and other "Teachers of the Way", Jesus as a world figure, also beyond the borders of Christendom.

As Pelikan realises what we see when we take time to look at all the post-resurrection Jesuses that have existed, and in many cases, still exist, we see not sameness - not a single person with a single identifiable purpose and message -  but only "kaleidoscopic variety". For many people, once this is seen, it can be a deeply confusing and disturbing picture since it reveals that no single, final, stable, interpretation of Jesus has ever existed, neither when he was alive, nor after his death and resurrection.

But I think we can celebrate this as a wonderful Easter gift - a gift that connects us meaningfully with the single and singular historical Jesus. It was Jesus' gift of always throwing our own questions back to us, of insisting that we find our own personal interpretations about who he was and what it was he was teaching and how on earth we should respond to it? The question, "Who do you say that I am?" comes back to us again, and again, and again. This teaches us, or should teach us, a vital lesson essential for living a fruitful and meaningful life in a highly diverse world, namely, that we must all be humble about insisting upon the final, absolute truth of our own interpretations about Jesus, no matter how strongly and honestly we hold them. It reminds us always to be open hearted and minded to new light, insight and truth.

With this caveat in mind I feel emboldened to say - along with the liberal religious tradition to which I belong, that the human Jesus did die and, to this day, his remains lie somewhere in Palestine. May he rest in peace.

But it also seems true to me that, in spirit, "Christ" most assuredly has risen and for me/us they are a complex mix of Jesus as the "Teacher of Common Sense", the "Poet of The Spirit", the "Liberator", and the "Man Who Belongs to the World". For the spirit of this "risen Christ" in our own community's life I/we can surely say, "Alleluia!"


Easter Hymn by Cliff Reed

Jesus died, but Christ has triumphed,
Broken now the chains of death;
From the tomb comes God’s anointed,
Kindling cold hearts with his breath.

Now at last we see his purpose,
Breaking through like sunburst bright:
Liberation for God’s people
Ends humanity’s long night.

For there is a Spirit greater,
Who has now the victory;
And our God indwells the human,
striving for our liberty.

And that Spirit dwelt in Jesus,
Teaching us that love redeems;
How God, through a man’s compassion,
Gains great ends by human means.

But for love and life undying
Death of self must be the key;
Jesus died to bear this witness
And Christ rose to make us free.