First Unitarian Universalist Society of Albany

“Faith of the Historical Jesus”

Rev. Samuel A. Trumbore, March 21, 2004

Spoken Meditation

This translation of the Lord’s prayer came directly from Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke.The translator, Saadi Neil Douglas-Klotz, is the director of the Dances of Universal Peace.

O cosmic Birther of all radiance and vibration!

Soften the ground of our being
and carve out a space within us where your Presence can abide.

Fill us with your creativity
so that we may be empowered to bear the fruit of your mission.

Let each of our actions bear fruit in accordance with our desire.

Endow us with the wisdom to produce and share
what each being needs to grow and flourish.

Untie the tangled threads of destiny that bind us,
as we release others from the entanglement of past mistakes.

Do not let us be seduced
by that which would divert us from our true purpose,
but illuminate the opportunities of the present moment.

For you are the ground and the fruitful vision,
the birth-power and fulfillment,
as all is gathered and made whole once again.



The Passion of Christ defines what the vast majority of Unitarian Universalists do NOT believe about Jesus.

Having read many reviews and opinions about the movie, and knowing my topic today would be the “Faith of the Historical Jesus,” I decided to watch the movie.I wanted to see if I could watch the movie as a way to experience solidarity with political prisoners around the world suffering oppression.I wondered if Jesus could stand in for them and increase my empathy for their suffering.

It didn’t work.

The first scene of the movie locates Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane.He is struggling with his foreknowledge that he will be betrayed and arrested that night.He pleads for the cup to pass from him, one of Jesus’ most human moments in Christian scripture.At that moment, Mel Gibson plays fast and loose with the story adding the temptation of the devil.The devil suggests the sins of the world are too much for one man to bear.A snake crawls out from under his robe and slithers over to Jesus.The Adam and Eve story is recapitulated in Jesus’ moment of weakness.The scene ends with Jesus crushing the snake underfoot, beginning to reverse Adam’s curse.None of this is Biblical.None of this has anything to do with what almost all Unitarian Universalists believe.

As you’ve no doubt read or heard, the movie proceeds into an orgy of bloodshed, briefly interrupted by flashbacks to happier times.The portrayal of the Jews thirsting for the crucifixion is particularly offensive.Pontius Pilate gets off very lightly for his role condemning Jesus to death.The favorable treatment of the Roman leader is sort of an apology for the later Roman adoption of the messianic religion rejected by the Jews.Of course there is a happy ending as the stone rolls away from the tomb.We see Jesus leaving his shroud to settle as he is restored to his old self … except with some holes in his hands.

The whole point of the movie is not to reveal the life and teachings of Jesus but to move us by the horrible suffering we witness.If all you knew about Jesus came from this movie, you’d conclude that his suffering and death encapsulate the meaning of his life.Being the object of abuse, torture, and execution tells you all you need to know about Jesus.His spirit could not be destroyed by the suffering.It is in his death that he is revealed as God.

This death cult approach to Jesus does not resonate with the vast majority of Unitarian Universalists.We do not see his death as instrumental in our salvation.We look to his life for guidance and inspiration.For us, the revelation ends with Gethsemane rather than begins.

What is at stake theologically is an understanding of the Domain or Kingdom of God.One of the few historical facts everyone can agree on is that Jesus proclaimed the Domain of God on earth.There are two ways the Domain of God is understood.Evangelical Christians, like Mel Gibson, understand the Domain of God as a future event that coordinates with the second coming of Christ.This is the apocalyptic orientation found in so many fundamentalist churches today.Biblical Scholars and many Unitarian Universalists believe Jesus proclaimed the Domain of God was already here right now.They believe Jesus did NOT have any sort of apocalyptical orientation.These two divergent beliefs create entirely different worldviews that underlie today’s culture wars in our nation.

Last spring, at our UU Minister’s Chapter meeting in central New York, our theme presentation was done by Jesus Seminar fellow, Robert Miller.The Jesus Seminar is a consortium of Biblical scholars, theologians, historians, archeologists, and others who study first century Palestine in one way or another.Their groundbreaking work was a combined analysis of the Gospels.They voted practically on each line to determine if they thought Jesus actually said or did what is found in the text.I wish I had had my video camera so I could share with you the many fascinating insights into the Christian Scriptures that fell from Dr. Miller’s lips.Wanting to share some of his wisdom with you was the inspiration for this service this morning.

We spent a good chunk of time working with and discussing the concept of the Domain of God.The very term itself gives you a taste of the paradoxical way Jesus taught.The actual term used by Jesus was most likely the Greek word basileia.The Greeks used this word to describe a commercialized agrarian empire like Rome.The basis of the economy was agriculture.A tiny ruling elite used its military power to take the surplus production above subsistence through taxation.

Roughly 1-2% of the population took 50-65% of the agricultural production.If the farmers couldn’t pay, they incurred debt.If they couldn’t pay their debt, they lost their land.That’s the commercialized part of the equation.This appropriation of land was particularly irksome to the Jews because they believed the land was not a commodity but rather a sacred birthright.The result of depriving people of their land, in an economy primarily centered on agriculture, forces the family into landless destitution and poverty.These were the people to whom Jesus ministered and healed.

Your average Jew is going to hate the word basileia.It represents all the evil of Roman oppression.Dr. Miller believes Jesus chose this term for its ironic and startling flavor as he described the basileia … of God.

Instead of Caesar, God is already the king of THIS basileia.And this basileia turns everything you know about the world upside down.THIS basileia is not a place, or a future state of affairs.Despite the testimony of our ears and eyes looking at the “real” world of Roman domination and oppression, Jesus proclaimed the basileia of God is present here-and-now.

To the first century Jew, this sounded ludicrous, naïve and politically dangerous.But to those with ears to hear and eyes to see, this was good news.Not only did Jesus announce it, he taught it, embodied it, and celebrated its presence in everything he did.Jesus didn’t use intellectual concepts that the simple people he preached to wouldn’t understand.He appealed to their imagination through parable and story.He invited his listeners to use their imagination to recognize this divine reality.

How did he do it?

Hear the Parable of the Mustard Tree.It shows up in three of the four gospels and also in the Gospel of Thomas.

What is the kingdom of God like?It is like a mustard seed that a man took and tossed into his garden.It grew and became a tree, and the birds of the sky roosted in its branches.

This parable would astonish and mystify a first century farmer hearing it.A mustard plant is a weed that would be removed from a garden, not planted in one.Any good farmer isn’t going to toss a seed into the garden.

This violates the Jewish law.The first century listener will know Leviticus 19:19 instructs: you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed.A mustard seed doesn’t grow into much of a bush and certainly not into a tree.The last thing farmers want to invite into their gardens are those marauding birds who will steal the harvest.

The image of a weedy tree subverts traditional expectations.Spiritually symbolic trees are the cedars of Lebanon described by the prophets as a metaphor for the restoration of Israel.The landless birds of the air, like the landless peasants of the times, will have a home in their branches.The mighty cedar was a symbol of the rule of God on earth, not a pesky weed--or is it?

Another parable Jesus used shows up in both Luke, Matthew and Thomas:

What does the kingdom of God remind me of?It is like leaven that a woman took and concealed in fifty pounds of flour until it was all leavened.

Jews have a special relationship with leaven.Every year during Passover, no leavened bread is eaten to remind them of their escape from Egypt when the bread didn’t have time to rise.Jews ritually purify their homes each year to eliminate any speck of leaven.

This rejection of leaven during Passover created a negative symbolism associating it with death.The rising of leaven was sometimes compared to the bloating of a corpse.A well-known proverb of the first century was “a little leaven leavens the whole batch of dough.”We find this expression in Corinthians 5:6:

Your boasting is not a good thing.Don’t you know that “a little leaven leavens the whole batch of dough?”

Men prepared the dough for ritual meals.The insertion of a woman basically poisoning the huge amount of flour again adds this dimension of contamination.Once concealed the infection is uncontrollable.

This is the domain of God?

We get a hint of the meaning from Jesus’ other use of the word leaven.“Watch out—beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” (Mark 8:15) “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, that is, their hypocrisy.” (Luke 12:1)Jesus again turns our expectations upside down.There is a deeply challenging and subversive message secretly buried in that flour that cuts his followers off from the old ways and establishes a new relationship with God.

Jesus didn’t tell his followers what they expected to hear.Again and again, the authors of the gospels need to append explanations to the challenging statements of Jesus.These are two snippets from a short list of sayings and parables from the lips of Jesus we have the most confidence in.The gospel writers preserve them for us because his followers probably knew them and repeated them.Rather than preserving the paradox and ambiguity, the authors couldn’t resist putting in their interpretation around them that fit with their understanding of his teaching applied to their social situation.

Why did they follow him if he was so controversial?He must have exuded charisma.He manifested some kind of healing power that was uncommon.He lifted up those whom society would prefer to ignore.He reached out to the rejected who must have rallied around him.

One thing we can be sure of: Jesus was dangerous to the status quo.Turn the other cheek?Welcome the stranger and the unclean?The last shall be first?No leader with such disturbing ideas can last long.Such a teacher will need rehabilitation after he is dead.But once he is dead, his followers can revise Jesus’ thinking to what they knew he should have said and done in the first place.

This is what disturbs most Unitarian Universalists about the focus on Jesus’ death rather than his life.The blood soaked theology of human sacrifice as substitution for our sins dishonors and disconnects us from the challenging illumination of Jesus’ teaching.The core of that teaching, the inherent worth and dignity of every human being, is lost at the foot of the cross and discarded with the empty tomb.The ritual of salvation moves from a willful change of life to a helpless acceptance of grace.It changes the focus from life to death and a reward beyond death.

Looking for a reward beyond this world will eventually destroy our beloved blue green planet.Seeing the world as a means to a heavenly afterlife threatens life on earth.The apocalyptic orientation of many Christians today welcomes the destruction of our biosphere as a sign of the second coming.Dr. Miller explained to us why those who revel in Revelations don’t think we need to fix what’s wrong.

They believe:

1.God will intervene directly and decisively in the near future.This intervention will be utterly obvious to everyone.

2.Humans are powerless to bring about the changes God has planned.Our role is to wait, anticipate, and persevere.

3.When God is finished, there will be no evil people.They will be either converted or annihilated.

According to the Jesus Seminar, Jesus did not hold these beliefs.They have their origin in the first century views that Jesus did not teach, but rather resisted.

In a time of great suffering, it is always tempting to seek escape and comfort in the future or the past, anything but face the hardship, injustice, and inequality of the present.Jesus does not escape the present but moves into the middle of it to heal it.The Domain of God isn’t some bye and bye but available right now.The love of God is not locked in the past or to be enjoyed at some future time.The love of God is here right now in this room, in each heart of each person.The mystery to be solved is our inability to witness it.

Watching Jesus tortured to death doesn’t inspire a vision of an interdependent world community.The vision of God allowing his son to be victimized is hardly a model for the creation of a healthy society.Using crucifixion as the supreme example of redemption creates a terribly destructive justification to rationalize suffering.No one should be killed by the state for any reason. The Passion can best be used to move us beyond a passive view of salvation.The Passion can best be used to move us to a dedication to work against oppression so others will not suffer the same humiliating end.

Through following the teachings of Jesus, we will discover the faith of Jesus, not in his death but in his life.This is our understanding of the ministry of Jesus that has been transmitted from generation to generation for the last two thousand years.What Jesus discovered about the nature of reality is still true.Jesus discovered the potentiality of love is always present, always a choice we can make.Choosing love can be difficult and painful, but is the true path to the end of suffering.

May we preserve this understanding of Jesus’ life-giving message as part of our tradition and hand it on to the next generation.



There are many great religious teachers.We can learn from all of them but one or two may speak to us directly, more powerfully than the rest.For some of us, that primary teacher is Jesus.Not just by his words but through a presence in his words.

The Jesus of history comes alive for us today through studying and meditating upon the words he most likely actually said.By doing this, living wisdom and spirit can be “born again” in us, and help us lead more fulfilling lives.We seek his guidance not to pile up treasure in the hereafter but rather to live and love well in this world.

Take from this service the heart of Jesus’ teachings and share it with a hungry world.

Copyright © 2004 by Rev. Samuel A. Trumbore.All rights reserved.