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Sermons: “The Christian In Me

[This sermon is third in a three-part series: "The Humanist in Me," "The Theist in Me," and "The Christian in Me."]

In this series of sermons, there is much more we could do. The first week, the subject was "The Humanist in Me," and last week it was "The Theist in Me." Perhaps you could suggest more titles that seem appropriate. I could speak of "The Judaism in Me," for I have been deeply influenced by that tradition. Though I make no pretense at being a scientist, I could easily claim to speak about "The Scientist in Me." I have some sympathetic understanding for those who are looking for our roots in more primitive, earth-centered religions, and to that extent I could also talk about "The Pagan in Me." My list could go on and on, and perhaps over time I will add to the current list.

But today, I propose to speak of "The Christian in Me." Even though we may not call ourselves, individually, Christian, our denomination has grown from the Christian tradition. Further, such celebrations as Christmas Day are an important part of our culture. And no matter how secularized and commercialized it has become or may become, there is no denying that this holiday season focuses on the man for whom Christianity was established—Jesus. Christianity is the religion of Jesus, and it is appropriate to take a deeper look at the influence of that person, and that religion, in our lives. This is as true for Unitarian Universalists as it is for anyone.

Roy Phillips’ story about the ‘cross in the closet’ at the Unitarian Church in St. Paul, Minnesota, is a very common story, both symbolically and literally, for Unitarian churches around the country.

At some time during the last fifty years or so, the vast majority of our Unitarian churches in this country removed a cross from prominent display in their sanctuary.

One urban church I know offers a typical example. The cross was there in the front until about 20 years ago. Its removal was only mildly controversial, but most people in the church believed that Unitarianism had grown beyond its Christian roots, and that the cross was no longer central to their religion. A few strongly objected, but their opposition to removing the cross had more to do with the importance of tradition than it did with theology.

It was removed from the main sanctuary and placed in the small chapel in another wing of the church. Over the years, the chapel was used less and less, until eventually it became a storage place, like a large closet. Today, in the main sanctuary, where the cross used to be, there hangs a large beautiful tapestry of "the tree of life." This has become the visual focus for the congregation.

At All Souls, our covenant is the visual focus in our sanctuary and many people, especially new members, comment on how meaningful it is. Once in a while, though, when I hear a comment about how wonderful the covenant is, I hear it described it as being "where the cross is supposed to be."

In New England, where some of the oldest church buildings are Unitarian, it is fairly easy to identify them. Instead of a cross on top of the steeple, there is usually a weather vane.

What goes around comes around, they say. Today, a number of Unitarians are reconsidering our almost universal decision over the last century to remove crosses from positions of prominence in Unitarian churches.

One of the earliest criticisms came in an article written about 15 years ago by Duke Gray, then minister of the First Unitarian Church of Chicago. Duke entitled his article, "Was Dracula a Unitarian?"

He pointed out an interesting coincidence. In the 1600s, Unitarianism flourished in a section of Europe known as Transylvania. And of course, today, Transylvania is best known as the legendary home of the vampire Dracula.  The legend of Dracula, he reminded us, includes this curious fact: Dracula was frightened of crosses. In the presence of a cross, Dracula would loose his power, cringe in fear, and run away.

Duke suggested that Unitarians today, like Dracula, suffer from an ailment he has called "cross cringe." We are afraid of them, he said, and when we are around them, our feelings range from mild discomfort to rigid antagonism.

There is enough truth in what Duke said that most of us recognize what he means when he talks about "cross cringe." I think the truth is far more complicated than that, though.

What I would like to do this morning is symbolically bring the cross out of the closet, dust it off, and look at it again. When I am done, we may wish to put it back in there, and that’s all right with me, too. My plea is that it not be summarily discarded; that we know where it is in case we need it.

I also want to talk about it in the context of my own life and my own religious views. I was born into a solidly liberal Christian home, raised in a conservatively Christian church, and socialized in a predominantly Christian culture. I suspect that much of this is true for many people here. You and I still live in a predominantly Christian culture.

It is impossible for me to deny that there is a lot of "Christian" in me, though sometimes I may foolishly try to deny it. Whatever "Christian" there is in me, I have found it, upon honest reflection, to be an important and comforting source of strength. And for that, I am grateful to that Christian home, that Christian church, and that Christian culture.

To identify the Christian in me, I find it easiest to begin with a look at the Unitarian relationship with Christianity.

It has been a long journey for Unitarianism from the Reformation days to today. Four hundred years ago, all Unitarians considered themselves to be Christian. More than that, they considered themselves—as every Christian group considers itself—to be the most genuine form of Christianity. Of course, the rest of Christendom had a difficult time recognizing it.

Many Unitarians today find it, well, awkward to understand how our forbearers could reject the doctrine of the trinity and still consider themselves Christian. This only attests to how miserable Unitarians have been in the art of theological persuasion from the start (of course, theological persuasion in those days often took the shape of a sword).

The early Unitarians were thoroughly biblical in their convictions. I’ll explain their position briefly but I won’t dwell on it.

The distinction between a Unitarian Christian and a Trinitarian Christian is perhaps best explained by the distinction Unitarians often make between "the religion of Jesus" (the religion that Jesus taught) and "the religion about Jesus" (the religion that centers on who Jesus was). To the extent that there is a Christian in me, it is decidedly the religion that Jesus taught, rather than the religion about Jesus.

There are really two radically different religions in the New Testament. Remember what your grandmother called the "red letter" Bible? Those were Bibles specially printed so that the words of Jesus appear in red print, and everything else appears in black. Believe it or not, your grandmother was promoting a Unitarian Bible! Because, if you examine only the words of Jesus—that is, the teachings of Jesus—you will find nothing remotely resembling a Trinitarian formula which asks us to worship him as if he were a god. Nothing. All such talk came from those who lived after Jesus did.

The religion that Jesus taught was primarily ethical—how to live rightly, how to treat others. When Jesus was asked, "Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" he did not answer with a creed to be believed. He answered by saying, "You must love God, and you must love your neighbor as yourself." That is all you are required to do. And he then illustrated that love by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan—which, you will recall—is a story about ethics, not about dogma. Nothing, absolutely nothing, was mentioned about believing some creedal statement concerning the nature of the Godhead. The religion that Jesus taught was thoroughly ethical; it was not theological.

If you wish to know the religion of Jesus, don’t dwell upon the edicts and proclamations of churches though the ages. Look to the red lettered words. Take, for example, the Sermon on the Mount. Here Jesus offers ethical advice: "So whatever you wish others would do to you, do so to them" This has been received through the ages as "The Golden Rule." Seek reconciliation with those whom you are in conflict with—in fact, love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you. He offers advice on moral humility: "Why do you see the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? First, take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye."

He offers comfort to those who are troubled: "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth…Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted...." He advises spiritual humility, telling people not to pray in public, like the hypocrites, but practice your piety, your prayer, your spirituality, in private. And he offers hope and aspiration: "You are the salt of the earth…You are the light of the world...Let your light shine so that others may see your good works."

This is the religion that Jesus taught, and if it be Christianity, then there is a Christian in me.

The religion that Jesus taught has to do with loving your enemies, caring for the needy, putting principle above wealth and power, accepting those who are different, showing mercy, seeking justice, and things like that. Or, as Jesus himself put it, "[I have come] to preach good news to the poor,…proclaim release to the captives, recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed." Elsewhere, he said, "I have come that you may have life, and have it more abundantly." That is the religion of Jesus, and it is one that I share, and one that is shared by most Unitarian Universalists I know. The Christian in me (and in you) remains strong to the extent that we take those teachings seriously.

Unfortunately, much was to happen to Christianity that was to shape it, or at least a large part of it, into something other than what Jesus taught. After Jesus died, others came along and taught a different religion: a religion about who Jesus was. The focus of this new religion shifted attention away from the teachings of Jesus to a belief about the divine nature of Jesus. The earliest and most prominent proponent of this new religion was Paul the Apostle, the author of most of the New Testament. But you don’t find many red letters in the books he wrote, because he did not teach the religion that Jesus taught. He taught a new religion that centered on the doctrine that Jesus was some form of God.

The distinction between these two religions is significant. In one, Jesus is human; in the other, he is God. The crucial practical difference, for me, at least, is one of accessibility. If he is human, even I can aspire to follow his teachings, based upon his life. If he is God, his life is no longer a model for my own, no longer accessible. For how can I aspire to be like a God?

Some people are perplexed that Unitarian Universalists observe the Christmas holiday, wondering why we would do so if we don’t worship the god, Jesus. To me, the key is found in that issue of accessibility—that Jesus was like me. The Christmas story is of the birth of a child in the most humble of surroundings, being raised in the most ordinary of families, but arising to the heights of moral and spiritual accomplishment. To me, the story loses its power if, in fact, the ordinariness of the person, Jesus, is left out of the plot. Christmas is a universal metaphor that only gains in its power if it is the story of a real person.

In describing "The Christian in Me," I have spoken, so far, mostly of the teacher, Jesus. Let me say just a word about the religion that arose out of his teachings, Christianity. It is no secret that Christianity has had a rather checkered history. On one hand, there is the legacy of persecution, violence and oppression. It has been used to justify evils ranging from slavery to the suppression of women’s rights. On the other hand, Christianity has been the inspiration for great feats of generosity and benevolence. Hospitals and schools and children’s homes and charity organizations have been formed in our society, mostly out of Christian motivation. In most cities, there are probably more Christian-based social welfare organizations that provide help to the needy than any other kind of agency.

No one can deny that Christianity has given comfort and hope to countless souls over the centuries, and surely this must count as significant. In an 1821 sermon, William Ellery Channing spoke of how Christianity has been a support to the great masses of people, even those who don’t fully understand their own faith. It has had, he said,

an exalting and consoling influence, a power to confer the true happiness of human nature, to give that peace which the world cannot give....[This supports] the faith of thousands who never read and cannot understand the learned books of Christian apologists, who want, perhaps, words to explain the ground of their belief,…but who hold the Gospel with conviction more intimate and unwavering than mere argument ever produced.

I mention this aspect of Christianity simply to honor the fact that it has, over the generations, offered profound hope, courage, and comfort to so many. Hope, courage and comfort are essentials to any religion, and to the extent that my own religion contains them, I recognize Christianity as a major source for these values in me.

But I return, once more, to the history.

Over the following centuries, Unitarians held firmly to their belief in Christianity as it was taught by Jesus. But something happened to Christendom over which they had no control. It became increasingly obvious that Paul’s view of Christianity—a view that defined Jesus as the object of worship—had become widely accepted as the norm. The religion that Jesus taught had become secondary.

I return to Channing. Over 150 years ago, Channing knew that Christianity was becoming defined differently from the intent of its founder. In a sermon on Christianity, he wrote the following:

When I think what Christianity has become in the hands of politicians and priests…how it has crushed the soul for ages…how it has struck the intellect with palsy and haunted the imagination with superstitious phantoms; when I think how, under almost every form of this religion, its ministers have...hewn and compressed it into the shape of rigid creeds, and have then pursued by menaces of everlasting woe whoever should question the divinity of these works of their hands; when I consider, in a word, how, under such influences, Christianity has been and still is exhibited, in forms which shock alike the reason, conscience and heart, I feel deeply, painfully, what a different system it is from that which Jesus taught...

I make no bones about it, and no apologies for it: Unitarians lost the battle over what defines Christianity. It took them a long time to realize they lost. As recently as a hundred years ago, most Unitarians still held tenaciously to the view that theirs was an authentically Christian religion. It was too painful to let go of that view.

So, in the last century, many Unitarians have let go, and the cross, for the most part, has been placed in the closet for safe keeping. Letting go wasn’t easy. In the 1880s, the debates centered on a statement of covenant for the Unitarians, and whether it should recognize that we follow the "lordship of Jesus" or the "leadership of Jesus." Leadership won out. Later, the phrase became "the Spirit of Jesus."

Today, our denominational covenant does not even mention Jesus by name. Instead it recognizes the contributions of "Jewish and Christian teachings, which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves." The religion that Jesus taught is still very much a part of us, but the religion that is taught about who Jesus was, which today seems to own the name "Christianity," has little to do with who we are.

I tell this story of the Unitarian journey with Christianity because it is sometimes parallel to my own story, and to the story of many Unitarians today. What the Unitarians experienced over four hundred years of history was a grand scale metaphor for what I experienced as an individual when coming into adulthood.

While running from adolescence into adulthood, I tripped over a paradox. It was there right in front of me, but I couldn’t avoid bumping into it. What churches say Christianity is is not what Jesus said; but it is the churches, not Jesus, that have the final say. So at some point in my life—and I cannot isolate it to a specific day or even a specific year—but at some point, I realized that I had to content myself with not being a "Christian." I had to let go of the label, even if much of Christianity remained in me. And so the symbolic cross was stored away in some symbolic closet.

And it’s too bad, really. I have never lost respect for the religion that Jesus taught. Of all the things he said, there are only a few with which I disagree, and there are a few that I don’t understand, but the vast majority of his teachings I find to he profound, inspiring, and true.

But since the churches seem to define a "Christian" differently, most of us have forsaken the label and closeted the symbol of the cross.

My reason for going through the history this morning is to suggest that Unitarians, while they may have closeted the symbol and the label to a large extent, have not, in my view, forsaken the religion that Jesus taught—at least, I don’t feel I have.

I have said that "most" of us have forsaken the label "Christian." I am quick to point out that there is a significant movement within our denomination known as the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship. This group of Unitarians proudly and gladly claims the label Christian (and I suppose I am proud and glad that they do), for they refuse to let others define it for them. In many of their Unitarian churches, the cross is still prominently displayed. I once spoke in a U.U. Church in Rhode Island that has a large cross dominating the sanctuary, and they repeat the Lord’s Prayer, which they call "the Prayer of Jesus," each week.

I said earlier this morning that I want to bring the cross symbolically out of the closet, dust it off, and look at it again. It is important to do this from time to time, I think, because Unitarians—myself included—too often succumb to a very unhealthy trap. A key cornerstone of our outlook is tolerance. One cannot understand our principles without knowing how important it is for us to practice tolerance of other religions. We learned this mostly by being a minority religion ourselves.

Too often, I’m afraid, our tolerance has a blind spot. And that blind spot is Christianity—especially Christianity that demands loyalty to Jesus more than loyalty to what Jesus taught. By identifying this blind spot in our tolerance, I am talking about myself as much as anyone else, because I often catch myself in this trap.

As a rule, you will not find me publicly criticizing Buddhism. No, sir. If I talk about Buddhism, it is to praise it, not bury it. Just about everything I say about Judaism is sympathetic and understanding. I like nothing more than to strike up a conversation with an American Indian who can tell me about his native religion. I’m all ears and completely open. Even a Scientologist, a Mormon, or a Hare Krishna would elicit a tolerant response from me.

Why is it, then, that tolerance comes so much harder for me when the subject is Christian religion?

David Rankin, a Unitarian minister in Detroit, tells of the time he spoke at a Unitarian Church in Philadelphia. He chose Christian symbolism in literature as his topic. After the service, he was asked to attend a sermon discussion in the basement. He was greeted by an angry man who shouted, "We have a free pulpit in this church, and we don’t want any of that Christian garbage!" "Like W.C. Fields," wrote Rankin, "I have never returned to Philadelphia."

Why is it that tolerance seems so much harder for us when it comes to Christian religions? I think I know why.

Those of you who have been, as I have been, a parent of a teenager, know that what the books say about adolescence is often true. Those of you who are going to be the parent of a teenager—read those books cautiously.

The books say this: among other things, a teenager is going to rebel. The teenager will ignore anything you say and have little tolerance for your views. This is actually healthy, the books add encouragingly, because the adolescent is shaping his or her identity as separate from his or her parents’. If all goes right, after the teenage years, when the adolescent has a secure self-identity, then he or she will be able to relate maturely again with the parent, on equal terms. They may disagree, but they won’t be quite as disagreeable. Or so say the books.

Well, as Jesus might say in a parable, Unitarianism is like unto a teenager. Christianity is our parent; it gave us birth. After a very long childhood, we are now in our long teenage stage of rebellion, creating a separate identity, which is healthy, I suppose. Like any other teenager learning separation, we have very little patience for our parent.

I suspect that may be why we find it easier to be more tolerant toward Rastafarians than toward Baptists.

This analogy could, of course, be taken far too literally. But the lesson is sound, I think. It takes a certain maturity to be tolerant, and it takes a certain security in one’s identity to risk being tolerant.

Part of being tolerant with regard to Christianity is recognizing and honoring the Christian in us.

I have taken the cross out of our closet today in part to remind myself, and to remind you, that our religious parent does indeed have something of value. And I hope that by taking it out once in a while, we can find it easier to understand and appreciate its value, and not feel threatened by it.

We will probably not make the cross central again—especially as long as Christianity remains a religion about Jesus more than a religion of Jesus.

Nor would I want the cross central if that meant restricting or narrowing our religious search and vision. But neither should we altogether remove the cross, and the tradition it represents. We should take it out once in a while, dust it off, and honor it. Like the cross at the Unitarian Church in St. Paul, move it around: now you see it, now you don’t.

Copyright: The author has given Unitarian Universalist Association member congregations permission to reprint this piece for use in public worship. Any reprints must acknowledge the name of the author.

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Last updated on Monday, March 25, 2013.

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