The Easter Story: Sacrifice and Salvation

Worship Notes

There were three readings for this service. The first was a story from Rabbi Moshe Leib, a Hasidic master who lived during the 18th-century in what is now the Ukraine, which was retold by Martin Buber in his book Tales of the Hasidim.[ref]”How to love men is something I learned from a peasant. He was sitting in an inn with other peasants, drinking. For a long time he was as silent as all the rest, but when he was moved by wine, he asked one of the men seated beside him, ‘Tell me, do you love me or don’t you love me?’

“The other peasant replied, ‘I love you very much’.

“But the first peasant replied, ‘You say that you love me, but you do not know what I need. If you really loved me, you would know.’

“The other had not a word to say to this, and the peasant who had put the question fell silent again.

“But I understood. To know the needs of men and to bear the burden of their sorrow–that is the true love of men.”[/ref][ref]Buber, Martin, Tales of the Hasidim, vol. 2: The Later Masters, New York: Schocken Books, 1991.[/ref]

The second was from a Letter to the Editor of The Oregonian on April 2, 2010 by Jim Sumser.[ref]I would like to thank Don Scotten for his brutally honest letter (“A veteran asks: thanks for what?” March 29.)

My son has served two tours in Iraq, and the worst thing anyone can say to him is ‘Thank you.’ He won lots of medals, was wounded, too (even more a hero!). He participated in events so appalling that he came home a wreck. He doesn’t want to be thanked for the horrible things he witnessed or, worse, did. The nightmares are his own. He, not you, went beyond the limits of what is humane, and he will have to live it with [sic] for the rest of his life.

I understand that most people feel uncomfortable around returning veterans and don’t know what to say to them. It’s best not to say anything. Change the subject or something.

When my brothers and I returned from Vietnam, ‘thank you’ was not a common greeting. Nor did people spit in our faces and call us baby killers. We were very secretive about our involvement in the war because we thought that such a response was definitely warranted, and indeed would have spit on our own faces were it physically possible.[/ref]

The final reading was an 8th-century prayer of the Bodhisattva by Shantideva.[ref]

For as long as space endures
And for as long as living beings remain
Until then may I too abide[/ref]

Sermon – The Easter Story

It is common for Unitarian Universalists to look at Easter as one of those springtime holidays that honor the budding of new life, the fertility of rabbits, the wonder of the egg in the mystery of life. That’s all well and good, and as a UU child, I learned about that sort of Easter.

What I didn’t learn, however, until I attended a Presbyterian seminary, was what Easter was really about. Now, maybe a lot of you have heard this ad nauseam. If so, please bear with me or tune me out. This first part is probably more for those who didn’t grow up learning about Easter.

We heard the Easter story during the Story for All Ages. There’s a Jewish rabbi – that’s Jesus – who causes a lot of trouble to the Roman leaders, as well as some of the Jewish ones, and finally the authorities have him arrested and crucified. He suffers at times throughout his life, as all of us do at times, but Jesus especially suffers hanging there while he dies. Then his body is laid in a tomb until the women can anoint him. You see, the Sabbath has come, so they go home to honor their tradition which says no work on the Sabbath. After the Sabbath is over, they go to care for the body of Jesus, and they discover it is missing.

The four gospels have different versions of the story, but basically, Jesus appears to the disciples, not as a ghost or a fantasy, but as a true-in-the-flesh human being, healed and alive, and he lets them know that by his rising, death has been vanquished. There is no more punishment for Adam and Eve’s sin. God and humans are reconciled.

When, as a young seminarian, I heard how wonderful Jesus was for taking on this death for human beings, my first reaction was, “Big deal.” So this rabbi, Jesus, sacrifices himself by putting his life on the line and getting crucified for it. Well, if he isn’t God, he died a tragic death, but lots of people die worse deaths even than his was, and some of them do so because they fought for justice or tried to save lives or otherwise tried to bring love into the world. Jesus isn’t the only martyr in history.

And if Jesus is God, then I figured he’s pretty much equipped to suffer, he’s got a lot more internal strength, for example, and there are still lots of people who suffer more than he ever did.

But, see, I didn’t get it. I’m not sure I get it even now, but I believe that if we’re going to honor a Christian holiday, we should at least understand why. Just as we’re not supposed to appropriate songs and stories and rituals from other traditions, especially if we don’t understand them, I don’t think we ought to feel okay appropriating Christian holidays and then turning them into pagan look-alikes. Yes, you could say the early Christians usurped the pagan holidays, but does that make it okay for us?

If you’re willing to follow me this far, then maybe you can follow me a little further. After all, this is Easter. Easter starts with Good Friday, when Jesus is cursed, humiliated, tortured, and left to die. He suffers, he enters darkness, he knows despair. There is misery and remorse all around. Even those who killed him regret their action in the end.

And yet, that’s not the end. The end is this incredible resurrection, this joy of reconciliation and re-uniting of friends. This is rebirth, all right, but not in any way ever known before.

Karl Barth, a Presbyterian theologian, explains how hiding eggs and glorifying Jesus aren’t the same at all. “The efforts to relate Easter to certain renewals, such as occur in creaturely life, say in spring or even in man’s awakening in the morning, and so on, are without any strength. Upon spring there inexorably follows a winter and upon the awakening a falling asleep. We have to do here with a cyclic movement of becoming new and old. But the becoming new at Ester is a becoming new once for all”[ref]Barth, Karl, Dogmatics in Outline, New York: HarperCollins, 1959, 122.[/ref]

This is salvation, which comes from new life, but it’s a new kind of salvation. This is an incredible story, and if we’re UUs, we probably don’t believe it in any factual sense, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from it. That doesn’t mean the story doesn’t have power, resonance, and meaning for our lives.

So Easter is a new kind of salvation, a one-and-for-all salvation, a salvation that no one can take from us, no matter what happens in our lives, no matter how deep we fall into despair. We are still saved.

If that is true – literally or figuratively – what are we saved from?

The typical Christian message these days is that Jesus saved us from a creaturely death. And many people think of that as a physical proposition, a life-after-we-die sort of thing.

Shirley Guthrie, another Christian theologian, points out that this salvation from death isn’t just physical. Rather, he writes, “[i]t is the death Paul speaks of when he speaks of being ‘dead through the trespasses and sins’ (Ephesians 2:1). It is the death John refers to when he says, ‘He who does not love remains in death’ (1 John 3:14). Sinful man – that is, man who does not or cannot love, who hates, who because of pride or fear refuses to ‘get involved,’ who avoids genuine encounters with God and other men by using them only to serve himself – that man is dead. He is dead even though he may still be walking around and acting as if he were alive. He is ‘dead inside,’ as we express it in everyday language.”[ref]Guthrie, Shirley, Chrisitan Doctrine, rev ed., Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1994, 218.[/ref]

Thus, salvation would be a coming alive again. Which relates to the spring message, of birds and flowers and leaves and all things as if new. As Barth says, though, this coming alive isn’t cyclical in the same way is nature’s burst of flowers and bird song. This is a coming alive inside ourselves, coming out of a psychic harshness or deadness. Of course, we can become depressed or lonely or scared or angry or resentful, even if we’ve been “saved.”

Perhaps the difference is, if we know we are saved, if we believe that someone or something loves us so deeply or compassionately that he would give up his life for us, then life’s difficulties may hurt, but they aren’t as likely to overwhelm us.

What this implies, though, is that coming alive in this way, being saved from our internal hell, isn’t something we can make happen by ourselves. We can’t heal on our own. Maybe our death doesn’t feel as terrifying as that of the veteran in the letter I read. But I suggest we all feel little deaths of our spirit and soul, in disappointments, betrayals, losses. In large and small ways, we close up, isolate, erect walls to protect our broken hearts.

Which is the final thing we are saved from: isolation. The disappointments and rejections of life sometimes make it hard for us to reach out, to embrace, to truly connect with others. Maybe we can’t even connect with our own spirit. Certainly we can’t connect with a love and a grace outside ourselves, some God-like entity or idea.

That lack of connection is a death, as well. And again, we can’t save ourselves from that death of loneliness, because the whole point of the death of isolation and lack of connection is that we are trying to manage by ourselves; we are trying to do it all alone.

So we need to be saved by someone or something else if we are to be whole, joyful, and alive for good. And that kind of life-long, or even eternal, liveliness, is the hope and the promise of Easter. Yes, that story is part of the pagan celebration of Ostara. New life arising from the earth, babies being born – all this is about joy and liveliness, yes.

But if we are to honor the Easter story as it is understood by mainline Christians, we must appreciate the depth of wonder, beauty, and grace that is inherent in an Easter that offers such a depth of love, such an eternity of commitment, that we will never be alone again. God, Jesus, love, hope, beauty – they are always with us, even in the snow, the ice storm, the torrential rain. May you find such peace in your heart; may you feel such grace flow over you; may you connect with your spirit and the spirit of others, now and forever.

First presented at the Vashon Island Unitarian Fellowship in Vashon Island, Washington on April 4, 2010. Permission granted to use quotes from this sermon for non-commercial purposes, as long as proper attribution is made. Copyright 2010 Barbara E. Stevens.