By Eric Stetson — December 28, 2008
(Note: This is the text of a sermon preached at Universalist National Memorial Church in Washington, D.C.)
Good morning! I want to begin by thanking Pastor Lillie Henley for giving me the opportunity to preach in this historic church. Many erudite, inspiring and uplifting sermons have been preached from the pulpit in which I now stand, some of which I have been fortunate to listen to from the pews. It is truly an honor to deliver the sermon here today at Universalist National Memorial Church.
As we reflect on the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, let us consider what significance does this Jewish Messiah of 2,000 years ago have for us today? Is Jesus Christ simply a figure to be worshipped as something of a divine superhero, or is the meaning of this historical yet timeless human being something simultaneously more immanent and more transcendent than the popular, perhaps somewhat mythological view? Can a specific man who lived in one particular time, place, and culture — a man who, despite the understandable tendency of some of his devoted followers to deify him, was indeed human in every way — can such a man have a truly universal relevance that is capable of touching the hearts and lives of people in all generations and nations? If so, how? Why?
Perhaps it is precisely because Jesus was so much like all the rest of us, that the ways he was different seem all the more striking and relevant to us. Though he ate and drank, worked, was tempted, prayed to the same God we pray to, and probably did many other things ordinary people do, he also was a very extraordinary person in his moral qualities, leadership abilities, and healing power. Could this suggest that the extraordinary is latent within the ordinary — that, hidden within us all, there is a Christ waiting to be born?
Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again. … No one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.” [Jn. 3:3,5]. Many Christians interpret “born of water” to mean baptism into the Christian religion, and “born of Spirit” to mean a second conversion experience involving speaking in tongues, miraculous healings or other events signifying the supernatural power of God’s Spirit coming into one’s life.
But I interpret Jesus’s words differently. I believe what Jesus really meant is that everyone is born in the physical sense, from the water of the womb, but only some have experienced the spiritual rebirth that comes from developing an authentic relationship with God. Until we do this, we cannot see heaven, either in this life or the next. Being born again in the Spirit might indeed include amazing occurrences, but it is usually not a formulaic display that a Pentecostal church would applaud as evidence of God’s presence. More likely, it is a gradual transformation of one’s character through the course of one’s life, replacing the fleshly and worldly focus with a truly spiritual and otherworldly holiness and maturity of being. It is about discovering one’s true nature and limitless potential as a child of God, created in His image, and growing up into the station of a mature son or daughter serving our Father in heaven, while yet living on earth. Being born again means being made new in the image of Christ, putting aside the fallen ego that is destined to die and replacing it with the living Spirit of the divine that abides eternally within us.
Like any birth, our spiritual rebirth into Christ comes with a great deal of labor and pain. Salvation is a process — and not an easy one. Can a terrible sinner, or even an average person, ever hope to be transformed into something closely resembling the perfection of the Biblical character we know as Jesus Christ? Yes! Given enough time, anything can happen; as Jesus promised, “in God all things are possible.” [Mat. 19:26]
Saint Paul wrote, “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” [1 Cor. 13:12]. The Day of Seeing and Knowing need not be just a mythic day in the distant future beyond the end of time. I believe that on some level, to some degree, every day of our lives has the potential to be a day of seeing and knowing. If we are flowing with God, then we are coming to know ourselves. That is because God is the great “I AM.” In the Torah, when Moses asks the Mysterious Voice of the Divine to reveal His name, the Voice responds simply, “I Am That I Am.” [Ex. 3:14]. In the Hebrew, the connotation also includes “I Was Who I Was” and “I Will Be Who I Will Be.” Contained within this phrase I AM, the name of God, is an infinity of depth of meaning. What, or who, is God? God Is! — that is who God is. So whatever is happening, and whoever is part of the story of life, is in some sense part of God. To be divine is simply To Be, because “Being” is the name of God.
Being is always changing. Being is breathing. Being expands and contracts, rises and falls, eats and expels, lives and dies. Being loves and is loved, knows and is known. Being explores itself from all angles, seeking to know itself, to love itself, to be itself in all possible ways. To Be is to be on a journey. God is on a journey, and God is the journey. And God is the goal at the end of the journey — which itself may be but a new beginning. The Spirit of Christ says in the Book of Revelation, “I AM the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.” [Rev. 22:13]
There are three stages of the Christian spiritual journey: the faith about Christ; the faith of Christ; and being in Christ. These same stages — belief, practice, and self-transformation — are much the same in every faith tradition, except that the human representation of the divine is found in a different person than Jesus of Nazareth: perhaps Buddha, Krishna, Moses or Muhammad.
The first stage of our journey of faith as Christians is to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God who reveals the character and power of God our Father. Jesus says, “Do not believe me unless I do what my Father does. But if I do it, even though you do not believe me, believe the miracles, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father.” [Jn. 10:37-38]. Saint John the Apostle writes, “Who is it that overcomes the world? Only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.” [1 Jn. 5:5]
Tragically, many Christians get stuck in this initial stage, thinking that the whole point of Christianity is to say “I believe Jesus is Lord” and thus, like a magic charm, to be saved from hell. But belief is only the beginning of the process of salvation. We must also live according to our belief. Jesus says, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” [Mat. 16:24]. “And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” [Lk. 14:27]. “I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these.” [Jn. 14:12]. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” [Mat. 7:21]. James the brother of Jesus writes, “faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. … As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.” [Jas. 2:17,26]
Taking up one’s cross and doing good deeds in one’s life is necessary for a mature and meaningful faith. But the journey of the spirit goes even further than that. Though many Christians think the furthest limit that one can go towards God is to believe in Christ and practice his teachings, the end result of our belief and practice should be to discover the Christ within, in a sense to become Christ.
This is a very controversial idea in Christianity, associated with ancient mysticism and modern universalism. In some other religions it is regarded as outright blasphemy. In the Baha’i Faith, for example, human Manifestations of God are limited to only a few historic individuals, who are described using the Islamic imagery of the Sadrat al-Muntaha, a lotus tree that is planted at the end of a road in the desert to indicate that one can go no farther. The metaphor conveys the idea that no one but the great prophets can ever directly approach God or experience His abiding presence within their own being; we will always be mere servants who must seek the divine through prophetic intermediaries, special human beings who are divine though we are not. In orthodox forms of Christianity, this same basic idea is expressed as the belief that Jesus is the only Son of God — that Jesus of Nazareth was the only human being ever to be born and walk this earth who embodied the Divine Spirit.
I believe such a view is mistaken. Jesus himself says, “A student is not above his teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like his teacher.” [Lk. 6:40]. We are not to keep looking outside ourselves for divine realities, but must learn to find them inside: As Jesus taught his disciples, “The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you.” [Lk. 17:20-21]. Saint Paul writes that our goal as Christians is to “become perfectly mature, attaining to the whole stature of the fullness of Christ.” [Eph. 4:13]. As Paul preached to the people of Athens, God “is not far from each one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’” [Acts 17:27-28]. Ultimately, “the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.” [Rom. 8:21]
Coming to the realization of the Christ within us all does not guarantee that we will successfully manifest Christlike traits at all times. Remember the “What Would Jesus Do” fad? Millions of Christians wore mass-produced bracelets emblazoned with the initials WWJD to remind themselves of that slogan and their desire to do what Jesus would do. There may be some value to the idea of pretending to be just like an admired figure in order to grow into that image, but I think this also has some dangers, because it is based on a very high level of deception. Is the average person really ready to act just like Jesus? I don’t think so.
I wonder how many people who went around wearing the trendy WWJD bracelets sinned while it was wrapped around their wrist? Probably nearly everyone. What about serious sins? It would be interesting to know how many people struck someone with the same hand that sported the bracelet. How many stole with that hand? Probably more than we would care to imagine. Or, on a less serious note, how many WWJD-encircled wrists were connected to hands that extended a middle finger toward someone in anger? And though I don’t believe that skipping Sunday services is a sin, probably plenty of the holy wrists that acquired their bracelets through the influence of organized religion were connected to hands that hit the snooze button on their alarm clock rather than getting up to go to church. In the end, most of the WWJD bracelets likely found their way into a trash can or a dusty box in the closet after the wearer realized that they were so far from the ability to act just like Jesus on a daily basis that they felt embarrassed to keep wearing it.
It would be more realistic and less prideful to take smaller steps toward the ultimate goal of Christhood. For example, we might begin by assigning ourselves the task of just trying to be a polite, friendly, and caring person every day, even in difficult situations when we feel frustrated and selfish. If we can achieve that, then the next step might be to try to develop some quality that a saintly person has, such as extraordinary charity, patience, joy, faith, love, compassion, courage, or whatever positive characteristic we really want to work on in ourselves. Then, maybe we could realistically begin to contemplate “What would Jesus do?” and manifest this exalted level of spiritual maturity on a fairly regular basis.
Being a disciple of Christ or someone striving to be spiritual doesn’t mean we have to go from wallowing in the mud of sin to reigning on a heavenly throne in one day. For most spirits, I suspect it will probably take numerous ages or lifetimes to get even close to the level of a Master like Jesus. Let’s be honest with ourselves, both about where we’re headed and also about where we stand.
The story of my own journey of faith in Christ began, like the story of many Christians, with a realization that Jesus was greater and more powerful than I am — that he could do amazing things I simply could not do. Thus, this ancient Jewish man from Nazareth should command my greatest respect and adoration. I decided I believed in Jesus. I believed in his power to forgive us of our sins and heal us of our sicknesses, whether physical, mental or spiritual. And like many people who accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior, I made this decision to become a Christian at a time when I felt particularly guilty about my own sins and was suffering terribly in body, mind, and soul. I had lost my job; had left my former religious community, the Baha’i Faith; was suffering from acute depression and anxiety; and was developing Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, a debilitating disease that is difficult to diagnose, even more difficult to treat, and which robbed me of over three years of my young life.
It was at such a time that I began attending an Assemblies of God church that met at a downtown movie theater. The worship style was hip, the pastor was trendy, and the membership was young and successful. Every week for several months, I dragged myself into that church and listened to the preacher give his uplifting message and I sang the songs projected on the gigantic video screen. Every week, I felt like a dead man walking. Sometimes I would have to pull over my car on the 45-minute trip from my home to church because I felt too sick to drive. Sometimes during the sermon I would feel faint and dizzy, and struggled not to pass out and collapse onto the floor.
My hope was that by dragging myself into church over and over again, I could prove to God what a good Christian I was, how hard I was trying to serve the Lord despite the suffering He was making me endure. Eventually I stopped going. I retreated even more into myself and my inner torment, fearing that no one could possibly understand or relate to the ordeal I was going through — certainly not the people in that church with their upwardly mobile careers, gourmet coffee-powered high-energy lifestyles, and expectations of constant blessing from God for Christ’s followers. For me, there was only a gnawing emptiness and pain. I felt that my “heavenly Father” had forsaken me, perhaps even disowned me for eternity.
I wonder how many people there are who go to church and try to pretend that everything is going fine in their life, when secretly they are hanging on their own personal cross — afraid to reveal their torment and their doubts, afraid even to admit to their fear? Maybe someone in this service here today feels like the nails are piercing your flesh and you are writhing and twisting in pain, naked on that stake, high up in the air for all to see even if they can’t see — and you are ashamed to let anyone see or know what you really are going through.
God is with you.
I believe that God sometimes allows us to suffer because He wants us to live the cross, not just believe in it. That’s what I learned from my own suffering and struggles. We all share in the Cross of Christ.
Simon of Cyrene, a random person plucked off the street who was forced to help Jesus carry his cross to the place of execution, is an archetypal character in the story of the Gospel who symbolizes this great truth. He didn’t ask to shoulder this burden; he didn’t ask to be removed from his comfort zone and forcibly thrust into the grim procession to Calvary. But there he was, because God wanted him to grow. God wanted him to experience the story of Christ within his own being, not just hear about it and think about it as a mental abstraction.
The Bible tells us that the Servant of God is “a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering… Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows… and by his wounds we are healed.” [Isa. 53:3-5]. Christians believe these verses of the Prophet Isaiah were a prophecy of Jesus Christ. I say they are a description of us all. As Plato said, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” Perhaps the reason Jesus was such a paragon of kindness and compassion is because he himself endured great torments of the body, mind, and spirit, even before he went to the cross. It is written that Jesus left his livelihood, his family and home, and roamed the desert in the lonely misery of temptation, doing battle with the devil within. He befriended and ministered to the mentally ill, those regarded as possessed by demons; and he reached out with healing love to the lepers, the physically disabled and chronically diseased, who were viewed as unclean and unworthy of a holy man’s touch.
In our own individual way, we all experience the temptations in the wilderness and the agony of crucifixion, and we all have the opportunity to work miracles in the lives of others we encounter, because we can look to Christ as an example of the Fully Human Life which is also Fully Divine! All our souls are, for a time, pinned to this material earth, this place of inherent suffering, as Christ was nailed to the cross. The challenge is to come to see our lives on earth as an opportunity to transcend, to overcome our suffering and thus to ascend beyond this planetary crucifix, as Jesus of Nazareth did in the resurrection. The way we can do this is to emulate him, each according to one’s own gifts and calling and level of spiritual development.
I believe that the greatest obstacle to our spiritual growth is the belief that there is an obstacle. Let me repeat that: The greatest obstacle to our spiritual growth is the belief that there is an obstacle. The moment we envision a wall blocking our path to divine perfection is the moment we stop moving forward. It is one of the greatest tragedies of religion that the One who is supposed to be the Door through which we can approach ever closer to God has so often been portrayed as a tree at the end of the desert road, the holy obstacle beyond which there is no passing.
I once went to an art exhibit in which there was a room where visitors would file in and stand in pitch darkness until their eyes adjusted. After a minute or so, we could see a faintly glowing wall in front of us. That was it. There was nothing on the wall, just an empty wall that glowed with a dim red light. Many people went into the room and that’s all they ever saw — they were looking for a painting to be hanging there, but there was no painting. So they grumbled, shrugged their shoulders and left.
That’s what I did the first time I went into that room. But for some reason, I decided that there had to be more to it than that. I was curious to explore that room and see if there was something I had missed. So I went back in. While a group of people stood back and stared at the blank wall, perhaps trying to figure out why this was considered art and how this artist had ever convinced anyone to give him a grant and an exhibit in a government-sponsored art gallery, I broke ranks with the crowd and strolled right up to the wall. Still, it looked like nothing more than a blank wall with a light projected onto it. I reached out my hand to see what the wall would feel like. I reached forward — kept reaching, reaching — and there was nothing there! My hand reached on into emptiness! All of a sudden I could see that there was no wall where everyone had thought there was a wall. What visitor after visitor had thought was a stupid excuse for art, just a blank wall, was in fact no wall at all; it was the entrance to another space.
I said aloud in surprise, “Hey, it’s an optical illusion!” Other people in the room quickly walked up to join me, reached out their hands into the empty space where the wall seemed to be, and saw for themselves what was really going on. Pretty soon, the previously silent crowd was abuzz with conversation about this exciting discovery. The whole dynamic of the experience had changed. What was once a limitation had become an open door; what had been confusion and frustration suddenly made sense.
Religious doctrines can be like a wall that prevents us from truly getting to know the Divine, and even from knowing ourselves. But those walls of religion are only a product of the human mind. They do not really exist in the Eye of the Universe, the sublime and all-seeing vision of God. Only in the collective hallucination of society do these barriers have any substance and power.
I believe humanity is moving into an era when the walls of religion must come tumbling down. God is calling us in this day to challenge our old assumptions and learn to see things as they really are. As Jesus did some 2,000 years ago, we must have courage to walk right up to the walls people think are there and reach out to touch them and show that they are nothing more than a figment of the imagination. Then shall the eyes of the world be opened, and the vast expanse of reality beyond the limitations of our former perceptions be revealed in awe and wonder.
One of the pieces that was prominently displayed at the same art exhibit was a self-portrait of the artist. It stretched from floor to ceiling and loomed large from a distance, like a great monolithic image. Upon closer examination, however, one could see that the portrait was composed of tiny little pictures of thousands and thousands of different people. These countless images blended together on the macroscopic scale, perfectly producing the necessary patterns of hue, light and shadow to form the face of the artist.
I have come to believe that God is like this picture. The great Artist of the universe is a multi-faceted being whose Self-portrait is filled with an infinite number of faces, images, attributes, reflections and manifestations of the ineffable and transcendent divine character. Traditional Christians say that God is a Trinity, three-in-one. I say that this is true, but that it’s one of the biggest understatements ever conceived and uttered. God is infinity-in-One. Not only is God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; but God is also a mother, a daughter, a brother or sister, a friend, a lover, a king, a servant, and so much more. God can be envisioned as wind and water, as mountains and rivers, as the earth under our feet and as the sky above, as a heavenly choir and as a wandering beggar, as numerous animals that have a special place in the human consciousness, as seeds and trees, as the sun, the moon and the stars, as an organism, as a computer, as anything the mind can imagine and perceive some divine attribute therein. We can never run out of ways to describe God, because God is both the Known and the Unknowable, the Revealer of secrets and the Hidden Mystery.
The Bible teaches that God is becoming “all in all.” [1 Cor. 15:28]. The final state of existence is not dualistic, permanently divided into good and evil, heaven and hell, or God and Satan; instead, all things ultimately flow into God, the One Being, like an infinitely powerful magnet drawing everyone and everything unto Itself.
The All is in all because all things have been brought forth from the Creator. In other words, God has put a little bit of Godself, in some way, in some form, into everything ever created. This is true in an even fuller sense with human beings. The human spirit has been created in the “image and likeness of God,” in God’s own image [Gen. 1:26-27], the way a child resembles his or her parents. Because this is our essential nature, ultimately all human spirits shall become filled with all the attributes of divinity.
The All will be in all people because we are destined to grow into God. In the words of Saint Paul, “all reflect the Lord’s glory, and are being transformed into His likeness with ever-increasing glory.” [2 Cor. 3:18]. Whatever happens to us on the journey to this state of glorification is part of God’s plan for the education, refinement, and strengthening of our souls — even the parts of our trek that take us down blind alleys and through valleys of darkness.
In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus instructed his disciples, “If they say to you, ‘Where have you come from?’ say to them, ‘We have come from the Light, from the place where the Light came into being by Itself, established Itself, and appeared in Their image.’ If they say to you, ‘Is It you?’ say, ‘We are Its children, and we are the chosen of the living Father.’ If they ask you, ‘What is the evidence of your Father in you?’ say to them, ‘It is motion and rest.’”
Motion and rest — that is the evidence of the divine within us. I think what Jesus was trying to communicate is that we must always be in motion, moving forward on our journey and willing to experience change; but that at the same time we must be at peace with ourselves in the moment, and with the uncertain and sometimes difficult processes of change and growth we may be experiencing, resting in our trust of the divine plan.
In conclusion, the central message of Christianity is the Universalist message that all humanity is on a spiritual journey from Adam to Christ. Adam and Christ — these are the two great metaphors of the human being: on the one hand, the fallen child of God who leaves Eden; and on the other hand, the child who grows up, overcomes and returns to harmony with the Heavenly Father. The secret is that the fallen one becomes the resurrected one! Saint Paul said that “as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.” [1 Cor. 15:22]. In a sense, each and every one of us is the Prodigal Son. Like Adam we have all fallen, but like Christ we shall all in the end emerge from a painful crucifixion into the risen glory of resurrection. Indeed, the Christ is incarnated in every human being who has ever lived and ever will live, and the story of Christ is a universal archetype — the human story itself.
In 1901, Jabez T. Sunderland, a Unitarian minister, wrote:
There never was a time when God was not in his world, the very life of all its life. But His manifestation grows in splendor — especially it grows in splendor with the progress of the human race. So that God’s incarnation was never so glorious as now. And as the ages go on, and the race advances, and man rises to still greater heights of moral and spiritual attainment, what will that be except the fuller and more perfect manifestation or incarnation of God in humanity?
How much higher and more full of meaning does this view of the incarnation make everything! In the light of it, all nature and all human nature become manifestations of the divine, each in its degree. … Especially what glory does this view of the Divine Incarnation shed upon human nature, and how does it fill all man’s future with hope! Christ was not a strange, solitary, abnormal manifestation of God in human form, once in all the ages, with nothing in any way like it before or after. He was a type of our humanity. He was a foretaste of what waits for the race. The sleeping possibilities which are in your soul and mine came to full blossom in him. He is a prophecy of what God holds in store for all humanity, sometime, somewhere.
Yes — there is a Christ within us all, waiting to be discovered. There is a Christ within us all, waiting to be experienced. There is a Christ within us all, waiting to be manifested. There is a Christ within us all — knocking at the door of our hearts, calling us to stop waiting, and start being who we really are.