“Jesus’ disciples” – early catacomb painting
A Series on the Teachings of a Galilean Sage: The Sermon on the Mount, Part IV of IV Parts
A pdf copy of this commentary to print and read is here.
Recently one Sunday morning, I awoke in the pre-dawn hours, as the lingering shadows were just beginning their retreat, and the likelihood of another glorious spring day seemed like a good bet.
Then I remembered it was Easter Day for Western Christendom, and I quickly began to recall so many years of liturgical practice in my own personal past that comprised this observance; leading the faithful in procession into an empty, darkened sanctuary, and then banishing the darkness with light, and song, a jig and shouts of “Alleluia!”
Like the last faded echo, the absence of whatever had gone before and was no more could mean only one thing. Things which were “cast down were being raised up,” as one lovely old prayer once put it, “and things which had grown old were being made new.” (Book of Common Prayer, p.540)
There were no hocus-pocus notions of resuscitation or reincarnation, as far as I was concerned; though some among us undoubtedly still believed in the magic of immortality. But those of us who’d lived long enough to find ourselves as good as dead more than once along the way — and nonetheless survived by nothing less than happenstance or grace to discover a gospel of second chances — knew enough to recognize a good thing when we saw it. We’d just call it resurrection, and leave it at that.
Those of us who’d lived long enough to find ourselves as good as dead more than once along the way … knew enough to recognize a good thing when we saw it. We’d just call it resurrection, and leave it at that.
But on this particular morning I’d rise with the prodding sunlight, and Germaine and I would resume a weekly ritual that has become as routine as any meaningful liturgical practice. Piling the dog into the station wagon, we’d head out for a 3-mile trek around the Lafayette Reservoir.
Falling in line, we would join the parade of all the other 2-legged and 4-legged congregants on the circular path. Some were amblers, some hikers, and others serious joggers. It is as if everyone proceeds in his or her own way, and at their own pace, with one’s own journey, along the shared path. We’d greet others with a nod, a smile, and the usual greeting. “Good morning to you,” one would say. “And also with you” – or something like it — would be the customary reply. There would be new faces and critters, but also others that have become familiar only because of the shared experience we repeat each week, separately and together. Somehow, it all seemed vaguely reminiscent; as if I’d done it all my life …
And besides, today was Easter Day. Again. It was the “pagan” festival of Estre, the ancient Anglo-Saxon (or Teutonic) goddess who represents the rebirth and renewal associated with the spring equinox. Little wonder then that budding nature, eggs and bunnies, an Easter parade in some fashion or other, and the empty tomb of former things should all get jumbled together.
Of course, so-called mainline orthodox Christianity co-opted yet another pagan rite early on in its own tradition to make it all out to be something more; just as it had usurped what is aptly now referred to by some as the “voiceprint” of the wisdom tradition that preceded it in the teachings of a human Jesus.
In Paul’s earliest writings he shows little interest in that historical figure. The Christian faith quickly became a confessional religion about yet another dying-and-rising savior god. The various gospel traditions that included the teachings of the earthly Jesus were all written retrospectively. It is as if you are only meant to read all the parables, aphorisms and quips backwards; and in light of the numerous variations of a resurrection narrative that is hardly persuasive if you want to talk about any hereafter.
“The resurrection belief is the first overlay on the preceding wisdom tradition (of Jesus),” says David Galston. “The birth of Christian theology is the silencing of (the historical) Jesus.”
Wisdom (i.e. teachings) is the foundation of the historical Jesus, not as fact but as voiceprint. What began as a lifestyle became, with remarkable speed, the worshipping of a Lord … What is necessary is to return to the school of Jesus, where Jesus is not confessed, not called Lord, and not even regarded as divine. To bring a silenced Jesus back to life – wisdom’s version of resurrection – means to initiate students in the lifestyle of the school. It means building a community th at addresses and solves the problems of our times on our own terms. It means extending the momentum of the teacher and the contours of his wisdom into the context of today. [from, “Embracing the Human Jesus: A Wisdom Path for Contemporary Christianity”]
This commentary is the last of a 4-part series on the ethical teachings of Jesus from Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. It explores how we might, in fact, resurrect the voiceprint of this pre-Christian sage. We’ll work with what we’ve got; a gospel tradition that took the teachings of a human Jesus, and further encumbered them with confessional creeds about the man. Like sifting wheat from chaff, we’ll seek to discern both the pre-gospel voice of Jesus, and an adaptable momentum that might still propel us forward to a more meaningful understanding of our own particular time and place.
If there is still an Easter procession for the progressive Christian, this just may be it. You can read more here.