Easter: a back story.

31 Mar

Easter: The Back Story
A sermon by the Rev. Dawn Cooley
Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY on March 31, 2013.

Listen to the sermon here.

Holy Week, as celebrated by Christians around the world, honors the last week of Jesus’ life. Because our country is steeped in Christian culture, and because it is part of our heritage as Unitarian Universalists, it behooves us to be familiar with the story. One version goes like this: On Palm Sunday, Jesus rode into Jerusalem while crowds of people covered the streets ahead of him with their cloaks and with palm branches. Monday was not the best – he visited the Temple and got furious at the money-changers that had set up shop there. Jesus lost his temper and chased them out of the Temple. After that, Jesus spent Tuesday and probably Wednesday preaching in and around Jerusalem.

On Thursday, things started to shift. Jesus ate a last meal with his disciples. It is during this meal that Jesus famously broke bread and drank wine, asking his disciples to do all this in his memory in the future. After the supper, Jesus and his disciples went to Gethsemane to pray. The disciple Judas had previously made arrangements with the Temple Guard to identify Jesus to them. While in Gethsemane, Judas came up to Jesus and kissed Jesus on the cheek. Jesus was then arrested by the Temple guard and taken to the Sanhedrin, the Jewish court.

The men who held Jesus mocked him and beat him. On Friday morning, things went downhill at break-neck speed. The Sanhedrin took Jesus before Pilate at the Roman Court. Pilate asked Jesus, “Are You the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered and said to him, “It is as you say.” The priests went on to accuse Jesus of many things while Pilate mostly seemed confused.

Pilate had a tradition of releasing one prisoner during this time. He asked the crowd if they would like him to release Jesus. The crowd insisted that Pilate release a murder named Barabbas rather than release Jesus. The crowd got more and more stirred up and insisted that Pilate should crucify Jesus. Pilate conceeded to the crowd.

The soldiers took Jesus and they stripped him and put a robe on him. They twisted a crown of thorns on his head and mocked him. Then they spat on him, took the robe off and led Jesus away. A man named Simon carried the cross for Jesus, as he was by this time to weak to carry it himself.

Then the soldiers nailed his hands and feet to the cross. Over his head was written: KING OF THE JEWS.

Other criminals were being crucified at this same time. One of them said to Jesus: “If you are the Christ, save yourself and us.” Another took a different tact: “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And Jesus said to this one, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

In the afternoon, the sun darkened, the ground rumbled and the veil of the temple was torn in two. Jesus cried out to God, and then he died.

Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Pilate allowed it. When Joseph had taken the body, he wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and laid it in his new tomb and he rolled a large stone against the door of the tomb and departed.

Saturday was a day of mourning.

On Sunday, Mary Magdalene and possibly some other women went to see the tomb. There was a great earthquake and an angel descended from heaven. The angel rolled back the stone from the tomb and sat on it. He said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he is risen, as he said….And go quickly and tell his disciples that he is risen from the dead, and indeed he is going before you into Galilee; there you will see him.”

The women raced off, and ran into Jesus on the way. They cried with joy. That evening, Jesus stood in the presence of his disciples and said, “Peace be with you.” He showed them his hands and his side which had been pierced with the sword. Jesus spoke with the disciples for some amount of time, and then ascended into Heaven.


That is the most common Easter story, with some changes here and there. For instance, the specific words Jesus cried out when he died depends on which Gospel you are reading:

  • The author of the Gospel of Mark has Jesus cry out words from the 22nd Psalm: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me!”
  • The author of the Gospel of Luke has Jesus say “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit”
  • The author of the Gospel of John reports that Jesus says “It is finished.”

There are other differences as well. The story I just told comes from the Gospel of Matthew. The Gospel of Mark shares that the women were at the tomb in order to anoint the body of Jesus with spices. They were wondering how they were going to get into the tomb, when they saw that the stone had already been rolled away. The angel was waiting for them in the tomb. Again, Jesus appeared to the women first, but the male apostles didn’t believe them until Jesus appeared to them as well. The Gospel of Luke follows Mark, except that there were two angels, and they appeared to the women just outside the tomb.

The Gospel of John doesn’t mention any angels at first. Mary Magdalene appeared at the tomb, saw that it was empty, and rushed to tell the others. When they all ran to the tomb to check it out, the angel appeared and told them not to fear. Jesus then appeared to Mary Magdalene, but she did not recognize him at first.

For some modern day readers, these different versions can cause us trouble. We argue: If these books are supposed to be claiming to have been eyewitness accounts, shouldn’t they agree? Unitarian Universalist Minister John Buehrens, in his book “Understanding the Bible: An Introduction for Skeptics, Seekers, and Religious Liberals” points out that this was not necessarily the case in the ancient world. Then, the standard was that the more stories there were, even if they disagreed, the more likely the basic story was to be believed – in this case, the basic story about Jesus’s physical resurrection.

The New Testament as it is today, contains 4 different books that give stories of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Though the Gospel of Matthew is the first in the table of contents, if we put the Gospels in chronological order scholars believe that the Gospel of Mark is first. Mark was written to an international audience of Jews and Greeks, closest to the time of Jesus’s life – only about 30 years after his death. Next chronologically are Matthew and Luke – both of these were written 10-20 years after Mark and use Mark as a source. Matthew was written primarily to a Jewish audience, and Luke to a primarily Greek audience. These three are called the synoptic Gospels – they share many of the same stories.

The Gospel of John is more literary and less journalistic in tone. It is the newest of the Gospels included in the New Testament, written in the early 100s to an international audience of Christians who were struggling to figure out who they were in the world.

These four Gospels are the canonical Gospels. This means that they were authorized by the ancient church leaders. By the end of the 2nd century, well before the Council of Nicea in 325, almost all of the 27 documents in the New Testament canon had already gained widespread acceptance by church leaders, especially these four Gospels. It is not that there weren’t other Gospels floating around: there were! But those other Gospels told a different story, and church leaders wanted to make it clear that folks knew that the other Gospels were NOT acceptable. Particularly the Gnostic Gospels.

Gnosticism takes its name from the Greek “gnosis” meaning “insight” or “enlightenment.” Gnostics claim a special relational or experiential knowledge of God or of the divine or spiritual nature within us that other people are not aware of. It is a philosophical and religious movement (still alive today) that actually started before Christian times – there is speculation that it may have started in the Jewish community at Alexandria and was later picked up by some nearby very early Christian groups. By the beginning of the second century, Gnostic Christianity was one of the three main branches of the Church.

But by the end of the 2nd century, Gnosticism was deemed heretical and suppressed. It was so thoroughly suppressed that early 20th century scholars had very little primary source material about it. But with the discovery of the Nag Hammadi books in December 1945 changed that. Not to be confused with the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Nag Hammadi books were found by farmers in an sealed earthenware jar containing thirteen leather-bound papyrus codices. The mother of the farmers is said to have burned one of the books and parts of a second has heretical, but twelve books and other loose pages remain. These books date back to the 2nd century and are almost entirely Gnostic texts that are believed to have been hidden by monks when the possession of such banned writings was declared a heretical offense.

The books found in Nag Hammadi that have caused the biggest fuss that are very much not in the approved cannon are the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mary Magdalene.

The Gospel of Thomas does not include a narrative of Jesus’s life, but is rather a discourse between Jesus and his students. The sayings of Jesus found in this Gospel discuss that salvation is available immediately, internally, right at this moment, no matter what the status of your body or the world around you. This Gospel centers on the pursuit and experience of Gnosis, and the availability of such enlightenment to all. Saying 24 has Jesus declare: “There is a light within a person of light and it shines on the whole world.” My favorite from the Gospel of Thomas is saying 2, which takes a more accepted saying of Jesus and, to my mind, deepens it. Saying 2 is “Seek and do not stop seeking until you find. When you find, you will be troubled. When you are troubled, you will marvel and rule over all.” This Gospel presents Jesus as a spiritual guide whose words, when properly understood, will provide eternal life.

The Gospel of Mary Magdalene is a dialogue between Jesus and Mary and some of Jesus’s other apostles. In this Gospel, Mary holds a special role of leader among Jesus’ students. She is closest to him and understands him best. She comforts the other students when Jesus leaves, saying “Don’t cry or break into despair or doubt. His grace will go with you and protect you, and let us praise the greatness of his work for he prepared us and made us truly human.” Like the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary focuses on salvation as a mystical, internal realization that is accessible to anyone who understands.

Even more recently than Nag Hammadi was the discovery of the Gospel of Judas, which takes what we thought we knew about the relationship between Jesus and Judas and turns it utterly 180 degrees. This Gospel was discovered in Egypt in 1970 but kept secret. For 36 years, it passed from hand to hand, through theft and intrigue, until National Geographic restored and published it. In this Gospel, Judas is a hero, Jesus’ confidant to the end. Jesus tells Judas that his is the most important of roles, for Judas is to “turn the mortal body of Jesus over to the authorities for crucifixion, after which the real Jesus, the spiritual Jesus, will return to the light of the divine above.” In his Restored New Testament, Willis Barnstone writes that Judas is a “tragic figure who must obey the master and ‘betray’; him in order for himself to find salvation and for Jesus’s earthly mission to be realized.” Note: after the service, someone reminded me that this is not at all unlike the role of Severus Snape in the Harry Potter stories, who you think is a villian but turns out to be the bravest of the brave…Great connection!

Like the other two Gnostic Gospels, resurrection is a spiritual event rather than a physical one. This is one of the main differences between Gnostic Christianity and the other mainline versions of the time. Gnostics believed that our human bodies hold us back and are base and animal. This attitude was carried into the Christian church, but the Gnostics took it even further. They believed they would be saved from their corporeal existence through relational and experiential spiritual knowledge. From a Gnostic perspective Judas was helping to save Jesus by releasing him from his physical existence so that his spirit could be freed.

There were other differences between Gnostic Christianity and the established church as well. For instance, the Gnostics tolerated different faith groups outside of their tradition and absorbed various groups within it. Much like modern day Unitarian Universalism, with our UU Pagans and UU Christians and UU Buddhists and UU Atheists and so much more, there were Gnostic Christians, Gnostic Jews, Egyptian Gnostics, and more.

Also, following in similar footsteps to Jesus, the Gnostics did not discriminate against women. Anyone could be enlightened by special knowledge from the divine and could lead worship. In this way Gnostic Christians reflected the earliest days of Christianity. The letters in the New Testament that were actually written by the Apostle Paul (the oldest documents in the New Testament canon) had this egalitarianism. This stands in stark contrast to later letters which claimed to have been written by Paul but actually were not.

Finally, in contrast to the direction the church leaders were heading, those filled with gnosis had no need of authority from priests, bishops or anyone else when it came to enlightenment: their own experience or secret knowledge from Jesus or from God or from the Divine, was enough. By the second century, church leaders were already entrenched in hierarchy and did not like this at all. And they were (rightly) afraid that if people read these documents on their own, they might come to conclusions the church leaders did not support.

So what does Gnosticism have to do with Easter’s back story? A back story gives a character (historical or fictional) a fuller history. It humanizes a controversial figure and gives us a different way of looking at what we might always have accepted as “the one right way” of understanding a situation.

A good example can be found in the Star Wars series. Episodes 4-6, released between 1977 and 1983, gave us a particular story about Darth Vader. Between 1999 and 2005, episodes 1-3 gave us a fuller view of how Darth Vader came to be. They humanized him. However, there are things about episodes 1-3 that many fans reject. We pick and choose what makes sense to us, and toss out what doesn’t work.

I think the same is true about the story of Jesus. The ancient church leaders chose Gospels for their canon that presented a particular story of the death and resurrection of Jesus. But this was not the only story. The Gnostic Christians of the 2nd century already were viewing Jesus’s resurrection as a spiritual event rather than a physical one. Elaine Pagels (the Ware Lecturer in 2005), in her book The Gnostic Gospels writes “Some gnostics called the literal view of the resurrection the ‘faith of fools.’ The resurrection, they insisted, was not a unique event of the past: instead, it symbolized how Christ’s presence could be experienced in the present.”

Gnosticism and the gnostic Gospels give Jesus’s death and resurrection a totally different perspective than the one many of us are most familiar with. They provide layers of meaning and interpretation to a story that, for most of us, has been presented in one way only; a story that may resonate with us in some places and may seem totally foreign in others. Who Jesus was, what he said, and what his death and resurrection were about varies based on which Gospel you read. And who knows how many other Gospels there may be out there, waiting to be discovered. How wonderful! So be it. Blessed be.

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