Easter tends to arrive for most Unitarian Universalists with a considerable amount of ambivalence. A few UUs embrace it, others tolerate it, some are hostile toward it, and a good many simply ignore it. The vast majority, however, have mixed feelings. And every year it reappears and we will gather on Easter morning once again with our blend of expectations and opinions. A colleague, the Rev. Jane Rzepka puts it this way:
“Every year I fight the feeling that our UU churches just can’t win on Easter. Our familiar congregation [comes] through the doors, alongside a number of Easter visitors we’ve never seen before. Why do they come?
To hear familiar, traditional, Easter music.
To not hear familiar, traditional, Easter music.
To be reminded of the newness of spring, the pagan symbols of the season, and the lengthening days, without a lot of talk about Jesus and the resurrection.
To be reminded of Jesus and His resurrection, without a lot of talk about the newness of spring, the pagan symbols of the season, and the lengthening days.
To participate in a family service, where children delight in discovering the many roots of our religious tradition.
To participate in a dignified service, where adults celebrate the undeniably Christian holiday, Easter.
We each have religious stories, spring dreams, seasonal celebrations. And on Easter they’re with us, joining together in church. It is our glorious celebration, and by considering the blend a blessing, we win every time.”
I like the way Jane puts that, “considering the blend a blessing, we win every time.” Today is Palm Sunday in the Christian liturgical year. In an attempt to have it all, I am preaching what could be considered a dignified Easter sermon now so we can have a celebratory intergenerational service of story and song on Easter morning.
If you think about it from an historic perspective, Easter really should be a difficult holiday for us to celebrate! Early Unitarians and Universalists spoke out from within the ranks of Christianity. The message of each does serious injury to the doctrines that under gird the glory and purpose of the resurrection for which Easter is all about. From a logical perspective, it is remarkable that any Unitarian Universalist congregation celebrates the holiday with anything more than an occasional sermon topic or special reading such as we might offer for Divali or Yom Kippur. From a logical perspective, with the Unitarians saying Jesus was a man and not a part of the Godhead, and with the Universalists saying there is no hell or eternal punishment, there is little left to support a viable theology of salvation based on the resurrection. Or is there?
Now, fear not, I am not going to try to convince all of you (let alone, myself) as to the literal truth of the resurrection, instead I wish to save for us the concept of salvation. For what is really behind this holiday is the question of salvation, which is really just a question about love. Is there enough love in the world to include me? “Are you saved?” is like asking “Are you loved?” Salvation is a question about who gets to receive God’s eternal love and how do they get it. Unfortunately the question of salvation ends up as a question of “are you a part of the group or not?” The question to often ends up as a discussion of the entrance fee for heaven. That is what I want to argue against.
Salvation is not salvation from hell or from the wrath of God, that is a common misunderstanding. It is not salvation from eternal punishment. According to the Bible salvation is about salvation from sin. Indeed all my sources from the Oxford dictionary to Universalist theologian Hosea Ballou agree on this point, as does the Lord’s Prayer, when it says “deliver us from evil.” Salvation is about salvation from sin. Jesus said, “I come not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:32) The Christian concept of salvation in its basic scriptural form is a call to live a better life free from sin, a loving call to live well.
The Jewish concept of salvation, which of course predates the Christian one and thus is a significant influence on it, is in many ways a communal concept in the same way that sin in Jewish theology is a communal concept. In the stories from the Hebrew scripture, God makes covenants with groups of people such as when Moses brought the Ten Commandments down to the people just after their flight from Egypt. The flight from Egypt is what Passover commemorates, specifically, the thanksgiving of the Hebrew people that God passed over their houses when he went through and slaughtered all the first-born children of their oppressors. Passover is a celebration of gratitude that they may remember their deliverance. Deliverance is a common synonym for salvation. Salvation in Hebrew scripture is a communal concept.
Christian theology mixed the Hebrew concept with Hellenistic notions of life and came up with a decidedly personal version of salvation. The group known as Christians is comprised of individuals who know Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior. That is a sweeping generalization and does not serve as an adequate definition for all Christians, of course. All the same, according to the standard Christian doctrine of soteriology, the death and resurrection of Christ was the pivot of salvation history. What that means is that when Jesus died on the cross and rose again three days later, people could suddenly get into heaven. It is like that door was slammed shut when Adam and Eve caused original sin, and now Jesus has thrown that door wide open again. But of course the argument is always, well how wide did he open the door, just who gets to come in?
The most notable argument comes from the followers of John Calvin who articulated an idea known as double predestination. Regular predestination is the idea that God has, from the beginning of time, preordained just exactly who will be going to heaven. The number is set. If you’re on the list then you’re don’t even need to RSVP, you’re going to heaven! Naturally people assumed that if you were saved, if you were on the list, you would be a pious person without significant want or suffering in life. Of course, double predestination is a logical and obvious next step. If there is a set number going to heaven, and the only other alternative is hell, obviously everyone not on heaven’s list is going to hell. Double predestination says there is a set number, probably a very small number, going to heaven and a set number, probably a very, very large number, going to hell. The only reason, according to this line of thinking, that anyone is going to heaven at all is because Jesus died on the cross, thus atoning for original sin for a special select number of true believers.
Unitarian Universalists have long rejected such a notion. During the formative years of both Unitarianism and Universalism Calvinist formulas of salvation were very popular and thus easy targets against which to develop a new religious identity. Have you heard the quote from Thomas Starr King who held credentials within both denominations? He once distinguished between the two by saying, “The Universalists believe God is too good to damn them and the Unitarians believe they are too good to be damned.” The Unitarians articulated elegant arguments against the depravity of all humanity as was the popular Calvinist belief of the time. This radical idea of the basic goodness of people undercut the need for Jesus to go dying on the cross to save us.
The doctrine of universal salvation is basically predestination taken to its most optimistic extreme. Sure, there is a set number of people going to heaven, the number is absolutely everyone. The doctrine of universal salvation is usually defined as the belief that there is no hell. Remembering that Salvation is not salvation from eternal punishment, rather it is salvation from sin, the doctrine of universal salvation is perhaps better seen as the belief that everyone is saved from sin. That is a rather remarkable position.
I recall an anecdote about Hosea Ballou that illustrates this point however. He was riding his horse toward a town where he had been engaged to preach, and alongside him was another preacher on horseback likewise traveling to town to preach. They of course feel into conversation and, of course, the conversation fell into religious discussion. The other preacher said, “Brother Ballou, if I believed in your doctrine of universal salvation, there would be nothing to stop me from knocking you off your horse right now and stealing off with it.” To which Ballou replied, “My dear fellow, if you believed in the doctrine of universal salvation, such an idea would not even occur to you.”
If you really believe in God’s unconditional love for you, indeed for all of humanity, the natural impulse would be to respond in kind and to be a good and just person. It reminds me of a quote from St. Augustine (of all people) who said, “Love God and do as you will,” for if you truly love God your will can in no way contradict God’s will.
Both Unitarianism and Universalism brought serious objections to the Calvinist doctrines of God, human nature and how God and humanity relate (i.e. salvation.) Each however raised a different line of argument, and ultimately the Unitarian ideas of salvation and the Universalist ideas of salvation are not only different, they are contradictory.
One of the greatest statements about Unitarianism says we believe in Deeds not Creeds. An earlier version of that statement said we believe in Salvation by Character. Both phrases, “Deeds not Creeds” and “Salvation by Character” are attempts to succinctly say that we believe people need to live out their faith. People need to behave in good and just ways. These phrases indicate that justice making leads to salvation, not unlike the statements I made a month back in my sermon about the spirituality of social justice. “Salvation by Character” is a statement saying we are saved because we are good. It says we are loved by God because we do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God.
Hosea Ballou and other early proponents of Universalism say we are loved by God first. God’s love is a given. Because of that love, we are led to live justly. God’s love is not conditional or dependent on a certain set of rules being followed. God’s love is not based on meeting a set of criteria first. Ballou uses a most simple anecdote to drive this point home.
Your child has fallen into the mire, and her body and her garments are defiled. You cleanse her, and array her in clean robes. The query is, Do you love your child because you have washed her? Or Did you wash her because you love her?
The doctrine of Universal Salvation says God will save everyone, all are loved and none shall be removed from God’s loving presence in the end. God does not love us because we are good and clean people, God helps us to be good and clean people because God loves us. God’s love is a given, it is where you start from.
I have always wanted to believe in God as described by Hosea Ballou. I have always wanted to believe in a personal God who knows me, knows my inner workings, my deepest longings, my wrenching sorrows and my soaring joys. I have always wanted that God who knows all about me and still loves me.
Of course, we are not a religion where you can believe anything you want, instead we each believe as we must, as our consciences dictate. What I believe about God comes close to Ballou’s God, but not quite. My conscience leads me to believe that the God Ballou believed in is too transcendent, too anthropomorphic and paternalistic for me to believe in. I believe in an indwelling God, who is more than all loving. Unconditional love from God is still not quite it. God is the loving. And I know I am saved by that love.
Now, how does all this fit with Jesus and Easter? I turn one last time to Hosea Ballou who saw Jesus as a demonstration of God’s infinite love for humanity. Jesus was a model for imitation, an agent of reconciliation by example. He is not the pivot of salvation history, but an arrow pointing the way to greater love and peace. If that question wells up within you or is put to you by a friend, “What do Unitarian Universalists do with Easter,” remember that salvation in its basic scriptural form is a reminder that you are loved and a call to live a better life, a loving call to live well. On Easter we celebrate life.
In a world without end, may it be so.