Joshua Bar Joseph

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Joshua Bar Joseph
The Rev. Matthew Johnson-Doyle
December 13, 2009


Message: Joshua Bar Joseph

Note: The sermon is an oral event. This manuscript may not reflect the exact spoken words. © Matthew Johnson-Doyle, 2009.

The prophet of Islam, Muhammad,
was forty years of age when he had his first vision;
he would live for twenty-two more years.
Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha,
was twenty-nine when he left the palace
and started his spiritual journey,
he would live into his eighties.
Jesus of Nazareth was also about twenty-nine
when he started his ministry.
He would be dead before he was thirty-five.

There are a billion Muslims around the world,
a few hundred million Buddhists,
and two billion Christians.
What did this young man do and say
in those few short years
that made such an impact
on the people around him
and on others who heard about him later?

We are talking today
about what is called “the historical Jesus.”
This is the person behind the myths
behind the superstitions,
the real person who walked, talked, ate,
caused trouble, and died
at the hands of the imperialists.
I want to talk about the human being.

In the spring, before the birthdays of Muhammad
And Siddhartha, I’ll be preaching about
Their very human lives, too:
Today, before we celebrate his birthday,
Let’s talk about Jesus.

Unitarians, in particular,
having been talking about Jesus,
the human being, for a long time.
Two of the first historical Jesus scholars:
Andrews Norton and Albert Schwiezter,
were Unitarians.
Talking about the historical Jesus
is a very Unitarian thing to do.
But until very recently,
and still in some places in the world,
to talk about Jesus as a human being
was a very dangerous thing to do.
Hundreds of Unitarians have been shunned,
imprisoned,
exiled and indeed executed
for affirming this truth:
that Jesus was a human being.

The first “Unitarian” was a Spaniard
named Miguel Servetus.
He published a book,
called “On the Errors of the Trinity,”
he was captured, tried, and burned at the stake
in the middle of the sixteenth century.
The heresy for which he was convicted was Arianism.
Arianism is still considered a heresy today,
and most of us here are guilty of it.

So before we talk about the historical Jesus,
then, I want to say something about Arianism.
An Arian is someone who follows the teachings of Arius,
who was, in the early fourth century,
the Bishop of Alexandria,
on the north coast of Egypt.

In the first few centuries after Jesus died,
when the early movement got started,
there were lots of ideas about what Christianity was.
I mean, a LOT of ideas.
You get versions of Christianity
in Greece-speaking lands
that very much resemble Greek religious clubs –
in which the followers regularly gather
for a shared meal, in which some elements,
say for example the bread and wine,
just, you know, to name two,
are taken as symbols for the god they worship.
Sound familiar?

In Roman lands,
you get a version of Christianity
that substitutes this Jesus character for the Emperor
as the incarnation of God on earth.

In Egypt and some other places,
you get what is called a Gnostic Christianity,
where people are focused on the secret teachings,
the mystery,
of this Jesus person.

In Jewish territory,
Christianity is similar to the surrounding Hebraic tradition.
So you have all these ideas running around.

And then comes the date that,
for us religious liberals,
will live in infamy: 325 A.D.

Imagine the scene, if you will:
it is the town of Nicea, in Asia Minor – today’s Turkey.
All the bishops are gathered around –
they have traveled a long way to be there.
The emperor of the Roman Empire
has surprised everyone
by not only becoming a Christian himself,
but deciding that Christianity shall become
the official religion of his empire.

But the Emperor, Constantine, has a problem.
He wants the new religion to help him
hold his disparate empire together,
to keep it from falling apart.
But that won’t work
not if all these new Christians
break up into small groups
because of differences in their doctrine.
So he decides that this religion must have a central doctrine,
and that anyone who varies from this doctrine must be punished.

So they have a debate.
What should be the doctrine?

Arius argues that this person,
Jesus,
is a human being
who God has used to show us the way to live.
We are, he says, to follow Jesus and worship God,
and not the other way round.
He says God has adopted Jesus
as his son to show us the new covenant.
This is his explanation of what happens
when Jesus comes out of the river Jordon.

Many of the bishops agree with this.

But others, especially those from Greek and Roman lands,
argue that Jesus is God.
Like Zeus or Athena come down from Olympus
to walk among us, they say,
Jesus is the God we ought to be worshiping.

Well, they are at an impasse.
The personal Bishop of the Emperor,
a man named Athenasus,
(we don’t like him),
suggests a compromise.
He says, God has three parts –
the Father, the Son, and, you guessed it, the Holy Spirit.
Jesus is part human, and part God.

For centuries after this,
when people confront the Trinity,
they will say, “but it doesn’t make any sense!”
To which priests and nuns and pastors and scholars will reply,
“of course not,
it is a mystery,
you must have faith.”

Hogwash. It is a political compromise.
The emperor’s personal bishop suggests it,
the emperor’s soldiers enforce it,
centuries go by and no one remembers
where this idea comes from.

Sixteen hundred years later,
it is very hard to peal away the idea of the trinity,
to peal away the myth,
and get back to the real person.
It is hard to do, but I think it is worth it.
For the Jesus that we will find under all that is a person,
as Arius said,
who can teach us what it means
to live a life of spiritual integrity and wholeness,
a life of courage in the face of oppression,
a life of hope and faith.
That is my conviction, anyway.
Living as Jesus lived,
living as he taught,
is good for the soul.

So who was this person, who we know as Jesus Christ?

Well, first of all, Christ isn’t his last name.
Christ is the Greek version of the Hebrew word for Messiah.
The followers of this teacher
believe he is the person
who will free them from Roman rule.
There seems to be some sense
that in the beginning people believed that he will lead them in a rebellion against the Romans,
but he seems to tell them that no,
actually,
liberation from the Romans is something that happens
when you realize the Kingdom of God is already inside you. There is a book by the humorist Christopher Moore called
“Lamb: the gospel according to Jesus’s Childhood friend, Biff”
in which he speculates about how this news went over.
I’m paraphrasing here,
but it goes something like this:

Jesus: The Kingdom of God is in you!
Follower: In me? Where? In my stomach?
Jesus: No, it’s in your soul.
Follower: What’s that?
Jesus: Don’t ask silly questions. The Kingdom of God is in you!
Follower: It must be pretty small, then, for a kingdom.
Jesus storms off, muttering.

Anyway, his followers do believe
that Jesus is the Messiah,
so when the gospels get written,
in Greek,
Messiah becomes Christ.
So maybe we should call him “Jesus Messiah.”

But that’s not right, either, of course –
because Messiah is a title, not a name.
Often, people will speak of the historical Jesus as
“Jesus of Nazareth.”

After all, we are pretty sure that Nazareth
is the town that he is from,
a small town north of Jerusalem in Galilee.
But according to the naming convention of the time,
he would not be named after the town he was from
but after his father – Joseph.

In Hebrew, “son of” is “bar”.
So we are dealing then with a man named “Jesus bar Joseph.”

Except that’s not quite right, either –
because Jesus is the Greek version
of a very traditional Hebrew name: Joshua.
The name of this prophet, this teacher,
the person two billon people base their religion on,
is Joshua bar Joseph.

That is what we shall call him.

Joshua was probably born about 4 B.C.
Yes, that’s right –
Joshua was born four years “Before Christ.”
That’s only a guess, though –
we, like the Romans who redid the calendar,
we have no idea when Joshua was born
or what year he died.

We know nothing for sure about Joshua
before his baptism in the river Jordon.
In the gospel of Mark,
which is the first one written down,
the events begin with the Baptism.
What we do know is that Joshua
was one of hundreds if not thousands of people
who were Baptized by this John character.
John is well known,
quite a few historians comment about him,
his wild appearance, his unorthodox teaching,
and his many followers.

This is a difficult time for the people of Judea –
the Romans have occupied their land and their temples.
People are searching for new answers,
for meaning in a world where the tradition
doesn’t seem to be offering protection anymore.
John provides these answers –
as do many other people and groups.
John says,
be baptized in the river and repent your sins,
and you shall become free.
The reason that the gospels refer to John the Baptist so much
is that people have heard of him,
and to claim that Joshua’s movement
is the proper inheritor of John’s movement
gives the new tradition credibility.
They writers even go so far
to claim that John and Joshua are cousins,
which is surely not true.

John is a trouble maker, too, by the way –
he publicly criticizes the king
for his affair with the King’s brother’s wife,
which angers the wife and gets John’s head chopped off.

We can be pretty sure that Joshua has a vision in the river,
a vision in which he experiences transcendence.
It is a mystical experience.
He hears the voice of God.
This is trouble.

I can’t emphasize this enough –
unless you are a crazy – and a lot of mystics are –
but unless you are crazy,
to hear the voice of God is trouble.
Moses before the burning bush
says over and over again,
“oh no, you don’t mean me.
I can’t lead people!
I can’t speak in public!
You don’t want me!”

Joshua, too, is shaken by his vision
and goes off into the desert to pray.
The stories say forty days,
but they say that so that it will match
the forty days of Noah
and the forty years of Moses
in the desert.

In the desert,
Joshua has a decision to make.
Should he preach?
Should be proclaim this message,
that the Kingdom of God is in us,
and that that kingdom is superior to the Roman kingdom?
Should he try to bring people back to a deeper spirituality?
Because he knows that to preach this message,
to preach any message of power,
might get someone in trouble with the Roman authorities.
The Romans don’t want Jewish leaders that they don’t control.

When the stories say Joshua was tempted by Satan,
I think it is this that they mean.
He was tempted to go back to carpentry.
To forget about the vision.
To not rock the boat.
To stay out of trouble.
That is tempting, isn’t it:
to just go along to get along.
To live our private lives
and not worry about problems that seem so much larger than us.
After all, how can Joshua expect to defeat to Roman Empire?

But in the end he decides that he must follow his conscience, whatever may be the consequences.

So he returns and begins to preach.
He gathers some followers –
mostly folks who come from similar backgrounds as he does, Jewish middle class folks.
But a person who gets too many followers begins to be watched.

We can’t know for sure how this played out,
but we can speculate from what we do know
about the context of Roman colonial rule
that the Jewish leaders who were under the Roman thumb
worked very hard to keep order –
they feared a Roman crackdown.
And rightly –
for some forty years after Jesus dies,
a small Jewish uprising provokes a massive Roman assault
which includes the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.
So these Jewish leaders try to keep Joshua
and his followers in line.
But Joshua has already decided
he doesn’t care if he upsets the order,
he’s going to do what he thinks is right.

He probably does come into the plaza outside the Temple,
and probably does start preaching his revolutionary message.

What was that message?
The one he had preached in the countryside and small towns
and now in Jerusalem itself?

He says things like:
“whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites;
for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues
and at the street corners,
so that they may be seen by others.
Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.
6 But whenever you pray,
go into your room and shut the door ….
7 "When you are praying,
do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do;
for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them,
for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”

And he says things like:
“Why do you see the speck in your neighbor's eye,
but do not notice the log in your own eye?
4 Or how can you say to your neighbor,
'Let me take the speck out of your eye,'
while the log is in your own eye?
5 You hypocrite,
first take the log out of your own eye,
and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor's eye.”

And he says,
“Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth
enters the stomach,
and goes out into the sewer?
18 But what comes out of the mouth
proceeds from the heart,
and this is what defiles.
19 For out of the heart come evil intentions,
murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.

20 These are what defile a person,
but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile."

In other words,
Joshua’s message is that it is not
the outward trappings of religiosity
that make a person whole
or are evidence of living rightly.
Those who pray loudly in public,
those who are hypocrites,
those who care more about what goes into the mouth
than what comes out,
these people have it wrong, Joshua says.
He reminds people of the two great commandments,
to love God, and to love your neighbor as yourself.
And he, quite radically,
tells them that their neighbor includes not only Samaritans,
who most Jews thought of as foreign and dirty,
but their neighbors also include, gasp!,
tax collectors and other sinners.

And although Joshua regularly condemns sinners,
especially adulterers and those who horde wealth,
he also says, “judge not, least ye be judged”
and he says,
“forgive those who trespass against you,
and God will forgive your trespass.”

In other words,
do not concern yourself with how you are perceived.
Do not concern yourself with the religion of other people –
that is their business.
Do not try to enforce your religion on someone else.
Be humble, be grateful for the gifts of life,
be wondrous, be loving and kind to others,
especially those who do you wrong.
Most of all, have integrity in your own self.
You have the kingdom of god in you,
Joshua says,
and that is something not to be cast aside
or used as a tool of power,
but something to be cultivated and cherished.

Well, calling the authorities,
who are trying to keep the peace with the Roman conquerors,
hypocrites is bound to get you in trouble.
Joshua is arrested,
given a typically perfunctory trial,
and executed in the typical way – by crucifixion.
It has been only three or four years
since his mystical experience in the River Jordon.

What happens next is just as a fascinating story,
but we’ll have to save it for another time.
The story stops being about Joshua Bar Joseph
and becomes about someone else: Jesus, the Messiah.

I could say a lot more about Joshua,
but I think that’s enough.
If you are interested in this subject,
there are lots of books – too many to count, really –
about the historical Jesus.
Everyone has their theory.
I think it’s a good thing that there are four gospels
in the New Testament,
and if you read about this historical Jesus
you should always read more than one book.

Joshua believed and preached that the apocalypse was at hand. He was no universalist –
some, he was sure, where bound for punishment.
I don’t agree with either of those two propositions,
but I still find this man,
who lived so long ago and who taught for so few years,
to be an inspiration.
He followed his conscience, no matter what.
He stood up to people who used religion to control others.
He saw each person as potentially holy,
no matter their tribe or their profession.
He was full of the spirit of love,
and longed that others might be full of that spirit too.

For centuries now we Unitarians have claimed to be
the religion of Jesus
and not the religion about Jesus.
Of course, the religion of Jesus is Judaism,
so we’re a little off there.
But we have always believed
that one of the best reasons to approach
Jesus as a human being, and not a God,
is because when we remember that he is just like us:
flesh and blood, finite and hopeful –
just like us,
then we can spend less time worshiping him
and more time following his path.

People often speculate how Joshua,
how Jesus,
would react if he saw the modern world,
and the church built around his short life.
I believe he would be full of righteous indignation.

He would speak out against those
who make their religion public to get power
and he’d find lots of targets for that rage.

He would speak out against those
who horde their wealth and care not about the poor
and he’d find lots of targets for that rage.

He would speak out against those
who judged others,
who cared more about perception than mercy
and he’d find lots of targets for that rage.

And he would say,
fill your heart with love.
For God, for others, even those who hate you.
And he would find lots of us who need to hear that message.

Christians today speak of Jesus being alive in their hearts.
And I hope that many of us might feel that way,
that we might let Joshua live in our hearts,
let his message be our message.
For we live in world that needs it, as much as ever.

Paul got a lot of Joshua’s teaching wrong.
But something he got right is the letter to the Corinthians:
if we do not have the gift of love in our heart,
then our work in the world will come to naught.
If we do have love,
then anything is possible.
This is the meaning the story,
that the gift of love
is given within.

The kingdom of God is in you!
It must be pretty small, then, for a kingdom.

Ah, yes.
And Joshua says:
It is a small as a mustard seed –
but it shall grow into a great tree,
if only you shall tend to it.

This young and fearless prophet,
who was so young,
who preached for such a short time,
inspires millions –
whether or not they ascribe to him
any unique holiness.
That’s not really the point, after all –
for it is easier to worship prophets
than to follow their teaching,
yet following the teaching
is what is asked of us.

It is the invitation offered unto us,
through the fog of history and doctrine,
a clear and present summons:
the kingdom of god,
the spirit of life,
a power divine and sacred,
is in you.
And it is in the person next to you.
And the person across town.
And the person across the globe.
So let us head the summons,
and live,
as best we can,
with the spirit of love
given
within.