A Sermon by Crystal Lewis
In a British documentary called “The Hidden Story of Jesus,” a theologian named Robert Beckford presented a comparative study of the world’s religions. He explained in his video that the world has known not one, but many figures with the characteristics of Jesus over time. (By the way, this documentary is available on Youtube, and on a website called Documentary Heaven. I am a documentary junkie, and happened upon the video several years ago. I’ve now watched it several times and I find it fascinating every time I watch it. If you like religion documentaries, then you’ll love “The Hidden Story of Jesus”…)
Anyway, in his documentary, Robert Beckford explains that the world has known many religious figures with the characteristics of Jesus. For instance, Jesus was not the first god who was said to be born of a virgin. The god Horus was born of a virgin, as was the Hindu god Krishna, and the Buddha.
Jesus was also not the first deified religious figure to have twelve disciples. The same is true for Horus of Egypt, the Buddha, and a god named Mithra who was worshiped prior to the time of Jesus in the regions where the Apostle Paul ministered.
The documentary also explains that Jesus was not the world’s first crucified savior who ascended to heaven after concluding his ministry on Earth. There’s a well-known book called “The World’s Sixteen Crucified Saviors” that talks about this, but it was published in 1875 and isn’t read very often anymore. However, it’s common knowledge that crucifixion and resurrection narratives were common for thousands of years prior to the time of Jesus. Since the time of the publishing of “The World’s Sixteen Crucified Saviors,” historians, archaeologists and theologians have found other crucified and ascended saviors who predated Jesus—which means that there are way more than sixteen.
And there are many, many other coincidences like these. For instance, I mentioned a few moments ago that the Hindu god Krishna was also born to a holy virgin, but did you also know that Krishna’s earthly father was a carpenter, that Krishna came through a royal bloodline, that he had the title of Savior, that he was crucified between two thieves, and that Krishna taught that the end was near?
Now, as I read these things out loud, I can hear the voices of some of my more traditional colleagues ringing in the back of my mind. They might hear my sermon and ask, “Why would you stand up and read something like that from the pulpit?” You see these tidbits of history are considered taboo by most Christians—because they cast doubt on the story that we were all raised to believe. But when I started learning these things 20 years ago as an undergraduate student in college, I couldn’t help but wonder why no one in my church had never told me about the similarities between Jesus and the god-figures that came before him. These tidbits of information didn’t make me feel disconnected from God or my faith; quite the contrary. I felt closer to God than ever, and these bits of information made me feel closer to my interfaith neighbors than I’d ever known. Knowing the deep similarities of my religion to other religions made the world a smaller place. Knowing how similar I was to my Hindu and Buddhist neighbors humanized them for me—and it sparked my curiosity in a way that has never been quenched, even to this day.
Some have heard these similarities and decided to dismiss the story of Jesus out of hand—arguing that if the Jesus story is not original, then it must not be important. But fortunately, there have been some very influential thinkers and inspirers who have disagreed. Our book club has been reading a text over the past several weeks, and this particular text is written by one of those influential thinkers. The book is called “Living Buddha, Living Christ.” It was written by a Buddhist monk named Thich Nhat Hanh and it’s considered one of the most inspiring religious books ever written.
Rather than run away from the controversial way in which religions have shared the compelling elements of myth that comprise the story of Jesus, Krishna, Horus, Buddha and so many others, this particular Buddhist monk recommends that we embrace our similarities and use them to mine our own traditions for the hidden treasures within them. We heard some of this in today’s readings. You probably remember hearing that when one of Hanh’s Christian friends cautioned against mixing a variety of religious teachings together into a fruit salad, Hanh explained that there are times when such mixtures are delicious.
Religion researchers have been unable to understand why the Spiritual But Not Religious are no longer interested in church—but these researchers do not consider how today’s up and coming religious folks seem to want what Thich Nhat Hanh is describing here: a faith that provides the freedom to take the best of many paths and enrich their own lives with the wisdom they find… They want fruit salad, but we’re afraid to even think about how the flavors of our faiths compliment one another.
Why are we afraid? There’s a great possibility that we’re still all dealing with the fear of some divine consequence that might arise as a result of extending a broader welcome. This fear has been deeply embedded in our collective psyche for centuries. We don’t consider the degree to which our perception of what’s theologically “right” has been influenced by people who sought to convert people to a Christianized way of seeing the world, by any means necessary. We’ve learned to be afraid of drawing other conclusions about the nature of faith, and we’ve passed that way of thinking down from generation, to generation, to generation. Those of us who were reared as Christians have heard a million times that there is ONE WAY to God, and that the “way” should solely be understood as Jesus. What we don’t realize, however, is that history has broadened “the way” for us in a way that we don’t fully understand because we don’t talk about it. The “way” predates Jesus – and it’s found in a Universal story – the essence of which is found in the story of Krishna, and Buddha, and Dionysus, and Horus, and Zoroaster, and Jesus. It’s a shared “way,”—a story that has been duplicated over and over again, thousands of years before Jesus and in the two thousand years since the time of his ministry. The way of the seed of hope that enlightened the womb of a young maiden, the way of the teacher to twelve disciples, the way of the God who suffers with us unto death, the way of hope that resurrects itself generation after generation, is not solely ours. It is God’s way, and its universality transcends our courage. This way is a shared way, whether we know it or not.
Thich Nhat Hanh invites us to think about the universality of this story, particularly as it applies to Jesus and the Buddha. He points to the parallel sayings of Jesus and Buddha… It’s well-known that some of Jesus’ most well-known sayings were recorded in the legends of the Buddha, more than 500 years before the birth of Jesus. For instance, Hanh points out in his book that Jesus said, “I am the gate,” and the Buddha said, “I am the door.”
One website explains that Buddha said, “Consider others as yourself,” and Jesus said, “Treat others the same way you want them to treat you.”. Jesus said, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” and “Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me,” while the Buddha said, “If you do not tend to one another then who is there to tend to you? Whoever would tend me, he should tend the sick.” The Buddha said, “Lose self to gain nirvana and escape from suffering,” while Jesus said, “Lose self to gain Christ and entrance into heaven, where there will be no suffering.”
And there are many other parallel sayings and overlapping teachings, and there are many websites devoted to presenting these parallels for all to see. The website that I mentioned earlier records that the teachings of these two figures are the same in that they promote:
- The Golden Rule
- Not judging others
- Loving our enemies
- Overcoming hate with love
- That it is more blessed to give than to receive
- Avoiding being religious for show
In Living Buddha Living Christ, Thich Nhat Hanh attempts to dispel the myth that drawing wisdom from more than one religious tradition will corrupt the purity of one’s own religious practice. He tells a story of his own about how he is a faithful and committed practitioner of Buddhism, but decided to honor the ministry and teaching of Jesus by taking communion one day.
Later in the book, Hanh compares the person of faith to a tree, and he says that our spirituality is like the roots of the tree. We can glean from this analogy that the wisdom of our traditions — the things that feed us — are like the water that nourishes the tree. Hanh writes, “Can a person have two spiritual roots at one time? Can a person learn Christianity and Buddhism, and practice them without conflict? We know that when someone does not have any root, he or she will suffer tremendously. But what about the question of having more than one root?” He goes on to explain, “Before I met Christianity, my only spiritual ancestor was the Buddha. But when I met beautiful men and women who are Christians, I came to know Jesus as a great teacher. Since that day, Jesus Christ has become one of my spiritual ancestors. I do not feel any conflict within me. Instead, I feel stronger because I have more than one root.”
What would happen if we viewed the shared mythology of Christianity in this way? What would happen if we saw our history, which shares its mythology with so many other religions, in the way that Hanh sees his religion? What would happen if we understood God as the water that nourishes us all, and the religions of the world as roots drawing from a great well of inspiration?
I talk a lot about New Atheism in my sermons. I happen to know that a lot of people turn to Atheism when they learn that Christianity is the same as other religions in that we have taken the most inspirational of history’s god-stories and transformed them into a powerful myth of our own. They learn about Horus and Krishna and the Buddha, and other duplicate stories, like that of Mithra and an ancient god named Serapis—they hear these stories and many others, and infer that the Christian religion must be meaningless because it isn’t “original”… But what would happen if we came to understand the Jesus story as a universal one in the way that early writers seemed to understand, and in the way that our Buddhist friend Thich Nhat Hanh seems to understand it? Would we become richer in our own spiritual practice? Would we become less fearful when interfacing with people outside our own religious traditions? Would we become less fearful of our own history? Would we finally destroy the barriers that prevent us from seeking and thinking critically about our own religious tradition? Would we unearth a powerful, or transformative perspective on Christianity that might revive the faith? I suppose that at this stage in history, one can only wonder.
In his book, Thich Nhat Hanh explains that it’s our practice, and the authenticity at the core of that practice that brings our faith to life. He writes that the enlightened Buddha is a partaker of the Buddha nature, making him or her a living Buddha, even though the original Buddha died long ago. This teaching reminds me of the teaching of Paul, which says in Hebrews 3:14 that we are partakers of Christ—and also in 2 Peter 1:4 that we are partakers of the Divine Nature. The scriptures teach that our goal is to be like the One who was like God.
But the wisdom of history is here to tell us that if we seek to partake of Christ… If we seek to become like him… If we seek to become living Christs, then we are also seeking to become one with our Buddhist sisters and brothers; and our Hindu brothers and sisters; and our Muslim friends– even if we don’t realize it. When we seek to live as Jesus did, we tie ourselves to a broad number of other faiths that have pointed to the Way of Peace and Compassion… We tie ourselves to all of them, and we nourish our roots with the waters of a great spiritual history.
May we always approach the truths of this history with courage and curiosity, and may we always seek to live the peace of the Buddha and the Christ. Amen.