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Do you know why the Apostles' Creed was written? What caused the early church to gather together a Council about 150 AD to debate and establish the one true faith as taught by the apostles? What was the issue? What was the reason? Take a look at the creed. Let me give you a clue. What receives the most space? Jesus is the reason for the creed. They were arguing about Jesus. We're considering basic beliefs in this sermon series. Your positive response to this series is encouraging and appreciated.
This morning we look at Jesus, the reason for the creed. Jesus was the subject of much debate in the early church. Incidentally, I don't know where we got the idea that the early church was perfect. We hear people today say, "Oh, if we could only get back to the simple, ideal early church." Don't they read the Bible? The early church fought like cats and dogs! However, if it weren't for church fights, we wouldn't have half the New Testament! Paul wrote his letters in response to church squabbles! By the time the second century rolled around, the major squabble was over Jesus. The controversy over Jesus has lasted through all these centuries, and the debate still goes on.
The question was and is: Who is Jesus? Was Jesus a human or was he God, divine? The issue was further complicated by the clash of cultures, cultural confrontations: Hebrew vs. Greek. Small, relatively insignificant Jewish isolationists clashed with the huge Roman Empire with its Greek culture and Greek language. When Paul, Peter, etc. began preaching to the gentiles (Greeks and Romans), it was necessary to develop a theology that was intelligible to the Greek mind. The Greek worldview was different from the Hebrew. How Greeks thought was different from how Jews thought. The topics, which interested Greek philosophers, were different from the topics addressed by the Bible. So, it was necessary to present Jesus and the Christian faith in terms that were understandable to the Greeks. It was very difficult for Greeks to think like biblical Jews. It is still difficult for us because we are more Greek than we are Jewish. The major reason that the Bible is so little understood, and so widely misinterpreted, is that we apply Greek thinking to a Hebrew Bible, and it doesn't work.
For example, Hebrews like verbs, Greeks like nouns. The Hebrew thinks in verbs: acts, deeds, works. The Greek thinks in nouns: essences, substances. The Hebrew begins with God "in action," a living, doing God. The Hebrew asks, "What has God done?" The Greek asks, "What is God's nature? God's essence?" The Hebrew Bible doesn't care about God's essence; it celebrates God's actions. The Greek likes consistency and rules. The Hebrew looks at life, rather than abstract ideas, and sees that life is full of inconsistency. The Hebrew believes in a living God who is not bound by unalterable rules. God is not only outside the rules, but God acts outside the rules! Like the parting of the Red Sea, like the resurrection!
Another significant difference: the Greek distinguishes between soul and matter, views the soul as good and matter, like the human body, as evil. The Hebrew does not dissect us into soul and body, but is holistic, and views the body as good.
By the middle of the second century, Greek Christians were pushing a theology called Gnosticism, which taught that Jesus was divine. Because the soul is pure and matter is evil, the substance of Jesus was different from humans. Surely, they believed, Jesus who is of God could not have experienced bodily desires or pain. Surely he could not have died. It only seemed as if he died. It only seemed as if he were a human with all the limitations of the body.
So a Church Council was called to define orthodoxy and heresy. They didn't believe in diversity in those days. There was not room for both under the umbrella called Christianity. The Apostles' Creed made Gnosticism heresy. Look at the section about Jesus. Notice the verbs. To any Greek of that day, the scandal, the radical thinking of Christianity was the verbs:
conceived (actually inside a woman, how gross!, said the Gnostics),
born (scandalous, like an animal, like a human!),
suffered (impossible that God could suffer),
died (no way, God can't die),
rose from the dead (immortality of the soul, yes; but bodily resurrection? The body, which Gnostics called evil, resurrected?) Ascended, seated, and come again, all testify to a God with a body. What is meant by "body" will be discussed on Easter Sunday.
The Apostles' Creed affirms that Jesus indeed was a human being. He was born, really born, of Mary. Jesus was a baby who cried, had to be fed and toilet trained. Jesus was a real person who actually suffered at the hands of Pontius Pilate. Jesus actually died, says the Creed. "He descended to the dead" means he actually died; he didn't simulate death, he actually died.
The controversy continues today. On one hand are those who speak of Jesus as only a man. They call him a teacher who taught admirable ethics. They call Jesus our example, emulating his teachings and life style. To be a Christian, they teach, is to follow Jesus' example, to imitate Jesus.
On the other hand, at the other end of the spectrum, are those who speak only of Jesus as Savior. They emphasize the redemptive work of Jesus on the cross, how Jesus atoned for sin. The humanity of Jesus is essentially ignored. The teachings of Jesus are applied to heaven, rather than a model for our life on this planet.
To both extreme positions, the church has strongly affirmed through the ages: Jesus is the Son of God, both fully human and fully divine. What does it mean to us today to believe that Jesus is the Son of God, fully human and fully divine?
1) We identify God as the God we know in Jesus. The God we worship, the God we obey, is the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ. "Which god do you worship?" was a common question in Bible days. The Israelites, in contrast to their neighbors, identified the God they worshiped as the "God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the God who led us out of Egypt." They called upon the great leaders of their past, and a watershed experience in their history--the Exodus--to identify God.
The assumption was that there are many gods. The first commandment assumes the existence of many gods. "You shall have no other gods before me." There are many gods, even today. There are many priorities that claim people's allegiance and loyalty. Money and power are popular gods in our society. There are all kinds of energies, spirits, at loose in the world: satanic, greed, lust, hatred. When people speak of God, an interesting question might be to ask them, "Which god do you mean?" A nebulous blob, greed, power, evil, or the God of Jesus Christ?
What we see in Jesus is what we mean by God. What Jesus taught, how he lived with compassion and courage, how he loved everyone, especially those no one else loved, how he stood up for the oppressed, how he suffered, how he died and was raised from the dead, this is the God we know. This is the God we worship and obey. For Christians, Jesus, the Son of God, fully human, fully divine, is how we identify God.
2) Jesus is the way we approach God. When we pray, we pray "through Jesus Christ our Lord" or "In Jesus' name." Sometimes I hear people pray, "In your name." I wonder who is "your?" When you pray, name the name of Jesus, so the spirits out there know whom you are addressing! When you pray, focus your mind, focus your spirit, not just on whatever is out there, but focus on the Spirit we know through Jesus, the Son of God, fully human, fully divine.
3) Jesus is the Way to God. 1 Colossians 1.21-22, "And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before God." Jesus died for us, that we might be saved, redeemed, reconciled to God, and reconciled with one another. What Jesus did through dying is called atonement. Through the death of Jesus, God acted for our salvation, atoning, making up for our sins. Jesus laid down his life, building a bridge between God and us. Not that God is separated from us, but we separated ourselves from God. Not that a wrathful, angry God must be appeased; but a wrathful, angry, and sinful humanity must be redeemed.
An American sergeant, during the Korean conflict, was moved by the countless children running through the streets, rummaging through garbage piles, begging for a few coins. When the war was over, he and his wife moved to Korea, and rented an old house. They adopted Korean ways--wore Korean clothing and cooked Korean food. Every day, the sergeant went through the streets of Seoul and brought home another child or two, until the old house was fairly bursting with children. At one time, 24 children lived under his roof.
One of the children became ill with a kidney disease. The sergeant took him to Japan, where he was told the kidneys could not be saved. The sergeant volunteered one of his own kidneys. The operation was completed, but the sergeant developed an infection and, after a few weeks, died. The child recovered and returned to Seoul to live a normal life. The sergeant's wife remained in Korea for 16 more years. When she finally came home, she left behind her a family of more than 200 young people.
That is what Jesus did for us. He came as one of us, wore the clothes of humanity, ate our food, lived as we live. Jesus roams the streets of our estrangement, looking for us, picking us up, taking us to his home. With infinite compassion, he suffered for all of us. He gave everything he had, even his life. He died that we might have life. He died that we may experience the deep, abiding, love of God.
When you work through all the theological concepts, all the language we have commandeered to describe what Jesus has done, perhaps the most profound, deeply moving, personal words we can use are: Jesus loves you. When you feel hopeless, when you feel helpless, when you don't know which way to go or turn, when you are discouraged, when you do what you don't want to do, and don't do what you want to do, Jesus is with you. Jesus gave his life that you may know God the Creator. Jesus wants to be your friend. Jesus wants a relationship with you, not just a theoretical, cerebral concept, but a relationship, where you walk, talk, fellowship together.
Sisters and brothers, Jesus, fully human, calls you to follow him as your model, and Jesus, fully divine, who died that you might live, loves you. Jesus loves you.
© 2001 Douglas I. Norris