Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Sermon: 13 Pentecost (26 August 2007)

13 Pentecost: 26 August 2007
(Jeremiah 1:4-10/Psalm 76:1-6/Hebrews 12:18-29/Luke 13:10-17)
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord: so opens the second stanza of the Creed. Familiar phrases all – Jesus Christ, only Son, Lord – scattered as they are across the pages of the Gospels. Yet, I wonder if their very familiarity might lull us into a false sense of understanding, or at least into unthinking repetition. It’s good periodically to step back, to see these phrases as if for the first time, full of meaning and wonder. Who is this Jesus Christ of the Gospels and the Creed? Who indeed?

There is great confusion and controversy about Jesus’ identify as even a quick survey of bookstore shelves reveals. We can read about the Gnostic Jesus in Dan Brown’s fiction and Bart Ehrman’s pseudo-fiction. We can read about the Jesus of revisionist history in the publications of the Jesus Seminar or in John Dominic Crossan’s many works. We can read about Jesus the CEO or Jesus the psychologist or Jesus the “life coach.” You name it and we can just about find a book that claims Jesus fits the bill. And the confusion isn’t just among the “experts” who author books; ordinary folk at the grocery store or ball game are confused too. Get ten people in a room together and you’ll find at least fifteen different opinions of Jesus. Even Bill Cosby was confused about Jesus’ identity; at least he says he was. From ages 7 to 15 Cosby says he thought his name was Jesus Christ because every time he did something wrong that’s what his Dad hollered at him: Jesus Christ! Stop that! And, from the inflection in Cosby’s voice it was clear that both he and his Dad thought Christ was really Jesus’ middle name, much as if I were to holler “Mary Kathleen – you get in here right now!” Not that I ever would.

Well, Christ isn’t a middle name, of course. We know that. It’s a title: Christos, the anointed one. It is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew meshiach, messiah. And it’s an important key to understanding Jesus truly as he was and is. As soon as we acknowledge Jesus as the Christ, as the Messiah, we are immediately caught up in a story, a particular story about the God named YHWH – God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth – and about a particular people, the Jews. It is this story that provides the context in which we must understand the identity and mission of Jesus. We can’t take him out of this particular story. We can’t abstract or generalize his message. It’s the story that keeps us from creating Jesus in our own image. Jesus is the fulfillment of the story that began with God’s declaration, “Let there be light.” It is the story of creation and fall, the story of call and covenant, the story of slavery and deliverance, the story of Law and land, the story of Judges and Prophets, the story of exile and restoration, the story of incarnation and ministry, the story of death and resurrection, the story of ascension and coming again, the story of life everlasting. It is the story we tell as we gather around the table of Jesus Christ, the Messiah:

It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere
to give thanks to you, Father Almighty,
Creator of heaven and earth.

At your word the earth was made
and spun on its course among the planets.

Your hand formed us from the dust of the earth
and set us among all your creatures to love and serve you.

When we were unfaithful to you, you kept faith with us,
your love remained steadfast.

When we were slaves in Egypt,
you broke the bonds of our oppression,
brought us through the sea to freedom,
and made covenant to be our God.
By a pillar of fire you led us through the desert
to a land flowing with milk and honey,
and set before us the way of life.
You spoke of love and justice in the prophets,
and in the Word made flesh you lived among us,
manifesting your glory.
He died that we might live, and is risen to raise us to new life.

It is the story of Jesus Christ – Jesus the Messiah – through whom creation will be restored, sin forgiven, death vanquished, covenant extended to bless all the peoples of the earth, and man reconciled to God to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

To say “I believe in Jesus Christ,” is to say “I believe in this story.” Even more, it is to say I want to take my place in this story, to root my identity in it, to found my life on it as did Jesus Christ, Jesus the Messiah. It is to say I reject all the lesser stories that clamor and dazzle and seduce – stories of self, stories of power, stories of wealth, stories of lesser gods. “I believe in Jesus Christ,” is a declaration of independence, a pledge of allegiance, an embrace of a history, an acceptance of identity – both his and mine, for the story of God that centers on Jesus Christ is large enough to encompass me – and you – as well. I believe in Jesus Christ.

I believe in Jesus Christ who is also God’s only Son. This apparently simple phrase – only Son – is a theological minefield and has been since the first centuries of the faith. Jesus, himself, is clear that God has many sons, not just one: the peacemakers (Mt 5:9), those who practice piety privately – who give alms and pray and fast secretly (Mt 6:1-18), really all those who seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness are God’s sons. In this sense, we are the sons and daughters of God, all of us. So, only Son can’t mean singular Son. A better translation of “only” might be “unique.” The Creed would then read, “I believe in Jesus the Messiah, the unique Son of God.” Yes, we are all God’s sons and daughters – all related to God familially – but not in the unique sense that Jesus is. This is precisely the point that the “other” creed, the Nicene Creed, strains so hard to emphasize.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.

While we are truly sons and daughters of God – and what a privilege that is! – none of these statements apply to us: I am not God from God or Light from Light and neither are you. But Jesus is, and only Jesus is. Jesus is the unique Son: uncreated, eternal, truly God, one in essence with the Father. Quite simply, what God is, Jesus is – and that uniquely so. We cannot think rightly about God without recourse to Jesus, for Jesus is the perfect self-revelation of God in human form. Paul explains to the Colossian Christians:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation…for in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross (Col 1:15, 19-20, NRSV).

All of this – and more than will ever comprehend – is implied by the phrase “his only Son.”

In this passage from Colossians, and elsewhere, Paul expands the notion of Jesus’ sonship to include not just unique relationship with God, but also unique vocation (work) from God. Jesus’ identity and mission are inseparable; he could accomplish his work on our behalf only because he was and is the unique Son of God. Paul again:

For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross (Col 1:19-20, NRSV).

Only because Jesus was the unique Son, only because in him dwelt all the fullness of God, could he accomplish his vocation of the reconciliation of all creation to God through the blood of the cross. Jesus said as much in a passage we’ve known since childhood.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son [note the identical creedal language], so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:16-17, NRSV).

And then, on the night of his death, Jesus once again made his unique identity and vocation clear to his confused and disheartened apostles.

Jesus said [to him], “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him” (John 14:6-7, NRSV).

And there it is again clearly: unique identity and unique vocation. See Jesus, see the Father. Come through Jesus – and only through him – and you may come to the Father. It simply isn’t true for the Christian that all roads – or even many roads or even some other roads – lead to God. Once again, Jesus is unique: “No one comes to the Father except through me.” And this is where Jesus’ unique vocation to be the way to the Father drives our unique vocation to proclaim the way to the Father, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, his only Son.

The Creed proclaims and we believe in Jesus Christ, his [God’s] only Son. It also proclaims Jesus as our Lord. There may be no more theologically and politically charged word in the Creed than this word Lord. It is blasphemous if not true and seditious if true. You may remember that God first revealed his personal name to Moses at the burning bush on Sinai: I Am, or I Am That I Am. In Hebrew this name is represented by the tetragrammaton – the four letters – YHWH. We have no real idea how to pronounce the name; no vowels are indicated and the key to pronunciation has been lost – probably not by accident. The name of God was considered so holy – names in general were considered objects of power and mystery – so holy that it was never pronounced. Whenever YHWH occurred in the Hebrew Scripture another word was substituted and pronounced for it, generally Adonai, the Hebrew word for Lord. This tradition persists in many English translations of the Old Testament where you encounter the word Lord typed in small capital letters, lord. Wherever that appears it is a substitution for the tetragrammaton, the personal name of God.

When the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek around the 3rd century B.C., the Jewish scholars selected the Greek word kurioV as the translation for Adonai. In other words, they used kurios as their substitution for YHWH, the personal name of God. Confused yet? Well, here’s what it all means. When the Creed calls Jesus “our Lord,” it calls him ton kurion hemon -- Iesous kurion, Jesus Adonai, Jesus YHWH. To use the New Testament and Creedal proclamation Jesus is Lord, is to say Jesus is Adonai – Jesus is YHWH. No Jewish Christian could have missed this bold proclamation. Of course, Jesus himself had made the exact claim during his ministry and had incited the Jewish leaders to stone him.

‘Your ancestor Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day; he saw it and was glad.’ Then the Jews said to him, ‘You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.’ So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple (John 8:56-59, NRSV, emphasis added).

We say in the Creed only what Jesus first said about himself: Jesus is Lord; Jesus is Adonai; Jesus is YHWH; Jesus is I Am. If not true, it is blasphemy. We believe it’s true.

But Lord has another resonance also – this one political, this one directed toward the Roman Empire. It is subversive. It is confrontational. It is a hallmark of Paul’s letters as described by N. T. Wright.

Paul explicitly (and we must assume deliberately) speaks of Jesus in language which echoes, and hence deeply subverts, language in common use among Roman imperial subjects to describe Caesar. In the pagan world of Paul’s day … it was natural for emperors to be treated with divine honour. Already in the time of Tiberius, his predecessor, Augustus, was regarded as divine, so that the emperor became first the son of a god and then, in turn, a god himself. Kyrios Kaisar was the formula which said it all: Caesar is Lord.

Most pagans within the Roman world were quite happy to acknowledge Caesar as Lord; they did it politically, and doing it religiously was all part of the same overarching package. And Paul said: no, Kyrios Iesous Christos: Jesus Christ is Lord (N. T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 88).

And the Creed picked up this same language: Jesus is Lord. Which meant that Caesar was not. This makes the Creed – at least historically – not only a religious statement, but a political manifesto, as well. I suggest that it still is. To say “I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,” is to say I recognize no higher authority than his. It is to place not only individuals but governments and nations under his dominion. They may not acknowledge Jesus as Lord, but if they do not they are in open rebellion against the rightful sovereign of all creation, against the one at whose name

every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father (Phil 2:10-11, NRSV).

And such rebellion has consequences as Psalm 2 reminds us.

Now therefore, O kings, be wise;
be warned, O rulers of the earth.
Serve the LORD with fear,
with trembling kiss his feet,
or he will be angry, and you will
perish in the way;
for his wrath is quickly kindled (Ps 2:10-11, NRSV).

We are entering the political season all too quickly. Soon presidential candidates and certainly the President-Elect will claim the people’s mandate to govern according to his (or her) agenda. Don’t believe it. The Creed reminds us that the mandate to govern is Christ’s as is the agenda. All leaders are called to submit to Jesus as Lord. All creation is called to submit to Jesus as Lord. So the Creed reminds us. So the Creed demands of us.

And so we stand together and say: I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord. Which is to say I believe in Jesus the Messiah whose story was written before the foundations of the world, before the morning stars sang together at creation’s dawning – a story of creation, fall, restoration, and reconciliation. I believe in Jesus, the only son of God – unique in identity and vocation, the only one in whom the fullness of God dwells and the only one who can reconcile creation to Creator. I believe in Jesus Christ our Lord, the great I Am and the sovereign over all. Yes, I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.


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