Conceived By the Holy Spirit (Apostles' Creed, Pt. 4)

Anunciation, by Dante Gabriel Rosetti, 1850


TEXT: Luke 1:26-38; Luke 1:46-55

As we delve deeper into the ancient church document called the Apostles' Creed, we come to a line representing an issue that has sparked debate across two thousand years. The line we talked about last week, "And in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord" talks about the Christian doctrine that Jesus is both fully God and fully human. This next pair of phrases, "conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary," gives emphasis to that. "Conceived by the Holy Spirit" brings in the divine aspect of Jesus' nature, while having Jesus carried in a real woman's womb and physically born to a historical mother in the usual way, speaks to his being fully human. But this section implies a whole lot more.

For one thing, it was addressing a controversy that was raging in the early centuries of the church...the controversy surrounding Gnosticism. Gnosticism is a big word for a group of people who believed that God was accessible through knowledge. The word for "knowledge" in Greek is "gnosis," so the movement was called Gnosticism. When you see books on today's bookshelves like "The Gnostic Gospels," that is some of the literature that was important to this group.

Talking about that movement would be a whole sermon in itself, but only two things are really important to the question of Jesus' conception and birth. The foundation to both issues was the gnostic belief that anything physical was basically corrupted. Matter was bad; Spirit was good. So, for the Gnostics, it was a goal of life to move our spiritual selves to a point where we could be free of our earthly bodies and thus, purified. We could do this, they believed, through knowledge.

What that meant for Christianity was that the Gnostics were starting to teach that Jesus could not really be God in the flesh, because taking on human flesh would be too base and lowly a thing for God to do. God would not submit to say that God became human was, for them, to say that God stopped being Spirit and became Matter...that God stopped being good and became corrupted. That was beyond what they believed was possible for God, so the Gnostics denied the incarnation. God could not redeem flesh...the flesh would corrupt the divine nature, so God could not have become a real human being in Jesus.

That left the Gnostics with some difficulties, however, since Jesus certainly seemed to claim otherwise, and had some pretty nifty miracles to back it up. Their answer to that was that, when Jesus was baptized and the Spirit of God descended like a dove and the voice of God said, "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased," they believed THAT was the moment that the Spirit of God entered Jesus. They taught that there was a human being named Jesus who God decided to possess for a given period of time. That time began at Jesus' baptism, and they also taught that the Holy Spirit left Jesus right before his death. They could not fathom a God who would be born or a God who would die.

You can imagine that the Church got nervous as such teachings spread without any formal statement from the Church to say what the Church really believed. The Gnostic movement was one of the main reasons that the Apostles' Creed was written, and you can see it reflected in today's phrase. The Holy Spirit didn't just show up at Jesus' baptism, according to the Church. It was involved in Jesus' procreation. "Conceived by the Holy Spirit." The Holy Spirit was with him at conception, and then he was born of a woman through a birth canal with the same blood, water, and mess that slides every other human baby into the world. "Born of the Virgin Mary."

The other kind of controversy surrounding these lines is the "virgin" part of the Virgin Mary. It needs to be said that this became much more of an issue for the Western Church, based in Rome, than it was for the Eastern Christians in Constantinople. There are many who believe that the Western insistence on making people assent to the Virgin Birth has much more to do with negative attitudes about sexuality and women than it does adherence to Scripture. This seems especially likely given the Roman Catholic insistence that Mary remained a virgin all of her life, and their claim that the people the Bible plainly calls Jesus' brothers and sisters were Joseph's from a prior marriage or really cousins or other such things. The plain Biblical meaning has to apply for Mary's virginity, but apparently can't apply for Jesus' siblings, making me wonder if there isn't something else going on.

That doesn't mean, however, that I disagree with the statement that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. To some of you that may seem like a no-brainer, while to others it may just sound like I'm adopting a quaint doctrine to avoid a call from the Bishop, but think about it for a bit.

If you buy into at least the first line of the Creed, "I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth," you've set yourself up to the possibility for all sorts of crazy things. If God is those intimate and personal like a good father, is more powerful than anything human beings can imagine, and is capable of creating everything on earth and in the heavens, then it's hard to say that any particular incident couldn't have happened. God made the human prototypes, God can certainly manage a zygote in a real woman's womb. There are some species that require no cross-fertilization at all-ever. If you agree that God made the heavens and the earth, a virgin birth is not going to be difficult to pull off.

The narrative in Luke is clear that Mary has done nothing to make ordinary conception possible, and in the realm of things that God can do, it is completely possible for that scenario to be correct. Just because our human scientists don't see how it could happen doesn't mean that God can't do it. Being able to transcend human knowledge and experience is part of God's job description.

But I think we can get all tangled up in trying to prove or disprove an event and miss the main message. Whether or not Mary actually was a virgin is not a question we're going to be able to settle to everyone's satisfaction. We do know, however, that the writers of the Gospels and the God who ensured that those writings survived wanted the story taught that way; and I believe they wanted the story taught that way because of the truth it shows us about the nature of God. As I look at the story, I see the writers trying to convey two things about who God is; and those two things are represented in the two Scripture readings for this morning.

In the first reading, where the angel Gabriel announces to Mary that she will have a child, it means that if God shows up in my life, I had better hold onto my hat. If the Virgin Birth is true, then God should not be expected to stay within conventional boundaries. Just because that's the way babies are always born does not mean that this is the way God's baby will be born. "We've never done it that way before" doesn't cut it with God.

In this case, neither does, "But it could be dangerous." Just being found pregnant before marriage could mean a literal death sentence for Mary, but that does not stop God from asking her to do it anyway. Good grief, I complain when God asks me to do something even slightly embarrassing. This is way beyond embarrassing. This is scandal of the first order, which, under the Jewish law of the time, was punishable by stoning. If the Virgin Birth is true, life with God is not a cakewalk, and it is certainly not boring.

God may ask you to do not only what society considers scandalous, but what seems impossible. Part of the reason I believe in the Virgin Birth is because that part of God's nature is born out in almost every part of Scripture. God plucks a murderer named Moses out of the desert and tells him to march into Egypt and free the slaves. No matter that they had been slaves for 400 years. No matter that the Egyptians had no desire or intention of letting them go. No matter that Moses' head could roll in the process, God tells him to do it like he was asking him to pick up milk on the way home. God takes a young lad who has no experience except tending sheep and anoints him as King of Israel. No matter that someone else is still sitting on the throne and has no intention of leaving. No matter that according to Hebrew culture, any honors should go to the eldest and not the youngest in the family.

You can trace the stories in chapter after chapter of the Bible, and the point is that God does not seem particularly interested in the usual way of doing things...even if the usual way of doing things is something that God ordered in the first the means of giving birth. If God designed it, then God can redesign it. As we try to determine whether what we are hearing is the voice of God, we can look at a number of things, but the story of the Virgin Birth tells us that we can't turn off the voice just because what we are hearing seems impossible or outside of society's comfort zone.

The other thing the Virgin Birth tells us is more plain in the second passage, Mary's song of praise to God for being chosen for this task. In this reading we see that Mary's virgin status is not the only important thing. God's choice of this particular woman shows that God is willing to honor the humble, the poor, and the outcast. God is interested in faithfulness, not ability; in generosity, not wealth; in service, not authority. If the Virgin Birth is true, then it is as Mary sings, "He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty."

This, again, is consistent with everything in Scripture that has come before. It is what the prophets were yelling about for hundreds of years. Take care of the poor, the widow, the orphan. Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. It is what lies at the foundation of the laws in the Torah, which has built-in protections for illegal aliens, the poor, slaves, farm animals and even the land itself.

It also shows that God is willing to give critical assignments to women...young, poor, single, inexperienced long as they are faithful and willing to follow where God leads, no matter the risks. It struck me, as I thought about it this week, that Mary was the first Christian priest. Mary was the first one to know Jesus, her womb the first chalice to hold his life. On the day of Jesus' circumcision, she presented Jesus to those in the Temple, the first one to present the Body of Christ to the world. Don't tell me women can't be priests.

"Conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary." Believing that is not making a statement about science or outdated dogma. It is making a claim that the God we worship is able to do things that seem impossible to us, and that it doesn't matter that others look down on us because we are women, or poor, or uneducated, or unimportant...God doesn't care what others think. If we are faithful, if we are willing to give our lives to God in service, we can help God change the world, one life, one baby at a time. Amen.

(c) 2004, Anne Robertson

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