Jesus, The Son (Apostles' Creed, Pt. 3)


TEXT: Matt. 3:13-17; 2 Sam. 7:11b-16

For those of you just tuning in, we have begun a look at one of the ancient maps of the Christian faith, the Apostles' Creed. I think it's fair to say that every line of this creed has been questioned and debated from the very beginning. Jesus did not put out a doctrinal statement, either about himself, the world, God, or anything else. Jesus lived a life, taught in metaphors and parables, and told his disciples that they ought to pay attention. It has been the Church, throughout history, that has come to some sort of common understanding of what all of that means, writing that into creeds and doctrines that are taught to those who come into the Christian faith.

After last week, when we discussed the first line, "I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth," someone said to me, "Well, now we're past the only line of the Creed I don't have a problem with!" And indeed, to keep with the metaphor of the ancient sea chart, the area where we now move might be labeled "Here there be dragons."

The first line, "I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth," unites us with at least two other religions: Judaism and Islam. We all are in basic agreement at the beginning. But as soon as we move to the second line, "and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord," we begin to move into the territory of what sets us apart as Christians. Remember that the initial followers of Jesus were Jews, as was Jesus himself. But as the disciples of Jesus began to define who they really believed Jesus to be, there was no longer room for them within Judaism and the faith of Jews and the faith of Christians pulled apart. Painfully.

Volumes have been written and are still being written on the nature of Jesus. It has been debated from the time that some astrologers saw a bright star over Bethlehem onward, both in private and in public. But let's start with a couple of areas of common agreement. First of all, he existed. Jesus is a historical figure that we can place in a particular place at a particular time in history. There are a scant few who claim that is untrue, just like there are some who say the Holocaust never happened or that the earth is flat. They are not given a serious place at the discussion table. There is more historical evidence for the existence of Jesus than for Napoleon or many other historical figures with whom we have no quarrel. So that is thing one. Jesus existed...making the question of who he really was one of importance.

Thing two is to recognize that he had a cataclysmic impact on the world, which is tremendously odd, given his life and death. Think about it...the calendar of today's civilized world is oriented around the birth of Jesus. Jesus was not born to power and influence, as was the Buddha. Jesus did not write a large religious volume to pass along as the direct word of God, as did Mohammed. Jesus was not a king of a nation with a tradition of divine kingship like the Pharaohs of Egypt or the Emperors of Japan.

Jesus was the son of a carpenter. We can tell his family was poor because of the sacrifice they bring to the Temple at the time of Jesus' circumcision. They bring a pair of doves, the sacrifice prescribed for the poor who cannot afford sheep or goats or bulls. We know almost nothing of his life before age 30 at which time he becomes a sensation, working miracles and becoming a populist teacher wandering the hillsides of Palestine without any real place to call home. After just three years of teaching and miracles, he has made the religious authorities so mad that they arrange for his execution as a criminal, at which point his disciples either go into hiding or return to their former trades.

We'll come back to this point when we talk about the Resurrection, but for now I just want it to sink in that there is no reason for a human being with Jesus' biography to be at the foundation of Christianity as we know it today. Maybe he could have been at the center of a sect that endured for 50 or a hundred years. But 2,000 years as one of the major religions of the world and all of time oriented around him? That takes some historical gymnastics that are hard to pull off with a mere human being who was executed in shame.

The Christian claim is two-fold. First, our belief is that Jesus was the Messiah that the Jews had been expecting. Christ is not Jesus' last name. "Christ" is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word "Messiah," both of which mean in English, "anointed one." It was the practice of the ancient Israelite prophets to anoint the kings of Israel, indicating God's choice of this person for special work on behalf of the nation.

Because of Biblical prophecies, the Jews came to expect that there would be a very special anointed one...Messiah with a capital M...that would rise up from their midst and be a savior for them in the way that Moses had been. Especially as Israel experienced almost constant occupation by foreign powers, they looked to God to send a liberator, a leader like Moses, a King like David, who would beat off their enemies and bring peace, prosperity and self-rule. The Jews were not looking for God in the flesh...the Messiah they were expecting was human, not divine. It was the function that was free the people.

For a brief time, the Jews in 1st century Palestine thought Jesus was it. But when he refused to rally an insurgency to oust the Romans and ended up being executed without any sort of struggle whatsoever, they abandoned both that idea and Jesus. The Christian claim is that Jesus was indeed that Messiah, but that the freedom he brought was spiritual rather than political. Christians believe that Jesus did on the spiritual plane everything that Moses did on the physical. Whenever you say "Jesus Christ," you express that belief that Jesus was the Messiah so long-expected by the Jews.

Now, once Christians started highlighting Jesus' claims to be working in the spiritual realm, it implied that Jesus was more than just human. When Jesus told a paralyzed man to take up his mat and walk, nobody was troubled. When Jesus told the man that his sins were forgiven, however, the blasphemy radar began to go up and the religious leaders reminded him that only God can forgive sins. Jesus did not recant.

There is a lot more that can be said about that, but the point is that Christians have believed from the very beginning that Jesus had a relationship to God that, at the very least, was different from that of ordinary human beings. They also believed, however, that Jesus was really a man. Once those ideas hit, the fur began to fly. Where we ended up was with the belief that Jesus was two things at once...fully human and fully God. Whenever someone tried to emphasize one side and diminish the other, they were condemned as heretics, and we will see in coming weeks how those battles were responsible for some of the later lines of the Creed. The Church stood firm. Both were to remain in tension together...Jesus as a man, Jesus as God. Both at once.

It is from that tension that we get the confusing phrase "Son of God." What it seems to say on the surface is not what Christianity teaches. We do not believe that Jesus is a separate deity in a child/parent relationship with God. There are massive theological tomes written about the phrase, but for me the practical piece is to know that it is an imperfect analogy for how Jesus could be God and human at the same time.

In Christian teaching, Father, Son and Holy Spirit are all ways to describe the one God...each is God in their own way...sort of like water, ice, and steam are all H2O. Later Christians wrote later Creeds, the Nicean Creed, for example, to explain this more...realizing that the Apostles' Creed makes it vague. But the point is the Jesus is human and Jesus is God and because of that, he should have our allegiance in the way that a medieval Lord had the allegiance of those in his city. "And in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord."

So what difference does it make? Is there anything different in the life of someone who believes that Jesus was, as some have termed him, the God Man? Does believing that Jesus was divine as well as human make any difference when we get out of bed in the morning? Well, for me it does, and here is why.

If Jesus truly is God, that says some mighty incredible things about the God of the universe. If Jesus is God, then God has actual experiential knowledge of what my life is like. We all know how hollow it sounds when someone says, "I know what you're going through," when what we are going through has never been part of their experience.

If Jesus is God, then God knows from experience what it is like to be poor, to be hungry, to be persecuted. God knows what a whip with metal ends feels like, knows what mockery, humiliation, and abandonment are about, and knows what it feels like to die. God knows what it feels like when a close friend betrays you. God also knows about the joy and fun of weddings and festivals, about the disciplines of study and prayer and what it takes to stick with them. God knows about family and friends and how it feels when they criticize you or fall asleep during something important, and how much you miss them when they die.

Believing that Jesus actually is God is the single most important thing responsible for the personal and intimate connection I feel to God. God doesn't just relate to me from a high and almighty position. God knows what it's like on the ground, where I live. Jesus as merely a good man makes me revere and honor Jesus, much as I do Ghandi, Mother Teresa, or Martin Luther King, Jr. Jesus as God turns my love and adoration toward God, which...all through Jesus' what he is trying to do.

When I express the Christian conviction that Jesus is God, it defines for me what I mean when I refer to God. If Jesus the man is not also God, then God remains beyond my reach as a being and I have no means to understand. If Jesus is God, I still only know God in limited form, but I at least have that limited knowledge. I at least have enough information about what God values and expects to go on in my daily life.

That is what we mean when we talk about the term "revelation." God is revealed in Jesus...the nature of God is made both known and comprehensible in Jesus. It is not the only way that God is made known. God was first made known to human beings through Creation and was made known to the Jews through Torah. God in Jesus is, for me at least, just a clearer and more comprehensive picture of the nature of God. Someday I'll get in trouble for this, but I've been known to refer to God in Jesus as "Revelation for Dummies." Think about it.

God puts out the message in Creation and we worship trees. "Okay," says God, "let's try something else." So God inspires individuals to write Scripture and to convey God's Law. People worship the book and get so hung up on the details that they forget the root message. Finally, God says, "Okay, clearly this isn't getting through as it should. I will come there myself and show you what I mean. I will take on human form and will explain my message to you in human words and human actions so that you will be clear about what I want."

I don't believe Jesus is a different revelation of God. If you take a Disciple class with me, you will know that I think God said everything that needed to be said by the end of the book of Deuteronomy. For me, however, the revelation of God in Jesus is much easier to grasp, because it comes in a form and a language I can relate to.

One of the great ironies of the Christian faith, to me, is that the belief in Jesus as God has been used as a weapon to condemn those who don't believe it. The deeper I delve into the concept that Jesus actually is God in the flesh, the more incomprehensible that is to me. My own way of thinking is that, if we indeed serve a God who is so insanely in love with human beings that God would show up on earth and endure the kind of life that Jesus did in order to bring us into relationship, then God will stop short of nothing to bring absolutely everybody into the fold. If we refuse to go, that's our own business...even in eternal matters God will not violate our free will...but I honestly believe that God will keep re-packaging the revelation in whatever ways every culture, race, and creed needs to understand it.

If I didn't believe that Jesus is God, I couldn't hold out any hope of salvation to those of other faiths...or even for myself, for that matter...because believing that Jesus is God tells me that God is the true author of "No child left behind." The life of Jesus says to me that God will go to any and all lengths to help us get it. The shepherd will leave the ninety and nine and go in search of the one. But if Jesus is not God, then I have no indication that God will try to meet me or anybody where we are. I will have to find my way to God, and I may be successful or I may not.

If Jesus was just a great teacher and a mighty prophet, then we are all lost, because God is far from us, and who knows whether what we do will be acceptable in God's sight. But if Jesus is God, then God goes to eat dinner with precisely those people who think God would never come close, and God forgives even those who betray to the death. If Jesus is God, there is hope that God will communicate with me in a way that I can understand and will forgive me when I blow it.

If Jesus is not God, then statements like "I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father, but by me" make Jesus a blasphemer and those who follow him idolaters. If Jesus is God, however, he is making perfect sense and saying what had already been revealed in Torah and in Creation...that God is the way, that God is the truth, and that God is the life...and that the way to understanding God as the loving parent who will do absolutely anything for the children comes through recognizing what God did in Jesus.

When I get out of bed in the morning believing that Jesus is God, I can engage and explore my faith without fear of being condemned if I get it wrong; I can live my life pro-actively without fear that a wrong choice will put me in a place that God cannot reach; I can accept the variety of ways that the God of love has been revealed in different times and places; and I can finish the day on my knees in gratitude that the God to whom I am praying knows from first-hand experience the joys or sorrows that have filled my last 24 hours. To that Lord I gladly give my allegiance and my love. Amen.

(c) 2004, Anne Robertson

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