Friday, 20 March 2009

I Believe, part 3

Part Three comes with another confession, as well as the opener! I wrote much of the substance of this talk for Greenbelt Arts Festival a few years back, then adapted it for a previous series of Creed talks in the Papworth Team Ministry and for an evensong at Emmanuel College Cambridge (MP3 of that talk here). So, this talk is based on previously published talks, though it has been amended for this set of talks (which took a few hours in itself :-) )

Lent 2009: The Apostle’s Creed
Session 3

I believe in Jesus part 1

I have to begin with a confession – that this evening is probably the reason I wanted to do this series of talks on the Creed in the first place. Tonight’s thoughts come under the general theme of ‘Incarnational Theology’ – and it is Incarnational Theology that made me truly fall in love with Theology in the first place! It was in studying the early Creeds and particularly why the Church said what it did about Jesus, that I really began to grasp the depth and the meaning of that sometimes glibly bandied about phrase ‘I believe in Jesus’. I should warn you though that this might mean that tonight I might do even more speaking than last week, as I have so very much to say!

Bearing in mind my thoughts in the first week of our series, I don’t want tonight’s presentation to be an academic exercise – it is important to ask whenever we find ourselves in theogical debate or discussion ‘what difference does this make to my own walk of faith, and what does it say about the faith we share?’ The things I am going to say, and that will hopefully be a part of your discussions, have changed my own perspective on faith, and have (I feel) enhance my faith and bound me more to the life and witness of the Church I serve. There are some ‘big’ theological ideas in tonight’s subject and I will try not to get lost in my own enthusiasm for the subject and start disappearing off into a theological world of my own.

So what is our subject for this evening? Well again I have taken just a few lines from the Creed and want to look into these. In fact I have just taken the one concept for tonight (next week’s will have much more to range around) and I do want to focus on this strange, peculiar, uniquely Christian belief we have in ‘The Incarnation’

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son,
our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary…,

It would be easy with the part of the Creed that I am covering this evening to be distracted and talk about whether the Virgin birth really happened. In the same way that last week it would have been easy to simply recite the arguments for and against a literal interpretation of a six-day creation story. Now whilst it is a fascinating argument, I am not sure that going off into such realms will really advance us on our journey of faith here this evening.

Though the assumption of human form, enfleshed through the human nature of Mary and enlivened by the Holy Spirit of God is an important part of the theology of Jesus being both God and Human, it is an explanation, rather than part of the core theological concerns of the Creed. I don’t want to disappear into talking about what some do and do not believe, but in the spirit of the Creed to talk about what we as Christians are claiming when me make these statements in the Creed and to talk about what we do believe. And again, following on from my thoughts of the past two weeks, there is something about the impact that knowing Jesus as both God and human that I want to draw out, to think in terms of ‘what difference does this make to me? To the Church? To the world?

If we, as Christians, claim to know Jesus, how much of that knowledge is (to be frank) ‘made up’ – by ourselves, by the Churches we are a part of, by a lack of understanding of what the Church believes. IF we want to know Jesus better, then I think we need to know what we believe about him….

By many people’s standards Jesus was a failed teacher with a disastrously short ministry and a life ending with a fiasco. Yet those who had shared Jesus life for three or so years had no problem at all expressing both the human and divine side of him. There was something more that they had to express, and their talk of ‘resurrection’ added something beyond normal comprehension to their message.

Sometimes these early Christians struggled with the words they had, sometimes they took over words being used for something else and sometimes they made up new ones. As this understanding was passed on the most important thing that was passed on what that Jesus was absolutely and completely human, and at the same time utterly and completely divine. He was God made flesh. Hence St Paul in Philippians talking of Jesus writes down a hymn that had probably been in circulation for a while
“who being in very nature God
he did not consider equality with God something to be grasped
but made himself nothing
taking the very nature of a servant
and being found in human form
humbled himself and became obedient to death
even death on a cross’.

And so we’re off. This becomes the first problem. The educated Romans, Greeks and Jews who heard this message could not believe that a God would really go through this. So the logic dictated that Jesus wasn’t really human. Or that he was much more divine than human. So Jesus only seemed to be human.

St Paul himself encountered this 1 Cor 1:23 explains that ‘Christ crucified’ is ‘a stumbling block to the Jews and folly to Gentiles’. Many thinkers in the Jewish world thought Jesus could not have been divine because he suffered and Gentiles whose thought was based on Greek philosophy said that Jesus could not have suffered because he was divine.

For those who like to read up on heretics one of the most strident on this was Clement of Alexandria. His Christ had no physical passions, neither digested nor excreted, had no need to eat (sustained by Divine power). The only reason he did seem to eat was (says Clement) to confound those who might have thought we wasn’t human. (Clement obviously knew otherwise….)

In order to think a bit about what we do believe, perhaps it would help to think about what we don’t believe. After all, the finely honed truths to which we hold were hammered out upon the Anvil of heresy! So lets consider a few heresies – and if nothing else this may prove an interesting diversion…
Marcion: who believed that God of the Old Testament and the New were different, opposing Gods. His was an anti-Jewish Christianity which dismissed any kind of continuity with the Jewish faith. It is partly due to his influence that the idea of a canon of scripture appeared – so that Christians could not pick and choose as they wished!
Which point brings me somewhere which offers a springboard into our own thoughts and a chance to talk to each other for a minute. As we managed last week to arrange ourselves very quickly into small groups here rather than wandering off to find other rooms I would like you, in groups of five or six, to think about this…

What is your favourite bit of the Bible…? Simple enough, but lets also lead into whether there any bits of Scripture you find difficult, or would prefer to do without?
I asked you to talk about that because I think it is important to remember that when it comes to Scripture we can’t pick and choose what we like, or rather we shouldn’t! There are bits of the Bible that make my hair curl with the violence and bloodthirstiness of it, or the blatant sexism, or the lack of understanding. These parts have something to teach us, and should cause us to ask whether all of Scripture is ‘right’ – eg is it good to smash the heads of our enemies children against rocks as Psalm 137v9 says – or whether we have as much to learn from the parts of scripture that are obviously the author trying to find God in the midst of pain, anger, desolation and lonliness… Do we learn, with God’s grace, as much through what is wrong in scripture, as much as what is right! And by right and wrong I mean in terms of a certain type of morality, or cultural expression rather than making a value judgement about what is ‘true’ or ‘false’… That is a discussion for another time!

I think this question about Scripture is an important one too as it begs questions about how we approach our faith – and whether we cherry pick the bits we like, or whether we – to a certain point – submit ourselves to the discipline of faith, and particularly to the discipline of the Creed – as was the original intent in adopting Credal statements in the Church.

But moving on, and going back – to continue with our roll of shame – the list of heretics against which our Creeds were formed. Having mentioned Marcion and his dismissal of anything Old Testament, there were some others the Church felt it necessary to exclude as heretics!

Montanus: who believed that the Holy Spirit was the only bit to be concerned about. He considered himself to be a spirit filled prophet, and some considered him to be the Spirit incarnate. He was rapidly kicked out – an early example of getting rid of the extremists.

Gnostics: These were perhaps the most insidious heretics in and around the early Church. claiming that matter was inherently evil. There was no one Gnostic philosophy, but broadly speaking they had a philosophy that separated spirit and matter, claiming that matter was evil. Matter only came into being as some kind of fall from perfection. Human beings were alienated from their true being as Spirit by the material world. But only some humans were potentially able to be freed from this, those who were superior (the pneumatics) – naturally this group was made up of Gnostics. It was these who were able to attain salvation through growth in knowledge, particularly arcane knowledge known only to a few. Those of you who are keen sect-watchers may recognise certain tendencies there which are shared by groups such as the Knights Templar of the 14th Century… the foundation of most of the twaddle around the DaVinci code. This kind of Gnostic knowledge seems also be the foundation of Scientology, though instead of being Pneumatics we, or at least some of us, are actually sort of re-incarnated Aliens… But enough of that, moving on…

Arians: Not big blond people who thought they should lead the world. Again there is no one movement of ‘arianism’ but it’s a title that brings together a number of schools of thought. Nominally led by Bishop Arius they believed that the logos was a creation of the Father, who was not ‘Father son and spirit’ but God who created a unique human being with a logos ‘just for the job’ of coming to earth. Arius was quite firmly trodden on by the Church, as he seemed to distract from the eternal nature of the word as offered in St John’s Gospel.

Appollinarius: He claimed that Jesus was different to the rest of us, with a different type of humanity. The flesh and soul of Jesus are separate, the soul, the controlling agent of Christ, is the logos, distinct and separate from the body which is Jesus. In this way the body just becomes a vessel to carry around the world.

In the most extreme kind of thinking the logos (the word of God) which is Christ, takes on human form like a costume (for the sci-fi fanatics like me there are no end the possibilities for parallels here, an Edgar suit for those who’ve seen Men In Black’ or the Aliens in Dr Who who wear outers suits but underneath are rather ugly flatulent creatures) and fails to become fully human. The man Jesus thereby serves as a front for the deity but is not God made man.

But why is it so important for God to be Incarnate? To be made flesh. To be conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary? And why such a crucial part of this creed?!
Now that’s your next question. In conversation with someone yesterday I was asked ‘well I believe this to be true, that Jesus was God and human – surely that’s a given’. This is true, but have we really thought about what that means, and more so (and I know I am repeating myself but this is worth it). WHY is it important for God to be Incarnate? Not just theoretically, but in the life of the Church, and in my own life?
The early Church was convinced that Jesus was (and is) a unique person – exactly what God would look like if he became human. This revealed something about God’s absolute commitment to humanity and also made it possible for us to become God-like. The death of the real, physical Jesus was also the means through which God healed the rift between God and humanity, and if he was only pretending to be God then surely our salvation is only a pretence. Gregory Nazienzan (end of 4th Century) said ‘…what has not been assumed, has not been healed.’ It was only through the reality of God becoming human in Jesus that the reality of salvation was made possible.

For the early Christians this was the crunch issue. In some way God had completely taken human form and thereby had changed reality, making it possible for humanity to share life with God at a deeper level than ever before.

Now, you may have seen the adverts on TV for shampoo or cosmetics where someone looks at the camera in a kind of knowing way and says ‘this si the science bit’. Well, this is the theology bit!

The first Christians wanted to make these things clear:

That God is eternal and unchanging. Always of the same nature and substance.

That the Word (Logos) exists within this eternal unchanging God and remains God at all times.

YET They wanted to maintain that

Jesus was God Incarnate Not just taking the appearance of flesh, but becoming human.
This meant that they wanted to stress the uniqueness of human nature alongside the
uniqueness of the Divine nature.

So Jesus was described as being two hypostaseis – two substances or two Ousia, two natures. This is often summed up in the term ‘the hypostatic union’. These natures are so perfectly fused that there is one prosopon/persona, one concrete reality that is Jesus.

Lets put it another way, there are two major ways of looking at this whole subject – Christology from above and from below (no fancy names for these)

From above (also called ‘descending’ or ‘salvation’ Christology) Christ is stressed as the incarnate word, God in human form. Through God assuming, not absorbing, human form humanity is raised to a new level of dignity, a new fuller humanity is made possible. Hence Jesus is not something ‘more than human’ (as docetics, Gnostics and a few others might maintain) but he is ‘more human’. Hence, perhaps his preferred title for himself ‘Son of Man’ or ‘human one’. In this way human beings become fully human as they are restored to a relationship to God.

The second form is ‘From below’ – ascending Christologies. Christ is seen as a human being in history who made real the kingdom of God and worked towards its coming in fullness. This kind of understanding is tied up with the Quest for the Historical Jesus I mentioned just now. Jesus example is that of living and teaching the kingdom, and thereby his life draws us up to Abba the father and makes real the fullness of God. The primary focus, though, is his earthly life leading to a greater understanding of the divine life (hence ascending).

Well, for me neither of these seem adequate and we need to take both of them on to have a full approach. And this strikes me as so much of the method of Christianity. In Christology especially there is so much to grasp that we must take on board the historical development, the Scriptural basis and our own faith in order to come to a fuller knowledge of who Christ is and what he has achieved.

And this is what the earliest fighting was about in the Church. Various individuals popped up with their own concerns and disagreements. These heresies and more all offered a challenge to a Christian faith, which was inclusive, that claimed God was one God, always the same, that this God had, in Christ, become human and thereby had identified with the material world and embraced it, and had made it possible for all people to know and be more like God. Many of our greatest thinkers in the Church, the Early Church Fathers and others set about refuting those things which were contrary to the understanding passed on by the first Christians, the work of such theologians culminates in our creedal statements, both the Apostle’s (as it is traditionally known) and Nicene creed. Of course the particular part we want to consider is this:
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,

Why is all this important I ask again? Well it so often impacts on the Church of today, we have forgotten our roots and so often forget who it is we follow and why he is unique and special. If we fail to grasp exactly what it is that the Church spent so many centuries coming to grips with then we perhaps fail to grasp exactly what our faith can be about.

Orthodox Christian Faith has always maintained that Jesus is exactly as we are, but without sin. He felt as we do, he suffered, he laughed, he ate and drank, he got tired, he made mistakes, he learnt, he got angry etc etc. He suffered and he died. Yet at the same time there was something about him, and this was made clear after and due to the resurrection, that he was God. Not just like God, not just inspired by, but actually God. It is this God who understands exactly what it is to be human and this human being that is an expression of God to us.

If Christ is fully human, then he really does understand exactly what its like to be us, not in a detached and clinical sense, but in a true, earthy and real sense.
If he is fully divine Jesus offers us the hope of eternity straight from God. He offers us the chance for an intimate relationship with a God who is truly involved in and engaged with the world.

We are called to be Christ-like, and through God’s spirit we can be so. We strive for perfection, therefore, not thinking that we are bound to fail but that if we are called by God we know it is possible for us to be perfect like Christ. FOR HE WAS EXACTLY LIKE US – YET WITHOUT SIN. I think that so many Christians start by saying I can’t be like Jesus because he was special. Yes he was, but only in the same way that we can be special, say the teaching of the early Christians, those who knew Jesus, and those who knew them..
Last natter spot! Have you ever consider the possibility of being perfect? Instead of believing that we are too sinful to succeed, would it not be more appropriate, and indeed world changing to see ourselves as too redeemed to fail?
In conclusion, I believe that if we are constantly pushing Jesus' divinity then we will miss out on what he achieved as a human being, if we just see him as a human being (albeit divinely inspired) we will lose out on all that he achieved for us through being God made flesh. It is only in taking the issues the early church spent so much time on seriously that we can understand just how much God can make of us, as brothers and sisters of Christ, fellow heirs. And then we can get to grips with being, in Christ, who God really wants us to be – fully human.

So I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,

But that’s not the end of the story, and we will hear more next week. Amen


Dr.John said...

Like going back to Seminary.
Well done.
By the end at least some of your people had to understand what you were saying.

Quilldancer said...

I have never had any trouble with this concept, but I have tried talking to a great many people who do. I wish I had had this talk in hand, you do a very good job of clarifying.

Melli said...


I am only just now starting to realize HOW MUCH I owe to my mother for instilling these beliefs deep within me from birth. But I would NEVER be able to lay it out there like you have done! I don't know all the stuff about what I don't believe - I only know what I do. And my belief is all I can ever draw from when confronted with it.

This was awesome Alastair!