Sermon for August 25th, 2019
John 3:16-17 (NT page 94)
16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17 “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 20:24-28 (NT page 115)
24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” 26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”
The Apostles’ Creed – I Believe in Jesus, Part 1
A few years back (okay maybe a lot of years back), you may remember there was a fashion trend of wearing rubber bracelets, or t-shirts, or just about anything else, with the letters WWJD on them. WWJD stands for what would Jesus do, and the letters were supposed to remind people to ask the question, and then (presumably) to act better, like they imagined Jesus might have in any given situation. But sometimes it backfired. Like the mom who was serving her two sons pancakes for breakfast, and they were fighting over who got the last one. She said to them, "Now what would Jesus do, boys? I bet if he were standing right here today, he'd say, 'let my brother have the last pancake.'" So one brother turns to the other and says, "Okay, you be Jesus."
We are in the midst of a sermon series on the Apostles' Creed--one of the oldest statements of belief in Christianity--and today we come to the second line of the creed, "I believe in Jesus Christ, God's only son, our Lord." This statement is probably the oldest part of the creed itself, and is certainly the one affirmation that is at the very heart of what we call Christianity. Wait for that to sink in a little. These ten words--I believe in Jesus Christ, God's only son, our Lord--are the reason we exist as a church, the reason we call ourselves "Christians" and the one thing that distinguishes us, that uniquely identifies us among all other religious systems and beliefs.
Notice I did not say the one thing that makes us *better* or more right or more true than other belief systems. Rather, this statement is what makes us who we are, kind of like our DNA, our genetic imprint. For better or worse, all that we believe, all that we say and do, all that we ARE as Christians springs forth from this one statement, this one proclamation. So it's not lost on me that of all the 307 sermons I've preached to you in the past seven years, this one is, hands down, THE most important. Aren't you glad you came today?
I believe in Jesus Christ, God's only son, our Lord.
Let's break that down a bit. Starting with the words "I believe." We use those words in a lot of different ways, don't we? My favorite is the t-shirt that says, "Everyone ought to believe in something. I believe I'll have another beer." Of course, that kind of statement doesn't tell us anything about a person's deeply held convictions or understandings about life and the universe.
Or we'll say, "I believe in happy endings." Does that mean we believe that they exist, for some few lucky people? That we want one for ourselves? Or that we believe everyone gets one, or that everyone is entitled to one?
The Latin word for "I believe" is Credo, where we get the word "creed" from, and also words like credibility, credence, and credit. The Greek word is even older; it's Πιστεύω (pisteuo). Both of these words imply more than just a narrow factual belief in the existence of something. Πιστεύω is sometimes translated as "I have confidence" or "I trust." It's the kind of belief you hang your hat on.
So if I say, "I believe in the 1st Amendment, the right to free speech" it's more than saying I believe there actually is a 1st Amendment somewhere in the constitution...it means I support that amendment, I put my trust and confidence behind it; I think it's a good and necessary thing. As Christians, we don't believe in Jesus the way someone might say "I believe there is life on other planets," or I believe in evolution, or that the world is round (incidentally, I believe in all three of those things). When we say "I believe in Jesus," it's more like what people mean when they say, "I believe in love," or "I believe in doing the right thing," or even "I believe in you."
These aren't the kind of beliefs that you can prove. They're the kind of beliefs you feel, that you resonate with, and that you structure your life around.
That brings us to the next word: Jesus. I believe in Jesus. So, who was Jesus? Did Jesus even exist? That's a great question. The scholarly consensus from people who study these things--historians, archaeologists, anthropologists, is that a historical person named Jesus of Nazareth did in fact live and preach in the first century and gathered a following that launched a movement. But beyond that, there's not a lot we can "prove" or definitively "know" about this Jesus.
The gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were written several decades after the time in which Jesus lived, by people who may or may not have even known him. The gospels were assembled from collected fragments of his teachings, and stories about his life that had been handed down from person to person. These four stories generally agree about the broad parameters of Jesus' life and message, but they often disagree with one another in the details, or in their emphasis and agenda.
They are our certainly our best and primary sources for trying to figure out who Jesus was, but they are far from the only sources. We can also learn about Jesus from archaeology, from comparative religion and textual criticism, from personal experience or divine revelation, to name a few approaches. And in this sense, I think the Apostles' Creed is helpful to 21st century Christians--precisely because it doesn't say "I believe in the Bible" or "I believe in Jesus as he is described by the gospels." It is not the Bible that holds us together or defines us as Christians--it is a belief (a confidence, a trust) in Jesus, whomever he was, and we are still learning, still growing in our understanding of that.
The next word in the Creed is "Christ." I believe in Jesus Christ, or more properly, Jesus "the" Christ, because Christ isn't Jesus' last name. It's actually a title, Χριστός in Greek, which means the "anointed one" or literally, the one smeared with oil. In Jewish tradition, the person who was chosen to carry out a special task (the King, the high priest, sometimes the commander of the army) was smeared with precious oil as a sign or symbol that he or she was special, and chosen.
So when we say, "I believe in Jesus, the Christ" we are saying that we believe Jesus was somehow, in some way that we may not even be able to fully explain or understand, special. Jesus, the special one, the one chosen by God. That Jesus.
The Son of God
The next part of the Creed is "God's only son." I believe in Jesus Christ, God's only son. Personally, I think this is a pretty lousy translation of the original Greek words, which has resulted in a lot of confusion through the centuries. The Greek text (which is roughly the same as our scripture passage, John 3:16) says υἱὸν αὐτοῦ τòν μονογενῆ. The first part of that, υἱὸν αὐτοῦ means "the Son of him" where him refers to God in the previous line (I believe in God the father almighty...). So I believe that Jesus is the Son of God. Up to that point, no problem. Jesus' favorite title for himself in Matthew, Mark, and Luke is actually the "son of man" which is an expression that roughly means "the human one." But in the gospel of John, he is frequently refered to as the Son of God, and that wouldn't really have raised too many eyebrows, because Jewish people are frequently referred to (and refer to themselves) in the Old Testament as the "sons of God" or the "children of God."
But that's also why I have a problem with the next part of the creed--or at least the way we usually translate it. I believe in Jesus Christ, God's ONLY son. In English, that implies there aren't any others. That we are somehow NOT God's children, despite all the other bible verses that say we are.
Remember, the Greek here is divided in two parts: I believe in Jesus Christ, the υἱὸν αὐτοῦ (the son of God) and the τòν μονογενῆ. What is the μονογενῆ? Two roots: μονο can mean "only," but far more often in Greek, it simply means one (think monorail, monotone, monopoly). And γενῆ can mean "birth" or begotten (hence "only begotten") but it is also where we get the words gene or genetic, or genome from. It means a class or species. I think a much better way to translate υἱὸν αὐτοῦ τòν μονογενῆ, and more likely the way Jesus was understood by his earliest followers is this:
I believe in Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God, the one-of-a-kind.
All three of these descriptions of Jesus are pointing to the same thing: There's something special, something one-of-a-kind, something almost undescribable about him, the closest thing we can come to say is that he had some kind of really special and unique relationship with God, something kind of like that between a Father and a favorite son.
The Boss of Us
Two more words: Our Lord. I believe in Jesus Christ, God's only son, our Lord. In Greek, it's three words, τòν κύριον ἡμῶν, or "the Lord of us." First let's look at that word κύριον or Lord. What is a Lord? It's a pretty archaic word, even in English. We don't really use it much outside of medieval feudalism--the Lord of the Castle, Lords and Ladies. In Greek, it has more of the connotation of "master" or the one who has ownership or complete authority over me. And we really don't like that idea in 21st century America, where one of our favorite sayings is "You're not the boss of me!" So probably the best modern translation of "our Lord" would be "the boss of us."
And as challenging as this idea is for us, it's worthwhile. Think back to the best boss you've ever had, the best person in authority over you--maybe it was a parent, maybe it was a manager or employer--but someone who really had your best interests at heart, someone who wasn't afraid to tell you "no" when you needed to hear it, someone who helped you to grow and mature, even when you resisted that authority. That's the kind of "Lord" that we want, that we hope and trust Jesus will be.
And that word "our" or "us" is important, too, even though it's a small word. There was a trend in 20th century evangelical Christianity of asking the question, "Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal lord and savior?" I think it was well-intended, but the earliest Christians understood that they were more than individuals--they were part of a wider community. "I believe in Jesus" but he is "Lord of us all."
Putting it All Together
There's a rhythm and a beat to this line in Greek, punctuated by the article "the." If we were keeping the translation more literal, it would sound something like this:
I believe in Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God, the one-of-a-kind, the Lord of us all.