Sermon for August 25th, 2019

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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

We are now in week two of a sermon series on the Apostles' Creed--one of the oldest statements of belief in Christianity. Last week, we talked about the line, "I believe in God the father almighty, creator of heaven and earth." Today we come to the second line of the creed, which is "I believe in Jesus Christ, God's only son, our Lord."

So today (and for the next two weeks) we're talking about Jesus. I'm reminded of 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."

I believe in Jesus Christ, God's only son, our Lord.

I Believe

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."

Or we'll say something like, "I believe in happy endings." Does that mean we believe that they exist, for some few lucky people? Or that we really, really want one for ourself? Or does it mean we believe that everyone will get one one, or that everyone should get one, or that everyone is entitled to one?

The Greek word for belief, used in both the Apostles Creed, and also in both of our scripture passages is Πιστεύω (pisteuo). It implies 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 means I support that amendment, I put my trust and confidence behind it; I vote to protect 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 I believe that the world is round (incidentally, I do believe 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, factually. They're the kind of beliefs you feel, that you resonate with, and that you structure your life around.

In Jesus

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.

The Gospels are 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 ever 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 Christ

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 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, and by us.

The Son of God

The next part of the Creed, in the original Greek language, says υἱὸν αὐτοῦ τòν μονογενῆ, which translates as two separate clauses, "The son of God, the only begotten one." For the sake of simplicity and brevity, this has been condensed in the English transaltion to "God's only Son." But a lot gets lost in that brevity. I want to consider these two clauses, "The son of God" and "the only begotten one" separately.

The phrase υἱὸν αὐτοῦ means "the Son of him" where him refers to God in the previous line (I believe in God the father almighty...). So, "son of God" is a pretty good translation. It's worth noting that Jesus' favorite title for himself in Matthew, Mark, and Luke is actually the "son of man" which means something like "the human one." But in the gospel of John, he is frequently refered to as the Son of God (see John 3:16), 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."

The One-of-a-Kind

But that's also why I have a problem with the next part of the creed--or at least the way we often translate it: τòν μονογενῆ, or "only begotten" or, in our version of the Creed, God's ONLY son. This implies there aren't any others. That WE are somehow NOT God's children, despite all the other bible verses that clearly say we are.

The word μονογενῆ is made up of two pretty familiar 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.