Tag Archives: Creeds

Illuminating Faith: The Apostles’ Creed – A lively text in a world made strange

 

Bruce Barber’s The Apostles’ Creed is a reading of the Creed for today, with particular focus on the assumptions the modern mind brings to the Creed and how the Creed, and the faith it symbolises challenge those assumptions.

The study is supported by guiding questions and is suitable for personal or small group use; it could be comfortably be covered in a 7 week study series, although groups may find they want to move more slowly through the material.

 

 

llluminating Faith studies are occasionally edited for corrections and other minor adjustments. The version date is incorporated into the file name of the download – check that you’ve got the most recent version!

5 May- The inversion of Saul

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Easter 3
5/5/2019

Acts 9:1-6
Psalm 30
John 21:1-19


In a sentence:
Conversion to Christ is an inversion of the world as we know and expect it to be

Saul’s Damascus road experience has long stood in the church as the archetypal conversion experience, looming large in the church’s imagination of what conversion is, at heart: sudden and ironic. Saul, the henchman of the religious authorities, suddenly finds himself in the employ of the enemy. But what does he now believe?

His new faith is summarised in what he declares to the surprised synagogue, ‘Jesus is the Son of God.’ To have become a Christian is to believe this.

I suspect that if there is anything which catches our ears in this six word sermon, it is not ‘Jesus’ but ‘Son of God’. This will be the case for believers and non-believers alike, although for different reasons. For those who consider themselves non-believers, the problem is ‘God’, to say nothing of ‘Son of God’. Among the various types of believers it is not ‘God’ but the ‘Son of’ which tends to cause a problem. These objectors might include Muslims, or Christian Unitarians, or Christians who are not Unitarian but wish that they were, for simplicity’s sake: God is a ‘simple’ concept which ‘Son of God’ seems to complicate unnecessarily.

For Saul what catches the attention is Jesus: ‘ “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” … “Who are you, Lord?”, … “I am Jesus…”.’

‘Son of God’ was an idea Saul knew very well, but to join ‘Son of God’ and ‘Jesus’ was to link apparently mutually contradictory terms. From this cultural and religious distance, we miss the contradiction and the scandal; it has become a merely ‘doctrinal’ point to assert or deny. ‘Son of God’ was originally a title of the king of Israel and so was easily transferred to the figure Israel came to expect from God, who would set right what was clearly wrong in the world. To suggest that a man who had been crucified was the Son of God was to say that God had failed. That is, God failed, unless something like a resurrection contradicted what was seen in the crucifixion. This would then be to say that Israel’s leaders had failed when they crucified him. Neither of these options was palatable, for obvious reasons. And so there is no godly place for either a crucified or a resurrected Jesus.

(It is in fact the same with most of the other titles used by Jesus – ‘Lord’, ‘Christ’, and so on. ‘Jesus is the Son of God’’, or ‘Jesus is Lord’, or ‘Jesus Christ’ are all contradictions-in-terms of the same order. They originally were addressed to the hopes and fears of the whole Jewish community. To fit ‘Lord’, ‘Christ’, ‘Son of God’ terms together with the crucified ‘Jesus,’ then, is like saying that black is white, or up is down – and believing this to make sense).

Saul, then, doesn’t simply come to have a new thing to believe about Jesus. Rather, if the crucified Jesus is the Son of God – the ‘king’ – then a serious shock is felt, with the effect that all things are now seen radically differently from how once we saw them. We could begin to imagine that God might be found in the brokenness of one of our discarded ones – the foundation of Christian ethics. God might be seen in the unclean person of the infidel. The whole, dirty world might be God’s. Thus begins the ministry of the Apostle to the Gentiles, and we are seated here this morning because of it.

Yet the contradiction between Jesus and ‘Son of God’ is scarcely an interesting one today. Who cares about the Creed? In the days after the resurrection – for the first few centuries even – the controversy between the synagogue and the church (and the academy, in a different way) was clear: accept the contradiction of terms, or not. After that, religious authority held sway on the identity of Jesus for a thousand years. Today, however, the average person in the street (and often enough, in pews) simply couldn’t care less: ‘Son of God’ is dead in the water.

Still, if we have no common sense of a messiah or anything comparable today – of which the nastiness of the election campaign is evidence enough – there are universally held values, of which our election campaigns are also evidence.

One of these values – very strong with us – is that we are, each of us, the most important person in the world, without reference to the importance of everyone else. This lurks everywhere. We see its effect in modern school principals living in fear of the next phone call from little Cklancy’s parents (now wondering why some other child was chosen for student representative), or in the very fact she is even called Cklancy, or in that her name is spelled with a K (granted, a silent K – you only pronounce the C). (At this point I ought to acknowledge that I’m called ‘Craig’ for similar kinds of individualist reasons, if now rather weak by comparison!) We see how important every individual is in the campaign propaganda requirement that everyone gets a tax cut in order to fund the increased services to which we have a right. We see it in the assumption that because I’ve got it I can spend it on anything I like. We see that I matter most in the otherwise contradictory rights to demand medical treatment for as long as I can breathe, or to demand that I be treated with death-dealing substances long before I would otherwise stop breathing.

The apparently ‘doctrinal’ question of whether or not Jesus is the Son of God seems to come nowhere near to this crucial engine of modern identity – the centrality of ‘I’. And yet, nothing ‘cruc‑ial’ – even such a godless thing as the individualism rampant in us all – is ever far from the ‘crux’, the cross (Latin).

If the shock Saul felt was the tying of the most important of things to the least important, then for us perhaps the shock of the gospel lies in the opposite: the separation of ourselves from the most important. To say, then, that Jesus is the Son of God, becomes saying that we are not divine progeny, to do and be as gods like to do and be. While the New Testament speaks occasionally of us as ‘children of God’, we are not directly so. Ours is only an adopted relation; only Jesus is a ‘natural’ Child. Jesus is the Child of God, and you and I are not.

To land it in relation to I-matter-most thinking: this is to say, Jesus matters more than you do. That Jesus lived matters more than that you have lived, and so also his death matters more than yours. The New Testament hints at this in its linking of Jesus to creation and salvation: this one is more important than all the rest, in the same way that the beginning and end are necessary for there to be a middle.

Saul went about the synagogues saying, ‘He is the Son of God.’ This can’t have meant very much to him at that early stage, other than that it turned his world upside down.

But evangelism does just this. It turns a world upside down. For some, this is immediately good news – ‘Jesus is Lord, and I don’t have to try to be’; this is the hallelujah of the broken-hearted. For others, it’s Saul’s punch-drunk, ‘Jesus is Lord? This is the disorientation of the proud, I’ve-got-it-all-together victim of God’s blinding love.

We might wonder what the world would look like – or even what the election campaigns might look like – if our political stars didn’t know that we know we matter most. Perhaps the struggle for the common good – which is surely somewhere close to the heart of our politics – would be articulated in a way to moderate our sense of need, rather than pander to it. Perhaps what always seems scarce might be shown to be more abundant than we’re usually told, if only others mattered a little more than we do. Perhaps our competitors, even our enemies, might begin to take on the form of ‘brother, sister.’ For Jesus, as the Son of God, matters most because such a Son of God as a crucified denotes one given for the life and well-being of others.

The church still says ‘Jesus is the Son of God’, even though it no longer has the cultural sense it did for Saul, but this is less a statement of a metaphysics than of the new order breaking into the world. To say ‘Jesus is the Son of God’ is simply to put him first, in order that we might come in a very close second.

To speak about Jesus in this way is to show forth a world
upside down, inside out,
back to front and,
for all that,
now just how it is supposed to be.

For the gift of such a renewing, re-creative word, all glory and thanks be to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, how and always. Amen.

20 May – Bound by a liberating Spirit

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Pentecost
20/5/2018

1 John 4:1-12
Psalm 104
John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15


In a sentence:
The Spirit of God binds us together for love

We live in an age of the resurgence of ‘spirit, a certain sense for ‘spirituality’ which has developed in the last generation or two as a way of expressing how many people feel they experience themselves and the world: as ‘spiritual’ persons.

This is, in part, a reaction against drier, rationalist accounts of the world, ourselves and God which have dominated Western society (at least) over the last century or two. But there is more than this in general spirit-think. At heart, ‘spirit’ conveys freedom. Spirit resists capture, crosses boundaries, shakes foundations. This is the opposite of what cultural constructs like institutions do, whether the institution be a social organisation, a language, a religion or a just set of mores. ‘I’m not religious but I am interested in spirituality’ is a statement which sums up the contrast. Institutions – religion among them – fix in place; spirit breaks free. And we live in a freedom-seeking age.

But there is a very deep problem here. Jesus did not say – but might well have said – Where two or three gather in my name, there you have an institution (cf. Matt 18.20). Institutions – tangible and intangible – spring from community, from the need of otherwise separate individuals to negotiate a way of being together. The weight of an institution is the weight of life together. Sometimes we can lighten that load, but we will always do that by shifting the burden to another institution if it is ‘we’ and not ‘I’ which does this.

The problem here is that if we invoke spirit or spirituality to set us free from all this, spirit comes to stand over against a fundamental characteristic of our life together – that we always, and must, construct modes of relating to each other. Against this, certain understandings of the spiritual allow me to shut my eyes so that you disappear and there is only me and God (or whatever it is I see when my eyes are closed).

To the notion of spirit as escape from one another, John says No, although we have to strain to hear it. There has been a painful split in his community around what we might consider a ‘mere’ doctrinal point – whether or not Jesus was the incarnation of the divine Son of God. But for John the distinction between doctrine and ethics doesn’t hold; that the incarnation deniers have in fact separated themselves is as much their failure as the denial. To confess the wrong thing and to do the wrong thing are the same.

In our reading this morning, John implies that the deniers have invoked an inadequate sense of ‘spirit’ and this has led to the division of the community, the rejection of the ‘institution’ (we might say) by which they first gathered.

If we were to try to reconstruct the theology against which John writes, it might go something like this: God is spirit, and we are spirit. Our physical embodiment is secondary to our spiritual being, so that what happens to or between our bodies does not, finally, matter (perhaps this is why they could say, ‘we have no sin’ [cf. 1.8]). The death of Jesus is itself a denial of embodiment, a liberation from body, a denial that physical things matter; only the spirit of the risen Son is important. The spirit of the Son is free, as we can be free.

On this understanding, John’s insistence on love makes little sense. Love requires bodies, and not only the case in the instance of sexual expression. Bodies are the means of creating personal histories, which are what give us our identities. And these interactions create ‘institutions,’ rules of engagement, ways of being together, bindings between persons; a community is a ‘body’ (consider ‘the body of Christ’ – a body of bodies). Such things are all intimately associated with what we are in and as our embodiment. Wafting spirits neither bind nor are bound (cf. John 3.8). Bodies, on the other hand, do these things all the time.

And so John declares what is otherwise almost incomprehensible in connection to spirit:

4.2By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God.

The real human body of Jesus the Son ‘in the flesh’ matters because our bodies matter, and our bodies matter because the body of Jesus the Son matters.

What John says, then, is that how we are – that we are embodied persons in space and time, springing from each other and into each other – is of the utmost importance for faith.

The ties that bind us to each other – how we interpret our embodiment – will sometimes be too tight, will strangle. This is the meaning of the prophets’ rage against the barrenness of Israel’s religion, even though it is also God’s religion. It is also the meaning of John’s own command to love, to overcome stale expressions of community, too harsh regulation, or not enough regulation, in order that more joyful life together might be embodied.

But while the ties which bind are sometimes too tight, there is no unbound life before God or before each other. The Spirit of God is the Spirit which points to God’s own binding of himself in the life and death of Jesus. Jesus does not give up his body on the cross; he refuses to disconnect from those who disconnect him, who unbind themselves from him. If God is really only there when I shut my eyes and can no longer see you – when I count you as dead – then I’m dealing with the wrong god.

John does not say then, that the Spirit will make us confess the correct creed. He says that the Spirit will make us human, and that it does this by binding us together in love. It is to this that the doctrine about Jesus as the incarnate Son points. As God has been to us, even to the point of death, so we are to be to each other.

Spirituality should indeed set us free, but not from each other. The Spirit which points to Jesus sets us free from all which might separate us from our fullest humanity or, to put it differently, the Spirit sets us for each other.

Where the Spirit of Christ is, there is freedom – to love.

Let us then heed John’s call: love one another as God has loved us.

In the name of the one who is lover, beloved, and love. Amen.

 

In confessional response:

We offer thanks and praise, O God,
because you have created and sustained us
and all things.

And yet we confess that,
in thought, word and deed,
we have not loved you with our whole heart
nor our neighbours as ourselves.

Forgive us when we seek in you
a hiding place from the world
in which you’ve placed us for our benefit,
with its abundant gifts
and light burdens.

Forgive us the love we withhold
the much needed kind word put off
the unnecessarily angry word set free.

Forgive us our attachment to those things –
theories, habits, institutions,
which take more life from us or from others
than they give.

Almighty God,
to whom all hearts are open,
all desires known,
and from whom no secrets are hidden:

cleanse the thoughts of our hearts
by the inspiration of your
binding and liberating Holy Spirit,
that we may perfectly love you,
and worthily magnify your holy name;
through Christ our Lord.

Amen.

Illuminating Faith: Reading the Creed Backwards

The Nicene and Apostles’ Creed are important elements of Christian tradition, appearing regularly in the worship of some churches, although also sharply repudiated in the worship of others. These studies are intended as something of a ‘prelude’ to saying the Creed. The studies do not deal with the detail of the credal statements but consider the structure of the Creed as a whole. The emphasis is more on the manner of Christian faith, considering Christian confession as less a matter of content than as a matter of ‘style.’

 

 

 

llluminating Faith studies are occasionally edited for corrections and other minor adjustments. The version date is incorporated into the file name of the download – check that you’ve got the most recent version!

 

LitBit Commentary – Timothy Radcliffe on the Creeds

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“The purpose of the dogmas of the Church is not to shut down further discussion.  Quite the opposite: they evolved in opposition to heresies which did just that, wrapping up the truths of our faith in narrow theological positions which betrayed the mystery.  …dogmas can be treated as idols, which halt our search for God, but properly understood they are icons which invite us to carry on our pilgrimage towards the mystery, pushing us beyond too easy answers.” Timothy Radcliffe, Why Go to Church? p.67

 

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