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Sunday, September 18, 2011

I Believe in Jesus Christ (Matthew 16:13-16, Philippians 2:5-11)


Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still other Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “Who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Today is the second in a three-part series on the Apostles’ Creed called “I Believe.” We are looking at the three main parts of the Apostles’ Creed, which has been affirmed by most Christians for the last 1300 years or so. The Creed may be something that’s relatively unfamiliar to you, or the Apostles’ Creed may be familiar as the back of your hand. Nevertheless, it is foundational to and nearly universally accepted by Christians as containing the most essential Christian beliefs.

My hope is that we will never go through the Apostles’ Creed by rote or without an understanding of what we mean when we say it. I hope these ancient powerful words will make an indelible impression upon us.

Last week, we explored “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” Believing in something is more than just thinking certain thoughts or holding certain things to be true about it. Truly believing means that we trust it, we lean into it, we put our weight on it, we stake our claim on it.

Last week we spent 15 minutes looking at the first clause of the Creed – 1 sentence, 12 words. That averages out to 1 ¼ minutes per word. Folks, I’ve got bad news for you. The clause about Jesus, which we’re exploring today – has 65 words. At the same rate per word as last week, today’s sermon should last just over 81 minutes. What does it means to say that we believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord? May we pray.

Jesus

I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord. Let us start with the name “Jesus.” Shakespeare wrote “A rose by any other name would still smell as sweet.” I beg to differ. For instance, if parents were to name their child “Jeeves,” I think the child’s career path is inscripted to a lifetime of domestic servitude.

Jesus is the name given to our Lord in infancy (Luke 2:21). “Jesus” comes from the Greek word for the Hebrew name “Joshua.” “Jesus” and “Joshua” are different versions of the same name, and both mean “savior.” We know that the angel instructed Mary that his name would be Jesus, “because he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). His name is more than just a name, it tells us what his life would be about.

Christ

The New Testament word “Christ” is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word “Messiah.” Both names mean “anointed one.” Anointing with oil was, in the ancient world, the rite and ritual for consecrating a king. In the passage we read today from Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is asking his disciples who people say he is. The disciples dodge the question by offering the latest theories about who Jesus is. Jesus keeps pressing the question, and finally Simon Peter just comes out with it: “You are the Christ” (Matthew 16:16). The people were looking for God’s anointed king, the bringer of God’s kingdom and the fulfiller of God’s ancient promises. In confessing Jesus as the Christ, we submit ourselves to the values of his kingdom, which are love, compassion, and grace.

God’s only Son

Jesus is described as God’s only Son, which creates a bit of a dilemma in interpretation. On one hand, we are all children of God. But here, Jesus is described as God’s only Son. How do we reconcile this contradiction?

I find the key lies in one word: “begotten.” John 3:16, arguably the most famous verse in the Bible, says “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son.” The word “begotten” is derived from the Middle English word “beget” which means “to procreate, to father, to sire.” It suggests that some part of the parent is passed on to the child, that they are made from the same stuff. For example, looking at a picture of me and my Dad, there is no denying that I am my father’s son, that we are made from the same stuff. Likewise, when we speak of Jesus as God’s only Son, we are saying that he is made of the same divine stuff as God.

Our Lord

I believe in Jesus Christ God’s only Son our Lord. When the earliest Christians confessed “Jesus is Lord,” they were making a controversial political statement. In those days, people were required to make an oath to the emperor, pledging their ultimate allegiance to and reliance upon him. The oath was simple: “Caesar is Lord.” The early Christians knew they were playing with fire when they said, “Jesus is Lord.”

When we say Jesus is Lord, Bishop Ken Carder had a profound way of capturing the essence of this statement. You ready? It means, “Jesus is the boss.” Jesus is in charge, Jesus is running the show. The text we read from Philippians says, “Every knee will bow,” a sign of submission to Christ as Lord. It begs the question for each of us – who is Lord of your life? Who’s running the show? Who’s in charge? Who has your ultimate allegiance – yourself? Some worldly power? Or Jesus? For people of Christian faith, there is really only one right answer.

Conceived by the Holy Spirit, Born of the Virgin Mary

Calling Jesus Lord not only implies that he is the boss, but it was also a way the earliest Christians identified Jesus with God, for followers of God in those days used the word “Lord” to avoid saying the sacred name of God. Calling Jesus “Lord” was recognition that Jesus was no ordinary man or a mere mortal, but that caught up within him, dancing with his fully human nature, was a fully divine nature.

We affirm, in the words of the Creed, that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. In saying this, we affirm the full humanity and the full divinity of Jesus. The human nature came from his earthy mother, Mary, without any intimate interaction with an earthly father – that’s why we call her the Virgin Mary. Incidentially, that’s also why her husband, St. Joseph, is the patron saint of cold showers.

All humor aside, when we talk about Jesus being conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary, it’s easy to get caught up in the wrong details and simply miss the big point that is being made in this particular affirmation. Personally, I don’t care about the most proper translation of the word “virgin,” because that’s not the point. I don’t care to get bogged down in details or mechanics or speculation about just how exactly such an unusual birth took place. Those things have absolutely nothing to do with the crux of the matter.

When we affirm that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary, we are simply identifying Jesus. Jesus is fully divine, with all the implications of what that means, Jesus is fully human, with all the implications of what that means. These statements are not contradictions, but the wonderful expression of what God did in the person of Jesus. In the person of Jesus, God made a personal union with God’s handiwork. In the person of Jesus, God was pleased to dwell among us as one of us. In the person of Jesus, God took on flesh – we call this the doctrine of the Incarnation.

Why did God do this? Quite simply, for us and for our salvation. God entered the world to give humanity a new, redeemed beginning in a power not its own. We confess that Jesus has done for us only what God could do – that Jesus had given us a new life and broken the power of sin in our lives. You or I can’t do that on our own – only God can do that, and in the One named Jesus, God does. Jesus is fully human – sharing in all our sadness and all our gladness and the full range of whatever we experience; and Jesus is also fully divine, doing for us only what God can do.

Jesus Suffered Under Pontius Pilate; was Crucified, Dead, and Buried

The Word of the cross is Christianity’s distinguishing mark. We worship a suffering servant, a crucified Christ, a righteous Lord suffers at the hands of the unrighteous (that’s all humanity, not only the specific people involved in his death). The cross is an instrument of cruel torture, suffering, and shame. Yet, Jesus transforms it from a tragic symbol of a cruel and unjust death into an enduring sign that the Master has finished his work.

The cross is central, for even today Jesus calls us to take up our cross and follow him. Jesus calls us to continue to proclaim the central message of God’s kingdom, the message of love and grace and compassion and kindness and inclusion, and to remain faithful to that message even to the point of death.

The Third Day He Rose from the Dead

But friends, as I wrote the morning of my mother’s funeral, death is not the end of the story. We place our faith in the One who is stronger than death and overcomes death. About Jesus, we believe “the third day he rose from the dead.” St. Paul, in his letter to the Romans said, “I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).

The resurrection is both a sign by which we know, and the means by which we experience new life in Christ. Our faith in the crucified and risen Christ gives us the courage to look at the worst this world can throw at us without fear. We can stare death in the face and say, “I’m not afraid of you.”

Ascended into Heaven, Sitteth at the Right Hand of God the Father

Perhaps you’ve heard the story of the Methodist minister who was nearly arrived in a new town, and he asked a small boy where the post office was. The boy gave him directions, and as they finished their conversation, the minister said, “If you come to the Methodist Church on Sunday, I’ll show you the way to heaven.” The little boy said, “Go on, mister. You can’t even find the post office!” Even before the time of Jesus, people knew heaven wasn’t a literal place above the blue sky. Nevertheless, we think of God and heaven as “up.”

Throughout his ministry Jesus taught in parables – sayings and stories that used familiar examples the people could understand in order to teach them a greater truth. Well, what if we were to think of Jesus’ ascension into heaven in terms of a parable? That is, he departed earth in such a way as to teach us that he was no longer physically present on earth? The direction he went is really less important than the realization that Jesus has left the building, so to speak, leaving his followers as his ongoing physical presence in the world.

When we say that Jesus is sitting at the right hand of God the Father, picture a throne room. Again, this is symbolic language – they’re not sitting on overstuffed velvet and gold chairs somewhere. But thinking of a throne room reminds us that God reigns supreme. Over all other powers, God reigns. And at the right hand of God the Father, Jesus has all the majesty, power, authority, and glory of God.

Judge the Quick and the Dead

The last little nugget of belief nestled in this section of the Apostles’ Creed is the belief that Jesus will judge the quick, or the living, and the dead. When we talk about judgment, we often think about our modern judges in courts of law, who discern guilt and innocence and meet out punishments to fit the crime. This, however, is not the way the Bible speaks of the role of a judge. If you think back to the Old Testament, in the period before the kings of Israel, you will recall that the people were governed by judges. Judges weren’t primarily concerned with matters of guilt or innocence, or making distinctions between who was God and who was bad. Rather, judges were advocates before God on behalf of the people; if you want to put it in our trial language, judges were more like attorneys than anything else.

Likewise, Jesus is the judge of the living and the dead – he is our advocate before God the Father. It is as if we have hired the best trial attorney in the world to represent us. Yes, Jesus judges every single person, which means that he pleads our case before God the Father. So, when we think of Jesus as our judge, that is not a statement that should fill us with fear, but one that should fill us with hope.

But what about the Law? Surely there has to be some standard that Jesus uses when he makes our case. Well, again, let’s go back to what Jesus said about the Law. When Jesus was asked the greatest commandment in the Law, he gave a two-part answer: love God, and love neighbor. He said the whole of the law and the prophets hung on these two things. If you want to know what sort of things you should do and shouldn’t do, just ask yourself two questions about everything you think, say, or do. First, “Is what I’m about to do loving toward God?” Second, “Is what I’m about to do loving toward my neighbor?” If the answer to both questions is “yes,” then do it. If the answer to either question is “no,” then don’t do it.

And so, when Jesus, “judges” us – when he pleads our case before God the Father – that’s the standard he’ll be using. Jesus is a righteous judge, which means he’s not trying to trip us up or pull the old bait-and-switch on us. This isn’t a trick question – Jesus isn’t going to tell us the standard is one thing and then represent us based on something else. Jesus’ judgment on you – his advocacy, his pleading before God the Father on your behalf – is going to be based on the standard that he himself said was most important. Were you loving toward God? Were you loving toward your neighbor? On these two things hang all the law and the prophets.

One final thing that should give us some hope. Do you all have some keys in your pocket or in your purse? Pull them out for a second. I remember when I was first given a set of keys – first to the house, and then a few years later, a set of keys to the family cars. Do you remember that feeling – when you were first given a set of keys? When those keys were handed over to me, a certain amount of responsibility was handed over as well. My parents were saying, “We trust you with the responsibility implicit in these keys.”

Well friends, Jesus has given us some keys as well, and all the responsibility that goes with them. Jesus said, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 16:19). Look at your own keys in your hand and think about that – Jesus has given us the keys to the kingdom, and the responsibility that goes with them. That means that Jesus has given us the responsibility to live out the values of the kingdom, which are love, compassion, and kindness. Jesus has given us the responsibility to point the way to the kingdom to others. Jesus has given us the responsibility to invite others into the kingdom, and to present no stumbling block to the entrance of those others into the kingdom.

There is one set of keys Jesus didn’t hand over. There is one set of keys Jesus held onto himself. He says, “I hold the keys of Death and Hell” (Revelation 1:18). So the keys YOU have are the keys to the kingdom, but the keys Jesus retains for himself are the judgment keys – the ones to Hell and Death.

I think about that, and the lengths to which Jesus went in order to give us one set of keys and retain the other – about him leaving the splendor of heaven to come and dwell among us as one of us, to live his life as he did all the way to the cross – I think about Jesus’ willingness to go through all that pain and suffering for you and me, his willingness to go the cross and die for you and me, how he did all of that for us while were we yet sinners, proving God’s love toward us. I think about how patient he is with each of us, and how graceful, and how loving, and how compassionate, I look at the way he continued to work with the disciples even when they were stubborn and hard-headed and hard-hearted and just didn’t get it, and I know he does the same thing with you and especially with me because that’s just who he is.

I look at all that and, well, quite honestly, I can’t imagine that all of a sudden Jesus is in a rush to use those keys to Hell and Death that he hung onto to lock us up. That’s inconsistent with the same Jesus who said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). That’s inconsistent with the same Jesus who said, “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 3:17).

I look at all that, and I can’t imagine Jesus saying, “Whoops, one chance, and you blew it.” If he was willing to pay a price for us that included his own life, I just can’t imagine that now, all of a sudden, he’s in a rush to lock the door. Even when we are coming to Jesus and pointing at this group or that group and saying, “Jesus, shut the door!” Jesus says, “Those are my Father’s children, and your brothers and sisters.” He just jingles his keys and says, “Not yet. Not yet.”

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