For this week’s Events and Happenings, click “Download PDF.”
So this summer, I’m preaching my way through the Apostles Creed, a really, really old, short statement of the Christian faith. Line by line, we’re appreciating the ways this creed helps anchor faith, hope, and love for today’s follower of Jesus. But we’re also noticing ways the language has not entirely been serving the liberating, life-giving purposes of God. And we’re talking about how people have reinterpreted these words in light of what God is doing among us today.
Now much of the Apostles Creed, like all Christian creeds, tries to answer the question: Who is Jesus? Why does he matter? And what does he do, for God and for us? This week, the creed’s first phrase about Jesus.
I believe in God the father almighty, Maker of heaven and earth,
And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord
And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord.
What’s this line trying to say? What’s it searching for?
It says Jesus is the Christ, Greek for the Hebrew title the Messiah, the one anointed with oil, God’s king, God’s messenger, God’s leader, God’s human ambassador. And then, “only Son our Lord.” The creed is saying Jesus has a special relationship to God, that Jesus uniquely represents God, that Jesus tells us the truth about God – not just with words but with Jesus’ whole life. And it says Jesus is our leader too.
Jesus as unique, Jesus representing God to us, Jesus our leader. This is all very important and helpful.
But these words say more than this. And they’ve been problematic in how they’ve been amplified.
When the creed says Jesus is God’s only son, it focuses not on how Jesus is like us, but on how Jesus is different from us. Like if you’re Jesus, you’re really tight with God, God really loves you, and all the rest of us, we’re kind of second tier, second rate children. I don’t think that’s helpful or true.
And the Lord part has gone worse. The early Christian creeds outside the Bible were either written or finalized in the fourth century, just when the Roman Empire was establishing Christianity as its official religion. And suddenly, a faith centered on a Jewish man who’s been executed by the Empire was now the religion of the Empire. And Jesus was remade in the image of this empire’s rulers. Jesus, who was a humble Galilean man, who taught love of neighbors and children and enemy becomes a mighty King who rules by the sword, a Lord who demands worship and obedience, or else.
It’s like Jesus went from this:
This is a statue of Jesus that adorns a tomb right down the street in the Catholic cemetery of North Cambridge. It’s small. It’s human, even weak – fingers crumbling, a leg lost to vandalism.
This Jesus is very human – about our size, dying as we will, suffering as we suffer. I’m not sure who the two people are here with Jesus, but this Jesus is not above us, alone; he’s with us, among us. He can be hurt and harmed, but he still commands our attention.
But in his transformation to exalted Lord, he becomes this:
This is a statue of Jesus on a mountaintop in Brazil, just aside Rio de Janeiro. I think it’s the most famous statue of Jesus in the whole world. It’s on a mountaintop near the sea, it’s beautiful. One of the wonders of the world. And I think Jesus’ open arms are meant to communicate welcome and peace. Still, though, this Jesus, so big, so powerful, looking down over the city with his unblinking eyes, reminds me of the Christ the Lord of the Western project, where Brazil and the land I’m sitting on, and really most of the land and peoples of the world were colonized by supposedly Christian nations.
This Christ, mighty, powerful, demanded worship, demanded submission, demanded conversion. Which Christ looks more like Jesus?
There’s a great line from the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead:
‘When the Western world accepted Christianity, Caesar conquered; and the received text of Western theology was edited by his lawyers…The brief Galilean vision of humility flickered throughout the ages, uncertainly. In the official formulation of the religion, it has assumed the trivial form of the mere attribution to the Jews that they cherished a misconception about their Messiah. But the deeper idolatry, of fashioning God in the image of the Egyptian, Persian, and Roman imperial rulers was retained. The Church gave unto God the attributes which belonged exclusively to Caesar.’
Fashioning God in the image of the Egyptian, Persian, and Roman imperial rulers. The Galilean Jesus transformed to a conquering Lord by Cesar’s lawyers.
When we’re baptized into a faith in the God revealed in Jesus Christ, which faith are we baptized into?
To worship a Master Lord Jesus, with dominant power over the world, a power that compels our worship and obedience?
Or to follow a Brother Friend Jesus, in relationship with the world, with a presence and wisdom that compels our loving response?
Let’s listen something Jesus had to say on this:
12 This is my commandment: love each other just as I have loved you.
13 No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends.
14 You are my friends if you do what I command you.
15 I don’t call you servants any longer, because servants don’t know what their master is doing. Instead, I call you friends, because everything I heard from my Father I have made known to you.
I don’t call you servants. I don’t call you servants. I call you friends.
What kind of leader was Jesus? What kind of leader is Jesus to us still?
Last week I wasn’t with you all because I was finishing up a few days in the AMC’s Mountain Leadership School. I was with some other hikers learning how to safely lead people on multi-day backpacking trips in the wilderness.
And the way they do this is send you out backpacking with a group of strangers, while your leader constantly and elaborately pranks you all. Except the pranks are so good, you have no idea.
One morning we came across a big guy we’d never seen before sitting off to the side of the trail. He looked dazed and hurt, and we were miles from a road or cell phone signal. And we spent about half an hour trying to figure out what was wrong with him and what we were going to do about it before we finally realized that he was acting and that actually he was going to be our co-leader for the rest of the trip.
Yeah, we faced fake injuries, fake lost hikers, fake lost medicines, along with some actual injuries and actual problems as well. And in every crisis during the trip, the leader of the day had to figure out how to help our team rally toward a solution.
It was pretty stressful but pretty fun too.
And not surprisingly, we learned that leaders who try to dominate and direct – who remain distant, aloof, but tell people what to do are not very effective. People don’t like them, don’t trust them, don’t respond to them.
Effective leaders were able to share what they knew but also draw upon the mind of the whole group. Effective leaders helped the person in crisis, sometimes sacrificially. We carried other people’s packs, tended to injuries real and made up. But the effective leaders also mobilized the whole group’s love and service, which is always greater than any one persons.
Jesus, in his last days with his closest students, tells them that he’s always been like this too.
He points to his own model, laying down his life for his friends. And he not only commands, but inspires them to do the same. Love one another as I have loved you. He’s clear about their relationship too. They may call him “Lord” sometimes because he is their leader. But they are not his servants. They are friends, because they share everything. He’s not aloof, he hasn’t held anything back.
Jesus was trying then to mobilize his followers to live like he did: attentive to God, whole-hearted in love, and generously present to the people around you. I think God is still trying to mobilize followers of Jesus to live like this.
Jesus shows us the way to God and the way to life well. Jesus is our leader. But he’s not the kind of leader that kings and emperors and bosses and tyrants have tried to be.
I wonder what history would have been like, what Christianity in the modern world would have become if instead of saying “I believe in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord,” the creed had been written to say, “I believe in Jesus Christ God’s firstborn son, our brother, our leader, our friend.”
I think it would have made a world of difference. I think it could make a world of difference still.
Let me mention quickly three consequences we’ve born from a faith that says Jesus is “Jesus Christ our only Son our Lord”? And then three reversals we could make by believing in Jesus Christ God’s firstborn Son our leader, brother, and friend.
The three problems. Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord gave us the doctrine of Discovery. This was the 15th century culmination of a series of Papal decrees that said Christians could seize land and enslave peoples wherever that weren’t Christians. It gave Christian cover, in the name of Jesus, to every European land grab from non-Christian peoples throughout the earth. And it gave Christian justification, in the name of Lord Jesus, to wars against Muslims, to genocide of native peoples, to enslavement of African peoples, because the Lord reigned over the earth through his Christian subjects.
Damn, if this isn’t the most tragic, wicked thing. Saying God has given Christian kings sway to rule over the whole earth in God’s name, saying – as this doctrine did, that “the name of our Savior be carried into these regions”, by any means necessary.
How did we get from
Love one another as I have loved you… no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for others, to set aside one’s own interests for the other’s welfare
to this colonial doctrine of discovery?
This weekend on Juneteenth, we celebrate every step in the undoing of this evil, anti-Christ distortion of the gospel. We celebrate the news of emancipation of African descendants in the South in 1866, and we celebrate every effort toward good news liberation of Black Americans and of all peoples. May it be.
More briefly, two more problems we’ve inherited through a distant, domineering image of Lord Jesus.
One is the prosperity gospel, and the other is the inaccessibility of God, the turning of Jesus into a moral stranger.
The prosperity gospel is the belief that God intends health and wealth for all faithful followers of Jesus, and that with enough faith, a constant stream of health and wealth are ours to claim and enjoy.
I was helping prepare a couple for marriage a number of years ago, and we were discussing their vows, including the traditional phrase many of them have, saying to your partner that you will love them faithfully, “for richer or poorer.” And one of them was like, I’m not sure we can use that phrase.
And I asked: why not? And he said, well, in the churches my family is accustomed to, they wouldn’t say “for richer or poorer.” They’d say “for richer or richer.”
And I was like really, why? And he explained that on your wedding day, you’d want to exercise faith that God would only lead you into greater and greater wealth together, never economic hardships.
I thought wow, how lovely if that works out for you, but that is not how faith works. Faithful people get poor. Faithful people lose sometimes. Faithful people get sick, and one day or another every faithful person dies. These are just facts.
But the superstitious faith of a dominant Jesus has tried to tell people otherwise. A really common form of Christianity throughout this country and throughout the whole world tells people that when they are baptized into faith in Christ, they are baptized onto the winning team, if they will only agree and believe. In our own church’s past, people used to sometimes imply that if you were sick and just had enough faith, just had enough people praying for you, God would make you well.
And that’s just not true. This faith in a powerful, mighty Jesus our Lord who doesn’t sound much like Jesus of Nazareth, though, has birthed the doctrine of discovery. It’s brought us the prosperity gospel. And it’s given us Christians who – as a friend of our church used to say – worship Jesus but do not follow him.
Jesus couldn’t stand this kind of thing, even in his lifetime. There was a time people tried to make him king by force, the Gospel said, and he got out of there as quickly as he could. We can worship Jesus, see in Jesus the light and wisdom and love of God. But if Jesus had a choice, he’d rather be followed than worshipped.
What does it look like to do this? What does it look like to be baptized into the kindom of God, into God’s beloved community?
What would happen instead if our faith said Jesus is “Jesus Christ God’s firstborn Son, our Friend, Brother, and Leader?”
We never would have had a doctrine of discovery, but a doctrine of liberation, committed to loving mutuality and kinship with all people.
We would never had a prosperity gospel, manipulating people with promises of health and wealth. We’d have a good news in all things gospel, promising us God’s love and power and presence in all things.
And we wouldn’t know Jesus of the gospels as a moral stranger, as someone whose teachings we neither recognize nor live. Instead, we’d see Jesus pointing the way to God for us, the God who is our great companion, the God who is our friend who understands.
Friends, just last week, I cried it out with God again, not the first time this past year either. I was meditating on a picture of Jesus on the cross, which was just so sad, and I was thinking of what it means to celebrate a holiday like Juneteenth in a country that still has not reckoned with our history, and thinking of a broken relationship in my life that I’m longing to make whole, and I thought, dang, this year has seen so much sadness for us all.
And I was grateful that in Jesus, I have a brother, a leader, who calls me friend because he’s told me all he knows, given me everything he has. I felt God with me, a companion in all things, reminding me that I’m loved and understood, and reminding me of the creative, hopeful possibilities God has in front of me. And that’s taking me into today a happy, hopeful man.
Friends, Jesus is not a Lord that bosses us around, tempting us to remake ourselves in this image, people who use our power to enrich ourselves at others’ expense. This is a lie of our Christian past.
Jesus is a loving leader – whose life and teachings show us what God is like and liberate us into a more loving, vibrant life. And Jesus shows us that God is near and close to us, a loving, hopeful, and creative presence who never gives up on us and always understands.