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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.
And today, in our fourth week in this series, we get to early Christians’ origin story about Jesus – where did he come from? What made him special? And what does this mean for us?
We love origin stories, don’t we?
All the superhero movies have back stories, because we wonder, how did these weird and strange and marvelous people become who they are? For instance, the movie Black Widow opens this week, and Black Widow has a backstory. Like a lot of Marvel heroes, a Cold War-era back story. She’s Natasha Romanoff, a Soviet-era Russian orphan, trained by her adoptive father and the KGB to be a master assassin for the Soviets, until she meets a friend of Captain America, defects to the U.S., and joins SHIELD, to use her powers for good. Rah, rah America – happy 4th of July, by the way.
We like origin stories, even for regular people. My family tells origins stories about me that try to explain how I became the weird and strange and marvelous person that I am. Stories about how much of a rush I was in to be born, almost being born in car on the way to the hospital on a Sunday morning like this, stories about me being hyper all the time, stories about me being accident prone, stories about me persuading a fellow preschooler about the wrong names for animals. Like all origin stories, I have some doubts that the ones my family tells are 100% factual. They’ve been embellished over time – details added, subtracted here and there. But these stories have stayed around because they’re good stories and they say something about me my family wants to say.
I wonder what childhood origin stories you’ve been told. I wonder what they say about you and whether or not you think that’s true.
Well, today we look at the origin story that the early Christian creed gives for Jesus. This is it:
I believe in God the father almighty, Maker of heaven and earth,
And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord,
Who Was Conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary
Conceived by the Holy Spirit – that could mean a lot of things. That the Spirit of God was involved in Jesus’ conception. That the beginning of his life was a kind of miracle that God longed to see into being. On these terms, I think all of us were conceived by the Holy Spirit. Moms and Dads, or even two moms and a donor dad, may or may not have dreamed us into being, we may or may not have been planned by the people involved. But God delights in the process of becoming for every human, and so I think it’s fair to say the Holy Spirit is delightfully engaged in all conception.
But the creed continues to put a finer point on Jesus’ Holy Spirit conception to say he was born of the Virgin Mary. The virgin Mary. Woah, that’s different!
You don’t hear a lot about virgin conceptions. My daughter loved the show Jane the Virgin, which was about just this kind of thing. Jane becomes a mother, even though she’s a virgin, because of an accidental insemination at her gynecologist’s office. And that’s a shocker, as you may imagine.
But with Mary, mother of Jesus, the claim is even wilder. That Mary got pregnant without any kind of male DNA. Just the Holy Spirit. Now, even the mention of DNA is anachronistic, as the Biblical writers and the fathers and mothers of the faith knew nothing about DNA or sperm and eggs or any real science, but they did observe how children were conventionally produced, and they were like: Jesus was special, because his origin story was different.
It’s hard for a modern person to believe. We may wonder why this is in the creed, how it got there, what it means, and how important it is. Well, the writers of the creed got the idea from two of the four gospels. Here’s one of them.
Luke 1:26-38 (Common English Bible)
26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth,
27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.
28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”
29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.
30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.
31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.
32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.
33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”
35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.
36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren.
37 For nothing will be impossible with God.”
38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
Mary herself, an engaged but apparently still virgin teenager, is very confused by this plan of God that comes to her in a dream or vision. This pregnancy seems impossible to her, but she believes that like her cousin’s unlikely pregnancy, hers will happen too. And we end the story with Mary’s consent, because God – like all good people – doesn’t do anything with us, sexually or otherwise, without willing, enthusiastic consent.
There’s some complexity in Jesus’ origin, lineage, and back story, even in Luke, because while Luke says this is a virgin conception involving just Mary and the Holy Spirit within, he also makes a great deal of the patriarchal lineage of Jesus from his father Joseph, a descendant of the great king of Israel, David, himself a descendant of the first great humans on earth.
The gospel of Matthew tells a similar backstory for Jesus, a surprised virgin Mary, a miraculous conception of Jesus, and a lineage back to David through his father.
Now today, I want to talk about whether it makes sense to read this version of Jesus’ back-story literally or not, and I want to talk about how it matters a lot in some ways what we do with this back story, and how in other ways, how it doesn’t really matter at all.
First, let me start with the four best arguments for taking the virgin birth backstory of Jesus literally. I’ll be quick on these, because I think this side of the sermon is better known
Matthew and Luke tell the story this way. They both say Mary was a virgin, that both Mary and Joseph are shocked by her pregnancy, as if it couldn’t be possible. So reason 1 for literal virgin conception – the Bible tells me so, at least it seems to.
This world is a weird place. Science has documented all kinds of very strange and unexpected things, and many people of faith in God have testimonies to very unusual and surprising things, seemingly impossible things, we think God has done. By this account, a young woman’s pregnancy with no man and no donor is perhaps a marvelous, miraculous possibility. Weird things happen.
Jesus is really special. Jesus’ followers became convinced that he was a human like no other human, that he uniquely revealed and represented God to us. Followers of Jesus’ experience of just how special he was launched what became the largest, most powerful, most enduring, highest impact faith movement in human history. With all that being true about Jesus, who’s to say his origins weren’t miraculously different or special?
And my fourth and last reason, for taking Jesus’ mom’s virgin conception story literally is that if you do, well, most of the world is with you, or claims to be. Most Chrisitans and most Muslims, who together represent a little more than half the world’s population, take this part of Jesus’ origin story literally – that part of what makes Jesus special is that his conception occured like no other humans has, ever.
I was quick on these reasons for taking Jesus’ miraculous conception story literally because they’re well known and they boil down to two things: a couple parts of the Bible say it, and God and Jesus are so special, that why can’t God’s involvement in the origin of the life of Jesus be different and special too.
Now, I’d like to share three arguments for why one would not take this part of Jesus’ origin story literally. I’m trying to persuade you of either side here, but my guess is these arguments are a little less familiar to many of us, and they open up some interesting and helpful things. So here they are, arguments for a metaphorical, non-literal, more poetic reading of this part of Jesus’ back story.
One is that most of the Bible knows nothing about this. The other two gospels, Mark and John, have different back stories about Jesus – no mention of a virgin conception at all. The writers of all the letters of the New Testament also have a lot to say about Jesus but absolutely nothing to say about special circumstances around his conception, and nothing to say about his childhood at all, in fact. Even Mattew and Luke, the two gospel writers that mention this virgin conception, never bring it up again when Jesus grows up. Which is kind of weird. You’d think that would be a really big deal, like something you’d put in your social media profiles, like the one person who didn’t half way start out as sperm. That would be special, a thing worth mentioning.
Here’s why I think this is worth noticing. If you have a hard time believing in a virgin conception of Jesus, that’s fine. Most of the New Testament doesn’t believe in it or if it does, it doesn’t care. If the Bible has different things to say on something, that sometimes helps us know it’s not central, or it’s OK to disagree on it, as Christians do. You can keep growing and evolving in your faith, keep becoming a Christian, as I’m saying in this series, regardless of what you think about this line in the creed and these two stories in Matthew and Luke.
Lots of people read this creed and wonder at a literal miracle they see in these words, but lots also read this creed and think the whole “virgin Mary” line is saying something different… which we’ll get to in a second. But the point is that there is room for difference of opinion in this faith. It’s an old and deep and wide faith. Just as there is room for difference of opinion in this church.
I get it, but still I hate it, when people leave the faith, or even when they leave their church, because they’re like well, there’s this thing the Bible says, or there’s this thing my pastor said, that I don’t agree with. I mean, I’m the pastor of my own church, and I’ve said things before that I don’t agree with anymore. That’s OK.
Now I’m not talking about when a community persistently says or does things that make you unsafe or unwelcome; that’s different, and sometimes there are reasons to leave communities where you can not flourish. By all means. But this faith, it’s old and big and wide, and whatever reservations or questions or beliefs you hold today, there is likely room for you.
Second, the literal reading of this part of Jesus’ back story just might miss the most important thing the gospel writers are saying. Sometimes the writers of the Bible write historical facts, best as they know them. But sometimes they’re doing something we might call theopoetics – God-poetry, saying things in poetry and symbol and metaphor that are too rich and deep to capture literally.
In this case, Matthew and Luke are both telling infant back stories about Jesus to try to establish from the start just how important and special he is. Matthew – to a Jewish audience – is saying Jesus is like the Great King David, Part II, but even better. He gets there by quoting a line from the Old Testament’s chronicles of kings about a great leader born to a young woman, but by the writing of the gospels, that word young woman had been translated – mis-translated really – as virgin. And Luke – to a Gentile or non-Jewish audience – is saying Jesus is the real version of what Rome claims Caesar, the Emperor is – our hope for peace, the savior of the world, our good and trustworthy leader given by God.
Turns out that virgin conception stories were part of how ancient writers told stories about people they wanted to say were really important. When Romans talked about the founders of their civilizations or their great emperors, they called them children of the gods; sometimes there were stories of miraculous conceptions to virgins. It was a common ancient way of telling the origin story of a larger than life, really important person.
Literal or not, Matthew and Luke were both saying – in the language of their times and culture – that Jesus was this kind of person and more: heroic, important, significant, world-shaping, someone worth listening to, emulating, and following. Whether or not you believe in a literal virgin conception, that’s the real point of these stories.
And three, my final argument for not taking this part of Jesus’ origin story literally is that having a faith that jives with science doesn’t make for a less powerful, but a more powerful, faith!
Here’s what I mean:
If God breaks the universe’s laws of science now and then to get God’s will done, that sounds really encouraging, doesn’t it? God can do anything – suspend gravity, stop the earth from rotating, prolong life way beyond the normal limits of cellular biology, make a human from only one set of chromosomes. That sounds really exciting, like it opens up a world of miraculous possibilities for God, and maybe for us too.
Here’s the thing, though. If God can and does break the universe’s metaphysical principles now and then to get stuff done, it raises a lot of thorny questions, like: why doesn’t God do this more often? You know, halt earthquakes and tidal waves mid-disaster, break into human psyches and get them to stop doing whatever evil thing they were about to do, spontaneously grow food in famished nations? A God who unilaterally can break the laws of nature whenever God wants could be a lot more useful to us than God is.
Also, if Jesus was conceived unlike every other human who ever lived, then it puts a bit of a strain on the notion that he was a human like us, in every way, except without sinning. Some of the early church fathers kind of liked the idea of the virgin conception because they thought pretty much all sex was inherently shameful and sinful. So a Jesus conceived without any sex involved was another mark in his favor, another sign that he was not just human, but a sinless incarnation of God in the flesh.
But there are ways of believing Jesus fully incarnates God, that Jesus fully represents God to creation, without hating on human sexuality and without tossing science aside.
In a way, a God who is all-present and always working by the Spirit, and who moves forward God’s purposes without randomly intervening against what we know of science is a more powerful, not a less powerful, God, and one that’s easier for us to believe in as well. A faith that jives with science is more often than not a better thing for us all, not a worse thing.
Alright, I expect I’ve opened up as many questions as I’ve answered today. As you may have guessed, I’m kind of inclined toward the non-literal reading of this part of the creed and the two short passages from Matthew and Luke. It helps me make more sense of the rest of the New Testament. It helps me focus in on the important part of Jesus’ back story, not an anti-sex or freak of nature narrative, but one of a human and a leader and a savior unlike any other pretenders. And it helps me love and trust the God revealed in Jesus Christ, a human like us, but one who helps us see and know a beautiful, living, life-giving God who works within and through the laws of God’s universe, not through very occasionally breaking those laws.
Regardless, though, I hold my inclinations humbly, like a good Reservoir member, with humility being one of our core values. And whatever your convictions or doubts are about the origin story of Jesus or anything else, I encourage you to hold that humbly as well.
Either way, though, this line in the creed, and the stories from which it comes invite us to take Jesus seriously, as a unique and important human leader who in powerful, unique ways lived in perfect partnership with God. And it invites us to pay attention to Jesus’ human mother Mary, who herself willingly co-created Jesus, and who lives by and invests herself in the hope that God is with us, that her baby Jesus is great, Son of the Most High, full of the Holy Spirit. We’re invited to pay attention to the what Jesus and Jesus’ mother Mary live by and invest themselves in, that there is a growing rule of God, a growing kin-dom, a growing beloved community of Jesus, in which we’ll all find our justice, our healing, our belovedness, and our peace, of which there will be no end.
That’s where Jesus’ back story leads us to, not mainly to focus on the spectacle of how Jesus is different from us, but to invite us into hope and faith that God is with us, and that Jesus’ story of God’s beloved community can and will become our story too.