A Reminder of Some Things that Matter

Creeds are more than a formal or intellectual statement. The early Christian creeds serve a helpful purpose, even for the church today. Still, many of us remain suspicious and I suspect many of us haven’t even read one of the creeds. With the caveat that creeds do not contain the same authority of Scripture, here are some reasons for rethinking use of the creeds;

  • Creeds remind us we aren’t the first to believe these things. We are connected to others throughout history and belong to a bigger story than we can imagine.
  • Creeds remind us there are some things we should be informed about and offer us a clear summary of important parts of the faith.
  • Creeds remind us there are certain things we hold to; the church is not permitted to run off in any direction it chooses.
  • Creeds remind us we are connected to one another by common beliefs. Churches may have minor differences, but we share certain central claims. The creeds promote unity.


The Nicene Creed

We believe in one God the Father, the Almighty, creator of heaven and earth, and of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one being with the Father. Through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven; by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made truly human. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father [and the Son]. With the Father and the Son he is worshipped and glorified. He has spoken through the Prophets.

We believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen

Thank You Anne Frank

“Writing in a diary is a really strange experience for someone like me. Not only because I’ve never written anything before, but also because it seems to me that later on neither I nor anyone else will be interested in the musings of a thirteen-year old school girl. Oh well, it doesn’t matter. I feel like writing.”

Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl

History Matters

Christmas is coming. Advent begins in just eighteen days. We are entering the season and Luke 1 is a good text to help us prepare. Perhaps any reading of Luke at all should pay attention to 1.1-4. It certainly helps us to understand the reason for details we find later. Luke tells us that many have told the story before. Servants of the word, ministers of the gospel, and other eyewitnesses have told the story of Jesus. Yet, Luke wants to tell it again. Luke wants to investigate details carefully. Luke wants us to understand what we’ve been told.

Immediately, Luke starts in with the details. In 1.5-7 things feel so historical, just the way Luke wants it. We discover right away the name of the king of Judea. We learn the name of one of the priests and the priestly division he belonged to. We learn the name of his wife and something about her family tree. We are told that they were of good character “righteous and obedient and blameless.” We are told they are old. And we are told the woman, Elizabeth, was barren.

That is a lot of historical information in only three verses. Perhaps we should state the obvious. No one comes to church to find out the name of a first century king, the name of a first century priest, or the birthing status of a first century woman. Yet, Luke tells these details because they belong to a story so important, they must be told.

We may not go to church to learn history, but Luke is on to something. If our faith is not rooted in history, our faith is broken and we should find something more credible to hang our hat on. That God acted in history gives us faith that God is acting in the present and will act in the future.

So, we listen to historical details in the text. We listen because Luke wants us to listen but also that we might feel it in our bones. God works in real places and among real people. There is good news to be found here and we do go to church in order to hear good news. This story and its details prepare us for a birth that will be announced in the next chapter as “good tidings of great joy” or “good news that will bring great joy.” That is to say, Luke is preparing us for gospel.

A Lingering Hope

The Philistines came from a strong military tradition. Their armies included disciplined soldiers, superior weapons, and chariots. The tribal confederacy of Israel was vulnerable to the Philistines. Her armies were ill trained and ill equipped. Not only that but the Ark had been captured and the priests responsible for it had been killed. It was not long before the Philistines began to occupy the land.

The time was right for another to be raised up by God to stand in succession to the judges. Samuel is not one of the judges but more like a holy man who travels to important shrines in order to decide local cases. W. F. Albright considers Samuel the founder of the prophetic movement. Whatever we choose to say about him, he carries on the tradition of one who is raised up by God.

His arrival on the scene occurs when many in Israel believed their situation was hopeless. He arrives at a time when many were calling for stronger leadership, primarily someone who could defeat the Philistines. His role caused him to play a primary part in the transition of leadership. While not a unanimous decision, Samuel anointed Saul to be king of Israel.

The initial selection of Saul as king was likely related to the spirit filled gifts of leadership he demonstrated as the judges did before him (I Samuel 11). Each one a kind of charismatic hero. It is unlikely anyone would have followed Saul if this were not true. Still, Samuel was suspicious about the new king. John Bright even suggests Samuel may have anointed Saul commander instead of king. Nevertheless, the people thought of Saul as king. Saul therefore carried on the function of the judges before him, he rallied the people against the enemy (primarily the Philistines). His popularity brought new hope into the land.

Not all things were positive with Saul. Despite minor successes, he was not able to defeat the Philistines. Saul also struggled with his own emotional stability. These things, along with Samuel’s mistrust of Saul led Samuel to eventually revoke Saul’s kingship in public.

From the beginning until Samuel, God has been king in Israel. God ruled Israel by raising up spirit filled leaders, charismatic heroes, to intervene at strategic moments. But from the time of Saul to the end of the Old Testament , Israel’s story includes a human king. This conflicts with Gideon’s statement that Yahweh was King. Bright says this is the beginning of Yahweh as King becoming a memory in Israel. Yet, there lingered the hope that Yahweh will rule Israel again one day.

Under the Rule of God

When Joshua gathered the tribes, he included them in a story starting with the call of Abraham, making its way through slavery in Egypt, and bringing them to the promised land. Joshua then challenged the people to choose whether they will serve Yahweh or some other god. His choice was already made. The people responded likewise, Israel would serve God alone. Joshua 24 appears to be a ceremony of mass conversion. Whatever importance we give this, here we have a report of new people giving their allegiance to Yahweh.

This brings us to the period known as the “Days when the judges ruled.” A day that “There was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” At this time Israel was a loose confederation of clans, surrounded by enemies, without a central government. Yet, in times of danger a hero would arise, someone filled with the spirit of Yahweh (Judges 3.10; 14.6) called a judge. The judge would rally the clans in order to oppose the foe. It is surprising Israel was able to stay together without a central government. It wasn’t easy; sometimes they even warred against one another (Judges 12.1-6).

While it may be surprising Israel was able to survive as a tribal system for so long, the text suggests  that what happened in Joshua 24 contributed to their survival. On account of what happened there they were a people of Yahweh. Yahweh was never an idea or a philosophy to live by. Israel was alive only because of the God who had rescued her from slavery. Yahweh was no maintainer of status quo, but a God who called people into a new future. Israel’s earliest literature highlights a God who has no rival. Yahweh is creator of all things without need for assistance.

It is interesting that pagan gods were part of nature religions. These gods were heavenly bodies or forces of nature and often reflected rhythms of nature. Yahweh in contrast, is not bound by natural forces. Instead, Yahweh is powerful over them and is not associated with repeatable events of nature but unrepeatable historical events. Yahweh commands the powers of nature – plagues, sea water, wind, earthquake, and storm are all under His control. Israel would have perished in the desert if it weren’t for the repeated saving action of Yahweh.

John Bright is surely correct when he states this period is “One of theological irregularity.” We do not know much about any of these judges. Although it was difficult to persuade Israel to act as one, each of them was able to rally the clans during dangerous times. The text suggests they were raised up with God’s spirit upon them to save Israel from her enemies. At times, the idea of a central government with a king was considered. Gideon seems to speak for the people when he states in Judges 8.23 “I will not rule over you, nor will my son rule over you. The Lord will rule over you.” The people of God would live under the rule of God.

Choosing a Side of History

In recent years we have heard an increased use of the phrase (especially by politicians) “wrong side of history.” Whenever I hear it, I cannot help but try to figure out what the speaker intends when it is spoken. Is it supposed to be a statement of hope? Perhaps a statement of confidence that one’s plans will come to pass? Sometimes it sounds like a plea for better behavior or more likely a plea to be in agreement with the speaker about behavior. Other times it sounds overconfident. As if the speaker is convinced that they will be able to steer history in a direction of their choosing. Sometimes it just sounds like the speaker is insulting the listener for not agreeing with the speaker.

We can’t fault the politicians. We all like to project what the future might look like. Perhaps that is part of the fascination with something like Star Wars. I even have predictions of my own. Does anyone else think that fast food and soda pop will become illegal or at least heavily taxed. I do not think debates about things like education, pollution, and taxes are going to be resolved in our lifetime. I am certain that we will continue to struggle to balance things like diet, exercise, work and recreation. I am certain that our inability to do these things will cause anxiety to rise higher and higher. I fear terrorism will be as real in the future as it is today. On a different note, does anyone else think it strange that the future will bring an onslaught of grandmothers named Brittany, Allison, and Lexy? For comparison sake, my grandmothers are Olive and Myrtle.

The fact is we could project many things but we do ourselves a disservice if we pretend to know how history will flow. We are not the captains on that ship. It is our fortune that the biblical text considers the future. We typically talk about this as eschatology. Regardless of what earthly powers are making decisions or who claims to be right about the course of history, the bible contributes to this conversation.

The fact is, if we choose to accept the bible as a reliable voice, we know there is something more important than knowing what future events may come. It is more important that we have confidence in the one we choose to follow and serve. If we accept the bible as reliable, it does not matter who is in the majority or who claims to have executive power. The bible insists that Jesus is King.

Connected to the Cross

When we talk about the cross of Jesus, we are talking about history’s most famous execution. The historian Tacitus tells us “Christus… suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate.”  At the same time, the cross is a reminder that God was serious about His relationship with people and willing to go to extravagant measures to get His people back.  This presents us with a paradox.  On the one hand, we have a first century means of shameful, violent criminal execution.  On the other, we have a symbol of God’s extravagant sacrifice for us.  In our discussion about the cross we cannot overlook that it is a violent story.  We cannot overlook that it is a love story.  It is scandalous and glorious.  The cross is a shocking part of our story.  Still, we believe that the cross makes a difference.  Here and now.

Yet, the cross cannot be separated from the first century socio-politico-religious scene.  Politics and religion were mixed and ideas of a Messiah were viewed as threatening to the status quo.  That is to say, the teaching of Jesus threatened the rulers of the day.  This becomes important because the ministry of Jesus, including his death on a cross, must make sense in its historical context.  There is danger in removing the cross from the Jesus story.  If we can disconnect the cross from the rest of the Jesus story, we can easily disconnect it from our own story as well.  The fact is, we keep trying to convince ourselves that our stories are something of our own design, but the bible keeps bringing God into them.  That is what is happening when Jesus is executed.  People are acting as if they are in control, then one Friday afternoon Jesus shows up on a cross and everything changes.

The Gospels would have us believe that the cross, along with the birth, ministry, and resurrection of Jesus, is the pivot point of history.  You and I are participants in a great story of cosmic implications.  Who expected a first century execution to have this kind of impact?  Who expected so much to happen on a Friday afternoon?

Some things are obvious.  The scene is called the place of the skull.  Priests are mocking and soldiers were dividing the clothes of one being executed.  Two revolutionaries were being put to death.  So was Jesus of Nazareth, crucified for being King of the Jews.  This is not the kind of place one expects to find God.  Yet, that is exactly what the Gospels tell us is happening here.  Civilians and authorities are caught by surprise and recognize that more is taking place than any of them expected.

It is easy to picture your hometown, your alma mater, or your grandmother’s house as part of your story.  It is more difficult to picture the cross as part of your story.  Yet, that is what the Gospels insist on.  We take a relational view of the cross.  How would we interact with one another without the cross?  How would we interact with enemies?  What would we think about God?  Yet, God shows up on a cross and everything changes.  Our relationship with God changes.  Our relationship with one another changes.  Our relationship with outsiders changes.  Because of what happened on the cross we can be loving, giving, and forgiving.  When viewed in a relational way, we realize that the cross will continue to threaten the status quo.  Following one who was executed by the state may put you at risk.

The cross is a reminder that the world is not ok as it is.  That is why God will go to such great lengths to save us.  This is important, for without the cross our message is no different from other messages out there.  A serious view of the cross will shape our behavior in ways that are different than the ways others conduct business and spread their message.  There is no Christianity without the cross.  We are forever connected to what happened there.  It is a pivot point in our history.  The world changed on a Friday afternoon at a place known as the skull.  Whatever we may think about the cross, we cannot deny the way it is connected to our own story.  We cannot separate ourselves or deny the implications it has for us.  We cannot pretend that we are simply onlookers – we are participants.

A Look at the Cross reminds us that we are part of a larger story than we ever imagined.  This is a story of cosmic implications.

Pastor of Prayer Susan Vigliano adds the following prayer to the above meditation “Lord, I invite you to challenge my status quo with the Cross of Christ this first week of Lent.  There are places in my heart and life that I wish to apply the power of the Cross more fully.  Please search me and test me to show me the places of brokenness, pain, and unforgiveness that need your touch.  In this season of Lent I want to know and experience the meaning of your Cross in my life in deeper ways.”

A Theological-Historical Rummage Sale

Phyllis Tickle attempts to order the narrative of history in a helpful way.  Whether one finds agreement with her or not, it is likely that she will stimulate your thinking and provide some entertaining commentary.

A grandmotherly type, she strikes me as an intellectual Betty White for the church.  She orders history in a way that suggests a fascinating pattern of upheaval that influences how church and world interact with one another.  Tickle is an observer, a seer, or chronicler who suggests that we now find ourselves in yet another transitional time.

Tickle suggests that approximately every five hundred years a drastic shift occurs that prompts the church to hold a rummage sale in order to discard what they no longer need and move forward with what appears essential.  She points to the fall of the Roman Empire and how church and state became simultaneous in Western Europe.  And then, the church suffered a split between East and West resulting in a mutual excommunication.  Nearly five hundred years later came the nailing of the ninety-five theses on the Wittenberg Church sparking reformation and enlightenment.  Now, we find ourselves in another shift.  This one has resulted in what some have been calling postmodernity and the primary response from the church may be what is coming to be known as Emergent Christianity.

She suggests that the brand of Christianity we are familiar with was strongly influenced by things that emerged following the last great transition.  (And strongly influenced by who we consider to be the enemy).  Things like the nation-state, the birth of capitalism, the middle class.  She claims that as these things become less prominent, the role of Christianity will also change.  Christianity may be living its faith out on the margins of society.  If this does occur, the time will come when we will be forced to be honest about what we believe.  And Protestantism will have to learn to adjust as Catholicism has before.

For Tickle, the coming rummage sale includes a change in our thinking.  For instance, she thinks we will be rethinking things like universalism.  What will our understanding of Christian particularity look like?  The doctrine of atonement, she did not specify how this might change but I suspect that she does not like the picture of a God who sends His son to die.  A closed canon, will we develop a “midrash?”  She distinguishes between a text that is “actual” vs. one that is “factual.”  She also thinks we have lost our definition of what it is to be human.  What is the Imago Dei?

I consider myself to be at ease with change on many fronts.  For instance, it is easy to believe that things like transportation and dwellings and entertainment will change again and again.  I find it easy to believe that forms of government, even nations are temporary.  I think places of worship and worship styles will continue to morph into various reflections of society.  I am willing to rethink matters of theological concern.  But, I struggle with a faith that changes the way it thinks on big picture items just because society makes changes.  If we are willing to discard matters that we consider to be of importance, are they important at all?

Whether or not we agree with Tickle, most of us are likely to recognize that things are changing.  Even if we do not know what change may look like years from now, we can acknowledge that it will look different than it does now.  Paradigms are shifting.  The world as we know it seems to be coming apart at the seams.  It is time to acknowledge that we are not in control.  I believe in a Sovereign Lord – and I am not willing to discard that notion.