Apostles’ Creed 2
We continue our perusal of the phrases in the Apostles Creed that could use some clearing up. The ones that you say but are not too sure about. Or maybe the ones that you skip while reciting the creed because you can’t say you agree. Or maybe the ones you have never even thought about challenging at all. Check out the brief notes in your bulletin in case you missed last week’s introduction to the creed. Then there is space inside and on the back for you to note what is important for you to ponder today– a question which arises, a thought you resonate with or a thought you can’t agree with at all.
The version of the creed printed on your bulletin is the ecumenical version. Some of the vocabulary is a little different to reflect more contemporary ways of speaking. Let’s slowly read this version of the creed from the beginning up to our phrase for today: conceived by the Holy Spirit.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, conceived by the Holy Spirit. By the time we get to the mystical part, we have already claimed belief in Jesus who is the Christ, the Greek word for the Hebrew Messiah, Jesus who is the only Son of God, and Jesus who is our Lord. That is already a fairly detailed description of this guy who fulfills the hopes of the Old Testament prophets waiting for a Messiah. He is blood relative with God– and if that is the case, being conceived by the Holy Spirit makes sense. And, like the relationship between a human lord and his servant, we agree to obey him, to submit to his way of doing things, to strive to please him in any way that we can. So how crucial is this sticky phrase, conceived by the Holy Spirit? What would really be missing if it was not a part of the creed? You might take a moment to jot down in your bulletin— either I can’t imagine the creed without this phrase, or I would be comfortable if it were not even there. Or any other thought you have…
Well, the basic question this section of the creed is attempting to answer is this: Is Jesus God or not? How do we reconcile his humanity and his divinity? You can’t really be partly human, can you? Any of God’s created creatures must be either human or not human. Unless you go for the mythical centaurs who were half man and half horse! And by the same token, how can you be a little bit divine? Divinity, or “God-ness” has to be 100% or he or she would not be God. God is not God’s creature in any sense. God is not human. We are created by God, we are in the image of God, sometimes we actually try to step into God’s shoes, but we don’t have to make it through very many minutes of the day to confirm that we indeed are NOT God.
So how is the flesh and blood man named Jesus — a name that means he saves, by the way– how is he God? It has been a long, long debate because it is so hard to wrap our heads around. The creed seeks to define belief in the face of at least two different streams of thought– those who were sure Jesus was not human at all, and those who were sure that Jesus was only human.
The second century saw the rise of Gnosticism, which taught that Jesus really never was human at all, but God. Many gnostics believed that only a select few had received salvation, those who were spiritually superior. The spiritual knowledge, or gnosis, was begun by the first apostles, and handed out to some people. They looked down on the evil world they were living in, as if they were already in heaven somehow! So Jesus could not have actually been flesh and blood like the rest of us. 2nd Century theologians rightly balked at these ideas. If Jesus was not human, how could we ever believe that his death had any substitutionary, atoning benefit for us? If he was only God, then his death was not real either, and maybe there is really no need for a resurrection if his God-ness is supreme. So what are you left with? A religion with a lot of holes in it.
And then, on the other hand, in the history of the Christian church, some have posed the opposite… what if Jesus was only human and never God? He is called God’s Son, but you could argue that we are all sons and daughters of God. What makes Jesus any different? Paul clearly identifies all who believe in Christ as children of God through faith, identifying us as Abraham’s offspring, part of the family, heirs to the inheritance of eternal life offered by God through Christ. We are adopted children, but no less a part of the family. We too have the breath of the Holy Spirit blowing through us from our baptism forward. So maybe he is a child of God just like you and I. Maybe God used him to accomplish many good things during his ministry on earth in the same way that God uses you to accomplish many good things during your earthly journey.
Christian leaders and theologians who followed the teachings of Arius in the later 3rd century and early 4th century espoused the idea that Jesus was a created being, and therefore not God. The debates were fierce and religious and political leaders took the issue very seriously. Listen to an edict by Emperor Constantine: “….if any writing composed by Arius should be found, it should be handed over to the flames, so that not only will the wickedness of his teaching be obliterated, but nothing will be left even to remind anyone of him. And I hereby make a public order, that if someone should be discovered to have hidden a writing composed by Arius, and not to have immediately brought it forward and destroyed it by fire, his penalty shall be death. As soon as he is discovered in this offence, he shall be submitted for capital punishment. … ”
Yikes! As we mentioned last week, the Trinitarians won this battle, meaning the belief that Jesus is God and the Holy Spirit is God has been the mainstream of Christian thinking and core belief for at least 1200 years. When new members join our church, we ask them: Do you believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord ? Do you acknowledge Jesus Christ as your Savior, and do you intend to be his disciple, to obey his word and show his love?
The shapers of the creed understood that it was crucial for both the divinity and the humanity of Jesus Christ to be asserted in order to combat the wave of gnostic ideas as well as the seeping arian controversy which soaked through Christendom. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary. God and human. Both are crucial in this creed. Are both crucial to you?
Jesus is the Son of God. Not an adopted son. The only son who can trace his origin to God alone. Mary knew it. Elizabeth knew it—remember that the baby in her womb recognized the presence of the baby in Mary’s womb when she came to visit? Maybe the first and last in utero worship? Luke tells us that the Holy Spirit will come upon Mary, someone with very little social power, someone unsuspecting of this important role as carrier of the Messiah. The power of the Most High will overshadow Mary and she will bear a son to be the Son of God. We say it so matter of factly when we recite the creed! And it is anything but matter of fact!
Jesus Christ is God’s only Son, conceived by the Holy Spirit. This is God with skin on. He is the only one initiated by the Holy Spirit from the inception of his life, and the way John tells it, from the beginning of time. If you pick a point in his life- at baptism, or at transfiguration, or at resurrection–when you say, “ah ha, here is where the Holy Spirit came upon him and he became God”, then you are saying there was a time when he was not God, and he must have been adopted like the rest of us. The earthly Jesus never was not God.
God is at the origin, the genesis, the inception of God’s existence in the form of a human. The Holy Spirit, the Mighty God are springing forth in a human form, providing an unheard of leap from divinity into humanity, and an unmistakable connection between humanity and divinity. Conceived by the Holy Spirit is the way for him to be 100% divine, and born of the Virgin Mary is the way for him to be 100% human. God is the initiator, the instigator, the creator, the conceiver of God with skin on. If not, then what does the rest matter? Can you believe in the resurrection, that God lifted Jesus out of the grave and not believe he is God? Can you believe he is God but not conceived by the Holy Spirit?
So what do you believe? Let’s say it again, reading the entire creed. amen.