DRAMA AND DOGMA
A Sermon for Year C, Easter-3
By Nathan L. Bostian
A Sermon for Year C, Easter-3
By Nathan L. Bostian
Let us pray: Come Lord Jesus: Fill us with your Spirit, and drive far from this place anything that would distract us from you. Let your Word transform our mind, reform our heart, and conform our will: That we may know you more clearly, and love you more dearly, and follow you more nearly, now and forever. Amen+
I have to admit it: I love the 80's. One of the reasons why my wife and I got rid of cable TV, is because we wasted literally whole days of our lives watching the various VH-1 renditions of "I love the 80's" and mockumentaries of hair bands and all-time worst rap songs.
I am a child of the 80's, and in many ways I will always be stuck in the era of Reaganomics, female shoulder pads, Tom Cruise bomber jackets, acid washed jeans, and t-shirts for "The Cure". Sometimes I still listen to Synth Rock, Punk Rock, Hair Bands, and rap songs performed by guys who wore enormous clocks around their necks.
And, its not just me. It seems that everyone I know has a fascination with some era in history, whether it is the one they grew up in, or an era much earlier than that.
And that leads me to a question: Why do we have such a love-hate relationship with history? Because it seems like culture is schizophrenic on this subject (and a hundred others!)
On one hand, our culture makes money hand-over-fist by playing on our nostalgia. We dedicate whole channels to it (the History Channel: All Nazis, all the time!). We make movies about it all the time, whether tales of fallen dictators, stories about sinking ships, or tragedies about greased-down Greek warriors. And every five years you can be assured that some type of retro fashion trend will be dug out of the closet, and make everything old, new again.
Yet, as much as we love nostalgia, we usually hate history. Very few of us have any interest in knowing it, and even fewer of us think we can learn from it. Most of us suffer from a self-imposed blindness that CS Lewis calls "chronological snobbery". It is the false belief that just because we have computers, flush toilets, and other technological advances over past ages, we are also more advanced than they are socially, morally, and spiritually.
We are sure that if THEY had the level of technology WE have, all they would do would be wage endless wars on each other, with staggering death tolls, all while technologically rich countries systematically oppress poorer countries. Wait a minute…
Anyway… There is no greater evidence of chronological snobbery than among those who believe that the classical Christian faith- especially as expressed in our Creed- that this faith is hopelessly outdated, and needs a new image. They want to do the theological equivalent of "pimp my ride".
A great example of this is found in an interesting book I was recently given called "Creating Uncommon Worship". On one hand, it is filled with many interesting ways to make our style of liturgical worship more rich and impacting. On the other hand, it is also filled with a revisionist attack on classical Christianity, particularly the Creed.
It's author says that the Creed causes us to turn a "somersault in an unceasing attempt to make sense of… thought forms and issues which no longer have much meaning for us." It is "an indication of the perverseness of the Church in obscuring Jesus behind a smokescreen of fourth-century philosophical jargon."
Notice the first move here. The Creed is not wrong because it is untrue, but because it is old. It is the Creed's fault for not using up-to-date language that we can understand… not OUR responsibility to try and understand what it is really saying, and ONLY THEN judge it.
Could you imagine if you required your psychology, calculus, or economics professors to speak in "thought forms and issues" that were meaningful to you, before you took notes? Would you tell the IRS to use jargon you could understand, before paying your taxes?
I think it makes sense that if we are going to really try to understand God, it might require us to stretch our brains a bit… Don't you?
Then the author pulls his second weapon: Inclusion. He says "Those Christian traditions which today insist on the Nicene Creed as the only permissible creedal formula exhibit a mind-blowing insensitivity to how far humankind has since traveled"
There you have it. Because it is old and crusty- not because it is untrue- the Creed violates our sense of inclusivity, and the triumph of our undeniable progress… undeniable as long as you don't speak to any victim of the genocides or world-wars of the last century.
To be more inclusive, the author says that the local "community of faith might take on the project of writing its own creed, giving unique expression to the life and power of God in its midst."
Let me get this straight. By creating a local creed, written by a small group of people, from one place, at one time, we are more inclusive than using a Creed that has been used for dozens of centuries, by every tribe, and tongue, and sex, and age, of people.
Yep, that's REAL inclusive.
Actually, it is the ultimate form of Ageism, because it ignores and excludes whole eras of humanity, in favor of our little clique here and now. If we want to be really inclusive, shouldn't we actually include the whole Church through all time and not just a select group of wealthy folk, educated in the western intellectual tradition?
GK Chesterton calls this the "democracy of the dead", because we allow the whole communion of saints- not just our little club of like-minded people- to guide us in our life in Christ.
The third weapon he pulls out is what I call the "enlightened sneer". He uses it when he says that those who use a Creed demonstrate "a marked lack of creativity", and that "[t]o recite parrot-fashion the Nicene Creed is no way… for grown-ups to reaffirm their faith."
Someone has said that a picture is worth a thousand words. If that is true, a sneer is worth a thousand pictures. With one facial contortion, without any argument at all, the argument gets decided.
[SNEERING] "Oh, you couldn't possibly believe that old-fashioned idea, could you?"
With one roll of the eyes, the opposition is silenced…
[SNEERING, EYE ROLLING] "Oh, not that tired stuff again."
The sneer is the perfect tactic for the person who feels like rejecting something, but cannot come up with any valid reason why. Just gather a group of people who look like you, and think like you, and by using the sneer you can reject ANYONE and ANYTHING as utterly irrelevant… Without EVER actually justifying it!
Just say they are not "creative", or they are just "parrots", or they are not "adult". And if that doesn’t work, simply flash that ever-so-knowing look to your friends that signifies that "we KNOW we are SO much smarter than these peasants".
But notice, the author here has proved nothing, other than His own taste. He has not demonstrated whether the Creed was right or wrong, true or false. He has simply shown that His enlightened community does not LIKE it.
The closest he comes to any factual statement about the Creed is to note that it was "not handed down to us from God on tablets of stone", but was a product of fierce debate, fighting, and historical development. But this does not make the Creed untrue, because EVERY field of knowledge, from Scripture to Science, comes to us through fierce debate, fighting, and historical development.
He also repeats the myth that the Creed- and classical Christianity- came about because it had all of the power on its side. In actual reality, Saint Athanasius, the greatest proponent of the Creed and the faith it proclaimed, was EXILED at least five times because He would not stop teaching it.
This is because the Creedal faith proclaims a Reality that threatens human power:
It starts by proclaiming that God is a Trinity. God is three Persons in one unified Being, three Subjects in one Object, three Personalities in one Reality.
God is Triune because God is Love. The inner-reality of God is Love, shared between the Father, Son, and Spirit for all eternity… and our creation and salvation, are entirely from the overflow of this Love.
The next thing the Creed proclaims- which flows logically from the Reality of the Trinity- is that this God became uniquely and fully present, in space and time, in the Person of Jesus of Nazareth. In Jesus the unknown God becomes knowable, and the untouchable God is touched.
This is why the Creed says that Jesus is "God from God", and the same "Being" as the Father. It means He is fully part of the Reality that is God, and there was never a time when He wasn't God.
This is also why it says that Jesus is "light from light". The metaphor here is fire. Fire is three aspects of one reality: The Source, the Light, and the Heat. These three aspects are different, but can never exist apart from each other. The Father is the Source, Jesus is the Light, and the Holy Spirit is the heat.
And this is why the Creed says that Jesus is "begotten" of the Father, and not "made". The analogy here is that humans MAKE things that are not human- like computers, cars, and furniture. But humans can only BEGAT- or cause the birth of- other humans. Jesus comes forth from the Father, but not as something made by the Father. Instead, the Creator can only begat someone that is the same as the Creator. Jesus is one with this Creator, not just His creation.
Now, for the first three centuries of this faith, the Church was persecuted from outside by the Roman State, and from the inside from pseudo-Christian groups who wanted to create a easier-to-control, more "culturally-relevant", faith.
And once Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire, it did not mean that the rich, complex Trinitarian faith won. In fact, most Roman emperors, for a century after Christianity became accepted, saw that a fully Divine Christ was a threat to their power.
If the Church proclaimed a Jesus who was fully God, then that meant that Christ was more important than the Empire, and even more important than the Emperor. With a fully divine Christ, if the choice was "follow the Emperor" or "follow Christ", the choice was clear.
But, if the Church proclaimed a simple, unitary God, and a Christ who was just a really good guy- and not the God-man- then the Emperor had a place to stand. The Emperor is God's man on earth, just like Jesus was. And, if Christ is not God, the Emperor's rules RULE. This is why 1700 years later Hitler supported a state religion which said Jesus was not God. It made his "final solution" possible.
So, for that century most Emperors condemned and exiled Church leaders who supported the Creed and the God-man it proclaimed. They wanted power, and they needed a tame Jesus to get it.
Yet, despite persecution, the Creed and the faith it represents won out. Not because those who supported it were more powerful, but because it more accurately reflected the Reality of God in Christ.
Now, I am not saying the Creed is perfect, nor that it is easy to understand. I am simply saying it is true, and it safeguards realities that are essential to knowing who God is, and who we are.
Perhaps the best objection I have heard about the Creed is this: In Scripture, when we read the Drama of Christ's life, death, and resurrection, we find something vibrant, passionate, and powerful. He appears personally. He impacts lives. He changes the world.
When we see the Drama of Heaven found in our reading from Revelation, we encounter something dynamic, fiery, and alive. How does this Drama relate to the cold, objective, complex Dogma we find in our Creed? Doesn’t this Creed somehow flatten our Faith and make it something LESS alive than the Jesus we worship?
But, the Dogma of the Creed relates to the Drama of Jesus in the same way that skydiving classes relate to the actual experience of skydiving.
Now, you might be able to strap on a parachute, jump out of a plane, and land safely, without ever even reading the instructions or being instructed. You might… But would you really want to bet on it?
Would you complain that the instructor used too much jargon… or that what they described was not relevant to your experience?
No. You would get instructed. It would probably be slightly boring, and it would seem a little irrelevant. But it would make your actual experience of skydiving much more enjoyable, and it might just save your life.
Now, the Creed is a bit like a checklist before skydiving. It is a list of the essential things you need to remember on your journey with God. It was developed by three centuries of people who suffered and died for the Christ it preaches, and it has been re-affirmed by 17 centuries of people who suffered and lived for the God it proclaims.
It is the result of the Church wrestling with the fact that there is one God, but that somehow this God is known in Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and the Father. It comes from the deep realization that ONLY God can save us and bring us to Godself, and that Jesus is the ONE who does this. It stems from the understanding that we simply cannot find God on our own, but that God has found us in Jesus.
There is one thing I concur with the author on. He says our affirmation of faith "has to be something we are proud to say, not an embarrassment." We should be able to "[a]ffirm our faith in God and in the risen Lord Christ without having to cross our fingers behind our backs."
I agree. Let us declare our common belief in the Reality of the Triune God, who has been made known to us in Jesus Christ. Let us affirm our faith loudly and proudly with the whole Church, in every place, through all time. And let us remember that this is just a checklist to help us dive deep into the life of God, and not a substitute for the Drama of loving Christ passionately, with our whole heart. Amen+
And now join me in affirming this faith along with God's people around the world, and all of the prophets, saints, apostles, and martyrs who have gone before us, by praying together the words of our Creed found on page 358.