Matthew 16:13-17; John 1:1-14
by Interim Pastor Doug Marshall
Thought for Meditation:
September 11 has changed me. I'm going to preach as never before about Christ crucified as the answer to the question of what's wrong with the world. I have also resolved to relentlessly reiterate from the pulpit that the worst day in history was not a Tuesday in New York, but a Friday in Jerusalem when a consortium of clergy and politicians colluded to run the world on our own terms by crucifying God's own Son. Will Willimon
Nicene Creed: Who Is Jesus?
Today we are starting a sermon series on the Confessions of the Presbyterian Church (USA). As Presbyterians, we have twelve different confessions, statements of faith, that describe what we believe. Two of them are from the early church. Six of them are from the time of the Reformation and four are contemporary.
We have nine banners in our sanctuary, one for each of our confessions. I know that doesn’t add up. One of the confessions, Belhar, was just approved and adopted this summer, so there isn’t a banner for it yet. Three of the confessions were written at the same time and are related to each other – The Westminster Confession and Catechisms. That leaves nine banners and ten confessions.
Each Sunday for the next ten weeks we are going to look at a different confession and its banner. Today we are starting with the first confession – The Nicene Creed. Let me give you a little bit of the historical background about the creed. Then I’ll explain the banner and show where this creed connects with our life today.
In the New Testament we hear the story of Jesus and the early church. After the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, the Apostles spread the good news and led the church. Since they had been with Jesus during his life and ministry, and had seen him after the resurrection, they were the ultimate authority on Jesus.
By 100 AD all the Apostles had died and people began to have different ideas about who Jesus was and what he did. Some of them were accurate and some were distortions of the Good News. That led to a number of conflicts and arguments. If you think church fights in our day are ugly you should read about how early Christians fought with each other!
In 306 AD Constantine became emperor of the Roman Empire. In the process of trying to unite his empire, and gain control of it, he recognized that it would help to have a common religion, a faith that everyone believed. There is some question as to whether or not Constantine actually became a Christian, but he declared Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire. This was the beginning of Christendom, in which the government, the culture, and the church worked together to lead society. One of the problems at that point was that the Christians didn’t agree with each other, primarily about Jesus.
In 325 AD Constantine called a meeting of church leaders, called the Council of Nicaea. Nicaea was a town in what is today Turkey. Christian leaders met there to come up with a statement of what Christians believe. It was a long and complicated process, but what we call the Nicene Creed came out of the Council of Nicaea. It was the first accepted statement of what Christians believe, and even today is the most commonly accepted statement of faith in the world.
This banner is the one that represents the Nicene Creed. The cross is the central symbol of the banner because Jesus and his death are central to our faith. When you look at the creed you will see that the paragraph about Jesus is the longest. However, notice that the cross is also a sword. The sword represents the power of the emperor. It is the connection of the church and the government.
Behind the cross is a triangle, which points to the Trinity. The doctrine of the Trinity was formally stated for the first time in the Nicene Creed. The creed has three paragraphs; we believe in God the Father, we believe in Jesus Christ, and we believe in the Holy Spirit. At the top left of the triangle is a hand reaching down. That represents God the Father. At the bottom of the triangle are the Greek letters “chi” and “rho.” Those are the first two letters of Christ. The dove is the symbol for the Holy Spirit, remembering the story of the dove coming on Jesus at his baptism. Finally, the banner is surrounded with crowns which point to the rule and glory of God.
So, we have our creed and we have our banner. What does this say for us today? Let me suggest one thought: Jesus is the center of the Christian life and faith. Everything we believe and say and do revolves around that center.
To help us think about that idea I want to read to you a portion of The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. The book is a series of 31 letters from Screwtape, who is a senior devil, to Wormwood, who is Screwtape’s nephew. Wormwood is a junior devil and Screwtape is training him. One of the things that makes this book challenging is that it is written from the perspective of Satan, who wants to keep us from believing in Jesus and draw us away from God. You have to take Screwtape’s advice and reverse it. That is how we grow closer to Christ.
In the 25th letter Screwtape says this to Wormwood.
The real trouble about the set your patient is living in is that it is merely Christian. They all have individual interests, of course, but the bond remains mere Christianity. What we want, if men become Christians at all, is to keep them in the state of mind I call ‘Christianity And’. You know – Christianity and the Crisis, Christianity and the New Psychology, Christianity and the New Order, Christianity and Faith Healing, Christianity and Psychical Research, Christianity and Vegetarianism, Christianity and Spelling Reform. If they must be Christians let them at least be Christians with a difference. Substitute for the faith itself some Fashion with a Christian colouring. Work on the horror of the Same Old Thing.
Exactly what issues Lewis was referring to isn’t clear to us, yet every era and every culture has issues that it focuses on. These issues aren’t necessarily bad, but when they become central to our faith and life we have problems. God gives us the food we need and gives us taste buds to enjoy our food. But when food becomes central to our lives we get gluttony and obesity. Sex is God’s good gift to us, but when we argue about sex and focus on what is acceptable and not acceptable to God we miss the joy of the gospel. Jesus is concerned about the social issues of our day; racism, the environment, justice and poverty, to name a few. But when those issues become the center of what it means to be faithful to Christ we end up missing what God is doing in other areas. When we allow ourselves to be defined by these peripheral issues we miss the center of the gospel, which is God’s love for us in Jesus Christ.
Unfortunately, this happens all the time. We take our eyes off Jesus and get distracted from what is really important and we miss God’s love and mercy. It is so easy to get distracted like that. A young couple got pregnant and spent 9 months preparing their nursery. They painted the room and decorated it. They bought a new crib and a changing table, and did everything to get the room ready to go for their first child. The baby was born and they brought her home. A week later Dad came home from work, put his stuff down and went in to the nursery. He stood by the crib and watched his daughter sleep. Mom poked her head in and saw Dad looking at the crib, talking to himself a little bit. “This is just amazing! I can’t believe it. What a miracle.” She walked up next to him and they stood there for several moments, reveling with him. She whispered “A penny for your thoughts.” He said, “I’m overwhelmed. This is unbelievable. I can’t figure out how they could have made this crib for only $65.”
It is so easy to turn our attention to turn our attention away from Jesus and have something else at the center. The leaders at the Council of Nicaea knew that Jesus was the center. The Nicene Creed proclaims the mystery of the incarnation – Jesus is fully God and fully human. One of the Scriptures that they would have read was our passage from John. Jesus was and is God who became flesh, a human being. In him we have life and light. In him we find our salvation.
In the passage that Sara read from Matthew Jesus gives us the question that all of us need to ask, not just one time but again and again. He starts by asking the disciples theological questions, “Who do people say that I am?” What do theologians say about Jesus? What does our culture say about Jesus? What does your pastor say about Jesus? Then he shifts and makes the question personal. “Who do YOU say that I am?”
The Nicene Creed answers the question about Jesus who Jesus is. The creed is theologically correct but not easily understood. If this were a Sunday school class I could take an hour or so to try to explain it. But since this is a sermon and I don’t want to be here for another hour, let me share with you my own answer to that question.
Jesus is God, who loves me so much that he became a human being. Through Jesus’ life and death, his resurrection and ascension, I am saved. Jesus is my Lord and my Savior. He is the one who is helping me become the person that I was created to be. Jesus is my friend who loves me like no one else. He is the one in whom I know and live in God’s grace.
Who do you say that Jesus is?
I invite you now to open your hymnal to page 15, or look at the screens, and stand as we together proclaim our faith, using the Nicene Creed.
We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, 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:
was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became truly human. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated on 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. Who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified, who 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.