“The Apostles’ Creed, A Lover’s Quarrel: In Jesus Christ”
A sermon by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt
Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean VA
June 30th, 2013
Mark 1:1, Matthew 1:18-25
Today I continue my summer sermon series, which I’m calling The Apostles’ Creed: A Lover’s Quarrel, by looking at the phrase “…and in Jesus Christ.” I started this series several weeks ago by exploring what it means to believe in something or someone rather than just believing things about them. To believe in something or someone is to place trust in them. What does it mean to trust in this one we call Jesus Christ? That’s our question for today. We’ll begin by looking at what that name means.
As we consider that question, I want to take as our texts two brief passages from the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel and the first chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. Note how the first verse of the very first chapter of Mark’s Gospel launches that account of Jesus’ life by establishing some particularity to the story. It is good news of or about a particular person, Jesus, who is Christ (the Greek word for Messiah—or anointed one) and Son of God. Listen now for this verse in Mark’s gospel:
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
Our second passage is a bit longer. It’s Matthew’s story of how Jesus came to be named Jesus. Listen for what the passage says, not about whether or how Mary was a virgin (we’ll deal with that in another sermon), but about why Jesus gets the name Jesus gets. Listen now for God’s word in Matthew’s gospel:
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us.’ When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
As we reflect today on what it means to say that we believe in—or trust—Jesus Christ, I want to begin by asking you to think about your own name for a minute.
Do you know why you were given your particular name? Perhaps you were named after someone in your family: your father, your grandmother, someone your parents admired. Maybe your mom or dad just happened to like the way the name sounded… Or it could be that they thought long and hard about what the name itself meant in its original language.
Do you know why you were named what you were named?
I’m not exactly sure why my parents named me Aaron (which means “high mountain” in Hebrew, by the way). It’s not a family name. They had no friends by that name. But I think that it is perhaps more than coincidental that I wound up in ministry—like the biblical Aaron—leading people in worship, speaking on God’s behalf, hopefully listening carefully to God, and, I trust, not fashioning a golden calf as the first Aaron did.
A name—and how that name is understood— can help shape a person’s destiny. Why were you named what you were named? How has that name come to shape you?
Jesus had a name. It meant something.
The Gospel of Matthew tells a story, one which we usually read at Christmas, about how Jesus came to be named. An angel visited Joseph, told him to not be afraid to take Mary—who was pregnant under mysterious circumstances—as his wife. The angel told him, “She will bear a child, and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
That’s right about where some progressive Presbyterians get a little nervous— not just about the concept of the virgin birth, which offends our scientific sensibilities, but about the raw particularity of that name, Jesus. Especially in a pluralistic culture where we understand that there are a lot of people who would not claim to worship Jesus, who understand themselves in light of other religions and different understandings of God. To use the word Jesus feels very particular. And we’re a little cautious not just about the name but also about what it means… God saves.
Here at Immanuel, for instance, we tend to not to spend a great deal of time talking about sin. We don’t talk about God saving us from our sin very often—either sins of commission or sins of omission—at least not directly. Oh, we have a prayer of approach and confession every Sunday morning—sort of a built-in time to reflect on our shortcomings, imperfections, and need for grace—but we don’t hammer away at the word sin. Not the way you’d hear it in a Baptist church, for instance. I’m not sure we ever have. Not at Immanuel. And our prayers tend to be addressed to God, not so much to Jesus.
It’s not that we’re Unitarians. We’re not. It’s just that we are just so careful about our Jesus talk, our sin talk, our “God saves” talk.
And yet, “God saves” is exactly what the name Jesus means. Jesus is the Greek form of the Hebrew Yeshua, or Joshua. Joshua, you may remember, was the one who succeeded Moses (whose name according to Exodus meant something like “drew out from,” because Moses was drawn from the water and drew the people out of Egypt in the Exodus).
Joshua was the one who took over from Moses when Moses couldn’t lead the people into the Promised Land, but died having glimpsed it from the mountain. Joshua, “God saves,” was the one who led the conquest of Canaan, which, not to put too fine a point on it, had elements of genocide to it.
More than one person has gotten to a point in their reading of the Bible from cover to cover and decided that they are just not too sure about this God the Hebrews worshipped. To command people to wipe out whole villages, men, women, and children—well, it’s a problem. A problem we variously explain by saying: “The people didn’t get the instructions right. They weren’t listening carefully enough to God,” or, “they weren’t advanced enough in their understanding of God,” or, “God Godself had some growing to do… “
But we’re embarrassed, I hope, at the story of the conquest of Canaan, because—not to put too fine a point on it—it really is genocide.
So we tend to be pretty careful about the “God saves” talk, because too often it’s understood in light of the first Joshua. God saves us, and wipes out those not like us. God cares for us, and doesn’t care for the people on the other side. God is in our corner, but not in theirs. God saves us from our sins, but God doesn’t save those other people from their sins. God is in our corner, the first Joshua says, but not in theirs.
There are people who—when they say they believe in Jesus, the second Joshua—have to be sure that those who don’t believe are going to get theirs. They have to make sure that if they’re in, somebody else is out.
But it is interesting to see what the man named “God Saves” does. He doesn’t return evil with evil. He doesn’t engage in a conquest of a literal promised land through genocide and weaponry. He takes over people’s hearts with love and a call to justice and mercy. He is always inviting, never coercing; always beckoning those who would to follow in his Way. And sin, death, and evil are vanquished—not by a sword, not by a pogrom, but through a cross and by a man who is willing to embrace the way of love to the point that he dies, tortured, on a cross, because he will not return evil for evil. The story goes that even the grave couldn’t hold him. He rose again.
When we say that we trust in Jesus, “God saves,” we are saying that we trust in that way of being saved, which is through love.
We also say that Jesus is Christ. That’s not Jesus’ last name by the way. It wasn’t the Joseph, Mary, and Jesus Christ family of Nazareth.
Christ is the name for what Jesus is and does. He’s the Messiah, the deliverer, the one who is anointed by God to save the people.
There are a number of people in scripture who are anointed by God. And typically that anointing happens through the use of oil.
Saul gets anointed by God through Samuel to be the first king of Israel, the Messiah. And when it is clear that Saul is not working out because he’s got some personal issues, God sends Samuel to anoint the little shepherd boy David while Saul is still King. David becomes the new deliverer, the new Messiah, the newly anointed King. Again and again in the Hebrew scriptures, kings are anointed by God—anointed with oil that is meant to show that they are set apart to do the work of leading and delivering the people.
It’s not just kings, but priests, like Aaron, who get anointed with oil to do their work of leading people in worship.
In Isaiah, there’s a story of King Cyrus of Persia, who is not even a Jew. He’s described as a Messiah, one who is anointed by God to save the people of Israel who are in exile in Babylon. And that’s what Cyrus does; he returns them from their bondage in exile and repatriates them to their homeland of Judea.
Anointed. Jesus is the one anointed by God to be our Messiah, the Savior—and he, too, delivers from exile. He delivers us back to our true home near to the heart of God.
Have you ever been anointed? Perhaps it was in ordination to the office of elder or deacon, when, in addition to the laying on of hands, perhaps someone made the sign of the cross on your forehead with oil.
Maybe it was in your baptism. In the Catholic church, it’s not just the water that’s used. Babies are anointed with oil when they receive the sacrament. The priest puts the mark of the cross on their forehead and says, “You have been sealed with the Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever.”
Have you ever been anointed? In the laying on of hands at ordination, in the blessing of confirmation, in some other moment of transition—whether oil was used or not—has it ever become clear to you that you were set apart for the work of love?
Maybe you received anointing when you were sick. And some people from Immanuel or some other community of faith gathered around you to pray after putting the mark of the cross on your forehead with oil. They anointed your head, they prayed God’s blessing on you, and asked for God’s power for healing to be made manifest in your life, in whatever crisis you were facing.
Let me tell you a secret. I think each and every one of us in this room is anointed in our own way. Here’s why I believe that. I believe in the Reformed doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. It’s not just the ones who stand up on Sunday morning wearing a robe. It’s not just those who wear a collar. It’s not just those who have hands placed on them as they are ordained as elders and deacons. It is everyone. We are all anointed to do the work of being priests—which means to communicate to God on behalf of human beings and to communicate to human beings on behalf of God.
So how does Jesus, the Messiah, the Christ, save? I love what Barbara Brown Taylor says about that. In her book Leaving Church, she has a section where she asks her readers, “What is saving your life right now?” And she goes on and on about things that are saving her life, making it richer, deeper, fuller, more compassionate, including Sabbath observance once a week.
Then she says this, near the end of that section, and I commend it and the whole book to your reading,
Committing myself to the task of becoming fully human is saving my life now. This is not the same as the job of being human, which came with my birth certificate. To become fully human is something extra, a conscious choice that not everyone makes. Based on my limited wisdom and experience, there is more than one way to do this. If I were a Buddhist, I might do it by taking the bodhisattva vow, and if I were a Jew, I might do it by following Torah. Because I am a Christian, I do it by imitating Christ, although I will be the first to admit that I want to stop about a day short from following him all the way.[i]
For me, Jesus saves because he embodies in a flesh and blood way the love of God and he invites us into the holy, life-giving, and world-transforming work of embodying love as well. I invite you to be about that work in this place and beyond this place, because that’s what it means to worship a God who comes to us in Jesus, a God who saves.
[i] Barbara Brown Taylor, Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith, (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 2006), p. 229.