The Apostles’ Creed, A Lover’s Quarrel: His Only Son, Our Lord
A sermon by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt
Preached at Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean VA
On July 7th, 2013
Philippians 3:4b-11, 17-21
Today, I continue my summer sermon series, the Apostles’ Creed, a Lover’s Quarrel, by examining the phrase which follows immediately after “and in Jesus Christ,” namely, “his only son our Lord.” What do those two designations–his only son and our Lord, mean? How would understanding Jesus in this way come to shape your life and mine? That’s the question we will deal with today.
As an introduction to that question, I’d like to read again the first very first verse of Mark’s Gospel. Mark sets the stage for his account of Jesus’ life by calling Jesus not simply Christ (the Greek word for the Hebrew term Messiah), but also Son of God. Listen now for God’s word to you and me in the following brief passage from Mark—The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
Our second scripture passage deals with Jesus not as Son of God, but as Lord, and it comes from the third chapter of Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi. The Philippian church was the first congregation he founded on European soil—and one to which he felt a special sense of kinship. Focus on the manner in which Paul speaks of Jesus by using the word Lord. The passage begins with Paul outlining all the reasons he had to feel confident in himself and his own power and goodness; he then moves to extol Jesus as Lord, saying that he has come to regard everything that made him feel superior to others as nothing more than rubbish, trash—literally, in Greek, excrement. Listen for God’s word to you and me
If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation so that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.
I discovered something last Sunday morning while watching one of the Rob Bell NOOMA videos, something I hadn’t known before.[i]
In the days of the Roman emperors, or the Caesars—Julius, Augustus, Tiberias and the like—when the emperor wanted to disseminate information about something he had done, he put out what was called a euangellion, a proclamation of good news about the emperor.
The word euangellion, in Greek, “good news,” is translated “gospel” in English. So Mark’s gospel starts, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus (which we said last week means “God saves” in Hebrew) Christ (which is Greek for Messiah), the Son of God.” But the Caesars were putting out gospels about themselves before Matthew, Mark, Luke or John ever put out a gospel about Jesus.
I didn’t know that the Caesars put out gospels about themselves. But I do remember from seminary that so much of the language the early church used to describe itself and its work was co-opted from the language of Imperial Rome. The empire utilized the language first, and then the church borrowed it to make claims over and against the empire.
It wasn’t just the word Gospel. It was also the word the Christians started to use that came to be known as church, ekklesia, from which we get the word ecclesial and ecclesiastic. The Romans used ekklesia to refer to gatherings of people who came together to acknowledge the authority of Caesar in their town. The church coopted the term by saying we’ll have ekklesias who acknowledge Jesus’ authority.
And it wasn’t just the word church, it was the also designation son of God. Rome was using that language to make claims about Caesar well before Jesus came along.
The Roman emperors considered themselves to be divine, but not quite on the level of their traditional gods. Latin had a word that could differentiate the two, but in Greek, which was the language more commonly used throughout the empire during Jesus’ day, that distinction was lost. The common and official title of Augustus Caesar in Greek documents was “Emperor Caesar Augustus, son of god.” And an inscription from Pergamum refers to Augustus as “The Emperor Caesar, son of god, Augustus, ruler of all land and sea.”[ii]
That’s quite a claim to make about an earthly political leader, isn’t it? Son of God, Ruler of all land and sea. It takes a lot of chutzpah to make that kind of claim. But when you’ve got the force of armies on your side, and plenty of wealth and power, it’s easier to do that. It’s easier to confuse yourself and your aims with God and God’s desires.
It was in an environment like that, that the early church put out gospels like Mark’s, which started by saying that Jesus was the son of God—which meant that Caesar, who had his own gospels and his own ekklesias and his own way of wielding power—was not.
Let me be clear. To say that Jesus is the Son of God doesn’t mean that we aren’t also children of God in our own right. There are plenty of Biblical passages that make that claim. Passages from Paul that speak of our adoption as God’s children, passages from John’s gospel that say we have been given the power to become children of God. Core to my own faith, is the idea that every person who has ever lived on Earth has a spark of the divine contained within them. We are all created in God’s image. There is something of divinity in each of us. The Buddhists and the Hindus are right when they say Namaste. The divinity in me greets the divinity in you.
To say that Jesus is the Son of God isn’t making a claim about whether or not we are also children of God. It is making a claim over and against any other person or entity that would lord its power over us. It is saying that Caesar is not God, money is not God, ego is not God, the desire for other people’s approval is not God, economic and political systems are not God, fear and desire for security are not God. Only God, by whom we are all created and to whom we all belong, the God who is love and whose way of love is embodied in Jesus, is God.
To claim that Jesus is son of God is to make a claim about his way over against Caesar’s way, the way of empire.
A friend of mine posted this on Facebook this week. He wrote,
[Richard Rohr] said in essence that the Christian tradition spent so much time trying to prove that Jesus was God, that they forgot to do what Jesus asked them to do, such as loving your enemies, building bridges of understanding and serving the poor. Rohr said we ignored the deeds and argued over creeds.
God is not pleased with this ‘misplaced attention’ that turned the church into a ‘reward and punishment’ club, rather than proclaiming the good news for which Jesus gave his life and met his death. People are never moved to believe by argument, but example. …
We are called in Jesus, not to be umpires and judges, but a people known by the way we love.”[iii]
When I was in Nashville back in May for the preaching conference I attend every year, I had the opportunity to hear Bishop Michael Curry preach. He’s an African American Episcopal Bishop from North Carolina.
Michael Curry told us a wonderful story about Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth. What Curry said is that Douglass had spent a lot of time and energy trying to convince Lincoln to take a stand for abolition, to take a stand for emancipation. But the abolitionist Douglass was growing weary. And Douglass was with Sojourner Truth and a group of others, and he started to weep; he was so tired and frustrated and despairing. He was in tears. He was weeping, “I just can’t do it. I can’t convince Lincoln to stand up, to free the slaves. I can’t do it.”
It was Sojourner Truth, who believed by the way that Jesus was the Son of God, who said, “Frederick, is God dead? If God isn’t dead then stop crying and keep working.”[iv]
To believe that Jesus is Son of God is to affirm that God isn’t dead and that Jesus’ way will triumph, if not now, then eventually. So we need to keep working.
Paul called Jesus not just Son of God, but also Lord, and so does the Apostles’ Creed. Lord, like Son of God, was and is politically charged language. To say that Jesus is Lord is to say that nothing else, no one else, is Lord.
Nothing and no one else is Lord: Not my anger, not my resentment, not my despair, not my discouragement, not the approval of others, not my achievements, not my addictions, not the force of injustice in the world, not my sports coach, not my boss, and not my government. None of that is Lord. Only Jesus, the one also called Son of God, is Lord.
Paul called Jesus Lord. It was his way of reminding himself that what justified him, what made him right with God, wasn’t how good he was in and of himself. It wasn’t the fact that he was a Hebrew born of Hebrews, a Benjaminite, someone who had zeal enough to differentiate himself from and to judge and persecute people with whom he disagreed. He needed to be reminded that none of that was Lord. He needed to be reminded that his citizenship, what ultimately defined him, was somewhere else besides here.
In our Presbyterian Book of Confessions we have ten other confessions, or statements of faith, in addition to the Apostles’ Creed. One of them is the Theological Declaration of Barmen, written in the 1930’s by a group of Reformed and Lutheran pastors, headed by Karl Barth. This group of pastors opposed Hitler, the Nazi Party, and the way they tried to make the church subservient to the state’s program of exterminating the Jews.
The Declaration of Barmen goes on for several pages, but rather than reading them all, I think the best way to summarize it, is that it affirms that Jesus is Lord. Not Hitler, not the Nazi party, not hatred and not fear, but Jesus and his way of love.
So, what did you do for the Fourth of July?
This year, I started that day as has now become my custom, by going to a Fourth of July parade. Judith and I saw several Immanuelites as we watched the firetrucks and floats, the dogs, the bikes, the baseball teams, the dance teams, the horse riders trailed by the clown pooper scooper, the vintage cars and the politicians. It was a little slice of Americana.
Later that day, we had the requisite picnic with food from the grill and salads. And then, though I ran out of steam and went on to bed, the rest of the Fulp-Eickstaedts went to see the fireworks in Falls Church. It was a fairly typical Fourth of July.
As I always do, on July 4th, I gave thanks for my country. I gave thanks for the people who fought and in some cases died to preserve our country and the freedom we enjoy. But I also gave thanks for the fact that my country does not have my ultimate allegiance. It is not my Lord. Jesus is.
[i] The Rob Bell NOOMA video to which I am referring is “You.” 015 Rob Bell Copyright © 2007 by Flannel, P.O. Box 3228, Grand Rapids, MI 49501-3228, USA. Published by Zondervan, 5300 Patterson Avenue SE, Grand Rapids, MI 49530, USA
[ii] From The Christian Monthly Standard: A Voice of Reason for the 21st Century, an on-line resource found here: http://www.christianmonthlystandard.com/index.php/son-of-god-in-roman-world/
[iii] Rev. Dr. Richard C. Wing in a Facebook post.
[iv] This comes from Bishop Michael Curry’s sermon at the 2013 Festival of Homiletics in Nashville, TN, May 15, 2013.