Scales and Playgrounds: Why you need the Creed (Creeds for Newbies, Episode 2)

Featured Image -- 3527

Snark Meter Sorta Snarky.002

Creeds over Confessions

Last week one more friend, one with a graduate degree in theology proudly said, “I don’t say creeds. I’m non-creedal.” This friend is both orthodox and devout in his Christian faith, yet he says, “I don’t want to be bound by statements that limit the faith.” Like so many, he is confusing “creedal” with “confessional.”

A Big, Big Playground

Creeds are not about limiting the faith, but rather about pushing the faith’s boundaries out to their widest possible limit. A creed is about how little one can believe and still be recognizably “Christian.” Creeds give the edges of what C. S. Lewis referred to as “Mere Christianity.” Confessions, which came later, do exactly the opposite. Confessions attempt to narrow the conversation from “how little can one believe” to “how much should one believe.” If beliefs are a dartboard, a creed is the outermost circle. “You hit the target, way to go!” A confession is the bull’s eye.

Belief as a bull’s eye is, of course, my friend’s real issue: Whose bull’s eye, whose confession are we to use? Augsburg? Belgic? Heldelberg? Helvetic? Thirty-nine Articles? Baptist? Westminster? …And those are just the ones written between 1430 and 1630! A creed is a fenced playground, but a creed represents the largest playground possible. A confession is the kindergarten play ground – very small and safe. The Nicene Creed is the high school ballfields – a square half mile. If you can’t find room to play at the high school, you really just don’t want to be there.

We Fear Creeds

Creeds have been ignored by evangelicals and progressives alike. Evangelicals busily moved past the creeds in a desire to be culturally relevant and a fear of the world creeping into the church – so evangelicals tightened the reigns with detailed, specific, narrow confessional boundaries. “Are you a Reformed, dispensational, pre-trib, pre-millennial regular Baptist?” “No! I am a Reformed, dispensational, mid-trib, pre-millennial regular Baptist.” “Oh. Sorry, we can’t be friends.” This resulted in “many protestants” – a now collapsing array of denominations.

At the same time liberals were also busy jettisoning historic creeds. For liberals though it was a desire to be theologically relevant and a fear that the world was creeping out of the church.

Scales Before Jazz

photocredit: ehow.com

photocredit: ehow.com

When my children suggested to their piano teacher that they learn popular songs, their piano teacher would patronizingly reply, “We learn scales before Jazz.” The reference was lost on my kids who had never heard Jazz. What they wanted to play was the theme to the after school cartoon, “Arthur.” But the teacher was right, if you know your scales you can play any musical. Creeds are the substance of the faith – The “scales” to teach to every child and newcomer. By definition, creeds are catholic (universal), confessions are sectarian genres. Everyone has a genre preference. But if one doesn’t know the basics, regardless of the genre, what we end up with is bad music.

Creeds unite us around the basic Christian story (the “who” and “why”) rather than the symbols of our tradition (the “how” and “what”). The symbols of our tradition are rich and powerful, but our traditional actions and symbols never stand alone. Their power is that they point to greater truths-the truths specifically expressed in the creeds. Confirmation programs, for example, lose power specifically when our teachers have forgotten to keep the main thing (salvation in Christ Jesus) the main thing. And one cannot master Jazz who has not first mastered their scales.

So Christian, don’t give up your creeds!

The Bible’s Lucky Decoder Ring: 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: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.

For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried.

On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at 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.

With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.

He 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.

The Bible’s Lucky Decoder Glasses (Creeds for Newbies, Episode 1)

THE_FIRST_COUNCIL_OF_NICEA

The First Council of Nicea

Snark Meter.005

(Part 1)

In 1934, the Little Orphan Annie radio show hit on a terrific marketing gimmick: kids could mail away for a “secret decoder ring” in order to decipher hidden messages.

Perhaps you remember the young protagonist, Ralphie, in the classic movie, “A Christmas Story,” ordering one…

images

…only to be disappointed that the “secret message” was nothing more than “a  crummy commercial.”

If you grew up in the sixties you might have had Johnny Quest “lucky decoder glasses” to interpret secret messages.

6a00e5523ce51288330153919c7056970b-400wi

It may surprise you to know that there are “lucky decoder glasses” to reading and interpreting the Bible – A set of lenses Christians have looked through as keys to understanding the Bible for nearly 2000 years.

Everyone has a set of interpretive lenses through which they see the world and read any text. For orthodox Christianity those lenses are a document originally written in 325 CE called, “The Nicene Creed.”

Settling Fights

As with all doctrinal statements, the Nicene Creed was written to settle a fight. More precisely to clear up confusion over the Bible’s teaching about the nature of Jesus and his relationship with God. You see, Jesus was so unique that people had a hard time “getting” him. Now, my evangelical friends will say, “The Bible settles who Jesus is, just read the plain meaning of the text!” The only problem is “reading the plain meaning” was not working. The early church was reading the Bible…in fact, not only were they reading from the same Testament, they were even reading from the same Gospel, and yet coming to radically different conclusions.

Let’s be honest, the Christian claim that Jesus is fully God while at the same time being fully human is pretty confusing. It shattered any existing thought paradigm. Two thousand years later it is still pretty tough to wrap one’s mind around a claim that astounding.

It may be of interest to you that the early Christians struggled with the humanity of Jesus more than his deity. Greeks, influenced by Gnostic thought and the idea “flesh” was corrupt and “spirit” was good,  had a tough time with the notion that Jesus could be a real, actual human. So the early church wrote a creed we know as the “Apostle’s Creed.” It was used in Baptisms. The line, “Born of a virgin” was included specifically to insist that Jesus was an actual, real, burping, got gassy, snored while sleeping on his back, human being.

A century and a half later the struggle had shifted. A priest named Arius had started teaching that Jesus was something less than God (as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons teach today).

Arius’ new teaching began to win people over. (It helped that he was a good preacher and musician. He penned a catchy ditty that all the cool kids were singing, “There was a time when he was not…”) Arius argued out of the gospel of John, “Jesus said, ‘The father is greater than I.'” (John 14:28) The church answered with, “The father and I are one.’  (John 10:30) and ‘If you have seen me, you have seen the father.‘” (John 14:9) So there they are: reading the same gospel and coming to two thoroughly opposite conclusions as to Jesus’ identity and the nature of his relationship with the Father. So is Jesus less than or equal too the Father? This really, really matters because Jesus’ role is to make sacrifice for sins. If Jesus is anything less than completely holy, anything less than divine, his sacrifice will be incomplete…and we will remain dead in our trespasses. (1 John 2:2, Heb 9:26-10:12)

When the “Bible alone” is not enough

How did the church settle this dispute? Is the faith to be, as Arius’ would have had it, endlessly malleable or is there an inner core that is non-negotiable – a “…faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all“? (Vincent of Lerins, early 400s.)

The church had two trump cards in this argument: catholicity and orthodoxy. 1) Catholicity (universal), the unbroken line of bishops (apostolic authority) traced back to Jesus – an argument of continuity of relationship with Jesus (those related to Jesus by touch). 2) Orthodoxy, an argument of continuity in Jesus’ teachings (those related to Jesus by teaching). The church has argued one or the other for 2,000 years, but both were seen as vital.

Those bishop’s unbroken interpretation of the scriptures present in the conciliar statements generated when they met in worldwide (ecumenical) council. The first of these councils met  in a town in Turkey named Nicea in 325CE. 318 bishops from all around the world attended. They came from as far away as England. The meeting was presided upon by no less dignitary than the rather newly converted emperor of Rome, Constantine. The statement they wrote, stating in unambiguous terms, that Jesus was fully and completely God in flesh, was signed by 315 of the bishops present (Arius and two cronies refused).

Since that time, Christians, whether they are aware of the fact or not, read the Bible through the “lucky decoder lenses” of those bishop’s statement, the Nicene Creed.

And, since the Nicene Creed is so undergirds how we view and interpret the rest of the Bible, it is a pretty decent idea to, as more and more churches are beginning to, pray that creed in church every Sunday. 

(Part two: Creeds: “The Substance of the faith” not “things indifferent” – Creeds are not confessions and it is above our pay grade to rewrite them.)

 

Nicene Creed Scriptures.001

Holy Week for Newbies

Holy Week.001

Snark Meter.005

A primer for those wondering what all the hubbub is about.

Holy Week, in a nutshell, is a spiritual retreat without leaving home. Remember summer youth camp? You had an authentic, transformative experience of God in a group of others having the same experience. You came home connected to those people and God in a new way. You thought, “That was fantastic. I am different and I can hardly wait to come back next year.” Holy Week is a lot like that.

Holy Week is series of liturgical experiences that walk us through the final week of Jesus’ life. We journey with Jesus, in the short span of a week, from His triumphal entry into Jerusalem, to the missing guard unit, neatly rolled grave clothes, and the shocking appearance of a risen Savior. In a symbol and story impoverished culture, Holy Week opens our hearts to the gift of Jesus’ victory over sin and death. This is more than a psychological remembrance, it is actively allowing ourselves to be in that final week, baptized (immersed) into his death…”Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? …in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”  (Romans 6:3-4)

Holy Week is sacramental

…and we are sacramental creatures. Regardless of any initial reaction you may have to that word, hear me out. A sacrament is a tangible symbol that creates what it signifies. Like kissing. When you first kissed that special someone on the doorstep at the end of the evening, it did more than represent thinking the girl was pretty and nice and that you enjoyed talking with her. It actually created and amplified those feelings. You walked back to your car more emotionally connected to her than you were when you opened her door a brief moment earlier.  And when her front door clicked shut, you fist pumped the air. “Heck, Yeah!” Because that kiss actually made more of what it signified.

So God gave us, fleshly, sacramental, critters that we are, a God who came in flesh. Who lived. Who breathed. Who touched us and was touched by us. Who walked willingly to a criminal’s cross, laid down, spread his arms wide for humanity, and waited for real nails to pierce his hands and feet. It is because you too are flesh and blood that you should engage in Holy Week…because Holy Week creates what it signifies: “That I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.” (Phil 3:10)

A current reality

The ancient prayers point us to the deep mystery in this: It isn’t “Christ rose.” It is “Christ is risen!” Holy Week is a current reality. A more real reality. So we do more than meditate on these holy mysteries. We allow them to become true within us, as our baptism is true within us. We join him on Maundy Thursday in His Last Supper. We are with him on Friday in His death. We keep prayerful watch before His tomb on Saturday. With growing anticipation we mark His descent into Hades and His trampling of death by His death. Finally, with shouts of joy, we greet His resurrection on Sunday morning, knowing that one day it will be our resurrection too. In Holy Week, as Orthodox priest Fr. Steven Freeman says, “The life to come becomes the life we live.”

A “deep mystery,” it should be said, is not magic. We must surrender to the prayers and liturgy – faith must be lived. In the end, Holy Week isn’t something we do. It is something that does us.

So what is the hubbub?

Holy Week is more than an emotionally powerful experience. It is an opportunity for a greater sanctification. As Paul said, “Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.” (Romans 6:8) Or, as an Arnold Swarzenegger character once said, “Come with me if you want to live.”

Do yourself a favor, make time to engage in Holy Week, especially the three-day “Triduum”: The despair of Golgotha on Good Friday, the muted sorrow of Saturday, the joyful Baptisms at Saturday’s Great Vigil, and the surprise of a risen Savior on Easter morning.

Almighty God, who through your only‑begotten Son Jesus Christ, overcame death and opened to us the gate of everlasting life: Grant that we, who celebrate with joy the day of the Lord’s resurrection, may be raised from the death of sin by your life‑giving Spirit; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

Holy Week Sched 2014 Blog

Ash Wednesday for Newbies

ash-wednesday

Snark Meter.005

Do not be surprised this week when your co-workers and neighbors appear with smudgy foreheads. You will be tempted to grab a Kleenex and help them rub out the vaguely cross-shapen smears. Resist this urge. They have not become hygienically challenged – It is Ash Wednesday!

What is Ash Wednesday?

Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent. Lent, an archaic word for “spring,” came to refer to a season of spiritual “training” in the Christian year preceding Easter – Sort of a “spring training” for the spiritual life. Christians in the ancient traditions spend the 6 weeks before Holy Week in repentance, almsgiving, and self-denial in an effort to remember the greatness of God at Easter. Ash Wednesday kicks it all off.

Where did it come from?

The tradition of ashes has its roots in the ancient Jewish prophets (“repent in sackcloth and ashes“). Among Christians, the imposition of ashes associated with a 40 day fast began in the 4th century. Most likely this fast was the Lenten fast, but the evidence is a bit spotty. By the end of the 10th century, though, it was a long-standing custom in Western Europe for the faithful to receive ashes on the first day of the Lent. In 1091, Pope Urban II extended the practice to Rome.

What do you do?

If you attend an Ash Wednesday service you will hear Holy Scriptures calling us to repentance read, have ashes imposed on your forehead with the counter-cultural words, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19), and then go forward, empty handed, to receive the Lord’s Supper.

Afterward people go forth to spend 40 days in Lenten practices, either giving up something we enjoy and/or taking on a new spiritual activity. Self-denial and self-discipline prepare our hearts to recall the saving acts of Jesus during Holy Week.

Why?

Contrary to common opinion, Ash Wednesday and Lent are not about spiritual brownie points, impressing God, nor  making belated New Year’s resolutions – like dropping that last five pounds by cutting chocolate.  It is instead about mindfulness. When we think about God, well that is a good thing. By the way, Christians are penitent during Lent because we are grateful for God’s provision in his Son, Jesus. We go to church on Ash Wednesday to be marked outwardly with ashes as we remind ourselves inwardly of our need for the unquenchable, fierce love of God to enliven us.

Can I come?

Yes! You can find an Ash Wednesday service at any Episcopal/Anglican or Roman Catholic Church. Services are usually offered multiple times per day. You do not need to be a member. Everyone is welcome. Although in Roman Catholic churches there are requirements for receiving communion, and Episcopal churches ask you to be baptized for communion, everyone can receive ashes.

I invite you, come to church this Ash Wednesday!

Eucharist for Newbies

Photo credit: Lifeteen

Photo credit: Lifeteen

Snark Meter Sorta Snarky.002

A light look at 10 things you should know before Sunday.

When American evangelicals think of worship what generally comes to mind is song and sermon. But for most of the Christian era and for most in the Christian era, “worship” has meant Scripture and Sacrament…in other words, Communion…the Eucharist.

1. “Eucharista” is Greek for “Thanksgiving.” You can thank Paul for that: Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf.”  (1 Corinthians 10:16-17)

2. Interestingly, there is only one instance when Jesus used the phrase “New Testament” or “New Covenant” (diatheke). He used it, not to describe a book, but the Eucharist. This comes from the earliest historical record of the last Supper, written within perhaps twenty years of the event: “In the same way [Jesus] also [took] the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me’” (1 Cor 11:25; emphasis added). So, according to the New Testament, the Eucharist is the New Testament. Long before anyone assembled a book called the New Testament, Jesus had given the chalice as the New Testament in his blood (see Lk 22:20).  (Scott Hahn, The Eucharist in the New Testament)

3. The Eucharist, though, is not just in Paul, there are explicit references to the Eucharist in all four Gospels, Acts, Jude, and Revelation. Over the last fifty years Protestant scholars (John Koenig, Geoffrey Wainwright, Arthur Just, John DelHoussaye) have described a “Eucharistic Provenance of the New Testament.”  These are Protestant scholars recognizing that the New Testament was written to be read aloud in the context of the assembly (Rev 1:3) – and Christians assembled for the meal we call the Eucharist.

4. There are five views of the Eucharist: At the top is the Roman View – The elements incur a essential change, transformed into the body and blood of Jesus, becoming a “Magic Cracker” that appears to be bread, but is, in fact the body of Christ. On the bottom is the memorialist view, in which nothing happens, it is just a “Happy Meal.”* In between, from bottom to top are the views of Calvin (Nothing happens to the elements, but Jesus is present as we lift our hearts in faith), the Lutheran view (the elements become both/and: Jesus and bread/wine), and the Orthodox view (the elements become Jesus, but how and what exactly happens to the elements is a mystery humans cannot define).

5. In Anglicanism there is room for all five views, although very few are memorialists. At the beginning of her reign, Queen Elizabeth was called on to decide whether or not England would remain Catholic, as it had been under “Bloody Mary,” or continue along toward Reformation Protestantism, as was occurring on the continent. As most religious disputes of the day were fought over communion, the clergy reportedly asked, “Which is it, (literally) the ‘body of Christ‘ or (a memorial) ‘The bread of heaven‘?” As the story goes, Elizabeth said something to the effect, “I will not be in the business of peering into men’s souls. When you deliver communion you will say, ‘The body of Christ comma the bread of heaven.'” Basically she was saying, “Communion will be what the person receiving believes it to be.” It is the origin of Anglicanism’s “majoring on the majors”…or “Anglican fudge,” depending on your perspective.

6. The early church repeatedly describes the elements as becoming and being the “body of Christ.” They said, in effect, “Jesus is really here.” But they refused to over-define what that meant. “Transubstantiation,” the word Roman Catholics use to  indicate that the elements truly become the body and blood of Christ, is a word that doesn’t appear until the 11th century. Seminary students are aware that over-definition can be a particular charism of scholasticism. Because both scripture and the unbroken testimony of the early church insist on it, I personally believe in “real presence.” Memorialism ignores far too much scripture and the consistent testimony of the early church (1 Cor 11:29-30) …Why were people getting ill and dying if it is just a reminder? Although the argument could be made that the McDonald’s “Happy Meal” will probably kill you also. Transubstantiation is more specific than can be proved from scripture and causes some significant real world problems – If a frat boy snags a wafer in a prank and runs, do we really have the God of the universe in a prankster’s pocket?

7. The Eucharist is a Sacrament (Yes, Protestants too have Sacraments). Sacrament is Latin for oath…or promise. Simply put: we are promised that we experience Jesus when we obey Jesus…especially when we obey Jesus in the ways Jesus commanded…which is why Protestants traditionally recognize two Sacraments: Baptism & Eucharist, and refer to the rest as “sacramental rites” – permitted and edifying, but not mandated. Btw, for Protestants bugged that Catholics invented the “T word” in the 1100s, Baptists came up the word “ordinance” in their Confession of 1689 to avoid the word “sacrament.”

8. This is not a new sacrifice: Scripture is clear: “Christ…suffered once for sins.” (1 Pet 3:18) The re-presentation of Christ is a “sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.” (BCP, 363)

9. Eucharist is the original Christian altar call: We come forward, we kneel in humility, we hold outstretched hands as the needy ones we are, and we receive, not grab, the Lord. We receive his grace in humility. We come to receive afresh the grace of God given at the Father’s initiation and at Christ’s expense. All baptized Christians are welcome at the family meal of the Body of Christ. As Cyril described in 400, we make a throne with our hands to receive the body of Christ.

10. At St. Jude’s we use a Eucharistic prayer adapted from the Prayer of Hippolytus written in 315CE. We are following a pattern that was explained as standard Christian worship by Justin Martyr in 150CE. Think about that: What Christians do in the Eucharist is so old that it was already described as the standard and assumed worship pattern of Christians as close to the closing of the NT canon as the writing of the New Testament was to the Lord walking on earth.

Do you want to worship like the early Christians? Try worshipping Eucharisticly. It will bless you.

As Augustine said, “Be what you see; receive what you are.” (Augustine, Sermon 272) -The body of Christ.

So, if you have not before, this Sunday join a celebration of the Holy Eucharist.

The Lord be with you!

*The terms “Magic Cracker” and “Happy Meal” were used in a friendly debate over beer. My Roman Catholic friend insisted, “It is indeed ‘magic cracker.'” My memorialist friend replied, “No. It is only a ‘Happy Meal.’ Fun, but no nutritional value is present.”