16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” 26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”
We are now in week two of a sermon series on the Apostles’ Creed–one of the oldest statements of belief in Christianity. Last week, we talked about the line, “I believe in God the father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.” Today we come to the second line of the creed, which is “I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only son, our Lord.”
So today (and for the next two weeks) we’re talking about Jesus. I’m reminded of the mom who was serving her two sons pancakes for breakfast, and they were fighting over who got the last one. She said to them, “Now what would Jesus do, boys? I bet if he were standing right here today, he’d say, ‘let my brother have the last pancake.'” So one brother turns to the other and says, “Okay, you be Jesus.”
I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only son, our Lord.
Let’s break that down a bit. Starting with the words “I believe.” We use those words in a lot of different ways, don’t we? My favorite is the t-shirt that says, “Everyone ought to believe in something. I believe I’ll have another beer.”
Or we’ll say something like, “I believe in happy endings.” Does that mean we believe that they exist, for some few lucky people? Or that we really, really want one for ourself? Or does it mean we believe that everyone will get one one, or that everyone should get one, or that everyone is entitled to one?
The Greek word for belief, used in both the Apostles Creed, and also in both of our scripture passages is Πιστεύω (pisteuo). It implies more than just a narrow factual belief in the existence of something. Πιστεύω is sometimes translated as “I have confidence” or “I trust.” It’s the kind of belief you hang your hat on.
So if I say, “I believe in the 1st Amendment, the right to free speech” it’s more than saying I believe there actually is a 1st Amendment somewhere in the constitution…it means I support that amendment, I put my trust and confidence behind it; I vote to protect it; I think it’s a good and necessary thing.
As Christians, we don’t believe in Jesus the way someone might say “I believe there is life on other planets,” or I believe in evolution, or I believe that the world is round (incidentally, I do believe all three of those things). When we say “I believe in Jesus,” it’s more like what people mean when they say, “I believe in love,” or “I believe in doing the right thing,” or even “I believe in you.”
These aren’t the kind of beliefs that you can prove, factually. They’re the kind of beliefs you feel, that you resonate with, and that you structure your life around.
That brings us to the next word: Jesus. I believe in Jesus. So, who was Jesus? Did Jesus even exist? That’s a great question. The scholarly consensus from people who study these things–historians, archaeologists, anthropologists, is that a historical person named Jesus of Nazareth did in fact live and preach in the first century and gathered a following that launched a movement. But beyond that, there’s not a lot we can “prove” or definitively “know” about this Jesus.
The gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were written several decades after the time in which Jesus lived, by people who may or may not have even known him. The gospels were assembled from collected fragments of his teachings, and stories about his life that had been handed down from person to person. These four stories generally agree about the broad parameters of Jesus’ life and message, but they often disagree with one another in the details, or in their emphasis and agenda.
The Gospels are certainly our best and primary sources for trying to figure out who Jesus was, but they are far from the only sources. We can also learn about Jesus from archaeology, from comparative religion and textual criticism, from personal experience or divine revelation, to name a few approaches. And in this sense, I think the Apostles’ Creed is helpful to 21st century Christians–precisely because it doesn’t ever say “I believe in the Bible” or “I believe in Jesus as he is described by the gospels.” It is not the Bible that holds us together or defines us as Christians–it is a belief (a confidence, a trust) in Jesus, whomever he was, and we are still learning, still growing in our understanding of that.
The next word in the Creed is “Christ.” I believe in Jesus Christ, or more properly, Jesus “the” Christ, because Christ isn’t Jesus’ last name. It’s a title, Χριστός in Greek, which means the “anointed one” or literally, the one smeared with oil. In Jewish tradition, the person who was chosen to carry out a special task (the King, the high priest, sometimes the commander of the army) was smeared with precious oil as a sign or symbol that he or she was special, and chosen.
So when we say, “I believe in Jesus, the Christ” we are saying that we believe Jesus was somehow, in some way that we may not even be able to fully explain or understand, special. Jesus, the special one, the one chosen by God, and by us.
The Son of God
The next part of the Creed, in the original Greek language, says υἱὸν αὐτοῦ τòν μονογενῆ, which translates as two separate clauses, “The son of God, the only begotten one.” For the sake of simplicity and brevity, this has been condensed in the English transaltion to “God’s only Son.” But a lot gets lost in that brevity. I want to consider these two clauses, “The son of God” and “the only begotten one” separately.
The phrase υἱὸν αὐτοῦ means “the Son of him” where him refers to God in the previous line (I believe in God the father almighty…). So, “son of God” is a pretty good translation. It’s worth noting that Jesus’ favorite title for himself in Matthew, Mark, and Luke is actually the “son of man” which means something like “the human one.” But in the gospel of John, he is frequently refered to as the Son of God (see John 3:16), and that wouldn’t really have raised too many eyebrows, because Jewish people are frequently referred to (and refer to themselves) in the Old Testament as the “sons of God” or the “children of God.”
But that’s also why I have a problem with the next part of the creed–or at least the way we often translate it: τòν μονογενῆ, or “only begotten” or, in our version of the Creed, God’s ONLY son. This implies there aren’t any others. That WE are somehow NOT God’s children, despite all the other bible verses that clearly say we are.
The word μονογενῆ is made up of two pretty familiar roots: μονο can mean “only,” but far more often in Greek, it simply means “one” (think monorail, monotone, monopoly). And γενῆ can mean “birth” or begotten, but it is also where we get the words gene, genetic, genome, and genus. It means a class or species. So I think a much better way to translate τòν μονογενῆ, and more likely the way Jesus was understood by his earliest followers is as “one of a kind.”
The Boss of Us
The last two words in our phrase today are: Our Lord. I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only son, our Lord. What is a Lord? It’s a pretty archaic word, even in English. We don’t really use it much outside of religion and medieval feudalism–the Lord of the Castle, Lords and Ladies. The House of Lords. The Greek word here, κύριος has more of the connotation of “master” or the one who has ownership or complete authority over me. And we really don’t like that idea in 21st century America, where one of our favorite sayings is “You’re not the boss of me!” So probably the best modern translation of “our Lord” would be “the boss of us.”
But as challenging as this idea is for us, it’s worthwhile. Think back to the best boss you’ve ever had, the best person in authority over you–maybe it was a parent, maybe it was a manager or employer–but someone who really had your best interests at heart, someone who wasn’t afraid to tell you “no” when you needed to hear it, someone who helped you to grow and mature, even when you resisted that authority. That’s the kind of “Lord” that we want, that we hope and trust Jesus will be.
And that word “our” or “us” is important, too, even though it’s a small word. There was a trend in 20th century evangelical Christianity of asking the question, “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal lord and savior?” I think it was well-intended, but the earliest Christians understood that they were more than individuals–they were part of a wider community. “I believe in Jesus” but he is “Lord of us all.”
Putting it All Together
So let’s put it all together. First of all, there’s a rhythm and a beat to this line in Greek, punctuated by the article “the.” If we were keeping the translation more literal, it would sound something like this:
I trust in Jesus, the chosen-one, the son-of-God, the one-of-a-kind, the boss-of-us-all.
Remember I told you last week that the Apostles’ Creed was meant to be read like poetry? It should also be interpreted like poetry, especially this section. Poetry often attempts to describe things that are difficult or impossible to describe. It does so by using analogies, metaphors, adjectives, or even lists.
I believe in Jesus.
Well, I can’t quite explain him, but he’s special… chosen… anointed… really close to God… one-of-a-kind… the boss of us, all these things and more. “Who Jesus is” isn’t a precise science. It’s not a photograph, or a legal description. It’s an art form, an impressionist painting, a poem, a sacred mystery.
To be a Christian community is not to say, “We have it all figured out and we will teach you exactly who Jesus is.” It’s certainly not to say that we can even agree on who Jesus is. To be a Christian is to say: I’m curious about this Jesus person. I’m open to learning more. I have some ideas about who he might be, and I’m part of a community of people who are all trying to learn more together, a community that goes back for thousands of years. Sometimes they sound pretty confident about who they think Jesus is, but the truth is, that understanding is always changing and growing. The one thing that remains constant, and the one thing that we all share in common, and always have, is the person at the center: Jesus, the one who was somehow…special.
By calling Jesus “Lord” or “the boss of us” we are saying that we’re open to being transformed in some way by the encounter with him. We are saying that we’re willing to let go, just a little bit, of our precious control over our lives and our way of doing things. You actually do this all the time: You give a doctor authority and control over your body when you undergo surgery; You place yourself under the direction of a teacher when you want to learn something. When you want to fly somewhere, you put your life in the hands of a pilot you have probably never met.
So this, at last then, is at the very heart of the Apostles’ Creed, and at the heart of what it means to be a Christian in the 21st century: To say (in ancient words or modern) that there’s something special about Jesus. I can’t describe it, I can’t explain it, but whatever it is, I’m willing to believe, to hope, to trust that it can transform my life–all of our lives!–in some meaningful and lasting way. And we do all of this together, wandering, wondering, and seeking the wisdom of Jesus Christ together in a loving, growing, faithful community. Thanks be to God!