Friday, July 30, 2010

We Believe...

I'm not really feeling up to any exceptionally deep posts today - feeling sort of down at the moment - but since it's been a while since my last post, I figure it can't hurt to put something new up. What I've decided to post is simply the Nicene Creed (as revised at the First Council of Constantinople in AD 381):

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, visible and invisible.

And [we believe] in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one essence 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 was made human. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate. He suffered and was buried, and he rose again on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father, and he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.

And [we believe] in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father, who with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified, who has spoken through the prophets.

And [we believe] in one holy, universal, 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 age to come. Amen.

This is perhaps the single document that, more than any other outside of the Bible itself, has united Christians ever since. It is truly the ecumenical creed, the declaration that can be voiced equally by Protestant Christians, Roman Catholic Christians, and Eastern Orthodox Christians. (Well, actually, Protestantism and Roman Catholicism have inherited a slightly amended version that Eastern Orthodoxy can't quite accept, and that division is highly unfortunate.)

This is the creed. Whenever I read its words, I feel a warmth inside that cries out, "Oh holy truth!" This is the faith received by the church for well over 1500 years. One God who created all other things. The Trinity - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The eternal relations within the Trinity. The incarnation. The virgin birth. The atonement and crucifixion. The resurrection of Christ. His ascension into heaven. His present position of authority, honor, and glory. His future return. The judgment. The resurrection of the dead. Everlasting life for the believer. The ultimate unity of Christ's people. Baptism, the sign of entrance into Christ's community. All sketched in brief, but all potently present in these words.

To me, it's beautiful. This is the ancient symbol that marked off those who submitted themselves to the apostles' teaching from those who wandered in error or unbelief. It wasn't the first such statement - one can compare it to the briefer 'rules of faith' mentioned by some of the earlier Church Fathers - but this is the one that was inherited, as this, by the entire church. The heart of Christian teaching.

Embrace it. Enter it. Live it.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Sounding the Depths of God's Love

Yesterday after a Bible study at my alma mater, a few friends of mine and I stayed around for a bit to sing some classic hymns together. One of the ones we selected - a beautiful one indeed - was Charles Wesley's hymn "And Can It Be That I Should Gain?" Now, I don't have any great insights or anything (do I ever?), but I did find much charm in the second verse, which begins with the lines:

'Tis mystery all: th' Immortal dies!
Who can explore his strange design?
In vain the firstborn seraph tries
To sound the depths of love divine.

I really love that verse. First of all, it opens up with a proclamation of one of the central mysteries of the Christian faith. By "mystery", of course, we don't generally mean something contrary to reason, or anything like that. What we mean is a great and very sacred thing that, once hidden from the world and very dimly accessible at best to the comparatively dim light of human reasoning capabilities, is now openly shown to all who will receive it through the revelation of Jesus Christ in the new covenant. (This is likewise the proper sense in which the doctrine of the Trinity should be held to be a "mystery".) What mystery is this, then? "Th' Immortal dies!" Those words bring back to mind so many paradoxes from the discourses of Melito, second-century bishop of Sardis:

What new mystery, then, is this?
The Judge is judged, and holds his peace.
The Invisible One is seen, and is not ashamed.
The Incomprehensible is laid hold upon, and is not indignant.
The Illimitable is circumscribed, and does not resist.
The Impassible suffers, and does not avenge.
The Immortal dies, and answers not a word.
The Celestial is laid in the grave, and endures!
What new mystery is this?

Needless to say, it's no wonder that Melito was held in the early church to be a very passionate and skilled preacher. But as Melito and Charles Wesley saw, it truly is a mystery that Jesus Christ, who by all rights of his divinity had better claim to pure deathlessness, would have died - and done so for us. (Of course, as Christians thought through the implications of the incarnation, they realized that we should say that Jesus Christ died by virtue of his human nature, but not by virtue of his divine nature, and yet that it is the person Jesus Christ, both fully divine and fully human, who truly died.) The Immortal One died for us - and "who can explore his strange design?" Why would he do this? Of course, we know the answer, but who can truly understand it? We may apprehend God's love, but who can comprehend it? Who can appreciate the depths of it fully?

The next two lines answer rather negatively. "In vain the firstborn seraph tries / To sound the depths of love divine". The seraphim - six-winged fiery angels - are perhaps among the most glorious created beings; Isaiah 6 depicts the seraphim perpetually flying around God's throne and proclaiming his holiness, and I think it safe to say that on each flight, they discover something new about God. And yet even the firstborn seraph - the oldest created being who's spent the most time in God's intimate presence, forever learning about God through ages past - would try in vain to "sound the depths of love divine". Even that firstborn seraph, we sing with Wesley, cannot reach the bottomless depths of God's love. The phrase "sound the depths" derives from the old practice of using a plumb line to measure the depth of water; even this firstborn seraph would be helpless to, with all his might, sink a weight to the bottom of God's love. It's bottomless; there can be no sounding the depths of God's love.

And that's the beauty. The self-sacrifice of Jesus Christ shows us that God's very nature and eternal being are characterized by love; and it shows us that, though we're to live eternally, we will never, ever reach the point at which we can rightly say, "Well, we've at last got God's love figured out now. Turns out he loves us exactly yea much and no more. Glad that's finally settled." By no means! We, like the firstborn seraph, will never reach that point; there is no such point. God's love is endless, and we will be forever lost in it - or, phrased better yet, forever found in it. Just as the seraphim endlessly cry "Holy, holy, holy" with the freshness of infinite discovery, so too might we rightly spend all of eternity by crying out - with ever-increasing excitement and freshness and newness:

"Loving, Loving, Loving is Yahweh, the God of Hosts!
Heaven and earth are awash in his endless glory."

Thursday, July 8, 2010

On Life-Giving Faith

Today I was stumbling around on the Internet looking at classic Christian writings - you know, the usual - when I happened upon a line that really struck me. It came from a series of sermons by Cyril of Alexandria. Cyril was a pretty interesting guy. He was the bishop of Alexandria in Egypt from 412 to 444. One thing he's mostly known for is his feud with the bishop of Constantinople, a heretic named Nestorius who was eventually deposed at the Council of Ephesus in 431. But that's neither here nor there. Cyril also did a lot of writing and preaching, and we actually still have some of his sermons. And it's while reading some of his sermons on the Gospel of Luke that I found something cool.

Sermon #46 dealt with the story of how Jesus raised a little girl from the dead. And in that story, the girl's dad had come to Jesus in deep distress because his daughter was fading fast. And as he and Jesus got close to the house, someone came out and told him not to bother, because the girl was dead now, and so there was no point in troubling Jesus since there was no longer anything he could do to help. And yea, verily, Jesus saith unto him, "Pssh! Just you watch!" ...Alright, so that might be from Today's Lamely Paraphrased Version. What Jesus actually said was, "Fear not. Only believe, and she will live." And because they trusted him, he raised the girl from the dead.

That line, "Only believe and she will live", really captured Cyril's attention. And what he said captured mine. Cyril concluded his message by saying:

Faith, then, in every way, is the cause of life, as that which slays sin, the mother and nurse of death. Excellently, therefore, said Christ to the ruler of the synagogue of the Jews, when his daughter was dead: "Fear not; only believe, and she shall live." For, as I said, Christ makes those live who approach him by faith, in that he is life: "for in him we live and move, and are" [Acts 17:28]; and he will raise the dead "suddenly, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump" [1 Corinthians 15:52], as it is written. And having this hope in him, we shall both attain to the city that is above, and reign as kings with him, by whom and with whom, to God the Father be praise and dominion, with the Holy Ghost, for ever and ever, Amen.

I really love all of that. But it's the first sentence of the paragraph that gripped me. "Faith is in every way the cause of life, as that which slays sin, the mother and nurse of death". First of all, it really struck me that Cyril described sin as "the mother and nurse of death". I think it really captures what James was getting at when he said that "sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death" (James 1:15). Why is sin so dangerous, so problematic? Because it gives birth to death. It's death's mom, death's nurse. You can't cling to sin and escape its offspring. Sin lays its eggs in you. Those little vices we like to cling to? They hatch and destroy us. As much as we may cherish them, they bring destruction. No good ultimately comes from them. Like I quoted C. S. Lewis saying a while back, "In each of us there is something growing up which will of itself be Hell unless it is nipped in the bud."

But where sin gives birth to death, faith gives birth to life. Like Jesus said, "The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they might have life, and have it to the full" (John 10:10). Abundant life. Rich life. True life, pure life, vibrant life, flourishing life. That's what Jesus promises through faith in him. Jesus didn't come to squelch our fun. Jesus didn't come to turn our lives into dreary, puritanical gloom. Jesus came to give us a life we can truly cherish, a life of deep joy - not only now, but in the age to come. And what he asks is for us to trust him to deliver on that promise. That's what faith is: trust and loyalty. Because God is the God of love and life, we need to stick close to him if we want to experience the deepest depths of love and life, not only now, but also in the age to come. Because God is our Creator and our Redeemer, we need to trust that he knows what's best for us and how we're supposed to work - and that's why we follow what sometimes seem like some odd "rules": because they're guidelines to proper human functioning and flourishing, and while it might not always be fun and games in the present while we're still readjusting and growing into this new pattern of life, in the end we know that this new pattern of life will be so much fuller than what we once had. And because Jesus is who he is, we need to trust in him to have the love and the power to deliver on that promise.

That's what faith is all about. And that's why faith gives life: because the faith of which we speak is faith in Jesus, who promises to set us free from death and deliver us into abundant life. By slaying our captor (sin), which wanted to be our executioner from the inside out, faith in Jesus sets us free to, like Cyril says, "attain to the city that is above and reign as kings with [Jesus]". From death into glorious life.

O Lord, may I learn to have the faith in you that will put sin to death and free me to enter into the rich glory you've promised for your people. Let sin, the mother and nurse of death, be slain in me; let faith give birth in me to a thousand treasures of fullness in its place. To you, O ever-faithful and life-giving Lord, be all glory and praise, both now and forever. Amen.