The Nicaean Times

I just received my doctorate degree yesterday! I don’t feel any different. It’s been a long five-year journey. At the end of my presentation, someone asked, “How are you different? What has this process changed in you?”

My mind went in a million different directions, so here is a reflection on that nanosecond and my answer….

Growing up, I had a whole host of role models. Maybe you did, too? I wanted to play basketball like Anfernee Hardaway. I wanted to paint like Van Gogh. I wanted to write like Stephen King. I wanted to make music like Blink-182 or the Smashing Pumpkins or The Beatles or some combination thereof. But mainly, I really wanted to be my Uncle Scott.

He was a great husband to my Aunt Deb. He was funny and quoted pop culture. He went to church and led Bible Studies. He had a dog and a cool car. He was a star player on his basketball team and would still play pickup games.

As I grew up, I realized I wouldn’t have the exact same path as Uncle Scott. That I had different gifts. I wasn’t quite as good at sports nor had his confidence. Yet I still yearned to be like him, but I knew in my heart it wasn’t likely to happen.

I felt the same way about Jesus. From an early age, I was given the Nicene Creed. In this creed, Jesus was the “only begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages. God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father; through him all things were made.  For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate, he suffered death and was buried, and rose again on the third day 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.”

I was also taught at my Roman Catholic Elementary School that Jesus healed the sick, gave sight to the blind, raised the dead, cast out demons, walked on water, turned water into wine, and did things no one else could or ever would. There’s my predicament with my Uncle Scott all over again. I wanted to be like Jesus but it wasn’t going to happen.

Quaker Minister Philip Gulley points out in his sermon that inspired this one that “After I began studying theology, I came to suspect that if a theologian had approached Jesus and said, ‘Teacher, this is what we’ve concluded about you,’ and then read him the Nicene Creed, Jesus wouldn’t have recognized himself.”[1]

What is in the Nicene Creed are claims Jesus never made about himself. Nor does the creed give us any grounds for Christian life and mission. It’s belief based. Jan Linn points out in his book Unbinding Christianity that we studied last year that “Conformity of beliefs has never served Christianity well, mainly because it divides rather than unites Christians… My argument is that the words of Jesus make it abundantly clear that following him is about a particular way of living in the world.”[2]

The Nicene Creed is what happens when you lock a whole bunch a bishops in a room and deprive them of food until they figure out what Christians believed. They came up with this creed in the year 325 under the command of the Emperor Constantine who had become curious about Christianity after having a dream. In this dream he was at a battle and was told that if he painted a Christian symbol, some say the cross, the fish, or the letter X which is the first letter for Christ in Greek, then he’d win.[3] When he awoke he drew the symbol before his next battle, won, and so became friendly with the early Church.

Yet the problem with the early church was that it had a stunning broad swath of belief. It was an explosion of belief, opinions and statements about Jesus. There were so many ways and expressions of Christianity. Constantine wanted clarity and focus, so he convinced the Council of Nicaea to gather.

The Creed is against Arius, who was teaching that Jesus was just a human. Arianism stated that Jesus was created by God and therefore neither coeternal nor consubstantial. The writers of the creed stood against that and condemned Arianism. They wrote about Jesus being one with God, like we heard in today’s scripture. The how gets mapped out here. There’s nothing about ethics or who is saved.

The north African theologians Origin, Clement, and Gregory of Nyssa whom I’ve mentioned before in this series were among the final editors of the creed and were also universalists.[4] They believed in the Harrowing of Hell that we learned about two weeks ago.

The Nicene Creed was formed in a time and context, and it reflected how people were thinking about the Trinity then. It also left people out. This move around the Holy Spirit preceding from God and Christ caused a whole group of churches to leave and sowed the seeds of the eventual division between the Orthodox and Roman Catholic church.

‘Abd Al-Jabbar is a Muslim in the tenth century who accused Christianity of selling out to the empire back in the Nicaean Times, “It was not Christianity that converted the empire but the empire that converted Christianity.”[5] Al-Jabbar highlighted how the Greek and Roman influences erased Christianity’s rootedness in Palestine and its Jewish origin. It gave us a Roman Jesus and not the Jewish Jesus he actually was. The church can find its values in the last lines of the Nicene Creed. Cheryl Petersen writes in her book, Who is the Church? That the church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic—ideas that are found in the Nicene Creed.

One: means that there is one Christian Church. If God is infinite and humans are finite, then it would make sense that there would be multiple expressions of church as people’s relationships would change. Some would gravitate to the order of God while others the love. Some would pick up the social justice aspects of God while others would be drawn to the power of the Spirit. There are many expressions, but one church.

Holy: means striving: striving to be honest about who we are, to forgive and not return an eye-for-an-eye, to find connection with God and with one another, and to reconcile ourselves to ourselves and others. It is this striving that sets us apart.

Catholic: means universal. It applies to everyone and everything. It also means we’re not in charge of the invitation list both here in our congregations or in heaven. God is in charge of salvation, not us.

Apostolic: is not the same as disciple. Disciple means “learner” and apostle means “messenger.” First we learn, then we are messengers for God. We can trace our long line of learners sharing their wisdom all the way back to Pentecost. This is our family system, and it comes from real people in real contexts making adaptive decisions.

These values matter over anything we believe. We can’t believe anything we want. Like in the Nicene Times, we’re dealing with our own form of Aryanism, like the Aryan Nation.[6] It’s a group that’s not saying Jesus was human, but that Jesus was white. White nationalist rhetoric has gone mainstream.  White supremacy needs to be rooted out of our thinking and system of laws. The “replacement theory” the racist conspiracy theory that holds that, through immigration, interracial marriage, integration, and violence, and at the behest of secret forces orchestrated by “global elites” (as the Buffalo shooter claimed) or Jews, white people are being disenfranchised, disempowered, and pushed out of “white nations.”[7] This is the Aryanism we’re called to stand against:  white nationalist rhetoric that caused a man to shoot up a grocery store in Buffalo, NY. Killing our fellow Christians and neighbors.

It is such an affront to our way of life… The shooter and those who have converted to the ways of the empire will kill for their beliefs… Jesus gave his life for his.

I value the Nicene Creed as it gives us values. Yet I wonder like Philip Gulley if it tells the story of Christ right. We’re not called to deal with the Arians the church in the Nicaean Times were. We have our own type of Aryans that are far more dangerous than those who believe Jesus was just a human like us. Our Aryans believe white people are better than all other races and that Black people aren’t as American as we are. They are willing to kill for this. This domestic terrorism is the biggest threat to our country and communities than anything out there right now.

We cannot be the church of Nicaea. Nor is God us to be the Acts of the Apostles church as that was the first chapter. God is calling us to be the church here and now.

To be one, searching for unity.
To be holy, different than the world for Jesus does not give as the world gives. He returns peace, love, and forgiveness for violence.
Catholic: seeing Christ in all nations, creeds, races, genders, and orientations.
Apostolic: we can trace our history and family tree of those messengers from our mentors all the way back to Christ.

We must, as our ancestors did, follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit and adapt to the challenges and questions we face together. TOGETHER. Not just the me, your pastor.  The church is responsible for the church. No one will do it for us. We must be it, incarnate it, try to be as Christ to a hurting world in our context.

What the D.Min has taught me is all that and that fact that I cannot be any pastor you’ve had in the past. You’ve had some great ones. I’ve enjoyed meeting those whom I’ve met who served you well. I can’t be my Uncle Scott either. I’ve learned to be me. I love my Uncle Scott still, and I’m glad my uncle is my uncle. But now I’m glad to be Luke.

I can only be Luke. And you can only be you. My call is to help each of you realize that you are a gift from God. The creeds can often be used as “BELIEVE THIS AND YOU’RE WELCOME WITHIN THESE WALLS.” No. Used like this, they are missing the mark. They are a reminder of our values and of those who have come before us. We cannot be them. We must be us. The body of Christ here in the 21st Century.

So what do you want to do for God, church? You have fed people. We have had some amazing worships and Sundays together. You have helped build Habitat Houses. We’ve done work on our building. You’ve welcomed new members and said some hard goodbyes for those who have died. You served food at funerals and did the dishes afterwards, thus changing someone’s life. That has been a balm for grieving hearts. The Gathering has marked 20 years of inclusive, innovative worship and we look forward to 20 more! Our children have led us and are learning bible stories in new ways and making videos and finding creativity and joy in the process! Our lives have been transformed because of our presence together.

You are the gift, church. How you’ve exercised your gifts has mattered and impacted people. Our annual report shows the miles we have gone. It’s good to take a look and celebrate how far we have come because there have been some rough spots in the road.

The divine has been with us every step of the way. The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom our God has sent to us in Jesus’ name has taught us things and reminded us of what Christ has taught us. It is good to look back. It’s good when we’re driving to check the rear-view mirrors. It shows us what’s behind us, and where we’ve come from.

Yet there’s also a reason why the front windshield is bigger than the rearview. Because where we’re going together matters more than where we’ve been. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Works Cited

[1] Philip Gulley, Theology 101: Jesus: sermon http://philipgulley.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/Theology101Jesus.pdf

[2]Jan Linn, Unbinding Christianity: Choosing the values of Jesus over the beliefs of the church, (Irvine, CA: Universal Publishers, 2020) xix.

[3]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constantine_the_Great_and_Christianity#Battle_of_Milvian_Bridge

[4]https://www.patheos.com/blogs/unfundamentalistchristians/2017/04/indeed-many-universalism-early-church/

[5] Lamin O. Sanneh, Disciples of all Nations: Pillars of world Christianity (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2008), 79.

[6] https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/extremist-files/group/aryan-nations

[7] https://www.vox.com/23076952/replacement-theory-white-supremacist-violence

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