We begin this week with a scandal. Not, I grant you, the most salacious of scandals, but scandal nonetheless. And moreover, it is a scandal which discredits us all, every one of us, at least in the eyes of a disbelieving world.
We’re fools, the lot of us, or so we are told. Fools because of Jesus Christ. We move this week to the next article of the Creed – I believe in Jesus Christ. But it is only the next article because of the way the text is laid out. Theologically, the first article – I believe in God the Father – and the articles about the Holy Spirit are equal. Theologically they cannot be separated. But for Christians, our understanding of our relationship with the Father and the Holy Spirit flow from and depend on our knowledge of and relationship with Christ. This is the core of the Creed. This is the core of the faith.
So why is this foolishness? Why is this scandalous? The idea of foolishness and scandal comes from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians really speaks of the message of the cross been foolishness to the Greeks, the Gentiles understanding block, a scandal, to the Jews. In the marketplace of religious thought in the world which Paul knew and occupied, Christianity was to carve out a third way, was to offer a new way of understanding God, a way which differed in fundamental ways from the understandings taught by Greek religious philosophy and by the Jewish faith. This scandal, this foolishness, which to us, of course, is neither, takes us to the heart of the Christian faith.
Approaching the heart of the faith in this way reminds us helpfully that Christianity developed in the context of other religions and philosophies. This meant it drew upon them while, at the same time, refuting aspects of them. We as Christians owe a lot to the Jewish faith and need to remember that. We also owe much to Greek philosophy. But Christianity is unique and, in that context of the Apostles’ Creed, these words, “I believe in Jesus Christ,” are what makes our faith unique.
Other religions believe in a divine creator. Other religions believe in a spiritual relationship between the creator and the created, but no other religion asserts that the divine, eternal Creator entered history at a particular time and in particular place. To Greeks this was foolishness. The Greek philosophical mind looked around at the world and saw suffering and pain. The reality of life was harsh. Humanity carried heavy burdens. There must be a better way, the Greeks reasoned. And so from the Greek philosophical mind, the concept of salvation was intimately bound up with the idea of the liberation, liberation from the realities of suffering, from the burdens of the world, and from this life. Salvation was an escape. Left behind would be the body and the pains it feels, the world and the burdens it imposes, and even time itself and the decays which come from its passage. To be honest, we often still think in these terms when we think of salvation, but these are not authentically Christian terms.
The uniqueness of Christ is this. In Christ, God offers salvation within the realities of the world, not escape from them. Salvation is bodily, rather than away from the body, away from the physical. Salvation is received in this life. This is, in part, why the Creed later on emphasises the resurrection of the body. Christianity is a religion, not of escape, but of engagement, and in no one is this seen more clearly than in Jesus Christ, whose life on earth was about God engaging in the physical world, living and dying within and among it. The idea that God would save by entering into the world, rather than by taking the righteous from it, was incomprehensible folly to the Greeks.
The Jews, had a different way of thinking. They were familiar with, and comfortable with, the idea of God in history. To the Greeks, the divine was timeless, entirely out with the realms of time and history, but the Jews had seen God revealed in particular times, in particular events, in particular places – the wilderness, during the time of the Exodus – being chief among them. To them, the hope of salvation was bound up with the hope for a better future, that someday, God would intervene and remove all suffering and oppression. Unlike in Greek philosophy, in which salvation entailed removal from the world, to the Jews, salvation was about the redemption of the world. In that, Christianity is much closer to Jewish thought. The scandal, of course, was that in about 30 AD, a small group of people started to claim that this divine intervention had happened. Worse, they claimed it had happened without most people, even they themselves, realising it at the time. Even worse, they were claiming that God had intervened, not in an obviously triumphant, victorious way, but in a way which looked, on the face of it, to be abject failure, in a life which was ended on a cross, in a criminals death, at the hands of the very oppressors for whose overthrow the Jews were then fervently longing. That this provincial failure was been claimed as God, and his life as God’s decisive, salvific intervention in history, was truly scandalous.
But why should we be concerning ourselves with ancient arguments, with ways of thinking from long ago? The reason is simple; these ways of thinking have not gone away. They are still challenges to the Christian faith. To many, it seems scandalous that we put our trust in a Palestinian peasant who died on a cross two thousand years ago, rather than in the kinds of might and power, of wealth and influence and force which are on offer now. But we know that these things don’t work, that the supposedly strong of our time do not have the solutions, that they cannot save.
And to many it seems utter foolishness not to seek escape. Many have falsely characterised religion as a form of escapism. Marx said that it is “the opiate of the people”, a way of dulling the pain of existence. He said that to discredit religion. And truthfully, there are many who discredit the faith from within, falsely claiming faith as a route out of the troubles of life. But that is not what Christian faith authentically is. Christianity is, at its very core, a religion of engagement and involvement in the world. And it is so because of Jesus Christ.
Because we put our trust in Jesus Christ, because we believe in him, we are committed to follow him, and to follow him into love for the world. Because in Jesus, God became human flesh, our faith requires us to be committed to service of the world. Because in Jesus, God became human flesh at a time in history, God has hallowed time and directs us to see it as a gift, not something to be endured as we await the release of eternity. Because God in Jesus became human flesh, in one unique individual, the Christian faith champions the dignity and importance of every individual human being. What makes our faith unique is that it is centred on and begins in one human being, Jesus of Nazareth.
When we confess our trust in Jesus, as we say the Creed together, we are confessing our trust, not in a God out there somewhere, outside history, away from the realities of the world. We are confessing our trust in the God who is with us, in the God who shares in human struggle and suffering, the God who hallows the world, not just by creating it, but by entering into it to redeem it. We are confessing our trust in the God who is not calling us away to future kingdom, but whose kingdom is already here, now, and whose own struggles in Jesus make our struggles worthwhile; who, because he changed the course of history, blesses our struggles to do just that in his name.