What it means to be human

A Sermon preached by the Rev. Nils Chittenden

Sunday, April 1st, 2018

Right after this sermon… so in about forty minutes or so ;)…. we will stand to recite a summary of Christian doctrine called The Nicene Creed. 

You know how, whenever there is a summit of, say, the G7 or the United Nations, the leaders will issue what is called a ‘communiqué’ which summarizes all the areas of agreement on the various weighty topics they have been discussing. The Nicene Creed is basically the communiqué from a summit held in the city of Nicaea in what is now Turkey in the year 325. The Christian Church had been growing at a phenomenal rate over the three hundred years since Jesus was here on earth and covered many areas of the eastern and central Mediterranean area. The problem was that various communities believed slightly different things. The definitive list of the books of the Bible hadn’t yet been fixed, and there also had started to be quite a lot of divergence in what people believed. So the bishops of the early church, concerned that things were starting to get a little messy, called a Council.

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The big subject on the table was the nature of Christ. Specifically, whether Christ was really truly a human being, or if he just looked like a human being but actually wasn’t. Although the theology gets rather complicated at an academic level, the bishops at the Council of Nicaea weren’t primarily discussing it because they enjoyed a good philosophical argument (although plenty of them did). They were discussing it because it goes to the very heart of the Christian faith, and the reasons why Jesus came to earth, and because it is something that really matters.

You see, it really matters that Jesus was fully human as well as fully divine. And, incidentally, that doesn’t mean that Jesus was 50% human and 50% divine; rather, it means that he was 100% human and 100% divine. I know that mathematicians will find this hard but anything is possible with God. Even when 100% + 100% = 100%.

Why does it really matter that Jesus was fully human as well as fully divine? It matters because it shows more than anything else at all that God cares for his creation so much that he is prepared to completely share in all of its life. I talked about this a couple of days ago in my sermon for Good Friday. This is what I said:

“Just for a moment, imagine that you are God, and that you existed before time and space and are the most supreme entity that ever was and ever will be, and that all power, dominion and authority rests with you, and that you can do all things, and have all things, and be all things. And then you think to yourself, “well, I think I will take on human form to walk around my creation a bit”. Where would you choose to go, what would you choose to do? Would you deliberately seek out the very foulest and horrific circumstances possible? Would you deny yourself every comfort, would you intentionally seek out the lost and the hurting and place yourself in terrible danger and suffer with the worst possible degradations of humanity? You know that a deity prepared to do that is the real deal. God was prepared – indeed wanted – to be alongside us in the very worst that life can be. God suffered with us, and he still does. Whatever we are going through, we need to know that God is going through it with us, because he proved to us that he was absolutely prepared to do so, and he actually did. Our God talks the talk and walks the walk. He walks in our shoes.”

If Jesus wasn’t fully human, but was just pretending to be, then how disingenuous his ministry would have been. I can’t think of anything more deceptive than just appearing to suffer with humanity but not actually doing so. This is why this matters so much. Because Jesus shared everything that we experience, all of our joys, all of our sadness, all of our hopes, all of our fears, and even death. It means that Jesus Christ is utterly authentic, utterly reliable, utterly steadfast and utterly human. 

So this, as I say, was one of the key achievements of the Council of Nicaea, as well as lots of other areas of doctrine. That didn’t mean, of course, that by the end of the Council everyone agreed on everything. But it did mean that they believed enough in the importance of consensus and the way consensus builds the common good that they were prepared to blend their views with those of their compadres so that they could continue to live together as a family. Like any family or partnership, we are constantly having to moderate our views and our behaviors in order to seek a common mind so that we can live together in harmony, because that’s the most important thing. God doesn’t mind us being a bit messy and diverse in our beliefs so long as we are truly loving towards one another. Much better than all being a bunch of rigid automatons who are on the same page about absolutely everything. One of the tragedies about the public perception of the Church, however, is that this is what many people think the Church is like. 

My experience, consistently throughout my ordained ministry, is that most people are yearning for a connection with God. Yet, sometimes people think that they aren’t good enough to be accepted by God or the Church. Over the years I’ve met people who’ve said that. I’ve also met people who said that they really wanted to come to Church but were afraid to, because they didn’t know what to do, or how they were supposed to behave when they got there. And the Church has also wounded plenty of people over the years. All of this is such a tragedy, because all of us are made in God’s image and everyone ought to feel welcome in God’s house.

There’s a quote which goes something like this: “At the wedding at Cana in Galilee, Jesus turned the water into wine, and the Church has spent the last two thousand years turning it back into water again”. I googled to see who said this, but I couldn’t find anything, so maybe it was actually me? I kind of hope it was, because it’s the sort of quote I would have liked to have come up with. What it suggests is that although God has consistently throughout history tried to tell us that all he longs for is a loving, joyful relationship with his children the Church has, over the centuries, set up so many rules and regulations that have sucked the joy out of our relationship with God and instead turned God into a remote, austere, judgmental authoritarian who is hard to please.

In general, thank goodness, the last hundred years or so has seen a marked change in those views as we begin to recover the simplicity and joy of believing which marked the early church. One of the reasons why this has happened is because, ironically, the Church has declined as an institution. Until only a couple of hundred years ago, Christianity was the state-sanctioned religion in many countries, and one way for the authorities to keep their people on a tight leash was by putting the fear of God into them. Even if these days we don’t get thrown in jail for not coming to church, plenty of people in living memory went to church purely because that is ‘what one does’. The done thing. Although the Church is now in one way a shadow of its former self, it is now much more authentic again. Lots of contemporary Christian commentators are of the view that actually for the first time since the fourth century – interestingly, about the same sort of time as the Council of Nicaea – the church is much more like the body that Christ would have wanted it to be. Smaller, less judgmental, nimbler, more welcoming and more inclusive. Above all, it is recovering its simplicity in joy and rediscovering that God is not lording it over us, but walking alongside us, just as Jesus did when he wrapped a towel around himself and washed his disciples’ feet. A very different kind of king. A servant king.

One very specific doctrine which, though still very widespread, is, thank goodness, really starting to decline is to do with what theologians call ‘The Atonement’. Basically it’s the theory of why Jesus had to die. Actually, the word ‘atonement’ is rather lovely because it is made up of the words ‘at’ and ‘one’. So it is really ‘at’ ‘one’ ‘ment’. The theory of how we can be ‘at one’ with God. For the first thousand years of the church there was really only one theory of why Jesus had to die: that evil had got in the way of God and us being ‘at one’ and that Jesus would be uniquely placed, as both human and divine, to smite the devil and his evil and render death powerless for all eternity. But then, in around the year 1000, a new theory of atonement came into widespread circulation. It basically states that God is an angry God who is displeased with us and demands a sacrifice to make him satisfied again and make him and us ‘at one’ again. As I was saying earlier, I believe that one major reason why this theory became the dominant one for most of the second millennium was that it was more effective at keeping the people in check and the church authorities in control. 

But now, at long last, the tide is turning again. I, for one, am very glad about that, because I believe in a loving God who yearns to be together with us, his children. 

I believe that Jesus died to conquer once and for all the power that sin and death had over us. And I believe that Jesus rose, bodily, from the dead on that day, the first Easter, to prove conclusively to us that his victory over sin and death was real. And I believe that that is joy worth sharing with the whole world!

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