There are two types of barbeque in North Carolina; eastern and western. What’s interesting about this east/west divide in pork preparation is lack of a clear point of demarcation between the west and the east. For instance, we know that Lexington is the center of western NC barbeque. You can find western style barbeque served east of Asheboro, even in Pittsboro. However, once in you’re in Raleigh, the transition to eastern style is complete. So somewhere in the middle of the eastern Piedmont, a transition occurs. Do taste buds change drastically between Burlington and Mebane? Or, at some point in the distant past, did some barbeque cooker make a heretical decision to switch sauces because he wanted to see why his cousins in Kinston kept raving about vinegar? We will never know.
Now I’m going to get into trouble. I was raised west of the barbeque Berlin Wall and now live as far to the east as one can get and still be in North Carolina. I’ve eaten both kinds of barbeque. After all these years, I can’t really tell them apart. To me, they all taste like barbeque. The impact of the sauce, whether vinegar or tomato based, is negligible. For me, barbeque tastes like chopped pork. While I do get emotional over slaw, neither the meat nor the sentimental debates surrounding its sauces no longer move me to tears. I won’t challenge you to a duel if you insult my great granddaddy’s barbeque recipe.
I bring up these perennial debates about North Carolina barbeque because they remind me of something we say every Sunday: the Creed. Like eastern and western style barbeque, there are two main creeds of the church. These historic statements of faith are on pages 880 and 881 in our hymnals. One is called the Nicene Creed the other is the Apostles’ Creed. We say the Apostles’ Creed every Sunday morning. The Nicene is longer and wordier than the Apostles’ Creed. Because of the sheer beauty of the language, I prefer the Nicene Creed. But like the barbeque we’ve just debated, they both say the same thing. One claims to have slightly more flavor. Both creeds are a restatement of belief in the three persons of the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) with brief descriptions of how those persons function in creation. To my mind, it reads like the “special skills” section of a divine resume.
Almost two thousand years ago, the creeds were painstakingly created to give a degree of uniformity to early Christian beliefs. Now, the creeds are more like barbeque, finely chopped religious words that all taste the same. Do they help us understand what we believe?
One question I like to ask of anything I read in the Bible is, “What’s Christian about this?” “Where is Jesus to be found in this story?” Whether we are reading in the Old Testament, New Testament, Paul’s letters, or even Jesus’ parables we ought to wonder, “What makes these stories distinctively Christian?” The answer to these questions will help determine how we use what we learn and apply what scripture teaches. We need to know what makes something Christian.
How do you take something you’ve read in the Bible and say, “Is this Christian?” My first step is to see how it fits with the creeds. The creeds are the definitive statements on the life, work, and person of God. Does the creed shed light on what you’re reading? The creeds are good at what they do but when it comes to illustrating the nuances of human emotion captured by Jesus’ storytelling, they fall short. The creeds are like Joe Friday on Dragnet. They are “just the facts” theology. Jesus’ ministry is reduced to nothing. He goes from being born of the Virgin Mary to suffering and dying under Pontius Pilate. We need a more.
There is another creed hiding in plain sight. It’s in the Bible, in Philippians chapter 2. Some people call it a hymn. It’s a song people were singing in the earliest days of the church. Paul quoted the hymn and included it his letter to the Philippians. They probably sang it in their own church. Here’s the hymn:
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
9 Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
That’s a creed. Those verses are a statement of belief. Unlike the resume bullet points in the Apostle’s Creed, we come away from this passage with a clear understanding of what Jesus did and why he did it. This is the earliest church’s understanding of who he was and what he came to do. So when we read a story in the Gospels, we now have a text (a creed) to go back to. Philippians 2 gives us criteria for seeing what makes Christ Christian, Jesus (Jesus), believing in God from serving God.
As with this morning’s reading from Matthew 11, I want to know, what makes this story Christian? How is yoke bearing a distinctly Christian action, or is it? What’s the Christian difference here? Why does Christian participation matter in a world struggling under so much oppression and weight?
Look as those last three verses, 27-30. Jesus is being as honest with his followers as he’s ever been. “My father has handed all things over to me. No one knows the Son except the Father. And nobody knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wants to reveal to him.” It’s all on Jesus. Jesus is giving everyone access to God. There are no barriers to God. To be clear, the context for what comes next is this: everyone can be in relationship with God.
This is how Jesus extends the invitation to begin a relationship with God: “Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads and I will give you rest. Put on my yoke and learn from me. I’m gentle and humble. And you will find rest for yourselves. My yoke is easy to bear and my burden is light.”
What makes those last two verses Christian? What makes helping others with their burdens, emotional or otherwise, explicitly Christian? Firstly, they come in the context as an invitation to Christian discipleship. An invitation to Christian discipleship is more than saying, “Hey, I want you to believe in God.” Discipleship is about pairing belief with action. I believe in Jesus, so I’m going to act in a way that reflects those beliefs.
In this case, (Matthew 11), active discipleship means embracing weakness. Jesus says come and be weak with me. You say, “I need strength for the journey, preacher.” Perhaps our ideas of strength owe more to Nietzsche than they do Jesus? Emptiness and weakness makes this story Christian. Go back again to Philippians 2. In verse seven, the Christ hymn says that “Jesus emptied himself”, taking the form of a slave. God became weak, a paradox in the truest sense of the word; as Paul said in 1 Corinthians 1:25, “God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” Jesus scandalizes our images of a powerful ruler. Philippians 2 tells us that God emptied himself of strength and power, not only that he would know our weaknesses but that they might become his weaknesses. Salvation comes in sharing a yoke with Jesus, not despite our frailties, weaknesses, or sinfulness but because we are frail, weak, sinners. He too has a great burden and is offering to help us bear our burden. These yokes are designed for two. This story is Christian because it’s realistic about who we are as people. Jesus acknowledges our weaknesses. Jesus stands beside us at our weakest moments. This story is Christian because it acknowledges the reality of shared suffering. This story is Christian because it reminds us that God suffers with us. How do we know this? A God who won’t suffer and die with you isn’t worth worshipping.
Philippians 2 wasn’t written by a committee of theologians. I’m fairly certain it reflected the deeply held beliefs of ordinary people who worshipped in the 1st century. By the time they wrote the creed, this hymn Paul quoted was probably as old as the United States of America was this past Tuesday. So to tell you the truth, I’ll bring it back home to the barbeque. I can it take or leave it on the creeds. But when it comes to slaw and Philippians 2, I’ve definitely got an opinion.