Christianity is the only major world religion built around creeds and statements of faith. We require a litmus test before you can join the club. Think about that for a moment. God’s grace is free and open to everyone as long as you can agree with our belief paragraph.
We stand alone with our creedal tradition. How did we get this way?
In the early 4th century, when Christianity was legalized, and the Roman Empire’s official religion, the church’s bishops (under Constantine’s guidance) felt the need to standardize the hodgepodge of creeds into a formal statement of faith. Every local congregation from Jerusalem to Antioch and Alexandria to Ephesus used slightly different versions of declarations and statements of faith. This presented a problem for the early church. When trying to stomp out heresies, such as Arianism and the like, variations in belief are often where the seeds of heterodoxy were planted. One way to get ahead of the heretical curve would be for the bishops to issue a definitive statement of faith, a creed, to define what all churches must profess to be considered orthodox and in good standing with the bishops in Constantinople and Rome.
The Apostles’ Creed descends from a creed used by the early church in Rome, unknown to the Greek church in the east. It probably originated about the same time as the first Nicene Council in 325. However, the Creed of Constantinople, which we now call the Nicene Creed, became the church’s official version in 381 CE. For those of you counting, it took the church three hundred and fifty-eight years to summarize its fundamental theological and Christological beliefs about Jesus into one paragraph. Change comes slowly around these parts. No one who wrote that paragraph knew Jesus, saw Jesus, lived with Jesus, or had any more personal contact with Jesus than we do. Those who wrote the creeds barely had what we would call a New Testament today.
Remember, the men who called themselves Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John wrote their stories of Jesus thirty to sixty years after his death. Memories fade, especially in parts of the world where the average lifespan of an adult male in first-century Palestine was 37. The gospel writers authored stories based on memory, myth, history, tradition, and lore. It’s on these sources that three hundred-plus years later, the creed writers tried to distill the essential parts of Christian belief into a single paragraph. What a monumental task! Given the historical and theological contradictions in the New Testament text, one starts to wonder whether those who compiled the creed are asking us to believe in the right things. For instance, should they have included the greatest commandment over the ascension?
There are two accounts of the Ascension in the four gospels, which are wildly different. In Matthew’s version (often referred to as the Great Commission) 28:16-20, Jesus’ disciples are instructed to meet him on a mountain in Galilee on Easter Sunday, the day of resurrection. He gives them authority to baptize and make disciples of all nations. And with that, the resurrected Jesus vanished from the stage of human history. Mark and John lack Ascension stories, so we go to Luke.
Luke’s first version is (24:50-53) immediately following the Emmaus Road encounter. Again, on the day of resurrection, near Bethany (close to Jerusalem, not Galilee), Jesus offers a final blessing to the disciples he’s encountered. As he’s blessing them, he’s taken up to heaven. Let me emphasize; Luke says this is on the day of resurrection.
Luke’s second account, in Acts 1:3, we’re told that Jesus stayed with the disciples for 40 days with them in Jerusalem (eating with them and instructing them to wait on the baptism of the Holy Spirit). Then, after 40 days, they went outside the city (1:9), and “he was taken up before their eyes, and a cloud him from their sight.”
Which ascension are we supposed to believe in? Luke couldn’t even get his own story straight. If you’re going to lie, at least be consistent. We put something in the creed that the one author who wrote about it twice couldn’t get it right. Red flags anyone?
To understand what we’re assenting to when we recite, we must understand what and how the first century understood concepts like death, resurrection, and dying and rising Gods. Of all the crazy things we do and say each week, asking people to profess belief in a jet-pack Jesus who lifted off and flew back into heaven is the one that bothers me most. I’m not sure anyone in the first century literally believed Jesus up and flew away. People who grew up in an environment saturated with gods and goddesses had a more refined sense of metaphor and myth. I’m with Rudolf Bultmann here.
I don’t believe in a flying Jesus, a rocket man. I don’t think Luke did either. Yet, here we are in the 21st century, talking about jet-pack Jesus as one of the things we’ve got to believe in to be Christian. And this Sunday, Ascension Sunday, we’ll do it again because that’s just what you do.
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