Hacking the Apostle's Creed : Born of the Virgin Mary

This summer I'm doing a sermon series on the Apostle's Creed, drawing from Justo L. Gonzalez's book The Apostles' Creed for Today, in an attempt to help the Creed make sense to our contemporary views.  Some parts will be reconciled, some parts may have to be left out.  But hopefully you'll never read the Apostle's Creed the same way again!

I believe in Jesus Christ, God's only son our Lord.
Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, 

Born of the Virgin Mary

When we talk about the Birth of Jesus, we can't help but talk about how it was a virgin birth. Now some Christians don't find it necessary to believe in the Virgin Birth. That's just a story. That's someone's idea of how Jesus might have been born. There were other pagan deities who were born to virgins around the time of Jesus. The Gospel writers were making Jesus seem important.

To others, a virgin birth is essential. How else could Jesus be a divine person, coming from God? It makes perfect sense: the God who opened Sarah's barren womb so she could bear Isaac, Rebekah's miraculous birth of Jacob, Rachel's miraculous birth of Joseph...this God who empowers barren women proves that their children are the result of God's involvement. This God must have been involved in the birth of Jesus. The virgin birth must be true.

But to the writers of the Creed, it's not about the virgin birth.  Stay with me.
It is true that the Creedal writers were affirming the Virgin Birth by calling Mary the Virgin Mary. But their belief that it happened mattered much less than that it happened to one particular person. It's identifying that Jesus was born of this Mary, this woman, Mary the Virgin.

The reason why requires some Christianity CSI, some putting together the clues.
Last wee, we talked about how "God the Maker of Heaven and Earth" was written against people who said the God of the Old Testament was a different God than the God of Jesus.
This week it is a similar problem.  Marcion of Sinope's contemporaries, the Gnostics, said that Jesus could not have been born of a woman.
In the gnostic Gospel of James, it reads that when Mary was in the manger, there was a bright flash of light, and Jesus appeared next to her. Really.

Why? These heretics couldn't stand the idea that Jesus was born of a woman.
Birth, it's a messy time. Blood and water, pain and joy.
The real messiness of human life begins in the messiness of birth.
And for the Gnostics, with their soul/body dualism, birth was too messy a way for a dignified son of God to come into the world.  There's no way Jesus, son of God, could be born of a woman.
Jesus must have just appeared, wrapped in white cloths next to Mary, already potty-trained and never woke up crying at 4am.

To which the Creed says otherwise.
I believe in Jesus Christ, God's only son, our Lord.
It doesn't matter if the virgin birth was real or an allegory.
It only matters that Jesus was born of a woman, in the fully human way, mess and all.
Jesus was fully human and fully divine. But most importantly, Jesus was fully human.

Today, we still struggle with this messiness.
We still struggle with the idea that this Jesus that we believe in was fully human.
That would mean Jesus was involved in the messiness of life.
We know from Scripture that Jesus forgave sinners, tax collectors, prostitutes, religious authorities.
But today we rarely preach that Jesus would welcome an illegal immigrant, would forgive a murderer, would forgive Osama bin Laden, would forgive me, you.
Jesus is too concerned with other things, and demands my purity.
I can't let Jesus get dirty. Jesus is God, Jesus is pure and clean.

But in reality, Jesus is found in the messiness of life.
In the Scriptures, Zaccheus was probably the biggest train wreck in town and Jesus picked him. This is the Jesus who leaves the 99 to find the one. He reminds us that the sick need a doctor, not the healthy. He makes wine for party goers who have already had too much to drink.
Jesus is messy when it comes to following the rules and engaging the lost and lonely. Perhaps he is too messy for most religious people and certainly for the disgruntled religious crowds mentioned in the Scripture today.

This text of Zaccheus and the Apostle's Creed are reminding us that the fully human Jesus reaches out to messy fully human people.
There's a challenge for us today. If we don’t have any relationships with the messy marginalized, the misunderstood, the outcasts, the sinners of this community, perhaps we’re part of the country club Christianity crowd.
If we’re to follow the messy Jesus and not the clean, sterilized Jesus, we will choose to:
  • We go against conventional wisdom
  • We eat with the wrong crowd
  • We drink with the wrong crowd
  • We love the wrong crowd
  • We assist the wrong crowd
  • We advocate for the wrong crowd
  • We heal the wrong crowd
The hardest thing for Christians to do is be a little messy
in the interest of loving those who have lost their way.
But Jesus was scandalous first,
and we only need to follow his example.
Jesus is looking for disciples who don’t always follow social customs, follow all the rules, and who are always neat and proper.

We need help to not repeat the mistakes of the past.
To the gnostics, Jesus was clean and pious.
But the birth of Jesus Christ was messy.
Our faith today has become clean and pious.
But Jesus reached out to a man named Zaccheus who was a mess, and transformed his life.
Who are the messy people whose lives you will be reach out to today?


Friar July 31, 2008 at 11:45 AM  

We are in fact the only faith that dares to claim the deity needed to be potty-trained.

Isn't it ironic (sorry, Ms. Morissette) that a phrase included in the creed as an assertion of Jesus' humanity -- he was born of a woman -- has become for many a way to assert his divinity -- that woman was a virgin. And in so doing, it's created a belief stumbling block for an entirely different set of people.

newine July 31, 2008 at 12:50 PM  

Very refreshing and bold of you to focus here, Jeremy! Without picking nits (we're doing enough of that on another thread!) may I add that another thing very much worth focusing on here is Mary's initial and then ongoing act of supreme submission to God's will in agreeing to be Jesus' mother. It's one of the reasons Catholics venerate Mary, and why we protestants are too often remiss in not exploring this vein more fully.

It's a terribly unpopular idea in this age of gender equality as social norm, but it applies just as well to men also: submission. If she said 'yes' to God, she is... amazing... holy... and yes, a virgin in every sense of the word.

Far from detracting, the similar pagan stories only put an exclamation point on this fact. (If one is to counterfeit truth, one is better off making it look similar to truth than contrasting with it too sharply.)

Consider also that Jesus, the ultimate good Jewish boy, would also have venerated her. Yes we are messy and Jesus knows that, but Mary must be examined in the full holiness of what she said 'yes' to and what she patiently endured from the moment she first spoke with the angel.

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