He who once was not

He who once was not

Allan Jones

Sun 10 Nov

There are 44 days to Christmas.  The decorations are already up in shops, and I heard a Christmas carol on the radio last week.

Christmas is certainly the most popular Christian festival and almost everyone in the world will be affected by it.  But I can’t help thinking that most of what will be said and sung about Christmas will, as usual, be meaningless, incredible and trivial.

Take the traditional carols for instance.  We’ll sing about Bethlehem, when we know that the Bethlehem story is Luke’s invention to make Jesus part of the royal line of David. Jesus was almost certainly born at home in Nazareth. We’ll sing that Jesus is born “the King of angels”, as though angels were a race of beings with a royal family.  We’ll sing that at Christmas we should come and adore Jesus, when the gospels tell us Jesus was not interested in adulation.  He preferred the title “Son of Man” to any royal or divine entitlement.  It was he who said, “why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’, and yet don’t do what I tell you?”

All of those things – Bethlehem, the King of Angels and the inappropriate adoration – are in just one verse of what is probably the most popular carol ever written.  You will know which one.  If we turn to other traditional carols, we will be told that Jesus was a unique baby – he didn’t cry.  Come on!  We’ll be told he now looks down from the sky at his children.  Scary!  And we’ll be told “he came down to earth from heaven, who is God and Lord of all”.

But surely the strangest verse of all comes as the second verse of that carol I’ve been talking about and which you all identified.  It goes:

God of God, Light of Light,

Lo, he abhors not the virgin’s womb.

Very God, begotten not created.

O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord.

Do you recognise those words?  They are straight from the Nicene Creed, written in 325 CE.  And therein hangs a story.  It’s a story that illuminates some of the strange beliefs that still surround Jesus and Christmas.

Creeds are not written to joyfully affirm what we all believe.  Creeds are written to exclude beliefs and people who can not muster a majority.  That was true in Nicaea in the 4th Century, and in the PCANZ Assembly not so long ago when an unbelievable and totally out of date Creed was adopted.  I doubt the PCANZ Creed will make any difference to anyone.  But the Nicene Creed set a direction that deeply and really affected the way many Christians came to think of Jesus.

A little background – Christianity had been growing strongly in the second and third centuries, and by the time of the Council of Nicaea there were 250 to 300 bishops present, representing Christian communities from all over the Roman world.  Some Roman Emperors had encouraged these communities, others had tolerated them, and some had viciously persecuted them.  Between 313 and 324, two men were co-emperors of the Empire; Licinius and Constantine.  By the end of this decade, Licinius was at war with Constantine.  Constantine, who had had a conversion experience, was aligned with the Christian population, and Licinius wanted the Christian’s repressed and side-lined.  In 324, Constantine defeated Licinius, and liberated Christians from the restrictions and annoyances Licinius had imposed.  Thus began the involvement of the Roman Empire with Christianity.

Immediately upon becoming sole Emperor, Constantine was confronted with a religious dispute that was tearing the Christian church apart.  The tendency of the previous centuries had inclined Roman Christians to see Jesus as more and more divine.  Divinity was common amongst Roman and Eastern religions.  Many of the emperors had declared themselves to be a god. (One had humbly insisted he was only a son of god.)  Virgin births of important people were commonplace.  Jesus was conceived as more and more godlike and divine.  In this period the doctrine of the Trinity grew up, and this illogical and unbelievable “mystery” spoke of one god, but three persons.

In the early fourth century one man famously spoke against the trend to make Jesus divine.  This was Arius, a priest from Alexandria, and the controversy he sparked, and which Constantine addressed by the Council of Nicaea, is called the Arian controversy.  I’d like to think that Arius saw the obvious: that Jesus was a human being, born of a woman, created in the usual way, not transcendent.  In other words, Jesus was not God, he was one of us.  Arius captured some of this in his slogan “once there was when he was not”.  And while many in the church thought this was common sense, most of the bishops thought it was heresy.

The Council of Nicaea met for two months.  The debates, it was said, resembled a battle in the dark, no-one knowing whether he was striking a friend or a foe.  When you are talking metaphysical nonsense there are no rules.  In the end, Constantine himself, no theologian and not the sharpest knife in the drawer, suggested that the relationship of son to father might be expressed by the term “homoousious”, of the same substance.  The word Arius and some others favoured was “homoiousious”, of like substance, a softer shade of divinity. There’s a sense in which we are all of like substance to God, made in the same image.  But it’s hard to disagree with a Roman Emperor, and the bishops adopted Constantine’s unscriptural and highly suspect definition.  Arius and several bishops were excommunicated, and the carol writer had his second verse: God of God, Light of Light etc.

What a difference it would have made if the trend had gone the other way.  If the bishops had agreed with Arius, that for Jesus, as with every human being, once there was when he was not.  If the attention had shifted from Jesus’ divinity, to Jesus’ teaching about how to live our lives.  If the bishops had said, what a person believes in their heart is their business, and what really matters is living with faith and hope and love.

But I guess that was too much for these men to comprehend.  They were frightened men, scared silly of hell and damnation, and they thought a divine Jesus was the only thing to save them.  So they put him on a God pedestal, that in this day and age is irrelevant and unbelievable for most sensible people.  That’s why the traditional carols will be a sad anachronism to most people again this Christmas.

All sermons are just one person’s opinion.  But I have a great deal of support for what I have said in today’s reading from Luke 6.  These are genuine words of Jesus, not insertions of pious doctrine by late scribes, as occurs elsewhere.  This is what he says, to us, and to the bishops at Nicaea:

Do not judge others.  Creed making is always judgemental.
Forgive others if you want to be forgiven.  Even others who think differently to you.
A blind man cannot lead another blind man.  And when we pontificate about God, we are all blind.
When I see a speck in a brother’s or sister’s eye, look out for the log in my eye.
A tree is known by the fruit it bears.  If I am a tree with a heart full of goodness and love, I will not judge or condemn or hate.  I will forgive and love.
Don’t call me Lord, but ignore what I am telling you about living and loving.
A house, a life, a human existence needs a deep and strong foundation, like any building.  That foundation is justice, mercy, generosity and love.  Other foundations will not survive the flood of the unexpected.

These things are bedrock, reality, truth to live by. This is good news brought on the feet of a messenger who announces peace. At Christmas let’s salute the messenger, but above all remember the message.