The Rev. Hal Chorpenning
Plymouth Congregational UCC,
Fort Collins, Colorado
“I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.”
Did you notice anything about Jesus that was missing? How about this one:
“We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one being with the Father; through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from Heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and did become truly human. For our sake, he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried.
Did you catch what was missing? These ancient creeds have a beginning on the timeline of Jesus’ life (born of the Virgin Mary), and there is an endpoint on his human timeline (crucified, died, buried). The creeds even name the man who did it: Pontius Pilate. But what happened to the intervening 33 years of Jesus’ life?
One of the reasons I wrestle with the creeds of the early church is that they omit what I consider absolutely central in the New Testament and in a living, vital Christian faith: the sometimes scandalous and dangerous life and teachings of Jesus.
The Nicene Creed is the earlier of the two, written by bishops at the Council of Nicaea in 325…all male bishops of course, the council was convened by the emperor in a palace that belonged to Constantine himself, and the bishops were under the guard of Roman soldiers as they tried to define orthodoxy for Constantine.
Think of it – within 300 years the followers of Jesus went from being subversives whose leader was nailed on a cross in the Jewish homeland by Rome to become the official religion of the Roman Empire and whose theology was under the scrutiny of the emperor and his legions. The anti-imperial movement had been coopted into the establishment of the empire itself! Why does this matter? Look at Christian nationalism at home and abroad for the answer.
Perhaps that is the reason the creeds fail to mention the teachings of Jesus: they are too hot to handle, too full of subversive wisdom, too hard to deal with as the establishment rather than the movement.
When I was growing up in a New England Congregational UCC church, we didn’t say the creeds, and we didn’t observe Lent, which was true for our Puritan and Pilgrim forebears. Maybe some people knew that Lent was happening and what it was about, but I certainly didn’t. Growing up in a state with a large Roman Catholic population, I knew lots of kids who went to catechism after school, gave things up for Lent, and the public schools always had fish sticks for hot lunch on Fridays – all of which was mystifying to me. And that is because our Reformed forbears didn’t observe non-biblical holidays, because they wanted to return as closely as possible to the practice of the very early church and to shed centuries of accretion by the Church of Rome.
Lent was not widely observed in the church until Christianity was the established religion of the Empire. What can we learn if we go back before the Council of Nicaea in 325?
In the early Egyptian tradition of the desert mothers and fathers, Lent was an emulation of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness, a time of testing, a vision quest that Jesus himself experienced. And in the church in Jerusalem, it was a forty-day preparation of initiates for baptism and full inclusion in the church at Easter.
Those are two very different ways to observe the 40 days.
Most of the church forgot (and sometimes still forgets) the life and teachings of Jesus! In just the same way the creeds do, the timing of Lent and Good Friday skip over everything Jesus did between the beginning of his public ministry and the week he died. The forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness prepared him to lead a new movement and preach the liberating reign of God and heal. If we focus on Jesus’ wilderness experience in Lent, we remember and observe the launch pad from which he set out on his ministry, and that can carry over into our lives today.
Jesus’ time in the wilderness is historically separate and distinct from his crucifixion, thought they bump up next to one another in the liturgical calendar. Jesus was not tempted by Satan in the desert so that he could head right into beautiful downtown Jerusalem to be executed by Rome! He was tempted by Satan so that he could become ready to take on the religious establishment and the Roman Empire itself.
Please don’t misunderstand me: the crucifixion of Jesus is critically important, and we will get there during Holy Week. A profound truth of Jesus’ self-sacrifice is that “No one has greater love than this, but to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
For me, the desert mothers and fathers had a strong point: Lent is about the wilderness pilgrimage of Jesus, being tempted by possessions, power, and fame — and rejecting them all. It is a refining quest in the desert that enables Jesus to emerge in the Galilee and become a teacher, sage, and prophet of God. Immediately after today’s reading, Luke says Jesus “returned to Galilee” and “began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.” And then comes his “inaugural address,” preaching from Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor…release to the captives…recovery of sight to the blind…let the oppressed go free…to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Of course, any self-respecting Roman emperor wouldn’t want that to be the emphasis of the state religion! And Christian nationalists in our country or in Vladimir Putin’s Russia run away from the historical Jesus as well because the liberation he offers is anathema to them.
Then Jesus heals people, calls the twelve disciples, and then preaches the Sermon on the Plain (or the Sermon on the Mount as Matthew calls it), the crystallization of his prophetic teaching, which starts with “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” Why don’t we have a liturgical season dedicated to the Sermon on the Mount or the Beatitudes? Is Jesus still too risky for the church to handle?
So, where does that leave us with Lent? Though you may not guess it, I love Lent as a season when we test our faith and try to go deeper. When we pray a little more, live intentionally a little more, consider our way of life a little more, our faith gains greater depth.
Lent is not simply a 40-day prelude to the crucifixion, but rather a challenge to live faithfully…to try and learn more about the life and teachings of Jesus and then put them into practice in our own lives…which is a lot harder than simply giving up chocolate for 40 days…and it yields longer lasting results.
My challenge to you is this: find a way to go deeper. Observe sabbath time each day, read our Lenten Devotional booklet (available in the Fellowship Hall), have ten minutes or more of silent or walking meditation, read the gospel of Luke that is in our lectionary this season, join the brand new study of Genesis with Art Rooze, or give up chocolate (but remember it’s not just to cut calories). Remember what Jesus said, “I came so that you could have life and have it in abundance.”
May we in this beloved community have the grace to grant ourselves some sabbath space this Lent as we delve deeper into our faith.
© 2022 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact hal at plymouthucc.org for permission to reprint.