So this is week 2 in our series entitled “We Believe?” Just to recap last week, I had talked about how Creeds and modern Statements of Faith can be divisive, opposed to values which are often more inclusive and invite people in. We also looked at the historical motivation for the Nicene Creed which was to sure up the church’s official stance on Jesus being fully God and fully human. Jesus was a person just like you and me because he gave up his Godly power to live a fully human experience. I also very briefly talked about the Nicene Creed being a symbol that points to the larger story found in the bible. This notion of using a Symbol to frame a spiritual concept has been rattling around in my brain for a couple weeks now.
I started looking up some paintings that might tie in to today’s portion of the creed. As I was looking for pictures to illustrate the themes today, I was drawn to images of icons. I love to look at icons from The Eastern Orthodox church. I don’t know that much about traditional icons but I ‘m fascinated with them none the less.
Again I’m no expert but it is my understanding that Orthodox churches believe that their icons have been passed down from the early church in the same way the bible was passed down. As the words in the bible were copied by hand and passed down from generation to generation, their icons were also copied and passed down from generation to generation. An icon is inspired by God in the same way the scriptures were inspired by God. The Eastern Church believes that we learn through images as well as words, and that one is not more important than the other. This is why Icons are so prevalent in their expression of church.
With this in mind I did some Google searches for icons and I stumbled on a very interesting website. I found an artist named Betsy Porter from San Francisco. She is a living artist that paints traditional icons. She has a beautiful site where when you click on an image you get to see a full screen version of the icon. I was very excited because the images were all big enough for me to share with you today in the power point. Next to each picture she had a short blurb that talked about the painting’s traditional importance in Orthodox Church life, or a story about the artist and why she created the work.
Here is Betsy’s Artist Statement:
After many years of making art and learning a variety of craft disciplines, I would like to show you some of my work.
During the past several years, sacred icons in the Byzantine style have become my primary art form. I work in the traditional egg tempera paint and gold leaf on a wooden board covered with natural gesso. This time-consuming, contemplative method can produce beautiful results, with
subtle but glowing colors and delicate detail.
I coordinate a series of informal iconography sessions or classes, usually two Sunday afternoons each month, at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church, 500 DeHaro at Mariposa, San Francisco, California 94107.
Meanwhile, I still enjoy practicing other art disciplines, and learning new ones, in whatever time I can find. Each year, I enrol in at least one art or iconography workshop.
I thought I might be able to use a couple of Betsy’s pictures to illustrate a line or two of the Nicene Creed, but as I dug deeper into her work (and website) I found that I was able to choose an icon for every line of what we are talking about today.
So tonight will be a little different. We are going to look at the words of Nicene creed as well as these traditional icons to help us think about Jesus. Both the icons and the creed are symbols that can be reminders of different aspects of Jesus’ life, nature, and character. As we look at these symbolic words and images we are going to flip back and forth between what we can learn from both. Hopefully this is good experience and that it isn’t too jarring for anyone as we flip between the two.
Any of the info on the icons has all come from Betsy Porter’s website, and all the Icons are by Betsy (With one icon by guest artist Michelle Jennes) photos of the icons were taken by David Elliott. A big thank you to Betsy for allowing us to use her art.
Let’s look at our first line of the creed for today:
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ
This Icon is referred to as “The Mandylion” or The Holy Face.
Icons of this type, showing the face of Jesus (without neck or body) on a white cloth, are much beloved among Eastern Orthodox believers.
There is a legend that King Abgar of Edessa sent a message to Jesus, asking
him to come and heal the king of a severe illness. Instead, Jesus pressed his
face to a cloth, imprinting the image of his face – which is why this is considered the most true and accurate icon of Christ. When Abgar received the cloth, he was cured.
– Betsy Porter
Icons, just like the Nicene Creed, are used to focus our attention on God. They are a narrow focal point for the larger image. Both the icon and the creed are meant to show us who we are talking about.
The only Son of God
This is an icon of “Christ The Teacher”
Jesus is often pictured as with an open book showing one of his sayings; here “Come unto me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you. – Betsy Porter
“The Only Son of God” emphasizes Jesus’ unique place in the bible and history. There have been many teachers, prophets, and spiritual leaders that have come and gone, and Jesus is a teacher, a leader, and a prophet, but he is also “The Only Son of God.” He has an authority (and an authenticity) that goes beyond the teachers that came before, or after Him.
This painting was originally entitled “Come unto Me” but Betsy tell the story of its unofficial naming
One Sunday morning, this icon was on a stand beside the church door, when a stranger entered and stared at it intently. Before I could stop him, he grabbed 3 ball point pens and wrote in large letters on the back of the icon: MY FACE. Then he left, and we have not seen him again. – Betsy Porter
Eternally begotten of the Father,
Here is where we see the creed again pointing to the trinity. The Father is our traditional image of God, and here we are told that Jesus is “eternally begotten from the Father.” Begotten is often thought of as the old fashioned word for Birthed, but when we use the word in the context of God we are in slightly different territory. The Father created us in his image but he begot God the Son. The idea of “Eternally Begotten” is that God births God. God’s Son is everything the Father is. The age and generation gap that is created for human children and their parents is not present in the relationship between God the Father and God the Son. If the Father is Eternal and Omnipotent the Son is also Eternal and Omnipotent. There is no beginning or end for the Son just like the Father.
This Icon is called “Ubuntu Trinity.”
This piece was painted in honor of the “Ubuntu” theme for the
2009 General Convention of the Episcopal Church. “Ubuntu” is an African word popularized by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, meaning humaneness encompassing a sense of caring, sharing, and being in harmony with all of creation.
In this version of the Trinity icon, the three angelic figures are seated cross-legged on the ground – and they seem much more comfortable there than at a table! They do not need their wings, their hiking staffs, or even their outer garments – for they are at home beside the living waters, sharing a meal under the star-filled sky. The leaves of the tree of life have grown into the “ubuntu” which they enjoy among themselves and with all their creation.
These androgynous persons represent not only the Holy Trinity, but our own best selves, and our best hopes for our human society and our beloved planet. Their differing skin colors and hair styles can barely suggest the diversity of humankind. – Betsy Porter
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God, begotten, not made,
This icon is called “The Transfiguration of Our Lord Jesus Christ.” Here is what the artist has to say about the piece.
During a tense period leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion, he asked three
disciples to climb with him up Mount Tabor. There the disciples had an overwhelming vision of Jesus illuminated by divine light, and discussing his coming death with the prophets Elijah and Moses. Every iconographer seeks to capture the brilliant and mysterious “uncreated light” of the Transfiguration as the interior source of light for the icon. In order to evoke the intense light, the background is gilded. Jesus is clothed in glistening white, rather than his usual red and blue. The three disciples James, John, and Peter are depicted without halos. – Betsy Porter
I like the phrase “uncreated light” and “the interior source of light.” In the Nicene Creed we read, “God from God, Light From Light.” This story, this line, and this icon all point to Jesus being divine. Sublime beauty is in the very nature of who Jesus is.
Of one Being with the Father; through him all things were made.
Here we have an image of God the Father creating the sun, moon and stars. The artist describes the Father as,
dancing them into being! Plants have already started to grow on the young earth; but fish and birds and animals are yet to come. This is the springtime of the world, full of possibility! – Betsy Porter
Here the creed is emphasising again that Jesus is equal with the Father, that He is not a product of creation but rather an instrument of creation.
For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary
Here begins the Christmas story, the beginning of the gospels, the stories about Jesus’ life as a human on earth. Here is the artist’s description of this event called the Annunciation.
At this decisive moment for Mary’s life and for our own relationship with God, the Archangel Gabriel suddenly appears in the Temple of Jerusalem, bearing news that Mary can expect to become the mother of Jesus. Mary is so startled that she drops her spindle of scarlet yarn. Both Mary and Gabriel are pictured floating in front of the architectural background, enhancing the other-worldly quality of
this event. – Betsy Porter
And became truly human.
The image of “Mother and Child” is a very famous subject found all throughout art history. It is still a standard motif in modern art, and is even a standard composition for abstract paintings that use a large and a small shapes to create the form of a triangle that is pleasing to the viewer’s eye.
Here we see Jesus being “Truly Human,” a helpless baby in the arms of his Mom. Like all babies Jesus craves his mothers touch, sent and attention so much so that in this image they are pictured snuggling cheek to cheek.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
This icon is entitled “The Crucifixion and Death of Our Lord Jesus Christ.” Listen to the artist’s description.
On a trash heap outside the walls of his beloved Jerusalem, Jesus is crucified. His mother Mary and his friend John, although horrified and grieving, gesture in acknowledgment of Jesus’ extraordinary personality and accomplishments.
By tradition, the skull in the cave at Jesus’ feet was that of Adam – who waits expectantly in hope of the resurrection. – Betsy Porter
It was for all us people who have screwed up everything in this world that Jesus died. The creed is saying that not only was Jesus’ death a historic event, it was a part of God’s plan to start healing the world. Our actions have consequences and those consequences lead to death, to pain, and to separation. Consequences can’t be avoided but they can be redirected. That is what Jesus’ death is. It is the redirection of the consequences that were meant for us. Jesus took that death, pain and separation upon himself for us.
He suffered death and was buried.
This icon was done by an artiste named Michelle Jennes. She was a guest artist who had work posted on Betsy Porter’s website.
This is another reference to the historic credibility of the story of Jesus. Jesus suffered, he died, and he was buried. Jesus was a flesh and blood man who understood the meaning of suffering.
On the third day he rose again
accordance with the Scriptures;
Our whirlwind tour of the gospel story continues and we are told that Jesus doesn’t stay dead. He is resurrected back to life. Jesus’ friends slowly but shurly get a chance to see that their friend is no longer lying in a cold, dead tomb. Accordance with the scriptures refers to the prophecies that pointed to this event, we are being told that Jesus’ death and resurrection were not random events but part of plan.
He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
This Icon is called “Eternal Light” and is of,
Christ as Pantocrator, or Ruler of All… typically painted overhead on the central dome of an Orthodox church building. Such an icon must “read”
from every direction on the floor below…
Jesus Christ is presented as a classical philosopher, holding a golden gospel book symbolic of his teaching. The starry sky background shows his cosmic status – and the eight-pointed star surrounding him implies that he is the brightest star of all. – Betsy Porter
Here, both our symbols in words and symbols in image point to Jesus returning to the Father in Heaven. This is also our last biographical point in the creed. You remember Jesus? He was born, he lived among us, he died under Pontius Pilot’s rule, then he came back to life, and then we saw him return to heaven. This is all setting us for our final statement, a proclamation of the future, a prophecy given to the early church.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.
Oddly enough this is my favourite part of the Nicene Creed. “Jesus will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.” We don’t often like to talk about this in our post modern Christian world. This line is often seen as what is wrong with the traditional church and many Christians have swung away from this. Church life swings back and forth on all kinds of issues with each generation over compensating for the mistakes of the generation that came before them.
In this case many people in the western church paid so much time to Jesus returning and the prospect of an eternal kingdom that they began ignore living in the present. The idea was “What does it matter if I help people with their physical needs right now? This is just a speck in eternity and God will make it right eventually.”
To counter this many Christians from affluent countries today focus so much on the here and now that they think it is wrong to focus at all on Jesus physically coming again. In some cases this swing has swung so far that some Jesus followers don’t even believe that there will be any physical return of Jesus, and that it is up to us to fulfil His kingdom. They look at history and say “look how much better the world is today then 100 years ago. We have abolished slavery, we promote equality, and we live longer due to modern health care. The world is moving forward and getting better.”
That is easy to believe in a comfortable and safe country like Canada, but there are Christians all around the world living in horrible situations who find great strength in knowing that this broken world is not all there is to life, but that their Jesus cares so much for his children that he is coming again to make things right.
These Christians are the Lost Boys from Sudan, their families and villages were killed just for being Christians. They are Coptic Christians in Egypt who have lived as second class citizens for centuries. They are pastors, priests, and activists from China who find themselves political prisoners for following Jesus. A Christian Martyr is a person who has been persecuted or killed for following Jesus. The list of modern martyrs goes on and on. There have been more Christian’s martyred in the last 2 centuries then all the other centuries combined. These modern day martyrs have a motivation that goes beyond the here and now, they don’t have the luxury of believing that the world is getting better.
In the book of Acts, Chapter 7 we meet Stephen, the very first martyr to suffer death for following Jesus. Stephen has just finished a long speech to a crowd of Jewish Leaders. Stephen’s speech hit a number of sore points with the crowd.
- He talks about promises God has already fulfilled, like Abraham’s offspring becoming a nation, and then points out the promise of a messiah (a promised leader) the one that they have all been waiting for. A Messiah that they know Stephen believes is Jesus.
- He talks about how the Jewish people have not had a great track record when it comes to listening to God’s messengers, the prophets. In reality these Jewish prophets were persecuted and killed by their own people.
- All this is being said to the religious leaders who had just recently orchestrated Jesus’ death.
The crowd knows that they have been called out by Stephen and this is their reaction.
Acts 7: 54-60 The Message
54-56At that point they went wild, a rioting mob of catcalls and whistles and invective [cursing]. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, hardly noticed—he only had eyes for God, whom he saw in all his glory with Jesus standing at his side. He said, “Oh! I see heaven wide open and the Son of Man standing at God’s side!”
57-58Yelling and hissing, the mob drowned him out. Now in full stampede, they dragged him out of town and pelted him with rocks. The ringleaders took off their coats and asked a young man named Saul to watch them.
59-60As the rocks rained down, Stephen prayed, “Master Jesus, take my life.” Then he knelt down, praying loud enough for everyone to hear, “Master, don’t blame them for this sin”—his last words. Then he died.
This is part of being a follower of Jesus. It is doing the right thing in the here and now, even in the face of death or great adversity. I don’t believe that looking forward to Jesus’ return should cause us to not care about the injustices of today, it should be our motivation.
Jesus is coming back and he is going to judge the “Living and the Dead.” What we do today matters, it matters to Jesus, and we contribute to the kingdom. Remembering, that it is Jesus’ job is to judge people and not ours should be freeing rather than a burden. Knowing that there is a Kingdom coming that never ends is not a reason to stop working but rather to start building that kingdom.
Susan and I have often talked about what we call “the 23 year old wall.” It happens for 20 somethings (who have grown up in the church) that hit their adult life with a passion for justice and change and they look to their faith as an instrument to see that passion fulfilled. They work hard they volunteer at soup kitchens and addiction centres. They feel like their generation is the one that is going to finally going to put in enough elbow grease to make big changes. You work hard, you go to the extreme, you go to the wall for people who need help.
Susan and I did this same thing. We were really involved in our small town church, and we were there to get things done, and make things better. We organized Christmas shoe boxes for Samaritans’ Purse, we organized letter writing campaigns to get an evil oil company out of Sudan. We brought people into our home, new Christians who needed a place to live, people escaping abuse, and people living with mental illness. I was asked to join the elders’ board and became a leader in the church. We advocated for poor people living in our town that seemed to go unnoticed. We worked hard at our jobs and lived like students so that we were able to give money to lots of causes. We were 20 something’s working to make changes, building the kingdom in the here and now and then we hit “The Wall” and we hit it hard.
My faith in the church was almost nonexistent when I hit the wall. There is nothing like being an elder in a church to see all the bad things, all the evil things in your faith community (this may be why we call our leadership team The Cohort). Changes that were made in the people who came to live with us didn’t seem to last or make that big of a difference in the long run. Even giving to good causes became discouraging. If there was a call for money for a special project we noticed when the local total was published that often we had donated more than half of the total amount in church. Our church was full of people who made a lot more money than we did, we were left asking ourselves why other people didn’t feel the need to give. I saw men who were leaders that I respected not only leave our local church but after they left they stopped calling themselves Christians. I also saw some of the business men who were elected as elders were men that I had a hard time believing were Christians. I fought hard for Women to be elders in my church and lost. I realized more and more that my closest friends were not Christians and my friends that were followers of Jesus, wouldn’t be recognized as Christians in my church.
Now there were good things in that small town church and lots of Godly people, and we had so many people who encouraged us in our justice work. There were good people who showed us community, but I still hit “The Wall.” How could we work so hard and not see any real change? How could I feel so dead inside?
This wall faces you with a choice. Do you Stay of do you Go? Do you leave your church, or do you stay? Do you leave your town or do you stay? Do you leave your faith or do you stay? Do you continue to work for justice or do you give up?
Susan and I decided to leave our town but stay in church. We moved to Hamilton and found this community. We are still committed to the value of Justice but we have redefined what success is, we understand that success isn’t always going to be big and flashy.
We have watched other people hit “the Wall” in this community, and some have stayed and some have gone. Some have found other church communities and others haven’t.
I’m learning more and more that the people I see who have survived the wall and have lived a life of justice, integrity, and community within the church have something that I didn’t often give much thought to when I hit “The Wall.”
“Jesus is coming again and his kingdom will not end.” Am I supposed to work in the here and now and do everything I can to add to the good in the world? Yes! But I most likely will not see the finished product in my life time. I hate to see time and energy wasted with no completed results. I need to know that the small part of God’s Kingdom I’m involved in right now will be finished someday, that Jesus will return and fully realize what we have had a small part in.
Have you ever met someone who has lived a full and long life and they are excited about their death and about meeting Jesus. These are the people who haven’t sat around doing nothing all their life and our now waiting for everything to just fall in place magically. These are wise old souls who have worked very hard all their life to make things better. They have family and friends, they have roots in their community. They aren’t famous but they are honest. They planted gardens and fed who they could. They pray more often then they use to. They judge other people less harshly then when they were young. They recognize their mistakes and ask for forgiveness quickly. They haven’t stopped learning and they love young people even when they hit the wall. These are people who have worked so hard all their life to do good things, and they were able to get past the wall and they have reached old age knowing they are part of something bigger then themselves. They have followed Jesus, not because they had to, but because they wanted to. They look forward to meeting Him face to face and seeing the kingdom of God fully realized.
I want to be that person, I need to be that person. I need to know that what I see here and now matters but it isn’t the end. It is OK to live in the here and now but it is also OK to gain strength from the end. This is why I choose these two icons for this line of the Nicene Creed. Jesus is both “The Man of Sorrows” and “The Ruler of All.” Jesus is in the muck with us right now, he feels the pain of humanity, but he is also the Ruler, the person who will make things right in the world. A good kingdom that will never end, and we get the best of both worlds. We get to be part of the unfinished kingdom right now, to work and toil in the moment, creating pockets of beauty in a broken world and we get to be part of the perfected kingdom, the kingdom that takes all this unfinished patchwork and weaves it into the finished tapestry of an eternal kingdom.