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Saturday, January 21, 2012

Who Do You Say That I Am?

Because the Nicene Creed has undergone a recent retranslation by Rome to bring the English version closer to the original Greek, I will be revising my first book, We Believe: Forty Meditations on the Nicene Creed. The following is the first of a few changes I plan to make.
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[Jesus] said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”  Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God” (Matthew 16:15-16).

Nicene Creed Statement: I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth . . ..”

For the seven years I recited the Nicene Creed as a Catholic (I came into the Catholic Church in 2005), I liked saying “We believe.” As a Jewish Christian, I understand the value of the communal proclamation of faith. For thousands of years my people have made similar proclamation each Sabbath when they recite the cornerstone text of Judaism: Sh’ma Yisrael, Adonai Elohenu, Adonai echod -- Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.  And for millennia, whether persecuted and ostracized to shtetls, or welcomed into towns or cities, Jews have anchored themselves to one another as much for protection as for self-identity.

Christianity, like its Jewish root, is a communal faith. The Lord Jesus said it first: “I will build my Church.” The Greek word used here – ekklessia – denotes those who are called out of the world and into God’s special community. Jesus did not establish a maverick faith wherein everyone does what is right in his or her own eyes. Anyone with a cursory knowledge of Israel’s history during the Period of the Judges understands how maverick faith leads to disastrous outcomes.

But long before the Church revised the Creed in 2012 to its original wording, “I believe,” I knew the communal ‘We’ in the Creed had potential to rob the community of the personal faith of ‘I’. Without individuals, there would be no community, and without individual faith, the community becomes little more than a religious shell.

The Lord Jesus went out of his way to teach the crowds about the one lost sheep, the one lost coin, the one lost son. He left the throng to find the one demoniac, the one leper, the one lame. He singled out Zaccheus in the sycamore tree, the woman at the well, the tax collector at the table. “My sheep hear My voice”, Jesus said, “and I call them by name.”  Yumiko, Ethan, Dakshi, Oksana, Jose, Deloris, Michael . . . .  God calls each of us by name to become part of the community of “those who are called out.”

Perhaps one of the clearest examples of the importance of individual faith can be found in the sixth chapter of 2 Maccabees. By the time of its writing, the Jewish people had been living under Greek domination for more three centuries. Many had already thrown away the ancient faith passed down from Moses for Greek philosophy, culture and lifestyle. Then, a little more than 160 years before Mary and Joseph laid their Baby in the manger, a Greek politician determined to force the remaining Jews in his realm, under pain of death, to abandon their religion and practices. To expedite their apostacy, he ordered the profaning of the Jewish Temple, “so that the altar was covered with abominable offerings prohibited by the laws” (2 Maccabees 6:5). He prohibited their celebrations of the Sabbath and their feasts. He made it a crime worthy of torture to even admit to being Jewish.

Enter Eleazar, the elderly Jewish scribe. When brought before the court and forced to eat pork, Eleazar made an unambiguous choice to serve God regardless of the consequences. He spit it out, preferring death than defilement.

But that’s not the end of the story of his personal faith.

Those in charge of that unlawful sacrifice took the man aside, because of their long acquaintance with him, and privately urged him to bring his own provisions that he could legitimately eat, and only to pretend to eat the sacrificial meat prescribed by the king. Thus he would escape death, and be treated kindly because of his old friendship with them.

Eleazar, however, would have none of that charade. He answered, “At our age it would be unbecoming to make such a pretense; many of the young would think the ninety-year-old Eleazar had gone over to an alien religion. If I dissemble to gain a brief moment of life, they would be led astray by me, while I would bring defilement and dishonor on my old age."

He then added, “Even if, for the time being, I avoid human punishment, I shall never, whether alive or dead, escape the hand of the Almighty. Therefore, by bravely giving up life now, I will prove myself worthy of my old age, and I will leave to the young a noble example of how to die willingly and nobly for the revered and holy laws” (2 Maccabees 6:21-28).

When we recite with those around us the words of the Nicene Creed, “I believe” we proclaim with Eleazar and with all the faithful martyrs who chose God over the culture: We will serve God and no one else. When we recite the creed together, we fearlessly answer the Lord’s question, “Who do you say that I am?”

We forever say: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.

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