Trinity: The paradox in the middle of Christianity.

by K.W. Leslie, 28 April
TRINITY 'trɪn.ə.di noun. The godhead as one God in three people: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
[Trinitarian trɪn.ə'tɛr.i(.)ən adjective.]

In the scriptures, from the very beginning of the scriptures, it’s strongly emphasized that YHWH, the LORD God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, is one. Israel was to have no other god.

Deuteronomy 6.4-5 KJV
4 Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD: 5 and thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.
 
Exodus 20.3-6 KJV
3 Thou shalt have no other gods before me. 4 Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: 5 thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; 6 and shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.

One God. No other gods. Got that?

Well, Israel didn’t always get that, which is why the LORD let their enemies conquer them, drag them off to Assyria and Babylon, and keep ’em there till it finally sunk in. After which, idolatry wasn’t so much the problem anymore; hypocrisy was. Still is. But I digress.

Okay, one God. Till we get to the gospels, and the teachings of Jesus, and the rather obvious statements from the gospels that Jesus is actually, literally, YHWH. Jn 1.1 But, y’know, he’s now human. Jn 1.14 He came to earth and walked among his people, and explained who God is so we’d understand him better. Jn 1.18

Yet Jesus talks about his Father, “whom you say is your God.” Jn 8.54 They’re two different people. But wait… wasn’t it spelled out in the Old Testament how there’s only one God? Weren’t the Israelis dragged off to exile because they refused to acknowledge this?

Then Jesus talks about the Holy Spirit. He’ll pray to the Father, who will send us this παράκλητον/parákliton, “helper, assistant, advocate” (KJV “Comforter”) who’s gonna both dwell among us, and in us. Jn 14.15-17 It’s also made pretty explicit this Holy Spirit is likewise God. So there are three different people who are God. But wait… one God, right? Unless the Israelis got sent into exile for nothing.

This idea of three people (or to use the way theologians much prefer to put it—and rebuke me all the time for not putting it—three persons) who are nonetheless one and only one God, is called trinity. And it’s the hardest concept in Christian theology. It’s brought far wiser men than me to ruin. It’s based on two ideas, both of which are absolutely true. And both absolutely contradict one another.

  1. There’s only one God.
  2. Three individual people—Jesus, his Father, and the Holy Spirit—are God.

Got that? Good. Hold both ideas in your head at once. Accept and believe both. Never dismiss one idea in favor of the other, or try to explain away one by using the other. And there ya go. That’s the trinity.

The sermon.

by K.W. Leslie, 27 April
SERMON 'sər.mən noun. Homily. A lecture on a moral or religious subject, usually presented to a church.
2. A long, boring lecture.
[Sermonic sər'mɑn.ɪk adjective, sermonize 'sər.mən.aɪz verb.]

In sermon-focused churches, the central part of their Sunday morning worship service (or Saturday evening, or Wednesday night, or whenever they hold it) is duh, the sermon. If they didn’t have a sermon, or if the sermon wasn’t impressive enough, they “didn’t have church.” They could shorten the music; they could skip holy communion entirely. But they’d better have a sermon.

I should point out neither Jesus nor his apostles instructed us to preach sermons as part of our worship services. Seriously; they didn’t! But I suspect that’s because they presumed religious instruction would automatically be part of the services anyway. Christians are expected to strengthen, encourage, and comfort the church, 1Co 14.3-5 and good religious instruction does that.

And religious instruction was the whole point of synagogues. Pharisees invented them so Israel wouldn’t be religiously illiterate, and fall into sin. Early Christian churches behaved an awful lot like Christian synagogues: At some point someone would go up front, read the scriptures, sit down, and answer questions about what was just read. Over time this instruction got less interactive, and more lecture-y.

For many Christians, sermons are the entire point of attending a church service: They wanna learn about God! They don’t know enough about him… or do, but wanna hear more. The newbies need to learn the basics, and the oldtimers need to be reminded to stick to these basics. As knowledgeable as we might get about theology, bible history, religious practice, and our own experiences with God, we need to be regularly reminded: Love God, love your neighbor, pray, share Jesus, be fruity, do good works, and grow his kingdom.

Pray!

by K.W. Leslie, 26 April

Prayer is talking with God. No more; no less; that’s all.

Yeah, you’d be surprised how many people, including us Christians, claim it’s way more, and way more complicated, than that. To them, prayer is a profound mystical and spiritual undertaking. It’s a connection with God which links our entire being to him. Done right, we don’t just communicate with him, but commune with him; we become one with him. It must only be done thoughtfully, seriously, soberly, and ritually. Only then will it work.

Thing is, when you’re just talking with anyone, like your parents, kids, spouse, best friend, whomever: Sometimes these conversations can likewise feel like a profound thing. Sometimes you feel so connected with them, you feel like you’ve connected on multiple deep levels; you might even feel like you’re one with them. These conversations work. That’s why we can say the very same things about praying to God—because it is the very same thing.

These folks simply have an over-romanticized, over-spiritualized idea of what prayer is. Which is why they’re so loath to give up the idea and admit we’re just talking.

Our English word “pray” used to mean “beg,” as in the King James Version’s many uses of “I pray thee.” Ge 18.3 KJV, etc. Most instances of “pray” in the Old Testament have to do with begging God—same as a lot of instances nowadays. Most prayers are requests. Nothing wrong with that, but this idea of begging is pretty deeply embedded in our ideas about prayer. Begging is why humans have all these rituals and postures involved with praying: It’s what humans demand of the people who came to them with requests. They want us to humiliate ourselves and suck up to them. So we basically teach our fellow Christians we oughta approach God the very same way.

And we don’t need to. God is not a dick!

Hebrews 4.15 KJV
Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.

Y’know what “coming boldly unto the throne” means? It’s not like serfs approaching their feudal lord, with bows and curtseys and facing the ground lest they make eye contact. It’s like when the lord’s 5-year-old daughter comes into the room, climbs into his lap, and hugs him while he’s trying to be all lordly—and he lets her ’cause he loves her. We don’t have to be formal and ritualistic with God when we pray: He’s our dad. Acting like he’s not—like he’s that feudal lord whom we have to appease before we can get anything out of him—means we don’t really know him at all.

And not all prayer consists of begging God for stuff. Sometimes we’re thanking him. Sometimes it’s praise. Sometimes apologies: We screwed up, and we’re acknowledging this. Sometimes we’re sharing with him what we’re going through, or venting our frustrations or outrage. Sometimes we have questions and know God has answers.

Basically all the same reasons we humans talk to one another, we talk with God.

Yeah, sometimes prayer even consists of lying and gossip. Shouldn’t, but we don’t always realize what we should and shouldn’t tell him. But even so: Prayer is just talking.

Mark’s version of the resurrection.

by K.W. Leslie, 25 April
Mark 16.1-9 KWL
1 After Sabbath finished, Mary the Magdalene,
Mary James’s mother, and Salome
buy fragrances so they can anoint Jesus
when they come to his sepulcher.
2 Very early, on the first day of the week,
the women go to the sepulcher at sunrise.
3 They’re saying to themselves, “Who will roll away for us
the stone at the sepulcher door?”
4 As they look, they see the stone was rolled away
—for it’s very big.
 
5 As they enter the sepulcher they see a “young man”
sitting on the right, clothed in a white robe.
They’re alarmed.
6 The “young man” tells them, “Don’t be alarmed.
You seek the crucified Jesus the Nazarene.
He is risen! He’s not here. Look at the place he was put.
7 But go; tell Jesus’s students and Simon Peter this:
‘He goes before you to the Galilee.
You’ll see him there, like he told you.’ ”
 
8 Coming out, the women flee the sepulcher,
for they’re shaking and ecstatic.
They say nothing to no one, for they’re afraid.

This is all Mark has about Jesus’s resurrection. Seriously: The book ends with καὶ οὐδενὶ οὐδὲν εἶπαν· ἐφοβοῦντο γάρ/ke udení udén eínan—efovúnto yár, “and nothing to no one they say, for they be afraid.” Done. The end.

Since it’s kind of a sucky ending, Christians came up with two better ones. One is the Short Ending, which I’m gonna include here. The other is the Long Ending, which I’ll discuss later. You’ll find the Long Ending in the King James Version and most bibles. No, Mark didn’t write either of them; they were written centuries later. Even so, Christians are agreed both of them are scripture. (I’ll come back to that.) And now, the Short Ending:

Mark 16.9 KWL [Short Ending]
[The women concisely inform those with Peter
everything the “young man” commanded.
After these things, Jesus himself sends them forth
from the place of sunrise to the place of sunset,
with the holy and immortal message
of salvation in the age to come.
Amen!]

Heresy: When we really get God wrong.

by K.W. Leslie, 22 April
HERESY 'hɛr.ə.si noun. Belief or opinion contrary to Christian orthodoxy.
[Heretic 'hɛr.ə.tɪk adjective, heretical hə'rɛd.ə.kəl adjective.]

In my circles, Christians don’t use the word heretic very much. They usually go with “wrong” or “non-Christian” or “unbiblical.” If they think the ideas originated from outside Christianity, they’ll call them “New Age-y” or “cultish.”

But the terms they really like are “satanic” and “demonic.” Which is nothing new. Anti-heretics have always tried to get the devil involved: These are all Satan’s ideas, aren’t they? You’re just the devil’s pawns, as it tries to lead Christians astray and overthrow churches and ministries and great Christian leaders with its lies.

Satan may be the father of lies, Jn 8.44 but this doesn’t automatically mean it’s the source of all heresy. We humans are plenty capable of coming up with wrong ideas on our own. Enthusiastically, I might add:

  • Some of us really wanna come up with (and maybe become famous for) new God-ideas.
  • Others really wanna debunk all the God-ideas we don’t really like, or struggle to believe.
  • Others really wanna piss off our fellow Christians. Particularly the ones who were mean or judgmental towards us in the past. If we grew up with oppressive Christian parents, Ep 6.4 it’s evil fun to stick it to them by mocking their religion.
  • And of course there are the people who wanna invent their own religion, ’cause when successful, it’ll make them rich and powerful.

Those who wring their hands ’cause they figure there are more heretics than ever nowadays (and surely it’s a sign of the End Times, innit?) aren’t always aware of why there are more heretics than ever: Freedom of religion. Before the first 13 states of the United States put religious freedom into their constitutions, you could be prosecuted and executed for heresy. In many parts of the world you still can. I’m not at all saying we should take religious freedom away: It means pagans and hypocrites can come out of hiding, and now we know who to minister to. But its inevitable side effect is frauds and heretics get to start churches, and we gotta be on our guard against them.

So how do you know whether someone’s heretic? Well, you gotta know what orthodoxy is. Learn the creeds. Read your bible. Get to know Jesus. If you know the real thing, you’ll recognize when something fake comes along.

But too many Christians don’t have time for that, so they usually just follow certain Christian apologists in the countercult movement. Don’t know whether a certain church or ministry is orthodox? Look up that organization on their website, or send them an email, and they’ll tell you. Why put any effort into following Jesus and becoming orthodox yourself, when you can just defer to “experts”?

As a result, Christians largely don’t know what “heresy” means. They think it simply means we’re wrong. And since we’re wrong about God in a whole bunch of different ways… does that mean we’re all heretics? For some of ’em yeah, that’s exactly what it means. I’ve heard more than one preacher claim, “We’re all heretics! But Jesus is right; follow Jesus.” Their hearts might be in the right place (well, unless they actually are heretics) but no, they don’t define heresy properly. We define heresy by how we define orthodoxy. ’Cause they’re opposites. If it’s not orthodox, it’s heretic; if it’s not heretic, it’s orthodox.

Who decides what’s orthodox and what’s not?

by K.W. Leslie, 21 April

I’m involved in a few different online discussion groups.

In one, the subject of Darbyism came up. ’Cause one of the members is Darbyist, and wanted a shout-out from all his fellow Darbyists in the group. To his surprise, turns out most of us aren’t Darybist at all… and in fact a number of us stated Darbyism is unbiblical, and some of us called it faithless… and some of us flat-out called it heresy.

Heresy is taking it too far. Those who called it heresy got some backlash from the rest of us. ’Cause while we might disagree with Darbyism (often profoundly), we’d call it wrong, but we won’t call it heresy. We don’t throw around the H-word so casually.

Of course there are plenty of Christians who use it all the time. There’s a pastor I’m thinking of (and no doubt you can guess who he is) who drops the H-bomb every chance he gets. If you’re not Protestant, Calvinist, and Darbyist like he is; if you claim miracles still happen; if you have women in any positions of leadership in your churches; if you in any way support members of the opposition party… well you’re heretic and going to hell. The way he describes it, nine-tenths of humanity is going to hell, and God is somehow pleased with this idea. No surprise, he doesn’t talk a lot about how God is love. In his mind, God’s really not.

I think he’s profoundly wrong too. And yet I won’t even call him a heretic.

See, there’s a difference between being wrong, and being heretic. Guys like this pastor don’t recongize any such difference: Heresy is whenever we get anything wrong. Understanding the trinity wrong is heresy… and so is mispronouncing “Habakkuk.”

Okay. If every wrong belief is heresy, does this mean any wrong belief might send us to hell? Well few of them will ever go that far. They’ll make distinctions between minor sins and mortal sins. Little heresies are forgivable, big heresies not so much, and the biggest ones are so grievous you instantly forfeit salvation and are doomed. For that matter, in Dante Alleghiri’s Inferno he tells of some people whom he was surprised to find in hell—he thought they were alive! Turns out they committed such grave heresies, they were instantly extracted from their bodies and put in hell… and their now-dead body is actually being puppeted by a demon. (Yes this is pure mythology; the bible teaches no such thing. But some Darbyists have borrowed this idea for how they imagine the Beast is gonna someday be taken over by Satan.)

When I was a kid, I grew up among people who defined heresy like this. Get God wrong just enough, and you’re outside the pale of God’s kingdom altogether. But this thinking is largely based on faith righteousness—the belief we’re saved by “faith,” only they don’t actually mean faith; they mean the faith, i.e. orthodoxy. Get the faith wrong, and you’re not Christian. So even if you have actual faith, and trust God to save you… whoops, you got the trinity wrong, so he’s not gonna. His grace is wholly contingent upon our good work of getting our theological ducks in a row.

Of course it’s the wrong definition of heresy. I go with the historical defnition: Heresy is any belief or opinion which goes against historic Christian orthodoxy.

If we believe and teach contrary to what Christianity has taught since the ancient church—long before Christians split into the Orthodox and Catholic camps, and way before Protestants ever came around—that counts as heresy. Whenever theological issues became particularly divisive, ancient Christians convened church councils, hammered out their differences, and defined orthodoxy. They didn’t do it comprehensively, but they covered pretty much everything vital, and did it really well.

Church councils since antiquity.

But after the Orthodox/Catholic split, Christians don’t do these councils anymore. Not because we can’t; ecumenical Christians certainly make an effort. But none of these councils can claim to speak for all of Christendom.

The Roman Catholics hold councils every few centuries. Their most recent, Vatican 2, took place in the 1960s. They call their councils ecumenical, and claim they speak for every Christian. Thing is, no other church, no matter how much they respect Catholics and consider them our sisters and brothers in Christ, considers these councils anything but internal Catholic matters. I may like several of Vatican 2’s reforms (particularly the one which acknowledges Protestants as fellow Christians), but I still feel free to ignore their idea of a male-only priesthood. I affirm a priesthood of all believers, like the scriptures describe. ’Cause I’m not Catholic.

So can any new councils determine something is orthodox Christianity, and condemn beliefs contrary to theirs as heresy? Only if we can get all the Christians together. Good luck with all that; only Jesus is gonna be able to pull it off.

And yet individual churches, and individual Christians, are gonna point to some council or conference, and claim it’s applicable to every Christian everywhere. Some Christian political activist group is gonna gather, write a manifesto denouncing the death penalty, and anathematize every Christian who doesn’t agree with them. And the rest of us who have no problem with executing dangerous criminals (though we may absolutely have a problem with the way the death penalty is implemented!) are gonna feel entirely free to ignore them. Because they don’t speak for Christianity. Nobody but Jesus does, anymore. They only speak for themselves.

Sometimes these groups are gonna have a lot of supporters. Fr’instance in 1978 the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy put out their “Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy,” in which they defined what biblical inerrancy means to them. A lot of Evangelicals have decided this council does speak for them, and require anybody who works for their organizations to sign off on the Chicago Statement. If you don’t believe in inerrancy the same way they do, they’d call you heretic, or certainly treat you as one. But again: That’s only among these Evangelicals. You can of course find other Evangelicals who have their own views on inerrancy, who want you to sign off on their statements; or no statement at all. In fact you’ll find a number who chafe at the whole idea of agreeing with someone else’s statement, ’cause once again: These guys don’t speak for Christianity. Why are we ceding them any authority? That authority only belongs to Jesus.

You see the problem. One conference or church doesn’t speak for all of us: We’re no longer functioning as one church. Jesus may ignore all our denominational barriers, but we don’t. Heck, sometimes an individual church will choose to disagree with its own denomination. So how can any church council speak for all of us anymore?

Not that Christians don’t try. Many a preacher, many a church board, many an individual Christian, thinks they can. They’ve read their bibles and are pretty sure they understand it perfectly. They’re pretty sure certain issues are non-negotiable—they certainly are non-negotiable to them!—and therefore anyone who disagrees must be heretic. So they’ll use the H-word. And figure they’re entirely right to.

And they’re not. Orthodoxy and heresy aren’t defined by individual Christians, nor individual churches. They’re defined by Christendom as a whole… and since we’re not a whole anymore, we’re limited to the conclusions we came to when we were a whole. And if you don’t care for the ancient Christians’ conclusions, or wanna add new heresies to the list, I would say you fall in the very same boat as those people who wanna add books to, or take ’em out of, the bible: That’s not for you. That’s been decided long ago.

Later councils, later “heresies.”

What individual Christians, and individual churches, do get to do, is define our own limits. We have the freedom in Christ to decide, “This is what I believe; this is what I’m gonna teach; if you wanna teach otherwise, there are other churches to teach it in, but not mine.” We’re perfectly free to draft faith statements and tell the world where we stand.

In fact it’s probably best we do. If people are gonna worship with us, they oughta know what we and our churches believe! And if they happen to disagree, they may wanna worship elsewhere. I certainly do.

Let’s say I find out my church leaders have embraced cessationism, and use that lens to interpret everything they teach. Um… that’s a big problem. God still does miracles; he ceased nothing. So I can no longer trust a thing these church leaders teach me. I may respect these people’s character, personal behavior, personal devotion to God, but I certainly can’t respect their teachings.

I won’t feel comfortable inviting newbies to such a church, because I’ll have to refute and correct so much. It’ll be a massive stumbling block. Yes we’re all following the same Lord Jesus; I’m not gonna call them heretic! But I can’t stay in such a church. Not unless Jesus personally directs me to reform them—and man alive is that gonna suck, ’cause it’s such a gargantuan task. Not that Jesus can’t easily do the impossible, but still.

Now, that’s me. To many a cessationist, they’re mighty quick to call me heretic. Because they firmly believe miracles are of the devil, so either I believe as they do, or I’m following the devil. I can’t be Christian.

Which church council decided all us continuationists are heretic? Well you’ll find cessationists don’t know squat about Christian history. (They’re way more interested in the future than the past.) So they have no clue that church councils determine orthodoxy and heresy. In fact most of ’em assume all the ancient church councils were Roman Catholic—and they’re not Catholic, so these councils don’t apply to them. Or anyone. Heresy, they figure, is only defined by bible, and thanks to their harebrained interpretations, they’re entirely sure it tells ’em they’re orthodox and we’re heretic.

Now they’re not entirely wrong the bible determines orthodoxy and heresy.

2 Timothy 3.16 KWL
Every inspired scripture is also useful for teaching,
for disproving, for correcting, for instruction in rightness.

But when the scriptures don’t clearly, bluntly say something’s true or false, Christians gotta use wisdom to figure out whether something’s true or false, good or evil. We dig through the scriptures, find proof texts which defend a point of view (hopefully quoted in context!), and take a stand based on them. Same as the Christians of the ancient church councils did: They searched the scriptures for themselves, bounced their ideas off one another, and came to consensus about them. It wasn’t just one nut making binding declarations, nor one faction or party prevailing in a popular vote. It was a diverse bunch of Christians coming to the very same Spirit-led conclusion.

But after the Orthodox/Catholic split, we don’t have diverse bunches of Christians doing that anymore: We have factions. We have denominational councils. We have Catholics who figure they speak for everyone, but really only speak for themselves. That’s one thing the Protestants get right: Their denominations recognize they only speak for themselves, and won’t claim otherwise.

Well, most won’t. Like I said, there are those Calvinists who like to refer to the Synod of Dort, and act as if their ruling applies to all of Christendom. Which is just as loopy as claiming Vatican 2 does likewise.

We’re not in charge of defining orthodoxy.

If Christians could actually get every church on earth (or at least a serious majority of us) to set aside our differences for the sake of our common Lord and his gospel, maybe we could hold a definitive church council again. And maybe we could officially, universally decide certain new controversies count as heresies.

But don’t hold your breath. I expect we’re just gonna have to wait for Jesus to return and rule on these issues personally.

In the meanwhile I’m not wholly sure we do need such rulings. The universal church had seven centuries to sort out the really necessary stuff. Most present-day problems are simply those old heresies with new names, or hypocrisy disguised as righteousness. We don’t have any desperate need for a church council; if we did, the Holy Spirit might actually put one together! But as it is, we can denounce sin, confusion, delusion, and stupidity just fine without another one.

And we Christians need to resist the temptation to seize the reins of orthodoxy, and claim we get to set new standards for who’s in God’s kingdom and who isn’t. That’s not our call; never was. That’s always been up to Jesus, whose judgment is infallible and trustworthy. Us, not so much.

The Apostles Creed.

by K.W. Leslie, 20 April

Whenever I bring up the Apostles Creed to Christians, I tend to get one of two reactions: Positive and negative.

I tend to get the positive response from Christians who grew up in formal, liturgical churches. Most of ’em can recite the creed right along with me… though the version I memorized is the Book of Common Prayer version, and most of ’em tend to know one of the Roman Missal versions. Minor wording differences.


Third Day and Brandon Heath perform Rich Mullins’ “Creed.” YouTube

If they didn’t grow up in such churches, or their churches never taught it to ’em, they might still know it. ’Cause they learned it as lyrics from a Rich Mullins song. Or someone else’s cover of that song. Or John Michael Talbot’s song, though that’s lesser-known.

Negative reactions typically come from anti-Catholics who get weirded out whenever I dare bring up any form of ancient Christianity they don’t recognize from bible. (And sometimes not even then.) They don’t see the point of creeds. Yet at the very same time, they’ll go on and on about the need for necessary foundational beliefs… which is exactly what creeds are.

The Apostles Creed is Christianity’s simplest, most basic creed. Here it is… in my translation from the Latin. As far as I can tell, the Latin’s the original.

I believe in God,
the Father, almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
And in Christ Jesus, his only Son, our master.
He was conceived by the Holy Spirit;
born from the virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended to the afterlife.
The third day, he was resurrected from the dead.
He ascended to heaven;
he sits at the almighty Father’s right hand.
From there he will come;
he is judging the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
communion of saints, forgiveness of sins,
bodily resurrection, and eternal life.
Amen.

The Nicene Creed.

by K.W. Leslie, 19 April

If you consider yourself an authentic orthodox Christian, you should be able to read the following creed, and easily agree with it 100 percent. If not, you gotta work on that.

I believe in one God:
The Father, the almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all things, visible and invisible.
I believe in one Lord, Christ Jesus,
the only-begotten Son of God,
begotten of the Father before all ages.
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;
by the Holy Spirit was incarnate from the virgin Mary.
He was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate.
He suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again in accordance with the scriptures.
He ascended into heaven.
He’s seated at the right hand of the Father.
He’ll come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.
His kingdom will have no end.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the Lord, the giver of life.
He proceeds from the Father [and the Son].
He, with the Father and the Son, is adored and glorified.
He’s spoken through the prophets.
I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.
I recognize one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
I look forward to the resurrection of the dead
and the life of the world to come.
Amen.

When Christians define orthodoxythe doctrines Christians oughta hold to, as opposed to heretic beliefs which lead us away from God—we often do it subjectively. We presume we get to define what’s orthodox and what’s not; we have bibles and the Holy Spirit, so shouldn’t we easily able to do this? We fix the standard.

I know; loads of us are gonna claim it’s not really us who fix the standard; the bible does. Which sounds humble enough, but it’s still tommyrot: Our interpretation of the bible is what sets the standard, which means it ultimately comes back to us. Still subjective.

Others are gonna point to their denomination or individual church’s faith statement. Sounds slightly less subjective, ’cause most of the time they didn’t write these faith statements. Thing is, while I didn’t write my church’s faith statement, I totally wrote one for TXAB. No doubt you can write one for yourself, as well as any ministry you start. And again: Subjective.

So this is why I point to creeds. They’re the first faith statements. The ancient Christians hammered them out in the first seven centuries of Christianity, way back before we formally shattered into denominations. They predate me by about 1,650 years, so I can’t claim I define them.

The very first formal faith statement is this one, written in Nikaía, Asia Minor, Roman Empire (today’s Iznik, Turkey) in the year 325, and updated in 381. We call it the Nicene Creed, although the Orthodox and Catholic churches call it the Symbol of Nicea (Greek Sýmbolon tis Nikaías, Latin Symbolum Nicaenum) or Symbol of Faith. Nearly every other creed is based on it.

Easter.

by K.W. Leslie, 18 April

On 5 April 33, before the sun rose at 5:23 a.m. in Jerusalem, Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead. Executed only two days before, he became the first human on earth to be resurrected.

Jesus died the day before Passover. This was deliberate. This way his death would fulfill many of the Passover rituals. Because of this relationship to Passover, many Christians actually call this day some variation of the Hebrew פֶּסַח/Pesákh, “Passover.” In Greek and Latin (and Russian), it’s Pascha; in Danish Påske, Dutch Pasen, French Pâques, Italian Pasqua, Spanish Pascua, Swedish Påsk.

But in many Germanic-speaking countries, including English, we use the ancient pagan word for April, Eostur. In German this becomes Ostern; in English Easter.

Because of the pagan origins of the word, certain Christians avoid it and just call the day “Resurrection Sunday.” (Which is fine, but confuses non-Christians.)

Easter is our most important holiday. Christmas tends to get the world’s focus (and certainly that of merchants), but it’s only because Christmas doesn’t stretch their beliefs too far. Everybody agrees Jesus was born. We only differ on details. But Easter is about how Jesus was raised, and that’s a sticking point for a whole lot of pagans. They don’t buy it.

They don’t even like it: When they die, they wanna go to heaven and stay there. Resurrection? Coming back? In a body? No no no. And we’ll even find Christians who agree with them: They’ll claim Jesus didn’t literally return from death, but exists in some super-spiritual ghostly form which returned to heaven. And that’s where we’ll go too: Heaven. No resurrection; not necessary. Yes, it’s a heretic idea, but a popular one.

So to pagans, Easter’s a myth. It’s a nice story about how we Christians think Jesus came back from the dead, but it comes from ancient times, back when people believed anyone could come back from the dead if they knew the right magic spell. Really it’s just a metaphor for spring, new life, rebirth; just like eggs and baby chicks and bunnies. They’ll celebrate that. With chocolate, fancy hats, brunch, and maybe an egg hunt.

But to us Christians, Easter’s no myth. It’s history.

Passover: When God saved the Hebrews.

by K.W. Leslie, 15 April

“Why don’t we celebrate Passover?” asked one of my students, when I once taught on the topic.

“We do,” I said. “Christians call it Pascha or Pascua or Páques. But in languages with a lot of German words mixed in, we call it Easter. And obviously we do it way different than you see in the bible.”

So different, English-speaking people routinely assume Easter and Passover are two entirely different holidays. I can’t argue with this assumption. Christians don’t bother to purge our homes of yeast or leavening. Don’t cook lamb—nor do we practice the modern Jewish custom of not having lamb, ’cause there’s no temple in Jerusalem to ritually sacrifice a lamb in. Don’t put out the seder plate. Don’t tell the Exodus story. Don’t have the kids ask the Four Questions. Don’t hide the afikomen and have the kids search for it—although both holidays have eggs, and we do have the kids look for eggs.

Well, some Christians observe Passover as a separate holiday. Some of us even celebrate it Hebrew-style, as spelled out in the scriptures, as in Exodus and Deuteronomy. But more often, Christians do as Messianic Jews recommend—and Messianic Jews borrow their traditions less from the bible and more from the Conservative Judaism movement. (Which, contrary to their name, ain’t all that conservative.) Their haggadah—their order of service—is nearly always adapted from Orthodox or Conservative prayer books, which means it dates from the 10th century or later.

Yes, some Messianic Jewish customs are in the Mishna, so they do date back to the first century. Still, Mishnaic practices weren’t standard practices; not even in the 10th century. Just as Christians celebrate Christmas every which way, Jews then and now got to choose their own customs. Hence families have unique customs, and various synagogues emphasize various things. Medieval Jewish communities in eastern Europe, north Africa, Spain, and the middle east, all came up with their individual haggadahs. (As did Samaritans.)

The point of the haggadah is to teach the Exodus story to children. And remember, Jesus’s students weren’t children. Teenagers certainly, but still legal adults who already knew the Exodus story: If they hadn’t heard it at home, Jesus would’ve taught it to them personally, and they’d have celebrated several Passovers together by the time of his last supper. So, just as some families don’t tell the nativity story every Christmas once the kids get older, don’t be surprised if Jesus skipped the haggadah’s customary Four Questions (what’s with the matzot, why are bitter herbs part of the meal, why roasted meat in particular, and why does the food gets dipped twice) as redundant.

Christians don’t always realize this. Nor do Messianic Jews. So whenever they attend a Passover seder, or ritual dinner, and hear whatever haggadah the leader came up with, they routinely think it’s so profound how Jesus “practiced” and “brought such meaning and fulfillment” to these customs. Even though it’s highly unlikely he practiced any of the present-day customs. It’s pure coincidence his ministry “fulfilled” them. But y’know, not every Christian believes in coincidence.

Passover’s origins.

The bible’s second book, Exodus, is about how the Hebrew descendants of Israel were enslaved by the Egyptians, and how the LORD miraculously and mightily rescued them from slavery. Passover memorializes the LORD’s last plague upon Egypt, which finally convinced their pharaoh to release the Hebrews: God “passed over” the Hebrews’ houses on his way to smite the Egyptians’ firstborn children. I know; that’s an extremely drastic punishment. But thus far the Egyptians had resisted bloody water, frogs, lice, flies, livestock disease, boils, hail, locusts, and darkness. Their stubbornness meant things had to escalate.


Those two things hanging on the black inside of this clay oven (or tannúr) are bread. For Passover you just made ’em without yeast. Biblical Archaeology Society

Passover’s also called the Matzot Feast, or Feast of Unleavened Bread. Ex 23.15, Mk 14.1 Unleavened bread is of course מַצָּה/matzá, which in Yiddish became mátzo, so that’s what we call it in English. (Plural מַצּ֖וֹת/matzót, and you pronounce that final T, ’cause it’s Hebrew, not French.) I should warn you some companies make matzot with yeast, which is why not all matzot is kosher for Passover. Today’s matzot tends to look like giant saltines, but in Moses’s and Jesus’s days it was simply flatbread, baked in a clay oven the same way as you usually made matzo, but without yeast.

During the feast, the Hebrews were to purge all yeast, leavening, and fermenting agents from their houses. Ex 12.15 (Yep, that also means no beer for Passover.) Why? Probably to represent haste, much like cooking a lamb you hadn’t gutted properly. Which is also part of the LORD’s details on how to observe Passover:

Exodus 12.1-20 KWL
1 In Egypt’s territory, the LORD told Moses and Aaron to say,
2 “This is your main month, your first month of the year’s months.
3 Tell the whole Israeli assembly: On the 10th of this month,
every man pick yourself a sheep for your father’s house; one sheep per house.
4 If it’s too small a house for a sheep, take your neighbor’s house,
nearest in number of souls, in mouths to feed. Figure that for the lamb.
5 Pick yourselves a sound male lamb, born this year, from your sheep or goats.
6 Put it under your watch till the 14th of this month.
The whole Israeli assembly, together: Slaughter it between the evenings. 7 Take blood from it.
Put it on the two doorjambs, on the lintel, in the house where you eat it with one another.
8 Eat the meat this night, roasted over fire. Eat it with matzot and bitter herbs.
9 Don’t eat it raw, nor boiled in boiling water,
because its head, its legs, its innards must be roasted over fire.
10 Don’t have leftovers of it in the morning.
Burn the leftovers of it in the morning in the fire.
11 Eat it like this: Your waist belted, your sandals on your feet, your staff in your hand.
Eat it quickly. It’s the LORD’s Passover.
12 “I pass over Egypt’s territory that night.
I smite every birthright in Egypt’s territory, from Adam to the animals.
I enact my judgment upon all Egypt’s gods: I’m the LORD.
13 The blood on the houses where you are is your sign. I see the blood: I pass you over.
No smiting comes to destroy you when I smite Egypt’s territory.
14 This day is your memorial. Celebrate it as a feast to the LORD.
It’s an eternal doctrine for your generations. Celebrate it!
15 Eat matzot only seven days. On the first day stop using leaven in your houses.
If anyone eats leavening, get their souls out of Israel—whether the first or the seventh day.
16 The first day’s a holy assembly, and the seventh day’s a holy assembly.
Don’t do any work on them—other than what all souls need to eat. Only do that.
17 Watch the matzot. For on this day, in power, I brought your armies from Egypt’s territory.
Watch this day! It’s an eternal doctrine for your generations.
18 On the first month, the 14th day, at evening,
eat matzot till the 21st day of the month, at evening.
19 Seven days: No leaven is to be found in your houses.
If anyone eats leavening, get their soul out of Israel’s assembly, whether stranger or national.
20 Don’t eat any leavening in any of your dwellings.
Eat matzot.”

After that first Passover, after the LORD dealt with the Egyptians and the Hebrews were on their way out of Egypt, Moses added these instructions:

Exodus 13.3-10 KWL
3 Moses told the people, “Remember this day! You left Egypt, the slaves’ house!
You went out like this with the strength of the LORD’s hand! Don’t eat leavening!
4 The day you went out is in the month of Aviv.
5 Work this work in this month
once the LORD brings you to the land of Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Hivites, and Jebusites,
which he swore to your ancestors he’d give you—a land where milk and honey flow.
6 Eat matzot seven days. Feast to the LORD the seventh day.
7 Eat matzot seven days. Don’t even look at fermentation, at leavening in all your vicinity.
8 Proclaim it to your child on that day.
Say, ‘This action was done for me by the LORD when he took me from Egypt!’
9 It’s a sign on your hand for you. A memorial between your eyes.
It’s so the LORD’s Law would be in your mouth:
With a strong hand, the LORD took you from Egypt!
10 Keep this doctrine on its date in days to come.”

Passover thus became one of the three great festivals of Israel. Further commands were added about it: It had to be observed at temple, Dt 16.2, 5 and the firstfruit offering Lv 23.10-14 and other specific offerings Nu 28.16-24 became part of its observance. And of course the rabbis added the haggadah to ensure the children, like Moses said, were properly instructed as to why Passover is so important.

The last supper.

Yes, Jesus’s last supper was a Passover seder. Mk 14.14, Lk 22.15 In the year 33, Passover began on Sabbath/Saturday, Jn 19.14 but the Law permits a little wiggle room to do it the day before, when you started eating matzot. Dt 16.3 Jesus chose to eat the lamb that day, ’cause he knew he’d be busy getting killed. (Although as you know, some Christians like to nitpick, and insist Passover musta started on Thursday—contrary to what the gospels describe.)

So Jesus’s students had to perform all the ritual sacrifices and offerings Thursday morning in preparation. Mk 14.15-16 Once sundown came—’cause the middle eastern day is figured evening to evening—they got the lamb killed, drained, shaved, and cooked, and Jesus and his students came and ate. Mk 14.17 So we know they had lamb, matzot, wine, and something to dip bread in. Jn 13.26 Which might’ve been a bitter herb sauce, but also could’ve just been oil. We aren’t told.

Christians tend to think of the last supper as a somber reflection of Jesus’s self-sacrifice. True, Jesus was a little agitated, and interrupted everyone else’s calm with it. Jn 13.21-22 But otherwise the mood was just the opposite: Passover was a celebration of how the LORD saved Israel. And now, through Jesus, he was gonna save ’em again—them, and the whole world.

Jesus added one feature to his seder, one we Christians now do all year round, and not just on Good Friday or Easter: Holy communion. Mk 14.22-24 Our ritual meal is done in remembrance of Christ Jesus, and for many Christians it replaces the seder altogether.

Not that God’s deliverance of the Hebrews is irrelevant. Far from it! But for gentiles (Egyptian Christians in particular, y’know), the Exodus isn’t our story. It’s not about our salvation. It’s about the Hebrews’ salvation from Egypt. It provides us a significant historical context for what Paul and the apostles had in mind when they later wrote in their letters about the salvation Jesus brings us. It definitely explains the Lamb of God idea, where Jesus takes away the world’s sin. Jn 1.29 You wanna understand salvation, election, and covenants better, read Exodus.

But again: Christians have largely replaced Hebrew-style Passover with Easter and communion. So unless we’re of Jewish descent (or unless we’re legalists), we don’t bother with seders. Go ahead and check out a seder sometime; it’s interesting. But not mandatory for Christians, ’cause we celebrate Passover our own way.

Simon the Cyrenian, the man who carried Jesus’s cross.

by K.W. Leslie, 14 April

Mark 15.21, Matthew 27.32, Luke 23.26.

Enroute to Golgotha, leading Jesus to the place they’d crucify him, the Romans decided he was inadequate to carry his crossbeam.

Movies and art, following St. Francis’s lists of the stations of the cross, depict Jesus falling over a bunch of times. The gospels don’t, but who knows?—maybe he did. He had been up all night and flogged half to death. Between sleep deprivation and blood loss, carrying a hundred-pound crossbeam would’ve been too much for anyone. (No, not the 300-pound full cross we see in paintings, such as the El Greco painting in my “Stations of the Cross” image. Even healthy convicts would’ve found that unmanageable.)

The Roman senate made it legal for soldiers to draft conquered peoples—basically anyone in the Roman Empire who lacked citizenship—into temporary service. Jesus referred to this law when he taught us to go the extra mile. Mt 5.41 So the Romans grabbed an able-bodied passerby to carry Jesus’s crossbeam. And since he later became Christian and his sons became bishops, the writers of the gospels mentioned him by name: Simon the Cyrenian (or “of Cyrene”).

Mark 15.21 KWL
The Romans draft a passerby,
a certain Simon the Cyrenian who’s coming from the fields,
the father of Alexander and Rufus,
so he’d carry Jesus’s crossbeam.
 
Matthew 27.32 KWL
Coming out, the Romans find a Cyrenian person named Simon.
This man, they compel
to take up Jesus’s crossbeam.
 
Luke 23.26 KWL
While the Romans lead Jesus away,
taking hold of Simon, a certain Cyrenian coming from the fields,
they lay the crossbeam upon him
to carry behind Jesus.