I remember sitting at the desk in my dorm room, doing an assignment for a class on theology. The assignment was to write up my own personal doctrinal statement. Doctrinal statements are these lists of things one believes about the Christian faith. Normally churches write them up to outline their distinctives – what they believe about Jesus, God in general, the church, etc. They are usually short one-liners: “We believe X. We believe Y.” My assignment was to write what I believed. “Jon believes…..”
I’m a cradle Christian, so I knew what to write. It’s not like the basics of the Bible story were foreign to me. But as I typed out each line, each statement, the gravity of what I was writing sunk in in a way it never had before. It’s like I was being pushed to take ownership of the things I had been taught all my life. With every line the pressure mounted.
“I believe in the virgin birth….” I believe some young girl 2000 years ago conceived and gave birth to a baby without ever having sex with a man.
“I believe Jesus is the Son of God….” I believe that the baby was literally God in the flesh. But let’s not even go that far….
“I believe in God.” I believe in an invisible, intangible, eternal being who made the universe out of nothing.
We had to sign the paper at the bottom. I signed it, but I wrote a little note expressing my feelings to the teacher about how hard it is to believe things like this – that I was struggling.
I was a Protestant then, but becoming Catholic makes the situation even worse. As though everything else weren’t enough, I believe the bread and wine at communion really becomes the body and blood of Jesus Christ. When I see the priest lift up the bread and say, “Behold, the body and blood of Christ,” it feels about as strange and ridiculous as someone holding up a fall leaf and saying, “Behold, the Queen of England.”
There is no getting around this. We sound like idiots (which is different from actually being idiots, but still…) Our 2000 years of deep philosophizing and theologizing, stunning art, and breathtakingly beautiful music in honor of all we hold dear in Christianity is not going to make it any more palatable. Nor is any amount of trendy clothes, worship music, or Christian versions of pop culture kitsch going to attract people to a real relationship with Jesus, because at our core is this utter foolishness of the Cross and everything the Cross means. As Christians, as evangelists, we ask people to believe the unbelievable. We can pretend that it’s just the most normal thing in the world for someone to put their trust in an invisible person, celebrate a man who we say resurrected from the dead, and rejoice in a heaven nearly all of us have never seen. But no one out in the broader culture is fooled into thinking this is really normal – at least not the ones who are really thinking about it and taking it seriously.
But I’m still a Christian. I still believe it. I believe it more now than I think I ever have. And it’s hard to explain why, but I know it’s not because of all the bells and whistles that come with being a Christian. It’s not the beautiful stained glass windows or the community feeling of belonging that keeps me here. That only gets me so far… not really that far at all, actually. I don’t think that’s what keeps most committed Christians where they are. It’s Christ.
When you read the Gospels, the stories about Jesus, there is this sense of urgency about them. These writers know that what they are saying sounds ridiculous. They know the Jews are going to hate them because they think it’s blasphemous and the Romans are going to mock them, because, for crying out loud, who would follow a crucified beggar? But they can’t shake it. They can’t ignore what they’ve seen. They can’t just act like their best friend, who they saw die a brutal death, wasn’t standing in front of them three days later asking them if they had anything to eat.
To a lesser degree, that’s every Christian, I think. We’ve experienced Christ – for some of us even in a real tangible way. But all we can do, as Christians, is invite people into the mystery of it all. We have nothing to offer except Christ and (here’s the real kicker) him crucified. These words, in our day and age, are sounding again as they should sound, as they probably sounded to those who first heard them: strange and foolish. Two thousand years after the event, and a billion adherents later, it’s still all we have. It’s what changed the world then, and it’s what’s changing the world now.
And so I say the Creed with (no pride or narcissism. How could I? The world thinks I’m a moron. I don’t say it as though it sounds like anything other than what it is: the most exalted, crazy, strange and beautiful thing that could possibly ever be said. But I don’t say it with any embarrassment either:
I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, our Lord who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, Suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead and buried, and on the third day he rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit. I believe in the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.