I am going to try to accomplish two seemingly distinctive theological tasks today. First, I am going to continue my series of what is our Anglican Liturgy is all about. In particular today I am going to delve into the Nicene Creed; where does it come from and why do we use it? Second I am going to attempt to shed some light on one of the Gospel readings today, but in so doing I will try to answer the question the authors of the Nicene Creed were try to grapple with – that being, who really is the person we call Jesus Christ? In a way what I am doing is wrapping two sermons into one, and giving one message from two different theological perspectives. And you thought this Sunday would be boring.
Let us start with the Nicene Creed. I love the Nicene Creed, but perhaps not entirely for the reason you might expect. I love it because I know the history of it and I find its origin to be both fascinating and very telling of the Christian faith as a journey for those who follow what was once called The Way. As most of you know we say the Nicene Creed on most high holidays and it is the basic profession of faith for most Christians. It acts as a kind of definition of who we are as Christians by way of what we believe the person Jesus Christ to be. For example if you met someone who did not know anything about Christianity you might start by saying, “Well, we believe in one God…”, and go on from there.
However, as I mentioned it is the history of the Nicene Creed that I find so interesting. The Council of Nicaea was held in the city of Nicaea, which was a Hellenic city in northwestern Anatolia in what we know today as Turkey, very close to Istanbul in the year 325. It was the very fist Council of the Christian Church and the representatives were for the most part the various Bishops from the Diocese around the Mediterranean world. The first council had to be called because there was a serious division in the church. What lay at the heart of that division was the theological idea of who Jesus Christ was. Up unto this point there had been a number of different theories floating about. Some said Jesus was the Son of God and therefore both fully divine and fully human. Others felt that he was fully human until John baptized him and then he became fully divine. Others thought he was singularly divine and was what we might refer to as a ghost. A few thought he was always human and therefore a prophet from God. Up until this point in Christian history these debates were held and theological discussion ensued in a mostly civil manner. However, the Arian controversy ended that.
Arius was a Libyan priest in Alexandria who was gaining some popularity. His notion of Jesus was that while Christ was divine he was created a human being and therefore not able to be a co-essential with God. That is to say Jesus was not as high as God in the hierarchy of heaven and the universe. This notion would obviously break apart any other notion of a Trinity in God with God the Father, Jesus the Son and the Holy Spirit being one and always co-equal. To make a very long story short, over 300 Bishops came to Nicaea and while many were in the Arian camp those who were better politicians and opposed to Arius won the day. Strong-arm tactics were used and even secret death threats were issued, but the co-essentialists prevailed. The issue did not end with this council. There were other councils that were as raucous as Nicaea, but finally after the Council of Constantinople, and with the help of the new Christian convert, the Emperor of Rome, the creed was written down in the form that we have it today. And it was decreed at that Council that it should never be altered.
And now to the reading for the day. When preparing for any sermon I of course look over the readings a few times to get a sense of what passage I want to focus upon and what message I would like to convey. When preparing for this week I was drawn to the story of the Canaanite woman in Mathew’s Gospel. I was somewhat surprised that my mind was focusing upon it because I find this story a very challenging one indeed. And on first blush I don’t mean challenging in a good way. Jesus here does not come across as especially gracious. In fact you could say Jesus appears, at least at first, to be highly insensitive to the point of being overtly offensive.
I am an adult convert and one of the tasks I set out for myself in the conversion process was to read the bible like a book, from cover to cover. I distinctly remember first coming across this passage and thinking to my self, ‘am I reading this right’? In Mathew’s story of the Canaanite woman Jesus first completely ignores this woman and her exhortation that her daughter is desperately sick. While she persists Jesus dismisses her again because she is not Jewish and therefore not one whom He has come to help. And then, as if the former rebukes were not enough, Jesus refers to her as a dog. He said, “It is not fair to take the children’s food’, meaning the Israelites, “And feed it to the dogs”, meaning for example this Canaanite woman. Well, what on earth is going on here? Upon some reflection I found this passage to be exceptionally profound. In fact, and I don’t think I am overstating the case, what I believe the Bible to be largely about, and what Jesus is largely about, can pivot on the meaning of this one little and challenging story.
In preparing this sermon I put myself, as best I could imagine, in the position of the Canaanite woman. And I think we should recall the real context of that woman in that society at that time. The Israelites despised the Canaanites. We all know they didn’t like the Samaritan’s very much, but they truly loathed the Canaanites. The Canaanites were the tribes they had to defeat in order to gain entrance into their promised land and from that date they were the worst of enemies. The Israelites considered them godless and uncultured. Add to this that the woman was just that, a woman. In all societies of this time women and children were considered little more than property. While the story does not suggest it directly I also have a feeling this woman was a widow, it being better in this context for a father to plead for his daughter. Considering all this the Canaanite woman would be, in the eyes of the ancient Israelites, about as low as dirt. Jesus’ implying she is a dog turns out to be more of a contextual reality of the day than it was an insult, insulting though it still must have been to her.
So what was this woman thinking? She obviously would have known her position would have excluded her from a dialogue with Jesus let alone seeking and achieving his favour. But she does it anyway. Why? She does it because she is desperate. Her daughter, her child is gravely ill and she has nowhere else to turn. But in trying to walk in her shoes this week I could not also help but imagining she must have summoned up her courage by thinking something like this, ‘If this God is real, if this God of love Jesus is talking about really exists, then surely I will be heard, surely my daughter’s life counts for something special’. It is surprising that when you are on the bottom rung of society’s ladder that all those above you look remarkable equal to yourself. From that perspective everyone looks like a child of God and the Canaanite woman had faith that was in fact the case. If truth be told I think in her very clever response to Jesus about the crumbs under the table she is really saying, ‘I think God love us all – prove me wrong’.
I also thought about Jesus in this story and I think it crucial to understand the context of what was happening before this incident. The religious authorities had repeatedly challenged him regarding His interpretation of Jewish law. In fact in the reading today we hear his reasoning behind not always observing the washing of hands before every meal. Knowing this was a challenge to his teaching and His movement, and that it was a very culturally sensitive issue, it would therefore be astounding if in the next instant Jesus would say to a Canaanite woman, ‘Yes, you are an equal and loved member of the Kingdom of God’. And He doesn’t say it - immediately, but when asked directly, when pushed for the real answer, He acknowledges that it takes great faith to believe so, and that the Canaanite woman will be touched by God’s love.
I think it is also important to keep in mind up until this point in Mathew’s Gospel Jesus has been questioning the faith of His disciples. Just in last week’s reading we head Jesus say to Peter, “You of little faith, why did you doubt”? Oh you of little faith – an often repeated phrase by Jesus. The theologian John Bertram Philips suggested this phrase might be better translated from the original Greek into English as, “Why are you losing your nerve”? Now I find that very interesting; why are you losing your nerve? I think that is exactly what the Canaanite woman has. She has the nerve to challenge Jesus and say, ‘this is wrong, if God is a God of love then it only makes sense to me if that love should be for all people’. And Jesus says to her and to all those around her, ‘you got it, you are right. God is for all people for all time’. In this story Jesus was acknowledging two things: that God loves all people without exception and that this fact is difficult to understand and apply in a world that does not live by the same standard of love, justice and equality.
Jesus rewards this woman’s nerve, the nerve of her. The nerve of Rosa Parks not to move from her bus seat because a white man told her to do so. The nerve of Martin Luther king Jr. to write a letter from a Birmingham jail saying to the local clergy that Black people had waited long enough for justice. The nerve of Mahatma Gandhi to peaceably stand up to a belligerent colonial empire and defeat it. The nerve of Corazon Aquino, the self described housewife with no experience, to defeat the regime that murdered her husband and in her Presidency make fundamental and lasting reforms in the Philippines. The nerve of these people. And all of these people believed, as did the Canaanite woman, that God would walk with them because theirs was a God of love and of peace and of justice for all people - they knew it, they felt it. They had faith despite the obstacles. Their little faith in the nature of God’s love moved mountains.
When you read the Bible like a book, from cover to cover, many things can stand out, but for me it is the enduring story of God who time and time again reaches out to all people despite whatever mess they have made for themselves because they are Her children. In that moment with the Canaanite woman Jesus could have so easily continued to dismiss her plea because the appearances of the situation highly demanded it. But He couldn’t do it. In the face of a faith that believed the essence of God is His love for all of creation, Jesus changed the situation. And what does Jesus do immediately after this incident that we don’t hear in the reading today? “He goes to a mountain by the Galilean Sea and heals the lame, the maimed, the blind, the mute and many others”.
I think the whole Bible can pivot on this one little and challenging story of the Canaanite woman. In this story - in this difficult situation - God and human reached out to touch each other. Courage touched courage and changed the situation. Courage touched courage and helped to change the world. Never, ever be ashamed of your faith in the love of God. Never, ever be timid in asking for God’s love, for in that faith and in that asking, God’s grace moves us to make this world a better place – even if in difficult situations, even if through just one person at a time. And so, who is Jesus really? Jesus is love with the courage to reach out and transform us. And so is God, and so is the Holy Spirit. That is our creed. Amen.