Symbols: Fishes and Wheels


We are in a series about symbols of the Early Church and what they mean for the Church today. Today’s symbol is fishes. Have you ever noticed the fish decal on the back of cars. If you’re a traditional church-goer, you might know what it is. In case you do not, it is a Christian symbol. The fish has had a few variations in the Early Church. The first expression was simply a fish. The other was the outline of a fish with the greek letters IXTHUS in it. Once again, it was not just a marker of the presence of the people who followed God, but also a descriptor of who Jesus is. It became one of the most nuanced symbols that showed the identity of the Church along with the purpose and power of God’s work on earth.

220px-Ephesus_IchthysCropWhen God sent his son to the earth, it was not just a random incarnation. God had a point to what He was doing. The early believers knew this to be the case. One of the earliest drawings they used among themselves was a greek acrostic for the identity of Jesus that formed the image of a wheel. The full description was iota christos, theos uios, soter, which mean Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior. It also held the image of a cross, which represented a key part of the Christian story. These two things pointed to the purpose. Jesus was the Christ (messiah) according to Christian belief and he was considered God’s Son. Being God’s Son in the Bible was a title reserved for special people like kings. Israel would have clicked with this title since they had no legitimate king for hundreds of years. This led to the title savior, which in the Old Testament was connected to the idea of the king who was to come.

The acrostic, however takes a twist in including the cross. The cross, as we have noted earlier, was a sign of defeat. It meant death, which no one ever recovered from. According to popular belief, having a cross as part of your story meant that your movement was probably obsolete. This is not what christians think about the cross. Many early believers said they saw the risen Jesus. This turned the idea of the cross upside down. Instead of being an image of defeat, it was a symbol of what had been defeated. Death was done, the grave had no more power over people (1 Cor. 15:54, 55; Rev. 1:18). To Christians believed it was a power symbol. Even Saint Augustine once pointed out that the all the letters of the title found in the acrostic totals to 27 letters, or 3x3x3. This amount or this particular usage of the number 3 represented power to people of that day. Jesus, the King, had saved the world by defeating death, showing everyone that He was truly the most powerful force.

The symbol that most often accompanied the wheel was the fish. This was an interesting symbol to fish_clipartaccompany the wheel symbol, since there was no obvious connection between the two, but, there were reasons for using this emblem. One reason for the fish is the association with water, which Jesus seems to repeat along with the fish over and over again. From baptism, to the cleansing with water, to being fisher’s of men quote, the fish had a long-standing history of defining the way Christians are to live. The question is do we allow this perception of how to live spill into our own lives.

The questions we can ask ourselves is how powerful is the God we believe in? How does that affect the way we live? Do we live like the one who defeated death is powerful enough to save the world? Can we confidently say that the God has won His Kingship and is using it for our best interests? The end question is can God deliver. The early believers believed He was completely able to deliver. They believed He was powerful to save not just spiritually, but beyond every way imaginable.

So let’s live in the light of the powerful King who has called us into a mission to save the world and make it better.

 

Symbols: The Chrismon


Chrismon_by_Plotinos

We are currently in a series exploring the emblems of the early church and what they teach us about today. One of the major images of the early church and of today is the Chrismon. To most people, it’s a strange emblem. What most people do not realize is that this emblem is so Christ centered and speaks so much into how we see Christ. The emblem consists of multiple letters. We’ll cover them one at a time. As we look at each one, more and more of what Christ means to us.

The image consists of multiple letters. The first is the T, called tau in the ancient greek. Besides being the letter T, it also symbolized the cross. If you know anything about crosses, you know these were violent tools used to punish criminals and rebels during the height of the Roman Empire. One of the things we know is that this tool was used against Jesus. Now, Jesus was no criminal. As a matter of fact, most would say that he was a man of peace and love and pursued the cause of the needy. Such a man does not deserve death like he is some criminal. Neither was he really a rebel. He did, however, revolutionized how humanity would think of itself. The world did not know how to handle this revolutionary paradigm. And like the world does so many times when it does not understand change that must happen, it begins to bring death to the ones ushering in change. Which is strange, because the change that Jesus brought was to bring humanity to life and have us live out the greatness we were created to be.

This leads to the next letters in the emblem, the I and the V, which are iota and nun in the greek. These letters identify the one who hung on the cross, Jesus of Nazereth. In greek, Jesus name begins with the iota and Nazareth begins with nun. This Jesus was the center of their identity, but this was only the beginning. This name was changer of all history mentioned before. The next two letters complete what we should see in Jesus. The next two letters were P and X, the rho and chi in greek. This is important because this is where Jesus clashed with the rest of the world. Rome had a term called pax romana. This meant the peace of Rome. This is what Rome said the goal of their empire was. They way they brought it about was to conquer and bring their law into the land they conquered. You could follow it and live or you could be killed, most commonly on a cross. To the early christians, the peace of christ was realized by Jesus on the cross. The one who was the conquerer of empires, and the King of kings, won over the powers that be by being on their very tool of punishment. In a world of might makes right, Jesus changed history by choosing love as the core of his action.

If you take a look at the last two thousand years, the movement of Jesus has lasted and the Roman Empire has not. Which says much about what types of movements really last. Much of the world thinks that power and violence if necessary. Yet, Jesus took on violence. Note that he did not avoid action. His actions got him killed. But He did not impose the same tools of death the world used. He chose to show them that love brings the world into the order it needs to be in. Buying into violence by seeking violent punishments or answering violence with violence can send us into the spiral into a world of violence. Jesus drew the line in the sand, saying that there had been enough. Violence had to stop somewhere.

Many times, we see a blind devotion to ways of life by people who claim to follow Jesus. They never ask questions as to what would Jesus to challenge the status quo. Is there an alternative to what action is being suggested? These questions need to be asked by Christians every day. If Jesus was willing to be placed on a cross, then why are we never asking the questions that create alternatives. Jesus’ way means following a way that brings life and not death. The early church found it important to identify with this Jesus. Another important point is that God’s endgame is not for us to die, but to change the world. He wants us to create a reality that is full of hope. If you want to follow Jesus, the big question is if you are willing to take on the challenge of this Jesus. Are you willing to take on the challenge of love and face down the world of death?

All Saints Day


This holiday has a long tradition in the Church worldwide. Not every local church celebrates it, but it has carried on very important concepts which are important to basic Christian theology.

In the Western Church Protestant, most traditions that are Anglican, Lutheran, or associated with either will celebrate literally all saints locally and universally. It is a time to remember martyrs too. They usually, if traditional, sing songs such as Martin Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress is our God.”

Western Church Catholics celebrate this holiday the same as Protestants, but with a twist that in some places, it is mandatory as a Latin Rite. However, not all local Churches require attendance to Mass on this date. It must also be remembered that Catholics have particular tradition of Saints that are officially recognized by the bishopric and can affect the exact interpretation of the holiday’s observance. 

Eastern Churches tend to take an approach that pits the holiday on the first Sunday after Pentecost. The celebration is very similar to the West, though the origins are quite different. The neat thing about tying the holiday into the Pentecost season is that it can connect sainthood with Christ and further imply that one must be in Christ in order to be considered a saint.

I fall in the Protestant tradition, so I am inclined to focus on the sainthood of all believers. I understand the value of picking certain Saints to be archetypes for all saints, but a protestant thinks that is arbitrary since our main archetype is Christ and that would mean we need no official recognition of any saint, not even Mary, to be our example.*

This very short post on the holiday is to help us that we all seek to value Christ on this day. The focus was never the saint, even in the Catholic tradition, but was the Christ they lived for. Christ is the one we find sainthood in and the one whose Spirit guides us to that saintly living.

This does not mean that we do not have people who serve as examples. Protestantism is filled with your Billy Grahams and Shane Claibornes who strive to live out the aspect of Christ those great mean live out to this day.

Jack-O-Lantern Shakedown (Halloween)


Halloween is today and, that’s right, the Christians are hard at work again. We cannot figure out if this is an appropriate holiday. In the mix are voices about pagan holidays, Christian holidays, scary movies, and trying to keep holy with the name “fall festival.”

And with that, let’s pause.

Take a deep breath.

Take another.

And let’s look at the history of this really confusing holiday.

I do not have official sources, but I do prefer a couple blog postings:

One is by an up and coming Doctoral student who I had the pleasure of attending church with at Seminary. His name is Michael Halcomb. He does seem a little more abrupt in challenging others to be accepting of Christian participation in Haloween. But he does bring a mix of thought and history into the argument.

The other is by Dr. Ben Witherington. A highly respected author and an excellent Biblical Scholar in the New Testament field. He seems a little more subtle about the point first, but he does eventually say that he thinks Christians should be more historically grounded in their critique of Halloween. An easy read that still explores history and still pulls some points that are not easily ignored.

So what do you think.

This holiday has gone from All Hallows Eve to Halloween.

From remembering saints, martyrs, and the dead to pretending to be Ghosts, Witches, and Freddy Kreugers, this holidays has been a hot bed for the church for a long time.

I say that the two bloggers I have mentioned are right. Let’s truly look at the actual holiday, even if you still disagree or begin to agree with participating with it in the end.

Grace and peace to you all.

Reformation Day


Tomorrow is Reformation Day. It is not the most popular Protestant holiday, but it has held the most important influence in history as a beacon towards progress and change.

The history of the Reformation’s effects reverberated throughout the western world when Martin Luther posted the 95 Theses on the doors of All Saint’s Church in Germany. It not only created the Protestant tradition, but eventually led to changes in the Roman Catholic Church, who were the object of the protests. It is debatable as to why exactly Luther posted the list, but the common assumption is that Luther was not producing a doctrine, but wanting an honest intellectual conversation on the merits of the Church’s practices at that time, more specifically the practices related to the selling of indulgences by Dominican Friar, Johann Tetzel, who wittily coined the phrase “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory [also attested as 'into heaven'] springs.”

Most Church folk know how this story played out. Luther gets into much trouble with the Catholic Church and eventually is kicked out. What started as a conversation starter turned into a battle of wills and led to a separation.

One may ask, what is the point of all the history lesson here. The point is that our more recent history is in some ways not so different from the one just described. How many times do we get into conversations with a person who has too many questions and then get frustrated with them? Have we not at times been guilty, even in the Protestant Church, of making the mistake of condemning and practically excommunicating them?

There have been those on the other side who have been exiled for merely observing things in Scripture that raise questions on theology and have been given hell for it. It is not that they were trying to sabotage the tradition, but they had questions, did not understand how the tradition matched with the Bible, or just wanted to see if the tradition could be made better by a little Q&A. Instead of being given grace and a safe place for questions, they were put on an emotional roller coaster that eventually pushed them away from church.

It makes one think of the command to not return evil with evil, but to do good only (Romans 12:17).

Although Reformation Day is a time to remember this great contribution that began with Luther and continues today, it is also a solemn time of remembrance. It is a time where we look at past mistakes and look inward to see if our mistakes are the same. Take some time today. It might be 5 minutes or 5 hours. Quietly reflect and seek God’s still small voice. In this time, you may find correction for your faults and comfort for your pain.

Challenge by fires of purification and healing by balms of soothing effects.

What are you celebrating today? Is it a time to appreciate the good? Or is it your time to do the same bad that was done to you? Do you want change and healing? Or do you want to feel safe and proud?

Symbols: Anchor and Cross


anchor-cross

We are in a series about the symbols of the early church and what those symbols show us about how people of faith should live today. Today we are looking at the symbol of an anchor that also resembles a cross. The reason for picking this symbol of an anchor was probably an obvious one. It had the shape of the cross which was a very integral to the story of Christianity. Having this symbol reminded them of everything that the cross meant and showed them the path that they were meant to follow.

The verse the could be the basis for this symbol is Hebrews 6:19. The context for the verse has to do with covenant God has made with humanity. This chapter talks about through Jesus acts of the cross and the resurrection. It talks about God making a covenant with us. It describes it like an anchor which holds us steady and as a reality which brings us into the presence of God. This early group of believers needed an anchor to hold them steady. The Church was early, growing, and there was some fear that they were on very shaky ground in the world. When we read the book of Acts, we see that the church needed something firm and even supernatural to keep them going. They needed something bigger than big and that they could dive deeply into.

One of the most important things to people of the Early Church was the Presence of God. To them that was everything. It meant peace, hope, and purpose. It was part of what they were trying to bring to the world. What they also saw was that to bring the presence of God, you to always seek to be in the presence of God. The orientation towards God was the only to ensure that the infiltration of God’s Kingdom was possible. That is why they met together as much as possible. They saw that in community, they could see a bit of what God had planned for them. They never gave up seeking God’s presence in community at all times.

The question this raises is what are we doing to dwell in God’s presence? Also, what are we doing to bring that grounded presence to other people? Are we seeking peace, love and faith? Are we leaving this presence with everyone we come in contact with? The presence is crucial to our existence and knowing what we need to do. At the risk of angering some believers, I would say this presence with God is more crucial than even reading a Bible. In the end, The presence of God found in Jesus and brought to us through the Holy Spirit is what sustains us. Even though we can read our Bibles, go to worship, or read devotionals, we cannot be grounded without seeking God’s presence. We cannot survive without His presence. Whatever you do to grow spiritually, always create a space where you are aware of God’s presence with you. It can be in your individual times of growth or in a community of worship.

Symbols: The Branch


palm-sunday-global

We are currently in a series about the symbols of the Early Church and what it mean for people of faith today. We have already seen two symbols that have so much to say to us. Today we look at a very simple symbol. The symbol is a palm branch. This symbol is simple, yet it invokes many thoughts from the early believers in Jesus. These thoughts are important for our future because their direction and purpose are part of what it means to take on the path of Jesus.

The first and most obvious connection we can make is the story of Jesus riding into Jerusalem and the people waved palm branches for Jesus and layer them down for his donkey to walk on. To most this entry into Jerusalem seemed random and one might assume that it is a pointless story, but it is packed with meaning.

One event that every person in Jerusalem would have remembered was the entry of the emperor of Rome riding in on his horse after taking over and being instructed to wave palm branches for him. The Palm branch would have been the symbol that Rome used to say that they had achieved peace through conquering land and bringing their law to it. Jesus, however, challenged that entire notion of peace through forceful means. By Jesus entering this way, he was saying that he was bringing real peace and the crowd was declaring it. The thing that seemed counterintuitive was that he was crucified. How was he achieving this if he was letting people putting him to death? Most people would have been thrown off by the idea of a crucified savior. For them, that was an oxymoron, and if you think about it, it would be considered lunacy if someone did it today.

Jump forward two thousand years. We can ask the question of who has had the most profound effect on history. The Emperors of Rome have come and gone. They have no religion of anyone following. Their concept of achieving peace was not game changing. Jesus, however, has a religion which around 30% of the world claims to be a part of. Even people do not believe he is a savior tend to admit that he is one of the most polarizing, game changing figures of history. We would not be where we are today, if he had not come down to us in the way he had.

For a Christian, this central person of our faith has made a declaration as to how we should live life. Our way of life is not supposed to be defined by using force or violence to achieve what we want. The world ever since our fall has tried to define history by utilizing the eye for an eye philosophy or a worse philosophy of take what you want by any means necessary. If you read the New Testament, you see a Jesus that does not want to take his power and force people to follow his way, but someone who wants to offer life and give us the keys to heaven. He wants to give purpose to people and guide them into changing the world in the same way he did. The emperors were like blips on a radar. Jesus was the earthquake that shifted everything.

In the end, there will be victory. This palm branch included an element of victory or success. When claim this symbol, we claim victory in a way that is very different than anything else. It’s a victory over death. We get to share in the resurrection of Jesus. This means that when people threaten us and say they will go to the point of putting us to death, we can be unfazed because our death is not final. We will see life again. We can live the life of Jesus without fear. We can show a love that brings life in Jesus. We can dramatically shift the direction of the world every day. The question is will we?

Symbols: Cup and Bird


 We are in a conversation about the early church symbols and what they teach us about Jesus plan for humanity. When we join in a community of faith, one thing that we should remember is that this is a community not just of identity, but of  participation. This image of a bird drinking from a cup was one image that the early church used to indicate their presence. There are a few particulars about this image that can teach us about the direction of the early believers and the direction God wants for us. This direction will be important, since we are in need of this direction to change our world today.

The bird drinking from cup stands for believers taking part in Christ’s covenant with humanity. Community was one of the most important things in the early church. Without it, one could say that they probably would not have lasted. The community, however, was not just about hanging out together. The community was centered around Jesus. The people, in essence were drinking from a cup that was crucial to their survival. Th cup also represents Christ being the water of life. This community that Jesus had formed was part of the package that He gave to us. Seeing community like this makes it not optional, but crucial to a healthy Christian lifestyle.

Some images had the bird sitting on a palm branch. Palm branches usually stood for the peace throughout the Roman Empire. Obviously, for Christians, it stood for the peace of Christ. It’s interesting that this would be included in this image. The community of Jesus was to be defined by peace. This community was given the responsibility of bringing peace and well being to each other. For today, we can ask ourselves if we live by this model. A quick look at the New Testament description shows us an early church that would do whatever they could to take care of everyone and bring on the peace of Christ. Do we do the same? How many people are in need in our very own communities that we reach out to? Or is our community judging and with-holding true help for these people? The early church understood that we should care for those in our communities. That calling has never changed.

Symbols: The Boats


ship-catacomb

One symbol from the early church that we will start with is the boat. It’s not much to look at. As a matter of fact, the drawing was very rudimentary with no special images. We would not look at it twice except to think a preschooler drew it for a parent’s refrigerator. However, the image carried a heavy missional meaning for the Early Church. The entire image along with certain particular images that would accompany the boat picture was not only an indicator of the presence of the Christian community, but also reminded all the disciples of what their purpose was.

The first and most obvious element is the boat itself. The boat recalls the story of Noah and how God used Noah and his family to save the world from destruction. The Early Church found this story to be a prime example of what their mission was. If we are to be reflections of Christ, we have to take on the mission of Christ, which was to save humanity and all of creation. This was a pretty stout message in this image, since they were a minority group. But this small group was called to save and change the world. By painting this image, they made a declaration that they would stay on track with God’s mission.

Another part of this image, the cross in the mast, was crucial, although the image does not make it easy to see. This was not just a standard image required of this small group, but an indicator of who defined this group. The boat was the church, but the mast, a necessary piece of any sailing vessel, was defined by Jesus. Note that it was not the Bible or some ritual. It was the person of Jesus who defined the Church. The early church believed that in order to interact with the Church, you had to interact with Jesus. This is a very stark contrast with the modern church which seems to indicate that if do a ritual (baptism, sinner’s prayer, etc.) you are in. The early church had at least two of the rituals common in church today, but they could not work around Jesus. This image let them know that Jesus is the image we advertise. Nothing else and no one else took His place.

Two other images would also be found. One was the Chrismon image. You may have seen this image and it looks like an X written over a P. It’s actually the first two letters of the Greek word for Christ and it reinforced the point found in the cross as the mast of the ship. The other image was the bird or dove. Why a bird? It goes back to the baptism of Jesus where the Holy Spirit came down in the form of a dove. The Spirit carried with it connotations of wind from the old testament, which make sense when you think of sails in a boat needing wind to move. Also, in the first creation story (Genesis 1) the Spirit is described as hovering over the earth’s waters. The Spirit is a very creative force and helps people understand where they need to go. These people understood that they need direction and, at times, a very creative force if they were going to survive. They were always on the edge of experiencing persecution. God’s Spirit was the force and it was and still is the most creative force in the universe. In the end, it was up to God to drive the boat forward, humans just had to decide whether to fight it, which never ends well, or join its path, which always ends well. This brings up a very serious question for us today. Do we intentionally follow the Spirit regardless of the destination?

This image turns out to be very complex and involved, but the power inside the image is what is tells us today. How do we define ourselves? Who are we following? Do we really understand our mission? So many times, our churches begin to look more like a ship junkyard than a sea worthy vessel ready to take on the challenges God will take us toward. It all seems to center around that mast. If we have Christ as our core definition, then we will begin down a path defined by God’s intent. We will begin to live on a mission. We will be driven by God’s spirit. Instead of just looking at our calendars for Sundays and potluck dinners, maybe we should ask how it looks to sail with Christ every day of the week. Maybe we should be asking God where He wants to take us instead of asking where we want to take ourselves. We have the opportunity to sail on the greatest mission the world has ever experienced. We just have let Christ through the Spirit direct our every move.

 

Symbol Series: Beginnings


We follow a very old faith. For over two thousand years we have seen many eras of meaning, symbol, and significance. These eras have paved the way for later movements. Despite the desire to completely abandon the old ways and pursue a completely new way of Christian, what remains a reality is that we have to learn from what has become the past in order to wisely approach the future. In the Christian faith, we have two millenniums to work with. We can learn from our predecessors what the ethos of our faith is and the direction our faith should go.

The focus for this series is certain symbols of the early church, within the first two hundred years. Christians began as a minority religion that was shunned by the majority in society. They were not liked and sometimes had lies spread about them by Jews and Gentiles alike. That led to much of their communication outside of gathering times to drawn symbols. These symbols indicated the presence of a Christian community that would meet in that location as well as communicated a core of what a disciple of Jesus was. They would draw their identities which would include themes such as community, evangelism, hope, resurrection, and the person of Jesus Christ, the son of God.

The value of these symbols for us is the reminder that we have had a mission for the last two thousand years. The Spirit of God has been informing us of our narrative. We are part of this same story and are part of this community that finds its identity in Christ. So everything that Jesus did or commanded us to do was put into a picture that everyone could understand. That is something we still are supposed to do today. Our presence needs to be communicated. We can use symbol to describe our purpose and to remind each other that we are part of a movement to change the world. We are the spearhead movement of the kingdom that will break down the walls that have been built by the world.

As we move from message to message, we will explore some symbols and the unique messages they communicated with the believers. We will also dive into their message for us today. Are we following Jesus like the early church was trying to do? Are we try to at least head in His direction.

(Series inspired by and some content taken from Early Christianity: In Their Own Words, by Eberhard Arnold.)