First Sunday in Lent
Lord, you have blessed us with a rich tradition and the means to appreciate and understand it. Bless our Lenten journey as we look more deeply into the story that you have invited us to enter, to share, and to live by. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
From Christianity’s earliest times, in fact before our faith was even called Christianity, there have been statements of belief, or confessions of faith, that were the crystallization of complex theological concepts into a very few words. In the early church, they were usually spoken by a person being baptized – sometimes a phrase as simple as “Jesus is Lord” – and we see these, or sometimes fragments of these baptismal confessions, turning up in the Epistles. Romans 10:9 is arguably the best-known one, where Paul writes “if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Later in the life and development of the Church, these assorted bits and pieces would turn up in compiled statements of faith that we now know as the Creeds.
As tempting as it is to preach on the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, as part of our expanded spiritual exercises of Lent, I have chosen instead to spend today and the next 3 Sundays taking us on a guided walk through the Apostle’s Creed. This will hopefully support and provide additional reflective fodder for the Lenten Forum discussions being led by Keith Fleming between the services each Sunday during March. In tackling this, I’m hoping that each of us will be led to think a little more deeply about what we truly believe, and perhaps even see the Creed in a new light. But first, we need to lay some groundwork.
Legend has it that the Apostle’s Creed was written by the apostles on the 10th day after Christ’s ascension into heaven, but scholarly indications are that it was written in the mid-second century, around 140 AD – a few generations after the time of the first apostles. Some phrases were added for clarity as late as the 4th century, and there have been some minor adjustments since. It has a clearly Trinitarian structure, containing three sets of statements in turn about God, Jesus, and the Spirit. Although formulated as a statement of belief, what must be said about the creed is that it is not an inspired addition to Scripture, nor is it in any way a replacement for the words of Christ; and was written, as all creeds have been written, in response to issues that troubled the early Church from the word “Go”. So, as we begin our walk through the Creed, there are a few things to keep in mind:
First and foremost, the creed took form in a concrete historical situation to address a specific need. It wasn’t written by a holy hermit sitting on a mountaintop thinking deep theological thoughts, but rather it emerged from the struggles of a real live community of faith faced with critical issues of the church’s life and witness in the world. So, its words reflect a lived, and living, faith.
Second, the creed is both a form of worship, and a form of commitment to a life lived in conscious harmony with what it says. For example, if we say that Jesus is Lord then we mean that Jesus gets priority over all else, integrating his life and teachings into our own.
Third, the creed attempts to concisely articulate deep Christian truths. As a brief catalogue of key beliefs, it provides a starting point of sorts, but is only one tool of many at our disposal: the Anglican Way has always recognized the role of Scripture, Tradition (of which the creeds are a part), Reason, and Experience in the quest to fathom what we colloquially call the mind of God.
Having said all this in its defence, it must also be recognized that the Apostle’s Creed reflects the limitations of the culture from which it emerged. So while on one hand it may bear witness to key Christian beliefs, nonetheless the Creed inevitably carries certain distortions or emphases that might not make much literal sense to us. But if you think of it like you would a movie preview, or the short blurb on the back cover of a book, the Creed similarly introduces a few themes but ultimately leaves it to us to really enter and experience the story in all its richness and detail and twists of plot. And when we proclaim it in public worship, we join in unity with all the countless millions in the communion of saints who over the ages have professed their Christian faith in these deceptively simple phrases.
So today we take a look at the first emphatic statement of the Creed: I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker (or creator) of heaven and earth.
Earlier I mentioned that creeds came into existence as a response to various other ideas and outlooks which were viewed as errors or threats to the developing faith, in an attempt to provide some consistency of belief among the faithful. There are, of course, a number of ways to understand the relationship between the material world, humanity, and the Creative Force that brought it all into being, and in the second century the Apostle’s Creed came to be written against the backdrop of a movement called Gnosticism. What follows is an incomplete ‘Coles Notes’ explanation, but essentially, whereas Judaism and Christianity support the idea of the salvation of the soul by faith and works, Gnosticism is the doctrine of salvation by knowledge; and beyond this, Gnosticism holds that the physical universe is evil, and therefore that God did not make it. Hence the need to state what to Christians was both obvious and central: that God created heaven and earth, effectively dismissing the claims of Gnosticism in one stroke of the proverbial pen. So that looks after the ‘why’ of this statement, and now we move on to the ‘what’.
Well, obviously, the “I” makes it personal. That’s why it is said at baptism – because it is an individual commitment to embrace the Christian story and begin a specific journey of faith. In essence, “I believe in God” is a statement of relationship. There’s a difference, I think, between saying “I believe there is a God” and saying “I believe in God”. “I believe there is a God” is simply a statement of fact that ends as quickly as it starts. It makes no demands, and has no implications for life or outlook. Belief in God is a different matter altogether – Belief in is a commitment, a recognition of relationship between me and the great Other who is responsible for all that is, and on my side it’s ultimately a relationship of faith and trust. At a critical point in Charlotte Bronte’s 19th century novel, Jane Eyre, a 10-year old Jane is at the deathbed of her friend Helen Burns who is dying of tuberculosis. Helen knows she is dying, and tries to comfort Jane by assuring her that she does not fear death because she knows she is going to God. Unsure about this, Jane asks, “Where is God? What is God?” to which Helen replies, “My Maker and yours, who will never destroy what he created. I rely implicitly on his power, and confide wholly in his goodness…. God is my friend; I love him; and I believe he loves me.” The words “I believe in God” carry that sense for me. In saying them, I affirm that I am in deep and trusting relationship with the energy, the life force – call it what you will – that created me and all that is.
Moving on to the next phrase, the Father almighty: In Jesus’ day, the idea of God as “Father” would have been an almost blasphemous thought. Although involved in the human drama on earth, the being or the essence of God was conceived as being far above and beyond human understanding – completely unapproachable by all except a select few. To look on the face of God was to die. And yet Jesus not only talked of God as Father, but also pushed it even further by calling God, “Abba” – an intimate but essentially untranslatable Aramaic word we’ve construed as “papa” or even “daddy”. So, if we take our cue from Jesus, the intent of calling God “Father” is to suggest the existence of, or the possibility of, intimate personal relationship with God: approachability, love, trust… all of this and more. What it does NOT suggest – to me, anyway – is that God is masculine in the human biological sense of the word. That we would try to impose that kind of limit on a limitless God is unfathomable to me, and I suspect, to many of you.
Then in immediate and stark opposition to the word Father, we have God described as almighty. We have just affirmed that God is like family, and then we also affirm that God has limitless power and purpose beyond anything we could ever imagine. It basically asserts that although we may not always understand the whys and wherefores, nonetheless we are prepared to believe that God is in charge; that God has purposes, or a plan, and that ultimately God’s big picture will make some sense. St. Paul expressed it effectively in 1 Corinthians 13 when he said, “Now we see in a mirror, dimly; then we will see face to face”, and medieval mystic Julian of Norwich expressed that same trust in the words, “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”
Maker – or as the modern version has is, Creator of heaven and earth…. I have to tell you, I could have preached an entire sermon on this one phrase alone…. because affirmed in it is the intelligence, energy, and force behind all that was, all that is, and all that shall be – the God of limitless possibilities and lavish creativity. Affirmed in this one eloquent phrase is the harmony of the universe, existing in the limitless reaches of interstellar space just as surely as it exists in the relationship of sub-atomic particles that make up every single speck of the stardust from which we are formed. Affirmed is our place within creation – not set above or apart from it, but as integrated and dependent on it for our health and well-being as every other living thing. And affirmed is the privilege we have of contemplating the whole vast and intricate design of creation, and what it tells us about the One who created it all.
The first line of the creed is a gold mine of theological possibility. I invite you this week to engage with it, meditate on it, express it in your own words. What would you say about God? What can you say about God with honesty and integrity, based on your own lived experience and reflection? To grease those wheels, as we draw this section of our Lenten walk to a close for today, hear the creed of 13th century Italian poet and writer Dante Alighieri: “I believe in one God – sole, eternal – He who, motionless, moves all the heavens with his love and his desire….. This is the origin, this is the spark that then extends into a vivid flame and, like a star in heaven, glows in me.”
Thanks be to God.
The Venerable Nancy Adams