11 Pentecost: 12 August 2007
(Isaiah 1:1, 10-20/Psalm 107:1-9/Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16/Luke 12:32-40)
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
When the church marries a couple we have them stand up before family and friends, before the communion of saints and all the company of heaven and God himself, and we ask them questions: “Do you?” and “Will you?” questions. Do you take this man to be your husband or this woman to be your wife? Will you love and comfort, honor and keep, in sickness and in health; and forsaking all others, be faithful as long as you both shall live? If the bride and groom are young, they stand there before the church overdosed on endorphins, superfueled by hormones and we try to put the brakes on. “Listen here, young man. Before we authorize you to have sex with this young woman you’re going to have to make her some promises – and we’re going to expect you to keep them. And you, young woman, wake up. This Prince Charming beside you is going to grow old, fat, and bald and will certainly disappoint you in countless ways. Can you handle that?” A good marriage ceremony is designed to scare the living daylights out of the bride and groom. It is a solemn and holy commitment they make, a sacrament of Christ and his church. We want them to know just what they’re getting themselves into.
Likewise, when the church baptizes candidates we have them stand up before family and friends, before the communion of saints and all the company of heaven and God himself, and we ask them questions: “Do you?” and “Will you?” questions. Do you renounce? Do you turn? Do you promise? Do you believe? Will you continue, persevere, proclaim, seek, serve, strive, and respect? In a way, here too we’re trying to put the brakes on. No less than a marriage ceremony, the baptismal liturgy should scare the candidates; it begins with death and burial, after all. It is a solemn and holy commitment they make. We want them to count the cost (Lk 9:57-62). We want them to know just what they’re getting themselves into.
The Do you believe? questions in the baptismal liturgy follow the Apostles’ Creed, which likely developed as a form of catechesis, a pattern and method of instruction for baptismal candidates. It is the Cliff Notes of Christian faith and theology – not all we will grow to believe, but an essential starting point, a common foundation upon which the theology of the church rests. There should be nothing objectionable here to Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, or Protestant Christians and nothing that any group would leave out. In the familiar slogan, In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things love, the Apostles’ Creed falls under essentials. Though the non-denominational church of my youth rejected all manmade creeds as superfluous and even divisive, even they affirmed all the truths of the Apostles’ Creed.
The early church considered the Apostles’ Creed, or an early precursor of it, as the regula fidei, the rule of faith – the standard of truth by which they measured all spiritual understanding. "Christ was pure spirit and therefore only appeared to die," said the Docetists. "Not so," replied the church. "He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried." "There was no resurrection. Jesus’ body was likely thrown on the garbage heap outside Jerusalem and eaten by dogs," says John Shelby Spong. "Not so," replies the church. "On the third day he rose again." So much nonsense, so many heresies, can be swept aside by the Creed. It remains the regula fidei of the church. So, for the next few weeks, as part of our confirmation instruction, we will explore the Creed together, this summary of the faith that we have gotten ourselves into.
The basic structure of the Creed, like the basic structure of our faith is Trinitarian. There are three sections: one dedicated to the Father, one to the Son, and one to the Holy Spirit. Each section begins with a bold declaration: I believe.
I believe lots of things. Some of my beliefs are simple statements of fact – usually facts beyond my power of observation or verification, facts discerned by experts and communicated to the rest of us. I believe that the earth revolves about the sun as Copernicus said and not the other way round as generations before thought. Few today believe otherwise. Why do I believe this? It’s in the science textbooks and my teachers assured me it’s true, and really for no other reasons. It’s presented as fact and I accept it as fact. (Whether that acceptance is a good or bad thing is itself worth exploring – both science and public education have agendas, after all, and those agendas deserve careful scrutiny. But that’s another story.) Some others of my beliefs are merely opinions, expressions of personal preference. I believe that Starbuck’s coffee is superior to Seattle’s Best; I believe that most any coffee is superior to Seattle’s Best. I believe that rap music is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. And yet there are almost certainly people who go to Border’s Bookstore café on a rainy Saturday afternoon to enjoy a cup of Seattle’s Best coffee while listening to rap music on their iPods – and consider that time well spent. My opinions notwithstanding, they believe otherwise. And they’re not wrong; on these type of beliefs we may agree to disagree.
Some beliefs are statements of fact and some are expressions of opinion. I believe in God, we say in the opening words of the Creed. But what do we mean? Are we saying that we accept the existence of God as a fact discerned by the experts – Who would they be? – and communicated to the rest of us? Well sure, in some sense this is exactly what we mean. Most of us believe because our parents believed – those are the immediate experts – or because some other significant person in our lives believed and passed that on to us. The notion of the self-made man or woman is highly exaggerated; we are formed by others and belief is often part of that formation. Part of the agenda of the church – and we don’t try to hide this – is spiritual formation, the passing on of beliefs from one generation to the next. That’s why we use ancient liturgies, gather around an ancient book, and practice ancient rituals. We have received these and we are determined to pass them on. So yes, we say we believe in God as a statement of fact, though others might question our conviction. Are we saying that we accept the existence of God as an opinion, as a personal preference? Again, yes; in some sense this is exactly what we mean. We choose to view our lives as created, meaningful, relational, and transcendent – in short, we prefer to live in a world created by God and endowed with meaning and purpose. We prefer and pursue a relationship with that God and we hope that relationship will transcend the boundaries of our very brief physical existence. In our opinion it will. Of course, our opinion notwithstanding, many believe otherwise. Our culture, which values diversity and tolerance above all else, assures us that they are not wrong; on these types of beliefs we may agree to disagree. (Whether such tolerance and the view of faith as solely personal preference relegated to the private and not the public realm is a good or bad thing is itself worth exploring – our culture has an agenda, after all, and that agenda deserves careful scrutiny. But that’s another story.)
This September I will have been married thirty years – good years that have passed all too quickly. I hope for thirty more. Out of these thirty years comes this simple statement: I believe in my wife. What do I mean by that? Is it a statement of fact, a simple acknowledgement of the existence of this other human being who is in a particular relationship with me? No, it’s much more than that. Is it an expression of personal opinion or preference – I prefer this wife to my other ones or I prefer this woman to all others I might have chosen as wife? Well, at some personal risk, I must admit that this is not exactly what I mean either. I believe in my wife is not merely a statement of fact or an expression of opinion or personal preference. This belief is in another category altogether – a category it shares with the opening statement of the Creed: I believe in God.
When I say I believe in my wife I mean that I trust her, that I’m convinced her prime agenda is for my good – really for our mutual good. I mean that our relationship is life-giving. Do you remember all those marriage promises we spoke of earlier: to love and comfort, honor and keep, in sickness and in health; and forsaking all others, to be faithful as long as you both shall live? I mean that she has kept her promises to me and that I have every reason to believe she will continue to do so as long as we both shall live. This isn’t merely a statement of fact or an expression of opinion; it is relationally verified reality. Thirty years of life together, thirty years in which my wife has been faithful to me – to our relationship – have engendered and nourished my belief in her. This belief certainly includes both fact and opinion; but, it subsumes them, it transcends them. This belief is trust.
The church means – I mean – something quite akin to this in the opening line of the Creed: I believe in God. I mean that I trust God, that I’m convinced that God’s prime agenda is for my good – that God has no agenda which does not include my good. I mean that my relationship with God – and what an astounding notion a relationship with God actually is! – my relationship with God is life-giving. I mean that God has kept all his promises to me – promises contained in covenant and cross and revealed in the word written and the Word made flesh – and that I have every reason to believe that God will continue to do so throughout eternity. And all this in spite of the reality that I have broken my promises to God time and again! The years of my life with God, years in which God has always been faithful to me, have engendered and nourished my belief in God. This belief certainly includes both fact and opinion; but, it subsumes them, it transcends them. This belief is trust. Most days, anyway. But not always and equally so. My trust is strained easily by lack of understanding. It is brought into question by difficult circumstances. I argue with God as I argue with my wife – usually over something quite selfish and petty – and then I sulk and withdraw for a time. Trust doesn’t come easily or naturally for most of us. We have to work at it. We need help. And that is part of the importance of the Creed, of this corporate confession of the church. On those days when I can’t honest say I believe in God as a conviction of trust, it means everything to me to be surrounded by people who can, at that moment, say the words to me and for me. You don’t believe right now? Well, we do. It’s all true. You have no trust right now? Well, we do. Share some of ours. The Creed reminds me that I need you, that I need this community of trust in and through which God becomes flesh and shows himself trustworthy. When I say I believe in God I’m also saying that I believe in God’s people, the church – that I believe in you. I’m not sure it’s possible to separate the two; I’m sure it’s unwise to try. So, some days I believe in God only as one fact among many. Some days I believe in God only as preference – the Word over silence, meaning over meaninglessness. But most days I believe in God as trust. I want that for all my days.
I think our society overestimates the power of facts. Take sex, for instance – more specifically sex education. Why do we have sex education in public school? (We call it Wellness now, but there’s still a healthy dose of sex in the curriculum.) It all comes down to disease and unwanted, early pregnancies, both of which are costly to and disruptive of society. And so the schools have been tasked with presenting the facts of life – physiology and mechanics, yes, but those only secondarily so. Our culture has an agenda, remember? Mainly we want to present our young people the facts about the risks and dangers of unprotected sex so they’ll stop it. (Isn’t it interesting that we talk about sex as safe so long as there is only a slim chance of disease or pregnancy? No matter the devastating emotional and spiritual consequences sex may have – anything but safe there.) Our government and culture are convinced that knowledge of the facts will change the sexual behavior of young people. All I can say is that they obviously don’t know our young people. They don’t understand that hormones trump facts, that pleasure vanquishes reason. You know as well as I, the teenage couple in the back seat of the car aren’t going over the facts. Besides, pregnancy and disease happen to other people, not to them. And how long have we known now that cigarette smoking causes cancer – known it as unquestionable fact? We teach that fact in Wellness also. Yet how many people start smoking each year – young people who just know they are ten feet tall and bulletproof? And have you noticed how large our society is now? Knowledge of the tremendous health risks associated with obesity don’t seem to stop people from saying, “Supersize that.” Of course it’s generally better to know than not to know, to have the facts than not to have them. I just don’t share our society’s conviction that facts significantly alter behavior.
That’s surely one reason the Creed aims for belief in God not just as a statement of fact or of opinion, but of trust. It matters not only what we know, but how we live. And for that, trust is more important than facts. I can believe that God exists – accept that as fact – without it affecting my behavior in the least. In fact – pun intended – James says that the demons believe in God and shudder (James 2:19); but, they go right on being demons in rebellion against God. But trust? Well, that’s another matter entirely. Trust caused Peter and Andrew and James and John to leave their fishing nets to become fishers of men. Trust caused Levi to abandon his lucrative tax-collecting station and strike out with this carpenter-turned-rabbi. Curiosity took Zacchaeus up the sycamore tree but trust brought him down and trust compelled him to restore all he had stolen. Trust nailed Jesus to the cross and held him there: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit,” is the sound of trust. And trust broke the power of sin and death and rolled back the stone on the morning of our Lord’s great victory. I believe in God all these said in the word of the Creed – not with their lips, but with their lives.