I Believe (Apostles' Creed, Pt. 1)


TEXTS: Mark 9:17-27, Chronicles 20:20-21

The church as an institution does not exist to perpetuate itself. It does not exist to make its members comfortable. The Church isn't even properly an institution at all. The Church is all of us who profess to be disciples of Jesus coming together to accomplish the mission that he gave to us...to go into all the world and to make disciples. Sending checks out into the world is a good first step, and sometimes that is all we can do. But there are many other times when our calling involves not only our financial resources, but all of our lives. We are called to get on board the ship and go out to where we are needed...to give up comfort and security to go where God leads. This last step is our destination this year.

I don't know if you realize that the old cathedrals of Europe were very intentionally designed to mirror a ship. The center part of the cathedral is called the "nave," from the same root word as our word navy. If you look up to the arched ceilings of those old churches and imagined them upside down, you would have a boat. Many Scandinavian Lutheran churches actually have boats hanging above the altar. The long pews were meant to be the place where the crew sat...on long benches to row the boat with the oar that went out the window at the end. I could go on and on...I did a paper on it once in college.

But the main point is to realize that the Church as an institution just sits there and does nothing without the people inside to row the boat. And the people rowing the boat can do more harm than good if there isn't a clear direction and good navigational equipment at the helm. So throughout this year, we will be moving toward the day when we launch the ship and truly set out on our mission to bring the light of Jesus to the world in any and every way that we can.

As most of you know, however, there is some planning and preparation that need to happen before a big trip. You need whatever maps are available, contingency plans in case things go differently than expected, a trained crew, and reliable equipment. Those are things we will be looking at in the weeks and months to come.

Making disciples of Jesus has been the primary mission of the church since the day Jesus left the first of those disciples and ascended into heaven. That means that we don't have to re-invent the wheel. There is plenty of wisdom and guidance in the traditions of the Church over time to help us along our way. We have maps of sorts that have been handed down to us across time, and in this first part of the year, I want to take us through one of the oldest disciple-making maps that we have.

It is called the Apostles' Creed, coming from a legend that the 12 Apostles, on the day of Pentecost, composed the creed with each of the twelve contributing a portion. As historians have worked with document recovery they have found that it didn't come about in exactly that way, but still, it is an ancient document, detailing what those Christians who trace their heritage to the church in Rome have believed is essential.

Churches have been arguing with each other about doctrine pretty much since the Church began and the very earliest split in the church was between the Eastern Christians, based in Constantinople, and the Western Christians, based in Rome. The Roman church became the Roman Catholic Church and then all the various Protestant denominations of the West, ours included, came out of that. In the East, the Church in Constantinople gave rise to all those churches with the name "orthodox" in their title: Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox and the like. You can hear the bitter split even in their names. The Roman church called itself "catholic." Catholic means "universal," and it was Rome's way of saying "we are the true church...we are the universally accepted one." Back in Constantinople, they adopted "Orthodox," as their way of saying, "you may be universal, but we are right!" Some things never change.

In any case, both East and West had a very early version of the Creed which was recited at baptism. In the more mystical East, the earliest Creed went like this: "I believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, of whom everything is, and in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, through whom everything is, and in the Holy Ghost." In Rome it went a bit differently. There they recited, "I believe in God, the Father, the Almighty; And in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, Our Lord, and in the Holy Ghost, the holy church, the resurrection of the flesh."

Over time, in response to various teachings that didn't sit well with the Church hierarchy, the baptismal Creed grew to include new pronouncements of what the official beliefs of the church were, eventually bringing us to two longer Creeds with much more detail. Ours, of course, is the one from the West, the one from Rome, and by the middle ages the Creed was second only to Scripture in its importance. To question it was to be tossed out of the Church or burned at the stake as a heretic, so it hasn't changed a whole lot since. In the early days, if the Creed was not sufficient to represent what the Church believed, they adapted it and added to it. But once it began to be used as a weapon, traditions that wanted to emphasize other things simply wrote their own, rather than trying to keep the Apostles' Creed as a living document. If you look in the back of our hymnal, you will see a variety of Creeds from different places and traditions.

The Apostles' Creed, however, is not just to be tossed aside lightly. For thousands of years it has represented the teachings of the Church and the beliefs of millions of Christians. It is a map that has been handed down to us from the past, and as we chart our own mission and course, we should consider carefully the lay of the religious land as those ancient cartographers laid out.

We will look in depth at the various phrases and the beliefs they represent in the coming weeks. Today, however, is a time to give you the background of the Creed's development, as I have just done, and also to say why any type of Creed is important.

American society today is, in large part, jaded and cynical. It is often easier for us to identify what we don't believe than what we do think is true. Many people turn off Christianity or any other religion by saying they don't believe it; but rarely do those same people sit down and say...okay, then, what do I believe? If God didn't create the world, how did it get here? If there isn't a God, is there anything ultimate in the universe? And even within the faith, if we reject a certain teaching of the church, do we have a different belief to answer the same question? For instance, if you say you don't believe Jesus actually rose from the dead, what do you believe accounts for the sudden change in the Disciples and the rise of the Church against all odds? If its founder and leader truly died as a criminal with nary a Disciple to be found nearby and nothing ever really happened afterward, how did a bunch of scared fishermen ever change the known world? Some people think through an answer to that...but not many. Most just say, "I don't believe it," and leave it at that.

In these weeks you are not going to hear me say that you're going to hell if you don't believe a particular phrase in the Creed. But I want to emphasize today that you really do need to anchor your life somewhere. Drifting may be easy, but it doesn't accomplish anything either. It is an important part of our spiritual growth to really examine what we believe. Part of our United Methodist heritage says that we should determine what we believe as individuals in conversation with the traditions of the Church, both ancient and modern. Just disbelieving everything has little integrity. The question is always, "if not this, then what?" We each need to grapple with that for ourselves.

As we go through this time, I encourage you to work on a personal creed of your own...not one to replace the creeds of the Church, but just something that reflects the bedrock of your beliefs. What do you, in your heart of hearts, really believe about God? Who do you think God is? What do you think God is like? Who was Jesus, really? What do you really believe about that and why? Is there such a thing as the Holy Spirit? Why do you think that? What is the nature of the Bible? What lies at the core of the human heart? What do you believe so deeply that it colors how you behave?

One of the things I believe is that really examining our core beliefs...dredging them out of the recesses of our brains and saying them out loud...will change us. It will begin to bring your actions more in line with your beliefs, or sometimes show that what you believed to have no real basis. I have been with people who have discovered that their beliefs about God had much more to do with their experience of their own father or mother than anything else. Others found that what they thought was representative of Jesus was only representative of one person who called themselves Christian and yet acted hatefully.

The Church has made its blunders over time as well. In the hundreds of years when faith was intimately joined with the power, wealth, and scandal of the Holy Roman Empire, it is not always clear whether those labeled heretics were truly out of bounds or simply a threat to established systems of power. I spent most of my time in seminary reading brilliant theologians, expressing thoughts about God that made perfect sense to me, only to find them condemned by the church as heretics. I don't know how many times I have been praying for wisdom about a particular issue only to say back to God, "Oh, don't tell me THAT! Are you trying to get me tossed out of ministry? The Church doesn't believe that."

It's a scary thing to determine what we actually believe. Suppose it doesn't measure up to what the Church says is essential? Well, all I can tell you is that I know the fear, and I'm going to be wrestling through this Creed right beside you. To me, it is more important that you believe something than nothing. It is more important to figure out and to make conscious the things on which you base your life than it is to be orthodox...which, of course, is heretical for me to suggest.

And so we go forward together, charting the course toward mission by examining the map of our beliefs. My own personal Creed begins "God is love." What do you believe? Amen.

(c) 2004, Anne Robertson

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