September 23rd, 2012 “Our Beliefs” Rev. Heather Jepsen
Sermon Series: The Theology of Worship
(Based on A More Profound Alleluia ed. Van Dyk)
Deuteronomy 26:1-11 and Philippians 2:5-11
This is the fourth sermon in our series about how and why we worship the way that we do on Sundays. We have talked about the opening of our worship; gathering together in the name of God, we have talked about the confession and pardon; reminding ourselves of our sinful nature and God’s promise of forgiveness, and we have talked about the sermon; how our worship always centers around reading and hearing God’s word in Scripture and proclamation. This morning we will talk about creeds and their tradition within our denomination.
Some churches in the Presbyterian tradition recite a creed or statement of belief every Sunday. Some churches only recite creeds when they celebrate the sacraments of baptism and communion. Some churches recite creeds when folks become new members or are ordained as deacons and elders. The truth is that I haven’t been part of this church family long enough to know when specifically you like to say creeds; but I do know we haven’t done it since I got here.
The practice of reciting creeds or the group statement of a singular belief has roots deep in the Jewish and early Christian traditions of our faith. In our New Testament reading we find Paul reciting what many scholars think of as an early Christian Creed about the person and work of Jesus Christ. This idea that Christ emptied himself in service to God was an important theme in the early church. The phrasing in Philippians suggests that Paul is sharing a common statement of faith that would have regularly been read, recited, or even sung in the early worshipping communities.
Our Old Testament reading this morning is an example of a historical creed said by the people of Israel. This statement of belief served to remind the people of God’s saving acts throughout their history. I find it particularly moving that the speaker is called to remember something that might not have happened to them personally but rather is the story of their ancestors, the story of their people.
This practice of reciting our beliefs as a group is no longer common in our culture so why do we still say creeds? Theology professor Ronald Byars reminds us that “President Dwight Eisenhower once urged Americans, in the 1950s, to have faith in something, it didn’t much matter what. During that era in particular, the romantic notion flourished that one ought to have faith in faith itself. The early twenty-first century version of that notion seems to be faith in spirituality, which either has no specific reference or is a sort of cafeteria from which the seeker selects a little of this and a little of that.”
You can see this practice all around us today. Perhaps you have a friend who considers themself to be spiritual but doesn’t go to church. Or you may know people who pick and choose from various church traditions to craft their own form of Christianity. The truth is that the Christian faith has concrete content. “We believe in certain things about God, about human beings, about the created world, and about their relation. The specific content of the Christian faith is expressed in our creeds.” (Byars)
In the Presbyterian tradition we have a Book of Confessions that is a collection of creeds, confessions, and catechisms that we believe state our faith and bear witness to God’s grace in Jesus Christ. Within this volume you will find historical creeds that are part of the greater church tradition such as the Apostle’s Creed. You can take a look at it with me in your hymnal on page 14. Though we haven’t recited any creeds while I’ve been here, I’m going to guess that most of your experience is with the Apostle’s creed. I know we have talked about it a bit at brown bag.
In your hymnal you will also find The Nicene Creed which is another historical church Creed that Presbyterians have adopted. The Nicene Creed was developed in the fourth century at a time when the church needed to make a clear statement about the identity of Jesus Christ. I am going to read the creed and I invite you to follow along on page 15 in your Presbyterian Hymnal. Though the language may seem stately and foreign, this creed can serve as a reminder to us that we are grounded in a tradition of believers that is centuries old. I will be reading the Ecumenical version as that is the one that is in our current Book of Confessions.
One exciting thing about our faith and about the Presbyterian Book of Confessions is that it is a living document in that is always being addressed and changed. Currently in our denomination there is discussion regarding changing the language of one of the creeds, the Heidelberg Catechism due to translation issues and a desire to be true to the original 1563 version. There is also discussion regarding adding a new creed, the Belhar Confession which comes out of the struggle in South Africa in the 1980s.
Another wonderful thing about the Book of Confessions is that it contains creeds that not only are contemporary to our time, but are specific to our Presbyterian faith. One example of this is The Brief Statement of Faith which was adopted by the church in 1983. You will find The Brief Statement of Faith printed in your bulletin and at the end of this sermon we will recite this creed together.
One advantage to saying creeds in worship is to remind us that being part of a church requires a serious commitment on our part. Americans have a certain affection for choosing to belong to private associations like clubs, but the church is not like these groups. The church is part of the gospel. You can not claim to be in Christ unless you are a part of the body of Christ. The two simply cannot be separated; one is not possible without the other.
In our American culture, “many construe the church as just another social organization, not unlike our service clubs and civic groups. When the church is conceived simply as a volunteer organization, an affiliation one makes for the sake of companionship in faith, or mutual reinforcement, or finding allies in the service of a common cause then one wears the relationship lightly.” (Byars)
If we don’t take our relationship with the church more seriously then we take our relationship with the Lions club, then it makes it just as easy for us to leave it as it is to leave any other group we belong to. We need to remember that the church is here not simply to fulfill our personal needs of the moment, but rather the church is here to help form us into a people of faith for a lifetime.
While clearly a traditional act of faith, saying a creed together in worship is now a daunting task for some. In fact “Saying a Creed together in worship can be an uncomfortable moment for many Christians. But I believe that is because most of us live with an insufficient doctrine of the church. Some people have the mistaken idea that the creed is meant to articulate the faith of individual persons. They think that if they say the Creed aloud, they must know what it fully means and they must fully agree with it. Anything short of this constitutes personal perjury. But this idea betrays a mistaken understanding of the church.” (Byars)
Kathleen Norris tells this story about an Orthodox theologian’s visit in a seminary classroom, “A student stands up and asks, ‘What can one do when one finds it impossible to affirm certain tenants of the Creed?’ The student’s question may have been in other words, ‘May I stand politely, but silently, while the congregation recites the Creed? Or shall I say aloud only those lines that I’m sure I believe?’ The priest responded ‘Well, you just say it. It’s not that hard to master. With a little effort, most can learn it by heart.’
… The student, apparently feeling that he had been misunderstood, asked with some exasperation, ‘What am I to do when I have difficultly affirming parts of the Creed?’ And he got the same response, ‘You say it. Particularly when you have difficultly believing it . . .’
The student raised his voice: ‘How can I with integrity affirm a creed which I do not believe?’ And the priest replied, ‘It’s not your creed, it’s our creed,” meaning the creed of the entire Christian church . . . ‘Eventually it may come to you,’ he told the student. ‘For some, it takes longer than for others . . .”
“Just as we do not each invent our own words for the hymns, we profess the faith of the church in the words of the church. When the church is summoned to profess its common faith, it does so not in a cacophony of simultaneous personal testimonies, but in words that belong to the community of saints, including both the living and the dead. The creed represents the faith of the church – the faith with which, mature or immature, we have to do. If, for now, these affirmations seem beyond us, we continue to say them nevertheless. They are not our words but the church’s. Our work is to say them until we grow into them. Eventually it may come to us. For some it takes longer than others.” (Byars)
“This does not mean that we are to swallow our questions or stifle our dissent. It does mean that the purpose of our questioning and the purpose even of our dissent is that we all grow to the point where we embrace this faith and internalize it rather than too hastily writing it off because it is alien to the contemporary mind. We grow into the church’s faith; we reserve the right to understand it differently than some others may understand it, as well as the right to understand it differently then when we first encountered it. The creed remains, however, a verbal expression of the church’s faith, with all the limitations that implies, but nevertheless rightfully claiming our respectful attention and lifelong reflection.” (Byars)
Friends, the point is that the creeds and the Book of Confessions are not the possession of any single individual; they belong to the whole body of the church, called and chosen by God. The Presbyterian Church is a denomination that is founded in tradition and history. It is a church that believes in certain concrete things. It is a church of declared beliefs, and it is a
Thanks be to God that rather than flounder on our own, or attempt to go
in our own direction, this church is grounded in a history of belief. church of Creeds
In closing, I invite you take a moment and recite with me the words of The Brief Statement of Faith which you will find printed in your bulletin. Let us unite with the whole church and say what we believe . . .