Summer Sermon Series: Say It Like You Mean It – Confessing our Faith
Deuteronomy 26:5-8 and John 14:8-14
I am sure that many of you, like me, have been wondering just what our summer sermon series would be this year. I had several ideas but it took my week away at Summer Pastor’s School to come up with the final plan. After spending several summers and a mid-year series doing Biblical narratives; like Moses, David, and the books of Kings, I thought we would take another track.
Folks have been asking me to return the Declaration of Faith to the Order of Worship. I had always planned to begin that this summer, and I realized it might be great fodder for a sermon series. So, welcome to “Say It Like You Mean It!” our summer sermon series on the Book of Confessions. My goal this summer is to study the confessions of our faith, and to approach them just as I do the Biblical text. While at first these documents may seem boring, I am hopeful we can find a place where they intersect with our daily lives in a meaningful way.
The Presbyterian Church, like many others, has a long tradition of confessing our faith as part of the worship service. Our denominational constitution consists of two parts, the first of which is our Book of Confessions. From the ancient creeds that we will look at today, to more modern statements from the 20th century, this document is one of the foundations of our faith. As Presbyterian Christians we know who we are by reading the Bible and by reading the Confessions. We obviously spend a lot more time with the Bible. That is one of the reasons I was inspired to do this series on the confessions. Many of us are simply unfamiliar with these texts. We are comfortable saying that we are the church, so it is important that we know who the church is.
The first confession in our Book of Confessions is the Nicene Creed. This is our oldest confession and is one we hold in common with all other Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox churches. This confession was begun at the Council of Nicaea in 325, revised in Constantinople in 381, and was finally accepted in its current form at Chalcedon in 451.
The main issue this confession sought to address was who is Jesus Christ. Is Jesus fully human, fully divine, or both? This conflict was a very real one and is still at play in theological discussions today. If Jesus is only God, then he cannot be accessible to humankind. If Jesus is only human, then he cannot act on our behalf for our salvation. But how can someone be human and divine at the same time?
A main issue that folks argued about at the time the confession was written was whether or not Jesus was made by God. If God made Jesus, then they are not truly the same. Only if God and Jesus co-exist at the beginning of time can they truly be the same in every way. The community, under pressure from Constantine, finally settled on the understanding that Jesus was begotten like a child. Jesus is the same substance as God the Father, and was not made by God. You will find that language (begotten and not made) in the creed, and also in our hymn today.
The struggle with this issue was driven by the Biblical narrative itself. Sometimes in the Bible, Jesus seems totally human. Other times, of course, he seems to possess divine foreknowledge and power. Our gospel reading from the book of John is a wonderful example of Jesus talking about his relationship to God the Father. “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. . . the Father who dwells in me does his works . . . believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me.” In the gospel of John at least, Jesus sure seems to be trying to tell us that he and God the Father are one in the same.
Another issue that is at play in the Nicene Creed is the role of the Holy Spirit. If Jesus is begotten and was not made by God, then how does the Holy Spirit enter into the whole thing? That argument remains unsettled and here the creed begins to split along church ranks. The Roman Catholic tradition, from which we have inherited this creed, believes that the Holy Spirit comes from the Father and the Son together. The Eastern Orthodox Church holds a higher view of the Holy Spirit and they believe it proceeds from the Father alone. While we share this creed with the Orthodox Church, we do not share one of the lines about the Holy Spirit. That is a division which exists to this day.
The second confession we are going to look at today is the Apostles’ Creed. This is the one we say most commonly in church and I would wager that many of you could recite it by heart, especially with a group of friends to help pull you along. In fact many non-church goers can still recite this creed, having learned it along with the Lord’s Prayer at some point in their past.
The Apostles’ Creed is the most widely used confession in the Western Church and surprisingly it is of unknown origin. The first reference we have to it historically is in 180CE in Rome, but it wasn’t finalized until the 9th century under the direction of Charlemagne acting as the Holy Roman Emperor. It is called the Apostles’ Creed because it was traditionally thought to have originated with the Apostles themselves, though later historians have debunked that theory.
This creed is a recitation of the essential tenants of the Christian faith. It basically states the facts about who we believe ourselves to be as the church, and what it is that we believe in. This is our story. Religious traditions have always used creeds to tell their story and I picked our reading from Deuteronomy as an example of this. In Deuteronomy we find one of the ancient creeds of the Hebrew people. “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor, and we lived in Egypt as slaves. We cried out to God for salvation, and God brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand in a terrifying display of power. God brought us to this place, a land flowing with milk and honey.” Hebrews would recite this because it is their story, this is what they believe.
When we look at the Apostle’s Creed in this way, we can see that this is our story. Our story is that we believe in one God. We believe that God is almighty. We don’t mean all powerful where we can get trapped asking questions like “can God create a rock God can’t lift?” We do mean that God is the sovereign ruler over all people and nations. We believe that God is like a Father, referencing personal relationship and not gender. God is accessible and loving. We believe that God is creator of all that we see and know, against ideas of polytheism that would be contemporary in the culture. We believe in Jesus and the story we tell about his life. And we believe in the Holy Spirit and its work among the saints of the church. This is the story we tell about our faith. This is who the church is.
So, why do I care? That is the question you might be asking right about now. Why do I care about all this history stuff? Well, because these issues are still relevant in our lives today. Many folks wonder about the question “Who is Jesus?” during their faith life. It is a deep theological question that still haunts many a thinker. In fact, in her book on the Emergent Church, Phyllis Tickle suggests that this is the next issue of theological debate. The church has left the issue of the authority of Scripture behind in the dust of the debates on homosexuality and the next big question was the first big question . . . “Is Jesus human, divine, or both?” I have seen this issue at play in several discussions I have had with young people seeking ordination in our denomination. Believe me; this issue is alive and kicking in our world.
So, who do you think Jesus is? You may find that you fully agree with the Nicene Creed, or you may find that you do not. Personally, I find great comfort in the thought that everything God is, Jesus is. And everything humanity is, everything I am, Jesus is. I don’t know the details of how that works out, but I do have the faith that it just works.
Why do I care? Because this is our story. I believe that I am a part of the church. That means I need to know who the church is. Reciting the Apostles’ Creed is a reminder of who the church is. It is a story that we have told for centuries. I need to know what story we are telling, just as I might struggle with some aspects of the story. As I have mentioned before, these aren’t my creeds, and they aren’t your creeds. These are the churches’ creeds and we say them because we are a part of the church.
My hope in this sermon series is that this summer we will come to know who we are. It is important for us to be reminded of our history, where we have come from. And it is these issues that we have wrestled with over time; such as the nature of Jesus Christ and the Sovereignty of God that we will continue to wrestle with in the future. This summer we will journey from these ancient creeds of the early church, through the reformation, and on into World War 2, the American Civil Rights movement, the re-unification of the Presbyterian Church, and the struggle with apartheid in South Africa. It should be an interesting summer. May God bless us as we come to better understand the church in which we have found our home. Amen.
And now, as per our new tradition, let us stand and say what we believe. Today we will recite the Nicene Creed which you can find on page 34 in your hymnal. Let us stand together . . . and say it like you mean it!