July 28, 2019 Sermon
“The Apostles’ Creed”
Old Testament Scripture: Hosea 1:2-10
When the LORD first spoke through Hosea, the LORD said to Hosea, "Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the LORD." So he went and took Gomer daughter of Diblaim, and she conceived and bore him a son.
And the LORD said to him, "Name him Jezreel; for in a little while I will punish the house of Jehu for the blood of Jezreel, and I will put an end to the kingdom of the house of Israel. On that day I will break the bow of Israel in the valley of Jezreel."
She conceived again and bore a daughter. Then the LORD said to him, "Name her Lo-ruhamah, for I will no longer have pity on the house of Israel or forgive them. But I will have pity on the house of Judah, and I will save them by the LORD their God; I will not save them by bow, or by sword, or by war, or by horses, or by horsemen."
When she had weaned Lo-ruhamah, she conceived and bore a son. Then the LORD said, "Name him Lo-ammi, for you are not my people and I am not your God."
Yet the number of the people of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which can be neither measured nor numbered; and in the place where it was said to them, 'You are not my people,' it shall be said to them, 'Children of the living God.'
New Testament Scripture: Colossians 2:6-15 (16-19)
As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.
See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority.
In him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ; when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.
And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.
Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths. These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. Do not let anyone disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, dwelling on visions, puffed up without cause by a human way of thinking, and not holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God.
Sermon: “The Apostles’ Creed” Rev. David Hawkins
Except for a brief detour last week, we’ve been exploring some of the letters of the Apostle Paul.
This Paul is an interesting fellow. You may remember that Paul spent much of his adult life chasing down and persecuting members of the early Christian Church, putting them in prison, stoning them to death, until he had a dramatic conversion moment on the road to Damascus. After that experience, he became a tireless evangelist, building churches, working with early Christian leaders to settle disputes, and through the many letters that he wrote to his churches, establishing the early tenets of Christian Theology.
Many scholars, in fact, are convinced that the letters of Paul are the earliest words of the New Testament, having been written as much as 30 to 60 years before the Gospels. Paul’s words have had a huge influence on the Church, and his understanding of who Jesus was, and what he means for us, has been foundational.
And today, he delves into some deep theology, using words and ideas that reminded me of one of the oldest confessional statements of our faith, the Apostles’ Creed, and so I decided to take this opportunity to talk a little bit about this confession, and perhaps explain some of its language.
The Apostles’ Creed is one of the oldest confessions in our Book of Confessions. The first part of the confession, ”I believe in God, and in Jesus Christ, his only son, born of Mary, etc.,” was first used as part of the liturgy of the Church in the year 180, and became part of the Nicene Creed 120 years later.
The Apostles’ Creed forms the scaffold of our theology; in fact, when I was in seminary, we had to write down our statement of faith about once a week, and it invariably followed the pattern of the Apostles’ Creed, not because we were required to follow that pattern, but because it just seemed to make the most sense.
It covers the bases, so to say. It mentions nearly every part of what we believe, in a short, memorable concise statement.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that it’s easy. It’s not. There are phrases and words that we don’t immediately understand, or maybe even agree with. “Born of the Virgin Mary.” “Descended to hell.” ”Quick and the Dead”. “Holy Ghost”. These have been deal-breakers for some folks, and uncomfortable for others, and so I thought I might take some time and talk about this important part of the Church’s faith.
The first part, “I believe in God,” seems easy enough. I believe in God, you believe in God, this doesn’t seem like a problem.
Except, in the early church, it was.
There was a movement in the early Church in the 2n and 3rd centuries that believed that there were two Gods, one of the Old Testament, one of the New, and the Old Testament God was evil, and the New Testament God was good. In that same vein, these folks believed that the Jews worshipped the bad God, and Christians believed in the Good one. Consequently, they felt that the Old Testament writings, being Jewish, were not a part of what Christians believed. Only the Gospels and the writings of Paul, and even then, they edited these heavily, getting rid of passages they felt were too “Jewish”.
And so, this phrase, “I believe in God, maker of heaven and earth” carries more weight than one might think, because there were folks, influential folks, bishops, and pastors, who did not.
“And in Jesus Christ, his only son.” Again, it seems pretty straightforward, except for the fact that there were many early Christians who did not believe that Jesus was in any way related to God. They believed that Jesus was only a man, no Godly essence, not God in human form. He lived, he died, that was it. The importance of Jesus is in how he lived, not in how he was resurrected. Again, this was a sizable movement in the church, and this statement explicitly refutes this way of thinking.
On the other hand, we have “Born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried.” Boy, there’s a lot to unpack here.
First, the point here is not that Mary was a virgin. “Virgin” or “παρθένος”, was an ambiguous term in both Greek and Latin, and it could refer to our modern-day concept of “virgin”, or it could simply mean, “unmarried young women.” In fact, the Old Testament text from which the Matthew birth narrative is drawn is more explicit, using a Hebrew word that literally means young woman.
So, the point is not the virginity of Mary, although it can certainly mean that. The point is that Jesus was actually born, and actually lived, and actually died. And again, this is in response to a movement in the church that suggested that Jesus was not actually human, that he was a spirit from heaven, who seemed real, and seemed alive, but was not. For these folks Jesus wasn’t human, he was simply God. And so, this phrase, “born, suffered, crucified, died,” reminds us that Jesus was really human.
And Paul mentions that in his letter that we read today. “In him the whole fullness of the deity dwells bodily”. Now, I don’t know if the church movements that I’ve talked about were in force in Paul’s time, but obviously, somebody was saying in the Church in Colossae that either Jesus wasn’t the essence of God, or that he wasn’t human, and Paul says, no, he’s both.
He doesn’t try to explain this, but he does say why hanging on to these two impossible thoughts is important: because Jesus is the fullness of God, and the fullness of humanity, when we are baptized into him, we are baptized into God. Because he lived and died and was resurrected, we too, will live and die, and rise again. For Paul, the paradox of Jesus’ humanity and deity was the very crux of salvation. Without both, for Paul, there is no resurrection of the body.
The part of the Creed where it mentions Jesus descending into Hell, is hard for some folks. The literal meaning of hell is “the place of the dead,” but I think there is more to it than that. While it might be uncomfortable to think of Jesus going to hell, I believe that he did descend to hell, whatever you think that hell means. If you think that hell is where you are separated from God, I think that’s where he went. If you think that hell is that lake of fire, screaming, torture, demons, the whole thing, I think that’s where he went. It’s not important to me where or what hell really is. For me, it’s enough that whatever it is, Jesus went there, and proclaimed the Gospel.
In that moment on the cross, Jesus took on the sin of humankind. And in that moment, he experienced the full weight of our sin. He became sin. And then he died. And for three days, he was dead. And I believe that during that time, he was in the place of the dead, whatever or wherever that is, and was doing the work that he had always done while he was alive: healing, saving, welcoming, loving.
And I’m not the only one who thinks that. In First Peter 4:6, we read, “…this is the reason the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that, though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the spirit as God does.”
Jesus was busy those three days between crucifixion and resurrection. He descended into Hell and did what he always does.
Now the rest of the Creed is pretty straightforward, with a couple of strange sounding phrases that stick out to our modern ears. Most of these are artifacts of the King James English, and fairly easy to explain, like, “Quick and the Dead,” meaning simply those who are both living and dead. Or, “Holy Ghost”, which is an older form of the words, “Holy Spirit”. Not so hard.
“I believe in the Holy catholic Church” is a little harder, but the word, “catholic” has a meaning quite apart from religion, and that is, “to include a wide variety of things, all embracing.” Catholic originally referred to a church that was huge, wide, encompassing many different cultures and languages. That’s what small ‘c’ catholic means.
Unfortunately this word has become something else. Efforts have been made to rewrite the Creed, but the problem is, when we do that, we’re not saying the same words as the other Christian Churches around the world, and this sort of negates the wonderful ‘catholic’ nature of the world-wide church. And so we continue to use some of the archaic and problematic words, knowing that what we believe and do is contained within them, even if they are somewhat archaic and hard to understand..
But the main point of the Apostles’ Creed is help us remember the Gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ. Jesus came to us as God and as a human being. He was born, and died, like us, and in every way lived the way we did, except that he did not sin. He died horribly on our behalf, and wore the weight of humanity’s sin, becoming separated from God. He went to the place of the dead, and proclaimed life to those who were there. He was raised from the dead by God, and in this act, all of us were raised with him.
In short, Jesus knows who we are. He knows where we are. He knows our pain, our joys, our shame. He has felt the cruel stab of separation from God. He knows grief, and sorrow, and ultimately, he knows resurrection. And because he does, we, too, are able to trust his words, when he says that he has gone before us to prepare a room for us in our Father’s house.
And that is good news.
Thanks be to God.