6th Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 17
July 24, 2011
The Dance of the Liturgy:
The Apostles’ Creed: Affirming our Faith
Ricky was on his deathbed. It was pretty clear that he had gotten worse since I’d seen him the Thursday before. Ricky had grown up Lutheran, but had not been to church for 20 years. When his doctors told him that chemo couldn’t help any longer, he wanted to talk to a pastor. He had some questions that were suddenly important. I went to meet him and his wife. When she called and asked if I could come and bring them communion when his brother was visiting on Monday, I’d said yes. There he was in a hospital bed in the living room and obviously near the end of his life. His brother was a ‘practicing Lutheran’ visiting from a Northern California congregation with which I was familiar. Ricky’s nephew was there as well, and Ricky’s wife, who’d told me she ‘wasn’t religious.’ As I unpacked my communion kit, I asked if Ricky’s wife and nephew would join us in communion. She nodded yes, but the young man said, “What’s that?”
Ricky began to explain, “We believe that Jesus died for our sins….” But he was too weak and turned to his brother to continue. The brother took a deep breath, stopped and said, “We have a pastor to explain it.” They all turned to me.
How to start from Jesus’ death to talk about what this bread and wine meant to us? How to tell our story in such a way that this young man would hear its holiness? How to explain it so that he could join if he chose to, with openness to the living presence of Jesus that we celebrated? I began with Jesus’ startling claim at his final meal with his friends and disciples that he was sharing his own body and blood with them and that when he died, he was creating a new promise of God’s love for all humanity by defeating every evil which separates us from God and from each other. I told him that we believed that Jesus didn’t stay dead but rose from the grave, as only God could do, and that he promised to be with us always, especially when we gathered in this meal to remember that story and celebrate it again. I told him that we believed that Jesus’ Spirit was with us now, gathering us in this sacred time, the last time we would be together like this. I said we believed that when we shared this little bit of bread and sip of wine we were thanking God for that presence, and for this time we shared in this celebration. I asked if he wanted to join us in celebrating the presence of Jesus with us, and he said yes. And so we shared the bread and wine and God’s blessing. Ricky died three days later.
What we do here every Sunday morning when we ‘confess’ or ‘profess’ or ‘affirm’ our faith, is telling a story. We use the Apostle’s Creed. This form of storytelling as bearing witness to something important is not something new. Jesus and his disciples used the ancient Hebrew affirmation known as the Shema: Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might (Deut 6:4). This ‘confession’ served as a statement of a particular community, showing the difference between the Hebrews and the surrounding polytheistic cultures. And, at the same time, it was a personal commitment to ‘love’ that Lord with every part of yourself. It became Israel’s shared story of how God had been at work in the people. The early Christians shared the same impulse. Their statements of faith in God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit distinguished their belief from the competing claims of the Jewish faith from which they emerged and the polytheistic religions of Greece and Rome.
Luke Timothy Johnson, in his book “The Creed,” asserts that the Creed we share is not an invention of the later Church. “The Creed develops…the experience, the convictions and the language present in Christianity from its birth” (p. 21). You can begin to hear the beginnings of that Creed in the names ascribed to Jesus in the New Testament: Christ, Lord, and Son of God. The claim that Jesus was the Christ flew in the face of what the Jews expected of the Messiah, and declared that Jesus died on behalf of our sins, was raised by God, and appeared to many witnesses (1 Cor. 15:5-8). The claim that Jesus was Lord was the most disturbing for Jews, as it gave what they thought of as a ‘failed Messiah and cursed criminal’ the precious name of Yahweh – the LORD. The claim that Jesus was the Son of God becomes a part of the early baptismal formulas, as believers entered new life in God’s family by adoption, children of the same Father as Jesus. When you hear Paul’s words at the end of many of his letters (“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (1 Cor 13: 14), you are hearing some of the language on which future creeds will build. You hear the close coordination in status and activity among God, Jesus as Lord, and the Spirit, while still distinguishing differences between them.
After we have heard the Gospel read, the preacher interpret it, and joined our voices to celebrate it, we rise to respond to the Word of God by affirming our faith in the words of the Apostle’s Creed. In those words, we profess both personally and communally that God is real for us even though we don’t always understand exactly what that means. This Creed works as a rule for understanding how to read Scripture and how to live as God’s people. Biblical interpretation that does not agree with the statements of the creed cannot be accepted as true, and if we believe that God created the world, we live lives of thanksgiving, reverence, and sharing. This Creed defines and defends our faith, and defines who is a member of our community, while at the same time we know that our definition is not all there is to faith and trust in God. Lifting our voices together in this Creed also gives us sign that we are one body, part of a shared story that has been the story of believers since the time of the Apostles. And this Creed carries us forward in worship from hearing the Word to tasting the Word.
And so, the Apostles’ Creed gives us a frame, a historical structure by which we tell our story of faith. What is your story? How have you come to know that Jesus is with you? How can you tell the world that your sin is forgiven and you are free to love and serve God and your neighbor? How have you come to be here, part of this story at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church? We can use the elements of this Creed in our own words when we want to explain what we believe, how we understand the word of God in our world, and why we live the way we do. How would you tell it?
Now may the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.
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