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Sunday, September 25, 2011

I Believe in the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:1-7,11-16)


I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and on Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, on faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift.

The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.

Today we are finishing up a three-part series on the Apostles’ Creed called “I Believe.” For the last three weeks, we have looked at the three major clauses of the Creed and are really wrestling with what we mean when we say, “I Believe.” We are focusing on this particular creed because it is a statement of belief that, for the last 1300 years, has been affirmed by nearly all Christians as containing the most essential aspects of Christian belief and understanding.

When we say that we believe in something, we are saying more than that we have certain thoughts about it or think certain things about it or hold certain things to be true about it. To believe means that we place our trust in it, we lean into it, we put our weight on it, we stake our claim on it.

Over the last two weeks we have explored our belief in God the Father and in Jesus Christ, the first and second clauses of the creed. This week, we turn our attention to the Holy Spirit, which, when you think about it, is something we should be doing every week! May we pray.

I believe in the Holy Spirit

The third and final clause of the Apostles’ Creed used to be quite confusing to me. It starts “I believe in the Holy Spirit” and then offers a whole list of other things we affirm we believe in. All of these things seemed rather random and disconnected to me – sorta like the Creed’s junk drawer – the place where a bunch of things got stuck because nobody knew where else to put them.

I remember exams in college and grad school – timed exams where you had to spew forth whatever you knew into one of those little blue books. On multiple-part questions I would carefully craft an answer to one part, and then realize that I only had 20 minutes left and hadn’t answered the last two parts of the question. That’s where grammar and word choice go out the window; you just furiously write down everything you can think of, make lists, use bullet points and get as much information as you can on the paper before time expires.

I used to think that’s sorta what happened with the last part of the Apostles’ Creed. It was like the crafters of the Creed had spilled so much ink fleshing out what they believed about Jesus – 65 words just on that middle section – that they realized they were running out of time and still had some other beliefs to get down, and just opened the theological junk drawer, dumped everything out and said, “Make a list, make a list!”

That, of course, is what I thought before I realized that all the things described in the last clause of the Apostles’ Creed – the church, communion of saints, forgiveness, resurrection, and everlasting life – all of those things are actually describing the ministry of the Holy Spirit in the world. Of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit is the one with whom Christians since just after the time of Jesus should have the most interaction, and yet the Holy Spirit is the one that we seem to know and understand the least.

Friends, if we don’t have the Holy Spirit, we’re not going anywhere. Without the Holy Spirit, we are like a bunch of friends sitting in a beautiful car with a supped-up engine and no gas. I don’t care how nice the car is, how powerful the engine, how good the friends on the journey are – if we don’t have any gas, we’re not going anywhere. Likewise, a church without the Holy Spirit is like a car without any gas.

Through the Holy Spirit, God remains really present with us on earth. When Jesus ascended into heaven, he promised to leave the Holy Spirit with us as God’s continuing ongoing presence. So anything that we know or experience of God – God the Father or Jesus Christ the Son – is experienced through the Holy Spirit.

Can you remember where in our sanctuary is a constant reminder of the tremendous power and enduring presence of the Holy Spirit? The red banner on the east wall reminds us of the Holy Spirit, who appeared in the Scriptures as a dove, as fire, and as wind. The Holy Spirit is the wind beneath our wings, the passionate fire in our belly, the gas in our tank. My hope is that every time you enter this sanctuary and see that Holy Spirit banner, you say a quick and simple prayer – “Come Holy Spirit: fill my heart.”

Our spiritual health is directly tied to the presence of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. I can stand up here and preach all sorts of things – values, what you should do and shouldn’t do, how you should treat other people, how you should attend church regularly and give ten percent of your income to the church’s ongoing work, and those are all good things and things we should do and things the Bible tells us to do – I could tell you to do all those things, but what matters most is not what someone tells us to, but the Holy Spirit in our hearts.

Granted, if we open ourselves up and invite the Holy Spirit to come and dwell in our hearts, we are signing up for an unpredictable adventure. If you like a life where everything is neat, orderly, under control, respectable, and predictable, you’re gonna be very uncomfortable with a Spirit-filled life. Just remember that saying “No, thanks” to the Holy Spirit is the same thing as saying, “No, thanks” to God, so think carefully about that.

The scary thing about inviting the Holy Spirit into our lives is that we don’t know what will happen. We’re giving up control! God will do things in us we never would have chosen to do on our own. I, for example, never wanted to be a pastor. It’s the last thing I would have done had the decision been up to me. But, I made the mistake of asking for God’s direction in my life, and opening my heart to the movement of the Holy Spirit, and I said, “Lord, I am no longer my own, but yours. So, do what YOU want with my life.”

Just recognize that you’re playing with fire when you really, truly, authentically give your entire life over to God and invite the Holy Spirit in. When the Holy Spirit blows into our lives with wind and fire, he has a tendency of blowing away and burning up things to which we have become overly attached. He blows in other things, and out of the ashes of what was, new things rise to life. We get blown places we might not have gone, do things we might not have done, and think things we might not have thought, for no reason other than that’s where the Holy Spirit led us, and for that reason alone, it’s all good.

When you say, “I believe in the Holy Spirit,” did you realize you were opening yourself up to all that?

The holy catholic church

We also place our belief in the holy catholic church. Does anyone here want to take a guess how many churches there are in the world? If you add up all the congregations, all the denominations and non-denominations, all those Christian communities that currently are and that ever have been and ever will be in the future – if you add all of them up, does anyone want to wager a guess about how many churches there are? One. Just one. There are not churches, there is only One Church – it just happens to have many different locations in a neighborhood near you for your convenience.

For example, I am a Bank of America customer. No matter what branch I walk into, which ATM I use, I can bank at any of these places because they are all simply different locations of one bank. Likewise, all the different Christian congregations – regardless of their size, their denomination, their theology – are all part of ONE Church. The word “catholic” means “universal,” and it refers to all congregations, everywhere, Protestant, Roman Catholic, non-denominational, who are part of the ONE Church.

The way you can tell this ONE Church is its unity, and unity is a gift from the Holy Spirit. In the text from Ephesians we read today, we heard these words: “Lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1-3).

Therefore, a church that is filled with the Holy Spirit will be one that makes every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. A church that is filled with the Holy Spirit won’t be given to quarrelling, divisions, factions, gossip, or anything else that claws at the unity God desires and intends for the Church.

The communion of saints

We further affirm our belief in the communion of saints. Our lives are woven together in a beautiful, and complex tapestry, the thread of one person’s life cannot be removed without touching the thread of many others. For those whose thread has made the entire piece a closer reflection of the world God intends, we call one such person a saint, and that could refer to anyone. “If anyone is in Christ, new creation!” (2 Corinthians 5:17). Certainly, anyone who is in Christ, anyone who is participating in God’s new creation, is a saint.

For Christians, death is not the end of the story, for even death shall not separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38-39). Death shall not separate the saints, who are in Christ, from each other, for no part of the body of Christ is separated from any other part of the body. We have unity, communion with the whole body of Christ, whether saints on earth or saints who have gone on to the Church Triumphant. Within that great cloud of witnesses, we have a lot of friends and allies and brothers and sisters who are cheering us on in the faith, including many who were dear to us, and a whole bunch we have never known.

The forgiveness of sins

The Creed goes on, and it says, I believe in the forgiveness of sins. If you know the creation story in the book of Genesis, you know how things started. God said, "let us make humankind in our own image and likeness (aka: like God)" and then did it and called it good. Satan said, "if you eat this fruit, you will be like God." Satan tempts us by convincing us we have to earn what we have already been given freely by God.

Right there is the start of sin. At the start, God made us a certain way, and God called it good. It was good for a few important reasons: 1.) God created it good, 2.) God created us like God, and 3.) God created us for a lifetime of perpetual fellowship with God and each other. You add all that up, and that’s a good arrangement. Where we went wrong was our desire to improve God’s original design, and that just messed up everything.

We call that mess-up “sin,” although the best theological phrase I’ve heard for it is “the big oops.” The Bible, in its broadest terms, describes sin as a “condition of separation from God.” The early church fathers described our human wills as curvatas, meaning they are curved or bent away from God.

That condition of being bent away from God – a sin condition, leads us to do things that are damaging to our relationship with God, others, and ourselves, and we call those things “sins.” The Greek word that is often translated as “sin” is the word hamartia, a term from archery, meaning “to miss the mark.” Again, thinking of our wills as being bent away from God, you can see how that would cause us to miss the mark.

The good news is that God desires for us to be restored to the way God created us in the first place, and the Holy Spirit makes possible the forgiveness of sins. “Forgive” is a relational term – it means to make things right, to restore, to reconcile. The Holy Spirit first corrects our curvatas, our bent-ness away from God and lines our will back up with God’s will. The result is that we no longer miss the mark because our lives are lined up with God.

The resurrection of the body

The affirmation that we believe in the resurrection of the body has less to do with believing in the resurrection of Christ than in the firm conviction that what God did in the lifeless body of Jesus, God will do in us, as well. We serve a resurrected Lord, and we are called to live resurrected lives. What that means is we expect the Holy Spirit to work a real change within us, to transform something of us from death into life, from despair into hope, from a dead-end into a brand-new beginning.

Christians are not called to accept the status quo in some ho-hum way, we are called to live transformed lives of hope, because even when it seems that all is dark and lost, the central message of our faith is that God does God’s best work in cemeteries. I believe in the resurrection of the body because I’ve seen it all around. When I see hate give way to love, bigotry give way to embrace, violence give way to peace, I see resurrection. When I see the addict begin the road to recovery, the brokenness within families begin the path of healing, I see resurrection. Friends, resurrection is all around us, and it is within us, as well. The Holy Spirit is bringing the dead into new and transformed life, and that’s resurrection.

The life everlasting

We believe in the life everlasting. It is a myth, a popular one but a myth nonetheless, that eternal life begins at death. The truth is you don’t have to wait that long. Full, abundant, rich, glorious, eternal, everlasting life is available to each of us now, and it begins when the Holy Spirit comes in and dwells within us. All that we have already discussed – unity in the church, communion of saints, forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body – all of those are part of the abundant and everlasting life God desires for each of us. That life begins when the Holy Spirit moves in, re-arranges our furniture, and begins the process of transformation at the depth of our being to make us more like Christ, living lives that forever reflect the glory of God.

Amen

One last word on the Apostles’ Creed, and it’s actually the last word of the Creed. “Amen.” We say this word all the time, but did you ever think about the word means? It’s a declaration of affirmation, it literally means, “so be it.” When you say, “Amen,” you are signing your name for all to see, offering your will for God to do whatever God wants with you and in you and through you. You should take saying the word “Amen” as seriously as you do before you sign your name to a contract, because God’s gonna assume you meant it.

That being said, anyone here still want to say that you believe in the Holy Spirit? Anyone here want their heart filled with the Holy Spirit? Just open your arms wide and say, “Come Holy Spirit. Fill my heart.”

Amen. Amen.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

I Believe in Jesus Christ (Matthew 16:13-16, Philippians 2:5-11)


Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still other Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “Who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Today is the second in a three-part series on the Apostles’ Creed called “I Believe.” We are looking at the three main parts of the Apostles’ Creed, which has been affirmed by most Christians for the last 1300 years or so. The Creed may be something that’s relatively unfamiliar to you, or the Apostles’ Creed may be familiar as the back of your hand. Nevertheless, it is foundational to and nearly universally accepted by Christians as containing the most essential Christian beliefs.

My hope is that we will never go through the Apostles’ Creed by rote or without an understanding of what we mean when we say it. I hope these ancient powerful words will make an indelible impression upon us.

Last week, we explored “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” Believing in something is more than just thinking certain thoughts or holding certain things to be true about it. Truly believing means that we trust it, we lean into it, we put our weight on it, we stake our claim on it.

Last week we spent 15 minutes looking at the first clause of the Creed – 1 sentence, 12 words. That averages out to 1 ¼ minutes per word. Folks, I’ve got bad news for you. The clause about Jesus, which we’re exploring today – has 65 words. At the same rate per word as last week, today’s sermon should last just over 81 minutes. What does it means to say that we believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord? May we pray.

Jesus

I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord. Let us start with the name “Jesus.” Shakespeare wrote “A rose by any other name would still smell as sweet.” I beg to differ. For instance, if parents were to name their child “Jeeves,” I think the child’s career path is inscripted to a lifetime of domestic servitude.

Jesus is the name given to our Lord in infancy (Luke 2:21). “Jesus” comes from the Greek word for the Hebrew name “Joshua.” “Jesus” and “Joshua” are different versions of the same name, and both mean “savior.” We know that the angel instructed Mary that his name would be Jesus, “because he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). His name is more than just a name, it tells us what his life would be about.

Christ

The New Testament word “Christ” is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word “Messiah.” Both names mean “anointed one.” Anointing with oil was, in the ancient world, the rite and ritual for consecrating a king. In the passage we read today from Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is asking his disciples who people say he is. The disciples dodge the question by offering the latest theories about who Jesus is. Jesus keeps pressing the question, and finally Simon Peter just comes out with it: “You are the Christ” (Matthew 16:16). The people were looking for God’s anointed king, the bringer of God’s kingdom and the fulfiller of God’s ancient promises. In confessing Jesus as the Christ, we submit ourselves to the values of his kingdom, which are love, compassion, and grace.

God’s only Son

Jesus is described as God’s only Son, which creates a bit of a dilemma in interpretation. On one hand, we are all children of God. But here, Jesus is described as God’s only Son. How do we reconcile this contradiction?

I find the key lies in one word: “begotten.” John 3:16, arguably the most famous verse in the Bible, says “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son.” The word “begotten” is derived from the Middle English word “beget” which means “to procreate, to father, to sire.” It suggests that some part of the parent is passed on to the child, that they are made from the same stuff. For example, looking at a picture of me and my Dad, there is no denying that I am my father’s son, that we are made from the same stuff. Likewise, when we speak of Jesus as God’s only Son, we are saying that he is made of the same divine stuff as God.

Our Lord

I believe in Jesus Christ God’s only Son our Lord. When the earliest Christians confessed “Jesus is Lord,” they were making a controversial political statement. In those days, people were required to make an oath to the emperor, pledging their ultimate allegiance to and reliance upon him. The oath was simple: “Caesar is Lord.” The early Christians knew they were playing with fire when they said, “Jesus is Lord.”

When we say Jesus is Lord, Bishop Ken Carder had a profound way of capturing the essence of this statement. You ready? It means, “Jesus is the boss.” Jesus is in charge, Jesus is running the show. The text we read from Philippians says, “Every knee will bow,” a sign of submission to Christ as Lord. It begs the question for each of us – who is Lord of your life? Who’s running the show? Who’s in charge? Who has your ultimate allegiance – yourself? Some worldly power? Or Jesus? For people of Christian faith, there is really only one right answer.

Conceived by the Holy Spirit, Born of the Virgin Mary

Calling Jesus Lord not only implies that he is the boss, but it was also a way the earliest Christians identified Jesus with God, for followers of God in those days used the word “Lord” to avoid saying the sacred name of God. Calling Jesus “Lord” was recognition that Jesus was no ordinary man or a mere mortal, but that caught up within him, dancing with his fully human nature, was a fully divine nature.

We affirm, in the words of the Creed, that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. In saying this, we affirm the full humanity and the full divinity of Jesus. The human nature came from his earthy mother, Mary, without any intimate interaction with an earthly father – that’s why we call her the Virgin Mary. Incidentially, that’s also why her husband, St. Joseph, is the patron saint of cold showers.

All humor aside, when we talk about Jesus being conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary, it’s easy to get caught up in the wrong details and simply miss the big point that is being made in this particular affirmation. Personally, I don’t care about the most proper translation of the word “virgin,” because that’s not the point. I don’t care to get bogged down in details or mechanics or speculation about just how exactly such an unusual birth took place. Those things have absolutely nothing to do with the crux of the matter.

When we affirm that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary, we are simply identifying Jesus. Jesus is fully divine, with all the implications of what that means, Jesus is fully human, with all the implications of what that means. These statements are not contradictions, but the wonderful expression of what God did in the person of Jesus. In the person of Jesus, God made a personal union with God’s handiwork. In the person of Jesus, God was pleased to dwell among us as one of us. In the person of Jesus, God took on flesh – we call this the doctrine of the Incarnation.

Why did God do this? Quite simply, for us and for our salvation. God entered the world to give humanity a new, redeemed beginning in a power not its own. We confess that Jesus has done for us only what God could do – that Jesus had given us a new life and broken the power of sin in our lives. You or I can’t do that on our own – only God can do that, and in the One named Jesus, God does. Jesus is fully human – sharing in all our sadness and all our gladness and the full range of whatever we experience; and Jesus is also fully divine, doing for us only what God can do.

Jesus Suffered Under Pontius Pilate; was Crucified, Dead, and Buried

The Word of the cross is Christianity’s distinguishing mark. We worship a suffering servant, a crucified Christ, a righteous Lord suffers at the hands of the unrighteous (that’s all humanity, not only the specific people involved in his death). The cross is an instrument of cruel torture, suffering, and shame. Yet, Jesus transforms it from a tragic symbol of a cruel and unjust death into an enduring sign that the Master has finished his work.

The cross is central, for even today Jesus calls us to take up our cross and follow him. Jesus calls us to continue to proclaim the central message of God’s kingdom, the message of love and grace and compassion and kindness and inclusion, and to remain faithful to that message even to the point of death.

The Third Day He Rose from the Dead

But friends, as I wrote the morning of my mother’s funeral, death is not the end of the story. We place our faith in the One who is stronger than death and overcomes death. About Jesus, we believe “the third day he rose from the dead.” St. Paul, in his letter to the Romans said, “I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).

The resurrection is both a sign by which we know, and the means by which we experience new life in Christ. Our faith in the crucified and risen Christ gives us the courage to look at the worst this world can throw at us without fear. We can stare death in the face and say, “I’m not afraid of you.”

Ascended into Heaven, Sitteth at the Right Hand of God the Father

Perhaps you’ve heard the story of the Methodist minister who was nearly arrived in a new town, and he asked a small boy where the post office was. The boy gave him directions, and as they finished their conversation, the minister said, “If you come to the Methodist Church on Sunday, I’ll show you the way to heaven.” The little boy said, “Go on, mister. You can’t even find the post office!” Even before the time of Jesus, people knew heaven wasn’t a literal place above the blue sky. Nevertheless, we think of God and heaven as “up.”

Throughout his ministry Jesus taught in parables – sayings and stories that used familiar examples the people could understand in order to teach them a greater truth. Well, what if we were to think of Jesus’ ascension into heaven in terms of a parable? That is, he departed earth in such a way as to teach us that he was no longer physically present on earth? The direction he went is really less important than the realization that Jesus has left the building, so to speak, leaving his followers as his ongoing physical presence in the world.

When we say that Jesus is sitting at the right hand of God the Father, picture a throne room. Again, this is symbolic language – they’re not sitting on overstuffed velvet and gold chairs somewhere. But thinking of a throne room reminds us that God reigns supreme. Over all other powers, God reigns. And at the right hand of God the Father, Jesus has all the majesty, power, authority, and glory of God.

Judge the Quick and the Dead

The last little nugget of belief nestled in this section of the Apostles’ Creed is the belief that Jesus will judge the quick, or the living, and the dead. When we talk about judgment, we often think about our modern judges in courts of law, who discern guilt and innocence and meet out punishments to fit the crime. This, however, is not the way the Bible speaks of the role of a judge. If you think back to the Old Testament, in the period before the kings of Israel, you will recall that the people were governed by judges. Judges weren’t primarily concerned with matters of guilt or innocence, or making distinctions between who was God and who was bad. Rather, judges were advocates before God on behalf of the people; if you want to put it in our trial language, judges were more like attorneys than anything else.

Likewise, Jesus is the judge of the living and the dead – he is our advocate before God the Father. It is as if we have hired the best trial attorney in the world to represent us. Yes, Jesus judges every single person, which means that he pleads our case before God the Father. So, when we think of Jesus as our judge, that is not a statement that should fill us with fear, but one that should fill us with hope.

But what about the Law? Surely there has to be some standard that Jesus uses when he makes our case. Well, again, let’s go back to what Jesus said about the Law. When Jesus was asked the greatest commandment in the Law, he gave a two-part answer: love God, and love neighbor. He said the whole of the law and the prophets hung on these two things. If you want to know what sort of things you should do and shouldn’t do, just ask yourself two questions about everything you think, say, or do. First, “Is what I’m about to do loving toward God?” Second, “Is what I’m about to do loving toward my neighbor?” If the answer to both questions is “yes,” then do it. If the answer to either question is “no,” then don’t do it.

And so, when Jesus, “judges” us – when he pleads our case before God the Father – that’s the standard he’ll be using. Jesus is a righteous judge, which means he’s not trying to trip us up or pull the old bait-and-switch on us. This isn’t a trick question – Jesus isn’t going to tell us the standard is one thing and then represent us based on something else. Jesus’ judgment on you – his advocacy, his pleading before God the Father on your behalf – is going to be based on the standard that he himself said was most important. Were you loving toward God? Were you loving toward your neighbor? On these two things hang all the law and the prophets.

One final thing that should give us some hope. Do you all have some keys in your pocket or in your purse? Pull them out for a second. I remember when I was first given a set of keys – first to the house, and then a few years later, a set of keys to the family cars. Do you remember that feeling – when you were first given a set of keys? When those keys were handed over to me, a certain amount of responsibility was handed over as well. My parents were saying, “We trust you with the responsibility implicit in these keys.”

Well friends, Jesus has given us some keys as well, and all the responsibility that goes with them. Jesus said, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 16:19). Look at your own keys in your hand and think about that – Jesus has given us the keys to the kingdom, and the responsibility that goes with them. That means that Jesus has given us the responsibility to live out the values of the kingdom, which are love, compassion, and kindness. Jesus has given us the responsibility to point the way to the kingdom to others. Jesus has given us the responsibility to invite others into the kingdom, and to present no stumbling block to the entrance of those others into the kingdom.

There is one set of keys Jesus didn’t hand over. There is one set of keys Jesus held onto himself. He says, “I hold the keys of Death and Hell” (Revelation 1:18). So the keys YOU have are the keys to the kingdom, but the keys Jesus retains for himself are the judgment keys – the ones to Hell and Death.

I think about that, and the lengths to which Jesus went in order to give us one set of keys and retain the other – about him leaving the splendor of heaven to come and dwell among us as one of us, to live his life as he did all the way to the cross – I think about Jesus’ willingness to go through all that pain and suffering for you and me, his willingness to go the cross and die for you and me, how he did all of that for us while were we yet sinners, proving God’s love toward us. I think about how patient he is with each of us, and how graceful, and how loving, and how compassionate, I look at the way he continued to work with the disciples even when they were stubborn and hard-headed and hard-hearted and just didn’t get it, and I know he does the same thing with you and especially with me because that’s just who he is.

I look at all that and, well, quite honestly, I can’t imagine that all of a sudden Jesus is in a rush to use those keys to Hell and Death that he hung onto to lock us up. That’s inconsistent with the same Jesus who said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). That’s inconsistent with the same Jesus who said, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17).

I look at all that, and I can’t imagine Jesus saying, “Whoops, one chance, and you blew it.” If he was willing to pay a price for us that included his own life, I just can’t imagine that now, all of a sudden, he’s in a rush to lock the door. Even when we are coming to Jesus and pointing at this group or that group and saying, “Jesus, shut the door!” Jesus says, “Those are my Father’s children, and your brothers and sisters.” He just jingles his keys and says, “Not yet. Not yet.”

Sunday, September 11, 2011

I Believe in God the Father (Psalm 19:1-4, Ephesians 3:14-15, Luke 15:18-24)


The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.

Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge.

There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard;

yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.

I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name.

[The prodigal son said] “I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!”

I don’t know if anyone else has this problem, but sometimes I don’t hear things correctly. Is that just me, or does anyone else share this predicament? It’s often lyrics to a song – I think they’ve said one thing and learn the song that way, and only later when someone else is riding in the car with me and I sing the wrong lyrics do I find out I’ve heard it incorrectly.

You know, that can happen in church, too. There are certain hymns that make me grin when I hear them or sing them, because I remember the alternate verses we made up to some of those as teenagers sitting on the back pew in church.

Or, sometimes, we just don’t remember what we’ve heard or get mixed up when we’re asked to recall it. A few months ago, Ashley and I were trying to pick out hymns for the wedding, and we were thumbing through the hymnal, and one of us would pause on this hymn or that hymn, and we’d hum or whistle the tune for a few bars. I paused on Hymn #98 – “To God Be the Glory” and she started to whistle – I paused for a minute and said, “Ummmm, that’s ‘Frosty, the Snowman!’

Sometimes, we haven’t understood what we’ve heard. Friends of mine visited their parents’ church, and it came time to pass the peace, and everyone turned to greet their neighbors and said, barely above a whisper, “Peace be with you.” “Peace be with you.” “Peace be with you.” Everyone did this, except for a little girl of about four, who turned to everyone near her and said, “Psss psss psss.” “Psss psss psss.” “Psss psss psss.”

It is way too easy to just go through the motions at church and look like we’re blending in just fine. Sometimes, we’ve done things so many times that it just becomes rote, and we can go through the motions, check it off our list, and we never really think about it. But if it’s important enough to say or participate in, isn’t it also important enough to really know what it is and why we’re doing it?

Today, we are beginning a three-part worship series on the Apostles’ Creed, called “I Believe.” My hope is that all of us – seeker, newcomer, and long-time Christian alike – will learn something about what we’re really saying when we say, “I believe.” May we pray.

What is the Apostles’ Creed?

The Apostles’ Creed begins “I believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” It is only one sentence, but it is packed with meaning. We are saying quite a mouthful in this one sentence! The Scripture passages we have looked at today all point to this composite reality of who God is and what God is up to.

A creed is a short, succinct statement of belief. It outlines certain values, practices, and principles; it gives a group a summarized identity statement. There are all sorts of creeds out there – creeds for practitioners in certain professions such as medicine or law or education. Sometimes they go by various names, such as an oath, a code of conduct, or a statement of professional standards. At its heart, a creed allows a certain group of people – whether in a particular profession or followers of a particular faith – to coalesce their identity around some sort of mutually agreed-upon statement.

The Apostles’ Creed falls into this category. It is an identity statement for people of the Christian faith. It has existed in its current form since the eight century. It is a succinct, memorable statement of Christian belief – a summary statement that tells us who God is and how God relates to our world. It is affirmed by most traditions in Western Christianity as pointing to the most basic, important, and universally-agreed upon tenets of the Christian faith.

As a Methodist minister, I am often asked, “What do Methodists believe?” and I am sure that my questioners are often a little bit frustrated by my response, when I say, “Methodists believe the same things other Christians believe.”

John Wesley, Methodism’s founder, taught that in essential matters of Christian belief, we should practice unity. In non-essentials, liberty. And in all things, charity. Given that terrain, some have wanted to know, “What’s essential?” The easiest and most direct answer is to affirm the statements made in the Apostles’ Creed, which are based on Biblical principles, the witness of the Spirit, and experience of new life in Christ.

The meaning of “believe”

The word “creed” comes from the Latin “credo,” which means “I believe.” This makes it pretty clear why we say a creed, a “credo,” is a statement of belief – it’s right there in the very meaning of the word itself!

If I were to say “I believe the sky is blue,” how many people here would be able to agree with that particular belief? You have observed that the sky is, indeed blue – your experience confirms this and so, within your mind, for good reason, you believe that the sky is blue.

When we use the word “believe,” we often use it in just this way – to believe is to mentally accept the truth or validity of something. Beliefs can simply be a matter of our convictions, perceptions, and assumptions rattling around inside our heads. In reality, to believe in something is more than a simple mental exercise. Truly believing is more about placing our trust in something than it is simply having positive thoughts about it. Believing something is not just having an idea about it in our head, which seems very academic and disconnected from much else, truly believing suggests that we put our weight behind it, we lean into it, we are willing to stake our claim on it.

Right now, for instance, I believe that the floor underneath us is going to hold up under our collective weight. I am leaning into this floor, pressing into it with my whole weight because I believe in it. Perhaps we would be better served to say that we believe into something, rather than that we believe in something. Believing “in” something is passive. Believing “into” something is active.

The Apostles’ Creed begins by saying, “I believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” From now on, when you say the word “believe,” remember that it is an active word, not a passive one. And so, when we say, “I believe in God,” we are saying quite a mouthful. We are saying more than, “I think certain thoughts about God,” or “I hold certain things to be true about God,” or “Here are my ideas about God.” I hope you think, “I trust God, I lean into God, I put my whole self into God, I stake my claim on God and God alone.” I believe in God.

The Father

The Scriptures teach that God is personal and relational; for this reason, we say “I believe in God the Father.” Calling God “Father” in no way means that God is exclusively masculine or has the male gender. A cursory look through the Bible reveals several instances in which God is described by feminine characteristics. God is described as a “mother” (Deuteronomy 32:18, Job 38:29, Psalms 22:9-10, Isaiah 46:3-4, Isaiah 49:15, Isaiah 66:9, Jeremiah 31:20, John 1:13, 1 John 4:7), and a “woman in labor” (Isaiah 42:14, John 16:21, Romans 8:22). God is described throughout Scripture in roles traditionally held by women, including nurse (1 Thessalonians 2:7-8), nurturing mother (Hosea 11:3-4, Revelation 21:4), cleaning (Ezekiel 36:25), sewing (Genesis 3:21), and cooking (Job 10:10-12, Matthew 13:33, Luke 13:20-21). To anyone who has ever read any of the Bible, clearly God is not exclusively masculine or feminine!

Calling God “Father” is not an assignment of gender to God, but to clue us in to the personal and familiar relationship God seeks to have with each of us.

The immediate temptation is to first think of our earthly fathers, and then compare our heavenly Father to the image we construct. However, even the best earthly fathers have their flaws. It gets even more problematic when you introduce dead-beat Dads, abusive fathers, absentee fathers and the whole host of other ways that some earthly fathers have let their children down. Yet, we should realize that God shows us what all fathers are called to at their best.

The Father in the parable of the prodigal son, which we read earlier from Luke 15, tells us what sort of Father God truly is. The son has asked for his share of the inheritance while the Father is still living. The Father cuts him a check, and the son is pulling out of the driveway the next day to start a new party life in a far away town. It doesn’t take long before the son blows through all the money, and is left destitute and alone, fighting with the pigs for food. The son comes to his senses, and says, “Even my Father’s servants have it better than this – I’ll go home, beg forgiveness, and see if I can get hired on working for dear old Dad.”

The text says, “While the son was still far off, the father saw him and was filled with compassion.” You can just picture the father walking out to the gate each day and scanning the horizon for any sign of his lost son, just hoping this would be the day his son would return to him. When the son finally got within sight, the father’s heart was filled with compassion, and the father ran to him, embraced him, and called a celebration because his son who was as dead to him is now alive, the one who was lost is now found.

Likewise, God, as our heavenly Father, has given us freedom to make our own choices, even when those choices are not in our best interest. Nevertheless, even when we have made choices in our lives that have harmed ourselves or others or placed a strain on our relationship with God, God spends his days longing for our return. And when we do, God is not angry or vindictive or hostile, but God is filled with compassion every time one of God’s lost children comes home and throws his arms open wide and says, “Welcome home, my precious child. Now that you are home, let the celebration begin!” That is just the sort of Father God is!

The Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth

God is almighty, and God is the maker of heaven and earth. God is the creator of all that is seen and unseen, everything that is and that ever has been and ever will be. Christian theology teaches that God created ex nihilo, a Latin phrase meaning, “out of nothing.”

The creation banner in our sanctuary is a reminder that we believe in God who is maker of heaven of earth. Take a look toward the top, and you will find three small white blocks of fabric grouped together – these represent the three persons of the Trinity, all of whom were present and active in creation.

They are white as a reminder that God created out of nothing. Think about that – there weren’t bits of stuff or matter lying around that God scooped up and fashioned a universe. There were no raw materials. God creates out of nothing.

Think of it this way. Cup your hands in front of you. Now imagine that within that bowl created by your hands, we have somehow figured out how to suck out the molecules and water vapor and bacteria and viruses and particles and every microscopic thing floating around in the air that we can’t see so that there is truly nothing in your hands. You picturing that? Absolutely nothing in your hands. OK, now, using only what is cupped in your hands, make something. Anything. I don’t care what it is – just make something.

No matter how hard we try, no matter how sophisticated the equipment we have access to, we can’t do it. The story of creation is this: once there was nothing, but then God created something. God made something out of nothing. God made the very matter that the universe itself is made of. Creation displays the almighty power of God that transcends us in every way imaginable.

God is Creator, and God is creative. Everything God has made bears witness to God’s creativity. Two television shows I have really gotten into lately are Storage Wars on A & E and Pawn Stars on the History Channel. On both shows, people are trying to authenticate items they have found or are trying to sell, and it always requires some expert analysis to tell people what they have. What I’ve noticed is that no matter the item – a piece of pottery, glassware, an antique firearm, a piece of art or whatever else it is – the expert always turns it over and looks for a maker’s mark – some recognizable mark that will authenticate who made the item in question.

Likewise, everything in creation bears God’s mark, everything bears witness to God’s creativity. From the 19th Psalm earlier today, we heard these words: “The heavens are telling the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1). We live in a world that was fashioned by God. We ourselves are fearfully and wonderfully made. You were not ordered out of a catalog, you were created. And creation, as it leaves the hand of God, is good. It is very good!

So there you have it. When we affirm our faith by saying “I believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth,” we’re really saying quite a mouthful. It’s my hope that we’ll never go through those words by rote or without any understanding of what we’re actually saying, but that the words will be careful food for thought for the people of Christian faith.