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.

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