The Apostles’ Creed, A Lover’s Quarrel: I Believe
A sermon by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt
Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean VA
June 2nd, 2013
If you want to provoke discussion in mainline (or old mainline) churches today, bring up the topic of reciting the Apostles’ Creed. I know. I’ve done it.
There are some who will tell you, “I miss how we used to say it every Sunday in the church of my childhood. It is good to focus on and restate the essence of what we believe about God and faith. It’s a touchstone. We don’t say The Apostles’ Creed nearly enough.”
Others, very aware of the complexity of the Creed’s origins, bristle at the idea of saying it even just on the Sundays when we baptize children or receive new members. They’ll tell you, “Oh, we know very well how the Creed came to be used, as a way to try to enforce orthodoxy across church and empire.”
More than a few may say, “I don’t subscribe to the literal truth of all of the statements in it, so I don’t say it at all anymore. I just lay out or I cross my fingers at certain points.”
I’ve heard stories of clever seminarians who, after exposure to the tools of biblical interpretation and to the complexity of Christian history, began to silently preface their reciting of the Creed in chapel services with “I used to believe, in God the Father…”
There are those who assert that the Creed is a great, concise statement of the essential elements of Christian faith; others who will tell you that repeating it sounds like a loyalty pledge or that parts of it are so arcane that it will bewilder or alienate those of a newer generation. They’ll also point out that there are a lot of creeds out there, including ten others just in our Presbyterian Book of Confessions.
Does something I’ve said here touch on the way that you view the Creed?
Today I launch a summer series of sermons on the Apostles’ Creed, not to talk you out of your particular view on whether and how often we should recite it, but to help all of us reflect on and engage more deeply with what it actually affirms and, frankly, with what it (to our detriment) neglects to affirm about God and us. Because these sermons are not meant to be lectures on theological ideas but a means for us to see where the rubber hits the road in the living out of faith, I hope we never stray too far from the question, “How then shall we live?”So we’ll do this reflection in light not just of a line of the creed, but of a Bible passage. Like the one I am about to read from Luke’s gospel, about the faith of a Roman soldier.
It is found in Luke’s Gospel, the 7th Chapter, beginning with the first verse. It follows on the heels of Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount, which is actually the Sermon on the Plain, because Luke writes that Jesus said these things after he came down from a mountain with the twelve and that he stood on a level place with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people. When that is done, Jesus enters Capernaum. Listen now for what happens next, when a centurion—a Roman officer in charge of 100 men—sends some Jewish elders to ask Jesus for a favor.
After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, ‘He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.’ And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, ‘Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, “Go”, and he goes, and to another, “Come,” and he comes, and to my slave, “Do this,” and the slave does it.’ When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, ‘I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.’ When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.
There are only two times in the Gospels where it says that Jesus is amazed. You can look it up. Now there are plenty of times where the disciples are amazed at Jesus—at his teaching, at his healing, at his miracles. But there are only two times where Jesus is amazed.
The Gospel of Mark mentions Jesus being amazed at the unbelief of the people in his hometown of Nazareth.[i] Mark says he had a hard time doing any deeds of power there.
And the Gospel of Luke, in the passage I just read, says that Jesus was amazed at the faith of a Roman soldier who trusted that he could and would heal his servant. “I tell you,” Jesus said, “not even in Israel have I found such faith.” Not even among the people who grew up learning the Torah at their Jewish mother’s knee. Not even among the people who spend day after day in the houses of worship, in the temple and in the synagogue. Not even among the people who can give all the right answers when tested on the orthodoxy of their beliefs about God. Not even among the people, Jesus might say today, who are so very clearly Trinitarian have I seen such faith.
However you feel about the Apostles’ Creed, it is worth noting that it has come to function over the years as a litmus test. That started pretty early. Its close cousin, the Nicene Creed, was agreed upon at the Council of Nicea in 325 as a way to settle questions of heresy, to determine what right beliefs were so that some uniformity of doctrine could be enforced across the growing church.
The formation of a creed, coming out of the machinations of a council, arose from a desire to define what beliefs were required and, by extension, which weren’t if you wanted to claim to be a Christian.
You could say that it originated in a desire to clarify what beliefs about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit and human beings were essential.
But isn’t it interesting that the creed does not begin with the words, “I believe the following things about…” It begins with the words “I believe in?”
That is a crucial distinction.
Earlier this week, T.M. Luhrmann, an anthropologist at Stanford, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times. She spoke of having a conversation among people at her college church in California about the faith of evangelicals. She said they talked about questions like, “Why do people believe in God? What is our evidence that there is an invisible agent who has a real impact on our lives? How can those people be so confident?” Those are questions, she wrote, “that university-educated liberals ask about faith. They are deep questions, but they are also abstract and intellectual. In an evangelical church, the questions would probably have circled around how to feel God’s love and how to be more aware of God’s presence. Those are practical questions.”[ii]
There is a difference, on the one hand, between what you can wrap your intellect around, state with absolute confidence and back up with incontrovertible evidence and—on the other hand—what or whom you have come to trust. In other words, there is a difference between what you believe about something, and whether or not you believe in something. One has to do with assent to a list of propositional truths. The other has to do not so much with the intellect as with the heart. It has to do with trusting in—believing even where we have not seen. There is a difference between believing about and what we believe in.
Take marriage for instance. I believe lots of things about marriage in general, including that statistics say that fifty percent will end in divorce. I’ve seen that happen. Now I’ve also seen any number of couples who have had happy marriages. I’ve been present to see people celebrate 50 year anniversaries, 60 year anniversaries and in one church, a 75 year anniversary. So I believe that marriage can last a long time. I believe that it is meant to last forever.
I believe lots of things about Judith and she believes lots of things about me, and together we believe lots of things about marriage. But it is not what we believe about that makes our marriage work, but what we believe in. We believe in each other, we believe in our marriage, and we believe in the God who gifted us with it.
I believe lots of things about the Chicago Cubs. Including that they are not very good. Including that they are in the middle of a rebuilding process again. If I’m basing my belief in the Cubs on evidence, there’s not much there. But I believe in them. I believe that one day, yes, the Cubs will go to and win the World Series (some wag after the morning service noted that I didn’t say “in my lifetime”).
When we as a congregation became involved with our first Dreamer class down in Anacostia, working with that group of sixth graders back in the early 90s, there were a lot of things that people believed about those kids and that area. But what made a difference for the Dreamers is the fact that we believed in them. What made a difference for the Dreamers and for us is that they came to believe in us. The reason we started that project—and why we continue to be involved in Anacostia—is that we believe in the God who was made flesh in Jesus Christ, who calls us to embody love to those who are least fortunate among us.
Diana Butler Bass said in an interview (and I agree to an extent) that “the shift from having faith in Jesus to having beliefs about Jesus was a negative thing for the church. To have a person’s orthodoxy tested by what we believe about something is troubling.”[iii]
She says that believing about Jesus is beginning to be replaced by believing in Jesus—and having an experience of God embodied in human beings. She suggests that we need to move from belief about to belief in.
So, I trust you’ve taken some thoughts about this how might find its way into your practice of faith and life. But let me leave you with two more thoughts. One is a quote from Wilfrid Cantwell Smith.
When the King James Bible was printed in 1611, “to believe” meant something like “to hold dear.” Smith, who died in 2000, once wrote: “The affirmation ‘I believe in God’ used to mean: ‘Given the reality of God as a fact of the universe, I hereby pledge to Him my heart and soul. I committedly opt to live in loyalty to Him. I offer my life to be judged by Him, trusting His mercy.’ Today the statement may be taken by some as meaning: ‘Given the uncertainty as to whether there be a God or not, as a fact of modern life, I announce that my opinion is yes.’ ”[iv]
When the centurion came to Jesus on behalf of his servant, Jesus didn’t care— he really didn’t care—what the centurion believed about. What made this man’s faith so stunning, so astounding, so amazing to Jesus, is that he actually believed in him….
In Jesus’ name. Amen.
[i] Mark 6:6.
[ii] T. M. Luhrmann, “Belief is the Least Part of Faith,” New York Times, May 29, 2013. You can go to the link here: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/30/opinion/luhrmann-belief-is-the-least-part-of-faith.html?_r=0
[iv] Luhrmann, NYT, quoting Wilfrid Cantwell Smith, Faith and Belief: The Difference Between Them (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979) , p. 118.