Last Sunday, as the sermon limped to its close, I joked, rather feebly, that, having spent two Sundays dealing with the first two words of the Apostles’ Creed, we would speed up a bit. In preparing the sermon for this week, I have become more and more aware of how difficult that promise will be to keep.
The problem is this. The Creeds are ancient documents. Almost every word in them was understood subtly differently when they were written. As we’ll see today, even ordinary, everyday words expressed subtly but importantly different concepts. Some might say – chuck them out, then. If we need a statement of faith, let’s write new one, and that might be an interesting and valuable exercise. But arguably, the Creeds are still of value. The work of theology is never to establish something timeless and unchanging. It is always to respond, to articulate the faith anew in a changing world. Theology is always developing, always moving on. Good theology is pilgrim theology, always on a journey, in conversation with the world, towards God.
One advantage of using the Creeds to this day is that they are widely recognised signposts along the way of our theological pilgrimage. They stand above the painful reality of the division of the Church into denominations and confessional families. They mark points of exemplary unity, calling us all to choose the paths on our ecclesiological pilgrimage which lead us back to unity, peace and oneness in Christ. They do this by laying bare the common core of the Christian faith, albeit in a way which requires constant reinterpretation. They are signs that church unity will, once again be possible.
As much as churches need to be in dialogue with one another, so do we, as individuals and as a congregation, need to be in dialogue with texts such as the Creeds. We need to ask, what do the Creeds mean for us today? Although the texts are ancient, we cannot be bound by ancient answers.
The text we know as the Apostles’ Creed was developed out of an ancient liturgy used at baptism. It is therefore closely bound up with initiation into the church. It is thought that it would have been presented originally as a series of questions, rather than as a text for recitation. Some more modern liturgies in different churches have sought to recapture that form. The association with baptism is still very important, no matter how it is used, for when we say it, it acts as a reminder, a weekly reminder, of our baptism and therefore of our place within the church, the family of God. Anyone able to see ‘I believe’ is, through baptism, incorporated into the ‘we believe’ of the Church. As individuals, we are never alone in the faith. Our corporate recitation blends each of us, as we say it, into one body, the Church, which is both local and universal, both temporal and eternal.
Last week, we noted that the word ‘believe’ might be more clearly expressed as ‘trust’. This is not just interpretative wishful thinking. The biblical view of faith is very much about trusting, more so than about understanding. Consider the faith of Mary, told she would bear God’s son; or Abraham told to journey to an unknown land to found a nation for God; or Ruth, who put her trust in a God she did not yet know. It is with our Enlightenment emphasis on evidence, scientific method and proof that we have changed what we understand by ‘believe’ into a weighing up of probabilities.
Belief, faith and trust cannot exist in isolation. They have to be belief in, faith in, trust in something, and that something is the principal subject of the Creed, God revealed.
I believe in God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.
Although we will do so today, we should not really separate this article from what follows. The Creed is Trinitarian in structure, describing God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Though we talk of God in three persons, God is perfect unity. We’ll probably come back to a closer consideration of the Trinity later but, for the moment, the thing to remember is that God is a relational God. Relationship is at the heart, is of the essence, of God. That’s why we say, not that God loves, nor that God acts lovingly, but that God is love. It is in God who is love that we put our trust, and it is because God is love that we can.
The Creed briefly alludes to different attributes of God. First, it speaks of God the Father Almighty. In an era in which belief in the existence of God can no longer be taken for granted, this is helpful. It is good to be able to describe something of the God we trust. The Creed affirms that God is father. Such a description is by no means unique to Christianity. Other religions speak of the fatherhood of their deity. What is unique is that the Christian understanding of the fatherhood of God and, just to be clear, the motherhood of God too, is that it is much more about tender intimacy than about authority. The pattern of God’s fatherhood is seen most clearly in the story told by the Son, of a father running to embrace his wayward, estranged child. We trust the God who runs to meet us and enfold us in his love.
The Creed qualifies the word ‘Father’ by adding ‘Almighty’. When, a couple of years ago, a few of us gathered in a wee group to think theologically about God, we got ourselves tied in knots about the concept of omnipotence, the ability to do anything, an attribute traditionally ascribed to God. The problem we encountered is that omnipotence is a philosophical concept. Being ‘Almighty’ is, rather, a biblical one. Though they are related, they are not same. When the Bible calls God ‘Almighty’ it means he is ruler of all things. And that means God is in relation with all things.
We have already seen that God is tender rather than authoritarian. How does this fit with being ‘Almighty’? We can see the answer the Son, in whom we see God’s power to become weak, and yet to conquer; in whom we see God embodying the power of justice; in whom we see, most crucially, the power of God to love unconditionally.
The first words of the Creed say this: we trust in God who is love, and who tenderly loves all things. The relationship of those things with the loving God, and how God expresses his love, we will begin to explore next time.
But before I finish, I would like to go back to an idea I floated near the beginning of the sermon, that of writing a new statement of faith. I’d like to give you some homework to do, but of course it is optional homework. I would like to invite you, as we work through the Apostles’ Creed, gradually to write your own version. Think about what are the most important elements of your faith, the things you put your trust in. Think about whether you feel there is anything missing from this ancient text, something in your own life of faith, in your own experience of God, which should be included, and if there is anything missing, put it in. Think about what words best express what you think and believe. Think about your response to the ideas expressed in the text of the Creed, and about how you respond to what I am saying. You may agree with my interpretation or you may not. Try freely to express your own thoughts.
If a few of you take up this invitation, and I hope more than just a few of you will, and you are willing to share what you write, I would like to use the new creeds we write in a service as we come to the end of this series exploring the Apostles’ Creed. Unlike the suggestions box, you are welcome either to put your name to what you write or not as you choose. It is my hope that, through writing our own new versions of the Creed, we may be able to share with one another what we actually believe as a congregation, as a family of faithful people, putting our trust in God in this time and this place. And that, I hope, will build us up in unity and encourage us in faith, two of the basic elements at the core of Christian discipleship.