Tag Archives: Creeds

Confessing the Faith: Week 4 – August 2, 2015

During this Sunday’s service, we heard from our community’s 2015 ELCA Youth Gathering participants. From July 15-19, they joined around 30,000 other Lutherans  from all over  the US and the globe to worship, pray, learn, and serve alongside the people of Detroit, Michigan. To learn more about the details of their trip, scroll down to read the series of posts titled “Rise Up Together”. Below in this post is a reflection I wrote on the experience in light of Sunday’s texts.

Sunday’s Reading:
1 Timothy 3:14-4:11

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

These past three weeks, we’ve been exploring the Apostles’ Creed and how it applies to our lives as the people of God in Christ. We’ve acknowledged God the Father as our generous and gracious Creator; we’ve professed Jesus as our redeemer and Lord; we’ve talked about the power of the Holy Spirit to breathe faith and new life into us and send us into the world in service to God and our neighbors.

Two weeks ago, our group of seven from Falls City was approaching the end of our time in Detroit, a time in which we had ample opportunity to experience the power and presence of the Triune God and to live into the words that we profess each week. Our church’s choice to go to Detroit was motivated, in part, by the kind of thinking present in today’s reading from 1 Timothy:

For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, provided it is received with thanksgiving; for it is sanctified by God’s word and by prayer. (1 Timothy 4:4-5, NRSV)

We went to Detroit, not to bring the presence of God to a city that had been forsaken, but to encounter the living God already at work among the people who call it home. We went to a city that had already been sanctified by God’s word and prayer, a city that may be despised in the eyes of the world, but that is precious in the sight of the God who created it and its citizens. In the process, we chose not to listen to the myths and rumors and idle tales about a place most people had never visited, but instead to open ourselves to experiencing firsthand how God works in places of brokenness to bear burdens, build bridges, break chains, and bring hope.

Along the way, we had a lot of fun and were part of making a huge difference in Michigan’s largest city, joining some 30,000 brothers and sisters in Christ to collect 1 million diapers, distribute 1,425 backpacks, clear 3,200 vacant lots of debris, board up 319 vacant homes, paint 1,847 mural boards, install 36 urban gardens, build 99 picnic tables, fill 26 dumpsters, and bring change to 600 neighborhoods. We heard life-changing proclamation and inspiring stories of hope in the midst of despair, as we were nourished on the words of the faith. (1 Timothy 4:6, NRSV) We became aware that we belong to a church that is bigger and wider than our imaginings. Most importantly, we were changed by our encounter with Jesus Christ, the one who was revealed in flesh, vindicated in spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed by Gentiles, believed in throughout the world, [and] taken up in glory. (1 Timothy 3:16, NRSV)

I think I can speak for the rest of our group when I say thank you for supporting us on this journey. Please feel free to ask us more about our trip in the days and weeks to come as we continue to reflect on our experience and what it means to Rise Up Together with our brothers and sisters across the world.

The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance. For to this end we toil and struggle, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all the people, especially of those who believe. (1 Timothy 4:10, NRSV)

Thanks be to God! Amen.

Confessing the Faith: Week 3 – July 26, 2015

Sunday’s Reading:
1 Peter 3:8-22

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

There is a lot to digest in this morning’s reading from 1 Peter, isn’t there? There’s the bit at the end about baptism forging a connection between us and the resurrected Christ. There’s the cryptic but enduring image of Christ preaching “to the spirits in prison” – known in some circles as “the harrowing of hell” – which has fascinated the Church for centuries. And there’s the bulk of today’s text, the series of exhortations to God’s people that is summarized pretty well by the heading at the top of our reading inserts: do what is good and right. At first glance, this might seem like a straightforward list of ethical demands, a description of the kind of life to which Christians should aspire that shouldn’t surprise us too much. Take a step back, however, and consider what these words communicated to the people who first heard them, and suddenly they sound a whole lot different (and a whole lot more difficult to comprehend).

If you had been one of the first recipients of this letter, you wouldn’t have had a whole lot of company. First Peter was probably written sometime between the years 75 and 95, a period of time in which the entire Christian population of the known world was probably somewhere between 7,500 and 50,000.* By contrast, the population of the Roman Empire has traditionally been estimated at around 60,000,000 during the same time period, meaning that, at best around one in twelve hundred people might have identified as a Christian. Put another way, if a group of, say, 4,325 people was chosen at random from the whole population of the Roman Empire – a group equal to the population of Falls City –  you would expect to find at most four Christians in the group. In that context, the other 4,321 people would know little or nothing about you except that you were different: that you didn’t worship the same gods; that you didn’t participate in the same ceremonies; that, at best, you refused to go with the flow, and, at worst, your crazy religion threatened the whole social order. Now, picture yourself as one of those few Christians and hearing this list of commands:

Now finally, all of you should be like-minded, sympathetic, loving toward your brothers and sisters, compassionate, and self-deprecating, 9not paying back evil for evil or insult for insult, but – on the contrary – paying back blessings. (1 Peter 3:8-9a)

Can you imagine how difficult living that way would be in that context? It’s hard enough for us to do now, when we live in a totally different world. For all the talk about there being a war on Christianity in this country, the fact is that just under 71% of Americans identified themselves as Christian in a nationwide survey taken last year.§ We can debate what that means in practice, but from a purely numerical perspective, there’s no doubt that the social environment is vastly more sympathetic to Christianity today than it was around the year 100 when these words were first penned.

I don’t make this comparison to heap more guilt on us as modern Christians, but to illustrate a larger truth about the Christian life, and that’s this: that doing what is good and right isn’t a matter of doing what comes naturally to us. In the first century, the twenty-first century and all the centuries in-between, the call to do what is good and right has always been a call to live a radically different kind of life, a life characterized by peace-making, spreading blessing, pursuing righteousness, and striving for faithfulness to the one whose name we bear: Jesus Christ. In the end, as much as we might “desire life”, as hard as we try to “keep [our] tongues from evil and [our] lips from speaking deceit”, we are fighting a losing battle if we try to do so by our own strength or by the sheer force of our own will. This, in part, is why the church throughout the centuries has continued to declare its trust in God, particularly in God the Holy Spirit. The words of the third article of the Apostles’ Creed summarize that belief:

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.

What seems like a series of disconnected statements is, in fact, a powerful testimony to the work of God in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. It is that Holy Spirit who was unleashed on the world to call us and our brothers and sisters in Christ to faith in God. It is that Holy Spirit who gathers us into the one universal church that exists throughout the world. It is that Holy Spirit who makes us holy and inspires us to live the kind of life that God desires for us and for the world. It is that Holy Spirit who grants us grace when we fall short, and restores us to fellowship so that we might continue to live in God. It is that Holy Spirit who reminds us of the hope of resurrection and the promise of unending life with God.

In his explanation of the Third Article of the Creed, Martin Luther expresses this same conviction:

I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith, just as he calls, gathers, enlightens, and makes holy the whole Christian church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one common, true faith. Daily in this Christian church the Holy Spirit abundantly forgives all sins—mine and those of all believers. On the Last Day the Holy Spirit will raise me and all the dead and will give to me and all believers in Christ eternal life. This is most certainly true.

The truth, brothers and sisters, is that doing what is good and right is not, first and foremost, something that we choose to do, but something that God invites us to do in response to the gift of salvation that we have received in Christ. Because God has already claimed us and called us to this life, we are freed from the fear that failing to live this way will keep us from enjoying God’s favor. Instead, we, like the first Christians to hear these words, are promised the gifts of grace and strength that are needed to strive for unity, sympathy, love, tenderness, and humility. God knows it won’t be easy; after all, the only one to live in perfect unity, sympathy, love, tenderness, and humility would eventually be killed because the powers of this world could not abide his presence. Yet Christ lives because those powers were incapable of holding him down, and in his rising he makes a way for us to overcome the forces of sin and death that prevent us from living the life that God desires for us and for this broken and beautiful world.

Brothers and sisters, as we strive to do what is good and right, let us trust that the Lord’s ears are open to our prayers for strength and guidance. Let us seek always to repay others with blessing, so that they might know the love and grace of God. Finally, let us live today and always in the power and presence of God’s Holy Spirit, who makes our life in Christ possible. Thanks be to God! Amen.

* Ralph Martin Novak, Christianity and the Roman Empire: Background Texts, Trinity Press International (Harrisburg, PA: 2001), 12-13.

Christopher Kelly, The Roman Empire: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press (Oxford: 2006), 1.

§ “America’s Changing Religious Landscape”Pew Research Center: Religion & Public Life. May 12, 2015

Confessing the Faith – Week 1 – July 12, 2015

Sunday’s Reading:
1 John 1:1-10

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.

These words comprise what is often called the first article of the Apostles’ Creed, the subject of the series we’ll be exploring over the next four weeks. The word “creed” comes to us from the Latin verb “credo”, which means “to believe” or to “profess”, and has most often been used by the Church throughout the centuries to refer to one of the statements of faith which were drafted by church leaders and theologians in the early centuries of Christianity and which, since that time, continue to be accepted by a large number of Christians throughout the world. The Apostles’ Creed probably didn’t assume the form in which we have it today until sometime in the fifth or sixth century, but, as the name implies, it contains statements about God that we can trace back to the days of the Twelve who walked with Jesus and received the commission to go out to baptize and teach the nations.

The text before us today is from the First Letter of “John”. Most scholars today would disagree, but it has been a common – though certainly not universal – belief throughout the centuries that this letter and the two that follow it were written by the same John who was called to be a disciple of Jesus in the first century. Whether that belief is true or not, this passage has something in common with the Apostles’ Creed: it claims a link with the earliest days of the Church, the days in which it was still possible to receive firsthand the testimony of people who had seen and heard and touched the Lord. Like the Apostles’ Creed, 1 John reminds us that what we talk about when we talk about God is not some distant or abstract concept, but a real, living, breathing, active presence in our world and in our lives. This is an important point, because all too often the Creeds seem to be nothing more than relics of a bygone era, dusty old words that once held significance but are now spoken as a nod to our less enlightened past. In truth, the Apostles’ Creed, which we recite weekly for the vast majority of the year, is not a quaint symbol from the past, but a powerful and consequential connection to the story that gives us life and binds us up with the Church throughout time and space.

So what difference does it make to profess this faith, this trust, this allegiance to God “the Father”, the “creator of heaven and earth”? Martin Luther, our forerunner in the faith, pointed out that this article of the Creed states clearly the fundamental distinction between God and the rest of creation. As much as we human beings assert our dominance over the affairs of the world, in the end God is God and we are not. As Christians, we find in this confession of faith a profound truth about God’s care and concern for us and for everything that has been made. Luther said as much in his explanation of the First Article in the Small Catechism, a book he wrote to serve as a guide to on-going religious education in the home:

I believe that God has created me together with all that exists. God has given me and still preserves my body and soul: eyes, ears, and all limbs and senses; reason and all mental faculties. In addition, God daily and abundantly provides shoes and clothing, food and drink, house and farm, spouse and children, fields, livestock, and all property—along with all the necessities and nourishment for this body and life. God protects me against all danger and shields and preserves me from all evil. And all this is done out of pure, fatherly, and divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness of mine at all! For all of this I owe it to God to thank and praise, serve and obey him. This is most certainly true.

At the risk of pulling us too far off course, I’d like to take a moment to point out that a belief in God as our creator does not require us to dismiss the contributions of science to our understanding of the world. Scripture and faith deal with questions of ultimate significance, purpose and intention, questions that science is ill equipped to handle. As such, it is my conviction that science and faith can (and should!) work in tandem. A Christian who wants to take both seriously might look at it this way: “Who brought creation into being? God. How did God do that? Through the processes, the phenomena, the complex web of life that we can observe and study in nature. Why did God do it? God only knows!”

That might seem like an unnecessary side trip in our exploration of the Creed, but I think engaging with such issues is a key part of ensuring that the Creeds remain a robust part of the life of faith. If we believe that God has given us all that we have, including the gift of reason and the drive for exploration and discovery, then surely the pursuit of knowledge through scientific inquiry cannot and should not be foreign to us as people of faith. On the contrary, we are compelled to seek deeper understanding of God and the world God made, for our sake and for the sake of the creation.

Besides this declaration of our understanding that God is our creator, the other aspect of this confession, of course, is the identification of God as “the Father almighty”. This is a really important point, because it speaks to the fact that we have been invited into a more intimate relationship with God than the one between creator and creature. As 1 John puts it, the testimony of Scripture and of the Apostles is that in Christ we are welcomed into fellowship with God, and that God desires to be united with us through God’s Son. We know that fellowship especially by the “means of grace” that form the center of our life together: the proclamation of the “word of life”; the regular practice of confessing our sins and hearing God’s promise of forgiveness and renewal; the life-giving meal we receive in the sacrament of Holy Communion; the fellowship we share with one another that strengthens us for life in the world; and, of course, the sacrament of Holy Baptism, which we will be celebrating and witnessing [tomorrow morning] in just a couple of minutes. By water and the Word, Quintin Donald Campbell will be welcomed into the family of God the Father almighty, who will claim him as a beloved child and join him to the crucified and risen life of Jesus Christ. Through that same water and Word, Quintin will receive the gifts of forgiveness and grace, and he will find a welcome in this community of faith, gathered around these signs of God’s power and presence and united in the confession of faith that grew out of the experience of the first people to bear the name of Christ. In that very real sense, we will all be witnesses to the Word today, and we will all be strengthened by our fellowship with the one who is light and who invites us to walk in the light by grace through faith today and every day.

Brothers and sisters, let us rejoice this day in the testimony of the apostles which continues to be our heritage in an age of constant change. Let us give thanks for the gift of Holy Baptism, by which we are called and claimed and sent out to serve God and our neighbors. Let us bless God for welcoming us into his glorious light this day and always. Finally, let us pray that, through the words of this Creed, we might bear witness to your power and presence in our lives and in the life of the world. Thanks be to God! Amen.