Of what use are the the ancient (and not-so-ancient) creeds of the church in the twenty-first century? In late 2019 and early 2020 the folks at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are looking at how some of these historic documents, many of which have their origin in some historic church fights, can be helpful in our attempts to walk with Jesus. On November 10, we considered The Apostles’ Creed and sat with the Word of God as found in Matthew 28:16-20 and Hebrews 1:1-4.
To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the media player below:
What do you think of when you I say the word “footpath”? What are the mental images that brings to you? I’d like to ask you to pause for just a moment now and get a picture of a footpath in your mind – a trail that you have known. Think about what footpaths have done in your life.
It seems to me that footpaths can fulfill one of two main functions. There are a number of us who have been thinking of paths that we have followed as escapes and adventures. We’ve been driving down a main road and at some point, it seemed like a good idea to get out and walk. Many years ago I was a passenger in a car that Don Prevost was driving. We were going over the hills in West Virginia, and it was just beautiful. But then someone saw a little trail leading from the edge of the road, and Don found a place to park. We clambered out of the car, and followed the path only to discover an incredible vista of huge boulders looking down onto a pristine valley. Our children – much younger then – discovered wild blueberry bushes, and we spent a couple of hours – unplanned, unanticipated hours – leaping around in the sun, picking berries, and enjoying the world God has made. The footpath got us there – it led us to a blessing we’d have missed otherwise.
But maybe you are thinking of a different sort of path altogether. Maybe you remember a camping trip or a hike of some sort, when you got lost in the woods. When you were ready to panic, you saw the blazes painted on the tree nearby and that led you to follow the path that led you to safety. When you to think of paths, you think of trails that were there to safeguard you from getting lost, to protect you from the dangers that lurked off the beaten path. I’m remembering a trail that we walked along while in South Africa, and there were crocodiles, hippos, and leopards in the neighborhood. Believe me, I didn’t need to be told twice that it was a bad idea to leave the marked trail – I stayed on that path like nobody’s business – because I believed that the path was the key to my survival.
On the one hand, then, we can think of footpaths as guides that can serve to introduce us to certain aspects of life or our environments that we’d never have a chance to see. On the other hand, those paths can also serve to protect us from getting overwhelmed by some aspect of our surroundings that could potentially threaten us.
Now I want you to picture a new footpath. It’s in a cave. It’s dark. There are a few torches here and there. It’s dank, and it smells like there’s not been any fresh air for a while. You are a part of a procession of Christians going into the catacombs – the caves that surround Rome. It’s time for worship, and you know that the Emperor has recently murdered several of your friends for the “crime” of confessing Jesus as Lord. Nevertheless, there are several people with you tonight who are eager to follow in The Way. They want to declare their faith in Jesus. Because they are new, it’s the first time that they’ve been into the catacombs with the other believers. When the worship begins, the leader brings them to the front of the group and asks them to answer publicly the questions of faith: “Do you believe in God the Father Almighty?” he asks. The converts answer with one word: “Credo”, which is the Latin word for “I believe.” “Do you believe in Jesus Christ His Son?” “Credo”. And so it goes. Each element of the church’s teaching is affirmed by the converts as they embrace the truth of the Faith.
Last week we began a series of messages on some of the Creeds of the church. Do you see why we call them the creeds? How does the Apostle’s Creed start? “I believe . . .” And how would you translate that into Latin? “Credo”.
This morning we’re going to consider the Apostle’s Creed as a footpath to faith that the Christian Church has used for centuries. Unlike the Nicene Creed, which we discussed last week, the Apostle’s Creed did not come out of a single crisis in the church, but rather was developed over a period of about 700 years. There’s a legend which states that this Creed was authored by the Apostles ten days after Jesus ascended into heaven, but that is not the case. The Apostle’s Creed, like the Nicene before it, was an attempt by the church to come together and provide some uniform statement of belief that could be shared by a number of churches.
For many of us, it’s a well-known pathway. Some of you probably had to memorize this statement in order to join a church; some of us learned it along with the 23rd Psalm and the Lord’s Prayer. If you’d like to look through the faith as I discuss it, you can find it on page 35 of your hymnal.
When the creed was being developed, it served to guide people to a deeper understanding of the faith. In the early days of Christianity, most of the world was illiterate. There was no such thing as FaithBuilders or youth group – people learned the faith from one another through relationships and practice. The creed came to summarize the orthodox faith of the church, and gave people a memorable statement of what was true. Early Christians thought that the creed helped them to fulfill the command of Jesus in Matthew 28: to “baptize people in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey all that I have commanded”.
As you look at the Apostles’ Creed, you can see it as a pathway that’s deepened people’s understanding of God. Just the very first line, for instance: “I believe in God, the Father almighty.” I have a friend who, upon hearing that line, said, “Wow, that’s a lot of gender right there!” For some people, referring to God as “Father” raises a real difficulty: we think of “father” in contrast to “mother”, and so we wonder: is the purpose of this sentence to affirm the masculinity of the Divine? But the early church, along with the cultures who produced the writing that led to the Bible presumed a patriarchal structure. When the first Christians said that God was “Father”, they were not claiming a gender for God, but rather affirming that the Creator was a personal being who had a parental affection over and involvement in the Creation. For them, “father” stood in contrast, not to “mother”, but to a distant power or impersonal entity! The creed begins with an affirmation that God is as close as a loving parent.
The Apostle’s Creed is a footpath that is well worn for many of us, and surely for our predecessors in the faith. Like some of the best paths you’ve been on, it didn’t develop in a day, or even a week, or even, as was the case for the Nicene Creed last week, in fifty years. For generations, Christians recited something that sounded a lot like this document, and from time to time as the church needed to, it was edited in order to make sure that nothing important was left out. For these folks – and for us – the creed is a living document that will help us express what we believe in a changing world. Let’s talk about a couple of those changes.
The earliest versions of what we know as the Apostles’ Creed did not have the words, “I believe in the forgiveness of sins”. That clause was added in the second and third centuries. Now, don’t get me wrong – the church has always been about forgiveness! However, in the early days of our faith, when confessing Christ was considered an act of treason against the Roman emperor, it was not uncommon for individuals to flee the church or deny the faith during a time of intense stress and persecution. Later, some of those folks returned to their community and said that they wanted to re-claim the faith and to reassert its primacy in their lives. Church leaders added the words, “I believe in the forgiveness of sins” because every believer needed to know that forgiveness is the air we breathe – it is who we are!
You know, if you were to walk up the stairs behind you and stroll through the Preschool area, you’d see a lot of art hanging on the walls. If I told you we had a vast art collection upstairs, and you ran up to find something amazing, you’d be disappointed. Why? Because most of that isn’t, by any objective measure, very good. It’s not like something you’d expect to find hanging at the Metropolitan Museum of Art or in the Louvre. Of course it isn’t – because it was made by three and four year-olds. Those are the people we have in the building, making art in this place.
Similarly, if you walk into this place (or any church) expecting to see only perfect models of faithfulness and forgiveness, you’re going to feel let down. Why? Because the only people you’re going to find at the church are people who know that we are good at sinning and in need of forgiveness. We have to affirm a faith that knows a liberality of forgiveness because we know the prevalence of brokenness in our lives and in the world. When the church says, “I believe in the forgiveness of sins,” the church is saying that there is always room for people to come home to the church.
And that leads to another modification that was made a couple of hundred years later. The church in Africa added the phrase, “I believe in the holy catholic church” because they were, at that time, engaged in a vigorous discussion as to who actually could be considered a “member” of the church. Was the Body of Christ an elite club, reserved for those who had achieved some real distinction in matters of faith and doctrine? A “who’s who” of faithful superheroes? Or is the church an inclusive group made up of any who can confess that Jesus Christ is Lord?
As those sisters and brothers wrestled with that, they came to understand that the church is, by definition, “holy”. That is, it belongs to God, not to any human. It is comprised of those who have heard God’s call, not who have been able to pass some sort of theological examination. And more than that, it is “catholic”. By this, they meant that it is universal. It is for all people, in all places and cultures. It does not belong to us.
The last edit that I’d like to mention this morning is one that still may catch a few of us off-guard: in the fifth century, the words, “he descended into hell” were written into the creed. There were a growing number of people who came to be known as “Docetists” that were speaking into the church. The Greek word dokein can be translated as “to seem”; dokesis can be understood as “an apparition”. This sect taught that while Jesus of Nazareth seemed to be a regular guy, in reality, he was simply God wearing a man-suit. The reason he could pull off all those miracles and eventually rise from the dead, the Docetists taught, was that he wasn’t really human to begin with. He was Divine, and appeared to be a normal guy, but don’t let that fool you.
And when they said that Jesus “descended into hell”, the word for “hell” that is used in the creed is not the word for “Gehenna”, or a place of torture to which unsavory dead are consigned for punishment. No, the word here is sheol in Hebrew or hades in Greek – a word that reflects the state of one who is physically dead. The church affirmed that the death Jesus entered into was not a “near” death or an “apparent” death, but rather a “really dead” death. Jesus of Nazareth, who as the letter to the Hebrews affirms is the reflection and image of God the Father, died a real death. The implication of that is that there is no place, including my own death, where the love of Christ is not present. Even in the most bereft, the darkest, the most anguished of places – the Light of the World is apparent.
So having heard all of that, let me ask you a few questions: Do you believe in God the Father? If so, simply follow your ancestors of the faith and say, “Credo”. Go ahead, use the Latin word!
Do you believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, who descended into hell? (“Credo”)
Do you believe in the forgiveness of sin and in one holy catholic church? (“Credo”)
Do you believe that God has blessed your life? (“Credo”)
Do you believe that we are called to go out into the world and make disciples of all nations, teaching them and baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit? (“Credo”)
And do you believe, like me, that God is longing to use the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights to reach people and to change lives? (“Credo”)
Do you believe that YOU can be a blessing to others? (“Credo”)
Then please, beloved, please, stay on the path that’s been trodden before us. Live as though you believe what you’ve said.
Go out from this place and live as though you believe that forgiveness is normative. Act like someone who has needed it, and who has received it. Practice giving it away. Join with the church of all ages in remembering that the world, and you, and me – it’s all broken. And that the world, and you, and me – it’s all made whole in Jesus.
And go out from this place remembering that it is not “yours”. That you and the rest of these people are not somehow “better”, or holier, or closer to God’s love than the folks who slept in this morning, or who somehow felt unable to be here. We are a group of seekers whose chief qualification for membership in this place is that we are great sinners in need of a deep healing and we have responded to God’s call by being here.
And go out from this place committed to carrying the light of Christ into the dark corners of your world. Jesus himself descended into hell… surely you and I can make it through the rough patches that next Tuesday or a week from Thursday might bring to us. We can know and affirm that here – but you may be the means by which one of your neighbors discovers that there is nothing so dead that it cannot stand in line for resurrection.