Tuesday, August 12, 2008

why we say the creed (romans 10)

The word is near you, Paul says, on your lips and in your heart.

I want to speak this morning about the heart of Christianity: the simplicity and the complexity of believing. It all begins, Paul says, with a word, the biblical God is a God who speaks, not a God who remains forever silent. In Genesis 1 we hear, over and over again, “and God said…and God said…and God said…”. God speaks. But the word of God is unlike other words. It is both a word that comes from beyond us and a word that is deep within us, for we were created, you and me, in the image of this God who speaks, and the word is written on our hearts.

Preaching is an unusual line of work. I love it, but it is unlike anything else. I will often be leaving the service, and I will speak to someone, or they will email me the next day and they will talk about what God said to them in the sermon, and it has nothing to do with what I had intended! And yet I do not doubt that the experience is real. The word is active in the minds and hearts of the people who come here, week after week, the word is a living word, it is no distant word, it is near you, on your lips, you are just about to say it, it is in your hearts, you could not contain it if you tried!

This word is near you. We are a congregation that comes together to be shaped by the word, as it comes to us in scripture and hymn, in anthem and sermon. Sunday after Sunday, season after season, year after year, we hear this word, we digest this word, we internalize this word, we memorize this word, and it lives within us. And over time, miraculously, the word that is God’s story becomes our story. I love the line in the hymn we will sing in a few minutes:

I love to tell the story for those who know it best
Seem hungering and thirsting to hear it like the rest.

The word is near you, on your lips and in your hearts. It is also true that we discover the story not only in worship but in smaller groups, in Sunday School classes, and in other Bible studies. On your bulletin there is a listing of opportunities this year to intentionally develop your faith. What is true about most every one of these opportunities is that they are not merely informational but transformational---this is not just about knowing more, it is about connecting God’s story with the story of your life. You will read the Bible and you will see yourself, almost like looking into a mirror. The word is near you, on your lips and in your hearts.

And then Paul focuses on the most basic and fundamental Christian activity, the most elemental creed: If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord.

The earliest creed was composed of three simple words: Jesus is Lord. Now this meant and means a number of things, and while it is simple it is also complex. To say Jesus is Lord, in the ancient world, was also to say that the Emperor Caesar, who made claims of divinity for himself, was not Lord.

To say that Jesus is Lord was and is counter-cultural. It also was, and is political. Sometimes my faith in Jesus Christ brings me into conflict with my allegiance to the kings and emperors and presidents of this world. Christians in the first century Roman Empire knew this, Christians in twentieth century Germany knew this. Christians in twentieth century South Africa knew this, Christians in twenty-first century United States know this. To say Jesus is Lord is to make a political statement. At times following Jesus will put you and me in conflict with the platforms of the two major political parties of our nation. Now I realize that we often equate God and country, but, brothers and sisters, they are not the same. I love my country. But I must also confess that Jesus is Lord.

And yet this simple and complex creed is not only a statement about the world we live in, about the powers that be out there. It is also a direct assault on the powers that struggle within us, in here, and this is all about my pride and ego. To say Jesus is Lord is to say that I am not Lord, I am not in control, and, even more basic, that I need some kind of help that must come from beyond me. I am reminded of the first of the twelve steps: We admitted that we were powerless.

And so these three words, this earliest creed, relates to conditions outside of us and inside of us, and of course these conditions change. There are wise rulers and foolish rulers, and we have good days and bad days. But belief is not just about the subjective conditions in which we live. Belief is shaped by the word. There are creeds embedded in the scriptures themselves. The Shema in Deuteronomy is a creed (6. 4-5)

Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is One Lord.
And you shall love the Lord with all your heart
and with all your soul and with all your might.

There are creeds in the letters of Paul, for example, in I Corinthians 8. 6:

For us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things, and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.

There is this fragment of a hymn, from I Timothy 3. 16:

He was manifested in the flesh, Vindicated in the Spirit
Seen by angels, Preached among the nations
Believed on in all the world, Taken up in glory.

I did not grow up in a tradition that said creeds, but I have come to appreciate them, over the years, for a number of reasons. I appreciate the fact that these words have been said by the faithful over a period of centuries and even millennia; that they are spoken, at least the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed, by Christians who cannot agree over matters as diverse as eating together at the Lord’s table or sexual practice; but these words they share in common; that for the early Christians these words introduced men and women to the faith; that for many they are a guide to belief in places where there are no actual physical copies of the scriptures.

I also appreciate that many people struggle with creeds. I love the take on this by Kathleen Norris, one of the finest writers of our time and one of the most profound witnesses to the faith. She recalls a conversation between a seminary student and an Orthodox theologian at Yale. The theologian had given a lecture on the development of the creeds. The student raised his hand and asked, “What can one do when one finds it impossible to affirm certain tenets of the Creed?”

The theologian responded, “Well, you just say it. It’s not that hard to master. With a little effort, most can learn it by heart.” The student, with some exasperation, felt he had been misunderstood. “What am I to do when I have difficulty affirming certain parts of the creed---like the Virgin Birth?”

He got the same response. “You just say it. Particularly when you have trouble believing it. You just keep saying it. It will come to you eventually”.

The student at this point raised his voice. “How can I with integrity affirm a creed in which I do not believe?” Finally the teacher replied, “It’s not your creed, it’s our creed”, meaning, it is the creed of the entire church.

The early church had a saying, “I believe in order that I might understand”. Maybe when we are 12 years old we say the words “Jesus is Lord” at Confirmation, or when we are 16 years old at a youth retreat or 20 at a campus ministry gathering or 30 years old when we have been away a few years and other things have not worked and we come back to the words, “Jesus is Lord”, corporate America is not Lord, Caesar is not Lord, I am not Lord, and of course life moves on, we have to continue to say the creeds and live into the meaning of them. If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. A friend talks about the untimely death of his father, sitting in the sanctuary as the great hymns of the faith are being sung, hymns his family had chosen, in the moment he cannot sing the words of eternal life and resurrection, but he is thankful that the church can sing the hymns for him. “I believe in order that I might understand”. “It’s not your creed”, the teacher says, “it’s our creed”. It doesn’t depend on the fluctuation of mood or the shifting of circumstance or the limitation of knowledge.

It is a constant. As I was working on this message I somehow connected this passage of scripture with one most likely written a generation or two later, in the correspondence to Timothy, most likely composed by a student of Paul’s. Within a generation or two we have moved from this clear, concise expression of faith in Romans to what appears to be a danger. Listen to these words from 2 Timothy 4:

In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus I solemnly urge you:
Proclaim the message, be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable, Convince, rebuke, encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, But having itching ears They will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.

To say “ I believe” is to believe what the church has taught across time and space. “Why do we say the creed?” If you did a market survey, you would find that more and more churches do not say a creed. “Why do we say the creed?” Because there is something we need to retain, something we need to absorb into our minds and hearts, something we need to pass on to our children and their children. And it is all grounded in what has been called a “generous orthodoxy”. What is a “generous orthodoxy”? The good news is that the God to whom the creeds point is gracious and merciful. This God in whom we place our belief and trust loves us, this God is always more willing to listen than we are to pray, always more willing to forgive than we are to confess, always more willing to embrace us than we are to return home. It is, finally, “the old, old story of Jesus and his love”. Again and again in Romans Paul returns to the core of the gospel, and here it is, again, at the end of our epistle lesson:

The Lord is generous to all who call upon him.
Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.

You have several opportunities to do this today. You may silently say, in your heart, “I want Jesus to be the Lord of my life”. You may speak with the church and say the words of the creed. You may sing the doxology and praise the Lord and giver of life. You may sing the words of our final hymn.

If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord
And believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead
You will be saved.

(Romans 10. 9)

Sources: N.T. Wright, “Paul’s Gospel and Caesar’s Empire”, Center of Theological Inquiry (
www.ctinquiry.org). Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith. “I Love To Tell The Story”, United Methodist Hymnal, 156. Fleming Rutledge, Not Ashamed of The Gospel.


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