Tonight, we launch a 7-week series on the Apostles’ Creed, one of the major statements of faith in Christianity. Using the music of U2, Tom Waits, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and more, we’ll explore some of the major components of the creed and ask what it means to believe these things today.
But first, we’re going to ask what we mean when we say, “I believe” in the first place. We twist this around sometimes in Western Christianity—we think that faith and belief are all about knowing the right answers.
But sometimes we get so stuck on knowing the right answers that we aren’t even living in the real world anymore. There’s an old joke about a Sunday School teacher who’s asking the kids to guess what she’s describing. She starts by saying, “It lives in the woods and can climb trees”—no guesses. So she goes on, “It’s usually brown or gray, and it eats acorns”—still nothing. Starting to get a little frustrated, the teacher says, “Come on, guys—it has a big bushy tail, you’ve probably seen then in your backyard.” Finally, one little boy raises his hand and says, “Well, it sure sounds like a squirrel, but I’m pretty sure the answer is supposed to be Jesus.”
Too often, we think belief is about knowing the right answers for everything and being to apply our favorite responses to every single scenario. But faith is more nuanced than that. Faith is more dynamic than that.
So I have 3 points tonight—a good, old-fashioned, 3-point sermon. And here’s the first point.
1. Simply believing that God exists is not all that interesting.
The debate over the existence of God has raged for centuries, even millennia. Although it can be fun to engage in these debates—they’ll certainly make you think—believing that God exists is not the point. Our Scripture says it right here, “Even the demons believe.”
When we say, “I believe,” we are not saying, “I cognitively assent to the proposition that God exists.” Faith does not require you to leave your brain at the door, but it isn’t all about reason, either. There is a difference between believing that and believing in. I can believe that God exists without believing in God—that’s what James says the demons do.
Because while believing that is about knowledge, believing in is more about trust. And while we might think we need knowledge of God in order to give trust to God, that knowledge might not need to be as comprehensive as we think. Think about how a child gives trust to a good parent. The child can’t possibly know everything about that parent, and believing that this is their mom or dad isn’t all that important—believing in that parent, trusting that their parent loves them and will provide for them, is what matters.
A while back, I got to be present at a 12-step meeting where a recovering alcoholic received a chip marking two years of sobriety. I knew this man was in many ways a skeptic at heart, and that he had wrestled with the centrality of a higher power in the program. When he got up to accept his chip, he said that even though he still wasn’t so sure about this God character, he knew God had kept him sober for 2 years. He was able to trust God without fully understanding God.
And we can never know everything there is to know about God. If we focus on believing that, either we will settle for a superficial, unexamined faith, or we will never be convinced because there is always more to learn. But if we believe in, there is room to grow and even room to doubt, because doubt doesn’t hurt God’s feelings.
Writer Lauren Winner tells the story of her friend Julian being confirmed at age 12. As Julian prepared for confirmation, she started to worry about whether she was ready to declare total fidelity to a doctrine for the rest of her life. When asked, her father said, “What you promise when you are confirmed is not that you will believe this forever. What you promise when you are confirmed is that this is the story you will wrestle with forever.”
Although the creed seems cut-and-dry, limited, and even restrictive, there is actually a great deal of space within it. The creed gives us the basics, the broad strokes. What belief sounds or looks like within that will be different for different people at different times in different places. It tells the story of salvation, the story we step into by committing, not to know and agree with it, but to wrestle with it.
2. “Believing is something we do together.” (James Howell)
The one problem with the Apostle’s Creed is that it is individualistic—“I believe.” There are other creeds that are written in the plural—“We believe.” That’s really what we’re saying either way, because faith is never restricted to the confines of my own brain and heart—faith is something that is held in a community.
Until we started this series, we had never recited any creed at Roots Revival. We decided not to use one up until now because it felt a little formal for this setting and because we wanted to make sure there was plenty of space in our worship for questions and for those at various stages of belief and unbelief.
But I love how Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber responds to this line of thinking. She says, “In a way that makes it inaccessible to people because they’re like, well, I don’t know if I believe this. Like the Apostles’ Creed. I can’t say the Creed because I don’t know if I believe every line in the Creed. I’m like, oh, my God. Nobody believes every line of the Creed. But in a room of people, in a room of people, for each line of the Creed, somebody believes it. So we’re covered, right?”
“Believing is something we do together” because none of us can hold perfect understanding and trust within our individual selves at all times. But within a community, in a body of people, everything necessary for faith can be held and sustained. When you’re not so sure about the Holy Ghost, someone else might be noticing the Spirit’s movement enough for the both of you. When you don’t think you believe in resurrection, another person’s experience of new life can suffice. When we’re not sure we can believe in the church any longer, a group of believers and doubters, saints and sinners, still gathers to try and be the body of Christ—together.
3. Belief cannot be separated from action.
The Message is an interpretation of the Bible that sets Scripture in language more accessible for readers today. Although I admittedly don’t always love it, sometimes it draws out something in the text that is really beautiful or surprising. This happens in James 2. In talking about how inextricably connected faith and works are, The Message says this: “Do you suppose for a minute that you can cut faith and works in two and not end up with a corpse on your hands?”
The point is not that a good Christian will have works as well as faith—the point is that they cannot be separated, period. Faith and works go hand in hand, as tightly entangled as the parts of a body.
So this is an expansion on my first point, that believing isn’t all about what you think or know. Believing is about where you put your trust, and believing is about how that affects your life in meaningful action. Believing is something you do not just with your head or your heart, but with your whole body, your whole life.
Barbara Brown Taylor says this: “With all the conceptual truths in the universe at his disposal, [Jesus] did not give [the disciples] something to think about together when he was gone. Instead, he gave them concrete things to do—specific ways of being together in their bodies—that would go on teaching them what they needed to know when he was no longer around to teach them himself…‘Do this,’ he said—not believe this but do this—‘in remembrance of me.’”
Faith isn’t something to think about; it’s something to do.
In the wake of the shootings in Charleston, I’ve been trying to figure out what to do. This country is crying out for healing from the wound of racism that continues to fester in alarming and divisive ways. It’s hard to talk about racism in predominantly white church like Centenary, but it must be done. Having hard conversations is part of the doing of faith that is required of us.
But the last few days, I’ve been wondering if even that is enough. Whatever I might think or say about race, it’s not enough unless I am willing to enact justice in my life and in my community. I had lunch yesterday with a black pastor friend of mine, and I was asking his feedback on an idea we’d had about having a small group study on race relations. My thoughts was that we should get people together to talk about race so that we could come to some mutual understanding and move forward together.
But my friend said that he was tired of talking. He doesn’t want to be on another panel. He wants to see people do something.
And something shifted in me. My black brothers and sisters are tired of explaining their oppression to people who have the privilege not to understand it. They don’t want to talk about it anymore. They want something done.
Black blogger Mia McKenzie put it this way: “Our deaths are not lessons for others to learn. … It’s 2015. Why do we still have to die so the rest of you…can learn things?”
Moving forward after Charleston isn’t about learning lessons. It’s about taking action. And just like in faith, we aren’t going to get it right all the time. I’m helping lead a vigil for Charleston this Friday, and I will admit to you that I am terrified. I am not at all convinced that I, a 28-year-old white woman born and bred in the South, have any right to lead such an event. But I’m going to do it because I was asked, because my black pastor friend who offered graceful correction also said at least I was doing something.
So I invite you to do something. I invite you to join me at the vigil on Friday, and I invite you to come march for voters’ rights on July 13. Our state legislature has passed laws that make it much harder for minorities, students, the poor, and the elderly to vote. To march is not to stand for any political party or agenda but to say that the voices of the voiceless matter and should be fought for.
And if we’re looking for a standard on which to base our faith in action, we need look no farther than Jesus himself. Our communion liturgy, when we enter into doing in remembrance and not just thinking or talking in remembrance, quotes Luke 4 when it tells us exactly what Jesus did: he preached good news to the poor, proclaimed release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, set at liberty those who were oppressed, and announced that the time had come when God would save his people. He healed the sick, fed the hungry, and ate with sinners.
He did all this and still does it today, with you and me as his hands and feet. However feeble our faith may be, may our feet be bold, so that we might go beyond simply believing God exists and embrace faith in action, together. Amen.
Sarah S. Howell