A sermon preached today in advance of a sermon series on the Apostles’ Creed – to begin next week.
It’s a word you can’t escape today, isn’t it, both in the church and in wider society.
Everywhere you turn – whether in the world of politics, in the media, in the educational system, in the church, on billboards, in documentaries – the word is everywhere.
There are community organizers. There is the Polish community, the Black community, the farming community. There are community centres. There are community organizations. There are gated communities. There are community newspapers.
Everywhere we turn, it seems, we are confronted with the idea of community – everywhere we turn we are confronted with the desire for community.
We don’t have the time for an in-depth exploration of this explosion of interest in community – this explosion of desire for the experience of community. There seems little doubt, however, that this interest in community is rooted partly in the realization that the individualism of our culture hasn’t lead to human fulfillment – to some degree we in the west have come to realize that our identity and fulfillment is found in networks of relations. Of course old ways of living and thinking die hard, but to some extent we have realized that we cannot fulfill ourselves, cannot care for the world, cannot fulfill the human, without building meaningful communities.
Another general comment as we begin. It seems to me that this emphasis on community – this desire for community – also reflects its absence from our lives. We talk about community a great deal, and we try to build communities, because we do not experience it. This isn’t to say that the reality and experience of community life is completely absent from our lives, but it seems that whenever a subject preoccupies us, and whenever we reach out for something, it’s usually because we don’t possess it in the way we would like.
This longing is not absent from those who belong to the Church. We, as much as anyone, understand that our personal identity and fulfillment is found only in communal relationships. We too reach out for a deeper experience of community life because there is something of an absence of community life in our day to day existence, and in the church.
This morning we want to spend just a bit of time thinking about Christian community, about how we define the community of the church. There are so many ways that we could approach this question – so many dimensions to Christian community. But this morning we think about Christian community in the light of our confession of the Apostles’ Creed.
Perhaps as we begin it is appropriate to ask – what does the creed have to do with community? It may not be immediately obvious to us what the relation between these is. What do creed and community have to do with each other?
To answer this question, I invite you to use your imaginations a little this morning. Imagine that we are in the city of Rome some eighteen hundred years ago – and imagine that we are gathered in the darkened home of a member of our community. It is late on the evening of Holy Saturday – the evening before glorious Easter sunrise. The only light in the room comes from lamps flickering along the walls.
We are a gathering of Christians. We gather in the darkness of this Saturday evening to remember the darkness of Christ’s death. Before the light of Easter morning arrives we gather in the dark to remember Jesus’ crucifixion, the moment when time seemed to stand still.
We are a gathering of Christians, in a world where few are Christians. We are not powerful – we are in fact marginalized and on the edges of society. This evening is special to us, not only because we remember the crucifixion of our Lord, but because it is an evening when we will receive men and women into our fellowship. As we stand in the darkness, three men and two women step forward – they are of varying ages, and are dressed in white linen. They have come through three years of preparation, of discipline, of teaching, to arrive at this day.
As we stand silently in the darkness now, shadows are cast on walls and across faces. The one who presides at this meeting invites the candidates forward. They stand before him, and he asks each one, in turn:
Do you believe in God the Father Almighty, who made our whole world?
Each answers, ‘Yes’
Do you believe in Jesus Christ the Lord, who was born of the virgin Mary, who suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried, and descended to hell? Do you believe that on the third day he rose from the dead, that he ascended to God’s right hand, and that he will return as judge of all.
In the low light you see their lips move, you hear confident answers: ‘Yes’
The one who presides continues: “Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, in the church universal, in the fellowship of those made holy, in forgiveness for wrong-headed lives, in the resurrection of the body. Do you believe in life everlasting?
Each answers, again, ‘Yes’.
After three years of preparation, these men and women now step forward and are baptized. We look on as the one who presides pours water over their heads, each in turn – “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Together, in this dark home, warm light flickering along the walls, water still dripping from the hair and faces of those baptized, we form a community – we are not powerful, we are questioned and sometimes persecuted, but we are a community of those who know Christ and serve him. Tomorrow morning we will gather as a community at first light – we will celebrate – the one who was dead, is alive.
We begin to understand the relation between creed and community when we recall that, throughout history, entry into the Christian community has always been accompanied by public profession of faith. As was made clear in our imaginative journey back 1800 years, in the early church the Apostles’ Creed actually took the form of a series of questions – a series of questions asked of those who had converted to Christianity, who had reached the point of formal entry into the web of relations that is the church.
It was only later in church history that the link between baptism and the Apostles’ Creed was broken. Even in the Presbyterian Church today, however, an important remnant of that earlier practice remains. When someone joins the church even today they are asked to publicly profess their faith and they are asked to recite Apostle’s Creed with the rest of the congregation.
In some way, then, the Apostle’s Creed defines the community – it sets a boundary around the community. Acceptance of the creed is an important marker of one’s entry into the church. To belong to Christian community, then, is to be set, or is to set oneself, within the context of belief. To belong to the church is to be defined by a particular set of commitments – we see the world through this lens. Our actions in the world, our relationships to others, our sharing together, are shaped by the convictions about God and world that are expressed in the Creed.
When we make confession of the Apostles’ Creed in this sanctuary we stand together, raising our voices as one. When you stand to recite the creed, you might hear the voice of your immediate neighbour – perhaps a scratchy voice, or a sweet tenor, or a quiet whisper of confidence – but you will also hear the blend of all our voices joined together. This experience and act is fundamental to our communal life. Without it, we are not the church – not a Christian community.
Of course the church is defined by much more than shared belief (we are not only a community that believes something in particular – we are a community that eats together, works together, prays together, serves together – we are a community that cries together, laughs together). Nevertheless, a shared belief in the truths of the creed is a fundamental aspect of our identity, our life together. Our shared confession of the creed in some sense defines us as a community.
Here we should perhaps think back to our discussion from a couple of weeks ago, when we acknowledged the possibility and reality of doubt in the hearts and minds of those who follow Jesus Christ. Not one of us believes perfectly; not one of us believes unreservedly; we are never utterly free from doubt and questions.
We might qualify what we’ve suggested, then, by saying: The church is a community of those who believe and are on the way to belief.
Living Faith reminds us that Jesus accepted the man who said: “I believe, help thou my unbelief.” We are a community of those who believe and who are on the way to belief.
As we continue to think about the relation between creed and community this morning, I’d like to turn in a slightly different direction and, doing so, to share a simple story from my own life. Quite a number of years ago now, when I was a teenager, I went with my parents to visit the Netherlands. My parents, of course, were each of Dutch ancestry and like many others they immigrated from the Netherlands in the post-war period. This trip was an opportunity for me to see where my parents had come from, where my ancestors had lived and worked and worshipped. One moment from that trip sticks out for me. We went to the farm house where my father had been born and where he had lived the first 18 years of his life. As we walked around the house, my dad brought me to the rear, and showed me a small basement window at ground level. I could see that there had originally been four vertical iron bars blocking the window – but the inside two bars had been cut out with a hack saw. When he was 11 years old, my father had helped his father cut out those bars – it was during the war and they had cut them out so that if a bomb fell on the house, they would have a way out – through that window.
A family is a kind of community – we find part of our identity in our family. We discover something of who we are as we look back on the experiences and realities that have shaped our ancestors. I discover something of my identity when I look back to my parents’ life in Holland, including their experience of hunger and fear in the context of war. When we think about community, whether in the context of the church or elsewhere, we are reminded that the historical dimension cannot be neglected.
This is true in a particular way as we come back to the creed. To confess the creed is to find ourselves embedded within a historical community that stretches back to the Apostles themselves. On the back of your bulletin this morning is a question and answer from the new Catechism of the Presbyterian Church. The answer provided there reminds us that the Apostles Creed was not written by the Apostles’ themselves. Nevertheless the creed reaches back to the Apostles’ Teachings – the creed is intended as a summary of the narrative of Jesus as told by the Apostles – it is a summary of the vital things of faith shared by those who first encountered the risen Jesus Christ.
The close relationship between the Apostles and Apostles’ Creed is discovered, to offer just one example, in our scripture reading from 1 Corinthians. There we find a succinct statement of belief that finds its way into the creed finally formulated in 2nd and 3rd centuries. The Apostle Paul writes: “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day.”
In a profound sense, to be a part of Christian community, is to exist in a historical community – a community that has handed on, passed on faith from generation to generation. As the Apostle puts it, again: “For I handed on to you what I in turn had received.” We could think of the Apostles Creed as written on an ancient piece of papyrus almost two thousand years ago. And think of that parchment passed from hand to hand, from person to person, from generation to generation – and then received, worn and weathered, in your own hands. There is a historical continuity of faith that binds us to the earliest generations of those who encountered the risen Jesus Christ. In a profound sense this faith, this community is not ours to make up, ours to control, ours to decide – it is something we receive as a gift.
Next week, when we take up the opening words of the Creed we’ll be reminded that creed isn’t only passively received – it cannot be received and passed on without touching us in our being. It is something in which we are to be personally invested. But that doesn’t change the fact that the faith we confess is shared across space and time – we are bound to the earliest Christians in the faith they articulated in the creed and which they handed on to us through the ages.
In summary and in conclusion then, we might say:
The Apostles’ Creed – a gift receive from generations past.
The Apostles’ Creed – a confession that leads us into community.
The Apostles’ Creed – a boundary that enfolds us within the community of the risen Christ.
The Apostles’ Creed – a statement of faith, and an invitation to faith.
Thanks be to God. Amen.