The first sermon in a series on the Apostles’ Creed. Here, in part, I have taken up the question of trust as it is explored by Wolfhart Pannenberg in his The Apostles’ Creed: In the light of today’s questions.
This past week Tuesday saw the death of the America writer John Updike. It is perhaps fitting, then, that we begin this morning with a reading from part of one of his short stories – it is entitled Trust Me.
When Harold was three or four years old, his father and mother took him to a swimming pool. This was strange, for his family rarely went places, except to the movie house two blocks from their house. Harold had no memory of ever seeing his parents in bathing suits again, after this unhappy day. What he did remember was this:
His father, nearly naked, was in the pool, treading water. Harold was standing shivering on the wet tile edge, suspended above the abysmal odor of chlorine, hypnotized by the bright, lapping agitation of this great volume of unnaturally blue-green water. His mother, in a black bathing suit that made her flesh appear very white, was off in a corner of his mind. His father was asking him to jump. “C’mon, Harold, jump,” he was saying, in his mild, encouraging voice. “It’ll be all right, Jump right into my hands.” The words echoed in the flat acoustics of the water and tile and sunlight, heightening Harold’s sense of exposure, his awareness of his own white skin. His father seemed eerily stable and calm in the water, and the child idly wondered, as he jumped, what the man was standing on.
Then the blue-green water was all around him, dense and churning, and when he tried to take a breath a fist was shoved in his throat. He saw his own bubbles rising in front of his face, a multitude of them, rising as he sank; he sank it seemed for a very long time, until something located him in the darkening element and seized him by the arm.
He was in the air again, on his father’s shoulder, still fighting for breath. They were out of the pool. His mother swiftly came up to the two of them and, with a deftness remarkable in one so angry, slapped his father on the face, loudly, next to Harold’s ear. The slap seemed to resonate all over the pool area, and to be heard by all the other bathers… His sense of public embarrassment amid sparkling nakedness…survived his recovery of breath. His mother’s anger seemed directed at him as much as at his father. His feet were on grass. Standing wrapped in a towel near his mother’s knees while the last burning fragments of water were coughed from his lungs, Harold felt eternally disgraced.
He never knew what had happened; by the time he asked, so many years had passed that his father had forgotten. “Wasn’t that a crying shame,” the old man said, with his mild mixture of mournfulness and comedy. “Sink or swim, and you sank.” Perhaps Harold had leaped a moment before it was expected, or had proved unexpectedly heavy, and had thus slipped through his father’s grasp. Unaccountably, all through his growing up he continued to trust his father; it was his mother he distrusted, her swift sure-handed anger.
This short story, Trust Me, serves as an appropriate introduction for us today – for this morning we acknowledge that trust is basic to human life.
To be a human person, you must trust.
Well, you might reply. I’ve heard of people who are very distrustful. I’ve heard of people who do everything they can to hold others at a distance, who refuse to trust others. They generally live alone, they don’t get close to others in relationships – they don’t trust others and don’t want to trust others.
Yes, there are such individuals. However, as one theologian reminds us: “Even the most distrustful person cannot avoid trusting. He or she can refuse to trust here and there, but not everywhere and all the time.”
We could think a little about this – about the ways in which our everyday life requires trust.
When you wake up in the morning – perhaps after hitting the snooze button a few times – you’ll sit up and you’ll swing your legs over the side of the bed. And as you put your feet down on the floor, do you say to yourself “I wonder if the floor will hold me up this morning?” No, you trust that it will. You trust that as the floor held you yesterday and the day before that and the day before that, so it will hold you today. You trust.
If you are someone who drives, you will get behind the wheel of your car during the week, and doing so you will have to trust (even here in Montreal) that other drivers our there know how to drive and will follow the rules of the road. If you could not function with that basic trust, you wouldn’t get behind the wheel yourself. In fact, if this basic trust didn’t exist there would be no cars at all on the road.
Getting a little more personal, you live in relationships with a variety of people. And in relating to them you trust them in different ways. You trust that they mean what they say. When a friend moves toward you with open arms you must trust that she means to embrace you. Even if we have been hurt in relationships, even if we are in some respects distrustful of others (like Harold was distrustful of his mother’s anger, like some of us are distrustful of a sibling, father, or friend), nevertheless there remains a basic level of trust that we must have if we are to function with any kind of normalcy. The mailman is delivering mail and not empty envelopes. The bank teller will not put your money into his account. Your mother’s words of love have meaning behind them.
So we come back again to where we started: Trust is basic to human life.Trust defines human life in a profound sense.
If we didn’t trust that the floor would hold us; if we didn’t trust that others would follow the rules of the road; if we didn’t trust other people; if we didn’t trust the constancy of the universe – well, we all probably have some sense of what it would feel like – without trust there would be profound, a severe tightening in our chest – a sense that we couldn’t catch our breath. We would be incapable of carrying out the most basic activities of our day, of living in any kind of meaningful relationships with others. There would be a fundamental anxiety about everything in life. Indeed, in those terrible instances where we see a person’s trust shattered, we also see the capacity for life endangered.
As we begin our sermon series on the Apostles’ Creed this morning, and as we consider the opening words of the creed, we are invited to think further about trust. The Creed begins with those words “I believe” – they are words repeated three times in the course of the confession.
“I believe in God the Father Almighty”
“I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son our Lord.”
“I believe in the Holy Spirit”
What we should see realize this morning is that this threefold ‘I believe’ is in fact a statement of our fundamental human trust. The question that the creed really answers is this: “In what do we ultimately put our trust?” The question that the creed answers is this: “What are our hearts set on, in the last resort?”
Just as our everyday existence in the world requires a certain level of trust – so also is there is a fundamental trust that lies at the heart of every human life, that lies at the base of human existence. As the German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg has put it: “Over and above every conditional trust, in which we meet the circumstances and things and people of each day, there is a deeper and unconditional trust, from which we live.”
There is a deeper and unconditional trust, from which we live – this is true for every human person.
It is this deepest trust, this unconditional trust, to which we give voice as we stand and confess our faith. The threefold ‘I believe’ of the creed, announces that we put our deepest trust, our unconditional trust in the God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In a world where circumstances, and things, and people often cannot be trusted – in world where we nevertheless must live by trust – we put our trust in the God.
Let’s be clear, though, that this trust in God is not the ‘In God we Trust’, that is found on currency of the United States of America. ‘In God we Trust’ is a kind of generic statement – it says, “Well, there’s a God up there somewhere. And we trust that this God, whoever he is, wherever he is, will take care of things.”
No, the creed invites us to put our trust in, and is a statement of our trust in, the strong God who lovingly created the world, the loving God who came among us in person of Jesus, and the gracious God who is the Holy Spirit forming the church and equipping men and women for service. As followers of Christ, we do not put our trust in some generic God out there, up there somewhere – we put our fundamental trust in a God who has a specific story – a story we tell in short form of the creed – a story that is given longer form in the Old and New Testament.
As we come back to those opening words of the Creed, ‘I believe’, we should mention that there has been a tendency to think of the ‘I believe’ simply in terms of knowing something or accepting something intellectually. In many instances the creed is reduced to a mere statement of right belief about God. But mere belief isn’t adequate for Christian life and faith. The Apostle James makes the point well, and rather starkly I would add, when he writes to members of the church: “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe – and shudder.”
Mere belief is not what the creed intends with the words ‘I believe’. Rather, with those words the Creed intends a trust by which we put our lives and our world into the hands of this God. It is a trust that says – yes, this is the way things are, this is what grounds my life, and this is what grounds the world in which we all live.
Again this week you have a question and answer from the new Catechism of the Presbyterian Church in Canada printed in your bulletin. And the catechism really makes this same point when it says: “Belief or faith is a wholehearted trust in God.”
The Apostles’ Creed is a short form of the long narrative of God that is provided in the Old and New Testament – and the narratives of the scriptures are in many respects narratives of trust – narratives of women and men who put their trust in God.
When he left his home and land, on the way to some unknown place to which God invited him – Abraham put his trust in God.
When Daniel found himself up against political rulers who demanded that he relinquish his faith – Daniel put his trust in God.
When Rahab encountered the Israelite spies in the land of Jericho, she put her trust in the word of the spies and put her trust in their God.
When Jesus wept and prayed and wrestled in the Garden of Gethsemane, he finally put his trust in his Heavenly Father. “Your will, not mine be done.”
Trust in God is at the heart of our life and faith. Thus we find Jesus saying to his disciples: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.”
Thus we find the Apostle Paul writing: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him…”
As we consider the trust that is invited and expressed in the opening words of the Apostles’ Creed, I’d like to come back finally this morning to a question we have touched on the past few weeks. We have explored the possibility and reality of doubt in those who are followers of Jesus Christ, the possibility and reality of doubt in those who stand to confess the creed. And we have said that moments of doubt do not disqualify us from following Christ. Doubt is a part of our life and growth in faith. And in the light of this we have said that the church is in fact a community of those who believe and are on the way to belief.
In the same way, we might say this morning, we are a community of those who trust God and are on the way to trusting God.
Think back to the narrative of Updike with which we began. And recall again that while trust is necessary to the human, trust is nevertheless a dynamic reality. Trust is something that grows. Trust is something that deepens the more time we spend with someone. This is also true of the trust to which we give expression to in the Apostles’ Creed – it doesn’t necessarily come all at once. This trust is something that must grow and must develop. As with any relationship, learning to trust God only comes in the dynamic give and take of life – through a vital listening and speaking and living together with God. There may be moments when we feel like Harold, vulnerable and disoriented, standing on the tile ledge of the swimming pool – not sure into whose arms we leap. Can we trust this God?
The God we worship and the God we confess in the Creed is not a God removed from us – nor is this God deaf or dumb. This is a God to whom we speak – in the language of praise, in the longing of prayer. This is a God who speaks to us, through the narratives of his people in scripture, through the still small voice of the Holy Spirit. This God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, invites us to put our trust in him – and this God promises to sustain and to honour our trust.
We trust, then, and are invited to trust: The Father, who lovingly and powerfully creates a world of astonishing beauty.
We trust, and are invited to trust: The Son, in whom God embraces our humanity and who makes things right in the world.
We trust, and are invited to trust: The Holy Spirit, who draws us into deep fellowship with each other and who draws us into a life of service.
We trust, and are invited to trust.