Thursday, August 06, 2009

Christian Faith: The Basics, Part 36

Yesterday's installment in this series elicited this comment from Elizabeth Mahlou:
Any reason you chose this creed instead of the Nicene Creed? I think the latter probably describes the Holy Spirit a little more. (I tend to prefer the Nicene Creed, but that is indeed a personal preference.) Thanks for the thoughts on interpretation.
I love the Nicene Creed and, in fact, we use it as opposed to the Apostles' Creed when we celebrate Holy Communion at Saint Matthew. (We regularly celebrate Communion on the first and third Sundays of every month and on festival days of the Church Year. Many Lutheran congregations now have Holy Communion every Sunday as well as on festival days.)

Elizabeth Mahlou is right in saying that the Nicene Creed is more extensive in its description of the work of the Holy Spirit. All three of its articles, each, like the Apostles' Creed, dealing with a Person of the Trinity--Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, are lengthier than the articles of the Apostles' Creed.

But there are several reasons I'm using the Apostles' Creed as a framework for exploring what the Bible teaches and the Church confesses when it comes to understanding the three Persons of God.

First: The Apostles' Creed is probably more widely known than the other Christian creeds. One day about thirty years ago, I was channel-surfing when I ran across Pat Robertson, a person for whose theology I have no particular liking, talking about the Apostles' Creed. That struck me as interesting because as a sort of charismatic Baptist, Robertson doesn't come from the historic mainstream Christian tradition where, for centuries, the Apostles' Creed has functioned as a kind of altar call, inviting new believers and old believers to confess their faith in the God ultimately revealed to the world in Jesus Christ.

Robertson, as I recall, portrayed the Apostles' Creed as a normative statement of Christian faith, something to which every Christian could easily subscribe. I think that he was right. (By the way, you may want to make note of the date because this may be the only time I have ever said that Robertson was right about something. See here and here.)

Robertson's use of the Apostles' Creed is testimony to how well known it is.

(It should be said though, that while the Apostles' Creed is probably the most widely known of the creeds, the Nicene is the one more widely accepted by more different Christian faith traditions.)

Second: The Apostles' Creed is the oldest of the three ecumenical creeds of the Church. (The verbose Athanasian Creed is rarely used, except when pastors want to torture their congregants or sometimes, as Holy Trinity Sunday tradition.)

Unlike most other creeds or the confessions of faith from different Christian bodies, the Apostles' Creed wasn't composed by a council brought together to resolve some theological dispute. It's a simple statement of faith rooted in the teachings of the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments. (The Athanasian Creed, dating back to the fifth or sixth century AD, was not evidently spawned by a controversy. But its length keeps it from widespread use, I think.) Most confessional documents in my Lutheran tradition were composed for the purpose of resolving differences of opinion, including The Augsburg Confession, The Apology to the Augsburg Confession, The Smalcald Articles, and the Formula of Concord. More recently, the Barmen Declaration, composed by the eminent theologian Karl Barth, was a statement of Christian faith in opposition to the perversion of Biblical faith advanced by Adolf Hitler and his Nazi movement.

Although called the Apostles' Creed, the idea, first committed to paper by Rufinus in the fourth-century, that it was composed by the apostles of Jesus on the first Pentecost, is fanciful.

But the Creed is clearly rooted in the teachings of the apostles, all of it traceable to the Gospels and parts of which were already being used by second- and third-century Christians.

Third: The biggest reason for using the Apostles' Creed as the framework here is that I began this series using Martin Luther's Small Catechism as the roadmap. (A catechism is a short document, written in question-and-asnwer form, explaining the Christian faith or a particular tradition's understanding of the Christian faith. Luther, who lived from 1483 to 1546, wrote two catechisms. The Small Catechism, first published in 1529, was designed to help families review the basics of faith at the dinner table. Generations of Lutherans have used it as a framework for preparing young people to affirm their Baptism and publicly declare their intention to live for Jesus Christ in their adult lives. The Large Catechism, which Luther wrote shortly after the smaller document, was presented for the instruction of priests, who Luther found alarmingly ignorant of the Bible's revelation of God.)

The Small Catechism has six principle parts and a discussion of the Apostles' Creed is one of them.

While Luther and the Lutheran movement see the other two creeds among the foundational confessional documents that faithfully present the truths of the Bible, the simplicity and directness of the Apostles' Creed and its freedom from concern with specific theological controversies, making it very different from the Nicene Creed, probably explain why it has played so important a role in our confession of faith and in explanations of our faith.

Back to looking at the Holy Spirit tomorrow, I hope.

Read the Apostles' Creed
Read the Nicene Creed.
Read the Athanasian Creed.

By the way, here is what we ELCA Lutherans claim to believe about the faith. This confession of faith appears in the Constitution of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Christian Faith: The Basics, Part 35

Etc. That abbreviation of the phrase et cetera, meaning roughly, and so forth, falls at the ends of sentences and phrases. It's a multipurposed-word that stands in place of tedious catloging of items you don't want to bother listing. There's not much romance in etc., but it does cut to the chase.

When I first became acquainted with the Apostles' Creed, one of the three historical confessions of faith that, historically, all Christians have embraced, the cohesiveness of its first two articles was clear enough. The first article, confessing faith in God the Father, Who created heaven and earth, made sense to me. The second article, discussing God the Son, Jesus Christ, seemed to clearly state Who Jesus is and what He has done for us.

But then came the third article:
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen
It seemed to me that after sensibly using the first two articles to describe God the Father and God the Son, the originators of the Creed wanted to do the same thing about God the Holy Spirit, but after confessing belief in the Spirit, gave up on doing any describing. Everything after, "I believe in the Holy Spirit" seemed like a catalog of other stuff Christians believed in that might just as well have been covered by etc.

But, over time, I've come to see that I was wrong. The second through sixth lines of this article each describe an action of the Holy Spirit in the same way in which the lines of the first two articles describe the Father and the Son. It's God the Holy Spirit Who makes the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.

Of course, Christians worship one God in three Persons. This is a mystery I've looked at earlier in this series. And there is an interpenetration of the roles of God, the Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. But this list I once thought could be skipped over with etc., briefly sums up what God the Spirit is up to now and will do for all who believe in Jesus Christ in the future. It's not a list of attributes of the Spirit, but a witness of what God has revealed of the Spirit.

I hope to begin unpacking that confession in the next installment of this series.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

The Lord of the Dance

[This was shared at a funeral today.]

A few lines from the book of the Old Testament prophet, Jeremiah:
Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry. I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow. [Jeremiah 31:13]
Juanita loved to dance. Whether jitterbugging in the early days with her husband or by herself with a straw hat and a cane, I’m told, she loved to dance.

In the Bible, dancing is, so far as I know, always associated with joy, with worshiping and praising God. Jeremiah’s message I just read was written to God’s people, the Hebrews, whose land had been overrun by a foreign empire and most of whom were living as slaves working in exile. Through Jeremiah, God tells His people that God had heard their cries of regret for past sins and their desire to live with God at the center of their lives again.

God would let them have their land back and on that day, God said, they would rejoice.

They would praise God.

They would dance.

We live in a fallen, imperfect world. We age and because of it, even people who were sterling athletes no longer run. Dancers no longer dance. And families and friends are left to grieve the loss of loved ones. At least, that’s how it is in this world.

But we can have hope!

God has taken pity on all of His children. God has overcome the power of sin and death over our lives. God did that through Jesus Christ.

Jesus made no bones about telling those who were interested that He was not just a carpenter from Nazareth, a man who spent almost His entire life in a town much smaller than Laurelville, but also God.

And Jesus—true man and true God—took all of our burdens—all our sin, all our aging, all our death, all our separation from God, the life-giver—and bore their weight on the cross. He died alone and rejected for us. Jesus lived and died the same life that you and I live and die.

But then, as more than five-hundred people saw, on the Sunday after His death, Jesus rose from the dead. Death could not contain the God-man Jesus. Suffering couldn't destroy Jesus. Sin couldn’t rob him of life.

An old Christian folk song calls the God we know in Jesus, The Lord of the Dance. Listen to some of its words:
I danced in the morning when the world was begun
I danced in the Moon & the Stars & the Sun
I came down from Heaven & I danced on Earth
At Bethlehem I had my birth…
Then, later on, these lines:
I danced on a Friday when the sky turned black
It's hard to dance with the devil on your back
They buried my body & they thought I'd gone
But I am the Dance & I still go on!

They cut me down and I leapt up high
I am the Life that'll never, never die!
I'll live in you if you'll live in Me -
I am the Lord of the Dance, said He!
Jesus told one of the sisters of his dead friend, Lazarus, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”

Another time, Jesus told an old teacher of religious law, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son [that’s Jesus], so that everyone who believes in Him [that means, to trustingly give our whole lives to Jesus] may not perish but may have eternal life.”

It is hard to dance when the devil, when sin, when aging, when strokes, when loss, and when the burdens of life, are on your back. But when we renounce sin’s power over our lives and trustingly place ourselves in the hands of the God we see in Jesus Christ, we’re set free. We know that Jesus can be with us now. And we know that He will be with His followers, freed from the sin and death and limitations of this world, in eternity too. Jesus tells all who follow Him, “In my Father's house there are many dwelling places…I go to prepare a place for you…”

As those of you who knew and loved Juanita best take her earthly remains to the cemetery, I feel certain that she would want me to tell you that your dance need not end at the grave. The God Who promised to restore His people to their homeland and give them reason to dance can give you reason to dance, to rejoice, to praise God. And the God Who died on a cross and rose from death can give you freedom from sin and death and give you life with Him forever. The Bible says, “Everyone who calls on the Name of the Lord shall be saved.”

In its chorus, that old folk song summarizes God’s promises to all who believe in Him with these words:
Dance then, wherever you may be
I am the Lord of the Dance, said He!
And I'll lead you all, wherever you may be
And I'll lead you all in the Dance, said He!
May God comfort you and may you allow God to lead you in the dance that lasts forever. May Jesus Christ be your guide and your Lord now and always. Amen

Monday, August 03, 2009

Resurrection...of an old blogging series

Three years ago, I began writing a series of blog posts on the basics of Christian faith. It got to 33 (actually, 32) installments. Then the installments stalled and I didn't complete the series. But the other day, I decided to pick it back up again. So, as to get you up to speed, here are links to the first posts:

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7
Part 8
Part 9
Part 10
Part 11
Part 12
Part 13
Part 14 (Oops...there was no Part 14)
Part 15
Part 16
Part 17
Part 18
Part 19
Part 20
Part 21
Part 22
Part 23
Part 24
Part 25
Part 26
Part 27
Part 28
Part 29

Part 30
Part 31
Part 32
Part 33

Part 34

I hope to publish Part 35 in the next few days.