It’s easy for us to forget how new Christianity was when the epistles were written. It’s easy for us to forget it had a learning period. Yet at the same time it may surprise us that the concerns of First Century Christians were not unlike ours. Many people in both churches I’ve served have asked me, why don’t we see more young families here? Why is the church so changed? Oddly enough, the Bible speaks to our concern in this very passage. The recipient leads a young church and has worried that the next generation will not understand the meaning of the faith. The author reminds him that just as his mother and grandmother passed the faith along to him, so he will pass it along to the next generation.
To do that, we need to know just what it is we believe. What statement of faith can we truly affirm?
The trouble with old words intended to communicate spiritual principles is that over time we lose our common ground of understanding. Things the author of this epistle, thing the crafters of the creeds assumed to be comprehensible, are now out of context and confusing and even at times abhorrent.
The Congregational tradition that informs the United Church of Christ is non-creedal. That means we respect the historic creeds, but we would never use them as a test to prove someone believes the right thing or thinks the right way. Someone asked me recently why we say the Apostle’s Creed on some Communion Sundays. And I said, “Oh, I used it because I saw it in an old bulletin!” For many the Apostle’s Creed is familiar but puzzling, for some it is even offensive. But for early Christians it sought to put into words the complex ideas people had been arguing since the earliest days of the church. They needed that assurance so desperately that they claimed the 12 articles of the Creed had been dictated on Pentecost by the twelve apostles themselves.
We wonder why it mattered so much to describe Jesus’ death in emphatic fashion, to say he descended into hell, and that’s because we don’t understand what sort of views of reality were common in those early centuries after his life. The creed attempts to refute the view of the Gnostics, people who believed Jesus was never really human. They could not believe that any part of God, or any higher spirit, would ever take human form. They saw human form as repellent and flawed.
But for other Christians, the humanity of Jesus mattered most of all. What triumph would it be to overcome death if he were not a person at all?
You see the problem. The answer, as is so often true in human systems, seemed to be codifying the particular beliefs that made sense to those engaged in the discussion, beliefs that may seem very, very distant to us.
As non-creedal people, we do the same thing. We create a code in a faith community by the way we do things, by the habits we form, by the manner in which we speak to one another. We set up our own tests to be sure the right people are in our community, whether or not we realize it. It might be the way we dress or the vehicles we park in the parking lot or the kind of music we sing or the version of scripture we read. It might be our graciousness to visitors, or a more reserved attitude toward making newcomers welcome. Churches often separate themselves on lines of education or income, of ethnic heritage or race.
It seems like that wouldn’t need to be true in the 21st century, but somehow it is.
Other people will decide they know what we believe whether we tell them or not. They will read our lives like a book, unless (and even if) we find words to express what so many people down through the ages have struggled to preserve and renew.
The authors of the Apostle’s Creed and I might quibble with one another about the details, but I believe we were all on the same quest to understand God. They believed a well-crafted statement proved they were right in their interpretation. Here is what I respond to in the creed, how it moves my thinking, shared with the understanding that your mileage may vary, and that is perfectly all right with me and I suspect with God, too.
I believe in God, a divine creative force that set the spark of all that was and all that is and all that will be.
I believe in Jesus, a real man so much more closely in touch with God than we usually are that some say he must have been part of God, and therefore God himself.
I believe there is a Spirit that moves among us that communicates in subtle ways the wishes of God, always allowing us to do as we will but hoping we will do as God desires.
I believe that creativity, that presence and that flexibility are all signs of a Love greater than our small minds and hearts could ever truly imagine, and that it is because of that love that we are forgiven and will experience something also beyond our imagining when we leave this existence.
I believe that being the church is still worth doing. And I believe that no one else will know unless we tell them.
How about you?