< August 18, 2019 >

Commentary on Genesis 1:1-5; Matthew 6:30-34

 

This three-week series, with readings primarily from the New Testament, serves as a sort of throwback.

By “throwback” I mean that creeds are typically the result of a concerted effort to “codify” a kind of orthodox set of articles of faith. Creeds are drawn from the sacred text, but with this series there is a sort of backwards movement, from the Creed (whichever one[s] that might mean for you, Apostles, Nicene, even Athanasian) returning to the biblical text.

There are, in both the Old and the New Testaments examples of and fragments of early creedal statements. For example, one might think of Deuteronomy 6:4-5, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” Or again of the Christ Hymn of Philippians 2:

[Christ Jesus], though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
     he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death --
    even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:6-8)

Or of the fragmentary paean that is found in numerous places, describing God as “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love” (Exodus 34:6; Numbers 14:18; Nehemiah 9:17; Psalm 103:8; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2). But, while these creedal statements, and others,1 may serve as helpful conversation partners for this series, this series is a return to the biblical text, through the lens, primarily, of the Apostles’ Creed.

It is helpful to remember that the word “creed” comes to us from the Latin, credo, which means “I believe,” and is the first word of the Apostles’ Creed. Traditionally, the Creed has served as what Luther called “the first symbol.”2 The Creed is called “symbol,” from the Greek symbolon, which comes to mean “token,” or “watchword,” or “outward sign.” The Creed, then, is a statement that serves to signify, outwardly, publicly, what is central, what ought not to be compromised. These are core matters of faith. The texts selected for each week of this series reflect basic affirmations about God in creation, God in incarnation, and God in the actuation of the people of faith [i.e., God as Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier; Father, Son, and Spirit].

But the Creed is not merely proclamatory, or instructional, or delimiting. Or, perhaps better, one might say that the Creed is not the only symbol that serves this purpose. One might reasonably and faithfully argue that the Creed is a faithful expression of Biblical theology, but it is only one such. There are others, both “official” or corporate, and personal. As such, the Creed -- and indeed all creeds, each one -- is conversation(al).

Each week of this series, as we engage in Scripture reading around the articles of faith concerning Father, Son, and Spirit, we may do so in mutual conversation starting with the Bible, engaging the traditional creedal expressions of our churches, and with our own ideas, questions, and commitments with and about this God whom we seek to know better.

Week 1 (Aug. 18, 2019)

Preaching texts: Genesis 1:1-5; Matthew 6:30-34

The first article of the Apostles’ Creed is, in many ways, remarkably brief considering its subject, and so is this reading from Genesis. To encapsulate this statement of faith, “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth,” in any single reading would be virtually impossible, but to do so in five verses ...

Actually, one could emphasize just the first phrase of the first verse in order to get at the heart of the matter, and really actually, on just the first word. In Hebrew, the first three words of Gen 1:1 are bereshith bara elohim, which is most often translated in English as “In the beginning when God created.” And now for some major league geeking out on Hebrew grammar.

The word bereshith, “In the beginning,” doesn’t actually read “In the beginning” in Hebrew. Hebrew relies a great deal on prefixes; things like prepositions and the definite article usually don’t stand alone, but are prefixed to the word. And remember that Hebrew was originally a purely consonantal language; no vowels, those were added later underneath the consonants. Sometimes, more than one prefix would be added to a word, which could start to get cumbersome. Fore example (and trying to keep things simple) the word for “beginning” in Hebrew is reshith. To add “in the” would look something like this: behareshith. As a sort of compromise the old Hebrewologists decided in cases like that to use the consonant of the preposition and use the vowel from the the definite article, in which case it should look like this (in transliteration, and real Hebrew is much cooler): bareshith. But, it doesn’t, it looks like this: bereshith. In Hebrew there is no “the.” So how do we translate this, and what does it mean? I prefer the Jewish Publication Society translation at this point, “When God began to create.” I like this because it gets around sticky questions we can’t answer and shouldn’t (I think) be wasting our time on. Instead it points us beyond those things, to the care with which God sees to and the goodness which God sees in God’s creation.

This is what is picked up in Matthew 6. There is a profound theological claim in the idea that there is a Creator (note the capital “C”). The Creator cares for all, ALL of creation for every, EVERY creature. God clothes the grass (and the lilies) and will clothe us as well. Why? Because the Creator loves this creation, and this creature.

As Martin Luther puts it in the Large Catechism, to say “I believe in God the Father,” is to say, “I hold and believe that I am a creature of God; that is, that God has given and constantly sustains my body, soul, and life.”3

Week 2 (Aug. 25, 2019)

Preaching texts: John 1:1-18; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25

Like Genesis, the Gospel of John begins ready to trip us up with the language. John’s Gospel matches its beginning to that of Genesis, down to the most minute linguistic detail. Like Genesis, there is no “the” in the Greek of John 1:1’s opening phrase; it reads, literally, “in beginning.”

What this points to is not grammatical nerdery, but to the theological claim that John is making, namely that Jesus was with God, was God, all along. So, when we confess, “I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s Son, our Lord,” we are confessing Jesus as God.

John 1:1-18 is full of creedal elements, from the Logos language that speaks more light, new light into the creation, to the promise that in the fullness of Christ, God and God’s will for us is made known, which is that through faith we are given power to become children of God, to John the Baptists confession that Jesus is indeed the Christ.

Creation, incarnation, and revelation are all confessed by John chapter 1. The reading from 1 Corinthians then turns to the cross, what Paul calls “foolishness,” and at the same time, “the power of God” to save. This second reading is crucial to the Christian confession of Christ. If the cross is passed over, then there is literally nothing new in Jesus. For Christ did not come simply to bring light, or to make of us children of God, but to do so in a particular way, through his redemptive suffering and death. Jurgen Moltmann says of the crucified Christ, “A God who cannot suffer is poorer by far than any human being.” And Luther’s words are similar:

We never suffer injustice without God suffering it first and more than we. God the Father’s solicitude for us is so great that God feels our suffering before we do and bears it with greater resentment than we ourselves.4

The Word crucified is what is unique to the Christian’s creedal confession, and it is through the foolishness of our proclamation of this foolishness of the cross.

Week 3 (Sept. 1, 2019)

Preaching texts: Acts 2:1-18; Matthew 28:17-20

For many, the Holy Spirit is the hardest confession of faith either to understand or to make. For humankind to identify the work of the Spirit is either in the 20/20 of hindsight, or an act of purest optimism -- or do we call that trust?

Acts 2 recalls the promise of Joel 2, the promise of God’s Spirit being poured out “upon all flesh.” One might see in this -- both the promise and its realization on the day of Pentecost -- as another example of what Genesis 1:2 describes as “a wind from God” sweeping “over the face of the waters.”

In the Pentecost event, and by extrapolation in the act of baptism which is quite literally a little Pentecost, the Spirit is given and the Spirit then gives gifts -- gifts of prophecy and vision and, fundamentally, the gift of confession, of being able to profess faith in Christ Jesus. When I was young, my pastor had me memorize Luther’s explanation of the Third Article of the Creed, which goes like this, “I believe that I cannot, by my own understanding or effort, believe in Christ Jesus my Lord or come to him. But the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel….” The point, echoing 1 John 4:2, “every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God,” is that it is the Spirit which enables confession.

Matthew 28, then, is the culmination of all of this. The authority entrusted to Jesus is passed on to us and through us in a wave of the Holy Spirit, sweeping over “all nations,” hovering over the creation, working faith and calling forth the confession of the one catholic church. This is all done as a part of God’s continuing Word that creates, that suffers with and for us dying and rising, and sustains God’s people. The Word is the way in which the Spirit sweeps and hovers.

To quote Luther once more:

Wherever you hear or see this word preached, believed, professed, and lived, do not doubt that the true ‘holy catholic church’…must be there, even though their number is very small. For “God’s word shall not return empty” (Isaiah 55:11) … God’s word cannot be without God’s people, and conversely, God’s people cannot be without God’s word.”5

So, too, it is with the confession of the creed (and of creeds), which profess, teach, and converse with the Word.


Notes:

1 Thanks to my father, Delmar Jacobson, for this list of creedal elements in the Bible, laid out in his study of Martin Luther’s theology in/and the Small Catechism called Luther’s Lively Theology, forthcoming from Lutheran University Press: “Every Old Testament creed, for example, recalls: God’s act of delivering the people of Israel our of slavery in Egypt. God’s gift to them of the land of Canaan. God’s earlier covenant and promise to their ancestors …. Cf. Deuteronomy 6:20-24; 26:5-9; Joshua 24:2ff; Nehemiah 9:6ff; Psalms 78; 105; 106; 136; etc.) … New Testament creeds declare the Good News of what God has done through Jesus Christ: “Jesus is Lord!” (Romans 10:9; 1 Corinthians 12:3.) “Jesus is the Son of God!” (John 11:27; Acts 9:20; Hebrews 4:14; 1 John 4:15). “Jesus is the Christ!” (1 John 5:1). [And a] longer New Testament Creed is preserved in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8).

2 Luther’s Works, 34:201.

3 The Large Catechism of Martin Luther (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1959) 56.

4 Quoted in Delmar Jacobson, Luther’s Lively Theology, (Lutheran University Press, forthcoming), 112.

5 Luther's Works, 41:150.