Commentary on The Creeds
Using a Creed as the basis for a sermon series might be viewed as a hybrid between the use of lectionary texts and developing a topical series.
Week 1: July 12, 20151
Preaching texts: John 1:1-16; 1 John 1:1-5
Accompanying texts: Genesis 1:1-5, 1:26–2:4a
Week 2: July 19, 2015
Preaching text: John 3:1-21
Accompanying texts: Acts 15:1-21; 1 Corinthians 1:10-25
Week 3: July 26, 2015
Preaching texts: John 14:15-27; Ezekiel 37:1-14
Accompanying texts: Proverbs 1:1-9; 1 Peter 3:8-17
Week 4: Aug. 2, 2015
Preaching texts: Matthew 28:16-20; Deuteronomy 6:1-9
Accompanying text: 1 Timothy 3:14–4:11
The articles of a creed are topics in a way, but exceedingly biblical topics. A lovely legend circulated in the early Church: after the Spirit descended on the disciples at Pentecost, Peter said, “I believe in God the Father Almighty … ” Andrew added, “and in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord.” And so they went around the table, a dozen disciples, a dozen sentences forming the Apostles’ Creed.
“What the Scriptures say at length, the Creed says briefly” (Nicholas Lash).2 The Apostles’ Creed is a quick summary of the 66 books of the Bible, a bird’s eye view of the high points of the story spanning thousands of years. How easy it is to get mired in the 1,189 chapters and 31,000-plus verses of the very long Bible; the Creed helps us get our arms around the big story, or perhaps the Creed helps the story of God’s mighty acts get God’s arms around us.
A ready-made summary of our beliefs is helpful to people. And when we realize many carry around false misconstruals of items in the creed, a homiletical opportunity presents itself. “Catholic” isn’t “Roman Catholic,” and the virginity of Mary might be well worth exploring among people who scoff at the idea of virginity or the miraculous. The monstrous twisting of creeds in the media, like The Da Vinci Code, are well worth countering in the pulpit.
A four-week series on the Apostles’ Creed (as proposed by the Narrative Lectionary) will pose some challenges. Each of its thirteen articles bears explication and proclamation! You could divvy it up like this: (1) God the Father, (2) Jesus Christ, (3) the Holy Spirit, and (4) the Christian life. The Jesus segment would be long — but some of that slides naturally under Holy Spirit (“conceived … ”).
In churches where the creed is recited weekly, however thoughtlessly, preaching on it is like drawing attention to the routines of a marriage and cultivating a renewal of the depth involved. In churches where no creed is used, decisions will need to be made about its deployment in worship, or on screens, and why this isn’t inflicting some fossilized orthodoxy on seekers.
In either place, many walk in the door with in an anti-creedal mood: “I do not trust ancient, established authorities, I want to believe on my own, I am the one who will decide for myself.” This mood is not random, but has fermented because established authorities have let us down quite a few times. We will need to help the skeptics see that the Creed was not birthed in a bullying, dictatorial way. The Creed was the focused, worshipful expression of people whose lives had been totally transformed by the Bible and by the risen Jesus Christ. The Creed’s words are not windows with the shutters pulled down tightly, but windows thrown open into the very heart of life with God.
Only preach on the creed if you love the creed and the whole idea of the beauty of belief, which isn’t mere emotion directed towards God. There is a rich content to our faith, some things to be believed. The word credo means “I believe.” “I believe” is not the same as saying “I feel” or “I want” or “I think,” but rather, “God is” — and I fling myself upon God, I attach myself to God: Nicholas Lash wrote that, theologically, “I believe” is grammatically equivalent to “I promise”: “‘I believe’ does not express an opinion, however well founded or firmly held, concerning God’s existence. It promises that life and love, mind, heart, and all my actions, are set henceforward steadfastly on God, and God alone.”3
The preacher can help her people believe — and remember. In ancient times, hundreds of Christians, under interrogation, refused to bow down to the empire’s gods, stood their ground and declared, “I believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth … ” and were executed for saying so. They had not long before left their old life behind and risked everything by choosing Christianity. In those days, new converts were instructed in the faith for months, during which time they fasted, abstained from entertainment and sex, and were prayed over diligently by the Church elders. An all-night prayer vigil culminated at dawn on Easter when the converts waded out into a pool of water, and were asked: “Do you believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth? Do you believe in Jesus Christ his only Son, our Lord?” After being baptized, they were anointed with oil, dressed in a white robe, and given a drink of milk and honey, powerful symbols of their new life in Christ.
Every time we say the Apostles’ Creed, we step into a long, steady river, the great two thousand year story of believers, missionaries, and martyrs. When I say, “I believe in God,” I become part of something bigger than myself. My faith is something in me, my reaching out, my believing … but faith is also outside myself.
The Creed was not designed as a massive stonewall to keep out unbelievers. In fact, there is a “blessed spareness” (Luke Timothy Johnson)4 in the Creed, pushing no theory of sin, no theory of the meaning of Jesus’ death, no prescription for how the Church should be structured. There is room in the Creed for many kinds of Christians, and there is room in the Creed for questions.
I modestly but confidently commend to you my book, The Life We Claim: Preaching and Teaching the Apostles’ Creed, which has hymn and anthem resources, possibilities for bulletin inserts, and educational lessons.
Preaching through the Creed could never be dull or boring. The mystery writer Dorothy Sayers suggested that “It is the neglect of dogma that makes for dullness. The Christian faith is the most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination of man — and the dogma is the drama. That drama is summarized quite clearly in the Creeds.”5
And the preaching will seize upon the innumerable possibilities of connection with the deeply personal, spiritual life. The very word “creed” originally meant, “give my heart to.” Evelyn Underhill noticed “how close the connection is between the great doctrines of religion and the ‘inner life’: how rich and splendid is the Christian account of reality, and how much food it has to offer to the contemplative soul.”6
The Creed hints at a beautiful thought — that there is such a thing as truth, that genuine truth is not an imposition forced upon us, but rather is an open door through which we walk out into the marvelous space of life with God.
1 Preaching and accompanying texts amended 6/2/2015.
2 Lash, Believing Three Ways in One God, p. 8.
3 Lash, Believing Three Ways in One God, p. 18; see also Theodore W. Jennings, Loyalty to God: The Apostles’ Creed in Life and Liturgy (Nashville: Abingdon, 1992), p. 14.
4 Luke Timothy Johnson, The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why it Matters (New York: Doubleday, 2003), p. 282.
5 Dorothy L. Sayers, Creed or Chaos? Why Christians Must Choose Either Dogma or Disaster (Manchester: Sophia, 1949), p. 5.
6 Evelyn Underhill, The School of Charity: Meditations on the Christian Creed (Harrisburg: Morehouse, 1991), p. xiii.