Sermon preached for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost.
Praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord, O my soul!
I will praise the Lord as long as I live;
I will sing praises to my God all my life long.
Do not put your trust in princes,
in mortals, in whom there is no help.
When their breath departs, they return to the earth;
on that very day their plans perish.
Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the Lord their God,
who made heaven and earth,
the sea, and all that is in them;
who keeps faith forever;
who executes justice for the oppressed;
who gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets the prisoners free;
the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
the Lord loves the righteous.
The Lord watches over the strangers;
he upholds the orphan and the widow,
but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.
The Lord will reign forever,
your God, O Zion, for all generations.
Praise the Lord!
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
Two hundred and forty-five years ago, a group of fifty-six men met in Philadelphia to sign the Declaration of Independence, drafted by Thomas Jefferson and edited by the Second Continental Congress. It was their own statement of belief: that America should be an independent country, governed by leaders within its own borders, and, most famously, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” These are powerful beliefs, beliefs that sent a colony to war, beliefs that birthed a new country, beliefs we celebrate today with parades and acclaim.
Yet we also know that there was a significant gap between what these men professed to believe and how they lived, and how America has acted throughout the centuries. For many—for most, actually—within our borders, equality was a joke and life, liberty, and happiness were pipe dreams. Two hundred forty-give years ago, those values only applied to white, European, land owning males. Yet the words are there, in curling penmanship: equality, liberty, and life. They have been claimed by those they never meant to apply to—women and Native Americans, enslaved populations and people of color, people without money and influence, immigrants and refugees. This American creed has become a clarion call, moving us as a country closer to marrying belief and action. They have guided America in its greatest transformations, pushing ever forward so that all does indeed mean all. At our best, we have wrestled with that foundational document, those historical words, and come out stronger for putting our words into action.
What we say we believe shapes who we are.
I did not plan it this way, but I am struck by the parallels between the way the declaration has shaped America’s sense of self, and the way the Apostles’ Creed has done the same for Christians. The creed is a declaration of what we believe—creed comes from the Latin word credo, which literally means “I believe.” Many of us have said these words since we were children, dutifully mumbling them alongside our parents in the pews. The words contain wisdom, and power. Yet it is easy to let them roll off the tongue without much thought. Easy, too, to forget that the Apostles’ Creed, too must be wrestled with, and ultimately, put into action.
The creed is a historical document—older by far than the Declaration of Independence, but made like it by human hands at a series of specific moments in time. Despite the name, the creed was not written by the apostles themselves—the disciples of our Bible—but it reflects their mission to teach and to baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Birthing a faith, much like birthing a nation, is a messy, complicated business. Almost from the word go, different communities around the ancient world created different interpretations of what it meant to follow Christ, and argued with each other over who was right. Most all of them agreed in the Biblical creed that “Jesus is Lord.” Beyond that, it was a fighting mess, worthy of the continental congress.
The first glimpse we get of the Apostles’ Creed is in Rome in the late second century, around 180, as a series of questions asked to newly baptized members of the faith. These adult baptees underwent serious training to become part of this particular kind of Christian church, and when they emerged from the water they were asked three questions: Do you believe in God? Do you believe in Jesus Christ? Do you believe in the Holy Spirit? In each case, they answered with an early draft of the words of the creed, proving that they knew precisely what they were signing up for, and that they were committed to this church in Rome and to how it understood its faith.
Let’s take a moment now and parse out the first part of the Apostles’ Creed, the part about God. It’s relatively brief, clocking in at just 9 words in the original Latin.
I believe in God the father almighty, maker of heaven and earth.
Honestly, nothing in there seems that surprising, controversial, or important to me. But that is because the Christianity I grew up in has molded itself around these beliefs for a long, long, time.
When the creed was formed, none of those attributes for God were taken for granted. The Christian church had a special challenge in Rome, home of hundreds if not thousands of shrines to pagan gods, the old ones you’ve heard of like Jupiter and Mars and Apollo, and new ones imported from conquered countries, like Isis and Mithras. All these gods jostled for worshippers and power; they each had dominion over some small part of the world, like war or the oceans or children. They were almost all characterized as capricious—generous when they chose, cruel when they chose, selfish, petty, and remote. And into all this the new Christians proclaim “I believe in God the Father Almighty.”
God the father almighty. A God who is in charge of everything, who watches over every bit of the world, not just a part. A God who is like a father—not just in power but also in compassion, in steadfastness, in forgiveness, in love. The word father is used both throughout the Jewish Scriptures and, even more intimately, from the mouth of Jesus, as proof of God’s character. In the Matthew we read today, Jesus reminds us that our Father is there to care for the whole world—the birds and the lilies and us, too. Just a few words in, and the creed has already upended the philosophy of Rome. God is not remote, capricious, and petty. God is a parent, intimately caring for us.
The second half of the first line carries an even deeper gut punch. In the second century in Rome, there was a man named Marcion, who liked the sophisticated philosophy of some parts of the Christian scripture, and hated everything about it that reminded him of those backwater Jews. And so he developed a theology where the god of the Old Testament was actually an evil demigod who made a flawed material world, and Jesus Christ was the good god who came to lift us into a world of spirit alone. It may sound crazy to us now, but Marcionism was extremely popular for several centuries. Even today, I sometimes hear his echoes, when people tell me that the god of the Old Testament is mean and violent, while the god of the New Testament is loving and merciful—as if they were two different beings. I imagine these people have not paid sufficient attention to the God described by the psalmist, who lifts up the oppressed, feeds the hungry, and watches over the stranger, widow, and orphan.
For Marcion, and his sophisticated dualism, it did not matter what how you acted in the physical world—only that you said the right things to escape it eventually. Yet in his same city there were Christians who proclaimed “I believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” Who proclaimed that they believed in the goodness of creation, the goodness of one God, revealed to us in Christ but living and loving long before Christ appeared on our scene. They proclaimed that the Jewish scriptures still had a claim on their lives, that Judaism was not to be reviled but honored as part of Christianity’s foundation. They proclaimed that what they did here, on God’s earth and to God’s earth, mattered. How they acted, how they treated people, how they used their bodies, how they used the natural resources of the earth. It mattered, because the world and everything in it was the masterpiece of a loving, powerful, caring Father God.
Nine words. A world of meaning.
And so if we listen, the creed is still calling us to act, to put into actions what we say we believe.
Do we act like we believe that god is indeed maker of us all—not just maker of Presbyterians, or Kentuckians, or Americans, or even Christians—but maker of heaven and earth and all that is within it? Do we trust in god’s power over everything—a power richer and deeper than any wielded by human hands? Do we rejoice that we have a god who cares not just for a slice of the world, but for all of it? Do we behave like what we do here, not just in church but at work and on the road and at home and at the pool and in the grocery store, matters? Do we trust in the goodness of it all—goodness imbued in the world by God, and god alone?
We believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.
Powerful words, to fuel a powerful faith.