Toorak Uniting Church

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The Name of God

Apostolic Creed (1)
Exodus 3: 1 – 7,     Matthew 6: 6 – 9
Rev. Anneke Oppewal
10:15am, 16 September 2007
Apostolic Creed (2)  A changeable God     Apostolic Creed (3)  I believe in the Holy Spirit

Several times in the last few months the Apostolic creed came up in conversation. Not only with members of this congregation, but also with others who are not part of the Church. "Out of date and out of touch", "not sure I believe all of that", "I refuse to say it anymore", "should be framed and put in the gallery of ancient artifacts" were some of the comments I heard.

Time to do some reflecting on the topic I thought and since it is in the context of worship that this creed seems to be causing the most difficulty for people, the context of worship seemed an appropriate place to think about it.

We’ll do this reflecting over the next couple of weeks against the background of stories about two giants of faith, Moses and Jesus. And see if they can help us shed light on how we are to understand some of the statements in the apostolic creed.

Today we look at the first part of the creed where we say "I believe in God the Father, the almighty, creator of heaven and earth."

But before we do that, I thought it would be good to give you some background first:

The origins of the Apostolic Creed date back all the way to the New Testament.

"Jesus is Lord" was probably the simplest, shortest, and earliest Christian Creed. Declaring loyalty and commitment to Jesus and accepting him as Lord of life. A statement that, as time went on, was fleshed out to explain what Christians believed in more detail.

That fleshing out took the Church a couple of hundred years: The first recognisable versions of the Apostolic creed date back to the fourth century, but it would take the Church until the seventh century before it became a fixed formula and all variations had been eliminated. That means that seven centuries of hard work and faith development, seven centuries of thought and growth went into this statement of faith which up till the present day unites Christians around the globe.

That’s pretty awesome: Whenever we say this creed it connects us to 7 centuries of work and 20 centuries of faith history as well as millions of Christians around the globe, past and present.

The creed is not just a personal statement you do or do not agree with. It is a doorway into the history and community of faith providing us with a framework within which we can, for ourselves, develop and explore our own faith guided by the insight and understanding of the Church universal.

It is awe inspiring to have the disposition over such a rich piece of tradition connecting us on so many levels with other Christians, both in our time and across the centuries.

At the same time this is exactly where some of the difficulties people have with it stem from: It is a creed that was formulated 13 or more centuries ago and our understanding of faith and of the world have developed and changed since then. Some of what has been handed down to us over the ages does no longer fit in with our understanding of reality, or even with our understanding of faith. And it is there where some of us may run into trouble and say: I can’t say such and such, because it is actually contrary to what I believe, as a Christian of the 21st Century, to be true.

I think there is room for both: For awed reverence and humility in the face of something that has proven its value over a very long time and in a very wide context of the Church. Something we can’t possibly just discard because some bigheaded 21st century, post modern individualists have difficulty agreeing with it.

But at the same time there should be, in my view, room for discussion from our 21st century point of view with this old and revered document, to sharpen our understanding of our faith and maybe come to new and even better understanding than our forebears before us. It is okay to disagree with them. Although we should be well aware that our view and understanding is as limited by culture and context as theirs was. We are not the know all and end all of history!

More than enough background! Let us go back to contents!

"I believe", it says, "in God, the father, the almighty, the creator of heaven and earth".

I believe. A word that immediately and very unfortunately puts us on the wrong track. It is a translation of the latin word ‘credo’ which in English has the heavy connotation of assenting to a proposition, of believing something to be true or not. I believe in God then a statement not dissimilar to "I believe in fairies" (or not). The latin however is much richer than that. ‘Trust in’ or ‘put faith in’ probably far more adequate translations than ‘I believe’. I believe in God then not the stating of a fact, but the entering into a relationship, an entrusting and committing oneself to this entity.

Who then is this God?

All through scripture and history different answers have been given to this question, reflecting many different experiences of God people have had over time.

There are the stories of Abraham, Isaak and Jacob, where God figures as a close friend who goes for a walk to look at the night sky with you, someone one can argue and haggle with and who allows you hold your own.

But there are also stories where God is far more distant, removed from the day to day of human existence, full of power, might and majesty. God as we for example meet him in the creation story, or in the book of Job and in many other parts of scripture.

And then there is also the mysterious elusive God we meet in some of the psalms, the God of the mystics, only hesitantly named because the experience people have of him is too profound for our understanding. An awesome force encountered in creation as well as in the depth of our own being. To be revered and worshipped.

And then, in the fulness of time, there was the way Jesus Christ talks and relates to God. Encouraging us, who are his followers, to talk and think about God in the same way: God as father.

The first definition the apostolic creed uses for God, is father, and this derives directly from the way Jesus addresses and taught us to address God. With the intimate name a child would have used to address their father in Jesus’ day, expressing deep trust and intimate relationship.

Forget the distant, white bearded father Christmas figure sitting on a cloud somewhere giving out nicely wrapped packages of forgiveness and love for the benefit of mortals.

The father of Jesus Christ, as we get to know him in scripture, is not like that at all: He is a hands on father, closely involved in the life of his children, down in the mud with the poor and the oppressed, suffering with the sick and the afflicted, bearing the ills of this world in his own flesh and joining those who are in the pits.

When the creed talks about God as father it talks not just any father, but of the father of Jesus Christ, the father who did not leave him in death, the father that did not let go of his love even where it was met with hatred and murder.

And that then is exactly where the next part comes in: describing God as almighty. This has nothing whatsoever to do with being able to do magic or work miracles. We are Christians, confessing our Christian faith. Which means we can never look at any attribute of God other than through the prism of the experience of Jesus Christ. God revealed himself in Jesus Christ as a God of the suffering, of the poor and the oppressed. His power manifesting itself most of all through its ability to hold out and stay with people in their misery where others had long since given up, and bringing new life out of darkness others would not believe could be possible. It is the God Mary sings about in her Magnificat and Israel remembers in stories of liberation. A God who is, when it comes to the crunch, more powerful than the mightiest king and stronger even than death itself.

When we say I believe in God the father of Jesus Christ, we also say: we believe in a God mightier than anything else in all creation, mightier even than death.

And that then, quite naturally, flows into the next bit: Creator of heaven and earth.

Most people will agree that there is an awesome, mysterious and very special power to be experienced in nature. You don’t have to be Christian for that. The life energy, the secret source of being, the divine power, whatever you call it is something most of us will have felt come close in the beauty and power intrinsic to creation.

I believe it is that force that Moses encounters in the desert. An awesomeness he cannot put a name on or a shape. I am what I am, I will be what I will be says God when Moses asks. A first stuttering attempt to give a name to what can’t be named. It will take thousands of years before Jesus will put another name on this same entity: Abba, father, loving, close, supportive. Including, at the same time, every tittle and jota of all the other names and designations which over the centuries have come to identify this particular God: liberator, companion, champion of justice, bringer of peace.

Moses gives God a name, tentatively and hesitantly. Then, over many centuries, little bit by little bit this name, this God, this presence is further defined, by different people, at different times, in different ways. Until Jesus comes and says "father" and he and his life become synonym with God and what God is.

When we say: I believe in the God the father, the almighty, creator of heaven and earth we are talking about that God. The father we get to know through his son Jesus Christ, a mighty and never to be defeated champion of the poor and oppressed, a promoter of peace and never tiring lover of life. At the source of all that is good, all that is beautiful, in our life. When we can see it like that, that first sentence then becomes a battle cry, defying the powers that be, defying anything that oppresses, defiles, violates or kills. Saying I believe in God the father of Jesus Christ, who is stronger than death and the source of all greatness we can ever experience in nature. Amen.

© Rev. Anneke Oppewal, 2007

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