Monthly Archives: June 2013

06-30-13 THE LORD’S PRAYER

 

THE LORD’S PRAYER

Matthew 6: 9-13

 

Prayer is something which most
Christians believe it is good to do, and some actually practice it. Children
may pray before a test, or when a friend of theirs gets hurt. Teachers may pray
before the start of a new school year, asking God for the strength and wisdom
to connect with the children. In the home people may pray before a meal, often
words that have been learned at some earlier time. Memorized prayers can be
just as effective as extemporaneous prayers if you, on occasion, stop and
consider what you are praying. I teach the Confirmation Class and our Elders
that there are five basic types of prayer, ones that can be remembered with the
mnemonic device ACTS I, or A.C.T.S. and I. A stands for “Adoration”: words that
heap praise and give glory to Almighty God. C stands for “Confession”: it is
acknowledging sinful actions. T stands for “Thanksgiving”: it is expressing
gratitude to God for any number of reasons. S stands for “Supplication”: it’s a
prayer to ask God to supply your own needs to face a particular situation or
time in your life. And I stands for “Intercession”:  asking God to intercede in the life of someone
else with the hope of comforting, guiding, or changing an outcome.

 

Those brief instructions can be a helpful
guide to prayer.  But faced with people
who offered up empty phrases and such flowery speech that they seemed to want
to be heard by others more than they cared if they were heard by God, Jesus had
an alternative to them, and it is instructive to us today. Jesus said, “Pray
like this” in Matthew 6:9. And then he said the Lord’s Prayer. It was an
example of how to pray. It puts my mind at ease a bit when the one prayer of
Christianity is said at least three or four different ways by different groups of
Christians. Still he did not say
“Pray exactly with these words;” he said, “Pray like this.” And so today we
take a look at the Christian’s prayer.

He starts with “Our Father.”
We remember that he called the first person of God his Heavenly Father; it was
a relationally descriptive title. And in this prayer, he invites us to pray to
his Father as well, and think of him as “Your Father” too; not in a literal
way; not in a human way; but in a relational way in which a true Father’s
wisdom, and love, and insights would be valued by a child of his. The title is
not intended to be offensive or even gender-specific about God; it is about the
person of God who is Holy- other; whose face is not seen; who dwells in Heaven.
Another  person of God, who we’ve learned
this week was called “The Son,” longed to connect with mortality and did so in
the person of Jesus Christ; and yet a third
person, called “The Holy Spirit,” dwells with us even now on Earth and
enters persons at their baptism in special ways.

 

Our Father, who art in Heaven.  Again, this phrase describes a particular
person of God and acknowledges his dwelling place. We are not praying to
someone on earth, nor to pictures of forms that are on the earth. We are
praying to the Holy One who is in Heaven. We are calling on the one who dwells
in the space that we might call “The Holy of Holies,” like our Jewish neighbors
used to call the most sacred space in the Temple where the Ark of the Covenant
held the tablets of the 10 Commandments the “Holy of Holies,” the place where they believed God dwelled. That moves us
to the next phrase:

 

Hallowed be Thy name. This
states the obvious to us, and certainly to Jesus, but he says it anyway! That
is a phrase of adoration, and I imagine our Heavenly Father never tires of
hearing that! It is an affirmation toward God, yes; but it is a reminder for us
too, a phrase that needs to sink into our psyches through devoted repetition.
Followers of Christ try to be holy, that is, to notice and claim that we have
been set apart to live differently from the world, so that the world may be
conformed to Christ, not have us conform to the world. A reminder of who truly
is Holy is a good thing. God is Holy; we are tarnished images of holiness.

 

Thy Kingdom come.  That short sentence is
a bit of a pledge from us. Since we were reminded this month that Christians
are the Body of Christ, it is through us that Christ acts. If we are working to
bring God’s kingdom in—so that the kingdoms, empires, democracies,  republics, and even the anarchists may be
transformed –then we need to see evidence that nations are truly seeking
justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with our God as the prophet Micah
preached. We need God’s Kingdom, but God expects our collaboration toward that
goal.

 

Thy will be done.
This is a phrase that relinquishes our need for power and to control situations
in ways we think will work out best.
It is most difficult for some people to let someone else’s will be in control.
But this is an act of prayerful submission; it is giving God the acknowledgment
of what God could do already. We will work to both listen for God’s will and work to carry it out.

 

On Earth as it is in Heaven.  In Heaven we believe
that angels (messengers of God) and saints (lower case” s,” those who have gone
to heaven) are part of a gracious and glorious Kingdom, a state of  being that has perfect order because it is in
keeping with God’s will. We want Earth to experience what Heaven has, and who
is better to promote that than those of us who believe in the communion of saints,
and who seek to take seriously the Godly messages that have come through
prophets and angels?  Earth needs what
Heaven has. And in the Lord’s Prayer, we not only pray for it and long for it,
in our praying for it we pledge to, again, work toward that glorious time. We
do not put these prayers at the foot of the cross and say: “take care of this
please.” We ask God for this and God says: roll up your sleeves, let’s go!

 

Give us this day our daily bread. In
the Holy Land as in America and elsewhere, bakers are up before dawn preparing
new bakery products for hungry humans. The aroma can be enticing and the flavor
is almost addictive. But bread without preservatives gets quickly hard or
moldy. Daily bread is a perfect metaphor for supplication; “Dear God, supply
our needs for today.” We cannot get greedy and horde bread, for it does not
keep. We need to come back to the state of hunger, and to new days, and to make
or find bread again and share it with others. It is not just a one-time
activity, it is a continuous one.

 

Here is the phrase where so many
Christians differ: And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. That’s
what the Lord’s Prayer says. As much as some love to say, “Trespasses” the
whole Lord’s Prayer is not printed that way in any Biblical version. There is
an explanation, however, to Jesus’ listeners that says “If you forgive people
their trespasses, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not
forgive them their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your
trespasses.”  That’s an explanation; but the prayer only says debts. Why is
that important? Because in Jesus’ day getting to forgiveness followed a set
pattern. The one who sinned against the other was first supposed to show remorse for his actions; a sense of
sorrow. Second, the one who sinned had to show true repentance; to turn from the sinful action and put into place
actions that would lead him in a new direction. Third, and this part most often
gets left out, the one who sinned had to give restitution, or payment, for the sin committed. In Biblical days if
you killed a man’s cow, you had to get him one of equal quality to “square the
account.” In our day if a child practicing baseball breaks a neighbor’s window
with a fly ball, the child may be sorry, but the neighbor is only truly
appeased when the child’s father or mother replaces his window. When it comes
to sins of the world, we often skip this step because we remember that Jesus
himself paid the price for our sins on the cross. And in the Roman Catholic
Church, works of penance in response to a confession of sins to a priest are,
in a way, a means of paying for one’s sin. Finally then, after those have been
accomplished, there can be the final “R” word, reconciliation, when we reconnect, sinner with neighbor, and sinner
with God. But it must include the payment in some form. That’s why the prayer
says “debts.” In this prayer notice that we are asking God to forgive our debts
or sins in the same way as we forgive those who have wronged us. If we want forgiveness from above, we have
to offer it to others on earth.

 

And lead us not into temptation.
We know we are tempted every day. But there are accounts in the Bible that seem
to show God putting faithful people to the test: Abraham, Job, Peter, and Jesus
to name a few. Although we admire them, this prayer says, “We don’t relish the
idea of being tested by God like them.” This prayer asks God not to test us,
knowing that the world will test us plenty.

 

But deliver us from evil. Instead
of tempting us, we turn to God as the one to whom we cling, to God and to the
cross of Christ, to be delivered from evil; to cross over to the other side
that is far away from evil. Evil can have a field day with weak or gullible
people, even well-meaning Christians. These words implore God to land us safely
on Canaan’s side, to the promise land of glory, rather than slip-sliding away
into the bowels of darkness.

 

Some prayers stop there since some
manuscripts stop there. But many add words that are similar to David’s in
1Chronicles that were read today: it’s an ascription of praise. We addressed
God, we adored God, we asked for things from God, and now we ascribe praise one
more time; For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever. “It’s
all about you, O God. Even after all the other words, it’s all about you,” we
say to God. And so it is. The last word “Amen,” is “so may it be,” or
“may it be so.” That is our prayer; may our actions undergird The Lord’s Prayer
each time we offer it. Amen.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          June 25,
2013

06-23-13 JOHN 3:16

JOHN
3:16

John
3: 16-17

This
week the leaders of Vacation Bible School have been demonstrating—and
teaching—the idea of love. You have heard about love in the
children’s music today as well as in the choir music. We will
continue to sing about it in our hymns and some here today will be
going out in mission with it next Sunday. Love is that important. One
of the foundational statements of the Old, or First Testament, is
also a foundational statement of our Jewish neighbors. It is
contained in the words of the SHEMA, which is Hebrew for “Hear.”
It goes like this: “Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is one Lord;
and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all
your soul, and with all your mind.” [Deut. 6: 4-5] Christians know
those words especially because Jesus learned them as he was growing
up and he taught them to his disciples. Some versions say “mind and
strength” instead of might but it is the same commandment. It is to
“Love God!” Now why should we love God? Some might say we love to
be kind or to be considerate. But in the Bible’s first letter of
John, chapter 4, we hear the best reason: “We love because he God
loved us!” Some of the best relationships in the world are
reciprocal; if you love someone with all your heart, and that person
doesn’t, and perhaps never did love you back, you are destined for
sadness and heartache. But if you love someone who first loved you,
it can be a match made in heaven. And when it comes to God loving us
first, it is great news to remember!

John
is a very important disciple in the Bible. The Gospel that bears his
name, as well as his letters, talk a great deal about love. Love was
very important to John, mostly, some say, because he felt so loved,
so valued, and so noticed by Jesus himself. John seemed to be tuned
to the key of love; he wrote about it more than Paul did, and even
more than the other Gospel writers. And there is one place where John
condensed his central understanding into one great sentence. It’s
the sentence we see held up on poster board in the stands of a
football game or other sporting event. It’s the sentence that
evangelists use, sometimes in less than loving ways, when they are
walking on street corners or taking stands against or for ethical
issues. It’s the sentence that has been called, “The Gospel in
Miniature.” It is John 3:16. Today I want to unpack this sentence,
and the one that follows it, to help explain words that seem
self-evident, but there’s more than meets the eye.

God.
The
sentence starts with God. Do you start with God in your life? If you
do not believe in God, then for you, life could end at your last
breath. Is there nothing, like Heaven, beyond this life for those who
do not believe in Jesus, who Christians say “ascended into Heaven?
Those who put God in their life end with God in their life. God is
the Creator who was in the beginning, who is now, and ever shall be.
But Christianity affirms that God is also is the Redeemer, who the
Bible calls the Son; he is every bit God, but he also knew human
joys, sufferings, and bled human blood on the cross. And Christianity
affirms that God is the Spirit as well, the one who is with us to
counsel, confront, and to comfort as needed. This is the
multi-faceted nature of God.

God
so loved.

Here we must look at love. The New Testament was written in Greek.
One Greek word for love is “Eros” which is passionate love. That
is not the word used here. Another word for love in Greek is
“Philios” which means a kind of brotherly love. That is not the
word used here. The word used here is “Agape,” sometimes called
“Christian love.” It means genuinely caring for others as if they
were your neighbors, or even your children. “God so loved” means
that God wants to keep pouring love into us and shedding his grace on
us. It means if your heart is a well, God keeps filling it up if you
stay connected to God. God is good.

God
so loved the world.

When we add “the world,” it doesn’t just mean Americans, or
Christians, or any one group on our planet. In fact, the word is
closer to the idea of “the cosmos” so God loves all of creation!
We cannot play the childish game of thinking that God loves us
best.
God loves the
world.

God
so loved the world that he gave his only Son.
This
starts some of the tricky parts. Remember the Christian belief that
God is in the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit? Here, if we
use the symbolic language of “Father,” we might understand the
wording to be “God in three persons loved the world so much that,
as the Father, he gave his only Son.” Otherwise I would join some
of you with this objection: “What is so loving about a Father
sending his son off to be killed? Is that what I would do with my son
to show love? No. I, instead, would go myself to face death and show
my love.” So the wording matters here. We must remember that God is
multifaceted and is fully in the one known traditionally as “Father,”
but that God is
also
fully in the Son. So during the crucifixion of Christ, God did not
just stay in Heaven; God was also on the cross, in Christ, and
suffered scourging, derision, torture, and ultimately crucifixion
for
our sakes for our sins, not his own.

That is to say, he paid the price for the sake of those there at the
cross that day, and for the sake of those around the world that day,
and
for
those
in the world
up
to this day and beyond.

It is enormous love that God shows. As the story goes, a child asked
a Sunday School teacher one time how much God loved him. She opened
her arms wide and said: “This much” showing the position of
Christ when he was on the cross. So this text today is not about God
keeping holy robes clean in Heaven while the Son is sent to Earth to
do the dirty work. This is about God, as always, wanting to
tabernacle, or live among humans, to experience our pains and joys,
and to pay the price that will one day lead his followers beyond
mortality.

God
so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes
in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

Believing in Jesus is essential; it is through Jesus that the curtain
of the Temple was torn in two and a connection with God through
Christ was possible. It is through Christ that a room has been
prepared for followers to live in the Father’s house. And it is
through Christ that God says ultimately: “I have tried the world I
created for you when I was in Christ. When your mortal life ends,
come and be with me forever, in an everlasting life!” Those who
have tried to do what Jesus would do while they’ve been on the
earth will love the joys of Heaven! Those who have no high regard for
Christ in their mortal life will have no use for the kind of life
that Heaven provides. That’s why it’s important to believe in
him; it’s not for
his
sake,
it’s for ours!

And
finally, we cannot stop without addressing John 3:17 as well:

For
God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but
that the world might be saved through Him.

There have been a lot of books written about a second coming of
Christ to the world picturing ours Savior as returning with
condemnation, anger, and harsh judgments. They are popular reads. But
if God sent the Son the first time to show his great love, and the
Bible says that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and
forever” in Hebrews 13:8, then why would Jesus return angry? Some
churches teach that. In this congregation we believe that Jesus will
lovingly and joyously join us on the day of his return when “the
kingdoms of this world become the kingdom of our Lord, and of his
Christ.” [Revelation 11:15] He will invite those who believe in him
to live in the New Heaven and New Earth created for those who believe
in the one who made it possible. And sadly, but not angrily, Jesus
will watch as the others depart, because his world never has been the
one in which they want to live.

God
is not in the condemning business; God gave us freewill, and Jesus
Christ hopes you will choose him for a life that can change this
world, and then give us a new life in the next world! Today as we
commission missionaries, as we have thanked Vacation Bible School
workers, and as we have welcomed everyone to this celebration, I hope
you feel loved, and I hope that your heart, like a well, is being
refilled by the living waters of Jesus Christ, who once said:
“Whoever drinks of
this
water
shall never thirst.” May it be so with you. Thanks be to God.

Jeffrey
A. Sumner June 23, 2013

06-16-13 THE APOSTLES’ CREED, PART III

THE
APOSTLES’ CREED, PART III

If there is one thing in which Presbyterians believe, it
is in the greatness, the majesty, and the providence of God. God is
more than just our Creator, though without creation, we would not
exist. God is more than just our Redeemer, though without redemption
we would not be saved. God is also present with us. Sometimes through
others, God puts words in their mouths to confront us; to hold a
mirror to our face and say “Here is the source of the problems you
are having” or in another case to say “ Think through your stand
on this issue now that new information has been uncovered.” So
sometimes God, through a person that we call the “Holy Spirit or
Holy Ghost,” speaks to us through others. We do not have to travel
to Mount Sinai or find a burning bush to get direction from God. God
has other ways to speak to us besides those. Speaking though
prophetic-like friends, family members, pastors, co-workers, or
strangers is one way. More than once I have received an “aha” of
information or enlightened guidance by words unexpectedly spoken by
someone else. God has used another person to get through to me; and
God has done, or will do, the same thing for you. So the Spirit
confronts, yes; and the Spirit teaches, yes. The flip side of this
Holy Spirit job description is also to comfort. Our text today from
John 14 reflects that. Sometimes God uses other people to comfort us
with words, with an embrace, or just with their presence. That is
part of the church’s best work, being the body of Christ and the
Spirit of our Living God in your midst. God uses our flesh and blood
to tangibly touch or teach or be present with others in ways that the
other person can realize. It is often either difficult, or eerie, to
think about a Spirit being with you. To let us know of Godly love,
God showed divine love in Jesus. To give us a message, or to present
us with a different way to act or live than the way we have chosen;
or to comfort us, God often chooses to do that through the power of
the Holy Spirit.

Today, as we get to the third section of the Apostles’
Creed, I’m telling you that I believe it. The Creed says:

I believe in the Holy Ghost.
Ghost is just a translation of the same word that we call Spirit. It
need not draw us into ghoulish thoughts or supernatural inclinations.
We encounter the Spirit, although you may not realize it, in the
first chapter of Genesis. Each time, you’ll recall, creation was
made by directions from God. In other words, God spoke, and it was
so. The word “said” in the Hebrew is the same word for “breath,”
or spirit. It is that invisible essence of life—the breath or wind
of God—that made some inanimate objects like rocks and dirt, and
some animate objects like birds and animals and fish, and trees, and
people. The Spirit of the Living God was there in the beginning.
Genesis 1:2 says “The Spirit (or wind) of God was moving over the
face of the waters.” The Spirit of God was present elsewhere in the
Old Testament as well. One of Job’s friends, Elihu, said to Job:
“The Spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty
gives me life.” (Job 33:4) And famously the prophet Joel said :
Thus saith the Lord: “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your
sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream
dreams, and your young men shall see visions.” (Joel 2:28) The New
Testament records a time when the Spirit of God was ready for an
upheaval after Jesus accomplished his mission on earth; the upheaval
happened in Jerusalem on a day we call “Pentecost” when God’s
Spirit miraculously allowed people of many nations and cultures to
speak with one another and understand each other. It amazed the
listeners then and the readers now each time it is read. We have such
cumbersome ways to communicate with each other without the Spirit!
I’ve watched the United Nations when it has met, and all
representatives are offered translators to speak into their ear if
the speaker’s language is not one they can understand. It takes
lots of personnel to pull that off. By contrast, God’s Holy Spirit
helps us hear God, and hear others in clear ways.

I believe in the Holy Catholic Church.
I hear congregations get much quieter on this phrase. After all,
those who grew up in the 1960s and earlier know that there were clear
distinctions between
Roman
Catholic Churches other churches known as Protestants. Back when
Martin Luther tried to reform the Church of Rome, the leaders
resisted change; Luther ended up creating a following of people who
believed things differently from the Roman Catholics: two sacraments
instead of seven, for example, and an ability to go directly to God
in prayer through Jesus Christ for forgiveness instead of having to
confess to a priest. But friends, what we profess each week when we
say the creed does
not say
we believe in the
Roman Catholic
Church. That is a denomination. What we affirm in the creed is this:
Holy: that means set
apart, meant to do things to please God rather than self.
Catholic.
This word was around long before it got placed in a denominational
title. “Catholic” means “universal.” When you affirm that you
believe in the “Holy Catholic Church,” it means you believe in
any body of Christians who: 1) Honor God with their worship; and 2)
Do the things that churches are supposed to do. John Calvin, the
father of Presbyterianism said “the true church exists where the
Word of God is rightly preached, the sacraments of baptism and
communion rightly administered, where virtue is nurtured and vice is
repressed.” Yes, there are some congregations all over the world
who have failed in their mission to do those things. We do not affirm
our connection with them in the creed. But there are other
congregations besides ours that have sought to be a true church and
are doing it well. When you say “Holy Catholic Church” you are
saying we are in partnership, in solidarity, with other congregations
who are working to lift up Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior! Do you
still want to get quiet on that line? Again, when I say “I believe
in the Holy Catholic Church” I am saying I believe that we are not
the only congregation trying to worship God rightly and serve Christ
solely. Think about
that definition
next time you say it.

I believe in the communion of saints. This
affirmation has both horizontal and vertical implications. What are
the horizontal implications? It means when we are being the church,
other Christians are being the church—the body of Christ—with us.
In our Ephesians Scripture text today, the Apostle Paul says: “There
is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope
in your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father
of us all who is above all and through all and in all.” (4:4-6)
Even though some churches act like theirs is the only true baptism or
true communion, Christians affirm this passage along side of other
Christians through the ages who affirmed one baptism and one Lord.
So when we have Holy Communion, we know that others around the world
are also at table with their Lord. It means, on some Sundays, we
imagine thousands and thousands of Christians sharing a great banquet
table with the Lord! Yes he is called Lamb of God at times; and at
other times he’s called Shepherd and Savior. But during communion
he is our Host.

Now what are the vertical implications? It means that
when we sit as the church in worship, we are connected with what hymn
writer Samuel J. Stone called “mystic sweet communion.” As the
curate (or assistant priest) to the Windsor parish in England in
1866, he wrote this hymn to reaffirm Scriptural beliefs that were
being torn asunder by heresies. One verse of his hymn “The Church’s
One Foundation” says it best: “Yes she (meaning the church on
earth) has union with God the Three in One, and mystic sweet
communion with those whose rest is won; O happy ones and holy! Lord
give us grace that we, like them the meek and lowly, on high may
dwell with Thee.” I believe that; I hope for that. I believe in the
communion of saints.

I believe in the forgiveness of sins.
This portion of the creed was grounded in Christ’s death on the
cross and his power to forgive those who believe in him as Lord and
who honor God. As one of the criminals who spoke to him from the
cross said: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom;”
and Jesus said “Today, you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke
23: 42-43). Jews believe in forgiveness just of sins one day a year,
under the guidance of priests or rabbis, on the day of Yom Kippur.
Atheists make up their own rules for forgiveness. But Christians have
Scripture to teach us the essentials about forgiveness of sins. I
believe in the forgiveness of sins.

I believe in the resurrection of the body. This
part of the creed was to fight the Greek idea, so prevalent in first
century Asia Minor and in every century since then, that says our
soul leaves our body and gets joined to the Godhead in Heaven. It is
not Christian. Remember, Jesus really died; his physical body was
resurrected from the earth and the creed affirms that in part. But
the other part is this: when we die
our
physical bodies will go back to the dust from
which they were created; but our
spiritual
bodies, not our ill or broken mortal bodies,
but our spiritual ones that are recognizable to others, go to Heaven
to be with our Lord. Paul again says “Some will ask ‘How are the
dead raised? With what kind of body do they come? …There are
celestial bodies, and there are terrestrial bodies; but the glory of
the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another.
….It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body.” (1
Corinthians 15) So I believe in the resurrection of the body.

Finally, I believe in the life
everlasting.
This is not a reference to our
mortal life. It makes full reference to the lives of faithful
followers of Christ who go to Heaven and live
there
eternally. As John put it so powerfully in the third chapter of his
gospel, verses that we will study next week: “Whosoever believeth
in Him (in Jesus) should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
What assurance; what a blessing. I believe in, and have every faith
that I will one day have, everlasting life. May it also be so with
you.

Jeffrey A. Sumner June 16, 2013

06-09-13 THE APOSTLES’ CREED PART II

THE APOSTLES’
CREED PART II

Isaiah 53:
1-7; Luke 1:26-38

A
traffic accident occurs. A person turning left just as the green
arrow that gives him the protection and the right to do so is turning
yellow. He is in the intersection as an oncoming car, trying to drive
through the intersection as the light turns green, plows into him.
Who is at fault? Does anyone really know? Fortunately there are
eyewitnesses. Unfortunately they do not agree. One says one driver
was at fault; one says the other driver was at fault. Studies have
shown that even when there are eyewitnesses at an event, they often
don’t agree. Umpires and referees at sporting events have the same
problem; they each see a play from a different angle, perhaps even
with different levels of attention. Details get confused and
information jumbled.

That’s a problem when we try to read the Gospels: the
church’s best account of what Jesus did and who he was. One gospel
says Jesus said one thing; another says he said something different
at the very same event. Did he have a last supper, or a foot washing,
or both? Did he enter Jerusalem on a donkey, on a colt, or both?
People who say “God said it, I believe it, that settles it are
naïve to the conflicting and contrasting information we have in
Scripture. People who say, “I just believe what the Bible says”
perhaps are just are referencing one verse, but there may be two or
three other verses that say something different on the same subject.
This is the usefulness of creeds. Without the creed, trying to find
out about Jesus in Scripture is like trying to find out what happened
on that busy street corner when the accident occurred. The creed
helps us bring all our fuzzy thoughts, images and stories into focus.
This week we’ll deal with the person of Jesus Christ. It is a tall
order to fit all of those parts into one sermon. Let’s begin.

I believe in Jesus. To say
that first means you think the man with that name actually lived. He
was often called “Jesus of Nazareth.” He claimed Nazareth as his
hometown, though Luke says he was born in Bethlehem.

I believe in Jesus Christ. Now
we’ve added a title that separates us from our Jewish friends and
others. Only Christians call him Christ. It means Messiah. We profess
that he is the one, and that we need not look for another. Christ is
the Greek word for “Messiah,” it is not a last name. To be
Messiah is to be one sent from God who has the full authority of God.
Such is the case with the Son.

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
John and Luke say Jesus is the only Son of
the Father. As we learned last week, Father and Son are relational
terms. We learn in John’s Gospel that Jesus is not just similar to
God, or have nearly the same power as God; Jesus is God as well; God
in human form. The “Son” is God incarnate; in the flesh. He is
every bit God and every bit human. Scripture shows it in several
places but the creed says it clearly and simply. The word “Lord”
shows us that he is the one that stands both beside us and above us.
In the first century the Roman Caesars wanted all subjects to call
them “Lord.” In Jesus Christ, Christians said there is only one
true Lord and God, and that is the one that would get their
allegiance and love. When people affirm their faith as Kevin did
today, they are not asked “Who is
our Lord?”
They are asked “Who is
your Lord?”
To call Jesus “Lord” is to be a Christian.

Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost. A
candle, a prophet, an angel, a manger, a birth, the city of David.
All of a sudden our minds are whisked back Christmas, to the birth of
the Son. This too, is a crucial concept. Anchoring ourselves in
Luke’s wondrous account in Luke 1, read today, and Luke 2, we
affirm that Jesus had a human mother—a chosen young woman named
Mary—and a divine Father—who Mary consented to join her in
becoming the Holy Mother—only set apart by God—and the Heavenly
Father—the one who would give this man the necessary qualities of
Godness and Humanness. How do we describe such an event? Artists have
tried, and in so doing they often take the mystery and awe and wonder
out of God’s plan. One artist, for example, painted a depiction of
the Holy Spirit entering Mary through her ear! Sometimes wonder wins
out over guesswork! In his book
Signature of
the Spirit,
Morris Inch put it this way:

Christmas
tells of one who left his base in heaven,

came into
our front line trenches, and shared with

us
the ultimate in forsakenness, the hells of human anguish,

and
the agonies of hunger and thirst.

The
Son, also called “The Word” in John’s Gospel, came not from the
earth, but from above. Even the Old Testament bears witness to God
wanting to tabernacle, or live, among his people. Through the
crucifixion accounts in the New Testament, Jews believed God was in
the Temple, while Jesus preached that “I and the Father are one.”
(John 10:30)

Born of the Virgin Mary. This
statement brings doubt to skeptics and even some of the faithful.
Protestants believe this is not a statement of perpetuity, but a
statement of fact at the time of the conception of Jesus: Mary was a
young woman who, in first century conditions, had been guided,
protected by her parents. She would have had no opportunity for
boyfriends in those days of arranged marriages. So at an age of about
14 years old, she was indeed a virgin. Only God knows why Mary was
the perfect choice, but she has been honored through the centuries
for saying “yes” to God.

Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate. All
the way back to the

prophet
Isaiah, it was prophesied that when the messiah would come he would
suffer. Isaiah 53 describes what that suffering servant might be
like. So Jesus suffered; yes. But the creed says it was under Pontius
Pilate. Actually it is a statement of legality more than actuality.
Legally in first century Jerusalem, the Romans were in control and
Herod was a puppet king. There were other Jewish Kings at the
time—the three sons of Herod the Great—but only the Romans
governors had to power to order actions of torture or death. The
Romans tried to coerce peace by making public examples of people who
stirred up trouble so they didn’t just have three crosses for
crucifixions; there were more than that, all along the public roads
to say to residents, “Crucifixion is your lot if you try to go
against Rome.” Bit in the case of Jesus, he did not come onto the
Roman radar until the Jewish leaders—known as the Sadducees, the
High Priest Caiaphas, and the Pharisees—presented made-up
accusations of Jesus to try to bring enough trumped up or made up
evidence for Pilate to do what they could not do. So yes, it was
Pilate who scourged him and gave the order to free a criminal instead
of Jesus, but it was at the insistence not of the Jewish nation, but
of an angry mob, encouraged by Jewish leaders who saw Jesus as a
threat.

Was crucified. Our Roman
Catholic friends focus on this event more than we do; their
crucifixes depict Jesus hanging on the cross. For us the cross is a
symbol of victory over death; that even a crucifixion did not stop
the ultimate plan of God. But to say he was crucified is a reminder
to all believers of the agony of those hours. We remember that Jesus
really bleed human blood, but that God in Christ felt all the
suffering as well. It is a brutal and horrible end to Jesus’ human
life. So the word in the creed is:

Dead. As strange as it seems,
Jesus, Paul, and others would have wanted this in the creed if they
had a vote. There were many different philosophies and beliefs in
Jesus’ day; in the days that the creed was finalized in the 8
th
century; and even in our day. Some thought the human soul never died,
only the body died. That’s not Christian. Some thought that Jesus
was not really human so his divinity left earth for heaven at his
death. That’s not Christian. And some believed that Jesus was only
human, that he died, and that his body was stolen by disciples.
That’s not Christian. The Christian belief is that Jesus really
died, in spirit and in body.
Only when someone
dies completely can there be a resurrection; otherwise it might just
be resuscitation!
This term anchors
Christian theology. Then the creed says:

And buried. This lets us
know how many people wanted to make his death into some charade.
Buried meant that he really died.

He descended into Hell.
There was a twofold reason for saying this. One reason was the
reminder of the anguish Jesus endured and the sins of the world he
carried. According to Matthew 27: 36, Jesus truly felt separated from
God, and eternal separation from God is the true definition of Hell.
But by the Father’s power he did not stay in Hell: in a state of
separate or in torment for the sin of the world. The other reason
Hell was used was again to say “He died; he went to the place of
the dead.” Hell was the Greek Term indicating a place of torment;
Sheol was the Hebrew term for “the place of the dead.” Jesus
suffered yes; he was tormented yes; and he died yes. But not
eternally! Beloved scholar William Barclay puts the case to rest even
more simply. He said: “This sentence of the creed really had
nothing to do with Hell. It simply meant that Jesus went to the place
of the dead. In other words, it was merely another and vivid way of
saying that he was really and truly dead.”

On the third day Jesus rose again from the dead.
The number of days in the tomb was significant years ago. The
priestly rule of the day (before technology could show heartbeats or
brain waves) was to wait three days; if a person lay down and didn’t
move for a day, he might have just passed out. But no one, they said,
could be motionless for three days and not be dead. Three days and
done. So by the providence of God, no one came to anoint Jesus’
dead body until the third day. That’s when they found the guarded
tomb without a body in it! One account had grave clothes actually
folded, a sign that he was gone for now, but would return again! It
was unheard of, and the event still rocks our world. It is Easter,
and it is big! Forty days later:

He ascended into Heaven.
Jesus no longer bodily walked the earth because his Father sent
another Comforter to the Earth who we’ll hear about next week.
Jesus took his place of power in Heaven. According to tradition, the
right hand is the hand of blessing and power, that’s why I bless
with the right hand even though I’m left handed! The creed says:

He sitteth on the right hand of God the Father
Almighty.
This means Jesus has been blessed
by his Father; it also means Jesus has the power of divinity. People
through the ages heard these words and knew that, as the Bible, says,
Jesus rose to power. As Jesus put it in Matthew 26:64: “You will
see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming on
the clouds of Heaven!” And finally we come to the last line of the
day:

From thence He shall come to judge the quick and the
dead.
Certainly that phrase is Old English,
but do you understand it? When I was first learning how to use nail
clippers, my mother told me to be careful and not to cut my nails “to
the quick.” The quick is the living tissue under the dead tissue of
our fingernails. When Jesus comes again, this says, he will judge
both the living and the dead. Does it mean he has judged those who
have already died? Yes, people who have died have been judged. Does
it mean those who are alive when he comes again will be judged? Yes,
it means that too. Does it mean he will judge those who believe in
him as well as those who do not? Yes. Where does it say that in
Scripture you might ask? Read Matthew 25 to find the story of the
King judging the sheep and the goats.

This creed is Biblical, it is time-tested, and it is
handy. Sometimes people say it by memory who have not studied what
they are professing. Know what you believe! This week I hope you
have gained more insights about the nature God manifest in Jesus
Christ. I invited you to join me in always being guided by the Word
of God, but finding edification in hymns, in creeds, and in prayers
as well.

Jeffrey
A. Sumner June 9, 2013

06-02-13 THE APOSTLES’CREED: PART I

THE APOSTLES’CREED: PART I

Genesis 1: 1-13; Psalm 104: 1-13

 

Today
I am beginning a three part sermon series on the Apostles’ Creed—the creed that
we say very often; the creed that was once known as the Baptismal creed. But
what are we saying when we profess those words? What is the faith we are
sharing? Why use creeds?  There are two
reasons many Christians use creeds. First, a creed is a summary of beliefs. It
helps believers get their thoughts in order as it pulls the tenets from verses
in the Bible, taking words that are not systematically written and making a
systematic understanding of God based on Scripture. Second, a creed not only
reminds yourself what you believe, it tells others what you believe as well.
The Apostles’ Creed is also known as “The Christian Creed.”  Imagine that someone someday asks if you are
a Christian. You say, “Yes.” Then they ask “What do you believe?” You can
create an answer yourself or, if you have memorized the creed and understand
it, you can use its points to explain your beliefs! A creed is never a complete
or a final statement. It states a position of faith by a particular group at a
particular time. The earliest Biblical Creed was three words: “Jesus is Lord.”
That is the foundational creed on which others are based. So today we will
examine the section of the creed dealing with God the Father. Surprisingly, the
description of God, a concept that is key to the entire Bible, earns just one
sentence in the creed: “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of Heaven and
Earth.” Let’s break that down today.


The first words are I believe. Those
are the words that started out the statements of faith of each of our eight
Confirmation Class members here today. We took a year to help them understand
Christianity so they knew what they were professing.  One of our hallmarks in this congregation is
helping people understand the Bible. Today when you recite “I believe” it means
that you put your faith in what you are about to say. Belief is based on having
thought about other views and choosing this one. Theologian Helmut Thielicke
says “Nothing is ever the same in a person’s life once they say ‘I believe.’
Like the father who had the epileptic boy in Mark’s Gospel we want to say ‘I
believe! Help my unbelief!’ because it is so often a mixture, isn’t it? A
little kernel of faith helps our beliefs.”

 

Now we add more words. I believe in God. This is the most
important and pivotal statement of the creed.
If you don’t believe in God, then the rest of the creed is meaningless. That
phrase is the foundation for the rest of the words, and it puts you in the
company of others who believe in the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. But to
this point the phrase for the believer could be referring to any god of any religion. Let’s see what God
this is. We find it in the next
words.

 

I
believe in God the Father.
With that additional title we jump
to New Testament Christianity as we endorse one of the names that Jesus used.
We know it is not the only descriptive word for God—there are others—but it is
the term Jesus used most.  Jesus opened
our eyes to the Father/Son relationship he had as a Son with his Father. As the
apostle Paul put it in Ephesians: “There is one God and Father of us all who is
above all and through all and in all.”
You can search the Old Testament for references to God the Father and
you will find a few of them, but you’ll find that relational nature of God most
evident in the New Testament Father/Son connection.  Certainly the word “Father” can be troubling
for some when we know that God is not male or female, and pictures of an
earthly father can cloud or distort our image of God. But the term came out of
the mouth of our Savior; it was important to Jesus and so we profess it as a
descriptive, symbolic title.

 

The next part of the phrase is this: I believe in God the Father Almighty.
With the word “Almighty” we zoom in to the Old Testament where the name is
anchored. It is found, for example, in Genesis 17:1. It is God’s own self
identification to Abram saying: “I am God Almighty; walk before me and be
blameless.”  “Almighty reminds us of
God’s power to overcome evil. It shows the strength behind a love that cannot
be defeated.

 

And finally, finally as witnessed in a
hurtling meteor, a lovely flower, a beautiful sunset, or in the tiny hands and
fingers of an infant we say: I believe in
God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth. 
This is the claim that God—our God; the
one in whom we believe—is mightier than any other who might be treated as a
god. This is the acclamation that God is Creator. In Isaiah God said: I made
the Earth …it was my hand that stretched out in the heavens.” And in Job 38
Job, who has had friends trying to get him to deny or doubt God, had God
thunder back to him: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?”
At the time the creed was written, these words also were corrections against
the beliefs of other groups. Some who believe these things are still around.
Pantheists, for example, believed that a rock was God, every person was God,
and every flower was God; not that God created them, but that God was actually everything we see. “Everything
we can touch is actually God,” the Pantheists said. In direct contrast, our
creed strongly stakes a claim that God
created, not that God was the creation.
Another group the creed’s words
opposed was the Deists. Deists believed that God was totally removed from the
world, a holy other creation who created the world but had nothing further to
do with it or us.  But as we’ll hear next
week, the creed affirms that God came to earth in the one called the Son, and God
remains with us even now through the person of God called the Holy Spirit. And
when communion bread is broken and the cup is shared, Christ is with us even
now. God is Creator, but God is also relational.

 

So
in our days there are also some who do not believe in God. They are called
“atheists.” What a life to believe there is no higher power than ourselves! And
when the end of life comes, what happens if you face the God in which your
whole life you didn’t believe?

 

What
do you believe? I, personally, believe in God the Father Almighty; Maker of
Heaven and Earth.  Those words on my lips
warm the heart of God. Won’t you join me in warming the heart of our Creator?
Won’t you join me in telling others in whom you believe? Even amidst questions,
my belief is stronger than my doubts. How about for you?  If others see that your life exhibits God’s
love, forgiveness, and grace, perhaps they’ll join us in believing in God the
Almighty as well.

 

Let
us pray:

O God for some here today, these first
words of our creed are easy to profess. We have lived believing them for a long
time. But for others, it can be a new step, or a new consideration. Rejoice
today, I ask, with those who are at least ready to take one small step and say,
“I believe; help my unbelief.” Amen.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                                   June
2, 2013