7/10/16: I Believe In God, 1 John 1:1-5
I Believe in God
First in the series: This I Believe?
A Baptist Approach to the Apostles’ Creed
First Lesson: Genesis 1:1-5
Second Lesson: 1 John 1:1-5
There was period of time late this week when I considered changing the text and focus of today’s sermon.
The plan, which was formed weeks ago, was to begin a series on the very basic content of the Christian faith using the Apostles’ Creed as a guide. The creed, of course, is not as familiar within the Baptist tradition but is an ancient statement of faith that many Christians the world-over say together in worship each week, which tells, in very concise and precise language, the Christian story from beginning to end.
But late this week I had the strange experience of wondering if this story, the story of our faith, and especially the part of the creed I had pinpointed for today, the very first line, where both the creed and the Christian faith begin: I believe in God—somehow against the violence and anger and fear and darkness that seems to be covering our world, all of this seemed somehow inappropriate, or maybe even naive.
I’ll confess that I wondered if any word would be sufficient this morning. Amid all the noise, I wondered if silence would be a better response.
But I thought better.
After all, silence is a good and faithful first response. “Silence,” it’s been said, “is the language of faith. Action is the translation.”(1) Faith begins in our moments of silence with God and with our neighbor, and then proceeds into action. Our actions or our words rarely live up to the faith we want to have—translations, after all, are always a step removed from the original, always a little faded or distorted. Speech is imperfect—we can never put into words exactly what we feel or all of what we want to say, and even more, we can’t predict how our words will be heard or our actions perceived.
But even so, we can’t remain silent. Silence, after all, can be as deafening as the noise we so often hear.
It’s true that silence is a good place to start: the silence of prayer, the silence of opening oneself to God and to our neighbor—a listening silence, a grieving silence, a loving silence, a creative silence. When asked the question of what there was before God created the heavens and the earth, the rabbis answered that there was silence. God waited and prepared in silence for the creation of the world—silence can be creative, it can be generative, it can be where life begins, but we can’t stay there. In order for this life to begin we must move from silence into action, into speech—as God did when speaking creation into existence. We must speak, and speak with words formed and informed by our silence.
So as I considered how we might both embrace and then break this silence together this morning through our worship and our singing and our prayers and in this sermon, sometime Friday afternoon it occurred to me that far from being naive or inappropriate, what could be more appropriate or more sufficient for this moment than a reminder of the story we claim binds all things together? The story that binds us all together in this room, binds us to our neighbor, binds us to our God, and binds us to this terrible, beautiful world that we find ourselves in? There may be no time when it’s more necessary to remind ourselves what it is we believe, and in whom we believe, than times like the present. In other words, now is the time for us to bear witness.
At its heart the creed—and really any confession of faith—is about bearing witness. It is making a claim before God and before the world of where your heart is. What drives you, what moves you, what keeps you still in a world of chaos, but also what keeps you moving forward when it would be easier to stay where you are, but not as faithful.
And belief in this sense is more than just an intellectual decision. In latin the word “credo,” where the word “creed” comes from, means “to give one’s heart to.” When we say we believe in God, we’re saying we give God our heart. We give God our allegiance, our commitment, our life.
Diana Butler Bass says to believe in this way is actually to “belove.” We don’t just believe these things to be true—although that is part of it. We put our heart on these things. We belove these things.
In many ways, belief has gone out of style. Maybe it’s our general suspicion of committing ourselves to any one institution or view point. Maybe it’s actually a function of the extreme polarization of our society—flip the channels and you can find any number of opinions on the news or the state of the world, occupying in various degrees of reality. Or maybe it’s just that we’ve been burned on belief. Or rather, we’ve been burned on what we’ve been lead to believe about belief; that it requires us to compromise our reason or accountability. That it’s been offered as a kind of bandaid to the deep wounds we see in the world and feel in ourselves. It’s understandable. Suspicion of belief is valid. Like silence, it too can be creative. But we can’t stay there.
I’m told that Fred Craddock once told a church that one day we ought to all form a circle with some garbage bags and put in them all the things we don’t believe anymore. “We’ll fill up lots if bags, but the critical moment will come when we have filled the bags and then we look at each other and say, ‘Now what is it we do believe? What do I believe?’” (2)
It’s good to ask ourselves what would fill up our bag. What are those things we don’t believe anymore? Let’s get rid of them. What can we let go of—what must we let go of to free up our hands and our hearts for the things we actually do believe in? What are those things?
We each have an answer, even if we haven’t asked the question. We each have some vision, our hearts are always set on something that drives our actions and our lives. The question then is what is it? Is it what we would want it to be? Is it truly God?
For the early church this was much more than an abstract concept. To give your allegiance to anyone but Caesar was treason. Believing in God and saying the first Christian creed: Jesus is Lord, was to make a very real and dangerous choice that would have real consequences on your life. Praise God as 21st century Christians in America we don’t face similar consequences—though we probably don’t appreciate enough that there are Christians in the world who do.
But even so, while the stakes for us are different, there are still so many other things and people—so many other gods—competing for our hearts. There are so many competing stories to live by and see the world, so many tribes to claim—and how much more in times like the present; times of turmoil and fear when the drums of war begin to beat and the lines are drawn and sides are chosen.
To say “I believe in God” is to say, “I give my heart to God first—before I give my heart to all those other things.
To say “I believe in God” is to make a statement about how you see the world. How you see yourself and your neighbor.
To say “I believe in God” is to claim a story. You see, within the church, to say that we believe in God is not simply to say we believe in the possibility of a god or some abstract notion of God, but to believe, to give our heart to, a certain God: the God revealed partly in Scripture and fully n the life of Jesus, and at time in the history of the church, and in our own lives and experiences.
So for the person of faith, the question then becomes, who is this God in whom I believe? What do I know this God by? What is this God like? What can I expect from this God, and then, what does this God expect from me—and these two are utterly connected. As I heard it once, we were called to imitate the God we believe in. (3)
We’re told that our God created the world in love and blessing and goodness, and so this is what we are called to do.
We’re told that our God hears the cries of people in their distress and suffering. We’re told that God loves and cares for and values all people, but that God’s heart is especially close to those who are on the outside, those who are poor and disenfranchised and suffering.
God heard the call of the Israelites in Egypt and said, “I must turn aside. I must come down.” And so we must, too. We must hear cries. We must turn aside and come down.
We’re told that God’s mercy is so wide, peace is so abiding, love is so great, that neither death nor life, angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth nor anything else in all creation that will be able stop separate us from it in Jesus Christ our Lord. And so we must live and trust in that promise.
And our lives must bear witness to it. For a person of faith it is not enough to ask what we believe. That is an important place to start. But we must also ask how we believe
After all, as I heard it put recently, there’s no greater proof for the existence of this God than the changed lives of those who say they believe. And yet there’s also no greater proof against this God’s existence than the lives of those who claim to believe and yet offer new evidence. (4)
My prayer is that we would be this witness in our time. That we would be a witness to the God in whom we believe.
That is a world that’s grown cold with division and suspicion and fear we would be witnesses to the warmth of community and trust and love.
That is a world where darkness seems to be closing in, we would bear witness to the light.
That when others are choosing to seclude themselves and pull themselves cover in the false comfort of their own fears, we would reach out. That we would open ourselves up.
This is thankfully something that we are already doing.
Over these past several months and especially over these last few days, I have drawn comfort and strength from my relationship with James Goolsby, the pastor of our sister church around the corner, the First Baptist Church on New St. I hope you’ve drawn the same from the relationship and the work we’ve already been doing with them. Since we entered into our covenant of action with them some 14 months ago, our congregation have come together in different ways—over hotdogs and Easter Eggs, over covered dishes and testimonies of gratitude at Thanksgiving. Our youth have been on retreat together and we’ve partnered in other acts of missions and service and conversation.
This has given me hope. Hope in the power of relationship, but even more in the power of the gospel we all claim to move us past any lesser divisions that may try to keep us apart.
James and I have been in close contact, through phone calls and texts. Through prayers and sharing our stories. He shared with me on Thursday that this week has been difficult for him. He found himself affected in a way he didn’t expect by the shootings in Baton Rouge and Minnesota and Dallas. He shared with me how his thoughts went to his son CJ, who’s 15. How he feared, like any parent, but especially the parent of a dark-skinned son, that he cannot protect him. No matter how good his grades are, how respectful he is, how well-behaved, the world will only see him one way. And this isn’t just about policing. It’s about all of us.
And then I thought of my boys. How it will be different for them. How the talk I’ll one day have with them will be much different than the talks he has with CJ.
And this is something I just cannot accept. I cannot live with it.
As Elie Weisel, who passed away recently, was known to say, to hear the witness of someone else is to become a witness ourselves. We cannot withhold the story that has been given to us.
And when I get to the end of why this is something I can’t live with--that if things don’t change, my boys and James’s son would know so very different worlds--it comes down to my saying that I believe in God. I believe in the God I know from Scripture, the God I have known from my own life, the God I have known most completely in the life of Jesus. The God of the crucified one. And this gives me conviction.
But what gives me hope—what gives me hope—is that the God of the crucified one is also the God of risen one. That this, too, is part of the story. And not just part of the story. But that it’s the end of the story. Thanks be to God. Amen.
(1) Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer, 107
(2) Fred Craddock, "Faith and Fear," from, The Cherry Log Sermons, 34
(3) Father Greg Boyle, interviewed by Krista Tippett on, On Being: http://www.onbeing.org/program/father-greg-boyle-on-the-calling-of-delight/transcript/5059
(4) James Howell, The Life We Claim: The Apostles’ Creed for Preaching, Teaching and Worship, 14