Deuteronomy 6:4-6; Matthew 28:16-20;
1 Corinthians 8:5-6
1 Corinthians 8:5-6
More than three thousand years ago, in a land we now call Jordan, Moses the man of God stood before all Israel and declared:
Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you arise.
These are not mere words; they are part of a wider expression of faith or belief known as the Shema. The Shema, with its confession of faith in the oneness or unity of God, shapes Jewish faith and practice even today.
Now let’s jump forwards a thousand years or so. To the north-west of the Sea of Galilee in Israel, the risen Jesus of Nazareth is standing before his eleven remaining disciples and declares:
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.
Hidden in this commission is an expression of faith or belief in one God, not unlike the Shema. But here the oneness or unity of God has been radically interpreted in light of Jesus. Jesus commands the eleven disciples to baptize new believers in the name, the singular name, of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Once more, these are not mere words. Baptism in the name of the one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, somehow places believers into the life of the risen Jesus himself, making them members of his body, the Church. This instruction of Jesus, for his disciples to baptize believers in the name of the Trinity, shaped the faith and practice of the early Church, and shapes Christian faith and practice even today.
The Shema and baptism in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are basic expressions of faith or belief in God. We could call them very early creeds: short summaries or statements of faith. The New Testament in particular contains a number of basic creeds or creed-like statements, including the simple but effective ‘Jesus is Lord’. In today’s reading from 1 Corinthians, Paul takes the Shema and its faith in one God, ‘the Lord alone’, and, in light of Jesus, extends it so that ‘for us there is one God, the Father . . . and one Lord, Jesus Christ’. In effect, Paul takes one expression of faith or belief and shows its ongoing relevance for generations to come, though radically interpreted.
In the centuries that followed, the Church devised longer creeds containing more detail. A number of unusual or uncommon or plainly ridiculous ideas about Jesus and the Holy Spirit had arisen over the years, and so it had become necessary for faithful Christians to set out what was the heart of their faith but in more detail. The creeds they devised did this by defining Christians in terms of a story centred on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as told in the Bible. This is why as part of the baptismal liturgy, and echoing today’s Gospel reading from Matthew 28, the minister asks three simple questions:
Do you believe and trust in God the Father?Do you believe and trust in his Son Jesus Christ?Do you believe and trust in the Holy Spirit?
Our answers to these questions are not a grunted response but a wholehearted commitment to the Christian faith as passed down to us through the centuries. We do not make up our own Christian faith, as though we can pick and choose the elements we want. We receive and accept a faith passed down to us from earlier generations of Christian believers—and we, in turn, need to figure out what this means for us in London and Kent today before passing it on to the generations that come after us. We are but one link in a chain of belief that stems back to the first disciples and extends to those who one day will welcome Jesus as he returns in glory.
Our usual practice at Holy Trinity is to say the Nicene Creed together; this is the creed where we confess Jesus as ‘God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God’. But for today, and for the next couple of weeks, we will be looking at the somewhat shorter Apostles’ Creed, as well as spending more time exploring this creed in our community groups.
So what does the Apostles’ Creed say about God, and in particular about God the Father? We can see what it says in the first part or the first article of the creed:
I believe in God, the Father almighty,creator of heaven and earth.
As with the Shema of Judaism and the baptismal formula of Matthew 28, these are not mere words. They are an expression of faith or belief in the sort of God we are committed to and place our trust in. I believe in God, the Father almighty. This means that I do not believe in some ill-defined power which may or may not have some vague influence over some area of my life; I believe and trust in God who reveals himself as the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and who rules over all with justice and love. In turn, this means that I can believe that no-one else, and nothing else, can or will rule over all, and that all the powers and authorities and political systems that daily shape our lives have no ultimate say in what our lives are worth, or in how this world will turn out. I believe in God, the Father almighty.
And I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. This means that I do not believe that God is the universe, or that God is the sum of all things, or that God is simply another part of the universe; I believe that God is the one who created all things and who, by virtue of being the creator, is utterly different from all created things. In turn, this means that I cannot believe that God is merely a name we give to certain events or certain causes in the world, or simply to be identified with whatever happens in the world. I cannot believe that God is in any way subjected to what goes on, or that God is in any way controlled by the world. I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
These are just a few examples of how the sorts of things we say we believe in the Apostles’ Creed automatically rule out belief in other sorts of things. Remember: these are not mere words—these words shape Christian faith and practice, our faith and practice.
So when we say that we believe in God, the Father almighty, we are not merely saying that God rules all things; we are committing ourselves to seeing God’s rule being worked out in our lives, regardless of the social and political and psychological pressures that aim to take God’s place.
And when we say that we believe in God . . . creator of heaven and earth, we are not merely saying that God created the universe; we are recognizing that God is the source of all life, and therefore the source of all authority, of all power, and of all hope. Thus by reciting the Apostles’ Creed, we remind ourselves, and one another, of the beliefs and values that mark the faithful Christian life.
Before I close, I want to touch on the term almighty—what does this mean? What does it mean to talk about God, the Father almighty? At first glance, it points towards the next clause in the article, creator of heaven and earth. God would need to be almighty to do that, surely! God can do anything! But when found in the Bible, the words translated ‘almighty’ point not so much to God’s unlimited power and ability but to God’s rule and the way in which God rules.
In Genesis 17, where the name ‘God almighty’ first occurs in the Bible, the context is one of God making a covenant with Abraham. God promises Abraham that he will sire a great nation that will bless the entire earth in and through his offspring. No matter how unfaithful the people of Israel were, no matter how near they came to extinction, God kept them, preserved them, protected them, in order to fulfil God’s promises to Abraham in Jesus. This is how God’s almightiness is demonstrated: in blessing and protection and fulfilment.
We see this understanding of God’s almightiness in the life of Jesus as well. Jesus was crucified a weak, dying man, but was raised to life by the power of God, the Father almighty. In raising Jesus from the dead, by bringing life from death, God shows how impotent the world’s authorities and powers truly are. But God shows this through the weakness of self-sacrificial love displayed on the cross and in the birth of the new creation in the resurrection. God is God, the Father almighty; but the Father’s almightiness is defined ultimately by the cross and the resurrection of our Lord Jesus. God’s is not raw, naked power, but the power to bless and protect and fulfil in Jesus.
So now, more than three thousand years after Moses, almost two thousand years after the resurrection of Jesus, we hear the faith of the Church echo down through the centuries: ‘Do you believe and trust in God the Father?’ Well, do you? As we celebrate the Eucharist this morning, let’s remember that we are called, each one of us, to share in the life of the risen Jesus as through him, and in the power of the Holy Spirit, we give thanks for our lives to God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.