Six years ago, I returned to Belfast after a long absence. In addition to the joys of visiting family, I attended a festival celebrating radical theology. The festival ended with a pub crawl on Saturday night. When Sunday morning arrived, I decided to worship at the church next door. There were more progressive options which would have been more in keeping with radical theology. St. Anne’s Cathedral drew me to her pews partly because my grandparents had been married there and my mother was baptized there. But more importantly, it has been a long time since I had been on a pub crawl, so I was a little worse for wear and St. Anne’s was just next door.
St. Anne’s is also known as the Belfast Cathedral and is part of the Church of Ireland, which is part of the Anglican Communion. So, I knew that the liturgy would be very familiar. Being just two minutes away from the sanctuary, I was able to time my arrival just before the service began. I mean, just before the service began. I wandered up the aisle, intending to sit in the back row. However, the back row was miles away from the last row of occupied rows. So, I had to travel three quarters of the way down the aisle in order to sit in the back row of the gathered congregation. In a church which boasts a seating capacity of 4,000 people, I walked past row after row after empty row in order to join a congregation of about thirty people. As I sat in a sparsely populated row, I quickly checked my watch to make sure I in my hung-over state, I hadn’t mistaken the time, and this was not the main Sunday worship service. Perhaps it was already evening, and this was the evensong crowd? But no, it was clearly 11am and an elaborate procession of liturgical leaders were beginning their walk up the long empty aisle. I scrambled to my feet, and perused the service bulletin, ready to lend my inadequate voice to the singing of God’s praise.
Alas, our assembled voices made hardly a din in the cavernous empty cathedral. The service droned on, and on. Lots and lots of words; mostly familiar. A few hymns, mostly familiar. An inoffensive sermon, by a gentle priest. Looking forward to the Eucharist, I longed for the hymn of the day to end. Flipping the page of the service bulletin, I came across an old nemesis. The liturgical option to use the Creeds, either the Apostles’ or the Nicene Creed, is not something we at Holy Cross have done for many years. Sadly, the majority of Anglican and Lutheran congregations do. There it was, right there on the page, a rubric instructing the assemble to turn to the Apostles’ Creed. I dutifully obliged, turning to the appropriate page as the congregation completed the hymn. There on the page, I began to inwardly read and digest the words of the Apostles’ Creed.
It had been a long time since the familiar words took up space in my mind. “I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to the dead…” Wait a minute. The words are so familiar, they are in my bones, they are part of who I am. But suddenly it was not the words which drew my focus. I’d long since given up on the patriarchal language, or Mary’s virginity, or the judgmental threats to the living which I knew were coming. Not even the inherent sacrificial atonement theology could hold my attention in that nearly empty cathedral. My eye, my mind, my whole being was firmly fixed on a punction mark. I’ve always known it was there, but on that morning, I actually felt that tiny, monumental, comma’s impact. The entire life of Jesus is reduced to a comma which sits between his birth to a mythical virgin, and his death at the hands of the forces of empire. Jesus’ life, his teachings, his loves, his passions, his story, and most of all Jesus’ humanity is reduced to a comma.
I quickly turned to the Nicene Creed to confirm what I already knew. “We believe in one God, the father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen. We believe in on Lord, Jesus Christ the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father; Through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became truly human. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried.” No mere comma this time, but a period. No sooner is the DIVINE Jesus born of a mythical virgin to become human, than with a definitive period does Jesus’ life pale in comparison to his death. I stood frozen, paralyzed by the reality of a comma’s momentous power, and a period’s precise ability to move the attention of generations of believers from the magnitude of Jesus life to visions of an other-worldly kingdom from which judgement of the living and the dead would be doled out between this world and the next.
Sweet Jesus, where are you? Where is your life in these iron clad, deliberately laid out, statements of faith, to which we are expected to say: “I believe, We believe?” Our creeds reduce Jesus’ life to a comma, or a period. The tiny little punctuation marks designed to shift our focus elsewhere. These tiny punctuation marks, they move us along without another thought to Jesus’ life, his teachings, his way of being in the world, his humanity. I closed the hymnal, and I took my leave. Outside the sun in all its glory beckoned me on to the streets of Belfast were actual humans greeted me with nods and smiles. I found my way back to my hotel, where the concierge greeted me, with a friendly smile and questions: “Is church over already? How was it?” To which I happily answered, “Yes. I believe it is. For me anyway.” The happy concierge replied, “Sure, that says more than you meant, I’m sure.” …I believe it does.
Credo, from the Latin verb credere which is the first word in both the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds. Credo a Latin verb which our English hymnals translate as: I believe in the Apostles’ Creed and We believe in the Nicene Creed. Is it any wonder that Christianity, is all too obsessed with believing?
Theologian Marcus Borg, questioned our understanding of the Latin verb “credere”, insisting that the Latin roots of the verb have little to do with believing a set of ideas or statements about someone or something. The roots of credere indicate the action of “giving one’s heart to” someone or something. So, Borg concludes that “beloving” is a far better translation than “believing.”
Jesus of Nazareth taught us how to love with his very life. Jesus’ life and Jesus’ death embodied the LOVE which Jesus understood God to be. Jesus never taught people what to believe. Jesus always challenged what people believed. But Jesus never taught people what to believe. Instead, Jesus embodied the LOVE which is the DIVINE MYSTERY we call, God. Jesus loved his neighbour. Jesus, like the good Jew that he was, insisted that we should love God and love our neighbours as we love ourselves and then Jesus took love one step further, one giant step further, Jesus insisted that we should also love our enemies. Jesus didn’t urge his followers to believe in the DIVINE MYSTERY which we call God. Jesus proclaimed with his very life, with his humanity, that the HOLY ONE is LOVE. Jesus insisted that this LOVE which is DIVINITY is within us. Jesus embodied a way of being human which is all about LOVE. What might Christianity be if we not only erased the comma and the period, but all the creedal formulations about believing and instead took our ques from Jesus’ life, his teachings, his humanity and took up the act of beloving?
You won’t find the Apostles’ or the Nicene Creeds in the Bible. They belong to the church’s obsession with uniformity of belief. I suspect that they may even have something to do with empty cathedrals. While you may not find these creeds in the Bible, you will find a much earlier creed in the bible. The Apostle Paul’s letter to the Galatians was written long before the church dreamed up the Apostles’ or the Nicene creeds. Paul wrote Galatians some 20 to 30 years after the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Many scholars no believe that the Apostle Paul wrote the words of the first Creed, but rather quoted them from the well-known liturgical practices of the first followers of the teachings of Jesus. The Apostle Paul borrowed and adapted the words, which were the earliest attempts to capture in words the meaning of what Jesus taught not only with words but with his very life.
The first followers of Jesus lived in a world held captive by tribalism and violence. In the teachings and the life of Jesus these followers of the Way discovered a way of being human which rejects tribal notions of them and us, replacing these notions with solidarity, solidarity born of LOVE. This evolving Jesus movement declared in their creed that there is no us, no them. We are all children of God. The followers of Jesus’ Way of Being was all about this solidarity. They weren’t about tribalism.
New Testament scholar Stephen J. Patterson has studied the early manuscripts in an attempt to uncover the words which the Apostle Paul quoted and adapted. His unearthed version of that first christian creed reads like this: “You are all children of God. There is no Jew or Greek, there is no slave or free, there is no male and female, for you are all ONE.” The first creed is not about believing it is about being LOVE!
Imagine if you will, what Christianity could offer the world today, if rather than being preoccupied with believing, the church became a place preoccupied with be-LOVing. Imagine what it would mean not just to believe but to embody a creed which insists that: Everyone is a child of God because in the DIVINE MYSTERY we call GOD there is “no Jew or Greek no race; there is “no slave or free,” no class; there is “no male or female,” no gender. In the eyes of the HOLY ONE, everyone is equal because everyone is beLOVed?
Let us defy the comma and the period which are designed to shift our focus away from Jesus’ humanity and put away our concerns for the uniformity of belief. Let us “credere” give our hearts to, beLOVE the ONE who is LOVE BEYOND, the BEYOND and BEYOND that also. Let us embody the creed of our ancestors which insists that: “You are all children of God. There is no Jew or Greek, there is no slave or free, there is no male and female, for you are all ONE.” Let us credere, give our hearts to being LOVE in the world. Let it be so among us. Let it be so. Amen.
View the full Worship video below