Preacher: The Venerable Peter Lock, Archdeacon (2001-2009)
29 March 2009, 15:15 (Passion Sunday)
I have tussled with the title of this series entitled ‘I believe’: is it about what I believe or is it about what Christians believe, the expression of the faith? In the letter asking me to preach there were also a number of dots that followed so I wondered whether I was meant to add my own statement of belief. Or had the writer run out of ideas about what to say or how to guide those of us challenged to speak?!
Maybe it was meant to be left to one’s imagination to see what might happen. Those of you that have attended all the previous talks might have heard exactly the same thing, although my discreet research and talking to some of those who have gone before has shown that I think they have all taken different routes.
First though, I cannot resist telling of the sermon preached by the Dean of St Alban’s, Geoffrey John, at St Paul’s Cathedral this week at the United Guilds of the City of London. I wasn’t there but my wife and my cousin were and reported on a remarkably brilliant address which started with the story of Geoffrey John when he was a teacher asking a group of his young students what the word was, beginning with ‘a’, for people who believed there was no God at all. They answered correctly – ‘atheists’. He then asked what ‘a’ began the word for people who weren’t sure and didn’t know whether there was a God or not. Expecting the answer to be ‘agnostic’ he was rather taken aback by one young lad who held up his hand and said ‘anglicans’! ( I am sorry to use this without his permission but as someone once said: if you’ve got a good story make certain that as many people hear it as possible.)
But we Anglicans do have a reputation for being such a broad church that we have don’t know what we truly believe that we are unable to subscribe to any creed at all!
So what do I believe? What do we believe?
The two main creeds which we use in our main services are the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed, the word creed coming from the Latin credo which means I believe. The first creed I mentioned is the statement of belief developed from the time of the apostles and which became a more settled form by the beginning of the third century. It is used at a person’s baptism. It is personal. Hence its opening is in the first person ‘I believe’. The second creed is used at the Eucharist, Holy Communion, and is the community creed recited at the community meal, and hence in its original form started with ‘we’. Only later was it put into the singular form and then in recent years reverted to its original ‘we believe’.
But have you noticed that these are more than statements. We say ‘We (or I) believe in.....’. We don’t say we believe that..... Nor do we say ‘I think that.......’ For we are all guilty of using the word believe in the place of the word think. Belief is about trust. And you always trust in someone, rather than that someone.
So it was right that I wrestled with what to say – whether what I was asked to speak about was my personal belief or the belief of christians round the world. Both aspects and expressions are important. For what the church believes must impact on my life and the way I live it; equally my experience of God must find some resonance with those who have gone before me.
Of course, the creeds have taken generations to construct as christians searched for words to express their experience of God and how they might express the inexpressible, for how do you put the mystery of the incarnation, God in man made manifest as the ancient hymn puts it, how do you put this into words which can still have meaning and force for generations to come? The Nicene Creed didn’t reach its final form for until after nearly two hundred years of debate; and of course the people who first embarked on that discussion and journey were long since gone and the politics of the different nations had changed. The final drafters had to rely on more than personal memory!
God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God...
And so the Trinity takes word shape in both our creeds. I not only believe that God is: I believe in him, and try to follow his ways even when I fail. And I also believe that he has communicated his very self to us in Jesus Christ. So I believe in Jesus Christ as God’s human face or God’s Given Self1 as John Taylor a past Bishop of Winchester put it. I also believe that God gives his Holy Spirit, his life-giving energy, to us and to his creation that we may be transformed from glory into glory as the hymn puts it. It is this three fold expression that you find in the great creeds we have received from down the ages.
Amongst the many puzzles and riches of those creeds there is one thing that I would always want to add or include in some way. They mention the forgiveness which we all need from each other and I would say as a Christian also from God. Forgiveness enables healing to take place where otherwise only broken pieces would be on the floor. But it has always seemed strange to me that there is no mention of love. After all, don’t’ we believe that that’s why the whole event of creation started? As Julian of Norwich, the mediaeval mystic put it as she dwelt on the things of the spirit, the hazel nut exists because God loves it. That’s why we’re here: because God loves, loves us so much as the New Testament puts it, that he gave his own Son. Why are the creeds seemingly so afraid to mention this? Or do they assume that all must know this? So if I had one opportunity to change anything in the creed it would be to add that I believe, that we believe in God who loves his creation and whose love is revealed supremely in Jesus Christ. As the song says, the world needs love, sweet love. Passion Sunday is about that love, God’s Given Self. May I ponder that more and more as the supreme mystery and revelation of God which inspires faith and sustains the world.