Basics: Confessing a Relationship
January 20, 2019 Pastor: Series: Basics
Topic: Christ - The Triune God
I want to start off this morning with a confession, church family. It’s not something I’m proud of but I’ve come to accept it as a part of who I am. I am not a math guy. From my earliest memories of school and to this very day, I’m just not good at math. I think it began with fractions but my first real despondent defeat came with geometry in middle school. No matter what I did, I just could not catch on. I tried and tried but as the class would go on and on, I would find myself struggling to comprehend concepts the rest of the room seemed to have already grasped. My teacher was a woman named Mrs. Mitchell. In truth, she was kind of a hard teacher. Stern, not really friendly, but she cared about her students. Mrs. Mitchell noticed my grades, and maybe my utterly lost expressions, and offered to help me during a study hall. And her constant message to me was always the same: go back to the basics. She’d tell me if at any point I felt lost - to go back to the basic formulas I knew and start from there. And she said something that had a ton of value for me then and has stuck with me to this very day: You can’t solve for the complex if you don’t know the basics.
The thing is, this concept rings true in so many facets of life, not just math. In sports, we know this. Teams can have the most talented players on their roster but if they don’t execute the fundamentals well, they don’t have much of a chance to win. If we whipp-up a new recipe that we’re excited about, but don’t use the right amount of flour, or set the oven to the wrong temperature, or add-in too much salt, we end up ordering take out. Even packing a bag for a trip. We might put all our attention in making sure we pack the right formal wear or the stuff we need for a beach vacation or a ski trip, only to get to our destination and realize we forgot socks or something even more inconvenient. Believe, me. That’s never happened to me…
And this is also true when it comes to the Christian faith that we hold and profess and try to live out every day. I don’t have to tell you that the world is a complicated place. We are faced, virtually every day, with situations or circumstances that make it very difficult for us to frame our faith around. We make an effort. We try. But sometimes there are moments or events that leave us feeling just like I did in geometry class: lost, behind the curve, and feeling hopeless. That is why it is critical that we, from time to time, make the intentional effort to ground ourselves in some of the basics of our faith.
But where can we look in order to do such a thing? Some folks will simply say the Bible. And on the one hand, they are absolutely and completely correct. Within the holy and inspired Word of God, within Scripture, we are shown the spectrum of the Almighty’s interaction with an affection for humanity and all of creation. Within its pages, the Bible introduces us to a vast array of theological complexities, character case studies, and transformative inspirations. The only obstacle before us, in that regard, is the sheer size and scope of Holy Scripture. Spanning centuries and generations of humanity, and weaving throughout multiple forms of literary construction and intention, we might find the very task of trying to get back to the basics buckling in and of itself.
Some will throw out other suggestions to try and pinpoint where we can find the basics of our faith, but what if I told you that, at our disposal at any time, exists a collection of statements that represent the distilled truths of Scripture, coupled with the cautious but faithful discernment of devoted Christian leaders while also giving perspective on specific and timely issues of both theological and social issues of debate? Well, we do. We call them creeds or confessions. And for the next three weeks, we are going to explore what is likely the most widely accepted and memorized creed of all Christianity: The Apostles’ Creed. Each week we’ll walk through a section of the creed. This week we’re going to spend some of our focus on only a few lines but I want us to see and hear the whole creed as we begin this message series.
I BELIEVE in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; he descended into hell; the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. I believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy Catholic Church; the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting. Amen.
This creed first appeared in its form in 390AD and it served two primary functions. Those functions were sacramental and for unity. This ancient confession became the standard by which people were baptized into the Christian church. To be able to attest and claim these pronouncements of faith was to be deemed ready for the waters of baptism. And the Apostles’ Creed unified Christians, despite distance and previous experience. Christianity, from the place of its very formation, became the victim of speculation and violence. As people heard the message of the Gospel and found themselves changed by its truth, there was often uncertainty of who they could share it with and where they could learn more about their newfound Messiah. The Apostles’ Creed would become a standard, a load-bearing pillar of doctrine and truth for Christians across the Western world. And the foundational grounding afforded by the creed has only become more critical for Christ followers as the centuries have rolled on.
Then and now there is a temptation, and an all-too-often acceptance of viewing our Christian faith like a buffet line. We think that we can simply collect the aspects or elements of our faith that we like at any given stage of life and that we can either ignore or toss aside the things we don’t like, understand, or seem to speak against something we want. The Church has always been susceptible to an eroding of, or a slow drifting from the essential truths that define us as followers of Jesus. That is as true today as it was in the 4th century. And so confessions like The Apostles’ Creed serve as the basics of the Christian faith, like a lighthouse for faithful ships in the distance. And the Apostle’s Creed begins by Confessing a Relationship. And that is where we begin this morning. With only a few lines of the Creed.
I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord; I believe in the Holy Ghost.
You might assume that a statement as pivotal as the Apostle’s Creed would kind of start off simple. Well, that’s not what we get. Instead, we are introduced to what has to be both the most mysterious as well as the most reaching truth of Christianity: the relationship that exists between Father, Son, and Spirit. Using another word, the Trinity.
Now, I want to be honest and up-front. The Trinity is the most perplexing jewel of our faith. It is a reality we see portrayed within Scripture, even as early as the creation account in Genesis, and yet it is never directly addressed within the Bible. It is a standard of orthodoxy and accepted by Christians everywhere, and yet, if pressed, none of us would be able to offer a complete and total definition of this mystery. So, as I said, being upfront and honest, I do not intend to try and do so in a few minutes. Several weeks ago, in another sermon, I said that the Trinity is better enjoyed than it is defined. But to attempt to enjoy and rest in this divine relationship that we confess, we must first remove some misconceptions. You see, perhaps the greatest problem with the mystery of the Trinity is our fixation with excessively trying to define it or describe it. It is truly like trying to talk about a 3-dimensional object in a world that is only 2-dimensional. Still, many have tried. Maybe you’ve heard people try to describe the Trinity using water. Water has three states: vapor, liquid, and solid. At first glance, sounds good. But we fall into a dangerous trap. This analogy forces us to forget the three distinct persons of the Trinity. Instead, we end up thinking of God as one person who takes on different forms. But that’s not what the Creed, or Scripture proclaims. Father, Son, and Spirit are unique, distinct, individual persons. To think otherwise is actually an ancient heresy called Modalism. And this goes for the one where someone tries to tell you the Trinity is like one person who puts on and takes off three different masks. Again, not correct.
Some will tell you the Trinity is like an egg with a shell, the yolk, and the white. But if you crack an egg and put the yolk in a separate bowl, it is no longer an egg. It needs all three elements to be an egg. But each person of the Trinity is fully and 100% God. And still, we must be careful to not fall into tritheism where we view Father, Son, and Spirit as three separate Gods. They are not. The three are one and the one is three.
The truth is this: Any single analogy or object lesson we try to use to describe the Trinity will fall short and lead us astray. That is why it is so important to remember that within and through the Apostles’ Creed - we are Confessing a Relationship. A dynamic that is wholly and beautifully entwined and distinct. If science lessons and breakfast foods can’t help us, maybe Greek can. There is a Greek term used to describe the Trinity called perichoresis. ‘Peri’ meaning around, like where we get the word perimeter, and ‘choresis’ meaning to dance, which is where the word choreography comes from. Perichoresis describes the persons of the Trinity as being in a relationship of complete unity and yet distinct beauty dancing around and through one another in perfect sync. The oneness of the three is found and formed in their deep and unsearchable relationship together.
There is no hierarchy or pecking order. There’s no lead or second fiddle. The three are entirely and completely equal and find their existence and presence as a community. It is the motion and activity of our Triune God, in perfect harmony, that we see displayed in every gift of mercy, grace, justice, love, and hope - that comes from above. Our God, the very nature of God, is a relationship. And it is this community-loving God that calls out to each of us. You see, when we look to this creed and confess a relationship, we are not only confessing the identity and intimacy of Father, Son, and Spirit. We are Confessing a Relationship that we are invited to take part in.
Our God, by Father and Son and Spirit, sees and knows each and every one of us and calls out to us. Our God, in the infinite love that the Three Persons share for one another, makes us the object of that same love. The desire God has for each of us to draw close to Him stems from the intimacy shared by the three Persons of the Trinity who are all one yet three. The Apostles’ Creed is not merely an ancient tome we are forced to adhere to. It is the long-standing bulwark of truth that God is love and that we are loved by God.
I am convinced this is why the declaration to “love your neighbor” appears so steadily throughout both the Old and New Testaments of Scripture. Because our God does not desire for there to be any discord or hatred between the souls of this world. Whether it be the voice of God in Leviticus, that commands us to love the stranger and foreigner as we love ourselves, or Jesus Himself when our Savior tells us that all the law is summed up in loving God and loving neighbor. Our Triune God exists within a relationship, and so God desires relationship for humanity, for us. Among each other here, the horizontal, but also the vertical, between us and God.
We’ll continue next week with a longer portion of the Apostles’ Creed, but it is critical we start here. Because before anything else, we must never forget who our God is. We will face too many moments in life where we are forced to go back to the basics and make sure we know the most fundamental truths so that we can face what is ahead. And that begins by Confessing a Relationship.