When you begin a new job, if your employers know what they are doing, they will give you what`s known as a period of induction. In other words you may indeed be perfectly competent but they might give you some on the on the job training; someone will show you around and familiarise you not just with the tasks you have to do but also where to find the things like the loo, the tea room and so on. And someone from `human resources`- as they are nowadays called- will fill you in on what to do if you have to call in sick and so on. It`s hoped that over time you get used to the culture and the way things are done and so on. What I`m really getting at is that settling in doesn`t happen overnight; it takes time and assistance.
Now, from the earliest days of our faith we have recognised that people need similar guidance if they are to grow as followers of Christ and as part of the family. The season of Lent, in particular was a period of time in which such people were inducted or prepared for their Baptism at Easter. These people who were new to the faith and being given their induction were called `catechumens`. Some of you will remember from your youth that word `catechism`; and of course the catechism contained an outline of the basics of Christian faith and practice.
Now although I was Baptised as an Infant I still regard myself as something of a convert because I went through a process like this when I was Confirmed as a young Adult. This process of settling in and being `schooled` in the faith has stayed with me and I remain very grateful to those who metaphorically showed me around; those who held my hand and helped me become part of the community of faith in more than just name.
But what I especially value was their passing on to me what I like to call some of the `treasures` of faith. There are so many of them: but for instance I`m grateful for having been introduced to the Scriptures, the Lord`s Prayer, The Ten Commandments, The Psalms and the Creed. And it`s these five `treasures` of the faith that I want us to reflect on during these days of Lent.
So then, I don`t know how you respond when the Creed gets mentioned but I sometimes find people recoil from it in much the same way some of us did when maths got mentioned at school. Some of us seem to have an almost in-built aversion to what we pejoratively call `dogma`. And let`s face it todays culture doesn`t `do` certainties and besides, in these days when so much is relativized we`re uncomfortable with boundaries.
So where faith is concerned –despite the emergence of a host of courses such as Alpha and the like- the catechesis of old has largely been shelved because we mistakenly assume that people will `get it` from the beginning. We`re rather coy about saying, “This will take time and reflection” and we try to make it even easier and more palatable by avoiding any indication that they will have to adjust their lifestyle because it`s a cardinal sin these days to tell anyone how to live their life isn`t it? But as a treasure of the faith the Creed as it were, stands there and makes us think again…….
When it comes to Creeds there are essentially two that we include in our worship. The one we mostly use is known as the Apostles` Creed. It`s reputed to have been found in a letter of St. Ambrose in the 4th Century and legend had it that it originated with the first apostles- hence it`s named after them and it`s most commonly used at morning and evening prayer.
The much longer Nicene Creed as it`s called which we use during Advent and Lent is again from the 4th century and it`s the product of a big Council of the Church; where these basic tenets of our faith were agreed and written down. So we see from the outset that Creed is very much a community document. The Nicene Creed we will say this morning begins “We believe…” And so it`s always seemed to me that when I join in with this Creed I am literally affirming that I am one of these people. My Christian faith is not about engaging in my own personal and private pilgrimage.
But why was it all put down in the first place? Well firstly it was in response to a concern for truth. As people of faith we have a long memory and when some folk get up and say, “Oh it wasn’t really like that” and so on, we needed a way of saying, “Well actually, it was- and it IS“. To use the religious term; it was about combatting what we call heresy; a misrepresentation of the truth. And secondly, the Creeds were about drawing a boundary. Now, I`m not talking about deciding who is `in` and who is `out` of the Church but that`s clearly going on. It`s much more about declaring, “This is what we stand for and these truths, this God will shape and form the people we are becoming”. So the next thing we note is that the Creed is shaped in such way as to tell you about this God. He is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. A God who has acted in `Creation`, in `Salvation` through Christ and in what we call `Sanctification` the continuing work of the Holy Spirit in and through the Church.
Again, the Creed tells us about and we sign up to faith in a saving God; a God who has demonstrated is steadfast love for everything he has made and he has acted in history. In other words, we`re not making this up; our faith has roots in reality and in the Christ who was born, lived and died under a particular Roman Governor in a particular place and time and was attested to be alive in that same place and time.
Of course for some people this is a bit of a turn off. They regard the Creed as a bit dry and academic; but it`s not when you take time to reflect on it. I say again the point really is that in these days where anything of value has to be easy and instantly accessible not many of us are prepared to invest that kind of time. It`s sad really, because the Creed affirms that our faith is not anti-intellectual; and not an affront to reason. Such a clear expression of what is true saves us from the perils of dumbing down the faith or drifting off into emotionalism and fantasy.
At the same time, of course the Creed lets us know that we`re in the presence of mystery. Clearly, our forebears who put pen to paper were stretching language to the limit in trying to describe the Christian experience of God; and they were well aware that you can`t in the end define or in any way do justice to the God whom we worship and serve and neither would we want to. But the genius of it all to me, is revealed every time someone says something like “Yes, but I can`t believe that bit”. You see what matters is what you do with that sense of tension. I mean, do you just omit saying that contentious part? Do you say it with your fingers crossed? Or do you walk away in disgust? I don`t think any of these solutions actually work. No I think it is entirely natural, indeed good to be both in tension with the Creed and at the same time `at ease` with it. What do I mean?
Well, let`s pick on one often contentious point: We believe that Jesus was `born of the Virgin Mary`. Now, I would be interested to hear how you respond to that one. I don`t personally have a problem with it. And that`s not because I understand it or how it all came about but I choose to accept that our forebears put it there for reason.
You see I get tired of the implication that those who came before us were simply stupid. No, what they were saying is that there is something vitally important about saying that Jesus is both fully human and fully God. And if you let go of either one of those you lose something fundamental to our faith. The picture I prefer to use sees the Creed as a series of signposts left by our forebears to guide us on the way. I other words they have given us a series of markers which again, tell us: “If your faith is going to be authentic; even if you struggle with it don`t lose sight of this particular revelation of God”.
And revelation is the operative word. The Creed speaks not what we have imagined God to be but what he has demonstrated of himself. So we have God as Creator, Saviour, Sanctifier, present in history, in flesh and blood, in his people and continuing to work his purposes out. The Creed reminds us that the world is not just unravelling; but rather our God knows what he`s about. This God is, as the Book of Revelation tells us is: `the one who was and is and is to come`. The Creed points to what he has done, is doing and will do and consequently we have a job to be getting on with. We his people are referred to as `Holy, Catholic and Apostolic`; words which mean: a people who are set apart for his purpose; concerned for the whole of creation and tasked with proclaiming the truth of who God is. So, we are talking here about our view of God, the world and our place within it.
It seems to me that at the heart of many of our problems with the Creed is the way we love to stand over and against it in a sort of critical condescension. Again, a selective mentality which implies that our forebears were stupid. At the first sign of tension we much prefer pick and choose those bits of it we feel will fit into our view of the world and what we find credible, acceptable or palatable. But can`t you see the game we`re playing? We show ourselves hostage to the secular mind-set which set the great `me` at the centre of things determining for myself what I believe to be true, acceptable and so on….
But becoming a Christian; being schooled in the faith involves adopting a different world view- the one set out in the Creed. It`s not so much that we should `understand` the Creed as `stand under it` because the Creed sets out a different vision of reality. A vision against which all other Creeds and world views are, I would suggest found wanting. But here we have to decide because there is no neutrality. If you don`t subscribe to this world view then that`s your privilege but I would respectfully ask, `in what are you putting your faith?
But perhaps most important of all I think we have misunderstood the Creed if we think of it as simply dry words on a page. On the contrary the Creed is a statement of a living faith; it`s a devotional document. It`s meant to lead us to prayer and worship and thanksgiving and praise. It`s meant to change us because if this truly IS the God whom we worship, if this is an account of what he has done and will do then it turns your world upside down. I say again, the Creed is meant to lead us to prayer. So I would invite you to pray with it this week and let this treasure of the faith reveal to you the grandeur and the wonder of the great God we worship.