John 1:1-5 (OT page 91)
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
A truck driver was delivering some penguins to the local zoo. His truck broke down right outside the city. Luckily, a pickup truck passed by, and the driver flagged him down, giving him $300 and telling him, “Please take these penguins to the zoo.” A few hours later the man saw the same guy heading the opposite direction with the penguins still in the back of his pickup. He yelled at the man, “You were supposed to take them to the zoo!” The pickup driver replies, “I did, but we had money left over, so now we’re going to the movies.”
Clarity in directions is important. In fact, the Apostle’s Creed, (which is the subject of today’s sermon and the next five after it) probably represents an early attempt in Christianity to do just that–to clarify Jesus’ last instructions as he was ascending into heaven, and told his followers to “Go into all the world and make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”
In my imagination, I like to think of them all standing there, listening intently to these instructions, saying, “Absolutely, Jesus, we’ll do it! We just have a few questions about what you mean when you say…awww shoot, he’s gone. Well…guess we’ll have to wing it.”
There’s an old tradition which says that right after this, the apostles went back to their house and immediately wrote down everything Jesus had taught them. Each disciple contributed something different, and these 12 statements became the 12 clauses in the Apostles’ Creed (hence the name).
As quaint as that tradition sounds, there are two problems: First, the Creed doesn’t really contain much of what Jesus taught–if anything, it’s more about who Jesus was (or who his early followers believed he was) than what he did.
The second problem is that there’s not even any documented evidence of the Creed in its final form until the 8th century (seven hundred years after Jesus lived). Much of the Creed goes back to the 5th century (all but a few lines) and some key parts of of it go back as far as the third century. One or two lines can be traced to passages of scripture, so possibly as early as the 2nd century, but what this all means is that the Apostle’s Creed most likely evolved over time, growing and changing in the hands of many different authors, just as the early Christian movement grew and changed, and needed to clarify certain things, like what exactly Jesus meant when he said “God the Father” or “the Son” or “The Holy Spirit.”
And that’s exactly how the Apostles’ Creed is arranged: Three sections, each beginning with the words, “I believe in…” followed by what early Christians believed about God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. The longest section is about Jesus (which makes sense, because that was the newest thing, the thing which set Christians apart from their Jewish relatives or from Greek and Roman religions). The next longest is the section about the Holy Spirit, which contains the early Christian beliefs about the church and its work in our lives.
The shortest section is the one we’re considering today, the section about God. That makes sense, too, since it’s actually the part most people in the ancient world could agree on: “I believe in God the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.” Ironically, this shortest section is the hardest one for us in the 21st century, but I’ll come back to that later.
First, I want to spend a little bit of time reflecting on what those words meant to the Christians who wrote them, and who first spoke them together in their services of worship. We’ll work our way backwards, beginning with the words “Creator of heaven and earth.” I want to start here because these words don’t appear in the earliest versions of the Creed. They were probably added in the seventh century. My guess is that they were added to give God something to do, balancing out the other two sections, where Jesus and the Holy Spirit have lists of things they do.
What does God do that is unique? What is God’s special role apart from the Son and the Spirit? God is the creator of heaven and earth.
The “heaven” in the Creed does not necessarily refer to the afterlife–in Greek its the word “οὐρανοῦ” which is plural, “the heavens” and in Latin it’s the word “caeli” which like it’s Spanish descendant “cielo” simply means “the sky.” God created all that is above–the sky–and all that is below–the earth.
In Latin, there’s a neat play on the two verbs in this phrase, “Credo” (believe) and “Creo” (create). You can still hear this in Spanish, “Credo en el Creador.” One theory is that the Apostles’ Creed was originally written to be more poetic than dogmatic, more like a playful work of art than a binding legal contract. That same playfulness shows up in early Greek versions of the creed, too. Listen for the alliteration on the letter P in this first line:
Πιστεύω εἰς θεòν πατέρα, παντοκράτορα, ποιητὴν οὐρανοῦ καὶ γῆς.
In any case, poetry is easier to teach, learn and memorize, something that would have been important in the days before the invention of the printing press and widespread literacy.
I believe in God the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
God’s role as the creator of heaven and earth is reflected in the famous passage at the beginning of the gospel of John (today’s scripture passage): In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.
This has echoes even further back to the opening of Genesis, the very first book of the Hebrew scriptures, and the Christian Bible. There’s a subtle difference, though, between Genesis and John: In Genesis, we read that “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Simple and straightforward. But in John, we read that in the beginning was the Word. And the “word” creates heaven and earth. What is the word? It’s God, of course, but it’s also… a metaphor. This is important!
Here’s a crash refresher course in English literature. What is a metaphor? Well, it’s a poetic feature of language where one thing is used to represent or stand in for something it is clearly not, for comparison and for poetic effect.
Examples: Her hair was a long, flowing river. Those two friends are just peas in a pod. That boy is a walking dictionary. Is her hair *really* a river? Are the two friends actually vegetables? Is the boy literally a book, with pages, and legs? Of course not. And is God literally a word? No. We all recognize a metaphor when we see one…except when we see it too often, like in the Apostles’ creed.
I believe in God, the Father almighty. Anyone see what the metaphor is there? God as Father is just that…a very overused metaphor that we sometimes take a little bit too literally. But the earliest Christians who penned the Apostles’ Creed would have certainly recognized it as a metaphor. Both God as *our* father, and God as the father of Jesus–those were expressions intended to convey a special relationship of some sort, but not to imply a biological connection or shared DNA (something that wouldn’t be discovered for another 18 centuries).
Why is this important? Because metaphors have their limits. We forget sometimes that God is not, in fact, a male at all. Jesus uses feminine metaphors for God too, like in Matthew 23:37, when he compares God to a mother hen, gathering her chicks under her wings.
Yes, the metaphor of God as a powerful, even “almighty” father is a good one–it would have really appealed to persecuted Christians in a Roman patriarchal culture where the paterfamilias was expected to shelter and protect his family from all danger and harm.
But we must always remember that metaphors are designed to expand our understanding of the thing they describe, not to limit or constrict it. God is almighty father… sheltering mother… shepherd… king… woman giving birth… and beekeper, among other interesting metaphors found in scripture and creed.
And just like the creative, poetic people who wrote the Apostles’ Creed, we should do it justice by recognizing (and appreciating) the metaphors for exactly what they are.
That brings us all the way back to the first phrase: I believe in God. As I said earlier, this would have been the least controversial part of the Creed in its original context. All ancient peoples–Greek, Roman, Jew and Gentile, simply assumed the existence of some kind of diety or dieties. The question was what kind of God? And how many? And whose side is God on?
But for us, in the 21st century, increasingly the question is “Do I even believe in the existence of a God? Any God?” Unlike people in the first century, we now have labels for people depending on how they answer this question. If the answer is no, I don’t believe in God, then I’m an atheist. If the answer is, “I really don’t know whether God exists or not,” then I am an agnostic.
I want to spend the last few minutes of my sermon today addressing those two viewpoints. I’m tempted to say that if you are a firm believer in God, you can just check out now. But if that’s you, chances are at some point in your life your faith may be challenged and you might want to remember this. Or, even more likely, you know a few atheists or agnostics, and what I’m about to say might help you better understand, appreciate, and (respectfully) engage with them in honest, meaningful conversation.
Let’s begin with Atheists–those who claim no belief in the existence of God or gods. In my own conversations with self-proclaimed atheists, I find that they tend to fall into two broad groups. The first group are those who are rejecting something. Usually it’s a narrow version of God they inherited from whatever religious tradition they grew up in. They reject a God who, it seems, allows innocent children to die, or who comes across in the Bible as hateful and judgmental. Not finding any other version of God compatible with their own values or priorities, they eventually abandon the idea of God altogether.
The second broad category of atheists (and there is some overlap between the two) are those who are not so much rejecting God as they are passionately embracing something they perceive to be at odds with belief in God… namely, science. In their enthusiasm to embrace the scientific method, they reject mythology, the supernatural, and all things that are by their very nature difficult to “prove.”
The problem is, it takes just as much “faith” to believe in science as it does to believe in God. Unless you have the time to study every single scientific discipline (and there are thousands), at some point, you have to accept on faith the theories and conclusions of other experts in a particular field, that they have followed the scientific method, in an unbiased way free from mistakes, that they have come to the correct and definitive conclusions. And of course, we’ve all seen in our own lifetimes, the very best scientists do complete 180 degree turns, rejecting the science and conventional wisdom of those who came before them, again and again and again.
I actually find that the most hardcore science-minded atheists are not that different than the most hardcore fundamentalist Christians: One group rejects all belief in God, and the other rejects all but one very narrow set of beliefs in God, and neither group is open to the possibility that they could be wrong.
The modern-day philosopher and scientist, Carl Sagan, put it this way:
“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. An atheist is someone who is certain that God does not exist, someone who has compelling evidence against the existence of God. I know of no such compelling evidence. Because God can be relegated to remote times and places and to ultimate causes, we would have to know a great deal more about the universe than we do now to be sure that no such God exists. To be certain of the existence of God and to be certain of the nonexistence of God seem to me to be the confident extremes in a subject so riddled with doubt and uncertainty as to inspire very little confidence indeed.”
Carl Sagan also offered the following contrast between atheists and fundamentalist Christians:
“Some people think God is an outsized, light-skinned male with a long white beard, sitting on a throne somewhere up there in the sky, busily tallying the fall of every sparrow. Others—for example Baruch Spinoza and Albert Einstein—considered God to be essentially the sum total of the physical laws which describe the universe. I do not know of any compelling evidence for anthropomorphic patriarchs controlling human destiny from some hidden celestial vantage point, but it would be madness to deny the existence of physical laws.”
Atheism, like fundamentalism, is an untenable extreme. But I want to move on to a different group: Agnostics–those whose answer to the question of belief in God is simply, “I don’t know.” And here’s the shocker: I am an agnostic. Better yet, I suspect that most of you–along with most honest, authentic self-identified Christians throughout the ages, also qualify as agnostics. Why?
An agnostic is someone who, by definition, has no certain knowledge (gnosis), no incontrovertible proof that God exists. And faith, by definition, is believing in something you cannot prove. If you could prove that God exists, there would be no need for faith. All Christians, then, are essentially agnostics–people who do not know for sure that God exists, but who choose to believe, and hope, and order their lives around the possibility that God *does* exist.
Here again, I find there are two broad categories of agnostics: People who, not knowing for certain, still choose to put their trust, their confidence, their hope in the idea of a benevolent and loving force that guides the universe… And on the other hand (this is the more classic understanding of agnosticism) those who, not knowing for certain, choose to doubt the existence of any kind of higher, guiding power. Basically, it’s a difference between optimism and pessimism.
Blaise Pascal was a Christian agnostic who lived in the 17th century. He was a scientist, a mathematician, and one of the fathers (metaphorically) of computer science. He’s known for something called Pascal’s wager. In a nutshell, he argued (or bet, or wagered) that if a person lives life as if God really does exist, and then in the end is proven wrong, that person will not have lost much, and probably will have lived a better, more fulfilling life anyhow. But on the other hand, if God really does exist, that same person stands a whole lot to gain. The reverse is also true: If a person rejects belief in God and is right, that person’s marginal gains are small… but if that same person rejects belief in God and is WRONG, he or she stands to lose a whole lot. So, logically, according to Pascal, it makes more sense–right OR wrong–to live your life as if you believe in God.
Pascal based his logic on the assumption of heaven and hell as eternal reward and punishment after you die. We’ve already seen that the Apostles’ Creed is… well… agnostic as far as heaven and hell are concerned. But to my agnostic friends living in the 21st century, I would make a modified version of Pascal’s wager that argues in favor of believing in God, and it’s this:
Would you rather live your life in optimism and hope, believing in a loving God, who calls you to love other people in this world… even if it’s not true? Or would you rather live your life in pessimism and despair, believing that you are alone in the universe, that things happen randomly, chaotically, sometimes cruelly, with no purpose or meaning, and then you die?
I cannot prove that God exists, that God is indeed “father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.” But neither can I prove that he doesn’t exist, that he is not and has not done these things. Given the choice, however, and given the consequences of those two worldviews, as a faithful agnostic I would rather live my days in hope, in faith, and in love–right or wrong–knowing (or not knowing, but at least convinced) that my beliefs, my actions, my love have the power to make THIS world (not the next one) a better place, for me and for everyone around me.
That, my friends, is a Creed worth saying, worth believing, and worth following… in any century, and any millennium.