The Apostles’ Creed (1) – I believe in God
Not everyone here this morning believes in God. We have some agnostics in our midst, we have doubters, we have people with a range of views about God, we have some who are struggling to have faith and we have some who are going through the motions without any great certainty as to whether there is a God at all and even if there is what connection do we have with God? There are not a few such congregations in the Church of Scotland and in other denominations.
To believe is to accept that something is true. To believe can be to accept that something is true without proof. To believe is to hold a positive opinion. To believe is to feel sure. But people believe in all sorts of things that are not true. Santa Claus, elves, fairies at the bottom of the garden. Thousands of tourists traipse to the so called fairy pools on Skye and even more go to try to see the Loch Ness Monster. Some people believe in aliens and some that they have seen them and even been abducted by them. Star Trekkies metamorphose from reality to fiction and live there. Walt Disney and others constructed make-believe fantasy worlds for children. Adults happily enter into it and go to Paris and Florida to meet Mickey and Minnie Mouse. Members of political parties believe the words of their leaders. People will vote on December 12th based on belief and the future of the country will be decided on the untested content of political promises. We hear sports commentators say ‘They believed they would win – and they did. The other team did not believe that they would win and they lost’. But England believed that they would win the World Rugby Cup - and they lost. There’s an ointment called ‘Ibulieve’.
Militant atheists mock those who believe in God because they argue that we have no proof for our belief. They neither have any proof for their unbelief but that does not hinder them in their contempt. This nation and this group of nations once collectively believed in God – as recently as 60 years ago. Now belief in God is a minority pursuit with once strong Christian churches diminished and many closing. An organisation called Reformation Scotland posted this note on the internet eight days ago. “Atheists like Richard Dawkins have come round to the idea that getting rid of Christianity is a bad idea. It would “give people a license to do really bad things”. In other words, secularism fails to provide a coherent moral framework for good and evil. Douglas Murray recently admitted that the idea of human rights cannot long survive being cut off from its Christian roots. Western society has been living on the inheritance of a Christian heritage but now the capital is running out. This is what Murray describes in his book The Strange Death of Europe. These benefits derive not just from Christian influence but from the gospel itself. The Bible warns that when a people send the gospel into exile, it will not be long before their own exile follows”. This website asked the question, ‘When the Gospel goes, what else goes?’ It listed six things, prosperity, safety, civil liberty, national honour, happiness and God’s presence. I’m sure you could think of a few more, personal responsibility, family stability, social cohesion, good conduct, mental health, hope and inner peace.
The Apostles’ Creed begins with the words ‘I believe in God’. Not everyone here is happy to be saying The Apostles’ Creed. But it is actually more and more important to be doing so because church going people are also losing their faith and disappearing and with them generations to come.
The German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg wrote, ‘It cannot be denied that the statement of the Apostles’ Creed do in part cause the modern mind of the present-day Christian considerable discomfort. It is also undeniable that that a number of these statements are, in one way or another, subject to considerable doubt. But it is not sensible to withdraw from the substance of these statements into an act of substantially undetermined faith, and to leave the truth of them undecided. It is not sensible because what these statements are about is precisely the primary foundation and substance of that faith.’ That is a typical European academic theologian’s approach. Contrast it for a moment with the testimony of the hymn-writer Graham Kendrick.
‘Lord, the light of your love is shining
In the midst of the darkness, shining
Jesus, Light of the world, shine upon us
Set us free by the truth you now bring us
Shine on me, shine on me
Shine, Jesus, shine
Fill this land with the Father's glory
Blaze, Spirit, blaze
Set our hearts on fire
Flow, river, flow
Flood the nations with grace and mercy
Send forth your word
Lord, and let there be light.’
The Bible is the record of people like Graham Kendrick who in their lives on earth had personal experience of God. The Bible is a witness statement of encounter with God. The Old Testament is the account of a special people called to know God and to have a called purpose in acknowledging God. The New Testament is the account of God as made visible in Jesus Christ and the formation of a people called to express the reality of God and the love of God to a global audience for all time to come.
I believe in God.
Christian belief in God is not a mealy-mouthed, vague, half-hearted, hoping it might be so faith exercise. Christian belief is not just words. Christian belief is not trying to hammer into your mind that you should believe in God even if you find it hard to do so. Christian belief in God is not struggling against doubt, disappointment and failure in the Christian life. You can’t just spend your life happy with your doubts, you are just avoiding real commitment, you are toying with the claims of Jesus Christ.
I believe in God.
It means this and this only. I take my stand on God. I base my life on God. I know and experience God in my life. I love God. We only know God in Jesus Christ because others over the millennia were not lily livered vacillators but courageous outspoken activists for God. John Robinson was the Anglican bishop of Woolwich from 1959 – 1969. He became notorious because in 1963 he published a book called ‘Honest to God’ in which he shared his lack of belief in the basics of the Christian Faith, in effect The Apostles’ Creed. I attended one of his lectures and at the question session afterwards I asked him to contrast his own life with that of Christians from history, He replied ‘Oh – I wouldn’t go to the stake for much’. He did not take his stand on God. Robert Runcie was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1980 - 1991. He spent his childhood in Kilmarnock and his Dad took him to Rugby Park. He enjoyed recalling some of the phrases he heard on the terraces. ‘Shove it doon the gully Buddy’. He was a tank commander in the 2nd World War. But when it came to actual belief in God as Archbishop he was described as ‘nailing his colours firmly to the fence’. He did not take his stand on God. James Weatherhead was Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in the year 1993. He annoyed and antagonised evangelicals in the Church by expressing his disbelief in the virgin birth of Jesus. He was refused pulpits in the north west of Scotland on his visits to Presbyteries there. The liberals in the Church of Scotland baited and harassed evangelicals for decades until the issue of homosexual marriage finally brought about irreconcilable division, disruption and departure. The liberals did not value the unity of the Church over their own points of view. There are many who doubt the virgin birth in all denominations but for some it is a litmus test of belief in God as described in the New Testament Gospels of Matthew and Luke. The Church of Scotland is not today defined by taking a stand on God. It seeks approval through social and community activities. But see what has happened these past few years. The numbers have gone down, the money has gone down, vocations to the ministry are few and insufficient, churches are closing, the schools are almost devoid of Christian input. All the consequence of not unequivocally speaking up for God, not clearly articulating the Christian challenge, not taking a stand on God.
The theologian Pannenberg suggested that today’s lack of comprehension of The Apostles’ Creed should not mean its abolition but rather its explanation. Then he writes, ‘congregations will see the point of repeating it in Sunday services as an expression of the congregation’s consciousness that it is joined together with the whole of Christendom beyond the barriers of time in the basic substance of its faith’. Over the next weeks we will study together the articles of The Apostles’ Creed. This could become an engine of spiritual renewal for the people of this congregation. It will allow us to tap into the very power of the living God through increase of faith and enlargement of understanding. The journey has to be from where we are to where others have been for there would be no Christianity in this world if the lack of faith and belief prevalent in our time had formed the pages of the Old and New Testaments. It is the living God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, of Moses and David, it is the Father of Jesus of Nazareth and the God and Lord of Paul and every true Christian since that we must aspire to. Seek out and find. And if some are content with their unbelief and half belief so be it. But there are consequences beyond just personal choice, the Name of God not thought worthy of serious commitment. Living not on the side of the angels, not contributing to the commonwealth of faith in Jesus Christ. Not increasing the Church of Jesus Christ. Not handing the torch of and flame of faith to succeeding generations. The wrong pathway, the wrong direction, the wrong journey.
In many places in this world Christians are taking a stand on God. And some are suffering for it. On 10th June almost everyone in the Christian village of Sobame Da in Mali were murdered by Islamic militants. The United Nations estimates that more than 170,000 mainly Christian people in Cameroon have been forced to flee their homes by Boko Haram. In Algeria, the government are systematically closing Christian churches. At Silgadji in Burkina Faso the pastor, two members of his family and two others were invited by armed Muslims who arrived on motorbikes to give up their Christian faith and convert to Islam. They refused and were murdered outside the church.
We have it easy but we owe it to others in Christ to give ourselves spiritual shake, a spiritual dressing down, a spiritual kick on the posterior. I believe in God. I take my stand on God. For those who do, you are uplifted and encouraged and strengthened in faith and witness and will remain so until the end of your days and into the final proof to follow.