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Believe in Me
Sermons on the Apostles' Creed
By James A. Harnish
Abingdon PressCopyright © 1991 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
"I believe ..."
I know the one in whom I have put my trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that day what I have entrusted to him. (II Tim. 1:12)
A Center That Will Hold
The line haunted my soul long before I knew its source: "Things fall apart; the center cannot hold." It comes from the poem "The Second Coming," written by Irish poet William Butler Yeats. This poem is considered by most critics to be great; indeed, one critic calls it "one of the great lyrics of the century ... it rises out of difficulty and above it, and reduces the complex to a blinding simplicity" (B. L. Reid, William Butler Yeats: The Lyric of Tragedy [Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1978] p. 134).
The poem was first published in 1921, while Britain and Europe were reeling from the devastation of World War I, the Russian Revolution, and the "Easter Rebellion," which had recently rocked Ireland. Perhaps that is why the poem is pessimistic. The events of recent history had shattered the idealism of the late nineteenth century. No wonder Yeats wrote:
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned
No wonder he felt that 'Things fall apart; the center cannot hold."
I have my own adolescent memory of that image, based on the difference between 33 RPM and 45 RPM records. One of the great mysteries of life for me is why the big records have the little holes and the little records have the big holes. My cousin had one of those nifty little 45 RPM record players with the fat spindle in the center, but we didn't have one. I remember bringing my first 45 home—it was probably Pat Boone or Ricky Nelson. I placed it on our turntable—which didn't have the fat spindle—set the needle down, and turned it on. Ricky sounded fine for the first few bars. Then the record began to slide, the needle began to wobble, and the whole thing slid all over the place.
I had never heard of William Butler Yeats, but I quickly discovered what it means to say, 'Things fall apart; the center cannot hold."
What a contrast Yeats's poem is to Timothy's letter from the Apostle Paul. There are some similarities. Like Yeats, Paul was facing difficult times. He is writing from prison in Rome, and everyone has deserted him except for Luke, the faithful physician. It is a dark and dismal time. He tells Timothy: "I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith" (II Tim. 4:6-7). There would be good reason for this to be a depressing letter, but instead, it reverberates with this bold affirmation: "I know the one in whom I have put my trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that day what I have entrusted to him" (II Tim. 1:12). The Apostle had found a center that would hold, a central affirmation for his life, which filled him with confidence, even in the hour of death.
I pulled back from the letter and asked the questions I suspect Timothy asked: So Paul, where did you find that center? How can I develop the kind of faith that can be a solid center for my own soul? Where can I find that kind of confidence for hard and difficult times? I found Paul's answer in verses 13 and 14. First, he writes, "Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me." In the third chapter, Paul expands on this:
From childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work. (II Tim. 3:15-17)
If we are to find a center that will hold; if we are to stand up and say, "I believe ..."; if we are to be fully equipped for the good life God intends for us, then we must become, in the words of John Wesley, people "of one book," men and women whose lives are nourished by scripture, shaped by the written witness to the living Word of God.
Let me give you a powerful illustration of this truth. In 1981 his name had not yet become a global household word; he had not yet received the Noble Peace Prize. Desmond Tutu was just a bishop in South Africa, serving as the executive secretary of the South African Council of Churches. He was called before a Commission of Inquiry, set up to investigate the Council. Picture clearly in your mind a small black man confronting all the awesome fury of apartheid. And what did he talk about? He talked about the Bible. He said:
You whites brought us the Bible; now we blacks are taking it seriously. We are involved with God to set us free from all that enslaves us and makes us less than what He intended us to be.... The Bible is the most revolutionary, the most radical book there is. If any book should be banned by those who rule unjustly and as tyrants, then it is the Bible. (Allister Sparks, The Mind of South Africa [New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990], p. 292.)
Bishop Tutu led his judges through a profound Bible study of how the God of history liberates the oppressed and concluded with this courageous affirmation, which we are now beginning to see fulfilled: "I want the Government to know now and always that I do not fear them. They are trying to defend the utterly indefensible and they will fail. They will fail because they are ranging themselves on the side of evil and injustice against the Church of God" (Sparks, The Mind of South Africa p. 292).
Here's the way a secular newspaper reporter described the scene: "The commissioners stared stonily ahead of them.... Tutu leaned back, closed the old leather-bound Bible he had been brandishing, and mopped his brow. A rearguard battle in the theological civil war had been fought and won" (Sparks, The Mind of South Africa, p. 292).
Any creed that dares to call itself an expression of the Christian faith must be grounded in scripture. If we are to have the kind of faith that will equip us for every kind of good deed, if we are to find a solid center that will hold us steady in difficult times, if we are to know whom we have believed, then we must read, study, discuss, devour, and nourish our souls on the witness of the written word. "Hold firmly," Paul said, "to the true words that I taught you."
Paul also tells Timothy to "be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus" (II Tim. 2:1). That sounds like friendship. You cannot read this letter without feeling the passion and intensity of Paul's friendship with Timothy. The letter overflows with it. Paul writes: "I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. Recalling your tears, I long to see you so that I may be filled with joy.... Do your best to come to me soon" (II Tim. 1:3-4; 4:9).
When was the last time you wrote a letter like that? How long has it been since you remembered the face of a friend who was so much a part of your life, so deeply bound up with your soul that you could not help thinking of him or her night and day? How long has it been since you shared someone else's tears? When was the last time you wrapped your arms around a brother or sister in the love of Christ? If you want to find a center that will hold, then practice the gift of Christian friendship.
Before someone says, "Friendship? What does that have to do with the Apostles' Creed?" let me remind you that the creed emerged out of the life of the church. The community of faith came first, and the creed grew out of their life together as the declaration of their new identity as the followers of Jesus Christ in a hostile world. For Christian people, there is no belief that is not shared belief; no theology that is not born out of community; no creed that is not strengthened in friendship. As John Wesley reminded us, there is no holiness that is not social holiness.
In my years in ministry, I've seen many people face tough times. While I hate generalizations, such as "There are only two kinds of people in the world," I have become convinced as I have observed people in difficult times that there really are just two kinds of people in this world: those who discover the power of friendship and those who don't. There are those who open their lives to someone else, who allow a friend to invade the inner sanctum of their souls, who share themselves in the love of Christ. And when the tough times come, these persons find nourishment, courage, strength, and hope in their relationships. Then there are the persons who are determined to be independent, self-sufficient, to stand alone. And when difficult times come, that's exactly where they are: independent and alone.
Be strong through the grace that is ours in union with Christ Jesus. This sounds a lot like what Jesus said to his disciples on the night before he died: "Remain united to me, and I will remain united to you.... Remain in my love.... I do not call you servants any longer, because a servant does not know what his master is doing. Instead, I call you friends, because I have told you everything" (John 15:4, 9, 15 GNB).
Paul also reminds Timothy of "the help of the Holy Spirit living in us" (II Tim. 1:14). Paul thinks back to the day he laid his hands on Timothy's head and confirmed him in the faith—the way we lay our hands on the heads of youth for confirmation or on the heads of those persons whom we are setting aside for special service in the mission of the church. "I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline" (II Tim. 1:6-7).
I learned a long time ago that if you have a big hole in the middle of your record, you need to have a big spindle to fill it. I have since learned that there is a huge hole in the center of our souls, which can only be filled with the living, loving, life-giving Spirit of God. We try to fill it with all sorts of other things—success, power, prestige, money, sex, influence—but it is like a huge, internal sinkhole that will swallow up all the puny things we try to stuff into it, and it will leave us empty and dry.
There is only one thing in this universe that is big enough to fill the empty space in our souls; it is the Spirit of God. Pentecost has already happened. The gift has already been given. The Spirit is alive and present within and among God's people. God's Spirit is the spirit of power, love, and self-control. When we nourish the presence of the Spirit in our lives, then, regardless of whatever happens, we are never alone.
I might as well confess that there is not one original idea in this sermon. You've heard all this before. So had Timothy. That's why Paul uses the word remember over and over again. Most of us need to be reminded more than we need to be informed. So I want to remind you of what it takes to say, "I believe ..." to find a center that will hold:
Hold firmly to the truth, the written witness to
the living Word.
Remain in the love and faith that are ours in
Christ Jesus. That's Christian friendship.
And open your life to the power of the Holy Spirit
who lives within us.
H. G. Spafford was a businessman who lost everything in the great Chicago fire. While he was trying to rebuild his business, he sent his wife and four daughters on a voyage to Great Britain to visit relatives, planning to take a later voyage and meet them there. On November 22, 1873, there was an accident at sea: The liner was rammed by another ship and sank immediately. Mrs. Spafford was saved, but all four daughters were lost. When she arrived in England she sent a two-word telegram to her husband: "Saved alone."
Spafford took the next ship to meet her. When his ship reached the place where the ship his family traveled on had gone down, the captain notified the passengers of the location. Spafford said that he spent a sleepless night, tumbling and turning in his sorrow. Finally he wrote his feelings down, and they came out in poetry. Here is what he wrote:
When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.
Things do fall apart, but the center can hold!CHAPTER 2
"... in God, the Father ... Son ... Holy Spirit"
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. (Matt. 28:19)
The God Who Is There
One day a little boy came to his father and asked, "Daddy, what holds up the world?" The father, reaching back into his knowledge of mythology, said, "That's simple, my son. The world rests on the back of a very large turtle." The little boy, satisfied, walked away, but within a day or two he was back again. "But, Daddy," he asked, "what holds up the turtle?" The father, now committed to this line of reasoning, said, "My son, the turtle rests on the back of a very large tiger." Again the boy went away satisfied, at least for a few hours, until he returned to ask again, "But, Daddy, what holds up the tiger?" This time the father replied, 'The tiger rests on the back of a very large elephant." As you would guess, the son was back in no time, asking again, "What holds up the elephant?" The frustrated father, having run out of animals, replied, "Son, from there on, it's elephants all the way down."
As we consider the Apostles' Creed, we are thinking together about the elephants that go all the way down to the bottom of our faith, the foundational affirmations upon which our lives and beliefs as Christian people rest, as they are described in the Apostles' Creed. Take one look at the creed, and you'll discover that it is ruthlessly trinitarian; it hangs on three central affirmations. First, we say, "I believe in God, the Father Almighty." Then we affirm, "I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord." Finally, we say, "I believe in the Holy Spirit." When we stand to affirm the creed, we are immediately thrown into the central mystery of the Christian faith: "God in three persons, blessed Trinity!"
Let's begin by acknowledging that the idea of the Trinity is a mystery. A preacher friend of mine told his congregation that the problem with the Trinity is that if you don't believe it you risk losing your soul, but if you try to explain it you risk losing your mind. We are attempting to comprehend the incomprehensible, to describe the indescribable. We are like the Sunday school student who was working intently with her crayons and paper when the teacher asked, "What are you drawing?" The student answered, "A picture of God." The teacher responded, "God? No one knows what God looks like." With childlike confidence the student said, "They will when I get done."
Anyone who dares to speak of God must begin by acknowledging that all of our words about God are incomplete and that none of us dares to have the arrogance to think he or she can fully define the identity of God. In the sixteenth century, an Anglican mystic named Richard Hooker said, "Our safest eloquence concerning [God] is our silence"—a reminder that could put a whole lot of preachers out of business! Four centuries later, Karl Barth, a German theologian, reminded us that in and of our own human nature we do not even know what we are saying when we say the word God. The only way we know God is through God's self-revelation. A finite mind cannot wrap itself around an infinite God, just as my finite being cannot take in the full glory of a new morning, my eyes cannot absorb the full brightness of the sun, and my brain cannot comprehend the full meaning of love.
I cannot pin God down like a butterfly under a microscope and say, "There! Now I've got it!" Belief in the Trinity is not our attempt to say, "We've got God cornered. This pins God down." Rather, it is the response of the church to God's self-revelation in the creation (the Father), in history (Jesus of Nazareth), and in our present experience (the Holy Spirit). It is the formula by which we describe our experience of God, and it says two important things.
Excerpted from Believe in Me by James A. Harnish. Copyright © 1991 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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