Learn What You Believe – part VI


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Spirit, connected, forgiven, eternal

We all have them, we can’t seem to live without them – the places that accumulate all the things we can’t categorize and organize.  For some of us that is the top of our bedroom dresser, but for most of us it’s the drawer in the kitchen that gives us the shivers…the junk drawer.  It’s the first alternative location searched when the usual categories have turned up empty.  You know, the place full of loose batteries, masking tape, jar lids, some screw drivers, miscellaneous hardware, and other uncategorized paraphernalia.

The third and last part of the Apostles’ Creed may sound like we have opened the theological junk drawer of Christian belief.  There’s the Holy Spirit, rounding off the Creed’s Trinitarian structure, then an assortment of what appear to be miscellaneous, unrelated theological pieces.  The thing about junk drawers, however, is they are indispensible.  We tend to know exactly the sort of thing that goes in there, and what the inventory is at any given time, because we need what is in there.  That is true of the Creed’s third section too.  What we have here is indispensable to Christian faith, and the articles contained here are less random than it might seem.

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.

Holy Spirit

Christians believe in God in three Persons, Father, Son, and now, Holy Spirit.  While Christians believe in the Trinity, we tend to gravitate to one Person of the Trinity; Pentecostals, obviously, gravitate toward the Spirit, Presbyterians (in my opinion) tend to stress the Father, and Evangelicals, Jesus.  However, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Evangelical, or insert your own faith tradition here, don’t deny the other two Persons of the Trinity; but their particular Trinitarian lean gives each of their theological emphases distinctive flavors.  We can either suffer angst over that, or celebrate unity in the midst of diversity.  Personally, I think it means that we need each other that much more.  Rather than becoming indignant with each other’s different “flavors”, we can realize that as the Head of the Church Jesus has molded its diverse parts to make a whole.  I believe that unity found in diversity is one of his operating principles.

In part V I said, “…it is possible to live the way God wants, because Jesus has sent the Holy Spirit to live with you every day.”  The New Testament is very clear that the Spirit empowers and equips Jesus’ followers to live the Jesus way of life, and to serve God’s Kingdom.  One of Paul’s themes about Christian living is the tension between life lived by the sinful nature versus life lived by the Spirit (see Romans 8:1-17, and Galatians 5:16-25).  The key to living the Christian life is the Holy Spirit.  As Galatians 5:25 says,    “Since this is the kind of life we have chosen, the life of the Spirit, let us make sure that we do not just hold it as an idea in our heads or a sentiment in our hearts, but work out its implications in every detail of our lives.”[1]

Holy Catholic Church

This little phrase has confused untold numbers of Protestants; they had no idea that they were supposed to believe in the Roman Catholic Church!  While the “c” in catholic may be capitalized at times, it helps to think of it as catholic, lower case “c”.  Catholic is a word that means “universal”.

Now, if there was a group of people with serious issues about the Roman Catholic Church it was the Protestants of the 1500’s in Scotland.  Yet in their Confession of Faith they wrote, “The Kirk is catholic – that is, universal.”  In what sense did they mean the church is universal?  Because, they explained, “it includes the chosen of all ages, of all realms, nations and tongues, who have communion and society with God the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ, through the sanctification of his Spirit.”[2]  In 1561, a Swiss pastor named Heinrich Bullinger wrote, “We…call this Church catholic because it is universal, scattered through all parts of the world, and extended unto all times, and is not limited to any times or places.” (emphasis added)[3]  The Holy catholic Church includes what the old-timers called the church militant, that is, Christians currently living in this world struggling against sin and evil, as well as what they called the church triumphant, those who have overcome the trials of this world, and rejoice before the Lord.

This little three word article in the Creed carries a big idea – you are not isolated and alone!  You, and all the other believers in your congregation, are connected to all the other Christians in town or the next town over, regardless of denominational differences.  You are connected to believers in mega-churches, and tiny rural churches, ones who believe just like you along with the ones you disagree with, across the street as well as those being persecuted for belonging to the Holy catholic Church in faraway places.  You are also connected to all the people of God from the past.  They are who the writer of Hebrews meant when he wrote:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us.[4]

You do not follow Jesus by yourself.  You are part of the great throng of followers here and now, and you have the crowd of faith-veterans cheering you on.  Run with single-mindedness.

Communion of Saints

The claim that you believe in the communion of saints is a logical extension of the Church’s universal nature.  It means that as believers, those of us who truly know and worship and serve the true God in Jesus, are bound together in a relationship of love.  We have an obligation to our fellow saints to serve them by building them up, taking care of them, and allowing them to look out for us.

The Jesus way of life is lived together; it is amazing how many times the words “one another” show up in the New Testament – over fifty times!  Love one another, don’t provoke one another, don’t be jealous of one another, forgive one another, submit to one another, motivate one another, encourage one another, serve one another, and one more time, love one another.

Once, in the early days of the Church, there was a movement of spiritual hermits who lived alone in the Egyptian desert.  They thought that the way to truly live as God wanted required living and worshiping in isolation.  In a relatively short time the spiritual hermit movement transformed into the monastic movement, where the holy life was lived in a community, building relationships, and worshiping together.  The reason for the transformation is quite simple; The Jesus way is lived in a habitat of mutual Christ-like love and service – a communion of saints.

Forgiveness

Forgiveness of sins is certainly not a random idea tossed into the final part of the Creed.  It is central to what it means to be a Jesus follower.

The human reality is that to one degree or another, each of us is inclined to thumb our nose at God, insisting that we have the right to be left alone to live to the best of our abilities, free to define for ourselves what is good and right.  I think that is the core of what the New Testament calls our “sinful nature”, which is the motivator for our sinful behavior.  It is both the attitude and the resulting actions that separate us from God.  Through Jesus’ death, God took care of the attitude and deeds of sin that separate us from God.  In other words, God is willing to forgive, and reconcile each of us back to him.

Augustine wrote: “the righteousness of the saints in this world consists more in the forgiveness of sins than in perfection of virtues.”  Some American Christians have shortened Augustine’s words and created a bumper sticker: “I’m not perfect, just forgiven.”  While it could be understood as an expression of attitude, it is actually a solid statement of faith.  Along the same lines, another old-time theologian named Bernard wrote: “Not to sin is the righteousness of God; but the righteousness of man is the grace of God.”  If you believe in God’s forgiveness of sin then you believe in God’s grace, and trust in Jesus’ death alone to restore your relationship with God.  It isn’t enough to say “I believe God forgives the world at large”; you must also claim that God has forgiven you for the past, for your present, and on into the future.

Here is the flip side of believing in forgiveness of sins.  “Forgive our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”  You have probably prayed that on occasion.  If you believe in God’s forgiving grace, then you also believe that you must forgive others.  Sorry.  The New Testament is chock full of the idea that God’s forgiveness leads to your own practice of forgiveness.  For a more detailed development of forgiving others, see “God’s Kingdom Has no Debt Ceiling.”

Resurrection and Life Everlasting

The last two statements go together.  The source of this hope is affirmed earlier in the Creed, “On the third day he rose again.”  This is the defining hope of Christianity, won by, guaranteed by, and previewed by Jesus’ own resurrection.  And yes, Christians believe in the resurrection and eternal life of the physical body.  The Bible says that we are both body and soul, created by God as an integrated whole.  The notion that your true self is your immortal soul trapped temporarily in a physical body comes strictly from Greek philosophy and not from the Bible.  This eliminates the idea of incarnation, that God will put your immortal soul into a new body to live life over again, and the idea that your soul will exist forever in some kind of squishy existence without a body.

Yet!  That still leaves a dilemma about what happens after we die, and our physical body decays.  Quite honestly, the Bible is fuzzy about that.  For instance, in II Corinthians 5:1-10 Paul says that after death we will “put on our heavenly bodies like new clothing.”  However, in I Thessalonians 4:13-17 Paul describes Jesus’ return, when “God will bring back with him the believers who have died.”   It doesn’t sound as these believers have received their eternal body yet because he concludes by saying:

First, the Christians who have died will rise from their graves. 17 Then, together with them, we who are still alive and remain on the earth will be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. Then we will be with the Lord forever. [5]

That sounds as if Jesus brings the believers who have died in a bodiless state, and then unites them with the resurrected body with which they will live eternally.  Very simply, the bible is unclear about it all. What I believe is clear is that at Christ’s return, his followers will have physical bodies, cleansed of corruption, and now incorruptible.  These bodies will have a similar substance to our old bodies but have a substantially different quality.  Jesus actually previewed the body 2.0 that God has in store for us.  After his resurrection, Jesus had a physical body that was recognizable as himself, yet different enough that his friends didn’t always recognized him at first.  It was physical enough to touch and to eat food, yet it also was not bound by time and space.  I believe resurrected Jesus gave us a fascinating glimpse at the heavenly bodies we have for eternity.

Which leads us to the final statement of the Creed, life without end – or, eternal life. First of all, this means your resurrected body will never fail you again, it will never die again.  It won’t be at the mercy of disease and natural decline.  No more colds!  No more bad knees!  No cancer, MS, CF, or most importantly for me, A.L.S.  In that regard our heavenly bodies will be so much different that of Lazarus whom Jesus brought out of the grave, only to grow old and die again.  The Christian hope is not one of some perpetual cycle of death and rebirth!  And the eternal life Jesus brings us is much more than life merely extended to infinity; what a curse that could turn out to be.  Think of the vampire legends describing beings whose curse is becoming weary with life because it cannot end.   Instead, we believe in eternal life that emphasizes quality over duration.  We believe in life lived as God always intended it to be lived, full of joy, purpose, and love – forever, without the looming shadow of death.

God living in us, our connection with others, a restored relationship with God, and resurrected bodies living an eternal quality of life are not random ideas at all.  They are essential to what it means to follow Jesus, and that’s why they are found in the Apostles’ Creed.

I hope this examination of the Apostles’ Creed has helped you understand it better, so that you understand what you believe better.  If you haven’t, I would encourage you to memorize the Creed, even if you worship in a tradition that doesn’t emphasize creeds.  It is such a wonderful gift from historical Christianity because it outlines so well some of our most basic beliefs.  Now when someone asks, “What do you Christians really believe?” you will know.

The Apostles’ Creed (Ecumenical Version)

I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,

who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary,

suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried;

he descended into hell.

On the third day he rose again; he ascended into heaven, he is seated at the right

hand of the Father, and he will come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,

the holy catholic Church,

the communion of saints,

the forgiveness of sins,

the resurrection of the body,

and the life everlasting. Amen.


[1]Peterson, Eugene H.: The Message : The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, Colo. : NavPress, 2002, S. Ga 5:25

[2] The Scot’s Confession, Chapter XVI, The Kirk.

[3] The Second Helvetic Confession, Chapter XVII, Of the Catholic and Holy Church of God, and of the One Only Hed of the Church.

[4]Tyndale House Publishers: Holy Bible : New Living Translation. 2nd ed. Wheaton, Ill. : Tyndale House Publishers, 2004, S. Heb 12:1

[5]Tyndale House Publishers: Holy Bible : New Living Translation. 2nd ed. Wheaton, Ill. : Tyndale House Publishers, 2004, S. 1 Th 4:16

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One thought on “Learn What You Believe – part VI

  1. That’s a deep junk drawer to organize all at once. I am going to have to carry this on the bus with me during Lent.

    I am struck by how “catholic means universal” is a much needed message at a time when there seems to be a lot of “not really Christian” talk in the media, be it Catholic, Mormon, Liberal Protestants, Obama, whatever. Too bad it’s not politically correct to say “It’s love one another, stupid.”

    Thanks Tom.

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