Apostles Creed 2 – God the Father

Sermon for Williamstown Uniting Church
12th of May, 2019

The Apostles Creed: God the Father

I want to start this second reflection on the Apostles Creed with some wisdom from Davis McCaughey, the first President of the Uniting Church and one-time Governor of Victoria. Writing about the creeds in his commentary on the Basis of Union Davis says:

For centuries men and women have used these words not because they already understand them but because by their use they hope to understand them. There are some mysteries which we can only acknowledge fully in worship, and God himself in his threefold being is certainly the central mystery with which our lives are surrounded.[1]

So, do not expect that at the end of this short series on the Apostles Creed you are going to be able to understand the nature of the Trinity. That’s not what I’m aiming at, and I don’t think it’s what the early church wanted when creating the creeds. The creeds answer some questions about God, but the early church was always aware that God is beyond anything our words can describe.

The first clause of the Apostles Creed might seem to be the simplest one: ‘I believe in God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth.’ Nothing controversial there, surely; it’s only when we start talking about Jesus Christ as God’s Son, our Lord, someone conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary that things really start to get complicated, right? Well, no. There’s a reason that the Apostles Creed starts with the God the Father and creation.

The first clause in the Apostles Creed is responding to a few different heresies. Jesus calls God Abba, Father, and teaches his disciples to pray to God as ‘Our Father’. But after Jesus was no longer with them the first Christians were confronted with the question of whether this ‘Father’ was the same god as the one worshipped by Jews and described in the Jewish scriptures. One second-century Christian, Marcion, said ‘no’. None of Marcion’s writings have survived, so we only know of him through the arguments of Christians who opposed him, but apparently Marcion believed that the wrathful god described in the Hebrew Scriptures just could not be the same as the God of Love revealed by Jesus. At the time there wasn’t yet an agreed canon of Christian writings and Marcion thought that the Christian Bible should only include parts of the Gospel according to Luke and ten of Paul’s letters. But Christian orthodoxy rejected this; Jesus’ Father is the God described in the Hebrew Scriptures, the God who created the heavens and the earth and saw that they were very good. Marcion was eventually excommunicated.

That the God Jesus called ‘Father’ is described in the Creed as the creator of heaven and earth is a response to various other heresies that said either that there was no distinction between God and creation, and so nature could be worshipped, or that the creation was inherently evil and only things of the spirit could be considered good. The Apostles Creed reminds us that it is God the creator who is to be worshipped, rather than what God has created. Christians aren’t pantheists. God’s creation is to be taken seriously and respected, and it is also to be delighted in, but it isn’t in itself divine. Some historians argue that this Christian understanding enabled modern science, since it meant that the creation could be examined ‘objectively’ as a phenomenon, rather than worshipped as a god.[2]

The other heresy to which the description of God as creator responds is the idea that creation, physical matter, our bodies and the world in which we live and move and have our being, is wrong, evil, to be ignored and rejected. The various groups that we call Gnostics, from the Greek word gnosis, meaning knowledge (because they believed that they had secret knowledge not revealed to ordinary people) taught that the spiritual was good, and the material was bad. They argued that humans were perfect, pure, souls trapped in fallen, sinful, bodies, and that Jesus came to save us from the flesh and the material world. Physical creation had been made by someone like Marcion’s wrathful and stupid god, and Jesus wanted to teach us about the good God, the loving Father, who would save us from it.

One extreme version of this heresy was Manichaeism, to which Saint Augustine belonged before becoming a Christian. Manichaeism said that there were two eternal principles: Light and Dark; Good and Evil; Spirit and Matter; who were in constant conflict. The children of Light needed to escape from the evil material world by abstaining from wine, having no personal possessions, not getting married or having sex, and not even preparing their own food. They were allowed to eat, they didn’t have to starve themselves to death, but the food had to be prepared by a disciple.[3]

In contrast, the first clause of the Apostles Creed, which describes God as creator, refuses to divide the world into material=bad and spiritual=good. At the end of the Apostles Creed the clause that says we believe in the ‘resurrection of the body’ says the same thing; we are not to be saved from our bodies, but saved in our bodies. The creation is not to be worshipped, but neither is it to be rejected. As Genesis tells us, ‘God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good’. (Genesis 1:31)

This is why we use water when we baptise someone, and bread and wine in communion. Material things, created things, can become the vehicles of the Spirit. Bread and wine can become for us the body and blood of Christ. In water we can be born to new life. We don’t need to separate ourselves from wine and possessions and sex and marriage and food, because all of these things are good. It is only when they are misused that they are a problem; none of them is evil in itself. When Christians describe God as creator of heaven and earth we are saying a huge ‘yes’ to the whole creation.

This is one of the reasons that the Pope and the Ecumenical Patriarch and the World Council of Churches have all made statements warning of the dangers of climate change. It isn’t just because a changing climate will affect humans. It is because the creation is good in itself; it is God’s good creation, and so we as God’s stewards are to take care of it. As we’re heading into a federal election in which the environment has become a major issue that is something for all of us to remember as we vote.

The ‘yes’ to creation we see in the first clause of the Apostles Creed is also why we Christians aren’t looking forward to being saved from an evil material world and taken up into a good, pure, spiritual world. We aren’t hoping to be saved from creation; we are hoping to be saved with creation. The Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Rome: ‘the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God’. (Romans 8:19-21) The Book of Revelation says at the end of time there will be a ‘new heaven and a new earth’. (Revelation 21:1) The earth will not disappear; like us it will be resurrected. Orthodox Christians argue that as we humans move from creation to deification, from being people trapped by sin to people who put on Christ, we are to carry the world with us.[4] As one Orthodox theologian puts it: ‘The creation exists for the sake of humanity; but humanity exists as a microcosm to sanctify the creation and to draw it into the fullness of life of the kingdom of God, to bring it into communion with its maker.’[4]

As we stand to say the Apostles Creed together, hold on to all of that as you answer the first question. The Father of Jesus Christ is the creator of heaven and earth, who looks at all creation, including us, and declares it good.

 

[1] J. Davis McCaughey, Commentary on the Basis of Union, (1980) p. 48.

[2] Frances Young, The Making of the Creeds (1991), p. 32.

[3] Frances Young, The Making of the Creeds (1991), p. 95.

[4] “Orthodox Perspectives on Creation,” in Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation: Insights from Orthodoxy, ed. Gennadios Limouris, (Geneva: WCC Publications, 1990), p. 4.

[5] Stanley S. Harakas, “The Integrity of Creation: Ethical Issues,” in Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation: Insights from Orthodoxy, 73.

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