We begin today a six-week look at the Apostle’s Creed. The Apostle’s Creed is one of two primary creeds used in the Christian faith. The other, the Nicene Creed, is perhaps more well known among the Christian world at large, as the Nicene Creed is accepted by both the eastern and western Christian faiths – meaning it is used by orthodox, Catholic, and protestant faiths. The Apostle’s Creed is not used in the eastern church, by the Orthodox faiths.
We are going to break down the Apostles’ Creed into six components to look at what we mean when we say, “We Believe.” Since you are such an educated crowd, and I find you appreciate the details of our faith, before we jump into the opening clause about our belief in God, let me offer a little background on the Creed itself.
The Apostle’s Creed is aptly named because it was originally thought to have been penned by the Apostle’s themselves. You can imagine the twelve sitting around a table together, each taking a turn in claiming one statement of faith. We’ll let Peter – the Rock of the Church – go first. Peter says, “I believe in God, the Father Almighty.” Matthew jumps in, “and in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord.” John pipes up, “I believe in the Holy Spirit.” Luke exclaims, “I believe in the holy and universal church.” And going around the circle, they come up with this creed. At least in the 1st and 2nd Century this was the rumor, that these words came first from the 12 who had followed Christ in his earthly ministry. I’m not saying that didn’t happen, but historians have never been able to substantiate that claim.
In its original form, the Creed wasn’t quite as long as we know it today. We know with certainty that in the mid-fourth Century, the Creed was a bit shorter. At the time, it was known by the name, “The Roman Creed.” As the Church sought to better define their faith, supplemental lines were added into the Creed. For example, the Roman Creed began, “I believe in God the Father Almighty.” The addendum was later added in, “Maker of heaven and earth.” It is thought that these additional lines were added in between the 4th and 5th centuries. However, the shorter Roman Creed continued to circulate until the 9th century. By the time we hit the 10th Century, the shorter Creed had ceased to be used, and the longer Apostles’ Creed was used universally. Since the 10th Century, it has remained unchanged, consisting of 105 words that define for us our faith.
We call this a creed because it is a statement of faith. The word creed comes from the Latin word credo, which simply translates, “I believe.” But catch the nuance statement we are making in professing our faith. We are not saying, “I believe God, I believe Christ, or I believe the Holy Spirit.” This all important preposition, the word in, makes a big difference in our statement of faith. Our statement of faith, our credo, says, “I believe in God, I believe in Christ, I believe in the Holy Spirit.” It is possible to believe that God exists, and to believe what God says, without believing in God. Yet it is impossible to believe in God without believing that God exists or to believe what God says. To say I believe in God, “[is to] plainly express a glad commitment that is understood to grow out of a serious – and altogether risky – conviction, and to represent in principle a life-changing act.”[i]
We start at the beginning, to identify what it means to claim, and to understand the conviction and the life-changing act, that is proclaimed when we say, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.”
Throughout the history of our faith, we have used many words to describe the God of creation. In chapel time this past month with the Washington Street Preschool, our director, Jasmine, read a book for the children where people of all walks of life each describe God by using a different noun based on their experience of God and their life situation. For example, one person who had come through a surgery, sitting in their hospital bed, proclaimed that God is Healer. Another person, who was outdoors in the wilderness, claimed that God is Creator. Another, a young child, was held in the arms of his parents. He proclaimed that God is Mother and Father. Each used a word that was perhaps not understood by the others. It wasn’t until they sat down together at one table that they understood they were speaking of the same God, the One who is God of all.
You’ve all heard the Indian parable of the room of blind men each trying to describe the elephant in the room – not the unspoken elephant that no one wants to talk about, that’s a very different parable. In the parable one man has the tail, the next a tusk, the third an ear, and the fourth a leg. They are each trying to describe the elephant in the room, but because they can not fully see, they each only sense the elephant in part. They each are describing a truth from their experience, and perhaps are expecting that their experience is definitive for all because they have no other experiences. But we know that none have fully described the elephant; they are reliant upon one another to know the elephant fully.
In our text today that comes from 1 John, the apostle makes a bold claim about the nature of God. This text is one of the more widely used texts to define the nature of God. John doesn’t hide what it is he is trying to say. In just these 7 verses, John uses some form of the word love 13 times. Almost twice per verse. If you are ever unsure of what the text is trying to say, parse it out by how often words appear. If ever a word appears almost twice per verse, it’s probably a good chance the text is focusing on that word.
John says quite definitively in these verses, and zeroes in on the primary statement in verse 8, ‘God is Love.’ One could read this as an exhaustive statement, a statement to trump all others that would try to name God. Yet, such a claim is not necessarily meant to be a statement to trump all others, but is instead a statement that offers foundation to how God is manifested to us.[ii] Each of us may encounter God in distinctive ways and thus name God differently, but in whatever way we encounter God, the underlying nature of the encounter is one of love.
By saying that God is love, John is naming that God does not exist apart from love. That is, God does not exists “apart from the creative, sustaining, and redemptive will that governs the universe”[iii] – because this creative, sustaining and redemptive will is the very nature of love. To clarify, it would help us to better define what we mean when we say God is love.
In the Greek language, there were four different words that we translate in the English as love. This is all important for understanding the nature and will of God, and to better understand the impact scripture is meant to have in our lives. We’ll look more at this next week too as we define our faith in Christ. When we translate all four Greek words to simply read, love, we often miss the intended impact of the scripture. It would be like asking if you want ice cream. If you said yes, and I gave you strawberry pistachio, you may look at me like I’m crazy, because you wanted double dark chocolate peanut butter. They are both ice cream, but one is gross, the other is amazing.
So, to better understand love, here’s a quick run through of the how the Greek language differentiates love.
There is philea. This is the affection two friends share for one another. It’s a base line of loyalty. As I heard one person recently describe it, it’s the kind of love you mean when you’ve had a few too many brews, and you say to your bar mate, ‘I love you bro.’
There is storge. This is the kind of love you have for your children. It’s my love for Asher and Nathan. It’s affection and caring – a parent to a child.
Then there’s aros. That’s the kind of love that creates children. It’s the love of intimate passion.
And finally, there’s agape. Agape is only ever used to describe the love of God for God’s creation. It is the unconditional love only possible of God for us.
When John says that God is love, what he’s saying is, ‘God is agape.’
We believe in God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth. It is that agape love that led God in the creative process described in Genesis 1. Out of God’s agape love was formed the heavens and the earth, the night and the day, the sea and the land, and the animals of the land, sea, and sky. And out of God’s agape love, came the creation of us – humanity – formed in the image of God. To say we were formed in the image of God is to say we were formed in the image of God’s agape love. We were created to be an expression of God’s agape love in the world.
John affirms this in our passage today. “Beloved,” he says, (that is, those who are agaped by God, those who are loved by God) “let us agape one another, because agape is from God; everyone who agapes is born of God and knows God.” He goes on, “Whoever does not agape does not know God, for God is agape.” We, as God’s created, were created to be an expression of God’s agape love in the world. When we claim to believe in God the Father Almighty, what we are claiming is not just some head knowledge that we believe there is a God who created us, but that we – you and I, the community of faith, humanity everywhere – we were created as an expression of God’s love to be an expression of God’s love.
But as we name each week at communion, we fail at living out that expression on a weekly, daily, perhaps hourly basis. So, God wanted to make sure we knew that amidst our failure, we were still loved. God’s agape is so strong, God loves us so much, that God wanted to make sure we never lived without that agape present in our lives. So John makes sure we are aware of how we know God loves us so much. John says that God’s agape was demonstrated for us – revealed to us – through the sending of God’s Son so that we might live through him – through Christ.
Folks, this is where believing in God the Father Almighty gets really good. See, God knows we have screwed up – God knows we have failed to be an expression of God’s love in the world. We spend so much time in our lives trying to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect. And we spend a lot of time beating ourselves up over having failed to be perfect. And the Church – we’re at the center of the blame for most of that self-hatred. As an institution, we have for centuries tried to tell people how broken they were because we didn’t think they were living according to the law of God, which can be summed up in those first two verses: If you do not love, you do not know God, for God is love. But these two verses, they don’t summarize the fullness of God, they only speak of God in part. God’s love was further revealed to us in this way, God sent the Son so that we might live through him.
And then John defines agape for us. If you want to know what agape love looks like, read verse 10: “In this is agape, not that we agaped God (not that we loved God) but that God agaped us (God loved us) and sent the Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.”
“God’s love is expressed [most fully] in a person and an event in which God takes initiative.”[iv] God’s love isn’t determined by whether or not we want the love, just as sure as God’s creation is present around us whether or not we want to be in God’s creation. And this is what John says God is still doing today. Having expressed agape most fully in Christ, in the death and resurrection of Christ, God is still seeking to make that agape love known in us and through us today.
Hear verses 12 and 13: “If we agape one another, God lives in us, and God’s agape is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us the Spirit.”
This must be clarified, because it is often interpreted wrong. Don’t make this mistake; don’t think that God’s love is only there for you if you are loving others. This verse is not saying, ‘If you love another, then God will be in you.’ That’s what many in the Church want it to say, because that gives us permission to judge. Reading it this way makes us think we can judge another person by our standards of how we define God. But that’s not what John is saying. What the scripture says is, “You will only be able to agape one another if God lives in you, because it is God’s agape that is being perfected in you.”
Your capability to love is nonexistent if God is not present in your life. You can not agape without God being present and working in your life. It was God’s agape that created you; that formed you in the image of God. It is God’s agape that calls you back to know God, so that you can, being renewed and reformed, go forth each week with hopeful expectation of being the presence of God’s agape in the world. God’s love has no prerequisites. God’s love is, because God is. And you, formed in the image of God’s love, are invited to allow God’s love to be made manifest and perfected in you, that all may know the love of God.
So I invite you this day, to once more claim and believe in the words of our faith. I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth. I believe God is love, and that I am a witness to that love. And that I am a vessel for that love, that I and all may know God is love. Amen.