here is tomorrow morning's sermon, which I have finally put to bed, minutes before heading there myself. I had high hopes of it, but am rather disappointed. However, experience suggests that how I feel about any given sermon will not be in any way reflected in the way it is heard or used. It's the first in an 8 week series on the Nicene Creed (much of which I'll miss while in India). My topic "We believe"
In a few moments we’ll stand, as we do week on week, to express the fundamental truths of our faith in the words of the Nicene Creed…Together, with more or less assurance we’ll announce
and then launch into the catalogue of doctrines which between them appear to define our faith.
That sounds pretty straightforward, really…but of course, it’s nothing of the kind.
We say “WE believe…” but can we really speak for anyone else? Can we indeed speak for ourselves as we address the whole range of doctrines? And if we can’t, does this prejudice the whole essence of our faith? Within this, or any other congregation there will be a range of emphases and meanings included in each recital of the creed, so the first thing I’d want to say is that we can only ever speak from our own perspective. Though truth may be objective, we receive and filter it through the lens of our own world-view. Language is finite and inevitably personal. It cannot but fail when it attempts to constrain the infinite God within its structures…What I mean when I say that “I believe …” will never match exactly your understanding of the same doctrine, in the same way that what you mean when you say that something is red may be very different from what I mean by the same word. We tend to assume that our experience of redness matches that of our neighbour, but there’s really nothing to support this…redness may be an objective reality in terms of the way that light refracts in a particular way…but our experience of it is something quite other.
So it is with belief in God.
There are many elements in a relationship with God which we may share,- which are, indeed, the common experience of humanity…but they will always be affected by our own experience, our own cultural context. Because we are living within the story of our relationship with God, our belief in it will be channelled through experience rather than based on any sort of objective proof. After all, faith is never a matter of proof. If it were, it would be knowledge…and much less interesting!
So, on any given Sunday, you or I may be struggling with any particular aspect of belief. You may be ready to throw in the towel altogether, while just a few seats away someone else is committing themselves afresh to their faith with the fervour born of a real and exciting encounter with God. Thanks to the corporate nature of the Creed, your neighbour can carry you along with her, her certainty countering your doubt.
In his classic book The Go-between God, Bishop John Taylor writes of our calling to “live to the glory of God by bearing responsibility for the selves of other men”
And we are unconsciously doing this as we become responsible for maintaining the collective faith of the congregation with our declaration
The collective faith of the people of God gathered here is greater than the sum of its parts…it is, after all, not “I believe” (as the BCP had us declare) but rather “We believe”…We, the body of Christ gathered here, in all our weakness and our certainty. WE believe….
One popular image of faith today is that of the journey…and we need to remember that each stop along a path, whether taken alone or in company, will lead you to a different landscape. The doctrine commission writing 30 years ago spoke of faith as a
“corporate activity to which all contribute, one in which progress, inheriting and building on the discoveries of our predecessors, is eminently possible”.
To accept this is not to invalidate the faith of the past,- but rather to recognise that our quest for truth is inherently personal, and should not be re routed or brought to an abrupt halt to fit in with existing conclusions. This is true as much for the individual as for the church…Many studies of the way faith grows have drawn attention to the way that it builds on earlier experience…John Westerhoff uses an image of faith development based on the rings of a tree. In the same way that each growth ring expands and reshapes the whole, so each new stage of faith changes our whole perspective,- but does not represent a more complete faith, any more than a tree with only three growth rings is somehow a less authentic tree than one with five.
This may be of some comfort at the times when aspects of the creed seem to belong more with the White Queen’s six impossible things that we’re asked to believe before breakfast. When confronted with a series of improbable propositions, whose authenticity seems dubious, grounded in the theological debates of long gone generations, the C of E doctrine commission may be encouraging
“Our basic loyalty is to God through Christ, and not to any exact doctrinal formulation about him”.
On this basis Bishop David Jenkins once produced a minimalist creed which I offer as a foundation on which you can build
“God is. He is for us. Therefore there is hope.
God is. He is as he is in Jesus.Therefore it is worth it.”
But -oh dear, - what of the days when even this seems too much…when the gift that is faith seems to have been well and truly denied you, and the struggle to believe threatens to overwhelm you?
That can be the most horrible feeling, specially if your previous experience has been of a shiny and unshaken confidence in every word of the creeds. I fear I have no sure-fire solution. My experience is that faith ebbs and flows for everyone, from the greatest saint to the most struggling curate….and in my experience the only thing to do on those days when the whole thing feels preposterous is to keep on behaving as if your faith was unshaken and unshakeable. Orthodoxy - right belief- is all very well, but orthopraxis – living your life in line with your beliefs – is even more important. So, when “I believe…” just sounds like a bad joke, my only suggestion is that you keep on keeping on. Turn your beliefs at their best into a way of life to sustain you at times when they are weakest. Continue to do your utmost to love the God who seems to have vanished behind the clouds, and to love your neighbour, who is probably all too present and un-loveable. Just keep on with it. You may not get any proof positive that this is reasonable behaviour…but keep on battering on God’s door, asking for the grace to believe. When Jesus said to Thomas “blessed are those who have not seen but yet believe” he was opening a route for all sporadic doubters to pray fervently for that blessing that is belief.
And take comfort…WE believe. Your faltering hopes, our doctrinal insecurities can be held by the great mass of Christian voices that have proclaimed the creeds throughout the centuries, until in God’s good time belief does indeed become knowledge as we meet the God in whom we trust face to face.
Meanwhile, let’s pray the words that we sang at last Sunday’s dedication service
“Lord of all, of Church and Kingdom,
in an age of change and doubt,
keep us faithful to the gospel,
help us work your purpose out.
Here, in this day's dedication,
all we have to give, receive;
we who cannot live without you,
we adore you! We believe."
May it be so. Amen