The minister’s group in one of the towns where I served was beginning to fracture. We represented mainline churches, Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopalian, Roman Catholic and American Baptist, and lesser known denominations as well as some independent congregations. For years the ministers had focused on what could be done together. But a new group came in that was more interested in theological consensus. “I can’t be part of this group if you don’t have the right theology,” was a statement that came from some of my colleagues in ministry. They finally agreed that we would look at the Apostles’ Creed and determine whether or not it provided an adequate foundation to hold us together. I can’t remember exactly how the discussion (over several months) went, but I do know that theological disagreements ultimately divided the group. No longer would a segment be involved in helping host Lenten Lunches – or in supporting a Christmas ministry – or working with the Thrift Shop and the ministries it supported. They refused to associate with the rest of us – and, then, were angry when left out of something they thought was important! Even the Apostles’ Creed couldn’t hold us together!
The Presbyterian Church is known as a church that values our creeds – sometimes to the extent that the creeds replace the scriptures. In some ways they are instructive, telling us about the times from which they come. For example, the Confession of 1967 speaks of peace, responding to nuclear proliferation and the Vietnam War. It also responds to the problem of racism. Our newest creed, the Belhar Confession, comes from South Africa and has as one of its central themes the inappropriateness of a “separate but equal” theology. The creeds helped Christian communities, sects, and denominations clarify their boundaries and solidify their traditions. “I believe in God, the Father, maker of heaven and earth. And in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried.” So, begins what we know of as the Apostles’ Creed – oftentimes a weekly portion of worship. This congregation used to recite a version of that creed weekly. It is probably the most well-known creed in the Christian faith – partly because it is relatively short. So, it became our “study” document for the clergy group so that we could clarify our boundaries.
I don't remember what I contributed to the discussion. I imagine I was pretty quiet. It wasn’t because I find the Apostles’ Creed to be wrong, objectionable, or heretical, exactly. I just find it to be woefully incomplete – and in that, somewhat unhelpful. “…conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried.” That’s all that this creed has to say about the life, the ministry, the witness, and the testimony of Jesus. Actually, the creed says nothing about the life, the ministry, the witness and the testimony of Jesus! What mattered to the authors (or author) is how he was born, how he died, and the fact that God raised him from death.
"I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus told Martha. “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” A few months ago, I read a wonderful article (blog) by Morgan Guyton, titled “Five Alternative Facts of Toxic Christianity.” One of those “facts” was the elevation of the notion that the most important question of faith is where you will go when you die. He wrote: “If it isn’t nihilistic enough to believe that your observations and intuitions can’t be trusted and that you cannot possibly damage creation because God’s in control, then you can add to that the belief that our entire world is a mostly irrelevant passageway to the afterlife that really matters. Not to mention the fact that God wants to torture the vast majority of the people on this planet in hell forever. That leaves very little incentive to do anything to improve the world. As the great evangelist Dwight Moody said, ‘I look upon this world as a wrecked vessel. God has given me a lifeboat and said, Moody, save all you can.’ Hence, you end up with a nihilistic politics which has zero interest in the common good.” It struck me, this week, that perhaps the central place of the Apostles’ Creed in Christian tradition has had a profound influence on the Christian Church’s obsession with “where someone will end up after death.”
I saw that obsession when I was an intern at a large church, working with the Senior Highs. I wasn’t their Sunday School teacher, but I was expected to be in class each week. One Sunday morning, the father of one of the students collapsed as he was crossing the street. When he fell, his head hit the curb and he was gravely injured. The young people arriving at church saw the ambulance and knew that something bad had happened. An elder stood before the class. I expected him to encourage these students to care for their classmate whose life was being turned upside down. Instead he said, “Your friend’s father was injured today. If he dies, I don’t know if he will go to heaven. It certainly looks like he was a good man and should be able to get into heaven, but I can’t know for sure. We can’t know for sure. So, I want you to think about this. If you died today, would you be saved?”
I was horrified. Instead of compassion, instead of encouragement, instead of calling them to be Christ’s presence for their classmate, he focused on a message of fear – the fear of death and what that would mean for them. A colleague in an emergency room after a heart attack said that someone managed to get in and ask, belligerently, “Do you know where you’re going when you die?” He answered, “I think so. But I wasn’t planning on going today.” He still had work to do. He suffered the heart attack while serving as a volunteer firefighter in his small town. He was never able to go back to fighting fires, but he continued to serve as a chaplain for the department.
In this morning’s gospel story, Lazarus died. In response to his death, Jesus talked about the gift of life that he brought, a gift that had the power to render death powerless. “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” The boundary that we see and that we know and that we often fear, the boundary that is death, for Jesus, doesn’t really exist. “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” The world is so permeated with the life-giving presence of God that death is not to be feared – for even when our physical bodies wear out or are damaged beyond repair, our lives continue in God’s presence. Paul wrote in the first letter to the Corinthians, “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”
The story of Lazarus’ death does not end with a theological promise that Lazarus will someday live again. It ends with Lazarus’ resurrection – in this world. The promise of life eternal has implications for the world in which we live. We are invited to live without fear of death – so we are freed to live as God’s people.
What does it mean to be freed to live as God’s people? It does not mean that we are invited to be daredevils, tempting death and tempting God. Was that not one of the temptations set before Jesus? “Throw yourself down from here and God’s angels will bear you up!” Instead, we are freed from the need to be focused on preserving our own lives, we are freed from self-obsession. But, we are also freed for a purpose: to live into God’s ways, to proclaim those ways and work for the values of God’s realm. We speak and work for reconciliation where the world sees division and enmity as the only safe path. We speak and work for justice when the world says “me first” is the appropriate approach to life. We speak and work for compassion – especially for the most vulnerable—when the world says people get what they deserve. We support ministries of compassion, of healing and wholeness, and of education. Our One Great Hour of Sharing offering is one way of working on behalf of the values of God’s realm. Through it we feed the hungry, we respond to the suffering, and we work for and with people to help them have a brighter future.
The world may disparage such ministries. It may label them ineffective and naïve. But, we see in the life of Jesus the value of such endeavors. We see that he persisted in living according to the ways of God – even when his own life was threatened – even to the cross.
John’s gospel told us “for God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” I agree with Guyton that we do a disservice to the faith when we think that one of the most important aspects of faith is where we will be after we die. The gospel speaks powerfully of God’s concern with how it is we live now. The gift of eternal life is not a someday promise. It is a today, a now, promise so that we might be freed from fear – and live as God’s people in a world that is bound by fear. Amen.
Christmas Eve Service
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