Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost - 08/27/2017

A week from Tuesday I’ll begin teaching a Lay School class on Early Church History.  The class focuses on what are known as the Seven Ecumenical Councils which took place between the years 325 and 787.  It is out of those councils that we get much of what is still considered to be foundational Christian theology, God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit and Jesus as fully human and fully divine.  What the bishops who gathered for these councils were really doing, was attempting to answer Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?”

That’s the big question in today’s gospel reading.  I always find it interesting though, that Jesus leads with “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”  For the disciples that’s an easier question.  They’d been around Jesus and the crowds that followed him for awhile and they had to have been aware of the chatter concerning Jesus.  It wouldn’t have been hard to report what they’d been hearing, that some thought Jesus was John the Baptist raised from the dead, some thought he was Elijah or Jeremiah or one of the prophets.

It wasn’t until he hit them with, “But who do you say that I am?” that you picture the disciples avoiding eye contact, looking away, scraping the dirt with the toe of their sandals, hoping that someone else would answer before Jesus called on them.  They got their wish, of course, as good old Peter, impulsive, impetuous Peter jumped in with, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God,” and all the other disciples heaved a sigh of relief. 

Picture yourself though; you’re a regular church goer, present even on a lazy, late summer Sunday.  What if, as you were leaving today, what if a stranger happened to be walking through the parking lot and, not being confrontational but just curious, asked you, “Just what is it that you people in there believe?”  Could you come up with anything?  Would there be an awkward silence until the stranger said, “Never mind; have a nice day”?  I’ve been in meetings with Bishop-elect Katherine when she’s asked prospective Licensed Lay Ministers, “Who is Jesus to you?” and I’ve thought “I’m glad she didn’t ask me that,” because I’m afraid that off the top of my head  whatever I came up with might just be incoherent  drivel.  You know what you believe, you have faith, but it can be hard to put it into words.

The bishops of those Seven Ecumenical Councils did put it into words, words we know as the Nicene Creed.  When I’ve preached about this text before, I’ve said that for us, the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed would represent our answer to “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” not the answer to “Who do you say that I am?”  If you recited the creed to the stranger in the parking lot, he’d probably say, “Those don’t sound like your words.”  The challenge to put it into you own words would still be hanging out there.

My thinking on the creed as the answer to “Who do you say that I am?” has changed though.  I’ve never been anti-creed.  You probably know that there are Christian churches that don’t include any creed as part of their worship services perhaps thinking that an open mind and a good heart and good deeds are more important than a fixed structure of belief.  Deeds vs. creeds it’s sometimes called.  Bishop Skrenes has said that in his travels around this synod he has found some of our churches where the creed is not a regular part of worship.  Personally, I’ve always thought that the creed is an important part of worship as it provides the boundaries within which we talk about God as Christians and because it’s a witness to the historic tradition and community of which we are a part.  Understood correctly, it sets boundaries that are not barriers.

Where I’ve changed though, is that more and more I think the creed isn’t just about “Who do people say that I am,” but that it does represent perhaps the best answer we can give to “Who do you say that I am?”  Especially in the rather fractured world in which we live, the creed provides a unique and needed vision of the world’s origin, meaning and destiny as it describes faith in God as Trinity with Jesus at the center. 

If you were to recite the words of the creed to the stranger in the parking lot, while he might be mystified by your words, what you would have said is that these words represent our vision of what is true and what is real and that it is different and far more hopeful than the prevailing vision of reality.  It’s a vision that doesn’t just answer “Who do you say that I am?” and tells us about God and Jesus, it also provides a vision of who we are and how we are to live out our answer to Jesus’ question.

Our vision, as witnessed in the creed, is of a creator God who is all powerful and who has given us a world to care for, a garden to tend, not a landscape to pillage.  It’s a God who has created each of us in his image which is a huge affirmation of what it is to be human.  It tells us that each of us has great worth and great potential and great dignity as we care for the world and each other.  We’re not just interchangeable parts of a society that only values production, we’re not part of a population where some groups are perceived as better than others because all people are valued and loved by God.

Our vision says that Jesus as the Son of God became one of us, giving us a share in God’s own life, forgiving us and making us part of his life.  He suffered and died showing us that suffering and brokenness can transform reality and provide new life and new possibilities.  In and through the Holy Spirit we acknowledge that humanity isn’t just governed by impersonal evolutionary forces but that there is a Spirit who guides and leads. 

That just scratches the surface of what the creed means, but when Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” again, it’s not just about him, it’s about a whole different way of being in the world, a way that challenges the dominant realities by which the world mainly runs.  If we use the words of the creed to answer Jesus’ question and it’s just rote memorization, then it might only be the answer to, “Who do people say that I am?” but if we have some sense of the depth of meaning behind those words, they do answer “But who do you say that I am?”

For Jesus’ disciples, including Peter, there was no creed yet from which to find words to answer the question.  Peter did come up with a good answer, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God,” even if in the verses that make up next week’s gospel we find that he didn’t really understand his answer.  Jesus’ response in today’s reading is interesting though.  He affirms Peter’s answer but also says, “For flesh and blood have not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” 

I’d never paid much attention to that verse before, but my take on it is that even for someone like Peter who had been around Jesus for awhile, the full answer concerning Jesus’ identity wasn’t going to be known just by evaluating the flesh and blood data, the facts on the ground as it were.  Peter’s answer wasn’t just about observation and reason, it was revealed by the Father. 

That’s another reason I think the words given to us in the creeds are so valuable as we respond to Jesus’ question.  Among those who are opposed to creeds, there are those who object because the creeds are not strictly biblical, they move into what you could call philosophical interpretation.  They think that what we have to do is get back to the historical Jesus and determine what in the gospels is historically accurate and not just the interpretation of the gospel writer.  They would say that if we did that, we’d really be able to answer, “Who do you say that I am?” because we would really know the historical Jesus.  The trouble is that you can’t do it and even if you could, as was the case with Peter, it wouldn’t be enough.  It takes more than connecting the historical dots to fully reveal Jesus’ identity.

Jesus identity can’t be verified only by observable facts.  The facts enable you to know about Jesus, but not really to know him.  The facts told Peter about Jesus, but it took more than that for Peter to recognize Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.  For us, the creed can represent the “more than that” that moves us beyond just knowing about Jesus.  We give thanks for the apostles and early church fathers who, guided by the Spirit, were given the gift of seeing more in Jesus than the historical facts would tell them.

Sharing their vision we are then able to speak a prophetic word to a world that needs it, encouraging others to join us in embracing that vision that runs so counter to the prevailing wisdom of the world.  To answer Jesus’ “Who do you say that I am?” question, facts and reason aren’t enough.  We call on the wisdom and vision of the church, trusting in the guidance of the Spirit.

Having done so, as we say the words of the creed we don’t just answer Jesus’ question, we live into the vision it represents.  Our answer becomes words that do describe a rule of faith but they’re also more than that.  Embracing the vision, our answer also becomes a way of life.    

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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