Grace Presbyterian Church
June 3, 2018, Pentecost 2B
The Confessions: Apostles’ Creed – In the Fullness of Time
“Once upon a time…”
When you hear those words you are almost automatically conditioned to hear a story, and a particular type of story at that. Such a story might likely involve kings and queens and princes and princesses, but won’t necessarily tell you what country they are king or queen or prince or princess of. There might be other kinds of creatures in there besides humans, too – elves or fairies or dragons, who knows. It’s quite possible somebody will end up in distress (probably the princess, since these are usually old stories), and quite possibly the prince will be the one to rescue her from that distress.
In other words, you expect a fairy tale, or something very similar to a fairy tale. It’s fanciful, it’s going to have a happy ending, and it’s emphatically notgoing to be “real.” It won’t be a history. It won’t be “factual.” It may well have some hidden kernel of truth in its telling, a “moral of the story” or some similar lesson to be learned, it’s true. But it won’t be something you find in the history books.
Nowadays you can find a similar opening line with similar effects, in movie theaters: “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” It’s again a sign of a particular kind of story, one that takes place in space and across many planets. It does have a princess or two (until one of them became a general, at least), and characters in distress and people needing to be rescued, thrilling battles and in most cases, a happy ending, even if you have to wait through three movies to get to it. And again, aside from “a long time ago…” it’s not a history; it didn’t really happen, although some folks act as if it did.
A large part of the reason the Apostles’ Creed came into existence was to remind the church, through regular repetition and instruction, that the story of Jesus was exactly not that kind of story, even if some of the stories about how the Creed itself was made sound a bit like fairy tales. For centuries the official take was that the statement really was compiled by the twelve apostles, maybe at Pentecost, each of the twelve (right down to Matthias, the substitute apostle) contributing a phrase until it was done. It sounds lovely, to be sure, but that’s not how it happened. The apostles were too busy preaching that day.
Unlike any of the other documents collected in the PC(USA)’s Book of Confessions, we can’t in fact pinpoint exactly how the Apostles’ Creed came into being. It was finalized during the ninth century, again because an emperor (Charlemagne in this case) wanted the church to get its act together so he could use the church to unify his empire. We don’t, however, know how it got to that place, even though there are predecessors to the Apostles’ Creed – previous statements that ended up part of it – traceable as far back as the second century, even before the Nicene Creed.
Speaking of that statement, the Apostles’ Creed does share some traits with its fourth-century predecessor; it is organized largely around the Trinity, for example. What is clearly different is that while the Nicene Creed spends a certain amount of time speaking of each person of the Trinity, the Apostles’ Creed is clearly much more focused on one member, God the Son, Jesus Christ.
God is simply “the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” The Holy Spirit (or Holy Ghost, in the older translation in which it is most known) is mentioned – “I believe in the Holy Ghost” – but that is all. By contrast, the litany of what the Creed has to say about Jesus is pretty extensive, and much of what is included is about getting the facts straight.
Jesus is God’s only Son, first of all, and “our Lord” reinforcing the unity of being between the two. The next pair of statements address the divinity and humanness of Jesus: “Conceived by the Holy Spirit” marks Jesus as divine, while “born of the Virgin Mary” marks Jesus as human, “born of a woman” as Paul says in Galatians. (While later readers have obsessed on the “virgin” part to read that statement as somehow also emphasizing Jesus’s divinity, that’s not how ancient readers heard the statement.) “Suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead, and buried” also reiterates the facts of Jesus’s life, while tying his life to a historical figure (Pilate) as a refutation to those who would wave away the historicity of Jesus.
“He descended into hell” is perhaps the most problematic for us moderns, if for no other reason than it isn’t exactly clear what that’s supposed to mean. But “on the third day he rose from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God” takes us directly back to telling the story of this life that the church claims as its salvation.
In this sense the Apostles’ Creed has much in common with parts of scripture. The Book of Acts contains many sermons by Peter and the other apostles, which are largely recorded as accounts of this very story, given in the face of disbelieving religious authorities. Paul turns to these facts from the life of Jesus in teaching his readers in various cities, as here in Galatians when using the phrase “in the fullness of time” to mark his witness as being rooted in time, in history, rather than in some misty undefined unknown like the gods of the Greeks and Romans that surrounded them.
The Old Testament is, of course, full of the history of the people of Israel. It is also full, as the brief reading from Exodus demonstrates, of reminders that those people of Israel were instructed to rememberthose stories, and to perform acts specifically to remember those events in their history; in this case a vigil, to be kept by all generations to come, to remember their departing from Egypt. Remembering what happened, what was done in their history was constantly urged upon the people of Israel, and the early Christian church also needed to learn that lesson as well.
We modern Christians aren’t always that good at remembering the story, but there are some things we do that are part of that. Indeed, the very pattern of scripture and worship that we typically follow in the Presbyterian Church (USA) is structured in such a way that we at least somewhat tell the story; the progress from Advent and Christmas through Epiphany, to Lent and Easter and Ascension and Pentecost, is at root a way to tell the story of the birth, life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the story that is really the only reason for us to be here as a church.
It’s not surprising that we want to tell stories; it’s a trait that’s pretty hard-wired into humanity. But which stories we tell is so key, so crucial. And this story, a story of unyielding divine love and grace, is our story, rooted in history – in the “fullness of time” and echoing through all of eternity – is the story of life itself; life in Christ, life with one another that makes life possible and worthwhile and more than just a thing to be endured.
Tell the story. Say what we believe. Remember.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (fromGlory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #620, Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven; #460, Break Thou the Bread of Life; #481, I Believe in God the Father; #462, I Love to Tell the Story