We had great neighbors when we first lived in Macon. The kind of neighbors that become deep, life-long friends. The kind of neighbors where we just walked into one another’s homes without knocking. In fact, those neighbors remain dear friends today and are here with us this morning. And back when we lived on Highland Terrace, much of the time, living in downtown Macon, we were on one another’s front porches.
Such was the day that I walked over to sit on our friends’ porch after a long day of working on seminary papers and assignments. On the porch was a friend of our neighbor’s. As we got introduced, she asked the classic question, “what do you do?” Now, if you’re a pastor, that’s a loaded question. I’ve had all sorts of reactions to telling people I’m a pastor, many of them negative. But this one took the cake. She looked at me and said, with some choice words interspersed throughout, “how do you believe that [stuff]?”
I was taken aback but I wasn’t offended. I was empathic. It’s the classic question of faith. How do we believe what we proclaim to believe? How do we believe what the creeds say, including the Nicene Creed that we’ve been saying during this Easter season? How do we believe that stuff?
Let’s ask ourselves that question as we hear our scripture for this morning, Psalm 16.
One can imagine David, to whom this Psalm is ascribed, getting asked, “how do you believe that stuff?” The mighty ones, the holy ones, the noble ones, that he refers to are a people he knows, he has relationship with, and they’re worshipping pagan gods. They do not believe what David declares: that the boundary lines have fallen for him in pleasant places, that he has a peaceful heart and a secure body because God has given him the path of life, that in God’s presence he finds joy and pleasures forevermore.
Which are funny things for David to say, considering that at this point in his life, he’s being chased by the current King of Israel, Saul, and his army; hiding in caves; utterly rejected by most people. His life is anything but pleasant. And, it’s God who got him into this mess! He was a simple shepherd until God decided to raise him up to defeat Goliath. And then, he could have just remained a folk hero but God had to go and anoint him king of Israel while Israel already had a king!
David declares his faith, his trust, in God, over and against his lived experience and his friends’ beliefs. How could he believe that stuff?
It’s a relevant question for today. Many people are asking anyone of faith, regardless of tradition, how they can believe that stuff. The fastest growing segment of religion are those who hold to no belief. So, fair to say if we’re not getting asked directly how we believe what we confess, many around us are asking that question silently. If someone asked you, “how do you believe that stuff,” how would you respond?
My guess is, not with the words of the Nicene Creed. Light from light…begotten, not made….of one Being with the Father… It has some funky language, doesn’t it? I remember learning about it for the first time in seminary, thinking that this was the most verbose, tongue-twisting, oddity of a creed I’d ever heard. We were deep in the weeds of learning about the debates that gave rise to the Council of Nicaea, the one that gave us our Bibles as they are today and the one that developed this creed. There were massive debates about a variety of issues, especially revolving around the humanity and divinity of Christ. They were asking themselves, “how do we believe this stuff about Jesus?”
Santa Claus helped them answer that question. As the debates raged, two sides formed. On the one side was St. Nicholas, one of the primary historical figures that has given rise to our modern understanding of Santa Claus because St. Nicholas was known for taking bags of money and leaving them at the homes of the poor under the cover of darkness. Here at Nicaea, just south of Constantinople in modern-day Turkey, St. Nicholas was arguing that Jesus was homoousious: Greek for of the same stuff, or of the same being, as the Father. Arius, on the other hand, showed up ready to argue that Jesus was of similar stuff to the Father, but not the same; of similar being but not the same being. The greek word for that is homoiousious. Yes, there’s one letter difference between the two words; the letter “I” inserted before -ousious. They were arguing, at a certain level, over one letter in a word.
Today, that might seem kind of ridiculous, but the argument became so heated between the two sides that, as Arius was speaking, St. Nicholas, Santa Claus remember, crossed the room and slapped Arius across the face. Bishops from everywhere quickly pulled the two men apart before they could get into a brawl. Might be good to tell your children and grandchildren this Christmas that they’d better not make Santa angry by believing heretical things!
But Arius, St. Nicholas, and all the bishops gathered in Nicaea wanted to know, how do we believe this stuff about Jesus?
How does David believe this stuff?
How do we believe this stuff?
At the base of that question is a question of trust: how do we trust that God is who we proclaim God to be?
That’s what creeds do in our lives. They state at a base level what we believe to be true about God. We believe that God is one in three, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We believe that through God all things were created and that each of the members of the Trinity have a role to play in that creation. We believe many things about Jesus, as evidenced in his paragraph in the Nicene Creed: that he was and is God, made flesh, but still God; that Jesus came in human form for our sake, to suffer death and be buried, to rise again in accordance with the Scriptures and to be seated at the right hand of the Father, where he waits to come again.
We then say we believe in the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father and the Son; that we believe in the holy catholic and apostolic church; in other words, in a church that is universal and run by disciples in a hierarchy whose head are bishops, just like our bishops in The United Methodist Church.
We have many things to say in our creeds but they are the bedrock, the foundation, of our faith. They are, as David would say in Psalm 16, the boundary lines for us as a faith, which we might agree with David and say they have fallen for us in pleasant places. The creed states our answer to the question, “who is God? What do you believe?”
But note with me that we didn’t ask that question this morning. No, we asked “how do we believe this stuff?” In other words, how do we trust that what the creed says is true?
Trust is a function of character and competence. Consider people in your lives whom you trust. We trust them because they are who they say they are and because they do what they say they’ll do. I’ve been here going on a year now and building trust has been job number one. I recognize that anything we are to do together, any ways that we might respond to the movement of the Holy Spirit among us, requires that you trust me and my leadership. That means that you trust that I am who I say I am, that I act in ways that are congruent with what I proclaim, and that I do what I say I will do, that I have follow through; in other words, trusting my character and competence.
This is Stephen M.R. Covey’s definition of trust in his classic book on leadership, The Speed of Trust. He notes that where trust is present, organizations move quickly to make decisions, to take risks, and move in the same direction, to the great benefit of that organization and those whom they serve. But where trust is not present, or is threatened, the organization’s ability to move and make decisions and take risks slows down and sometimes stops completely, not only doing a great disservice to those they serve, but also threatening the very foundation of the organization itself. Where character and competence cannot be trusted, relationships fall apart and organizations break down.
Consider the story behind the phrase “and from the Son” in the Nicene Creed; a phrase known as the filioque. In the original form after the Council of Nicaea, the creed says “We believe in the Holy Spirit…who proceeds from the Father.” The Council of Toledo in 589 added the phrase, “and from the Son,” to say that Holy Spirit proceeds both from the Father and the Son. This is the language that’s currently in your bulletin, in our hymnal, and handed down to us from our Catholic forebears all the way back to Toledo and Nicaea.
But some didn’t like the addition of the Filioque. They felt like no one could change the creed from Nicaea, set back in the year 325. This debate over those four words, “and from the Son,” came to a boil in the year 1054. That year, Pope Leo IX excommunicated the bishop of Constantinople, Michael Cerularius, for several things, including his unwillingness to adopt the Filioque. Michael Cerularius, thinking he was more powerful than the pope, excommunicated Leo IX. From this moment of dueling excommunications, the church in the west, headed by Rome, and the church in the east, headed by Constantinople, broke apart from one another. This is one of the reasons why, today, we have Catholic Churches, like St. Joseph’s here in town, and we have Orthodox Churches, like the Greek Orthodox Church just down First Street. The filioque controversy split the church into Catholic and Orthodox denominations. In fact, those dueling excommunications stood as in effect until 1965, when Pope Paul VI and his counterpart in the Orthodox Church, Athenagoras I, cancelled the excommunications issued by their forebears some 1011 years prior.
This incident that led to division, a breakdown of the organization of the church and a loss of relationships, just as Covey describes, came down to questions of character and competence. Could Leo IX trust that Michael Cerularius was who he said he was if he wouldn’t believe in the Filioque? Apparently not; Leo did not trust the character of his counterpart. Could Michael Cerularius trust that Leo IX actually had the power to excommunicate him? Apparently not. He could not trust the competence of his counterpart.
Trust is a function of character and competence.
And so it is with God.
David’s answer to “how do you believe that stuff” would be to say he had seen God prove to have good character and be competent over and over again in his life. The boundary lines have fallen in pleasant places, he has a goodly inheritance, as he says in the Psalm, because God has provided, fulfilling promises, just as God said he would. That’s competence that can be trusted.
And in verse 7, we see David confessing that God is who God says he is: at night, God gives him counsel. God said, “never will I leave you nor forsake you” and has indeed remained present with David. God said he would be David’s God. God said he had a plan and is more powerful than Saul and any of the gods his contemporaries are worshipping. And in David’s life, he’s seen God prove all this to be true. That’s character that can be trusted.
Psalm 16 functions like a creed. It’s a basic statement of belief, here by David; a basic statement of trust that God is who God says he is and that God will do what God says he would do; that God can be trusted because God’s character and competence are trustworthy.
That’s what our creeds do. They declare who God is, sometimes with funky language like in the Nicene Creed; but they state this is what we believe about who God is. We believe that God is one in three, we believe that Jesus Christ came for our salvation, we believe that the Holy Spirit lives within us and energizes our holy, catholic, and apostolic church. We believe that God is for us, seen in providing Jesus Christ. We believe that God’s character can be trusted.
And the creed also tells us that God’s competence can be trusted. Consider the end of the creed: “We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” We believe that God will do what God said he would do: forgive our sins and raise us to new life, both in this life and the next. And then, in the creed, we declare that if God took care of Jesus “for our sake,” as the creed said, God will take care of us. In the creed, we claim that we trust that God will do what God said he would do; that God is competent.
So how do we believe that stuff? The only way to answer that question really is to say we trust God: we believe God is who God says he is and that God will do what God said he would do; we put trust in God’s character and competence.
Look back over your past. Where do you see examples of God’s character, of God proving that God is who he says he is? Where do you see examples of God doing what God said he would do? As David says, when have you known that the boundary lines are in pleasant places, that you have a goodly heritage, that the path of life is set before you, that in God’s presence is joy and pleasures forevermore? Where have you known the deliverance that David could point to, of being saved from things that threatened you? Where have you known, as the Nicene Creed might say, light from light breaking into your darkness? Where have you known that God is who God says he is? Where have you seen that God is doing what he said he would do?
For me, on that porch that day when I got asked, “how do you believe that stuff,” my first answer was some humor. I told her that, first, I don’t believe it’s “stuff,” using the word that she had actually used to describe faith. Then I said I had made a conscious choice based out of my experience. I had questioned God for a time. Many of you have heard before that I spent some time agnostic. Based on my experiences before, I did not feel that God was who he said he is and that God could not be trusted to do what God said he would do. I did not trust the character and competence of God. My experience of God after we moved back to Macon, finding healing in the church we attended, experiencing the power of God’s presence in my life personally, finding powerful support in the community around us at the church, led me to a place where I could trust God’s character and competence. And so, I made a choice and joined the church, professing that I believed; that I trusted.
For at the base of how we believe is trust.
So this morning, let us turn the question to ourselves. How do you answer the question, “how do you believe that stuff?” To answer that question, to find the basis for trust in God, look back over your past. Where do you see that God has proven trustworthy? What comes to mind? Where have you experienced God to be exactly what scripture and the Nicene Creed declare him to be, proving God’s character is trustworthy? Where have you known God to do what God said he would do through the promises of scripture and the creeds, proving God’s competence is trustworthy? How you answer these questions is your testimony. When someone asks you how you believe that stuff, your testimony of how God has proven trustworthy is your answer.
Or do you believe that God is not trustworthy? Maybe this morning, you’re where I was just about fifteen years ago as I began my first career in higher education: not trusting of God, doubting whether this stuff in the creed was true. That’s understandable! Keep searching, keep asking, keep looking back to your past, for God will meet you there. And come talk to me or Payton about your doubts; we’d love to walk that journey with you. If we keep seeking, we will find, one day no matter our doubt or even any negative feelings toward God, that God can be trusted.
In just a moment, we’ll say the creed together. We’ve moved it purposefully to follow the sermon so that, as we say it together, we can be aware of what it’s saying to us. The creed declares that God’s character and competence are trustworthy. As we read, listen for that. The creed has stories behind it: stories of a violent Santa Claus, stories of dueling excommunications; stories of humanity trying to figure out who God is and how to relate to God. Stories of learning to trust in God’s character and competence. Stories, ultimately, seeking to answer that question, “how do you believe that stuff?” And isn’t that our story?
Indeed it is. So, with our forebears in the faith, let us stand and confess our trust in God through reciting the Nicene Creed: Creed