There was once a physics professor who was teaching his class the theory of the pendulum. He knew they responded well to physical demonstrations of theory so one day he held his class in the university gymnasium. The class gathered in the gym to discover that the professor had rigged a large, heavy ball on the end of one of the ropes that hung along the centre of the gym. He pulled the ball back and then asked the class, "Who can tell me what will happen when I let the ball go?" Well several hands went up and the correct answer was given: "The ball will swing backwards and forwards in an ever-decreasing arc. The effect of friction will be such that the pendulum will slow down and eventually stop."
"Do the rest of you believe that?" asked the Professor. There was general nodding around the room. "Excellent" said the Professor. "So, who’ll volunteer to come out here, hold the ball against their nose and then let it go?"
What do you think? Would you have volunteered? Would you have put your nose on the line? Can you see what the professor in that story has done? He’s moved the question from being simply theoretical to being life changing. I mean if the theory’s wrong your going to get a nose job aren’t you?
You see, there are some things you can believe and they don’t mean much to you. For example, if I told you the moon is 384,000 km from the earth, you’d just shrug your shoulders, wouldn’t you? Who cares? As long as it’s still up there! But if I told you I just came in from the car park and I noticed your front tyre was flat I’d probably get you a bit more interested.
There’s an incident in Luke 17 where 10 men who had leprosy meet Jesus and ask him to heal them. Listen to what happens and I want you to notice how their healing takes place. (Luke 17:11-16 NIV) ’As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance 13and called out in a loud voice, "Jesus, Master, have pity on us!" 14When he saw them, he said, "Go, show yourselves to the priests."’ You can imagine them going off to show themselves to the priests. They turn around and start walking and as they look down at their hands and arms the marks of their leprosy are still there. You can imagine one of them turning to his neighbour and saying "What do you think. Should we go and make a fool of ourselves with the priests or should we give up and go home?" Their faith at that moment is being tested. They’ve heard about Jesus. They really believed that he might be able to heal them, but now comes the crunch. How real is their faith? Is their faith life-changing faith? Is their belief in Jesus enough to make them go and show themselves to the priests? As we read on we discover in fact it was. "And as they went, they were cleansed." Their faith, their belief in Jesus is shown in their doing what Jesus says. And their belief changes their lives.
The things you believe or don’t believe will change your life as well. If you don’t believe me when I tell you that you have a flat tyre, it could ruin your day. If you don’t believe what we read last week in Acts 10, that Jesus has been appointed as the judge of the living and the dead, it could ruin your whole life, your eternal life. And that’s why today we begin a series of sermons thinking about the basic things we believe as Christians.
What we believe as Christians will largely determine how we live. I don’t just mean what we say we believe. I mean what we believe in the depths of our being.
What’s in our subconscious mind has an enormous effect on the decisions we make, on the relationships we form, on the way we manage those relationships, even on the degree to which we enjoy life. It can either limit us or it can free us up. So the intention of this series is to free us up to live life to the full, to reinforce those beliefs that are basic to the Christian walk, to help us renew our minds so that our thinking conforms with the mind of Christ. Do you remember what Romans 12:2 says? "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God -- what is good and acceptable and perfect."
It’s good every now and then to refresh our minds about what we believe. To affirm again the content of those words we say just about every week. But it’s not just about reinforcing our head knowledge, it’s about what’s in the depths of our psyche. It’s about those beliefs that shape our lives, It’s about helping us grow to maturity as followers of Jesus Christ.
Well, let’s think about what we mean when we talk about faith. We’ve already seen that faith isn’t just intellectual assent. It includes that, but it’s actually more than that. As you can see from that illustration about the pendulum, faith also involves trust and commitment. And, as in the case of the account of the 10 lepers, commitment often shows itself in obedience. Well let’s think about those 3 elements for a moment.
When we declare "I Believe..." We’re saying we believe something is true. But there’s a problem there. When we say "We believe in God" are we simply saying this is an idea that we’re happy with or that helps us get on with life. Is it on the same level as a child who says "I believe in the tooth fairy" because they know they’ll get a dollar or two for every tooth they lose? Or is there more to our belief than that? Do we mean we believe that God exists independently of us? Or is there more still? Do we perhaps mean that we have confidence in God, that we trust in God?
You’ll have heard the question asked by Zen monks of their initiates: "If a tree falls down in a forest, and no one is around, does it still make a noise?" They’re asking a question about the essential nature of truth, of reality. Is this world real of its own essence or only as we experience it? That’s a similar question to the one we’re answering when we say we believe in God. We’re saying we understand reality as being independent of ourselves, of our experience of the world. We’re assenting to the notion that God exists, that he’s made the world and everything in it, that he’s revealed himself to us in a way that allows us to grasp some of the reality of who he is, at the same time as realising that we can never go close to fully grasping that reality.
But we’re doing far more than just assenting to that truth. We’re also involving our will. We’re also giving our trust and commitment to that truth.
When we say "I believe in God" or "I believe in Jesus Christ" we’re not just saying we believe that God exists, or that Jesus Christ was a real figure in history. We’re also affirming that we have a trust in God, a trust in Jesus Christ. Faith isn’t just a cold intellectual assent, it’s a personal response to the person of God.
The danger with something like the apostle’s creed is that it becomes a formulary that we can repeat mindlessly without taking in the deeper personal content of our belief. When we name God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit we’re putting a deeply personal element into our confession of faith. If I were to tell you I believe in my father, I’d be saying much more than that I believe he exists or that he was the one who helped bring me into the world. I’d be speaking of his personal integrity or his solidity, or the fact I can rely on him to do certain things. And so it is when we say I believe in God the Father, or Jesus Christ, or the Holy Spirit.
We name God as we affirm our faith in him because the naming of God as God the Father, as Jesus Christ or as Holy Spirit puts a personal element into our faith. In a sense it helps us put a face to what we believe.
Let me tell you a story. A uni student entered the lecture room one morning sporting a large diamond ring on her left hand. The lecturer noticed this, along with the close proximity of the young man sitting at her side. So he said, "Mary, did you just get engaged?" "Yes" she said. "John and I are getting married next holidays." "So," the lecturer continued, "I assume you must be in love with John. So tell me, why do you love him?" She replied because he was so handsome. "But so is Bill," the lecturer said pointing to a ruggedly handsome young man a few rows back. "Don’t you think he’s handsome too? "Well, yes," said Mary, "but John’s also athletic. The lecturer pointed out that Bill was well known for excelling in several sports. Mary then added that John was intelligent. But Bill was captain of the university debating team. Mary then said how polite John was. "Are you suggesting that Bill’s rude?" He asked. You can imagine how frustrated Mary was getting at this point. So the Lecturer finally asked again "Just what is it that attracted you to John?" Finally Mary replied: "I love him because he’s ... because he’s ... well, because he’s just John."
You see, her love for John needed more than a list of attributes to define it. It wasn’t just an intellectual issue. It was a personal thing that could only be summed up by the use of his name.
So too, when we think about what we believe as Christians, the most important thing is not the attributes but the person in whom we profess our faith. What matters is that we trust this personal God to do what he says he’ll do. Heb 11:1 defines faith as: "the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." And that conviction comes from our knowledge of the God who made those promises, who assured us of that hope in the first place.
But thirdly faith requires an element of commitment or obedience. If my will isn’t involved then it’s just intellectual belief. As in the example with the pendulum, unless I’m committed to what I believe it’s not really faith. I know someone who believes in their football team so much that even when they were on the bottom of the ladder they’d still pick them to win week after week. Now that’s real faith, shown by that level of commitment. Of course that sort of faith, unlike Christian faith isn’t founded on any understanding of reality. But nevertheless it illustrates the way real faith leads to action.
The apostles creed first came into use in the early church as part of the baptismal rites. The convert was expected to affirm the statements of the creed as a sign that they were ready to commit their whole lives to Jesus Christ as their Lord and God.
So when we say the creed it’s a sign of our commitment to God as our Lord and Saviour. It’s a sign that we’re giving over our lives to the God whom we profess; that we’re ready to do as he says, to follow him wherever he leads.
At the start of Revelation, God sends a message to the 7 churches of Asia Minor. One of those is the Church at Laodicea. It’s a church that started well, but has lost its commitment. It’s no longer either hot or cold and as a result faces God’s judgement. But he gives them one last chance. He says I’m waiting outside your door, knocking. If you’ll open the door and let me in I’ll enter and eat with you. In other words if they’ll open their lives to his indwelling presence, to his Lordship, he’ll come and fill them.
When we say the creed each Sunday it should be an act of opening our lives to God. It’s not just reciting a set of beliefs. It’s saying to God, "I believe that you’re alive in my life, I open myself to you once again. Come in and fill me."
And when we do that he’ll come in. We’ll experience his presence in our lives. Our lives will be changed not only in a way that affects our actions but also in a way that we feel with our emotions.
This is what we found in that reading from Ps 19 today. Listen to Ps 19:7-10 and notice the way the emotions come into play as he reflects on God’s revelation of himself in the word of God:
"The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul: the command of the Lord is true, and makes wise the simple. 8The precepts of the Lord are right, and rejoice the heart: the commandment of the Lord is pure, and gives light to the eyes. ... 10More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold: sweeter also than honey than the honey that drips from the comb.
It revives the soul, it rejoices the heart, it gives light to the eyes; it’s more to be desired than gold. The commitment we make to God in our daily or weekly profession of him involves intellect, trust and commitment. It invokes the will and the emotions. And it results in obedience.
Finally I just want us to spend a few moments thinking about how we’re going to express our belief in God. This is important because so many people today, even many Christians, have a hole in their understanding of God. They either have a superstitious view brought about by their exposure to popular media rather than Christian theology or else an unbalanced view caused by the emphasis in certain parts of the Church on one aspect of God over the rest.
You can see this in contemporary Christian hymns. It’s interesting when you look at the choice of good modern hymns we have that there are plenty about Jesus, but not a whole lot about God the Father. Plenty about God as saviour but not a lot about the majesty of God.
And we have the added problem that God is so far beyond our comprehension that he’s essentially unknowable. Let me give you an illustration. I want you to close your eyes and try to picture your favourite ice cream cone. Do you see it there? Is it rum and raisin, or double choc chip, or boysenberry whirl? Now my guess is, no-one in this room had any trouble picturing that ice cream cone.
But now, close your eyes again. This time I want you to think in concrete terms about God, particularly about God the Father. What pictures arise in your mind?
It’s a lot harder isn’t it? Most of the ideas we have about God end up fairly abstract. So how are we going to express a belief in a God who is essentially beyond us? Well, God in his goodness has come down to our level to reveal himself to us in pictures and ideas that help us grasp something of what he’s like. But the warning is there. The words we use are only ever pointers. When we use concrete pictures we need to be clear that we’re not equating the pictures with God. When we speak of God stretching out his mighty arm we understand the idea of his power and influence on the world without thinking that God has two arms and a leg. When we hear that God owns the cattle on a thousand hills, we don’t think of him as the ultimate Squatter. Rather we understand that he claims ownership of the whole of his creation.
But in fact the greatest revelation of the nature of God comes in the person of Jesus Christ who is the image of the invisible God, pre-eminent in all creation. Hebrews describes him as "the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being." And so when we come to the creed, most of what we say has to do with God the Son, who expresses for us most clearly the nature of God. Again, it’s our relationship with Jesus Christ that highlights our faith in God, that changes the way we live, as we seek to give him the commitment he deserves as God made flesh.
Well, we could go on a lot more I’m sure, but I’m equally sure that you’ll be pleased if I don’t, so let’s leave it there. Over the next few weeks we’ll be thinking about the ideas behind the various phrases of the creed, beginning with God the Father and finishing with the hope of eternal life that our faith looks forward to.
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