Sunday, February 14, 2016

I Believe

What do you believe? I know: we are in a church building. You might be tempted to throw out the uber religious answers. “I believe in God. I believe in Jesus, God’s Son.” And that is OK, if those are the things you really believe in! But I wonder how we might answer that same question in another setting. At school? In the office? In our living rooms? Some of the best-known names in history have been asked that question.

I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality…I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word. (Martin Luther King, Jr.)
Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart. (Anne Frank)
I believe we are all worms. But I believe I am a glowworm. (Winston Churchill)
What do you believe? What do you believe is your purpose for being on this planet? What do you believe so deeply that it fuels your life? What belief gives your life passion?

In 1951, Edward R. Murrow began a five-minute CBS radio program entitled: “This I Believe.” This radio segment lasted five years. It invited people from all walks of life to write and read essays about what they believe, or rules they live by. Over the years, giants, such as Helen Keller, Eleanor Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Albert Einstein wrote and read their essays. The show even sparked an international organization that continues to engage people in writing and reading their essays. They are asked to write about the core values that guide their lives. Over 125,000 of these essays are now archived on the website whatibelieve.org.

Why do you suppose so many people have been willing to share their “I believe statements” over these decades? I’ll tell you why: Because a really good “I believe statement” sets the direction of your life. It provides crystal clear clarity. “This is who I am, this is why I’m here, and this is the thing to which I’ve given my life.”

What do you believe?

There is a conversation recorded in Mark’s Gospel that marked one of the most pivotal moments of Jesus’ ministry. In fact, Mark’s entire gospel hinges on this one conversation. Everything that happened before it, pointed us toward it. Everything that happened after it, pointed back to it! It also signaled a dramatic shift in Jesus’ ministry. Before this conversation, Jesus’ ministry centered in Galilee. Things were great! Crowds were enormous! Energy and excitement were everywhere! But after this conversation, everything changed. Jesus headed out of Galilee and toward Jerusalem. And we all know what happened in Jerusalem! His message changed sharply. He began talking about death and suffering and the crowds went away.

This conversation, which sits right at the center of this gospel has been called by one commentator, the “fulcrum” of Mark’s gospel. Because everything in the gospel hinges on this one conversation. This is what happened…
Jesus and his disciples went into the villages near Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”
They told him, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, and still others one of the prophets.”
He asked them, “And what about you? Who do you say that I am?”
Peter answered, “You are the Christ.” Jesus ordered them not to tell anyone about him. (Mark 8:27–30 CEB)
In this one statement, Peter finally said out loud what he and his companions had probably thought for months. Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ! He is the One we have been waiting for. He is the King who we have been expecting. He will sit on David’s throne. He will kick out the Romans and Israel will return to its rightful place atop all other world powers.

That is what Peter meant when he said, “You are the Christ.” Don’t you know some of them believed it was Him all along? When Jesus fed the 5,000 people back in Mark 6, he had them sit down in groups of hundreds and fifties. Then they ate their loaves and fishes. Why sit them in groups of hundreds and fifties? Because that is how you organize an army! Don’t you think some of the disciples thought, “Today is the day, the day we’ve been waiting for all of these generations. Today the revolution begins!” Or, what about when Jesus calmed that storm or when He walked on water? Don’t you think those disciples had conversations among themselves? “Surely, it’s gotta be Him. Well, just ask Him! I’m not going to ask Him…you ask Him!” Back and forth; back and forth. And finally, as Jesus approached the villages near Caesarea Philippi, He just asks them, he just lays it out there: “Who do people say that I am?” and then, “Who do YOU say that I am?” What He was really asking them was this: “What do you believe about me?” “You are the Messiah; the Christ”—finally someone said it out loud. But Jesus knew then…they still had no idea who He was! That is why He tells them, “You better not tell anyone else that!” We think sometimes that Jesus told them that because He wanted to keep His identity secret. That’s not it! He told them to keep quiet because they were wrong! When Peter said, “You are the Christ,” he meant “You are the victorious general, King who has come to set things right with your power.” And that was not Jesus’ mission. And so, Jesus says, “Don’t tell anyone else what you just said.”

And then, we have one of the most important sections in the New Testament. First, Jesus tells them who He really is. And second, He tells His disciples what it means for them to say, “I believe Jesus is the Christ…”
Then Jesus began to teach his disciples: “The Human One must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and the legal experts, and be killed, and then, after three days, rise from the dead.” He said this plainly. But Peter took hold of Jesus and, scolding him, began to correct him. Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, then sternly corrected Peter: “Get behind me, Satan. You are not thinking God’s thoughts but human thoughts.”
After calling the crowd together with his disciples, Jesus said to them, “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me and because of the good news will save them. Why would people gain the whole world but lose their lives? What will people give in exchange for their lives? Whoever is ashamed of me and my words in this unfaithful and sinful generation, the Human One will be ashamed of that person when he comes in the Father’s glory with the holy angels.”
Jesus continued, “I assure you that some standing here won’t die before they see God’s kingdom arrive in power.” (Mark 8:31–9:1 CEB)
Notice that Jesus told Peter, “Don’t tell anyone I am the Christ.” But here in verse 32, Jesus “told them plainly”—out loud for all to hear—“This is who I am.” You see, Jesus was redefining “Christ” for them. And He would continue to redefine “Christ” for them for the next eight chapters. All the way to Jerusalem! They were expecting a conquering general; Jesus instead came to offer His own life. Just saying the words is not enough. You have to understand what the words mean. It’s not enough to simply say, “I believe Jesus is God’s Son.” What does that mean? And how does that “I believe statement” change your life?

“I Believe Statements” are of crucial importance. Adolf Hitler believed Jewish people were inferior and that belief set in motion his mission in life—He killed six million Jews. European explorers believed the earth was round, and that belief set in motion their mission. They got in boats and headed into unchartered territory. People told them, “You will fall off the edge of the world!” But their belief caused them to push ahead and they settled entire continents. Today, new narratives (new beliefs) are emerging all of the time. Some people believe American ideals and freedom are the only hope for this world, what will be the implications of that belief 500 years from today? Some people believe Islam and the Muslim people are dangerous and should be stopped, what will be the implications of that belief two or three generations in the future? Some folks believe all religions are the same and to focus on our distinctiveness is to invite hate and war, what will be the last implications of radical pluralism in our world? Only time will tell. But “I believe” statements lead to change in our world. They always have.

And church, what we believe about God is of utmost importance…

To be honest, we live in an age where there is a lot of uncertainty when it comes to God. I don’t mean simply that people do not believe in God, but that people aren’t sure what to believe about God. According to a University of Chicago study, 25% of Americans believe in reincarnation (that they were once another person). A growing number of Americans (33%) believe that religion is largely old-fashioned and out of date. Twenty-one percent of Americans believe the Bible is nothing more than an ancient book of fables, legends, history and moral precepts recorded by men. “I believe statements” have implications. So, how can the church engage a world with so many questions about God and religion?

What do we do when there is so much uncertainty—outside of these walls and INSIDE of these walls? If it helps, we are not the first generation to live in an age of uncertainty. In fact, some of the earliest Christians we know about lived in a similar age. An age where people were asking all sorts of questions about religion. Within the church itself, there was a mixture of Jew, Roman, Greek, Atheist. And all of these groups came into the church at one time trying to make sense of this new, emerging world religion. And in order to combat heresy, in order to help the church define orthodoxy, in order to help the church remember what is most important, they developed statements that clearly defined the most important elements of the faith. They called them “creeds.” Now, I know the word “creed” carries with it a lot of baggage, especially in our Movement. We are part of a movement that did away with creeds. We were known to say, “We have no creed but the Bible.” Creeds have led to division within the church throughout the centuries, no doubt.

But I’m not talking about denominational creeds. I’m not talking about a Methodist creed, or a Presbyterian creed, or any other creed that separates one kind of Christian from another. I’m talking about the foundational statements put together by Christians in the 1st and 2nd centuries that helped define orthodoxy within the church. These statements pre-dated even the New Testament. In fact, many of them helped bring the books of the New Testament together. If certain books agreed with the major tenants of the faith, as outlined, for example, in The Apostles’ Creed, they were accepted as canonical. If they did not agree with those creeds, they were left out. Those creeds said, "This is what matters!” This is most important, this is the heart of the faith, we may agree to disagree on many other matters, but not these! This is the gospel!

In fact, we have in our possession a tremendous resource from the late second century (or early third century) called Apostolic Tradition. It was written by an early church leader named Hippolytus. The Apostolic Tradition gives us insight into what was happening in the church in the late 2nd century. What did communion look like? What did baptism look like? What took place in those house churches? Have you ever asked those questions? We know that when people were baptized they first answered three key questions:

Do you believe in God, the Father Almighty?

Do you believe in Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who was born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and was dead and buried, and rose again the third day, alive from the dead, and ascended into heaven, and sat at the right hand of the Father, and will come to judge the quick and the dead?

Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, and the holy church, and the resurrection of the flesh?

And there is a reason these questions took center stage during baptisms. Because in the months and years leading up to someone’s baptism, they learned about each of these statements. They learned that these statements formed the heart of the Christian faith. People may disagree about many things. But we all agree on this.

I have had many people come to me as their child approaches the “age of baptism.” Most of them have similar questions: “What does my child need to know? When are they ready? How will I know? What is most important? There is so much 'stuff' pertaining to religion in our world, but what is at the core?” Have any of you ever asked those questions? We live in an age of uncertainty. My kids come home today and ask all kinds of questions about: Islam, Judaism, Homosexuality, Gay Marriage, Republicans, Democrats, War, Denominations, Unity within Diversity, Tolerance, Freedom. And each of those questions is directly or indirectly related to some element of the faith. And children and adults in our age are asking: "What is most important? What is at the heart of our faith? What do I need to believe?”

Now, you know me well enough to know how much I care about unity. I believe most of the stuff we disagree about is not very important. But at the heart of our faith is some really important stuff! There are some things that are non-negotiable! And on these matters, we cannot compromise. That doesn’t mean we have to build walls around ourselves and not associate with people who disagree with us. But it does mean that we will not sacrifice our belief in these things even for the sake of unity.

Over the next several weeks, we are going to spend some time with these core tenets of our faith. We will finish the statement: “I Believe…” We will spend a week talking about what it means to say “I Believe…”
  • In God, the Father Almighty
  • In Jesus Christ, the Son of God
  • That Jesus really was dead and buried
  • That Jesus really came back to life
  • In the Holy Spirit
For over 20 centuries, Christians have viewed these “I believe statements” as the heart of the faith. They have been non-negotiable and they have significant implications for we live. Because, church, a real “I believe statement” changes your life. That is why Jesus had that conversation with Peter on the road that day. That is why, once the disciples heard the real “I believe statement,” Jesus demanded that their ministry change direction. Because when we clearly understand who God is, when we clearly articulate what we believe about God, that demands that we change our lives. That demands that we become someone new.

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