(A word of encouragement presented at an All-faith Protestant service in August 2016)
“I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth. And in Jesus Christ, His only begotten Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried; He descended into hell; the third day He rose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven. And sitteth at the at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit; the holy Christian church, the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen”
How many of you recognize these words as the Apostles’ Creed? This is a statement of the main Christian beliefs whose earliest versions can be traced back to the A.D. 100’s. It is likely that the creed grew out of the life of the church. It was probably derived from an earlier creed, which was a baptismal confession.
Rich Mullins, the Christian singer/songwriter once said about the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe what I believe. It’s what makes me who I am. I did not make it. No, it is making me. It is the very truth of God and not the invention of any man.” He was echoing the words of the Apostle Paul recorded in Galatians 1:11-12. “But I make known to you, brothers, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through the revelation of Jesus Christ.”
The Creed touches on the central issues of the Christian faith, but there is much it passes over. It says nothing about Satan, angles, demons, predestination, baptism, church government, or the details of Christ’s future Second Coming. It gives us the big picture of what Christians believe. We may believe more than what the Creed says, be we don’t believe less than that.
At its heart, the church is a community of believers who are joined by their shared faith in Jesus Christ. That’s why the church for 2000 years has affirmed the Apostles’ Creed. It expresses our common faith in Christ.
Dorothy L. Sayers in her essay ‘Creed or Chaos’ wrote in the 1930’s that “the Creed – that precisely formulated and clearly defined set of Christian beliefs – is our only defense against chaos.” The Creed reminds us that Christianity has a doctrinal basis. Although we talk a lot about a personal relationship with Jesus, that more than a feeling or personal experience. It’s a relationship based on the truth revealed in the Bible.
In this room we represent a wide range of denominational backgrounds: Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, Mennonites, Pentecostals, Evangelicals, Adventists and Fundamentalists. A real all-faith worship service. We come together in Christian unity where we focus on what we have in common rather than what makes us different, an Ecumenical Movement. Psalms 133:1 says, “How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity.” And verse 3 goes on, “for there the Lord bestows his blessing, even life forevermore.”
The oneness of the church is the basis for true Christian unity. Paul explains the basis of our unity in Christ by using the word “one” seven times in Ephesians 4:4-6. “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.”
When Jesus prayed in John 17:21 that “they may be one,” he was asking the Father to help believers demonstrate on earth the perfect unity that exists in heaven between the Father and the Son. We are never told to create unity; God has already done that in Christ. We come together from different backgrounds, different levels of education, different places in our spiritual walks; we bring with us different preferences in worship style and different understanding of the spiritual gifts. But we are all members of one body with Christ as the head. And as a result, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
“For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many are one body, so also in Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free – and have all been made to drink into one Spirit. For in fact the body is not one member but many. If the foot should say, ‘Because I am not the hand I am not of the body,’ is it therefore not of the body? If the whole were hearing, where would be the smelling? But now God has set the members, each one of them, in the body just as he pleased. And if they were all one member, where would the body be? But now indeed there are many members, yet one body. And the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you.’ Nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ No, much rather, those members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary. And those members of the body which we think to be less honorable, on these we bestow greater honor; and our unpresentable parts have greater modesty, but our presentable parts have no need. But God composed the body having given greater honor to that part which lacks it, that there should be no schism in the body, but rather that the members should have the same care for one another. And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it, or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.”
-1 Corinthians 12:12-26
According to C.S. Lewis, “We as Christians are not called to individualism but to membership in the mystical body. By ‘members’ St. Paul meant what in the Greek are called ‘organs’ – things essentially different from and yet complementary to one another. In modern usage, such as in logic, you find the expression ‘members of a class’ where the items or particulars are homogenous. We would call members of a club merely units. A row of identically dressed and identically trained soldiers set side-by-side. So, when we describe a man as a ‘member of a church’ we usually mean something different from the Apostle Paul. How true membership in a body differs from inclusion in a collective may be seen in the structure of a family. The grandfather, the parents, the grown-up son, the child, the dog and the cat are true members precisely because they are not members or units of a homogenous class. They are not interchangeable. If you subtract any one member, you have not simply reduced the family in number you have inflicted an injury on its structure. Its unity is a unity of unlikes.”
We come together with our rich diversity of religious backgrounds to form something that is both unique and organic in nature. That’s why no two prison chapels are the same and why if you are here long enough, you’ll see changes in the style of our worship. For example, forms of music come from the gifted musicians and singers. These are not permanent groups but simply the amalgamation of the individuals presently participating. We are blessed to have who we have and should rejoice that they are willing to share their gifts with us. It may not be your personal preference for worship style, but it gives glory to God and lifts the spirits of others in the group. There is no place for criticism simply because that is not how you worshipped at your home church. If you want a say in the worship style, get involved with the worship team. Then we will all be able to benefit from your background and perspective.
The volunteers who bring us a message come to us from a number of different denominational and non-denominational churches and sometimes they speak on areas of belief that are outside of the Apostles’ Creed and that’s okay. In order to grow we need to progress from spiritual milk to meat and meat requires chewing. Bring your Bible, pen, and paper. Take notes. Take them home and study them carefully. You may not agree with everything you hear in the service but don’t discount everything a speaker has to say. It may be a matter of understanding the translation utilized, scriptural context, and/or theological perspective. We only grow stronger when we exercise our muscles and the same is true of our Christian walk. The Bible contains no inconsistences, no errors, but it is full of mysteries that can not be fully understood from our finite human perspective.
The word of God is Truth that towers over our personal experience and stands in judgment over our personal opinions. So, let the Holy Spirit be your guide. The Bible is full of statements on the importance of and power in reading, studying, memorizing and meditating on the scripture:
“I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.” -Psalms 119:11
“Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path.” -Psalms 119:105
“For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of thoughts and intents of the heart.” -Hebrews 4:12
“All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” -2 Timothy 3:16
“Be diligent to present yourself approved of God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” -2 Timothy 2:15
“We also have the word of the prophets as confirmed beyond doubt. And you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” -2 Peter 1:19
After all this you may still not agree with everything you hear. However, Paul warns in Titus 3:9, “Avoid foolish disputes, genealogies, contentions, and strivings about the law, for they are unprofitable and useless.” Just let it go. It’s not good for us to be arguing amongst ourselves over a theological point. One day it will be revealed. Better minds than ours have wrestled with some points of Scripture from the time they were first written down without reaching consensus on the exact meaning. It is just a trick of the devil to separate us. We should simply agree to disagree and then move on without diminishing our love or respect for one another.
Don’t forsake the fellowship of the body even when it rubs you the wrong way. We must look past the messenger to receive the message God has for us. A mature person should be able to do this. Rick Warren in his book “The Purpose Driven Life” says that we must passionately love the church in spite of its imperfections. Longing for the ideal while criticizing the real is evidence of immaturity. On the other hand. Settling for the real without striving for the ideal is complacency. Maturity is living with the tension.
Other believers will disappoint you and let you down, but that’s no excuse to stop fellowshipping with them. They are your family, even when they don’t act like it, and you can’t walk out on them. Instead Paul tells us in Ephesians 4:2, “Be patient with each other, making allowance for each other’s faults because of your love.” Not only should we remain in fellowship for the sake of our brothers, but also remember that the world is watching.
“They’ll Know We Are Christians” (also known as “They’ll Know We Are Christians By Our Love” or “We Are One in the Spirit”) is a Christian hymn written in the 1960s by Fr. Peter Scholtes. It was inspired by John 13:35, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” The title of the hymn originates in a phrase that non-believers used to describe Christians believers of early Church: “Behold, how they love one another.”
People become disillusioned with the church for many understandable reasons. The list could be quit long: conflict, hurt, hypocrisy, neglect, pettiness, legalism, and other sins. Rather than being shocked and surprised, we must remember that the church is made up of real sinners, including ourselves. Because we are sinners, we hurt each other, sometimes intentionally and sometimes unintentionally. But instead of leaving the church, we need to stay and work it out, if at all possible. Reconciliation, not running away, is the road to stronger character and deeper fellowship.
Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his book “Life Together” had a lot to say about how we should live together in Christian community. I would like to bring out a few points from the book that are especially true for us here in prison.
First, we should not take for granted the privilege we have of openly living among other Christians. Visible fellowship is a blessing that not all of our brothers and sisters around the world get to enjoy. The physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer.
Second, we need to recognize that as Christians we need our brothers when we become uncertain and discouraged to speak God’s word into us to provide certainty and courage. God puts the word into the mouths of men in order that it may be communicated to other men.
Third, our community with one another consists solely in what Christ has done for us. The more genuine and the deeper our community becomes, the more will everything else between us recede, the more clearly and purely will Jesus Christ and his work become the one and only thing that is vital between us.
Forth, we must realize that in a Christian community each individual is an indispensable link in the chain. Not only do the weak need the strong, but also the strong cannot exist without the weak. As a body we are only as strong as our weakest members. Therefore, we must do all that we can to strengthen all our members. Romans 15:1-2 says, “We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not please ourselves. Each of us should please his neighbor for his good, to build him up.”
Christian community involves service to one another and that starts with listening to one another. Listening is by far a greater service than speaking. Once we begin listening only then can we be truly helpful in performing service. The greatest service we can perform is to bear one another’s burdens.
Fifth, Christian community requires forgiveness. We must forgive one another on a daily basis, and it occurs without words as we pray in intercession for one another. C.S. Lewis once said that “to believe in the forgiveness of sin is not so easy as I thought. Real belief in it is the sort of thing that very easily slips away if we don’t keep polishing up on it.”
And finally, in the Christian community thankfulness is just what it is anywhere else in the Christian life. Only he who gives thanks for little things receives the big things. We prevent God from giving us the great spiritual gifts He has in store for us, because we do not give thanks for daily gifts. We think we dare not be satisfied with the small measure of spiritual knowledge, experience and love that has been given to us, and that we must constantly be looking forward eagerly for the highest good. Then we deplore the fact that we lack the deep certainty, the strong faith, and the rich experience that God has given to others, and we consider this lament to be pious. We pray for the big things and forget to give thanks for the ordinary small gifts. How can God entrust great things to one who will not thankfully receive from Him the little things?
If we do not give thanks daily for the Christian fellowship in which we have been placed, even where there is no great experience, no discoverable riches, but much weakness, small faith, and difficulty; if on the contrary, we only keep complaining to God that everything is so paltry and petty, so far from what we expected, then we hinder God from letting our fellowship grow according to the measures and riches which are there for us all in Christ Jesus.
Christian community is like the Christian’s sanctification. It is a gift of God which we cannot claim. Only God knows the real state of our fellowship, of our sanctification. What may appear weak and trifling to us may be great and glorious to God. Just as a Christian should not be constantly feeling his spiritual pulse, so too, the Christian community has not been given to us by God for us to be constantly taking its temperature. The more thankfully we daily receive what is given to us, the more surely and steadily will fellowship increase and grow from day to day as God pleases.