The Mystery of all that is, seen and unseen

“In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you… ‘I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Paraclete – the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, Counselor, Helper, Intercessor, Advocate, Strengthener – whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.”        John 14:19-ff

Every month, on the second Thursday, a group of area pastors get together for a conference meeting. We begin with fellowship as a buffer allowing time for GPS signals to track down some of the better hidden churches. Shortly after 10, we move into the sanctuary for worship led by the hosting pastor. We have a short business meeting, a program of some sort, and lunch.

I hosted the event in April. Last week’s reflections offered by Christy, Molly and Claire (a sermon in 4 acts) came from that conference worship service. From Chris’s opening notes on the piano, through the unconventional sermon, to the last bit of dessert served by Barb and Mike, it’s a fair claim to say that those pastors were impressed by the gifts of this congregation. So am I, by the way. Very.

One of the things that I’ve been impressed with in attending other monthly conference worship services is the incredible speed with which many pastors recite the Apostle’s Creed. It’s like there is a contest to see if you can say it all in one breath, or perhaps a small prize for finishing first without stumbling. I can do it in 19.85 seconds and three short gasps. I can… but I don’t.

While the race of words is run, I intentionally say the creed quietly, slowly, in protest as though these particular words have meaning. I quit when everyone else does even though I’m barely beyond “I believe in Jesus.”

But when I’m the host, I have a microphone and I can slow them all down. And I did. Because words do have meaning. If one is going to say, “I believe,” then the content that follows should be said with integrity and intentionality.

The thing is, for some of us, that’s hard to do. The words of these ancient formulas – the Apostles and Nicene Creeds – don’t necessarily express our beliefs. For some – maybe many of us – the creed becomes almost a stumbling block to faith, not a cloak of comfort and cohesion uniting us with believers from all times and places, as was intended. Maybe that’s why some pastors race though them, so no one has time to take offense or be embarrassed, so there’s no time to get lost wondering about the disparity between one’s personal beliefs and this archaic condensation of 66 biblical books into three statements one can recite by rote in 19.85 seconds. Maybe saying them when you are ambivalent about the content, like skimming over thin ice, is safer the faster you go.

To be fair, I don’t think my fellow pastors are conflicted by the creed. But I am, in ways. And I know that some of you are.

So, you might want to turn to pages 104 and 105 in the front of the hymnal and mark the page. For the next few weeks we’re going to think about these words slowly, taking a chance with thin ice and heresy. I hope you will talk about them at fellowship – about what might be your particular stumbling point, or what is the rock upon which you stand?  I want to do this little series now, while we still have language from the gospel of John in our heads, because I think that context, that poetic, symbolic, swirling imagery might help.

The history of the creeds is interesting, discouraging, disheartening because of the politics of church and state involved in their formation, the divisiveness between Eastern and Western Christianity; because of the decades of theological struggle – even deaths – that came in the formulation, in the precision of words. An historical perspective might offer a new appreciation of the creeds…  but I don’t want to start there.

I want to start with Mystery.

Most of you know I like mystery – especially BBC murder mysteries.… I like that a number of them have vicars, monks, theologians, or elderly women involved in sleuthing. I like that they bumble along at a nice slow pace. I don’t have to sit on the edge of my chair. I can be carried along by the author’s imagination and twists in the storyline without anxiety.

I try to offer God the same artistic license.

I also like that within an hour or two the mystery is solved, the loose ends are all collected, the villains – who thought they were so clever – are brought to justice. I am embarrassingly impatient with God.

Murder mysteries tidy everything up on a Sunday night. My prayer life, my engagement, and dealings with God are not as neat or quick or decided.

Mysteries train us to consider all that is, all the options. So do the creeds.

Article 1 from the Nicene Creed: We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, the maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.

One God, the maker of all that is both seen and unseen? Or…

One God of all that is;

One God, seen and unseen.

I also like the ambiguity of grammatical clauses.

My theology, my understanding of God and God’s ways, thrives on the unseen. Maybe this creedal statement is saying we believe in a God who is revealed and hidden in all created things, a God who shows up in our lives in unexpected, inexplicable ways now and then – a God who is always there but willing to be overshadowed, made invisible by the gifts of this world created for us.

A God who is seen and unseen fits my theological world view – my faith’s “on again, off again, hopeful, but wondering” pathway.

I think preaching for a month on the creeds could be quite dreadful. But a month of considering the ground of our faith – the landscapes and pathways – the content of the creeds and how we process and experience the trinity …  that could be a worthwhile use of a few Sundays.

The seen and unseen nature of God allows an expansive view of faith. Modern American Christianity  – the way it is represented in the headlines or by the loudest voices today – is actually a very small rivulet of the stream of Christian faith that has flowed through the centuries.  This, too, gives me hope. When we recite the creed, we step into this flow of water. There is depth and breadth within history. From the gospel evangelists, to the desert Fathers and Mothers, from martyrs to heretics, from mystics to reformers, from rationalists to confessors – every age has struggled with, and gloried in, the seen and unseen nature of God and what it means to confess, “I believe in God… near at hand and unknowable, sought after, revealed, incarnate, silent, inspiring.

We might think we know too much of life to maintain the innocence of faith. We’ve seen too much of the world’s sorrow and hardship; our blessed assurance has wilted. We need re-crisping, like wilted greens brought in from the garden and vivified by standing their stems in a glass of cool water or tucking them into a crisping drawer. Our knowledge of “all that is” has exploded since these creeds were devised. We have pitted science and rationalism against faith as though we have to choose one or the other, as though there is only one way of knowing, a single narrative. We need to be reawakened to the mystery of God, whom we have allowed to become too small and stodgy, or who we feel must be protected from challenge and change. We would do well to make room for the not-knowingness, the hypothesis of faith.

At their best, creeds help us make a connection with a deeply grounded, personal, and communally tended spiritual life. They are an open door through which we walk into the marvelous space of life with God. Please talk about this when you have the comfort of a coffee cup in your hand. What does it mean to believe in God, the Father; the Almighty? God the creator of heaven and earth? God the giver and source of mystery? Is God your scaffolding…the structure and support of your life? Does the language of ‘all things, seen and unseen’ create enough space for questions and rubbing points?

This is a somewhat awkward, unedifying end to a sermon, but I do want you to think about these questions, so I leave you in peace for a few moments of reflection.