a sermon on Deuteronomy 6:1-9 and Philippians 2:1-11
Over the last twenty years, researchers have been watching a sea change in our American society. We have gone from a nation of organizations to a nation of individuals. Think for a moment about it: what organizations are you a part of other than the church? Sixty years ago, most people could have immediately identified several different groups that they were a part of, not just a church or religious organization but likely a civic improvement group, maybe a fraternal organization like the Masons, perhaps the Lions or Rotary clubs, maybe even a musical group, a sports team, or a bowling league. But as a noted researcher on these topics described it, we have gone from a nation of bowling leagues to a nation that goes bowling alone—with friends or family, not with strangers.
The time we share in worship, then, is especially unique. In our increasingly individualistic society, are there really all that many opportunities to gather with a group of people and do something together? At my choir’s annual meeting, we close by singing a song together, and it is not unusual for other gatherings of like-minded people to have a similar ritual to mark our gatherings in one way or another. When our friends at Alcoholics Anonymous gather in the basement here four nights each week, they greet one another very distinctively by name and close the gathering with the Lord’s Prayer or the Serenity Prayer. At a sporting event, we might stand and sing (or hear someone else sing) the national anthem or some other song, and there are the occasional whole-crowd cheers and the all-too-inevitable wave that emerges when things get a little boring. And at a public meeting or in a school classroom we might recite the pledge of allegiance to the flag. Beyond those rare occasions, though, we pretty rarely get together with other people, let alone do things as a group—so reciting a set of words about what believe as we do in the affirmation of faith is doubly unusual!
Affirmations of faith have been important in the life of the church since its earliest years, but I’m not sure when they became something to be recited week after week in worship. Maybe it is a Presbyterian thing—after all, we do have an entire book devoted to the official affirmations of faith of our denomination! Our first reading this morning from the book of Deuteronomy reaches into the origins of this tradition in the Jewish roots of Christianity. These words are known as the Shema and recited regularly by faithful Jews everywhere. After the introduction that instructs that these words be heard and taught and observed and kept, the affirmation is clear:
The LORD is our God, the LORD alone.
This affirmation stands at the core of Judaism, shaping belief and practice even in this tradition that does not understand faith in quite the same way that much of Christianity does. Still, even with the distinctiveness of Jewish thought, this affirmation of faith immediately makes it clear that who God is has immediate consequences for our lives, too:
You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.
God’s presence and mere being is not enough—those who claim this are called immediately to faithful action.
It is no surprise that the early church, emerging as it did from the traditions of Judaism, quickly found itself affirming its faith. In hymns and sayings, the church described what it had come to understand about the man Jesus, and some of these have been captured in the writings collected in our New Testament. The portion of Paul’s letter to the Philippians we read this morning includes one of the most famous of these, a beautiful hymn describing the early church’s beliefs about Jesus—and the desired outcome of that belief. Paul directs the Philippians to what they likely knew as an early creed of the church that describes the attitude that Jesus took in his life, death, and resurrection—an attitude of humility, grounded in his divine nature yet lived out in his humanity, that resulted in his execution and ultimately his exaltation. This creed expressed, then, not only what Paul felt that the church ought to believe but how it should act, for we should “be of [that] same mind” and live “in [that] same love,” demonstrating in our lives the ways the same way of life that we first saw lived in the life of Christ.
The affirmation of faith in our worship, then, is not an academic exercise. It is not an opportunity to quiz one another and check up on the status of our conformity with the orthodoxy of our tradition or frame beautiful and perfect words that offer the most accurate human description of God possible. Instead, the affirmation of faith in worship is the first chance we have to live out the Word we have heard proclaimed, the moment to rise and begin to proclaim that Word for ourselves in our lives and our world, the opportunity to stand in community with others to declare how we intend to go forth to live the Word in our lives and bear it into our world.
While the creeds we use in the affirmation of faith often come from the approved traditions of the church, the point is not to check up on one another’s faithfulness to them or make sure that we all agree with their every word. Instead, affirming our faith together reminds us that we do not go bowling alone in our faith in this world. When the circumstances of our lives or our world make some portion of our affirmation difficult, one gift of living and worshiping in community is that others can claim those words for us, raising their voices to claim and live these things even if we cannot do so for ourselves at this time. Other times, the community may challenge us to think differently about these words, opening us to different understandings of faithfulness in our lives and our world so that we might all grow in our faith and understanding together. And even when we do have our differences with these words that are before us, even when we cannot claim them as our own in this particular moment, even when our hearts are too heavy to bear our faith into the world in this way, this affirmation of faith belongs not to any one of us but to the whole church, to believers in every time and place, to those who come before us, those who live and walk beside us, and those who are yet to follow us.
Whatever we may feel about the particulars of the words we might share along the way, however the circumstances of our lives or our world may affect our ability to join the community in this affirmation at this moment, the affirmation of faith ultimately is a moment of beginning for us—the beginning of responding to the Word proclaimed. As we join our voices to proclaim this particular understanding of our faith, whether its words date to the earliest years of our Christian tradition or come from a more contemporary time and setting, whether we know its words by heart or must carefully think of each and every word, these words are a springboard for us to begin living out the Word we have heard proclaimed in our worship. When we stand and say our affirmation of faith, we take our first steps toward living out what we believe not on our own but as a community, trusting that we journey better together, acknowledging that we are stronger in our individual lives because we share this time each week, honoring our sisters and brothers in the faith who have walked before us, who journey beside us, and who will follow after us, and recognizing that we can know more of those places where God is at work—and where we are called to join in—if we have more eyes and ears and minds and hearts attuned to finding the place where we can join in.
So may God strengthen us to join our voices to proclaim the words of our affirmation and live our lives to offer actions of faith, hope, and love in our world, joining these words and actions with those of the saints before us, beside us, and after us to share God’s song of love and joy with all creation until all things are made new in Jesus Christ our Lord and we sing God’s glory for eternity. Lord, come quickly! Alleluia! Amen.