One thing that is very different about Seattle from the Midwest, where Joe and I moved from, where many of you moved from, is that here in Seattle, there would likely be no debate over whether or not the ten commandments would be erected at city hall. In Seattle, it would never be a question, and no-one would think it appropriate to press for it. In fact, it would likely be quite the opposite. While I have some serious reservations about the way people mingle the will of God and politics, I have discovered that the feeling here often goes beyond the mixing of God into politics, but can be, in fact, anti God.
I’ve hear recently that the Pacific Northwest has been called the None Zone because it, of all the regions polled in the US has the most people who answer “none” when asked what religion or faith they subscribe to. It strikes me that in the “None Zone” as the pacific northwest has been called, it is a radical thing, it seems to me, to say with the first sentence of our Confession of Faith, “We believe that God exists.”
The rest of the paragraph reads as follows:
We believe that God exists and is pleased with all who draw near by faith. We worship the one holy and loving God who is Gather, Son and Holy Spirit eternally. We believe that God has created all things visible and invisible, has brought salvation and new life to humanity through Jesus Christ, and continues to sustain the church and all things until the end of the age.
To proclaim that, and indeed to embrace a confession that is based in its theology and ethics on the existence of a God who has created and called humanity, who has created and loves the earth, and who exists as having been human and is spirit is a fairly radical and incomprehensible thing here in this time and space.
In the wilderness when the future people of Israel, the Hebrews were also being asked to make a radical confession about God’s existence. Perhaps somewhat opposite of the pacific northwst experience, where god’s proliferated and people worshiped many god’s and idols. The Isrealite heard the ‘shma’ – ‘listen up!’ – ‘hear this!’ In a culture in which gods competed for attention and each had a realm of authority, Moses heard God declare from the burning bush – I AM has sent you. Yahweh – the one God.
The one who brought them out of a land of slavery, through the desert, and to the brink of a new land. Coming from a land that embraced polytheism, wandering through peoples who were also worshipping many Gods and entering a territory where idolatry was standard and accepted and encouraged, it was utterly radical to proclaim – the Lord, Yahweh, alone. Or even, ‘The Lord is One’. And yet that is exactly what the Hebrew people were called to. They were united in their proclamation of YHWH – “I am” – the One, the Lord alone. A confession both timeless in its truth and timely in its response to the culture surrounding it.
Some have been agitating for a new confession in the Mennonite church. There has been dissatisfaction, particularly where it relates the way the confession has been used to censure some congregations and individuals who are interested in welcoming and accepting people who are gay and lesbian. Our current confession was written with some concern to speak to the times in which it was published (only a dozen years ago – the year I graduated from high school and I am not all that old yet) and to create a document which better reflected the church than its predecessors. Yet its creators, in consultation with congregations, also tried to make it a timeless document, that would serve the church as a guide and center.
“How do Mennonite confessions of faith serve the church? First , they provide guidelines for the interpretation of Scripture . At the same time, the confession itself is subject to the authority of the Bible . Second , confessions of faith provide guidance for belief and practice. In this connection, a written statement should support but not replace the lived witness of faith. Third , confessions build a foundation for unity within and among churches. Fourth , confessions offer an outline for instructing new church members and for sharing information with inquirers. Fifth , confessions give an updated interpretation of belief and practice in the midst of changing times. And sixth, confessions help in discussing Mennonite belief and practice with other Christians and people of other faiths.
Beginning with the confession of God extistence in the persons of the trinity, the first articles of the confession link us with other professing Christians everywhere. But more than that, this Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective provides a guide and center for our practice and life.
As I read through the confession again – perhaps for the first time cover to cover since it was newly published I realize that in most regards there is indeed a timelessness and relevance to it still. Many of the articles in the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective are actually excellent guildelines, offer potential for uniting, instead of dividing and very accurately describe an ethical standard for our lives as Christian, Mennonite disciples. Even in this first, rather general confession of God’s being, there is a flavour which declares itself particularly Anabaptist.
Beginning with Abraham and Sarah, God has called forth a people of faith to worship God alone, to witness to the divine purpses for human beings and all of creation and to love their neighbours as themselves. We have been joined to this people through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ and by confessing him to be Saviour and Lord as the Holy Spirit has moved us.
In making this confession we in very Mennonite fashion link ourselves to our neighbour. The Confession that the Israelites claim – that God is one, and to be worshiped solely, is accompanied by the greatest commandment…”You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul/being and with all your strength/might/” And yet, we in our absolute Christocentrism cannot make a claim about God’s existence with alluding to the one in whom God is most revealed…Jesus Christ. For it is Jesus who gives us the second commandment, to love our neighbour. And it is in following this commandment to love our neighbour that we seek to make peace and build justice.
In making this confession we also acknowledge that not only does God exist, but we humans exist because of God. And we respond to God in thanksgiving both in worship and in our practical living. We are because God is and we respond in kind. A timeless confession, yet timely in a culture that rejects Christian confession.
I often think two things about being Christian, which I may have expressed before. First, it is completely ridiculous and antithetical to common sense to confess that there is a God and that through Jesus God allows humanity to return to God. And second, that the alternative for believing and living as if I believe would be to live as if in a void and (maybe third) my experience and intuition tells me that God does exist.
I have told the story before about a time when I was fifteen in which I had an experience of God which I think I subconsciously compare every other experience either in church or outside. In a way I was living in a void. As a family, we were certainly living in an in-between space after arriving back in Canada from our service assignment in the middle east and not having a place to return to. I was in some angst about beginning anew in a place yet unknown to me and I stood at the window of a condo belonging to family friends, in the middle of a huge thunderstorm – maybe I was contemplating the future – I was absolutely feeling unsure and freaked out, and God made Godself known to me profoundly. I felt in that moment of limbo as if I were being physically embraced. There was the presence of God standing behind me, with hands outstretched around me and assuring me that all would be well.
This confession validates my experience and proclaims that God is made known to people, draws close moves in the form of the Holy Spirit. “We…gratefully acknowledge,” says the confession, “that God has spoken to humanity and related to us in may and various ways.” So we can each experience God in our midst in a very personal way, as I did. But most importantly to this confession and, indeed to Christian believers, is that God most clearly gave Godself to us in the person of Jesus.
Hebrews 1:1-3, which we heard:
Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains al things by this powerful word.
and John 1:18
No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made God known.
We are a church who confesses Christ the Lord. We not only say – God is – but indeed Jesus Christ was and is – and is God. In fact, though “We (I quote) humbly recognize that God far surpasses human comprehension and understanding” We also We believe that “God has spoken above all in the only Son, the Word who became flesh and revealed the divine being and character.”
It is this confession that is central to what it is to be Christian – God revealed in the person of Jesus, yet still totally a mystery. It is this confession that I have tried to be intentional about proclaiming and not hiding. For indeed for me and for maybe for many of us it is easy to follow the ethical pieces of the confession which call for being peacemakers and living jubilee lives for humanitarian and other reasons. Isn’t that what all the rest of the do-gooders in the “None Zone” are doing? It is often difficult to name clearly – God is and I am a follower of God revealed in Christ. It is the reason I began wearing a cross several years ago – not so much a public proclaimation (although I want it to be that, too) but a reminder to myself that I will hide behind nothing in my attempt to be openly and in all things God’s.
Confessions of faith – and the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective in particular – help us to say this. This confession says of itself in the introduction that it is ” interpretation of belief and practice in the midst of changing times. And a help in discussing Mennonite belief and practice with other Christians and people of other faiths.” Here we are in Seattle in the midst of many who say God isn’t. And in this document we are helped to say God is .
500 years ago our ancestors in faith gathered in a barn to write the Schleitheim articles, bth timeless and timely in their rejection of the sword and commitment of discipleship. There beginning our Mennonite experience with confessing our faith and practice.
Thousands of years ago Moses declared to our Israelite ancestors:
Hear O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord alone. Love the Lord your God with all your hear and all your strength and all your might.
And we have a confession of our own that begins where it ought to begin – “We believe God exists.” Hotly debated though parts of this confession may be, we have opportunity to confess God, Christ and the Spirit in unity with our Mennonite brothers and sisters and with our Christian family. And over the next six weeks I look forward to exploring more other parts of this confession in worship and in study. May it bless and sustain us as the people of God. Amen.