Unless what we’re talking about is a strong belief in pregnant women having a seat on a busy bus, there are very few instances in which this expression can be taken literally. Most of the time it’s simply that, an expression. Nevertheless, I’m certain you’ve used it. I’m even more certain that someone’s used it on you – whether a parent, a friend, a teacher, or even yourself. Maybe it was another kid being bullied at school. Maybe it was dishonest behaviour in the workplace. Maybe it was something even more sinister. But the meaning was clear: even if you have to put yourself in harm’s way, you have to fight what what you know to be right.
One thing I’m quite certain of, however, is that you’ve never associated this phrase with saying the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed on a Sunday morning. If you’re reading this blog and have never been to service at St. Peter’s let me catch you up. Every week following the Bible reading, the entire congregation stands up and we recite together the words of either of these ancient creeds of the church. It’s a response of sorts. And you can read more about it here. If this isn’t something that you grew up doing, then it probably seems a strange thing to do, and you’d be right about that.
I have a rather unique vantage point to witness this event. I am usually up at the front of the church leading the recitation of these creeds. Sometimes, on my quirkier days, I like to imagine the entire congregation being transplanted into the the middle of a mall food court. Everyone is scattered throughout the food court enjoying their food when suddenly, the most boring flashmob in history happens. A bunch of people stand up at the tables, and begin reciting in unison: “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth…” As weird as that would be, it wouldn’t exactly be exciting. I don’t imagine it racking up a huge number of views on YouTube!
However, if we think reciting these ancient words is dull and unimportant, we need to give our heads a shake. We would be hard pressed to find something in the service more offensive than this. It’s not simply a set of facts that have no meaning. We stand up and declare our belief in the God of the Bible – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We declare our belief in the immaculate conception, Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, his coming again to judge the living and dead and the resurrection of our bodies. And that’s just the Apostles’ Creed. The Nicene Creed goes into even more detail.
Standing up for what you believe is supposed to cost you something. If what we believe is in fact true, then these are words to live and die by.
As we try to say every Sunday before we ask people to recite these words, if you’re not a follower of Jesus, feel no pressure to say these things. The last thing we want is people just repeating these words for the sake of repeating them. If you’re not a follower of Jesus then you should be offended by them. You should be offended by me saying them. Because as much as we might tout freedom of expression or religion or whatever else, this really only works as long as my beliefs don’t impinge on yours. But that doesn’t work here. These are exclusive claims. By definition they impinge on your beliefs.
Most people are familiar with John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” This is wonderful news. And what’s even more wonderful is that it doesn’t harm our postmodern, non-exclusivist sensibilities.
But what about what Jesus says two verses later: “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” Well that’s not so wonderful is it? It’s downright offensive in fact! Maybe now you’re beginning to see why reciting the creed might not be so boring after all.
Now we must return to my earlier imaginings. If a group of a hundred or so people stood up in the middle of a busy food court to recite these words it should result in more than a boring YouTube video. If anyone was actually paying attention to what these people were saying, I’m sure most of them would be extremely offended.
But that’s alright. Because standing up for what you believe is supposed to cost you something. It shouldn’t just be something you memorize and rattle off without a second thought. If what we believe is in fact true, then these are words to live and die by. So next time you are invited to stand on a Sunday morning and recite one of the ancient creeds of the church, think about what you’re saying. Imagine you’re at a food court and everyone is listening. Will you mutter them under your breath or will you say them with some gusto?