The Sacred Comma
For many of us, the most common so-called ecumenical creed that appears across the spectrum of Christian expressions is the Apostle’s Creed. If you went through confirmation as a youth, you probably had to memorize it. Some congregations require memorization of the creed to attain membership status. In most Lutheran congregations (in which I grew up and served) it regularly appears as a component of the liturgy. As side from the occasional use of the Nicene Creed, it is the primary creed used in Lutheran congregations. In contemporary publications of Luther’s Catechism, it is referred as “The Creed” as if it were the only one.
I remember in my sophomore year of college in a class on Western Civilization, one day the discussion was on early church development. The discussion got around to the Apostle’s Creed, and the professor (who belonged to the same church as me) spontaneously asked me to recite the Apostle’s Creed. Under the watchful eyes of my classmates, I was able to say it correctly simply because I had hundreds of times before.
The Apostle’s Creed is divided up into three sections with the second being on Jesus. You know how it goes: “I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified. . .”
Have you ever noticed the entire life and ministry of Jesus after his birth and before the last couple of days of his life is not mentioned! In fact, one could say his entire ministry up until the passion is reduced to a comma, the comma between “. . .born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate. . .”
The creed is called the “Apostle’s” Creed, but it did not appear until the late 4th century. It origins are vague, but I have to wonder if the early apostles could have seen the creed that is attributed to them if they would have thought it truly reflected their faith paradigm.
I have my doubts. The very early followers of Jesus in the first generation or two after him called themselves “the Way” or “followers of the Way.” The “Way” that is being referred to is not a litany of correct “beliefs” or “facts” about Jesus, but trust in and commitment to “the Way” of his life that they were called to make their own through the energy of his death and resurrection.
Immediately after Jesus told his disciples that he was headed for Jerusalem where he would be rejected, killed and rise, he then said to them, “If any want to come and be my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34b) In John’s gospel Jesus says, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain, but if it dies it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24)
For those early followers of “the Way,” the crucifixion and resurrection were not so much facts to believe as an experience to enter into; a regular pattern that took shape in their lives that empowered them to reflect the way of Jesus through their lives. It is no different for us as we are called into the archetype of death and resurrection, dying repeatedly to fear, self-absorption and unjust social systems we construct to feel safe and in control – and to rise to a new kind of life that resembles Jesus’ life. Another way to describe it might be to say, to allow my life to become so enmeshed with his that I begin to resemble him at a deep and authentic level.
One of the things I appreciate about the current Pope is that he emphasizes the Way of Jesus and what it might look like to live Jesus’ life in the world and not so much about doctrine and dogma. The problem I have with most creeds is that they focus on faith as belief, as head knowledge, but show little in terms of faith as trust, commitment and world view.
The sacred comma points to so much: inclusive love, compassion for the poor and oppressed; resistance to domination systems that economically and socially enslaved the majority – in other words radical and lavish love that never stopped Jesus at any boundary, not even the boundary of one’s enemies and adversaries.
The Apostle’s Creed. I am not suggesting in this essay that we should keep or discard the Apostle’s Creed (that is another discussion). However, I do know that when I am in the midst of a worship experience that includes it, I am going to remember the comma that points me to the life I am called to trust, commit to and live – by the power of the cross and resurrection – not merely as facts but as an experience into which my life is embedded and transformed.