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Faith Alive: From Proposition to Preposition
September 2, 2012
This is the time of year when we at UPC typically experience our largest concentration of visitors. U.T. students will show up to check us out. New graduate students from U.T. and Austin Presbyterian Seminary also visit us this time of year. Other newcomers may be recent residents to Austin who are looking for a church home. Invariably, visitors come with questions, such as: What do these people believe? How do they believe? Is this where I belong? So especially with you newcomers in mind, I want to wrap up our sermon series on our denomination’s Brief Affirmation of Faith. I’m proposing that we run this statement through an ecclesiastical Cat scan to see what it reveals about this particular body of believers called University Presbyterian Church.
The first image that shows up on our scan is a picture of our confessional heritage. The fact that we’ve had a sermon series this summer on A Brief Affirmation of Faith indicates that we take our historic statements of faith seriously. The Brief Statement of Faith that we’ve been exploring this summer is the most recent of the eleven creeds that comprise our Book of Confessions. Two of the creeds in our Book of Confessions are from the early Church: The Nicene and Apostles’ Creed. Others come from 16th and 17th century. And three of the creeds in our Book of Confessions were written in the 20th century, including A Brief Affirmation of Faith, which was adopted in 1983. Presbyterians have never claimed that any of these creedal statements are infallible, definitive or complete, but we have affirmed that they are helpful guides for us in living the Christian life. So in trying to give our visitors a clearer picture of our congregation, we point out that our creedal statements are part of our identity.
But in the minds of many today, creeds, doctrines, and belief statements are a turn-off. Masses of people today, and maybe even some of you here this morning, look at the presence of creeds not as an indication of health but a sign of disease, spiritual paralysis, religious rigor mortise. For many westerners today, Christianity and church membership are associated with dry propositional truths, rigid beliefs, and dull dogma. To many observers, joining a church would require knowing the right answers, ticking off the essential tenants, and giving a mental nod of agreement to every statement from the Nicene Creed to our most recent statement of faith. No wonder so many people today are turned off by religion and the church. If joining a church is primarily a matter of rational belief, then we sympathize with those who stay away.
Yet I assure you that in this congregation, our creeds don’t function in this stultifying manner. In her recent book called Christianity After Religion, Diane Butler Bass argues that there is a shift going on in the church today. She describes it as a shift from proposition to preposition. Belief as proposition requires putting a mental check mark in all the right creedal boxes. A prepositional faith, on the other hand, implies a dynamic, living relationship and a spiritual vitality. Prepositions such as in, with, for and through shift our faith from a static belief about God to life with God, in a community, for others and through the power of the Spirit.
And isn’t this shift from faith as proposition to faith as preposition actually a shift back to the biblical pattern? Consider the experience of the very first disciples. Jesus didn’t come to Peter, James, John and the others saying, “I have a proposition for you. If you will declare your faith in me as the Messiah, you can be my disciples.” No, before the disciples said anything, Jesus called to them and said, “Follow me.” Jesus first befriended them and welcomed them into his fellowship. He called them to join his community, listen to his teaching and share in his ministry of feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, visiting the sick, helping the poor and proclaiming the good news of God’s Kingdom. Only by participating in his life and ministry did the disciples later come to believe certain things about him.
Likewise, in our scripture from Romans, Paul’s stirring affirmation that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ grew out of his experience in Christ. Only as Paul and the other followers of Jesus shared in his spirit, put his teachings into practice, joined in the fellowship and worship of the church did they come to know and affirm that God’s love is so reliable that nothing can separate us from it.
The Brief Affirmation of Faith that we’ve been exploring this summer wisely substitutes the word trust for believe. Trust is a relational word, a word that suggests a movement of the heart as well as of the head. Our statement affirms that we trust in Jesus Christ because he blessed the children, healed the sick, bound up the brokenhearted, ate with outcasts, forgave sinners and gave his life for us. We trust in God the Creator who in sovereign love created the world as good, acts with justice and mercy to redeem creation an loves us like a mother who will not forsake her nursing child and like a father who runs to welcome the prodigal home. And we trust in God the Holy Spirit to give us courage to pray without ceasing, unmask idolatries, witness to all people and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.
Here at UPC, creeds are more akin to marriage vows than to a theological litmus test. As you know, marriage vows are a declaration of the heart, a gesture of trust, a promise to love, cherish and remain faithful to our beloved. Similarly, creeds are affirmations of our intent to love God with all our heart, to obey his commandments and cherish our relationship with God above all others.
So friends, and especially visitors, we’re not asking you to join the church if all that means is to put your name on a membership roll and sign a pledge card. However, we are inviting you to join in the life of the church. Come with us on a journey of faith, where doubts are expected and questions encouraged. Participate in our worship not just to hear some things about God, but to experience the presence of God. Work with us in our ministries of compassion, justice and mercy, so that through us God’s love for others can be demonstrated.
And as we participate in the life of God, as we join in the worship and service of the church, we discover in our own experience what believers across the ages have affirmed– that absolutely nothing in life or in death can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Let us stand and sing to God’s glory.