SERMON ~ 04/23/2023 ~ “Explaining Scripture”

04/23/2023 ~ Third Sunday of Easter ~ *Acts 2:14a, 36-41; Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19; 1 Peter 1:17-23; Luke 24:13-35 ~ VIDEO OF FULL SERVICE:

Explaining Scripture

“They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while Jesus was talking to us on the road, explaining the Scripture to us?’” — Luke 24:32.

I like to point out there is a difference between doctrine and dogma. Dogma is something someone tells you must be believed. Doctrine is an explanation of belief.

Given that, we congregationalists have no dogma. Nobody tells us what to believe. But we probably have more doctrine than any other tradition. We constantly strive to explain what we believe.

Over the course of my years as a pastor at Congregational churches I have, on occasion, used Affirmations of Faith, sometimes called a creed, in the course of a service. Some take Affirmations of Faith, creeds, as dogma— what you must believe. For us they should not be not dogma but explanations.

I do not often use a creed in a service but when I do I always use the Nicene Creed. Therefore and also on occasion, I have fielded this question. “Why do you use the Nicene Creed and not the Apostles’ Creed?” (Slight pause.)

As far as anyone can tell, no Apostle had a hand in or even heard of the Apostles’ Creed. It was written a long, long time after the Apostles were alive and a long, long time after the Nicene Creed was created.

The earliest trace of anything called the Apostles’ Creed is found about 700 years after the Resurrection in what we today call France. So, why was the Apostles’ Creed ever even used?

Charlemagne ruled the Holy Roman Empire, which included what we today call France, from the year 800 to the year 814 of the Common Era. This emperor insisted it must be used throughout the Empire— the Apostles’ Creed must be used throughout the Empire.

That creed was only about 100 years old at that point but perhaps Charlemagne didn’t know that. And back then it was not unusual for monarchs to have power in church matters across the realm over which they held control.

In short, the Apostles’ Creed is a product of Europe, the West. It has never been used in Eastern Orthodox Churches, churches outside of Charlemagne’s influence.

To elaborate on the origins of Nicene Creed just a little, it was put together by a church council which met in the city of Nicaea in what is today Turkey in the year 325 of the Common Era. So, why bring up all this about church creeds?

Among all the Gospels, Luke is the best at telling stories. We are enthralled by them, especially by the story of the Road to Emmaus. In it we encounter two travelers Jesus and return to where the disciples are gathered. They hear these words: “Christ has risen! It is true! Jesus has appeared to Simon!” That is a creed.

These words reflect what Paul writes thirty plus years before Luke is composed. And what Paul records probably pre-dates even Paul’s own writings. So it’s likely this restates the earliest known Christian belief, creed, Affirmation of Faith. (Slight pause.)

And yes, we do find these words in the work known as Luke: “They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while Jesus was talking to us on the road, explaining the Scripture to us?’” (Slight pause.)

This is an obvious statement. In the year 2023 of the Common Era it can be hard to understand stories written 2,000 years ago. We hear this question, “Are you the only one visiting Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place…?” Our brains then play a trick on us. We might wonder ‘did this person not read the newspaper headlines that morning?’

But this story in Luke, the Gospel which happens to be the very best at story telling, is not meant to record history, report facts. Additionally, when reading any part of Scripture it is at best unwise to ask, ‘what does the story say? What are the facts?’

Instead we always need to ask a ‘what does the story mean?’ And this story very specifically asks ‘what does the resurrection mean?’

Now, paradoxically, I need follow all that up with a pertinent fact from the story. It’s said the village of Emmaus is seven miles from Jerusalem.

However, Biblical historians have never been able to find any trace of an ancient town with the name Emmaus. Those who first heard the story probably knew that.

Thereby the story, itself, says it’s not about facts; it’s about meaning. Because of this obvious fabrication the story, itself, asks ‘what does the resurrection mean?’ It essentially makes that claim when it says Jesus explained the Scripture to these travelers (quote:) “…beginning with Moses and all the prophets,…”? (Slight pause.)

Here’s one more obvious statement. The only Scripture Jesus knew is what we call the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament. When the early Christians saw or heard the words ‘Moses and the prophets’ they would have known this meant the Torah and the Prophets, the only Scripture Jesus knew.

And so what does the only Scripture Jesus knew mean? Not what does it say; what does it mean? How can it be summed up? (Slight pause.) The Hebrew Scripture insists God loves us and God wants to be in covenant with us— God loves us and God wants to be in covenant with us. (Slight pause.)

Sometimes people say I refer to the covenant of God often. Well, one reason I do that is scholars tell us there are at least 12 signs of the covenant in the Hebrew Scripture— signs of the covenant with Noah, with Abraham, with Moses, with David, with the Priests. It goes on and on. And again, the only Bible Jesus knew is about covenant— that’s it; that’s all; case closed— covenant. (Slight pause.)

Now, the skeptical among you might say but what Jesus explained had to do with the Messiah, had to do with the resurrection. That’s not about covenant.

My take on this is simple. The resurrected Jesus is yet another a sign of the covenant. There is no way Jesus explained the Scripture about the Messiah without addressing the covenant.

And why do I say the resurrected Jesus is a sign of the covenant? Here’s one reason right from this reading. “Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it and gave it to them…. and they recognized Jesus…”

When we celebrate Communion these days the words we use insist the sacrament is a sign of the new covenant. The resurrection is a sign of the covenant. (Slight pause.)

All that brings me back to Affirmations of Faith, what some commonly call creeds. I maintain statements of faith are not a list of what we have to believe, although many people take them that way.

Rather, I say Affirmations of Faith are a description, an explanation of God. Therefore, if you ask me what I believe about the reality of God— not a description or an explanation of God but what I believe about the reality of God— this is what I say: God loves us and wants to covenant with us.

And I believe the resurrection of Jesus is yet another a sign of the reality of that covenant. I would also suggest it is only in the light of the resurrection the very idea of covenant found in the Hebrew Scriptures can fully make sense. (Slight pause.)

There is one more layer here, as if I haven’t dug enough already. Covenant also means God loves us unconditionally. What is unconditional love about? Unconditional love is about heart, emotion. So unconditional love encompasses forgiveness, joy, peace, hope, freedom, equity.

Here is where I stand— this covenant, this forgiveness, joy, peace, hope, freedom, equity and the unconditional love of covenant— in both the Hebrew Scriptures and in the New Testament— are central to Who God is. Therefore, these are the blessings of the covenant: forgiveness, joy, peace, hope, freedom, equity and unconditional love. Amen.

Elijah Kellogg Church, Harpswell, Maine

ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is a précis of what was said: “I have said this here before: creeds may sound like they are about the head, the intellect. But they are really about the heart, emotion. When we translate the Latin words of the Nicene Creed, Credo in unum Deum, we usually translate them as ‘I believe in one God.’ But a better understanding of what the Latin implies says it this way: I give my heart to one God. And yes, God loves us. God gives God’s own heart to us.”

BENEDICTION: Let us serve the world in the name of Christ. Let the love of Christ find expression in us. And may we love God so much, that we love nothing else too much. May we be so in awe of God, that we are in awe of no one else and nothing else. Amen.

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