By Derek Olsen
Join with me for a moment in a dream, in a vision. We’ve been talking more and more in the Episcopal Church of that dreaded “e” word that strikes terror into the hearts of the staid faithful—evangelism. For some it conjures fearful scenes of complex theological refutation, of fast and furious verbal sparring until—pressed and pinked by verbal weapons of dialectic—our opponent throws up his arms, confessing Jesus as an act of intellectual surrender. The prospect of such a thing makes the average church-going heart quail—is that really what’s expected? How do they expect me to do that?!?
The answer from calmer quarters is: relax, that’s not what evangelism is fundamentally about. Evangelism isn’t about beating opponents into submission—intellectual or otherwise. At its heart, it’s about sharing love, communicating who God is and how God is about the work of redemption and reconciliation. It’s less about what we know than who we know—and how he has made himself known through the power of the resurrection at work in our lives. That having been said, there is some knowledge, there are some fundamentals that have to be covered.
Turning to the Scriptures, St. Peter suggests that among the basic equipment of the Christian is having at hand and in mind “an account for the hope that is in you with gentleness and reverence” (1 Peter 3:15). That is, when questions arise about our faith we need something to fall back on, something to guide our way in explaining what we believe. Now—here’s my dream; here’s my vision. If I were the Evangelism Czar for the Episcopal Church, I’d try and put together a brief yet comprehensive statement of what we think on things. I’d want it to be broad—we need to cover our major bases, and yet I’d want it to be beautiful too. I’d want it, in its simplicity, to hint at depths of thought and experience that could be evoked and not exhausted by a tantalizing turn of phrase. If I could pare it down to something around one hundred words, I’d send out this “account for hope” to all the Episcopal churches with instructions that it be memorized so it could be readily called to mind whenever a useful opportunity might arise.
But, hey—why stop there? Why not have a second version as well? Maybe something twice the length of the first that might clear up a few more connections but also evoke greater mysteries and introduce some language that cuts to the heart of the human religious experience—light, breath, life abundant… Embed some deeper poetry, some metaphors to be chewed upon and savored, and you might have a worthy follow-up to the first that again, isn’t just about knowledge, but that evokes a new way of being and relating to the world in which we live. Of course—I’d want that one to be memorized too.
Who am I kidding, though, right? There’s no way this crazy scheme could work, is there?
Actually…it’s already been done. The texts have already been written. Not only that—they’ve already been infiltrated into your Book of Common Prayer. Many of you have already even accomplished the hard part—the memorizing part. There’s just one little catch. The infiltration has been so successful, has been so complete, that few realize the treasure that we got. Instead of recognizing this amazing “account for hope” for what it is, it’s something that we mumble through between the sermon and prayers at Eucharist, or stick between prayers in the Daily Office.
Yes, I’m talking about the creeds. We’ve got them. Many of us know them by heart—by rote, even—and therein lies the problem. We know them so well, have become so accustomed to them, that we’ve lost sight of their power—and their potential when it comes to evangelism. So let’s review quickly what it is that we have and how we might begin the process of rediscovering them.
The Apostles’ Creed was an early baptismal formula of the church in Rome. This was the basic outline of faith that converts (and in those days they were all converts) would embrace in order to be received into the faith. It served to nail down some fundamentals to establish Christian belief and to refute some potential misunderstandings. First, it asserted that God, the good God, the Father of Jesus Christ was also the God who Creates in distinction from philosophies that suggested that created matter was not just indifferent but downright evil—that bodies were prisons for souls. No, the creed affirmed, the good God made us bodies and—not only that—second, God even took on a body in the person of Jesus the Messiah. Like us, he was born, lived, and died as a historical person in a real place with Roman officials and everything. Third, that the breath, the spirit of God isn’t just a good idea or a nice metaphor—the Spirit is the reality of God moving, living and active.
Our other creed—what we call the Nicene Creed—is more properly called the Nicene-Chalcedonian Symbol. That sounds pretentious but is really just an affirmation that the church called together four world-wide councils to make sure that the faith they were handing down was the faith that they had received from their own teachers extending back to the apostles. Built on the framework like the Apostles’ Creed, it introduces the language of Greek philosophy, not for the sake of getting all complicated, but to somehow encapsulate in word and thought how the church had experienced the power of God moving in its worlds and ways.
Please—don’t underestimate second and fourth century people, though. Even without particle physics or flush toilets they knew that there were things in these affirmations that were at odds with the daily world they experienced; for the creeds—both of them—invite us into a mystery that they neither solve nor resolve: a mystery that begins with the assertion that Jesus is both God and man. Born, yes, but of a virgin—a clear impossibility according to the mechanics of the life we know. Died, yes, but rose again on the third day—another impossibility. Ascended to the Father? We know that can’t happen…unless our grasp of the mechanics of life is somehow incomplete. Unless there is a more full understanding of reality to which we may awake, to find ourselves caught up in, a reality where life wins, where love wins, despite what our senses tell us. Even back then, they knew that these affirmations were asking them to step beyond the threshold of life as they knew it into a bigger, a broader, a wilder world where they didn’t know all the rules.
What the creeds evoke, what they invite us into, is hope. Hope that there’s more to reality than what can be touched and quantified. Hope that death does not win in the end. Hope that we are not merely isolated islands in trajectories of decay but that as our life is caught up in the reality of God we are somehow bound closer to our fellow creatures as well. But the creeds do not simply give us hope; they give us language and a framework for understanding the spiritual stirrings and movings that we detect in our lives. They give us a vocabulary to understand the movement of the Spirit, the breaking forth of resurrection power. For the creeds are grounded in our experiences of the God of whom they speak.
This, in turn, is our own offering to a world that is in need of hope: the hope and the promise that there is a reality, a deeper reality, than what can be measured, quantified, and mathematically modeled. Actually—this is evangelism; it’s the sharing of the hope that we find in Christ Jesus. It’s telling the stories of how God has shown us a deeper reality in our lives. It’s communicating the hope of resurrection even in the face of death. So next time you find yourself in worship or in prayer and you encounter the creeds, take a minute, I beg you. Think about the words. Think about what they say and the realities and hopes to which they point. Ponder the phrases and fit them to your own life’s tale . And lastly, share them. With gentleness, with reverence, give an account for the hope that is in you.
Derek Olsen is in the final stretch of completing a Ph.D. in New Testament (with a healthy side of Homiletics) at Emory University where he is an adjunct professor at the Candler School of Theology. His reflections on life, liturgical spirituality, and being a Gen-X dad appear at Haligweorc.