“So what is a Christian?”
This question came from a student in our young adult group at the Japanese Church in Lexington, Kentucky. I was one of the leaders of the group, and a seminary student at the time. The group of mostly college students, with a few high school students, had come to the U.S. from different parts of Japan to study. A few grew up in Christian families, but most of them were either new to the faith, or still seeking.
Different students gave different answers, but I still remember clearly what one of the students, who was a new Christian at the time, said in response.
“Isn’t a Christian someone who really professes the Apostles’ Creed? I mean, not just someone who says it, but really professes it?”
In Japan, being surrounded by 99 percent of the population which does not profess faith in Christ, it is important for Japanese Christians to define who we are and what we believe in. We know we are different from the surrounding culture and values – but how? How do we answer when people ask what we believe? The student was right. Christians are the ones who really profess the Apostles’ Creed as a profession of faith. But what does it mean?
The creeds of our faith define whom it is that we worship and believe in – the One in whom we put our trust, depend upon, and count on, for our very lives. We say in Japan that we have eight million gods. I have seen trees and rocks that are considered to be divine. I have heard about people who became gods after they die. In Japan, people go to the Shinto shrines to pray to different gods, and they offer their money to them. Growing up, I was told that our bathroom had its own god. Just like a crowded intersection in Tokyo, Japan is a crowded intersection of many gods. It is chaotic, and accordingly, people do not know which god they can really count on!
I wonder if it was like that when the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed were written. There were many different religions with many different gods in the surrounding Roman culture. In the midst of it all, there arose heretical teachings about God inside the church (e.g., Gnosticism and Marcionism). The confusion and chaos at the intersection of the marketplace of religious pluralism called for much needed traffic control. Who is the God we trust? Who are we as Christians?
Christians in the West may think that we do not need traffic control, complete with red and green lights. We know our God.
Well…not so fast. According to a study conducted by Lifeway Research last year, six in ten Americans affirm that religious belief is about a personal opinion rather than objective truth. Which makes me wonder: do we create our own image of God? Are we picking and choosing gods, just like we do in Japan? Fifty seven percent of Americans agree that Jesus Christ is the only person that never sinned, meaning, 43 percent of people do not (click HERE for the survey results). Does it mean almost half the people do not believe Jesus is fully God? Maybe there is a traffic jam of gods in the West as well. Maybe we need to define who we are as Christians, by examining in whom we put our trust, and in whom we truly profess to be our God.
When we say, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth,” we are confessing that we trust in God, who is maker of heaven and earth – not in the trees, or the rocks, or dead people; they are part of creation – not gods. We are confessing that God has power over all creation, including the places we do not see God’s activity at a glance, or places that have few churches.
When we say, “I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son our Lord…” or “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ…”, as we do in the Nicene Creed, we are professing that Jesus is our only Savior and Lord. We cannot save ourselves by being good or loving. We cannot be free from our past sins, guilt, and shame on our own. We depend on Jesus, who is fully God and fully human, who was crucified and died for our sins, and who was resurrected from the dead (yes, physically). We are professing we can count on Jesus for our salvation, for forgiveness, and for reconciling us to eternal life with our Maker. We trust in Jesus to show us how to live, because He understands our pain, and He lives with us. We profess that the Holy Spirit is God, who gives us true life and the power as Jesus’ followers, as His church, to follow Him.
The ancient creeds not only define us by whom we put our trust in, but they define where we belong, i.e., to a larger Body; we are “the holy catholic church.” By professing these creeds, we are saying we are part of the Church that transcends time and space; they are the same creeds our ancestors professed, and our brothers and sisters in the world profess them now. We are holy, not because we are perfect, but because we are set apart for God’s purpose. We are catholic, because we are part of a larger Body, placed in specific locations at specific times. We belong to this Body first and foremost – not a country, or the culture we are placed in, though we are called to be light and salt wherever we are. We are not of the world, though we are in the world.
A few years ago, I asked my pastor in Japan what he expected our short-term mission team from the U.S. to do. He requested the mission team engage in fellowship with the Christians in the church, especially the young people in the church, “…so they don’t feel like they are completely isolated and alone as Christians.” When one is part of a very small group in a school or in society, it is encouraging to know that one is part of a family that is much larger, who shares the same faith. The Creeds help us to realize that.
A few weeks ago, we celebrated the reaffirmation of our baptismal vows as a congregation. In the liturgy, it reads, “Let us join together in professing the Christian faith as contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments” (The United Methodist Hymnal, p.35). Then I asked, “Do you believe in God the Father?” “Do you believe in Jesus Christ?” “Do you believe in the Holy Spirit?” Each question was answered as the congregation professed each corresponding section of the Apostles’ Creed. We professed our faith by answering the same questions Christians have been asked for a very long time. Together, we remembered who we are, and we re-committed ourselves to the identity that was given to us, and defined by, our God.
How do you define what it is to be a Christian? Who is the God you put your trust in? What is your identity, and to whom do you belong? If we get confused about who we are as we approach the busy intersection of gods, we can remember to turn once more to the Creeds – passed on to us – by the one, holy, catholic, and professing church.
By Nako Kellum
February 5, 2019
The Rev. Nako Kellum is co-pastor in charge at Tarpon Springs First United Methodist Church in Tarpon Springs, Florida. She is also a member of the Council of the Wesleyan Covenant Association.