Saturday, July 23, 2011

To Believe and Confess

Dear Parish Faithful,

“For man believes with his heart and so is justified, and he confesses with his lips and so is saved.” (ROM. 10:10)

“And grant that with one mouth and one heart we may praise Thine all-honorable and majestic name …” (Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom)

According to our liturgical calendar, this year we read from the Apostle Paul’s Epistle to the Romans on all of the Sundays of July. Last Sunday, the designated passage was ROM. 10:1-10. This passage is found at the heart of the Apostle’s impassioned historical/theological reflections on the mystery of Israel’s unbelief in Jesus as the Messiah, and how this makes sense in God’s over-all design for both Jews and Gentiles (ROM. 9-11). St. Paul’s “heart’s desire and prayer to God for them (the Jews) is that they may be saved” (v. 1). However, my goal is much more modest than entering into that complex theme at the moment. I am simply concentrating on the Apostle’s understanding of how we express and maintain our faith in Christ. For in this passage, St. Paul is speaking about salvation in Christ - a salvation that is both expressed with the lips while also being embedded deep in the heart: “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart (that is, the word of faith which we preach)” (v. 8). The Apostle then follows with a verse that could very well echo an early baptismal confession of faith on the part of the neophyte: “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (v. 9). The candidate for baptism would publicly and openly confess, “Jesus is Lord;” and this would assume that in the heart of the candidate is the saving faith that God raised Jesus from the dead. Only such a confession of faith and heartfelt belief makes baptism meaningful. It is this confession of a faith that exists in the heart that now allows both Jews and Gentiles to receive the righteousness, and hence salvation, that comes from God: “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and bestows his riches upon all who call upon him” (ROM. 10:13).

From the very beginning of Christianity, there has always been a “creedal” dimension to faith in Christ. This began during the earthly ministry of Christ when both St. Peter and St. Martha essentially made the same confession that Jesus is the Messiah and Son of God. (MATT. 16:16; JN. 11:27) This reaches its climax in the post-resurrectional confession of faith made by the disciple Thomas: “My Lord and my God!” (JN. 20:28) All of the Church’s creeds – local or ecumenical – are basically expansions and elaborations of that basic Truth of the Gospel. And the early creeds of the Church were used initially during the baptisms of new believers, before they entered into the Liturgy. Even the Nicene Creed was based on an earlier baptismal creed that was enlarged so as to become the Church’s most succinct expression of faith in the Holy Trinity and the Person of Christ. And, of course, we openly recite the Creed as a body following this liturgical “directive” from the priest: “Let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess.” This “confession” is an open and public vocalization of the full text of the Creed; this, in turn, being the content of what we claim to “believe.” It should be hard to imagine “saying” the Nicene Creed on a weekly basis without believing in the heart that what is being confessed is the Truth about God.

The “lips” and the “heart” represent the “outer” and “inner” and aspects of the human person in his or her totality. There exists a wholeness and over-all integrity to the Christian believer that maintains a balance between the two. Only such a person could say with the same conviction as the psalmist: “O Lord, open Thou my lips, and my mouth will show forth Thy praise.” If the lips express what is in the heart then the sincerity, conviction and commitment implicit in such a confession of Christian faith may serve to convince – even convict? – others who hear it. And this may begin within an existing Christian community. Today, we use rather bland terms such as “a person of faith,” when we could be describing a dynamic, deeply committed and passionate human “incarnation” of “the faith once and for all delivered to the saints” (JUDE 3). Such a “person of faith” can move others within a community to either question or seek to strengthen their own faith. Whether this serves to “inspire” or “convict,” such a presence will ultimately serve to build up the local community.

The unattractive and/or unexamined alternative of lacking an inner connection between the outward confession of faith and belief in the heart can result in a kind of “spiritual schizophrenia” that can seriously undermine or perhaps destroy a faith that once existed in a person. This is much more serious than the common notions of hypocrisy and (mindless) conformity. “Do I actually believe what I confess to in church?” may be the type of question that we need to periodically ask ourselves in the spirit of “self-examination” that the Apostle Paul refers to elsewhere in his epistles. More specifically: Do I believe in my heart that “Jesus is Lord,” as I confess that with my lips? Or again: Do I believe “that God raised him from the dead” as I confess that with my lips? We should not fear that such questions allow “doubt” to creep in. Rather, avoidance of such questions may very well indicate the presence of doubt already acting in a corrosive manner. When we pray in faith we ask God to further strengthen our faith, thus acknowledging the many temptations that assail our faith and our own weaknesses that threaten our faith. Yet, the faith that we pray for in humility can “overcome the world!”

It is a joy to be able to openly confess our faith within our liturgical assemblies. This is a natural expression of the belief/faith that is welling up in the hearts. We have the assurance of the Apostle Paul: “The Scripture says, ‘No one who believes in him will be put to shame’ " (ROM. 10:11; IS. 28:16). And further the Apostle cites the prophet Joel who declared: “Every one who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved” (ROM. 10:13; JOEL 2:32) . These are powerful words when spoken and assimilated with faith in our hearts.

Fr. Steven

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