Our Christian Roots:
Who God is
When we say the Apostles' Creed, we join with millions of Christians through the ages in an understanding of
God as a Trinity—three persons in one: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God, who is one, is revealed in three distinct persons. "God in three persons, blessed Trinity" is one way of speaking about the several ways we experience God.
We also try to find adjectives that describe the divine nature: God is transcendent (over and beyond all that is), yet at the same time immanent (present in everything). God is omnipresent (everywhere at once), omnipotent (all-powerful), and omniscient (all-knowing). God is absolute, infinite, righteous, just, loving, merciful...and more. Because we cannot speak literally about God, we use metaphors: God is a Shepherd, a Bridegroom, a Judge. God is Love or Light or Truth.
What God does
We cannot describe God with certainty. But we can put into words what God does and how we experience God's action in our lives. God works in at least these seven ways:
- • God creates. In the beginning God created the universe, and the Creation is ongoing. From the whirling galaxies, to subatomic particles, to the unfathomable wonders of our own minds and bodieswe marvel at God's creative wisdom.
- • God sustains. God continues to be active in creation, holding all in "the everlasting arms." In particular, we affirm that God is involved in our human historypast, present, and future.
- • God loves. God loves all creation. In particular, God loves humankind, created in the divine image. This love is like that of a parent. We've followed Jesus in speaking of God as "our Father," while at times it seems that God nurtures us in a motherly way as well.
- • God suffers. Since God is present in creation, God is hurt when any aspect of creation is hurt. God especially suffers when people are injured. In all violence, abuse, injustice, prejudice, hunger, poverty, or illness, the living God is suffering in our midst.
- • God judges. All human behavior is measured by God's righteous standardsnot only the behavior itself but also the motive or the intent. The Lord of life knows our sinand judges it.
- • God redeems. Out of infinite love for each of us, God forgives our own self-destruction and renews us within. God is reconciling the individuals, groups, races, and nations that have been rent apart. God is redeeming all creation.
- • God reigns. God is the Lord of all creation and of all history. Though it may oftentimes seem that the "principalities and powers" of evil have the stronger hand, we affirm God's present and future reign.
When all is done, if we have difficulty in imagining who God is or in relating to God, there's a simple solution: Remember Jesusfor in the New Testament picture of Jesus, we see God.
Who is Jesus
In trying to find words to express their faith in Jesus, the New Testament writers gave him various names. Jesus was Master, Rabbi, Teacher. He was the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He was the Doorway to the sheepfold, the Light of the world, the Prince of Peace, and more. In the church's long tradition, scores of other names or titles have been given. Let's look at five of the most central biblical names for Jesus:
Son of God
We believe in Jesus as God's special child. We call this the Incarnation, meaning that God was in the world in the actual person of Jesus of Nazareth. The Gospel writers explain this in different ways. In Mark, Jesus seems to be adopted as God's Son at his baptism. In Matthew and Luke, Jesus is conceived by the Holy Spirit. In John, Jesus is God's pre-existing Word who "became flesh and lived among us" (1:14). However this mystery occurred, we affirm that God is wholly present in Jesus Christ.
Son of man
Paradoxically, we also believe that Jesus was fully human. One of the church's first heresies claimed that Jesus only seemed to be human, that he was really a divine figure in disguise. But the early church rejected this. It affirmed that Jesus was a person in every sense that we are. He was tempted. He grew weary. He wept. He expressed his anger. In fact, Jesus is God's picture of what it means to be a mature human being.
We say "Jesus Christ" easily, almost as if "Christ" were Jesus' surname. Yet this name is another way of expressing who we believe Jesus to be. Christ is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word Messiah, which means God's Anointed One. For years before Jesus' time the Jews had been expecting a new king, a descendant of the revered King David, who would restore the nation of Israel to glory. Like kings of old, this one would be anointed on the head with oil, signifying God's election; hence, the Chosen One = the Anointed One = the Messiah = the Christ. The early Jewish Christians proclaimed that Jesus was, indeed, this Chosen One. Thus, in calling him our Christ today, we affirm that he was and is the fulfillment of the ancient hope and God's Chosen One to bring salvation to all peoples, for all time.
We also proclaim Jesus as our Lord, the one to whom we give our devoted allegiance. The word Lord had a more powerful meaning for people of medieval times, because they actually lived under the authority of lords and monarchs. Today some of us may find it difficult to acknowledge Jesus as Lord of our lives. We're used to being independent and self-sufficient. We have not bowed down to authority. To claim Jesus as Lord is to freely submit our will to his, to humbly profess that it is he who is in charge of this world.
Perhaps best of all, we believe in Jesus as Savior, as the one through whom God has freed us of our sin and has given us the gift of whole life, eternal life, and salvation. We speak of this gift as the atonement, our "at-oneness" or reconciliation with God. We believe that in ways we cannot fully explain, God has done this through the mystery of Jesus' self-giving sacrifice on the cross and his victory over sin and death in the Resurrection.
- • We believe that the church is the body of Christ, an extension of Christ’s life and ministry in the world today.
- • We believe that the mission of the church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the
- • We believe that the church is “the communion of saints,” a community made up of all past, present, and future disciples of Christ.
- • We believe that the church is called to worship God and to support those who participate in its life as they grow in faith.
We say that the Bible is vital to our faith and life, but what exactly is the Bible? Here are four ways to view it:
The Bible is a collection of sixty-six books, thirty-nine in the Old Testament (or Hebrew Bible) and twenty-seven in the New Testament. These books were written over a one-thousand-year period in three languages: Hebrew, Aramaic (the language Jesus spoke), and Greek.
The books are of different lengths and different literary styles. In the Hebrew Bible we find legends, histories, liturgies for community worship, songs, proverbs, sermons, even a poetic drama (Job). In the New Testament are Gospels, a history, many letters, and an apocalypse (Revelation). Yet through it all the Bible is the story of the one God, who stands in a covenant relationship with the people of God.
In early times and over many generations, the sixty-six books were thoughtfully used by faithful people. In the process their merits were weighed, and the community of believers finally gave them special authority. Tested by faith, proven by experience, these books have become sacred; they've become our rule for faith and practice.
In Israel the Book of Deuteronomy was adopted as the Word of God about 621 B.C. The Torah, or Law (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible), assumed authority around 400 B.C.; the Prophets about 200 B.C.; and the Writings about 100 B.C. After a struggle the Christians determined that the Hebrew Bible was Scripture for them as well. The New Testament as we know it was formed and adopted by church councils between A.D. 200 and A.D. 400.
We say that God speaks to us through the Bible, that it's God's Word. This authority derives from three sources:
- • We hold that the writers of the Bible were inspired, that they were filled with God's Spirit as they wrote the truth to the best of their knowledge.
- • We hold that God was at work in the process of canonization, during which only the most faithful and useful books were adopted as Scripture.
- • We hold that the Holy Spirit works today in our thoughtful study of the Scriptures, especially as we study them together, seeking to relate the old words to life's present realities.
The Bible's authority is, therefore, nothing magical. For example, we do not open the text at random to discover God's will. The authority of Scripture derives from the movement of God's Spirit in times past and in our reading of it today.
A guide to faith and life
We United Methodists put the Bible to work. In congregational worship we read from the Bible. Through preaching, we interpret its message for our lives. It forms the background of most of our hymns and liturgy. It's the foundation of our church school curriculum. Many of us use it in our individual devotional lives, praying through its implications day
by day. However, we admit that there's still vast "biblical illiteracy" in our denomination. We need to help one another open the Bible and use it.