We rejoice in God,
maker of heaven and earth,
and in the covenant of love
which binds us to God and one another.
The Preamble to the Design is as close as Disciples of Christ have yet come to developing something like a denominational statement of faith. Historically we have avoided creedal statements; we happily confess with believers of all times and places that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” But once that is said, we pause and take a deep breath, somewhat reluctant to press on: this is the essential statement of Christian faith, the only affirmation necessary for membership in the church.
We are reluctant because once we start unfolding that good confession – and unfold it we must in order to know how to be faithful followers of Jesus Christ in our time and place – once we start unfolding what this confession entails, we get into passionate debates. And in debates – there’s plenty of historical evidence for this – we have a tendency to end the conversation prematurely, draw lines, and build fences that define our side of the divide as the camp of true belief.
Sometimes, as in the case of apartheid in South Africa or the conflict between church and state in Nazi Germany, drawing those lines is not only necessary but the only faithful thing to do. But far too often in the history of the church, this tendency has led to stubborn division and a false sense of righteousness and holiness on either side of the fence: We know the truth about God and the world and the church, and you don’t.
When it comes to standing together and declaring, “This we believe,” Disciples are quick to affirm our faith in Jesus Christ and equally quick to invite fellow believers and non-believers to discuss the meaning and the implications of that confession. You could say that from a Disciples perspective the passionate pursuit of the truth is important; but equally important is the responsibility on the part of every participant in the debate to pay attention to the conversation itself: are we listening with the same fervor that fuels our speaking? Are we creating and maintaining dialogues that allow all voices to be heard and considered? When we say, “We believe” we don’t say it to end the discussion – “This is how it is; end of debate.” – but to invite, encourage, and facilitate further conversation.
Believe is a tricky word. We say, “I believe in God, maker of heaven and earth,” and it sounds just like somebody saying, “I believe in UFO’s” or asking, “Do you believe in ghosts?” It sounds like we declare that there’s something ‘out there’ whose existence is doubtful, and where the evidence is still hotly disputed.
But when a mother says to her child the night before the TCAP’s or some final exam, “I believe in you” it is obvious that she is not making a statement about the child’s existence or non-existence. The mother affirms her confidence in his ability to keep his anxiety in check and apply what he has learned in weeks and months of study. Her words affirm and strengthen the relationship of deep trust between them, a relationship that doesn’t depend on a high score because it isn’t defined by success or failure. When we say, “We believe in God,” that’s the neighborhood we’re in.
We speak of a relationship of deep trust around which we build our lives. We speak of a reality that envelops our days and nights, our beginnings and our endings, our fears, our doubts, our hopes. We speak of One who has said to us, “I believe in you.” We have become so accustomed to thinking of God in arguments or rational proofs, listing a series of concepts in systematic order, when what we are really saying is a simple response, “We believe in you too.”
Interestingly, we don’t literally say “we believe” anywhere in this affirmation. Instead we say, we confess, we proclaim, we accept, we rejoice, we celebrate, we receive, we serve – lest we forget that our belief is not a set of statements we subscribe to but a life lived in response to the One who gives life. We confess that Jesus is the Christ, we proclaim him Lord and Savior of the world, and the first thing we say about God is, “We rejoice.”
I could think of a whole host of other verbs we could insert here: We worship God, maker of heaven and earth. We live in gratitude to God. We bow before the mystery of God, we love God, we seek to obey God. All of these are good, right and true, and we could easily add tens or even hundreds more. Instead we say, “We rejoice in God, maker of heaven and earth.” Affirming our faith in God the creator is first and foremost an affirmation of joy.
What do people do when they rejoice? They smile, they laugh, they clap their hands and sing, they dance, they celebrate, they live life in fullness – we affirm that the chief end of God’s creation is joy, the rejoicing of God’s creatures in their creator.
The Lord who made heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them; the Lord who continues to give life to each new generation of living things, looks at the world with delight. Now some view God as a mechanic who has designed and built a fabulous machine which, once it’s been turned on, pretty much runs on its own. Creation, they say, is something that happened a long, long time ago, and the creator is watching from a distance as things unfold in the universe. The biblical witness points in a different direction: God is not only interested in seeing how things unfold but deeply and intimately involved in the life of God’s creatures. God’s relationship to the world is not exhausted by flipping a switch to set things in motion – and it doesn’t matter at all whether you prefer to call that switch the Big Bang or Seven Days.
Life is a gift given to the world at every moment, and God, delighting in the goodness of creation, desires and awaits our response: our rejoicing in the goodness of the gift, our wonder and gratitude, our joyful Yes.
Life flourishes in a cosmic economy of gifts given and received. The fabric of creation is life given with generosity and delight and life received and shared with rejoicing. The fabric of creation is the word of life spoken and a symphony of joyful praise echoing between earth and heaven. The fabric of creation is the covenant of love which binds God to God’s creatures and all living things to their creator.
Now some view the world as “unclaimed property” – a wilderness to be subdued and colonized, exploited, sucked empty, and eventually left behind. But those actions don’t reflect the will and desire of God. The world is not unclaimed property, but God’s creation, and the God who calls us and all things into being awaits our faithful response. The maker of heaven and earth desires that we live our lives in a manner that is good for us and all living things.
Of all God’s creatures, human beings alone are capable of choosing not to receive and return the gift of life. Of all God’s creatures, human beings alone are capable of claiming to be self-made men and women, solitary masters of their fate. But likewise, of all God’ creatures, human beings alone are capable of responding in freedom to God’s self-giving love. God says to us, “I will be your God and you will be my people,” and we affirm in response, “You are our God and we are your people.” God freely gives the gift of life and we receive and return it in freedom, in wonder, in gratitude and joy.
Creation is not a well-designed and skillfully crafted clockwork amongst whose gears and wheels we have been assigned our proper place like parts in a machine. Nor is creation the work of a distant divine master mechanic with whom we compete for control.
Creation is the fabric of relationships in which life flourishes as it is freely given and received. Creation is the embodiment of God’s covenant of love, and its chief end is the delight of the creator and the joy of all creatures.
This is not the last word on the matter; it’s how I understand what we affirm as members of the Christian church.
 Matthew 16:16
 Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust, p. 5
 Osborn, The Faith We Affirm, p. 42
 Acts 4:24; Ps 104:28ff; Gen 1:31
 E.g. Ps 139:13-18; Jer 1:5
 Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation (San Francisco: Harper&Row, 1985) p. 3
 See e.g. Ex 6:7; Dtn 29:13; Heb 8:10; Rev 21:7