The beginning of Paul’s letter to Philemon contains an address that I use in nearly every communication I have with the church I serve. “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” are the words I use to begin worship on Sundays and the words I use to address all of my devotionals and epistle articles. There is something familiar and comforting about using the same words over and over regardless of how the community and the world has changed from week to week; no matter what we have going on in our lives, we are still greeted by the peace and grace of God when we communicate as a church.
The habit of using Paul’s words has shaped the way I interact with the people of St. John’s and the larger community. By beginning with these words I am transported back to almost all of Paul’s letter to individuals and communities, I am connected with the great tradition of the church, and I am reminded that I am called to point to Christ’s witness (and not my own).
The words are good and right and true, but it has been the habit of using them that has had a profound effect on the way I understand what it means to be a disciple.
Every Sunday at St. John’s we have a habit of standing together to affirm our faith using The Apostles’ Creed. The familiar words are printed in the bulletin and we all face the altar to proclaim what we truly believe. And yesterday, as individuals were lining up to leave the sanctuary, one of our youth pulled me aside to ask a question: “Why do we say we believe in the holy catholic church if we are the United Methodist Church?” In the moment I explained that the word “catholic” in the context of the Apostles’ Creed does not refer to the Catholic Church as a denomination but the “universal” church. And even though I answered him, his question stuck with me the rest of the afternoon.
How many times have we used the Apostles’ Creed in church without really thinking about what we say? Has the habit of using those words become so familiar that they no longer bear fruit in our lives? What other things do we take for granted in our worship and in our discipleship?
Habits are a good thing in their ability to shape our behavior. However, we have to be cautious against letting our habits become rote. The words we use in church and in our daily living have the power to transform us because what we believe shapes how we behave. So, we join together with the countless disciples of the past to say, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord: who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; the third day he rose from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.”