Hear O Israel, The Lord our God is one Lord; and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength. This is the first commandment. And the second is like, namely this: Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these. (Mark xii: 29–31)
When one of the Temple scribes challenges Jesus to pick the most important commandment, he doesn’t pick one of the Ten Commandments. Instead, he recites the Shema (Deuteronomy vi: 4-5), which commands us to love God completely and unreservedly. He then adds a second, which he says is basically the same thing: to love our neighbour. This Summary of the Law is so key to our Christian faith that we hear it every Sunday at the beginning of the service of Holy Communion, with the additional explanation that “upon these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets”.
It seems so simple, and yet in practice, it seems so hard to follow. People like to quibble, and so Jesus spends his ministry telling parables to explain just who our neighbour is, and what it means to love him. Loving our neighbour is important, because that is how we know our faith is alive: “For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also” (James 2:26).
Similarly, people quibble about what, exactly, Christians should believe. The first of the Creeds, the Apostles’ Creed, is brief and to the point. (We use this Creed regularly in the Daily Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer). It wasn’t specific enough, though, so the First Council of Nicaea produced a second Creed, the Nicene Creed, to provide more detail. (We use this Creed at the service of Holy Communion.) There’s actually a third Creed, the Athanasian Creed, which is much longer, and which reinforces—but doesn’t particularly clarify—the doctrine of the Holy, Blessed, and Undivided Trinity (which may explain why it’s almost never used).
The Thirty–Nine Articles of Religion address a number of specific topics, but they really aren’t meant as an exhaustive summary of the faith. Plus, the drift in syntax and vocabulary over the centuries makes them a bit difficult to follow in places. The Catechism (a study guide for people wishing to be confirmed) is a good overview of Christian beliefs, but it is constrained by its brevity. (Both documents can be found in the Prayer Book.)
By far the best way to learn what we believe is to attend our services. The readings at each service are chosen to elaborate on the theme presented in the Collect for the Day, and, St Stephen’s being a classical Anglican parish, the hymns and the sermon follow suit. It’s like Sunday School for adults, where each Sunday has its own lesson plan. Over the course of a year, we study the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, from his birth in a manger in Bethlehem, through his ministry and death upon the Cross, to his glorious Resurrection. Along the way, we examine the scriptures and study what it means to be a Christian. Homework for the week is to put into practice what we’ve learned on Sunday morning. A study group meets between the 9:15 AM and 11:15 AM Sunday services, and the clergy are always available if you have specific questions. What could be easier?
So please join us at a service, and learn with us what it means to be a Christian.
Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast, the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
—Collect for the Second Sunday in Advent