The creeds are the definition of the faith. They are the Faith which is believed. The Athanasian Creed, of the three great ones of the Western Church, is a masterful presentation of what we know. All of it can be tied to revelation, but the creeds presentation moves from those things which might be available to gently assisted reason to the more concrete revealed reality. The creed uses the names Father, Son and Spirit, but it starts out more philosophical with what might be call the attributes of God, shared by the Godhead in unity. The Christian Faith attributes these to the God of the Bible, but honestly many of these things are the god of classical theism. The second part of the creed moves into deeper revelation. It confesses and instructs how that God has revealed himself in three persons and how those persons are unique. The uniqueness that it wishes to establish is not hierarchy, but an order: Father Is, Son begotten, Spirit proceeding. The last part of this creed confesses the most concrete, but also the most controversial part of Christianity – the incarnation. In 40 verses it is an inexhaustible source of contemplation.
This sermon merely scratches the surface. It is more a Trinity Sunday encouragement to turn away from the confusion of our age and once again take up the solid definitions which are the gifts of ages of the church past.
The start of that title is an interesting bit in Matthew 28:17. It is made all the more interesting because of the liturgical day of Trinity Sunday. On Trinity Sunday we confess the Athanasian Creed which is the most strident of the three historic creeds in its statements and sweep. In that way it mirrors the statements by Jesus right around that interesting bit. What this sermon does is examine the current fetish with doubt, point to the real trouble which is not doubt itself but fear, and look at the ways that both fear and doubt are calls to The Faith, expressed in clear form like the creeds, and to faithfulness. Lastly, it attempts to knock down one of the great fears behind clear statements of the faith, by recalling Jesus’ final words and Peter’s Pentecost sermon…Let all Israel know for certain…(read/listen to the sermon to hear the rest).
I believe that Trinity Sunday, at least as we normally observe it, is the most offensive Sunday of the Church year. Let me explain that statement. The Sunday School answer – Jesus – is what we proclaim most Sundays. Scratching under that simple statement I would tend to hold that the three theological virtues (faith, hope and charity/love) take up a large amount of Sundays. Closely following or intertwined would be grace and the fruits of the Spirit. I’d like to say that in this I’m just following the texts of the day. And if I am being an orthodox preacher, I am saying what the texts have to say for the people gathered at St. Mark’s. So depending upon the texts you get some other subjects: prayer, discipleship, creation, eschatology (last things), and so on. And it is possible to be winsome and happy and non-offensive on most of those things. Likewise it is possible to be a complete a**. Traditionally the cross was the scandal – the cross was foolishness to the gentile and a scandal/stumbling block to Jews. It is still possible to hear and feel that scandal, but most people giving a preacher a listen don’t seem that shocked at the cross. (And I am aware that many would say that is because you must not be preaching the cross. I don’t think that is the case. If I have one cliche visible motion it is pointing at the cross on the altar like the Issenheim Altarpiece.) In a pluralistic society, the doctrine of God, the Trinity, becomes offensive. The bigger scandal isn’t the scandal of the cross where God dies. The bigger scandal is particularity. There is a God and this specifically is how He has revealed himself. And that specific revelation is the ground of truth and freedom.
Trinity Sunday, when marked by the reading of the Athanasian Creed, is one Sunday given over the the faith which is believed. While most Sundays include faith and some part of the (intellectual) faith which is believed, the emphasis is on encouragement in the faith which believes. The faith which believes, the work of the Spirit within us, is what saves. It does not come from us, but is given to us by grace. And that faith which believes is what grabs onto the cross like the old pictures and stained glass of the man holding onto the cross that is either going over a waterfall or is amidst the wind and waves. This is our stained glass window, but I’ve seen the same icon in other churches. That is a great visual of the faith which believes. Trinity Sunday is about the faith which is believed. It says boldly and clearly – “This is the God we believe in.”
In a plural society such clarity doesn’t leave room for “muddling on” or a soft syncretism blending a little of Buddha, a little of the great spirit, a little of gentle Jesus and a little of precious moments. That is why I think it is the most offensive. It is also very necessary. Quoting myself in the sermon, please excuse me, “A lowest common denominator faith eventually betrays both – producing a confusion of God, which is no god at all, and a smear of cheap grace, which is not grace.” Are you building on the rock or on sand? The creeds, like Jesus in the festival discourse in John 7-8, are a statement of the rock.