The Sunday after Pentecost is always set aside as Trinity Sunday. And the key piece of Trinity Sunday worship is the Athanasian Creed. Creeds can unfortunately be turned into dead letters. Something read or looked at, but not pondered within one’s heart. Not a symbol of a living faith. When they are dead letters they turn into checklists of mental assent or legalisms or even worse esotericism. What this sermon attempts to do is show them as invitations. “This is the catholic faith”. When you hear/say them as that, they become deadly practical. They help us remember what this sermon attempts to bring back.
Note: Here is the “funny” that the sermon starts off describing.
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.
This was Trinity Sunday which is the traditional day for the Athanasian Creed to be recited. (I’m not sure how old the tradition is actually, but I remember it as a little kid.) Within the Lutheran Book of Concord there are the three historic creeds of the Western Church – Nicene, Apostle’s and Athanasian. The Athanasian is the longest and in many ways strongest in its wording.
The gauge of its strength might be in the last line which it leaves ringing in your ears: “This is the catholic faith; which except a man believe faithfully and firmly, he cannot be saved.”
You don’t get much more dogmatic than that. But in this case that dogmatism is a very good thing. And you are fooling yourself if you think Jesus wasn’t at times dogmatic. The text is Nicodemus coming to talk with Jesus. And while John 3:16 gets all the press, there are three elements that help us with our unease at clear doctrine. First, and for me the most memorable of Jesus’ lines, is his replay to Nicodemus – “You are the teacher of Israel?” (John 3:10) Its a sarcastic lament at the lack of spiritual understanding. Within the same text Jesus says three times, “truly, truly, I say to you”. In other word, pay attention to this, its important. And that phrase tells us what the third point of dogmatism is, Jesus was dogmatic about one very specific thing, himself. Even in John 3:16. God loved the word and sent his son so that whoever believes in him should have eternal life. John 3:15-17 repeats the “in him” three times. Not that the rest is unimportant, but salvation is in Jesus.
The doctrines of the church are there for a reason. They point to Christ. The are mileposts or guide markers on the narrow way. Is it possible that we turn them into a law that steals life? Yes. But that is not their intention. Clear doctrine helps us to stop lying to ourselves, repent and believe in Christ. Stuff as central as the Athanasian Creed should be strident.
Not that it matters to the reader, but our sound system was “re-tuned” this week. Projecting voice and presence is not always easy, but it got easier. Thank you Mr. Bayer.
This last week was Trinity Sunday – the end of the festival season and the day confessional churches bring out something called the Athanasian Creed. When the Western Church speaks of its three creeds it means: the Apostles which is the creed the developed from the church at Rome used during Baptism, the Nicene which is the universal creed (if we in the west dropped ‘and the son’ in the Spirit’s procession) stemming from the council of Nicea in 325 AD, and the Athanasian which is a little clouded in origin if not in how it speaks of the Godhead and of Jesus Christ.
It has two driving doctrinal points from which everything else grows.
1) We worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity, neither confusing the persons nor dividing the substance.
2) It is also necessary for everlasting salvation that one faithfully believe in the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.
You might ask why that is important. Can’t we just leave it a squishy spiritual concept? I’m typically all for squish primarily because we don’t know anywhere near as much as we think we do, but as this creed says – this is the Catholic Faith. These things have been revealed: the triune nature of God and the incarnation of that God in Jesus Christ. [Just a question, what does it mean that my spellcheck doesn’t know triune but instead suggests triumvir or tribune? Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.] They have been revealed because of a spiritual truth – you become what you worship.
Read the sermon for the support of that statement. But this creed states that: Although He is God and man, He is not two, but one Christ: one, however, not by the conversion of the divinity into flesh, but by the assumption of the humanity into God. Christ, through the incarnation, has redeemed our very nature. The disciple of Christ is being conformed to His likeness. In you the Spirit is reforming the image of God. We are exacting about who we worship, because that is what we are being made into.