glory of god

glory of god

Monday, June 20, 2011

On Belief, Doubt, & the Nicene Creed: A Sermon for Trinity Sunday


Some of you may remember that a few weeks ago I talked about how when I was applying for the rector’s position here I was also a candidate in a couple other searches. Those who are new to the Episcopal Church may not be aware that we follow a call process, by which the congregation selects its priest, rather than an appointment process where the bishop makes the decision for you (here the bishop has to approve the congregation’s choice, but doesn’t actually select the rector). You also may remember that I said I was disappointed when I was turned down for a glamorous position in Newton, after a somewhat disastrous phone interview.

Well, as it happens, that interlude was just as Emmanuel’s search process was picking up. So my distress didn’t very last long, because as I read Emmanuel’s search profile materials I started to be intrigued by this parish and most especially by what I read about your interest in focusing on adult education. That is such a rarity in so many churches, where there’s a strong education focus for children’s ministry (as there should be), but the adults are pretty much content with what they learned in church school or confirmation 20, 30, or 40 years earlier. But here, at Emmanuel, there’s a desire to learn and grow in faith. That’s why we came up with the tag line, “Come and grow with us” that we have plastered all over our building and printed materials. Because our deepest desire is to grow, not only in numbers, but also in understanding, in relationship with God, in community life.

So, a mission of mine has been to focus on adult education (along with worship and pastoral care). And we’ve had a variety of approaches and courses over the past three years—most recently on the Gnostic gospels. What I especially appreciate about these sessions is how open everyone is coming to a deeper understanding, not needing to agree with other necessarily, but certainly wanting to learn together and from each other.

Interestingly, conversations often veer back toward the Nicene Creed, I suppose since we recite it together every week. What does it mean? Why do we say it? Do we have to believe all of it? What if we don’t believe all of it? Since today is Trinity is Sunday, and since it’s really in the Nicene Creed that we find the Trinity articulated, I thought I might say a bit about the creed: where it comes from, why we say it, and what it might mean for us today. This might be a little dry, or a bit like an adult ed session (though unfortunately less interactive), but hopefully also interesting. And if it’s not, you can mentally work on your Father’s Day barbecue menu.

The Nicene Creed was formulated in the fourth century—the 300s—to articulate what Christians believe about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and the Church. It came about as a result of debates and disagreements over whether Jesus was fully divine—in other words equal to God—or maybe not quite equal to God. And whether he was fully a human being, or maybe just looked like a human being. Emperor Constantine was concerned that Christians were so divided over these issues that told the bishops to figure it out and come to an agreement, and that’s what Christians would believe. It’s an understatement to say that it was an exercise of top-down authority. Ordinary people like us had no say.

So, the creed was worked out in the much the same way that Congress passes laws. It didn’t descend from heaven on a cloud and it’s not written in the Bible. In fact, the only place in the Bible that mentions the Trinity in the way we do as “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” is this morning’s gospel. The bishops debated and argued and changed some words here and there to appeal to various groups, and then debated some more, and eventually came to the greatest agreement they could, with as many people as possible agreeing to live with whatever they decided on, but everyone was not always exactly happy.

The original version of the Nicene Creed was decided upon in the year 325 and was quite a bit shorter than the one we know. There was no mention of the Virgin Mary or Pontius Pilate. It actually didn’t even say Jesus was crucified. Or much of anything about the Holy Spirit. In it’s earliest form, it was simply an attempt to emphasize that Jesus was fully human and fully divine. But that wasn’t enough, and people started arguing that maybe the Holy Spirit wasn’t equal to God, so they called another council to deal with that issue, as well as to flesh out the finer details. They added those portions that we know, and finally approved it in the year 381. With that, the doctrine of the Trinity was born. And we’ve had it mostly as is ever since.

The purpose of the Nicene Creed was two-fold. First, it unified Christians, articulating what they believed (or should believe), especially about Jesus. And second, it was meant to exclude teachings, like Gnosticism, which the majority of bishops decided were wrong. For example, the Gnostics believed that the world was created bad, not by God but by a lesser being (obviously in contrast to this morning’s reading from Genesis in which we heard that God created everything and called it very good). The orthodox Christians won that debate and enshrined their belief in the creed when it says that the one God is the maker of all things, visible and invisible. The creed also excluded those who didn’t believe that Jesus was fully divine (Arians) and also those who didn’t believe that he was fully human (Docetists). In fact, anyone who couldn’t agree was thrown out of the empire entirely. I guess that’s one way to enforce unity, if a bit draconian.

In the 1630 years since the Nicene Creed was adopted Christians have been reciting it week by week all over the world, in our various languages. Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Lutherans, and Anglicans all say it every Sunday morning (and in some churches they even sing or chant it). As it was in the year 381, so today the creed is the single defining statement of the Christian faith. Everything else, really, is extra.

But here’s the thing: I know that some of us are able to recite it and believe every word, and some are not, feeling like they have to cross their fingers or take a deep breath during certain portions. Thankfully, it is no longer the case that any of us will be thrown out of the empire if we can’t agree to all of it. Nor will any of you be thrown out of Emmanuel Church if there are portions of it that you have a hard time saying. Even so, there are some find the creed to be exclusionary, because it tells us what we are supposed to believe, sometimes things that are very hard to believe. People even leave church because of it.

In my younger days I didn’t like it either, and I, too, had a hard time with several passages. But then, when I thought about it more deeply, I realized that in its own way the creed is actually kind of inclusive—or at least it can be. You know, when people come to Emmanuel, we don’t ask them what they believe or don’t believe. We don’t make any one sign a statement of faith. All we do here to confess our faith is recite the Nicene Creed. But if someone has a hard time with a portion of it, or if they don’t say part of it, that’s completely up to them. It’s no one’s business but his or her own. Maybe through reciting it together he or she, or you, will come to a greater appreciation and deeper understanding, and maybe not. But that’s okay, because if you’ll notice, it’s not necessarily saying that it’s what I or you as an individual believe, but what “we” as a church community together believe. What’s more, in the Episcopal Church there is no authoritative or official teaching to go along with the Nicene Creed. The Roman Catholic Church has a large catechism to explain everything, but we don’t. So, how we believe that Virgin Mary conceived or how the resurrection happened is open to a lot of interpretation. If you think about it, there’s actually a significant degree of liberality in that.

But just as important is the fact that what the creed covers is really very minimal. It basically addresses the Holy Trinity—who God is and how God relates to us—and that’s all. None of the other things the church gets so fussed about it is covered in any way. In 1996 the Episcopal Church determined that the Nicene Creed establishes the core doctrine of the church, which means that anything that falls outside the scope of the creed is open to debate, dialogue, and diverse belief and practice. This came about when some conservatives brought heresy charges against a retired bishop for ordaining a gay man to the priesthood. Well, the court of bishops who heard the case ruled that anything not related to the Nicene Creed could not be considered a matter of heresy. And of course the creed certainly doesn’t discuss who can be ordained (or married or anything like that), so the case was thrown out as without merit. It’s actually kind of ironic that the Nicene Creed, which was once used to exclude people, some 1600 years later was the basis for the church becoming more and more inclusive, and it has been ever since.

And so over the years, I have come to appreciate it more and more, both for what it says and what it doesn’t say. Today, I think of the creed as the skeletal structure of our faith. We each have bones and frames that look more or less the same, but the way we flesh them out, the way we bring them to life, is different for each of us. Some of us are tall, some short. Some thin, others not as thin as we’d like. Some have a deep rich skin tone and others like me are pasty white. And so it is with our faith. We take what has been handed down to us for nearly 2000 years and we interpret and express it in a multitude of ways. In fact, I would imagine that there are as many interpretations and expressions of the Christian faith as there are Christians in the world, and as there have been since Jesus called his first disciple. What unites us is not believing all the same things (because we never will), but sharing that common structure, that frame, the bones, which are really just beginning of a much deeper, richer, and livelier faith.

And you know what, that’s just as it should be. Because it is only together, when we all share our various and unique insights and perspectives, that we can truly come to who God is and how God is active among us. In fact, that’s why we have the doctrine of the Trinity in the first place, since God is known to us in diverse ways as Father, Son, and Spirit, as Creator, Redeemer, Giver of Life, as Mother, Liberator, and Friend. No single image is sufficient. We need them all.

So, the Nicene Creed is a wonderful start, expressing an ancient faith shared by Christians across time and space. But it’s always up to us to bring that faith to life in our own time and place. And that’s what we do here, when we pray and worship together, when we serve our neighbors, and when learn from each other. When we grow together in faith, spirit, and community.

To God be the glory: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell

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