Sermon preached at St. Mary’s Churches, Fordingbridge & Breamore on Trinity Sunday, 11th June 2017, Rachel Noël
May I speak in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit… Amen
So today is Trinity Sunday, one of the principal feast days in the Anglican Church, and it’s why we’ve gone white & gold today. We have several feasts in the church calendar, most of them are marking events in Jesus’ life, or other historical events.
I think today is really interesting, as it’s the only feast day in the church year that is purely about doctrine…so it’s a feast day about what we believe – and in particular it’s about our doctrine of the Trinity. Trinity Sunday, the Sunday after Pentecost has been celebrated since the tenth century… and in most church calendars, we count the rest of the weeks of the church year as the number of Sundays after today.
Trinity Sunday is also a well known Sunday for heresy… because as soon as we start trying to put into words exactly what it is that we think and believe about our God… it gets really difficult… and we can quickly end up in a muddle.
Now, don’t start yawning yet, or switching off. I think it’s really important… the Trinity is very short hand for what we are saying about who our God is. And it matters…
who we believe our God is matters greatly…
our God is who we are here to worship today,
our God is who we are praying to and with
Who we believe our God is affects how we think of ourselves, and how we think of ourselves in relation to God and to each other.
To see how much it matters, we only have to turn on our television sets and watch the news… what people believe about their God affects their actions. Distorted views of who God is can lead people to carry out horrendous acts.
So… the Trinity…
To find out what we believe about the Trinity, I decided that today we would think about our creeds. The word creed comes from the Latin meaning credo… ‘to believe’… so the creeds are our statements about what we believe.
Now we’re Anglican… so of course, we don’t just have one creed… there are three authorised creeds… and to understand where they come from we need to understand a bit of history.
We know Christianity came out of Judaism, as Jesus himself was a Jew. The temple of Jerusalem was destroyed in AD70, and after this time Christianity really found its feet as a new faith outside of Judaism. And as a new faith, it needed to work out what it is that it believed, ….
and so the arguments started about how to worship, how to pray, what the sacred documents are, and who or what we think God is.
There were many different ideas circulating about how to do things… and not everyone could agree…. some things don’t change!
Nowadays, we’re used to the Bible… and what books are contained in it… however, that all had to be negotiated.
In 144 AD, the first set of Christian books was circulated in Rome, by Marcion… except he’d used his scissors to chop out the bits he didn’t like…. and his books had the Christian God of love in violent war with the Jewish God of the Old Testament… This is different to what we have today, where we accept that Christianity has come from Judaism, and that we worship the same God.
But these things take a while to sort out, and it wasn’t until 367AD, another 200 years later for the list of books that we now know as the Bible, to first appear – put together by Athanasius who was bishop of Alexandria in Egypt.
But reading all the Bible, is quite long and complicated… so people needed, and still need a short hand… a summary of what it is that we actually believe.
And that’s where the creeds start to come in.
The first creed appears around AD 110, written by Ignatius of Antioch…
In the Second century the Roman creed started to circulate, which eventually became the Apostles Creed – although it took until 700 AD for the words to be finally agreed… because every phrase, every word is very carefully constructed, to be clear about what it is that we do and don’t believe…. That’s 600 years of deciding exactly on the words! The creed kept being refined to argue against other teachings that developed.
And so the Roman creed became the Apostles creed… which is one of our 3 Anglican creeds… I’m sure you’re familiar with it…. I believe in God the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth… and so on…
These creeds were used to prepare people for baptism, to be accepted into the Christian faith – and the promises that we make at baptism and confirmation today are still based on these creeds – Do you believe in God, the Father almighty? Do you believe in Jesus Christ? Do you believe in the Holy Spirit?
So these creeds were and still are a way to teach about our faith, about the God that we believe in. By saying the creed every week within our worship, the teaching sinks into our consciousness, our understanding.
And because the creeds are so important, many people were involved in discussions over many centuries about what it is that the creeds say. Think PCC, but on a much larger scale, and even greater focus on the detail of specific words!
There were several significant councils of the worldwide churches that met to try and sort out what it is that Christians believe. The first one was called by the Roman Emperor Constantine, In May 325 AD, and so 230 bishops gathered at Nicaea in Turkey.
They met to discuss the matter of Jesus divinity, and to try and set the matter straight…
Was Jesus just a person, a bit lower than God,
or was Jesus totally God, and not properly human…
You might think this is a rather dull council, debating the technicalities…. but it really matters…
if you think Jesus was completely God and not really human… then what do we think happens at Christmas? at his crucifixion?…. if you’re not really human, how can you be born, how can you die?
On the other hand, if Jesus is just a person, and not divine… then what does his death have to do with the ongoing salvation of the world?
This council of Nicaea in 325 set the definition of Christ as being both fully human and fully God… this is still the belief of the churches across the world, to this day. And we had a new creed – the Nicene creed.
Arius, working in Alexandria disagreed. he felt that Jesus must have been created, he must have been made by God like everything else in creation… and therefore Arius says that Jesus couldn’t be fully God. As a creature, a created being, Jesus must therefore be subordinate to his Father.
This is something that the Jehovah’s Witnesses still believe, for them Jesus is not God, he is special as God’s son, but he is not divine himself.
Athanasius, who eventually became bishop of Alexandria, strongly opposed Arius… he said that ‘If Christ were not truly God, then he could not bestow life upon the repentant and free them from sin and death. Yet this work of salvation is at the heart of the biblical picture of Christ.’
It really does matter what we believe…. it’s like the questions the pharisees ask… does Jesus have the power to forgive sins? Is Jesus really divine and part of the salvation of the world? Does he really have the power to forgive?
And so the Nicene Creed sets out to be very clear about it… I’m sure you’re familiar with this creed too.
“We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of all things visible and invisible
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made….”
The Creed is setting out very clearly that we do not accept the version of Christianity that Arius was proclaiming…
The third of the authorised Anglican creeds is the Athanasian creed – and this is the one that you have received this morning, and probably the one that you are least familiar with. Click here for BCP Athanasian Creed
This creed started floating round in about the sixth century. It’s the latest of the creeds to be developed. (maybe that’s why it’s the longest!)
And this is the first creed to be absolutely explicit about the equality of the three persons of the Trinity. In fact the whole of the first page – lines 1-28, are about the Trinity… and the second page follows with what we believe about Christ.
This creed spells out the three persons of the Trinity, making sure that we understand that each of the three parts of God are divine. each of them is uncreated… so God the Father didn’t create the other two, they are each limitless… or as the book of common prayer describes them – incomprehensible, (and incomprehensible it may seem as it tries to define exactly what we believe) each one is eternal, and each one is almighty.
But it also spells out the unity of the three as well.
The Book of Common Prayer tells us that this creed should be used instead of the Apostles Creed at 13 different feast days throughout the year, as well as on Trinity Sunday.
Given the length of it, I’m sure you’ll be pleased to realise that this has largely fallen out of fashion. It’s also the only creed that spells out concepts of eternal damnation
I’m being kind though… and giving you a diagram too… on the back of your handout you have a diagram with words in it.
This diagram summarises what the creed is saying, and thus summarises what it is that the church says it believes about God.
The whole diagram is God… it’s telling us that there is one God – not three separate Gods.
That our one God is both Father, Son and Spirit at the same time…. but the Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Spirit and the Spirit is not the Father. They are both different and yet one.
I realise that’s a lot of words today, to try and help us think about who God is…
But however many words we use, to try and describe God, to try and understand…. eventually we run out of words…
However much we may want to capture, to contain, to specify God… he / she is beyond our wildest dreams.
Eventually we learn to live with the paradox that is God
We accept the mystery that is God, the wonderful, beautiful, incredible mystery, that is our amazing God,
We have to accept that at the heart of our faith, is loving relationship, the loving relationship that is God,…
and the invitation that is always there, for us to accept that love, and to enter into loving relationship with our God, three in one,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit