May these words be in the name of the Father,
and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
A sermon preached at St Mary’s Iffley
by Andrew McKearney on 16 June 2019.
There are three Creeds or Affirmations of Faith that were hammered out in the early years of the church and which became the hallmarks of orthodoxy amongst Christians.
The Anglican Church to which we belong recognises these three historic Creeds – the Apostles’ Creed that we use at Evensong, the Nicene Creed that we use at the Eucharist, and the Athanasian Creed that we never use!
So who was Athanasius? Why does he have a Creed named after him? And why don’t we ever use his Creed?
Athanasius became the Bishop of Alexandria in Egypt in the year 328 AD when he was just 32 years old, and remained bishop there for 46 years! During those years, 5 times he was either being sent into exile or fleeing for his life! In all he spent 17 of his 46 years as a bishop in exile, because he staked his life on what became the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity!
It’s because of that, that this third Creed is named after him.
So what’s happened to his Creed? Why don’t we ever use it?
In the set of books that the Church of England now uses called ‘Common Worship’, the Athanasian Creed is still mentioned but the text of it is never printed! Instead we’re referred to The Book of Common Prayer!
There it states that the Athanasian Creed should be sung or said on a number of days during the church’s year including today, Trinity Sunday.
What a fool I’ve been! It never crossed my mind that we might sing it this morning! We could have done it with our choir’s help!
Thank goodness, those of you who are familiar with it may say! It takes up four pages in The Book of Common Prayer! And anyway we find the Creeds that we do use difficult enough!
So what’s going on?
Most of the festivals and seasons of the church’s year have a story connected with them – Christmas and Easter, Lent and Holy Week, Ascension and Pentecost. The reason for this is that most of these days and seasons are connected with the life of Christ so we can have a picture in our minds and a story to read.
Today is different.
The Trinity refers to a reality that has no date, no beginning and no end – the mystery of God.
And more than that!
Trinity Sunday celebrates a particular understanding of God, different from the other great monotheistic religions of the world. That God is best referred to as Father, Son and Holy Spirit – three persons yet one God – the Holy Trinity!
So there’s no story to be told today, no picture to hold in our mind’s eye. Or perhaps it would be better to say that the story to be told is the whole story from creation in the book of Genesis through to new creation that we celebrated last Sunday on the Day of Pentecost.
The Bible is full of wonderful, memorable stories. That’s largely how theology is done in the pages of the Bible – not as an abstract, metaphysical set of propositions, but as stories told and passed down and retold and lived.
What are we doing here this morning? We’re celebrating the Eucharist! And in every Eucharist what do we do? We retell the story – how on the night before he died Jesus had supper with his friends and how he took bread and took wine and said:
‘Do this in remembrance of me.’
So the Bible does theology largely by story telling – the church follows – and that’s the case for most us too. Our understanding and experience of God is bound up with who we are and what’s happened to us in our lives and to explain to anyone what makes us tick we tell our story.
So where do the Creeds fit in to this?
As the early church grew and extended it’s influence, it kept reading the Bible, telling the stories of Jesus and celebrating the Eucharist, but now it did so in a different culture where Greek philosophy was hugely influential.
Some of you will remember the story in the book of Acts where Saint Paul is in Athens, the capital of Greece, and he goes to the Areopagus to debate with Stoic and Epicurean philosophers. All their ideas had developed in one way or another from Plato, the father of Greek philosophy, and indeed of all western philosophy, and who had lived a few centuries before Christ.
Saint Paul may have been the first person to debate and argue for the Christian faith in this new context, but he certainly wasn’t the last! People trained and practised in this Greek philosophical tradition became teachers and leaders in the church and they brought with them their mindset and training.
They prodded and poked the stories that the church told and lived by.
They asked: what does it mean to say that Jesus is the Son of God? why do the prayers and hymns used by the church sometimes refer to God as Father, sometimes as Son and sometimes as Holy Spirit? does the church believe that there are three gods or just one God?
And in the debates and arguments they used what they had to hand – Greek philosophy to try and work out and put into words what it was that the church believed. They hammered out just enough of a framework while leaving as much as possible unsaid. They were remarkably successful.
But these Creeds present difficulties for us – we’re not familiar with the ideas and concepts that lie behind them. Nevertheless what the Creeds do is keep us rooted in the historic faith and they continue to provide a framework for belief today.
If we wish to tell the same story as the church has told down the centuries, then we have to let our understanding of the mystery of God be shaped by Christ’s life, death and resurrection.
That’s the heart of each of these three Creeds.
We’re letting our understanding of the mystery of God be shaped by Christ’s life, death and resurrection.
That’s the heart of what we’re celebrating today on Trinity Sunday.
So in confidence we say:
Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit;
as it was in the beginning, is now, and shall be for ever.