SERMON: The Creed: Do we still need to say it?

SERMON: The Creed: Do we still need to say it?

Andrew Teal’s sermon for Sunday 1-March.

4textsAndrew will be posting questions for reflection about this sermon on our Iffley Daily sister website. Please follow the four circles logo to join the discussion!


‘Look! We stand at the gate of the heavenly mysteries. If you will, enter into the Lord’s joy… See how great a dignity Jesus bestows on you: hearing of hope, but knowing it not; hearing Mysteries but not understanding them; hearing Scripture read, but not grasping its depth. If you will, enter the gate! For God seeks nothing else for us, apart from our good…  and to fill you with the heavenly wonder of the New Covenant’


So a kind good-guy of fourth century, Cyril the Bishop of Jerusalem, spoke to those about to be baptized and to receive Holy Communion for the first time, as he taught them using what we call the Apostles’ Creed as a plan to understand Christian faith.


Above all, for his hearers, he wanted to give them a symbol, a sign of a sealed deal, a covenant in few words. The Roman or Baptismal Creed, which we call the Apostles’ Creed was, he said, the Bible in a paragraph, you can learn it by heart easily. This Creed is the basis for later ones, though it has distinctive features. Above all the Apostles’ Creed, as a tool for teaching and preparing people for baptism, is a focusing lens to keep our eyes on the widest scope of God’s kindness. That most ancient creed exists in several local forms; they endured and indeed were forged in times of conflict and persecution, and needed to adapt to clarify confusion. Their genre is above all doxological – giving praise to God in the varieties and realities of life in all its diversity. The Creed isn’t a ‘handle’ on God – but a means for us to remember key things: God isn’t to be explained but a Mystery to be encountered and Love to be received. God isn’t ‘atomic’ but his nature is Love and Relationship. The Creed reminds us that God the Father graciously initiates all things not because he had to, or because he was bored or lonely (there was, after all, always the Father, the Son, and the Spirit – infinitely wonderful Love) – but because he longed to. He creates all things as Father, not as mad scientist or impersonal process; he is the good Father, not a sociopath out to condemn us. The Creeds taught fearful human beings throughout the ages that we are longed-for, valued, respected by God himself. They go on to focus on the self-expression of God in the real person, Jesus of Nazareth. They prompt authentic Christian belief to believe only in a Christ-like God: a God who knows the humiliation of childhood and dependency, the frustrations of every stage of life, the joy of human relationships, the bitterness of betrayal, and the wound of seeing people he loves opt for fear; a God who gives himself to the powers of fear and death for us, who plumbs every human despair and hell, who knows death from the inside. Christians are only to believe in a fully human Jesus who is also fully and truly God: who is vindicated in the shock of resurrection, and whose presence, power and life is poured out even after his death by the Holy Spirit. This God is not confined to the past, but is the dynamic presence of the Church in the world, and everything will be bound together in a glory we cannot imagine. We are, Cyril tells his hearers using the Creed, only to believe in a Christ-like God, not in a demanding ogre like a damaged baby demanding us to quiver: but a God who seeks to serve, love and know us in real relationship. The Holy Spirit in the life of the Church gives us a mission, and reminds us that the golden age is not in the past but in God’s future – hope not archaeology is our purpose, and transformed lives demonstrate the power of the Gospel. Our hands really are God’s hands now.


That’s the Apostles’ Creed, which we say in Baptism still in Common Worship in a Question-and-Answer form, as well as in Evensong and other Offices from time to time. That begins with the “I believe’ because of its location in personal commitment at initiation. No wonder that when the choir at Pembroke College are asked to lead worship (and that includes giving drama and tempo to the Creed and prayers) some ask about integrity. Can we say this if we can’t buy into its world view? Good question!


The Creed we will be expected by our service book, and our Anglican Communion, to say (when I’ve shut up) what is a revision of the Nicene Creed of 325. This Creed is different from its antecedent Baptismal Creeds. It is different from a personal declaration of belief ‘that’ certain things are the case. For a start it begins with ‘we’ – this is our community’s charter of core values, and it’s not a list of beliefs, but a planting of what we think and do in God’s love – it’s belief IN Him, not THAT certain things are the truth about Him.


One way of understanding it is the community’s declaration of Covenant. Not just our clan or community’s culture or identity, but a claim on God’s reaching out to us: when we rehearse this Creed, we are saying that this is the God we are bound to, and this is not static but always adapting to change.


Well, you might expect me to come to talk about history – all well and good: but in today’s world do the Creeds still have a role: do they have a future as well as a past? It’s been a part of the Reformed contribution to Christian faith that some individuals and communities have not seen a connection between ‘confessing with lips’ and ‘believing in the heart’ by composing or repeating a fixed Creed or confession: Quakers, the Brethren and many individuals have instead trusted the words of Jesus ‘When you are delivered up, don’t be worried about what to say! The Spirit will tell you!’ Even St Augustine (a more Catholic and Credal Christian would be hard to imagine) insisted that trusting obedience is far more important than intellectual or scholarly preparation. But could it be that the future of the Creeds is fundamentally important to the future of belief and the Church? We often think that the enormous changes of what we call the modern period – let’s say this just means 19th and 20th Centuries – have been massive, and that the next two centuries will be even more dramatic. Yet there has been a vast diversity of world views and creeds over 2000 years. There have been continuities and differences. Christian life has been a history of conflict and compromise, and engaging with different world-views: there’s never been any picture of the world with which the Christian Faith is entirely compatible: but neither is there any way of understanding the way things are that is utterly incompatible either.


Even those with little or no use for Creeds are often prepared to concede (with enthusiastic approval!) that the moral teaching and ethical example of Jesus have a permanent value. Follow him if not the creeds, as R Noël wrote in The Red Flag:


            What if men take to following where He leads,

Weary of mumbling Athanasian Creeds?


Albert Schweitzer in his The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1906 [1961]: 403)


We can find no designation which expresses what He is for us. He comes to us as one unknown, without a name, as of old by the lake-side, he came to those men who knew him not. He speaks to us the same word ‘Follow me’… and to those who obey him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in his fellowship, and as an ineffable Mystery, they shall learn in their own experience, who He is.


Schweitzer embodied a desire for a reverence for life that he thought Western Civilization had lost, and which was therefore losing its validity: the hope and dignity and future of each person no matter how wounded, tainted, or lost, was the core of the gospel, the meaning of the creed. Last Century in Germany we saw another movement which sought to abandon outmoded creeds – so-called ‘German Christians’, approved of by the Nazi party. They said they had the cross in their hearts and the swastika on their arms. To counter this there was the Barmen Declaration of 1934 rejecting the fusion of Fascism and Christianity and pointing to the good news of God’s grace witnessed to by the Creeds. It might be a bit naïve to assume that the Church is wise enough now not to be taken in again – false doctrines need outing to protect the image of a Christ-like God.


There are – also – lots of objections to a Christianity too legalistic. Ecumenically the common sense approach is ‘Can’t we just get on with things together and stop being so tribal?’ I support Oxford United and go every week, home and away: the terrace chanting has illuminated to me how early Christian worship probably worked, spontaneous and corporate. But the chants can be very partisan – especially against Swindon – that can’t be right about the creeds can it?  No. But human understanding depends upon classification and therefore differentiation – all knowledge is in a sense a human construct  – this is not to say that it’s subjective entirely, but our language and culture enables us to make sense of the world out there – ‘Adam gave names to all the animals’ – the naming process means participation in the life of the world: scientific descriptions become ever more sophisticated – their own sub-cultures. Is this not unlike what is happening historically to the Creeds which started as doxological and ended up more definitive? Doctrinal precision seems to grow like scientific language has grown over the last 300 years, over a similar time scale, actually. I recall a walk with a curate in Yorkshire who was a butterfly spotter, and having my eyes opened to greater things than first glances would suggest, as he spoke of species and the changes in numbers from one year to a next dependent on the severity of the winter and climate change: and it added to the beauty and appreciation. Could it not be that emerging doctrinal precision was necessary so that the Christian community could find necessary freedom & understanding?


Another hard truth is that we perhaps know examples and see in our papers the dangers of religious literalism and intolerance. Many uphold the words of the Creeds, but seem to despise their meaning (and their neighbour!). There’s the legend of the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevsky, a monster who holds the correct form of orthodox creeds, but has no concern for their substance, preferring punishment to compassion. It doesn’t have to be like this – but the fact that so often it has been makes the case for creeds hard to uphold.


But we noted that the Creeds are not about grasping on to brittle prejudice: instead they hold out to us the wild hope of human flourishing. Like a wedding ring of itself proves nothing: anyone can wear one; many married people for a host of reasons don’t wear one. But marriage holds and continues to transform human love. We marry because we fall in love, and through changes in life and emotion, marriage continues to hold that love. The sign of a ring prompts us to return to that foundation of love – not to let the business and ordinariness of life erode the mystery of our love for our spouse. The Creeds likewise, at their best, can provoke us, like a verbally rehearsed wedding ring, to unveil the mystery of the reality of the God of Love. The words may sound archaic and be of a world far from our spontaneity. But that can also be enriching.


Contrast two lyrics about love: Alexander Lybak Eurovision 2009               

Years ago, when I was younger, I kind a liked, a girl I knew

She was mine and we were sweet hearts: that was then, but then it’s true

I’m in love with a fairytale, Even though it hurts

Cause I don’t care if I lose my mind, I’m already cursed


With this:


Elizabeth Barrett-Browning Sonnets from the Portuguese 43


How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

I love thee to the depth and breadth and height

My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight

For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.

I love thee to the level of every day’s

Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.

I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;

I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.

I love thee with a passion put to use

In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.

I love thee with a love I seemed to lose

With my lost saints, — I love thee with the breath,

Smiles, tears, of all my life! — and, if God choose,

I shall but love thee better after death.


Unfair to compare no-doubt, but the point is clear I hope: form, rhyme, rhythm are constraints on the second poem, but constraints which allow something spectacularly true to blossom.


The Creeds are precise, providing constraints within which alone true faith, freedom and love can blossom – they state the basic shapes and rules within which all theological thinking  is to operate if it is to be fundamentally Christian – providing a stable base for exploration, questioning, ongoing reflection.


So let us respond to Cyril’s encouragement with which we bagan


‘Look! We stand at the gate of the heavenly mysteries. If you will, enter into the Lord’s joy… See how great a dignity Jesus bestows on you: hearing of hope, but knowing it not; hearing Mysteries but not understanding them; hearing Scripture read, but not grasping its depth. If you will, enter the gate! For God seeks nothing else for us, apart from our good…  and to fill you with the heavenly wonder of the New Covenant’



Let us do so by saying (with all our caveats, doubts and with humility), the words of the Creed.



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