Sunday, October 17, 2010

Nicea, and What We Say About God

This is actually a recycled sermon, first preached June 7, 2009. I don't like doing this, and won't bore you with excuses; I'll just say that in it I get to use the Nicene Creed and talk about a very important piece of church history (for better or worse, depending on your outlook).

Some of my less theistic friends may take offense at what I say; please know that this is not meant to be a "turn-or-burn" kind of sermon. Rather, what we believe shapes who we are, and if one is to be a Trinitarian Christian, one should certainly know what this means.

In any case, please read and offer comments/criticisms, and by all means take advantage of the open invitation to come hear it live!

Jeremiah 31:27-34
The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of humans and the seed of animals. And just as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring evil, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the LORD. In those days they shall no longer say: "The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge." But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge.

The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt-a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.

No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, "Know the LORD," for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.
In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching.

For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.

John 3:1-17
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God." Jesus answered him, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above." Nicodemus said to him, "How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?" Jesus answered, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, 'You must be born from above.'
The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit." Nicodemus said to him, "How can these things be?" Jesus answered him, "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?"
"Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life."
"For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life."
"Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him."

This is the Word of the Lord.

“I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.

Who, for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.

And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceeds from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets.

And I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.”

I have to confess to you that I used to think the Nicene Creed was just an expanded version of the Apostle’s Creed. Somewhere along the way, someone had either decided to expand on the Apostle’s Creed, or that the Apostle’s Creed was made when someone decided to edit down the Nicene Creed into a bite-sized format. I came to find out over the years that the Nicene Creed is, in fact, the first truly definitive statement of who the Triune God is, and how that God interacts with humanity.

What we say about God matters. It’s easy to get bogged down in talking about the Holy Trinity.

It’s easier still to dismiss Trinitarian theology as the stuff of scholars and seminarians, of no real significance in the lives of ordinary people. But what we say about God matters enormously in our lives.

When we sing my favorite hymn, “Holy, Holy, Holy,” we sing, “God in three persons, Blessed Trinity…”

…because it makes a difference whether a person says, for example, “I believe in God, or maybe something of the sort; well, I mean, there must be something like that out there, so I suppose we can call it ‘God’”, or whether one says, “Yes, I believe in God, who is our Creator, Redeemer and Counselor; that is, I believe in God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”

It makes a difference whether you believe in God as an elemental spirit or you believe in the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. What we believe about God makes a difference to the way we live.

What we say about God is so important, in fact, that if it weren’t for the courageous Christians who forged the Nicene Creed in the fires of controversy, persecution, and excommunication, not only would you and I most likely not be celebrating Trinity Sunday today, but we may not be having church at all. Certainly, whatever we did here would be far different from the worship we are accustomed to.

The year was 325AD. Thirteen years before, prior to a decisive battle in his struggle to unite the Roman Empire (under himself), the Emperor Constantine had seen a vision of a cross in the sky, and the words, “By This Sign Conquer.” He won the battle of Milvian Bridge, according to some reports converted to Christianity, and with the Edict of Milan in 313, made Christianity legal at last in the Roman Empire.

Now, skeptical types look at the legalization of Christianity as a ploy by Constantine to further solidify his authority and strengthen the newly reunited Empire under a common faith.

He certainly thought of himself as the one responsible for making sure that God was properly worshipped in his empire. Of course, even Constantine agreed that what proper worship consisted of was for the Church to determine.

And herein was a problem, because though Christianity had enjoyed only a decade or so free from persecution, it had been in turmoil for some time over the question of who, exactly, Jesus is. If the Emperor wanted a religion that was a stabilizing force for the Empire, it seemed he bet on the wrong horse: Christians were even rioting over this question! People had died over this question!

Why? Because the answer to the question of who Jesus is would define exactly how God interacts with God’s people – and how, or if, God saves God’s people.

One group of Christians, led first by Alexander, bishop of Alexandria, and later by the bishop Athenasius, understood Jesus to be God, of the same substance and being as God the Father, and coeternal with God.

Another group, who found their voice in an Alexandrian priest named Arius, believed Jesus to be a created being: the most perfect of all created beings, perhaps, and perhaps of similar substance to the Father, but created and thus not eternal. Divine, perhaps, maybe a kind of demigod… but not God.

So Constantine called all the bishops in the Empire together for the first council of its kind, and somewhere between 250 and 318 attended: men still bearing the marks on their bodies of years of horrible persecutions, missing eyes or limbs, scarred from being burned or beaten or bitten by animals.

The discussion took a month. Creedal statement after creedal statement was proposed, many of which were loosely worded enough the Arians would have signed on with no problem, controversy resolved, which way to the lunchroom?

What nobody had counted on was that Bishop Alexander had brought Athenasius to the council, and Athenasius could not fathom compromise with those who would deny that Jesus was both eternal and God! Athenasius knew that what we say about God matters!

Over the centuries, a lot has been made of the fact that, when it came right down to it, the whole Christian world was in turmoil over one letter of the Greek alphabet: the iota. The Greek word for “same substance” is “homo-ousius.” The word for “similar substance” is “homoi-ousius.”

So what was Athenmasius arguing about? After all, it’s just one letter, and the smallest in the Greek alphabet to boot, so what’s the big deal? Doesn’t seem to be much difference between “like substance” and “similar substance” anyway, really, right?

Wrong. That one letter makes all the difference! What we say about God matters, because what we say about God is a reflection of what we believe about God, and what we believe about God will govern how we live our lives.

Put in that iota, and the “homoi-ousius” God becomes depersonalized, a distant entity, who interacts and communicates by proxy. This God doesn’t come to earth in the person of Jesus Christ, but builds a Jesus and sends him to Earth, thus corrupting or canceling the idea of any kind of redemption through his blood, because a Jesus who is not quite God cannot quite save! Moreover, carried to its extreme, it could be argued that if Jesus was a created being who was made divine, there’s nothing keeping other people from becoming equally divine. Thus Jesus is not only not God, he’s not unique. Thus Christianity stops being a faith journey toward deeper relationship with a loving, personal, active God, and becomes a project, a cause.

You cannot really experience love with a project or cause. You can have love by some definition for a cause, or love doing a project, but you can’t have a relationship with a project or cause, because a project, a cause is not a living thing.

Making God a project or a cause has profound negative implications in, for example, the way we are governed, in our attitude to the environment, and in the way we treat each other in families and personal relationships.

But look again at the Nicene Creed: “…one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance” – homo-ousius, no iota – “with the Father, by whom all things were made.”

We believe that God is not distant, is not a project or cause, but a living, loving, active God who cares about the world. What’s more, we believe that because God cares, God sent Jesus – begotten, not made – to us to form a new and everlasting relationship with us, and we believe that God comes to us personally in the Holy Spirit.

What we say about God matters, and we say that we believe in God, who is our Creator, Redeemer and Counselor; Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

And while it is true that however we say it, we cannot fully comprehend the mystery of the Trinity, it is also emphatically true that, because we know that God loves us, has redeemed us, and is active and present with us always, we will never be without the hope, joy and love which are ours through:

“God in three persons... Blessed Trinity!”

1 comment:

  1. Greetings John Harrison

    Unfortunately, this creed is not the creed of Jesus, nor of his disciples.

    In contrast to the Nicene Creed:
    Jesus solely identified the Father
    as the only true GOD.
    [John 17.3]
    Paul & the early church concurred:
    (1 Cor 8:4) ... that there is none other God but one.
    (1 Cor 8:6) But to us there is but one God, the Father, ...

    There is simply no talk of another who is God of God, very God of very God, begotten, not made, etc.

    Rather, the creed of Jesus is the Shema, Deut 6.4ff

    (Mark 12:28-32) And one of the scribes came, and having heard them reasoning together, and perceiving that he had answered them well, asked him, Which is the first commandment of all? 29 And Jesus answered him, The first of all the commandments is,
    Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord: 30 And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. 31 And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these. 32 And the scribe said unto him, Well, Master, thou hast said the truth: for there is one God; and there is none other but he:

    It ought to be obvious then, that neither Jesus nor the scribe, subscribed to the notions of
    a God of God, very God of very God spoken of in the Nicene creed!

    Therefore, I recommend this video:
    The Human Jesus

    Take a couple of hours to watch it; and prayerfully it will aid you in your quest for truth.

    Yours In Messiah
    Adam Pastor