Pentecost: looking back, looking forward 09.06.19
I very much hope that today’s sermon doesn’t come across to you as nothing more than a lesson in early Church history. I want to talk to you a little about the Nicene Creed, those words that we repeat almost every Sunday, and which might, sometimes at least, become an automatic reflex, words said while we are musing about what we are having for lunch… The idea for this came to me last Sunday as we prepared to say the Creed: I studied this part of Church history when I was at University, and again when I was training to become a Lay Minister, and I find it really interesting that these words link us to Christians down the ages, and I also find it fascinating how the Creed came into being. I found myself wondering how many people here have an understanding of how important the writing of the Creed was to the early Church and why it was written at the time it was written.
It seems appropriate that today of all days, when we think about the coming of the Holy Spirit onto the first disciples, we think too about how the Holy Spirit spoke to the early Church Fathers, those theologians who struggled to express in words the inexpressible mysteries of our faith. It is only through the working of the Holy Spirit that this was possible, and I would like to explain to you a little of how it came about. So, as I say, I hope that it isn’t just a history lesson, but also an explanation about why the Creed is such a focal point of our Communion service.
Let us pray:
Holy Spirit, open our ears to hear your message to us; open our minds to understand your message to us, and open our hearts to receive you into our lives anew. Amen
So today is Pentecost – sometimes referred to as the birthday of the Church, because today we remember and celebrate the moment when a disparate group of people, scared and anxious for their lives, became the first members of the early Church. Filled with the Holy Spirit, they became a cohesive band of believers who went out and preached Christ crucified, Son of God, redeemer of the world.
And from these seeds, a great Church grew, spreading the Gospel of the love of God throughout the world. Unfortunately, as the Church is made up of frail humankind, there were mistakes made, and deeds carried out in the name of God that went directly against the truth of God’s love for all – and it is still the case today that acts are committed and claimed to be God’s work which are vile, and unloving. Yet for all this, the Church – God’s body on earth – has survived and has grown.
It started with a group of 12 men and now is a recognised religion in the world – but for all that, Christianity is, at the very heart of it, a story of each one of us having a personal relationship with the Creator God, through His advocate, the Holy Spirit.
As I said earlier, I find it amazing that I have a link to those early Christians: what they believed and preached is exactly the same message (give or take) that I believe and preach.
And a great part of that is thanks to the early Church fathers who, after a couple of hundred years, felt it was necessary to write down and formalise the beliefs of the Church. Every Communion service, when we say the Nicene Creed, we repeat the words that these early Christians set down – slightly modernised, it is true, but essentially the same. Joined with Christians across the world, and across the ages, we declare what we believe; we acknowledge that these things, here, are the non-negotiable tenets of our Christian faith. These things, here, are the things that unite believers – of whatever denomination – rather than the things that divide them. We are saying that we stand united in these truths.
It is the fact that it focusses on the very essence of Christianity that makes the Nicene Creed so important. It was written in 325, in the city of Nicea – hence its name – and, at the time, it was seen as being vital. You see, Christianity was under threat: not from external forces, but rather from within. As time went by, the physical links of early believers to Jesus were being lost; those who had actually known him had died, their testimony was lost, save for the Gospels and letters that had been written down. While the first Christians would have repeated the stories of Jesus, and affirmed what they believed, as years passed it made sense to write down that which had previously been passed on orally. Of course, different groups of Christians had heard different stories, and so there was a plethora of texts -some of which were contradictory - which needed to be collated and brought together.
The problem was that as people tried to make sense of what they were being told about Jesus, and what the message of the Gospel was, certain heresies developed, which threatened to cause ruptures and factions within the early Church, and which could mean that the Messiah, Jesus Christ, became just another of the huge number of gods worshipped in the Roman empire.
The biggest danger came from a man called Arius, who believed that Jesus was not God; instead, he argued, Jesus had been something more than human, but not identical in essence or being with the Father. He had been rather a celestial servant of the Most High God, the one God who alone was transcendent and creator of all. This train of thought threatened one of the main tenets of Christian faith: that it was the work of God, revealed in Christ, that brought about mankind’s salvation.
Athanasius, another early Church theologian, was desperate to refute this heresy of Arius, arguing that it was necessary for Christ to have been very God of very God, because without being begotten of the very essence of God, Jesus Christ could not have redeemed mankind. No half-god could possibly intervene to save fallen humanity, let alone restore all of creation. Only the Creator can recreate; only the maker can re-make; only God can save us from our sins. Thus, Jesus the man was, by necessity, also Christ the God.
It is the passage from John that we heard read today that was part of the main thrust of Athanasius’s argument. In the passage we hear Jesus himself declaring that he is “as one” with the Father and he reiterates this several times in different ways, affirming that through him the Father’s work is done, and the Father’s words are spoken.
The Nicene Creed was written by theologians in an attempt to explain the very nature of God, and to distil the beliefs of Christianity to their very essence. It encapsulates what Scripture says about the relationship between Jesus and God but, at the same time, acknowledges the mystery of it all. In the words that we repeat Sunday by Sunday, we are saying that, while we may not understand exactly what this means, we believe it to be true.
Although the main focus of the Nicene Creed is on the being and nature of Jesus, it does not neglect to talk about the role of the Holy Spirit in this Triune God of ours. We see the Creed is in three sections, firstly talking about God, the Father and Creator; secondly there is the expanded section on the relationship between God and Jesus. This is the longest section, as it is the main reason for the writing of the Creed. Then comes the third section, about the work of the Holy Spirit
Because the Creed was primarily written to refute heresies about Jesus Christ, not much is said about the Holy Spirit, but in a few words, much is implied about his divinity and his work in an echo of the words of Jesus that are recorded in John.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, we say, the Lord, the giver of life. He proceeds from the Father and the Son, and with the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified. He has spoken through the prophets. We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.
We affirm one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look forward to the resurrection of the dead, and to life in the world to come.
In these words, we affirm that to the Holy Spirit belong the Church, its teaching, its sacraments and our new birth and resurrection as apostles of God. It is the Holy Spirit who leads the Church in its worship and its confession of the Triune God.
Just as the Holy Spirit descended on the first Christians at Pentecost, so his work continues today. He fills each one of us with the same force and bravery that he gave to Peter, James, John, Andrew and all the other disciples and followers gathered in that upper room. And as we join with Christians across the world and repeat the words of the Nicene Creed, we are joined with those first believers.
Each word of the Creed was chosen carefully and argued over and discussed. It is not just poetry; it is an attempt to say This Is It. This is what we believe.
When we say we believe in one God, we are affirming that – even though we may not understand how – our God is one God, but three persons. He created everything: he is omnipotent, he is above all else.
When we say that Christ is very God of very God, we are saying that he is of the very same being as God. He cannot be separated from God. But we declare also that we believe He was made human to carry out the redeeming purpose of God.
When we say that the Holy Spirit proceeds from God, we are stating that he too is an inseparable part of the Almighty, a dynamic force that speaks and moves through the prophets and through the Church.
These beautiful words link us to Christians throughout all time – those who have been, those who are, those who are to come. I believe it is vital that, as we say the Creed, we reflect and remember how we came to believe it. It is by the grace and mercy of God that we have come to faith and can say these words. God has revealed himself through the Scriptures, through the words of the prophets, but has revealed himself most fully through the gift of his Son Jesus Christ. And God makes himself known personally to each of us through the work of the Holy Spirit.
The author, Scott Hahn has observed that our times are not that different from those of the early Church. Like then we encounter a wide diversity of opinions about Jesus and the content of what we are urged to believe in, and in this situation, Hahn recommends that “We should go forward, fortified by the creed.”
The Creed a vision to guide the way we live our lives, he declares, and with every recitation of the creed the Church is strengthened and renewed.
As the Holy Spirit gave strength, and assurance to the first Christians, so he gives the same to us. As the Holy Spirit came to them as tongues of fire, so He comes to us. And we say that we believe this every time we say the Creed.
Let us pray:
Come, Holy Spirit, comforter, disturber, inspirer, and advocate. Come, fill the church with the gifts earth can neither produce nor afford. Come, fill our lives with that rich mixture of peace and restlessness, calm and enthusiasm, which are the hallmarks of holiness. Come, promised Spirit of God, find your way and make your home among us.