Lent 2009: The Apostle’s Creed
I believe – and all the rest!
Well, it’s been quite a journey over this past five weeks as you’ve heard a lot of me speaking, you’ve had some pretty solid Theology, and you’ve even had the opportunity to talk to each other a bit too! As we embark on the home stretch here today I want to begin by saying thank you for being a part of these sessions, for your contributions, for your feedback and for your time and attention.
I was asked yesterday if we could have a little more discussion this evening. Well, we may have a chance to talk over some things but I just wanted to say that these evenings were something of a ‘one off’ in the sense that I didn’t set them up as discussion groups as we have around our different parishes – the purpose of this series was really to share with you some of the Church’s teaching about the essentials of our faith. Which leads me to say something else – as a society, as a culture, we don’t have much teaching any more – we’re used to information, and chatting and often a sort of pooling of ignorance! I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I do believe part of my responsibility as a minister is to teach the faith as revealed (we believe) in Scripture and through the Church. Hence the particular format for these sessions… So apologies if you were expecting otherwise (obviously getting to the last evening might be a bit late to say that) but maybe next year we’ll have a discussion group course, or before then!
Having said that, tonight it was quite tempting to get you to do most of the talking, because there is so much to get through that I don’t know if I want to try and cover it all! I have called tonight ‘the rest’ – having really focussed on our understanding of God as Father and Creator, then talked of incarnation for one night and atonement for last week we have a whole lot of things to wrap up tonight.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body
and the life everlasting. Amen.
Some of these doctrines we have touched upon over the past weeks, some I have studiously avoided, and some of what is referred to implies much more than the simple statements we make week by week.
For instance ‘I believe in the Holy Spirit’ (or if we go way back to week one – I hold fast to the Holy Spirit). Unlike the Nicene Creed which goes into detail of proceeding from the Father and the Son and speaking through the prophets (which I want to address anyway) the Apostle’s creed offers this bald statement ‘I believe in the Holy Spirit’. That’s it. It leaves us to make up our minds as to exactly how we might interpret it – or so it seems, of course this simple statement comes loaded with the background to the Holy Spirit that we find in Scripture and in the teaching and experience of the early Church.
Of course to mention the Holy Spirit brings up questions of the Trinity and our understanding (or lack of, to be frank) of this question of God being one in three and three in one.
I would be interested to know what illustrations, anecdotes and ideas you have picked up over years of Trinity Sunday sermons regarding some kind of explanation or understanding of the Holy Trinity. So a bit of discussion just with your neighbour as to what you have found helpful (or not) in trying to understand or describe this doctrine. Five minutes just to talk to whoever is sitting next to you…. And for the first time in this series I would be very happy if some of you have things you want to share at the end of this discussion!
Trinity is one of the hardest philosophical concepts for us to get our heads around, at least in my humble opinion! Of course, it is a case of our human finite minds trying to get to grips with infinity, with a God who is over and above any words that we have. As I said in the first week – we have a God who is beyond our understanding, yet at the same time to stoops to reveal his nature to us and allows us to grasp, with our limited human minds, something of who he is.
Trinity is one of those doctrines about which there is much misunderstanding because we don’t really have a full understanding of what it means, nor can we know fully who and what God is. Yet at the same time there are important aspects of this belief, this theology, which should affect our everyday belief.
Let’s start off with some basic principles. Firstly God is one. There’s no doubt about that. Don’t confuse the idea of God as three in one with the idea of three Gods. When asked about the greatest commandment in the Gospel of Mark Jesus responds with the Shema, the words from Deuteronomy 6v4 which define the Jewish faith. “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is one God” - to quote Mark’s account in full:
Mark 12:28–33The First Commandment28 One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ 29Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” 31The second is this, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’ 32Then the scribe said to him, ‘You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that “he is one, and besides him there is no other”; 33and “to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength”, and “to love one’s neighbour as oneself”,—this is much more important than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices.
As an aside, it is maybe worth noting that similar accounts of the story in Mathew and Luke miss out the first part of the Shema and focus on loving God with all we are and our neighbour as ourselves – for Luke with a gentile audience this is perhaps understandable and for Matthew (often referred to as the most Jewish of the Gospels) perhaps it is taken as a given that the faithful Jews reading his account of Jeshua the Messiah’s life would know the first part of the Shema, indeed would have it on their doorposts and bind it to their hands and forehead in prayer.
So, monotheism, the belief in one God alone permeates Jesus’ thinking, as a faithful Jew. And it is crucial to understand that what Jesus preached and lived is firmly rooted in his Jewish faith – in fact I would go so far as to say that unless we understand the Old Testament – or Hebrew Scriptures as it might properly be known and its development of God we cannot really know the depth of meaning in the New – both Jesus and Paul come from such backgrounds so deeply rooted and infused with Jewish thought and reason.
So how does this understanding of God as one fit with the Christian revelation of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit? Isn’t that three Gods, really? A sort of Divine Hierarchy?
I don’t think I can overstress the teaching of the Church that this is a gross misrepresentation of the Trinity. The way that God is referred to as Three Persons is not as three separate individuals. This is where we are hamstrung by being in a post-enlightenment culture where we have, whether we realise it or not, absorbed this concept of ‘the individual’ so beloved of late renaissance and enlightenment thinkers. This brings me back to my statement in the first session that to a certain degree I dislike saying ‘I believe’ when we recite our translation of the Apostle’s Creed and prefer the ‘We believe’ of the Nicene Creed in its more accurate contemporary translation… For those who formulated the Creed it wasn’t about me deciding I had intellectually come to terms with certain doctrines, but about making a statement with regard to the faith held by the Body of Christ. The I was always a part of the We! The Orthodox Church has a wonderful way of putting it ‘We are saved together, we fall alone’. Our stress on individualism often leads to an unconscious and even unintentional selfishness, that I have to see something as worthwhile and acceptable to me before it has any value. The Creed views us as a body in which we all have value and are all important, but in which we find our identity from the faith we share and our place within the Body of Christ.
But I digress. the reason I think it is important to think beyond our post-enlightenment, post-modern world view is because it was easier for our forebears in faith to consider a communal identity – that a body was not so much composed of individuals, but that it was the whole which was important.
In the early Church this is crucial. The Persons of the Trinity are not individuals, they are facets of the one body, the one entity, of God.
If we go back to the original words used to describe the Trinity we have the Green ‘prosopon’ and the latin ‘persona’. Perhaps the best analogy to help us understand these words is the world of Greek Drama and early acting. Much of the drama of the early middle eastern and Graeco-Roman world was performed by masked actors – and if you have ever seen performances of the Orestia or similar Greek plays you will have seen this. Many of the duties in Greek Drama are handled by the Chorus who tell much of the story and provide much of the reaction to the substance of the story, and individuals each have a mask to represent who they are. One actor may play many parts, but the only distinguishing factor is the mask they wear – this is their prosopon or persona, identified by the mask. The substance of the actor is the same, the presentation is different.
If we take the analogy too far it falls down as it isn’t meant to imply that God is play acting a role each time, and we remember that through eternity God is Father Son and Holy Spirit, not different things at different times, but it does help us (I hope) grasp the idea that it’s the same God, but we understand aspects of God in different ways to which we attach the names ‘Father Son and Spirit’.
We particularly refer to God the Father with regards to the creation and to sustaining the world, to the Son in God’s relationship to humanity, and the Holy Spirit in terms of the ongoing relationship God has with us. This isn’t completely inaccurate but leaves us open to the possibility of a rather reductionist understanding of God, or at worst to the heresy of ‘Modalism’ – that God acts in different modes at different times. This is not the understanding of the Church!
It also helps if we can detach our understanding of God from time! Though God is active in the world, he is also beyond the time and space we understand – so there was never a time when God wasn’t in Trinity, or when any part of God was separate from God. In the incarnation God becomes human and Jesus is distinct from God yet at the same time the Trinity is intact and eternal.
Confused? I am!
There comes a point, to be honest, when our words and ideas crack and break, the strain is too much for them. Perhaps that glimpse of God’s otherness, God’s beyond-ness (if there is such a word) is part of the value of God being Trinity! Perhaps better to think in terms of the Trinity being ways in which describe God’s action within time, not as different bits at different times, but the way in which we as humans apprehend and understand it. Sometimes we need reminding that we don’t have all the answers – even if we have been at this theology lark for twenty or more years!
To come back to the Creed. What I think holds all the parts together in this final part of the Creed is that first statement of belief. ‘I believe in the Holy Spirit’. It is the Holy Spirit that is our way of describing ‘God in action’. The Holy Spirit isn’t a distinct or separate entity from God, but (as it says in the Nicene Creed) proceeds from the Father and the Son. There is some debate over saying ‘The Father and Son; where the Orthodox Churches only say ‘proceeds from the Father’ but that’s a discussion for another time.
When we talk of the Holy Spirit we mean that part of God – or perhaps our apprehension of that part of God – which is dynamic and living and active. For shorthand from this point I will say ‘part of God’ – although I don’t think God can be broken down into constituent bits.
Anyway, many of us would consider the Spirit to be that part of God which is dynamic. We relate the activity of God as Holy Spirit to the inspiration of the prophets in the Old Testament, to the incarnation in Jesus being born ‘of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary’ to events of Pentecost and the founding of the Church, to the work of God in the Sacraments of the Church, and to the daily inspiration of the believer.
But within the eternal action of the trinity it is important to remember that the Spirit is that dynamic force within God, which can be summed up as the relationship between God himself. This is where I run the risk of really losing myself in philosophy, so you might have to indulge me further for just a moment.
The Holy Spirit can be described as the dynamic of God in relationship, that through all eternity God exists as Father Son and Spirit, and the Spirit is the love of the Father for the Son and the Son for the Father, and the agent of God’s activity in the cosmos. He is referred to by John V Taylor as ‘the Go-between God’, ever moving, ever acting.
Why is this important? Well it is important to us because it reminds us that the essence of God is dynamic, as our faith should be. And that the very nature of God is relationship.
This is perhaps the crucial bit, that this relationship that God has with himself is mirrored, or should be mirrored, in our relationship with each other. St Paul uses the striking image of the body when he talks about the Church, and if we really think about that there is a degree of intimacy and interdependency that we rarely achieve in our Church fellowships.
Romans 123 For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgement, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.
This togetherness is very much founded in our relationship with Christ and should be lived out in our lives as brothers and sisters in Christ. In this way we too share in the dynamic life of the Holy Trinity, in unity and godly love!
And it is this togetherness inspired through the Holy Spirit that causes us, as I said a few weeks back, to conspire in faith. Of course the word conspire has many negative connotations now, but the word means, breathe together – we share the same breath of the spirit, we should breathe together in faith!
So we will stop there for a moment and I will give you the chance to talk to each other for a minute! You may want to talk about something I have said, perhaps there is something new there…perhaps not. If you want a question then I will give you something personal to work with – is there a time when you have felt or experience the work of the Holy Spirit in your life, or seen it in the Church, or a time about which you could say ‘that was the Spirit at work’? Take this one in groups of four or five, and have five minutes to chat over what you would like…
I don’t know if you’ve every thought about what the Bible says the purpose of the Holy Spirit in our everyday lives is, but consider this:
Ephesians 41I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, 5one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.7 But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift.11The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, 12to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.
The Spirit is given that we might be built up into a body, united, and come to maturity in that body. The gifts which the Spirit distributes are given to equip God’s body in supporting and loving one another and growing together in faith.
And because of that belief in the Holy Spirit working within each one of us individually we can say ‘I believe in the holy catholic Church’ By catholic here we mean universal, rather than one particular denomination such as the Roman or the Old Catholic Church! That unity which Christ talks of in John 17 where he prays
20 ‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me
That unity will be the mark of his followers, though it seems to have been very well sabotaged over the past two thousand years. Yet, it is the next step in our faith, to witness through our unity to the love of God and to draw others into the body of Christ. The progression is clear in Scripture, the Spirit is given to the Church to make us Catholic – Universal, but not just for the sake of the members of the Church, but in order that through the Spirit we will reach out to a world that needs to know the love and grace of God.
I should not say that this ‘unity’ means I believe we must all be subsumed into one big religious blob, and forgo all desire to be individuals. I am not dismissing the work of the enlightenment and its expression of the importance of the individual, but I do believe we have come too far away from what it means to be the body of Christ and that the Church, as well as our culture, has bought into this expression of individuality that means we no longer subject ourselves to the discipline of what it means to be in community.
And, as we travel on through the Creed this leads us on to this wonderful meaning-laden phrase ‘the Communion of saints’. It means our one-ness with all those who believe and have believed in Christ. St Paul refers frequently to the people of God as saints, not just to special individuals who we venerate for their example and holiness of life.
And this communion we believe is over and above death. We will be united with those who have died in faith after death but also we have a connection with them now – hence at the Communion service when we say that ‘with Angels, Archangels and the whole Company of Heaven.’ we say ‘Holy Holy Holy’. We have the wonderful pictures in the book of the Revelation to St John – not a book that I get much everyday theology from, to be honest, but there are vivid descriptions of the worship of heaven in which all join together to worship God. We are a part of that worship whenever we gather, and the Church universal, for all of its factions and splits is united when it worships God together.
Then our creed makes this declaration bound up with the work of Christ that we believe in the forgiveness of sins. In itself this is a bold statement – that sins are not just tolerated, but forgiven. That God remembers our sins no more is one of the great promises of Scripture, and is something we should rejoice in. I honestly believe that if we all had that full sense of forgiveness that is promised in Christ then we would be freer to proclaim and live the good news of Christ! I think that for many of us, myself included, we put conditions on our own salvation! Conditions that aren’t scriptural, for our forgiveness is unconditional, Christ died for us whether we deserve it or not, or whether we feel we deserve it or not. If only that freedom were readily apparent in the Church and we were seen to be those unburdened of the sins which weigh us down!
I won’t go into detail with regards to the resurrection of the body as we covered that last week! It is important to say – and this perhaps is the antidote to my rampant anti-individualism – that in common with Jewish thinking Paul is very clear that there is a bodily resurrection, not a spiritual ascension, but that eternity consists, or will consist, of having a body – we will be ourselves! This is important because it says that we have value as ourselves, that we are important both as individuals and as part of the body of Christ! Like many parts of our Christian faith, there is a tension there – and I hold my desire to stress the togetherness, the communion, of being in Christ alongside the value God places on each one of us, and the promise that we will be who we are, or perhaps who we are truly meant to be, through all eternity.
And this concept of eternity is the finish of our statements of faith here this evening, and indeed of our series of talks. We translate it as ‘life everlasting’ but its important not to just consider that in terms of after death, but life fully now.
The Creed is meant to be a life affirming and faith affirming document – something that gives us a glimpse of the wonder of God and all that God has done. May it add to our faith and life.