Sermon for the First Sunday after Trinity, 10:30am serviceadmin | 10 June 2012
“He proclaimed Jesus, saying, ‘He is the Son of God.’”
We are in the presence of wonderful mysteries, the mysteries of God and man. The great creedal mysteries of the Christian Faith are wonderfully set before us in the Athanasian Creed, one of the three catholic creeds of the universal church, but one which, I fear, is little known, and, I am afraid, little used. Tucked away in the back of the 1962 Canadian Book of Common Prayer, it must appear to some of you as a very odd thing, a curiosity, something to peruse while suffering through an insufferable sermon, perhaps!
Yet, there was a time in our Anglican history when the Athanasian Creed was appointed to be used thirteen times a year, once a month and on Trinity Sunday. And I can think of at least one literary work which refers to the Athanasian Creed, interestingly being used at Mattins on Christmas morning, an intriguing concept; Charles Williams’ novel, Greater Trumps. In that novel, the Athanasian Creed is sung to an antiphonal setting which emphasizes precisely the counterpoint of contrasting and yet complementary ideas about God as ‘this’ and ‘not this’, the back-and-forth of negative and positive theology, and about the union of God and man in Jesus Christ. In the novel, the Creed of St. Athanasius, so-called, signals the dynamic of love, human and divine. The phrase “not by conversion of Godhead into flesh, / but by taking of Manhood into God” was one of Charles Williams’ favourite passages.
The three Creeds of catholic Christianity are the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed. Three Creeds and yet really one, a point made very clearly by one of the outstanding divines of the 17th Century, Archbishop John Bramhall, whose sensibility about the interplay of Scripture and Creed and about the unity of the Creeds contribute to his wonderful epithet, Athanasius Hibernicus, the Athanasius of Ireland. Athanasius is the father of orthodoxy whose steadfast witness to the essential divinity of Christ resulted in the Creed which we know as the Nicene Creed, though properly called the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, in reference to two of the Great Ecumenical Councils from which it came to birth in the fourth century. As Bramhall observes, “The Nicene, Constantinopolitan, Ephesian, Chalcedonian and Athanasian Creeds, are but explications of the Creed of the Apostles, and are still called the Apostles’ Creed.”
He expresses the crucial understanding about the inter-relation of Creed and Scripture. “We have”, he says, “a certain rule of faith, the Apostles’ Creed dilated in the Scriptures, or the Scriptures contracted into the Apostles’ Creed”. The two belong together as one rule of faith.
The Scriptures and the Creed are not two different rules of Faith, but one and the same rule, dilated in the Scripture, contracted in the Creed; the end of the Creed being to contain all fundamental points of faith, or a summary of all things necessary to salvation.
Scripture and Creed are integrally related. This understanding is embodied in our liturgy. The Apostles’ Creed is not only the baptismal creed of our incorporation into the life of the Trinity, it is also the Creed used regularly in the Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer and is found printed in our Prayer Book ten times. The Nicene Creed is used primarily at Holy Communion.
Different in form from the other two Creeds, the Athanasian Creed is a theological tour-de-force and sweeps us up into the mysteries of God, the mystery of the Trinity and the mystery of the Incarnation without which we cannot begin to comprehend the mystery of human redemption.
In the wake of the Diamond Jubilee and of Trinity Sunday, it seems rather providential that we should hear at Morning Prayer the lesson from 1st Kings, which is Solomon’s great prayer for understanding that he may govern properly, and the lesson from the Acts of the Apostles about the conversion of Paul that results in him proclaiming Jesus as the Son of God. We celebrate and give praise and thanksgiving to God for the reign and humble service of the most remarkable Sovereign in modern times, Queen Elizabeth II, a reign of service and commitment during very trying and tumultuous times. It is not too much to suggest that hers is a reign that is rooted in the very concept of Solomon’s prayer, a prayer for wisdom and understanding and an openness to the qualities of mercy that “become the thronèd monarch better than [her] crown,” as Shakespeare puts it.
Paul’s conversion is of the greatest consequence for the understanding and spread of Christianity to become one of the world’s great religions. His story is captivating. The persecutor of the Way becomes the great Apostle to the Gentiles. At the heart of his conversion is his mystical encounter with the Risen Christ and a kind of break-through of the understanding. What was previously seen as opposed is now seen as united, namely, suffering and glory, God and man. He is, paradoxically, blinded into sight and into a deeper understanding of God. The persecutor becomes the promoter. But only through a change, a change in his thinking in which by God’s grace things that are divided are seen as united. This comes out ever so clearly in Paul’s statement of faith that Jesus is the Son of God.
This is the essential insight that underlies the great Creeds of the Christian Church and that governs Christian life and practice. “Not by conversion of Godhead into flesh,” as the Athanasian Creed puts it; in other words, both God and Man, Christ is one, not by collapsing God into the world “but by taking of Manhood into God”. The redemption of our humanity is seen in Christ Jesus. It signals the profound idea that not only are we capable of God but that we participate in the life of God. By grace, of course, the grace that perfects and redeems, enlightens and restores, guides and directs. In a way, it is the project of the Trinity Season; to see ourselves in Christ and him in us in all that we think and say and do. It means prayer and worship that in turn shape leadership and service.
“He proclaimed Jesus, saying, ‘He is the Son of God.’”
Fr. David Curry
Trinity I, MP, 2012