A Sermon From All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor
Sermon preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector, on May 22, 2005.
(Trinity Sunday, Year A).
We generally don’t like creeds. They scare us away. They’re so…absolute. Of course if you’re a child of the ’60’s they send up all sorts of red flags: conformity, authority, oppression. (And just for the record I did spend 14 months living in the ’60’s.) But many Americans equate creeds with being “told what to believe.” And we tend to resent anyone telling us what to do, especially when it comes to our beliefs.
So it’s interesting that right in the middle of every Sunday service we say this thing called the Nicene Creed, that central affirmation of our Trinitarian faith. A statement that receives special emphasis on this Trinity Sunday. Most people don’t object, of course. But focusing on it does lead to some questions about the role of the Creed in our faith lives. You may occasionally wonder about a particular statement or wonder if it’s something that you actually do believe without reservation or hesitation. And if not, then what? Must all doubt be erased in order to be a “good” Christian? Is it inauthentic to stand up in church in front of God and this community and proclaim something despite certain uncertainties? It is a creed, after all.
But if it makes any of the ex-hippies among us more comfortable, you’ll be glad to know that the formation of the Nicene Creed was a turbulent, riotous, and raucous time. It was a time of intense intellectual debate, accusations of heresy, and intrigue. Sometimes it’s comforting to know that the church hasn’t really changed much since 325 AD. But the good news of this is that it was born out of the community of faith. This isn’t always pretty, it’s often messy but it does, generally, make at least some room for the Holy Spirit. Faithful Christians gathered with Scripture in one hand and the traditions of the Church in the other and what emerged was a clear, concise articulation of the faith. One that has served us well for the past 1,680 years.
But it’s important to make a distinction here. The Nicene Creed doesn’t simply tell us what to believe. When we say the Creed we begin by saying we believe. “We believe in one God.” That is, we as a Christian community spanning the generations, believe in this God we have come to know through experience. We’re not making a final conclusive statement, we’re making a promise about putting our whole faith and trust in this one God we have come to know through our individual and collective journeys of faith. We know this one God through the three “persons” of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Words are inadequate to describe this God but we, who have come to know God in our lives, “believe.”
Some of you may be thinking, then why bother to say it at all? It’s a good question. First of all, it gives us a common identity by allowing us to proclaim the one-ness of God within the context of the worshiping community. Saying it week after week helps to form and shape us as Christians who believe in a Trinitarian God. Secondly, the Creed is a source of unity among Christians of different denominations. This is an important point for groups that so often seem to find little common ground. At least we can agree on the outline of what we mean when we speak about God.
At one point a debate raged among mainline denominations over whether we really need to say the Creed at every service. The best comment I ever heard about this was by a former seminary professor of mine. The late Jim Griffiss, who served as the canon-theologian to the current Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, claimed that after hearing some of the sermons he had to endure, the Nicene Creed was the only thing he had to hold onto to restore his faith.
But he touches on an important point. The main function of the Creed in the life of the wider Church is liturgical. It is part of our public worship. Perhaps the best way that I can express the importance of the Nicene Creed in your life is to remind you that it is ultimately a prayer. I bid you to pray the Creed rather than just recite it as if it were the Christian version of the “Pledge of Allegiance.” It is a prayer. And if we waited to pray until we had absolutely no doubts, our prayer lives would be empty. Of course not everything in our journeys of faith is black and white. There are many shades of gray and uncertainty and doubt. Praying the creed doesn’t erase these. If anything it invites us deeper into the relationship with God. And that often leads to further questions. So the Creed isn’t a statement that we wait to say until we have absolutely no doubts. If it were, the words “Let us stand and affirm our faith in the Nicene Creed” might lead instead to an awkward moment of silence.
Instead, when we pray the Creed we are drawn into the heart of the Trinity. And to be drawn into the Trinity is to be drawn into the very heart of God. The Trinity is God in the fullest expression. And the fullness of God is the one-ness of God. The Trinitarian God is indivisible. So what we say about God the Father also applies to God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. And what we say about God the Son also applies to God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. And so on. It’s so simple it’s complex and at the same time it’s so complex it’s simple. Unity and mystery. A holy dance into which we are invited through the Nicene Creed.
Let us now stand to pray and affirm our faith in the words of the Nicene Creed…
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2005