Archives for posts with tag: nicene creed

Sermon for Holy Communion for SS Simon and Jude, 28th October 2018

Ephesians 2:19-end; John 15:17-end

Today along with most of the churches in the western world we are commemorating two apostles whom we know very little about, St Simon and St Jude.

There were two Judes, two Judases. We’re not quite sure who this one was, because in the four Gospels he is described as being various things. In St Matthew and St Mark he is not called Judas but Thaddeus, which might be a surname; it is only in Saint Luke and the Acts of the Apostles that he is called Jude. St Jude was not the same as Judas Iscariot, although his name in Greek is the same, Ιουδας. People historically haven’t chosen him to invoke in prayer, because they think he might get mixed up with Judas Iscariot. So he is called the patron saint of lost causes – ‘If all else fails, offer a prayer through St Jude’. The little letter of Jude in the New Testament was not written by this Jude, according to many scholars. In St Luke’s Gospel Jude is described as the son of James the brother of Jesus. ‘Jude the Obscure’, which was the title of one of Thomas Hardy’s novels, is an apt name for him.

Simon – not Simon Peter – had been a terrorist – a real terrorist. He had been a member of the Zealots, who were a Jewish extremist sect that believed that the Jews were supposed to be a free and independent nation; that God alone would be their king, and that any payment of taxes to the Romans or accepting their rule was a blasphemy against God. They were violent. They attacked both Romans and any Jews who they thought were collaborating with the Romans. Simon had been one of them.

So the Apostles were a motley assortment. Humble fishermen; a tax collector; a terrorist (although of course, depending on your point of view, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter); James and John, the ‘Sons of Thunder’, whatever that means. It certainly doesn’t sound meek and mild. And of course, Judas Iscariot; the other Jude. Jesus wasn’t choosing people whom we would think of as saintly.

But there isn’t an awful lot that we know about Simon the Zealot and Jude – Jude-not-that-Jude. So our Bible readings today, the message from St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, ‘You are no longer aliens in a foreign land,’ and the message from St John’s Gospel, about Christians not belonging to the world, are not about them, but rather they are a reminder of some of the teaching that Jesus – and after him, St Paul – gave to the Apostles and to the early Christians.

Paul’s letter to the Ephesians has a great theme of ‘reconciliation’: St Paul’s great mission was to bring the Gospel to the non-Jews, the Gentiles, so that Christianity wasn’t just a subdivision of Jewishness. ‘You are no longer aliens in a foreign land.’ Perhaps it’s not so topical for us nowadays.

But in Jesus’ own teaching, from St John’s Gospel (chapter 15) that we heard this morning, packed into these few lines there are some really deep meanings which still help us to understand the nature of God.

Jesus said, ’Because you do not belong to the world … For that reason the world hates you.’ In Jesus’ day and in that Roman world, being a Christian was definitely dangerous, simply because Christians didn’t worship the Roman emperor as a god. In the reign of some emperors, for example Diocletian, it meant that large numbers of Christians were fed to the lions.

It’s still to some extent true today, in parts of the Middle East and in Northern Nigeria, that Christians are persecuted. But by and large in our part of Surrey, it’s not really controversial to say that you are a Christian. But I do think that perhaps we still should reflect on what it means ‘not to belong to the world’. You don’t ‘breathe the same air’, as people sometimes say. Are we sometimes tempted to keep our religious belief out of things, for fear of offending people? But Jesus said here, don’t be afraid of being different.

What about the next proposition in this teaching passage, ‘Servants are not greater than their master’? The translation is actually wrong. The word isn’t ‘servant’, but ‘slave’, δουλος in Greek. This word also means what was called a ‘bondsman’, somebody who was indentured, bought. In the Roman empire, bondsmen, indentured slaves, could buy their freedom. Their bonds could be remitted, they could be ransomed.

It seems to me that these words surely have echoes of the idea of redemption, that by Jesus’ sacrifice he has purchased our remission from the slavery of sin. Jesus has bought us out, redeemed us. We are no longer slaves. Earlier on in chapter 15, indeed Jesus does say, ‘I call you slaves no longer’.

‘The people who hate you’, Jesus said, ‘do not know the one who sent me’. Again: ‘… the one who sent me.’ This is a reminder of the way that Christians understand God ‘in three persons’, as the Holy Trinity, father, son and Holy Spirit. (Jesus comes to the Holy Spirit later on, when he talks about sending what he calls the ‘Advocate’, the spirit of truth, after he has gone. Here, it’s just him and the One who sent him).

Here we can see what caused some of the controversy in the early church, which ended up in the Council of Nicaea in the fourth century, and in our Nicene Creed. If God ‘sent’ Jesus, the Son, was Jesus also God, or just another creature? And depending on the answer to that question, where did the Holy Spirit come from? God, or God-and-Jesus? And again, was the Spirit, is the Spirit – remember, ‘His Spirit is with us’, we say – is the Spirit made by God, or is it God itself?

If you don’t think of God as a nice old chap with a beard sitting on top of the clouds – and since the sixties, at least, since Bishop John Robinson’s wonderful little book, ‘Honest to God’ [Robinson, J. (1963), Honest to God, London, SCM Press], we mostly don’t – how can we understand the Holy Trinity? Try the logical, a priori, back to logical first principles, way that Professor Richard Swinburne, the great Oxford philosopher of religion, has set out in his book ‘Was Jesus God?’ [Swinburne, R. (2008) Was Jesus God? Oxford, OUP, p.28f]. It goes like this.

There is a ‘divine person’ who is omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly free and eternal. Let us call that person ‘God’. Because He is omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly free and eternal, God is perfectly good.

God could exist alone, but being perfectly good means he won’t be selfish; He will have to have a object for His love. Perfect love is love of an equal: a perfectly good person will seek to bring about another such person, an equal, with whom to share all that he has. That other person is the Son.

But the Son didn’t, in fact, come after the Father. As a matter of logic, because they are perfect, ’At each moment of everlasting time the Father must always cause the Son to exist, and so always keep the Son in being.’

But then, Swinburne says, ’A twosome can be selfish’. ‘The love of the Father for the Son must include a wish to cooperate with the Son in further total sharing with an equal; and hence the need for a third member of the Trinity’ And that is the Holy Spirit.

For the same logical reasons, the Spirit isn’t something ‘made’ by God. As we say in the Creed, the Spirit ‘proceeds from’ the Father, or the Father and the Son. (Saying ‘proceeds from’ is perhaps a philosophical cop-out. We can’t say exactly how the Spirit gets here). The Three-in-One are, is, there. The Trinity is in a sense caused by the One, by God. But it is one with God. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Three ways of being God.

One more nugget of theology. Jesus says, at verse 24, about the heathen, the worldly people, ’If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin; but now they have both seen and hated both me and my Father’. It seems that Jesus has a different concept of guilt or criminal responsibility from the one we’re familiar with. We say that ignorance is no defence. Something is either lawful or it isn’t. You might think that sin worked the same way. Something is either sinful or it isn’t, surely, isn’t it sinful, irrespective whether you know it or not? But Jesus has this different idea – you’ll find it also in St Paul’s letter to the Romans [7:7] – that heathens, who know nothing about sin, are not sinful. What makes someone sinful, or capable of being sinful, is being ‘fixed with knowledge’, as a lawyer would put it. So it looks as though ignorance is a defence, where sin is concerned.

But that is perhaps an indication that to ‘sin’ is not the same thing as to do bad things, to do evil, even. The point about sin is that it is a separation, a turning of your back on, God. And you can’t do that, if you don’t know about God in the first place. Of course, if you are sinful, if you have turned your back on God, you may well do bad things. If you are saved by grace, you will show it by your good works. If you aren’t, if you are lost, you will show it by the bad things you do. St Paul sets it out in Galatians chapter 5.

What a concentrated lesson for his disciples it was from Jesus!

– What it means that the Father is ‘the One who sent me’;

– what it means that because of me, the Son, you are no longer servants, or really slaves; and,

– what it means that Jesus will get the Spirit to come to you. (That is the ‘Advocate’, what the Prayer Book and the Authorised Version of the Bible calls the Comforter, ό παρακλητος).

The common thread, the theme of Jesus’ teaching here, might perhaps be relationships, relationships between people, and with God. And the currency used in those relationships. Hate – ‘the world hates you’; service – Jesus has bought us out, redeemed us, so we are no longer slaves; comfort, the Holy Spirit, the Comforter; and love – love from ‘the one who sent me’. And ‘the greatest of these is love’, as you know. [1 Corinthians 13]

Sometimes it’s good to think about these lessons that Jesus taught, never mind who was listening to him. It could even be you, as well as Simon-not-Peter or Jude-not-Judas.

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Sermon for Mattins on Trinity Sunday 2014
Isaiah 6:1-8, Mark 1:1-11

Today is Trinity Sunday. We commemorate the Holy Trinity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. If you turn to page 27 in your little blue Prayer Books [Book of Common Prayer], you will see that there is a rubric which tells you when the words which follow can be used. That includes Trinity Sunday. So instead of what we did chant, the Apostles’ Creed, ‘I believe in God, the Father almighty, maker of Heaven and earth … and in Jesus Christ His only Son our Lord, ….’ and then, ‘I believe in the Holy Ghost …’, instead of that, we could have said the Creed of St Athanasius, called ‘Quicunque Vult’, Latin for ‘Whoever wants’, that is, whoever wants to be saved; this is what they must believe, if they are to be fit for salvation at the day of judgment.

If you read it afterwards at home, you’ll see that this Creed really goes into the question who God is, and what He is. This all comes from the revelation of Jesus: that Jesus appeared on earth, as a human being.

‘Day by day like us He grew.
He was little,weak and helpless.
Tears and smiles like us He knew.’
[Mrs C.F. Alexander, Once in Royal David’s City, Common Praise, hymn 66]

But He did more than a normal human being could possibly have done. Specifically, of course, He did miracles. And the biggest miracle of all, He was resurrected from the dead. So whatever else you might say, He wasn’t exactly like other men.

‘Thou art my beloved Son’ [Mark 1:11]

Then, when Jesus had ascended, after His wonderful life and death and resurrection, at Pentecost, last Sunday, Whit Sunday, the Holy Spirit came on the disciples. They realised that God still cared for them. Their Lord was still there. His Spirit is with us.

So when we think of God, the Christian way to do it is to think of the three ‘persons’ of God, as they’re called: the father, the creator; the son, and the Holy Ghost, the Holy Spirit.

‘God in three persons, blessed Trinity’ we sing in the hymn [Reginald Heber, Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty! Common Praise, hymn 202], but what does it really mean? It’s a slightly odd way of thinking about our Heavenly Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. Normally we approach those sacred mysteries one by one, and especially through thinking about Jesus Himself and studying the Gospels, His life and teaching here on earth.

The voice from heaven said, Thou art my beloved Son’. So if we accept that this was the voice of God, He said he had a Son. Somehow related to, or representative of, that god, but in the form of a human being. God is not just the Creator.

But then, perhaps those two, Father and Son, are no longer visible: but surely, we are still able to discern lots of greater or lesser occasions when it becomes apparent in various ways that God is still at work here among us. That is the third face of God, the Holy Ghost, the Holy Spirit.

If there hadn’t been Jesus Christ, or if we hadn’t accepted that He was more than just a prophet or a great teacher, and if we had not recognised the presence of the Holy Spirit, then one would be left with worshipping God as Creator, but not knowing whether He was still actively involved with us; whether He cared for us, or whether in fact God had simply wound up the mechanism of life and set it going: and then gone on to look at other things.

(Incidentally that is roughly where the Jewish and Moslem religions are. They recognise the life of Jesus and they acknowledge Him to have been a great prophet: but nothing more.)

But we know that He did things that would normally be completely impossible, culminating in His glorious death and resurrection. Resurrection from the dead. So Jesus has god-like powers. He isn’t just a great preacher. He really had power to heal, in fact even to raise people from the dead; and when He Himself died, power to be resurrected, three days later. We read they heard the voice of God, saying, Thou art my beloved Son’.

The early church had big debates about how to understand the true nature of God and of His Son. One of the early fathers, Arius, decided that in fact, God was not just God in three persons, but that there were effectively three gods: father, son and Holy Spirit were all gods independent of each other. But if that were true, our understanding of God would be very odd indeed. If the father created the son in the normal way, and if the father and the son together created the Holy Spirit, then who created the creators?

Is it true, or would it be true under that arrangement, that Jesus was divine? It’s a very difficult thing to hold in our heads. ‘God in three persons, blessed Trinity.’ There is a distinction made, in all the early theology, between ‘persons’ and ‘substance’. Thomas Aquinas puts it very simply. A person is who we are: a substance is what we are. Thomas wrote:

‘We can say the Father is another who from the Son, but not another what.’ You can say God is one ‘what’ but not one ‘who’. [Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, vol 6, 31-2] The answer to the question ‘who?’ can give you three separate persons within the divine nature, within the Godhead, within the ‘Godness’.

You have in the Nicene Creed, which we say in the communion service, a reflection of this. Did the Holy Spirit come from the father or from the father and the son – and if the latter, was there some kind of family tree, so that the father created the son and the son created the Holy Spirit, so that the son and Holy Spirit were not really God? So that was the controversy. The Council of Nicaea, 325AD, decided that the right answer was that the Holy Spirit ‘proceeded from the father and the son. Who with the father and the son together is worshipped and glorified’ [Nicene Creed].

That corresponds with what the Athanasian Creed says (at the beginning of the Prayer Book, on page 27). ‘But the Godhead of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one…. The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible’.

(Not completely impossible to understand, but impossible for us to understand every bit of it.) It goes on:

‘So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons: one Holy Ghost, not three Holy Ghosts.

… He therefore that will be saved: must thus think of the Trinity.’

The key thing in this whole area is how to think correctly about Jesus. ‘It is necessary to everlasting salvation: that [you] believe rightly the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ’. If you read this part of the Athanasian Creed (on page 29), it sets it all out:

‘… Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man;
God, of the Substance of the Father, begotten before all worlds: and Man, of the Substance of his Mother, born in the world;
Perfect God, and Perfect Man: …
Equal to the Father, as touching his Godhead: and inferior to the Father, as touching his Manhood.
Who although he be God and Man: yet he is not two, but one Christ.’

So that is the Trinity: one God, in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.