What is the Creed?

Part 3 of 4 of a Summer Sermon Series (2012) by Rev. John Goldingay
Previous Sermon: What is the Bible?

So this is the third of four sermons as we look forward to the Confirmation next month, and it’s quite a good Sunday to be thinking about the Creed, with it being Pentecost today.   The Creed that we say every Sunday is a summary of Christian faith, and it comes in three parts.  We say we believe in one God, the Father.  Then we say we believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ.  Then we say we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord.   So today, on Pentecost, we celebrate the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the disciples, who already knew God the Father and they had been the disciples of Jesus.  The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Let’s look at the three sections of the Creed, one by one.  You might like to turn in the Prayer Book to page 358.

You’ll see that in the introduction of the Creed it calls it the Nicene Creed.  That’s because there are actually a number of creeds, a number of summaries of Christian faith.  They are all a bit different, sometimes quite a bit different.  They aren’t contradictory or anything – they just express Christian faith in different ways.  There are two other creeds included in the Prayer Book.  The Nicene Creed is one that was agreed at two meetings of the bishops of the church, in a place called Nicea near Istanbul in Turkey, and then at Istanbul itself.  Now Kathleen and I are going for a vacation in Turkey in the fall and we plan to go to Istanbul and to Nicea, so we will tell you anything we discover.

But all this happened in the fourth century, more than fifteen hundred years ago, three centuries after Jesus’ day.  The reason for having creeds was that there were differences between different Christian groups about what were the key things about Christian faith, so bishops from all over the Christian world of the day met to try to agree on those basics; which they did.  Which is itself totally amazing.  You can’t imagine it happening now!

So the basic assumption in the creeds is that Christian faith involves believing in the one God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  God has three ways of being God.   There is only one God; yet God has three ways of being God, and the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are sufficiently separate for them to be able to talk to each other, but they are sufficiently together for it still to be possible for them to be one God.  Now if that sounds hard to understand, that’s fine – it is hard to understand, and I’m not going to try to explain it.  The best picture I know of it is this.  It comes from one of the bishops from a bit before the time when the creed as we have it was formulated.  He said that Jesus and the Spirit were like the two hands of God by which God worked in the world.  Later, people modified the image and thought of Jesus and the Spirit as the two arms of God, by which God reached out to the world and embraced the world.  I like both those images.  Jesus and the Spirit are like the two hands of God the Father doing his work, or the two arms of God the Father embracing us.

Let’s go back to the beginning of the creed.  Every Sunday, we start by saying, “we believe in one God.”   Now if you are a Hindu you believe in lots of gods, and there’s a kind of comfort in that belief.  There can be different gods with different areas of interest, and there can be different goddesses.  You can search around and find a god or a goddess whose character and interests work well for you.  No, says the Creed, there’s only one God.  Sometimes we talk about different people worshiping different gods, but we don’t really mean that, because there is only one God.  We mean different people have different ideas about God.  If they are worshiping God, they are all worshiping the same God, because there is only one God.

The one God is a God big enough to be the one God.  I said “he” is big enough, because it’s difficult to avoid using the word “he.”  We don’t want to say that God is an “it.”  God is a person, like us.  God thinks and acts, God has feelings and ideas, God talks and listens, God relates to other people as a person.  We are persons, we are made in God’s image, in some sense we are like God, so we can relate to God because God is a person.  So we use the word “he” about God.  But God isn’t a “he” in the sense of being male rather than female.  God’s being is just as much like a woman’s being as like a man’s being.  Some people like to refer to God as “she,” to make the point

So there’s only one God, but he has three ways of being God.  First, he is the Father and the Almighty.  That is spelled out in the creed by saying that he is the maker of heaven and earth, the maker of all that is seen and unseen.  He’s the Father of Jesus, in the sense that he is the one who is the origin of the life of Jesus.  He’s also the father of you and me.  He’s also the father of all creation in the sense that all its life comes from him.  That’s the point that’s spelled out by saying that he’s the maker of all things in heaven and on earth – in other words, he’s the maker of the whole cosmos, the planets, and the stars.  If there is life on other planets, then he created that life as well.  He’s the creator of things you can see and things you can’t see.  That takes us back to those other gods I mentioned.  The creed doesn’t say they don’t exist.  It says that they are underlings of the one great God, the one God who is God with a capital G.  That’s one point about saying that God is the Almighty Father.  He may allow all sorts of things to happen in the world, but in the end he is in control.  He doesn’t let the world get finally out of hand.  We believe in one God, the Father.

Then, we believe in one Lord Jesus Christ.  He’s the only Son of God.  There’s something unique about him compared with all the beings that were merely created by God.  There have always been people who thought Jesus was simply a really good man, and therefore that he was someone created by God.  In the creed we say, “No, he was more than that.”  He wasn’t created by God.  He was fathered by God.  This didn’t happen when he was born as a man.  That wasn’t when he came into existence.  He has been in existence just as long as God has been in existence.  His life derives from the father’s life, but this fathering wasn’t like any other fathering, because it didn’t take place in time.  He was eternally begotten from the Father.  Through all eternity, God has been the Father who was the source of life, and from all eternity Jesus has shared in this life.

But then when the world came into being, it was created through Jesus.  That’s the idea behind the picture of his being one of God’s hands.  The creed declares that the world was created through Jesus, then it tells the story of his human life.  He came down from heaven to be born of Mary, he was crucified, he rose from the dead, he will come again.  It’s the story with all those episodes that we looked at two weeks ago.

Thirdly, we believe in the Holy Spirit.  He’s also the Lord.  He’s God’s other hand, God’s other arm.  He’s the giver of life.  He was also involved in creation, giving life to the world.  Then he was involved with Israel; he inspired the prophets.  Then he was involved in Jesus’ earthly birth – it was by the power of the Holy Spirit that Jesus become incarnate, became a human being.  He gives life to us when we are born, and he gives new life to us when we come to know God and to know Jesus.  After all, we can’t see God because he is the almighty Lord of heaven and earth and we can’t see Jesus because we don’t live in the right time and place. But the Holy Spirit is the one who makes God’s presence real to us and makes Jesus’ presence real to us.  We have genuine contact with God the Father because his Spirit is among us.  We have genuine contact with Jesus because his Spirit is among us.  In practice we don’t tend to think of Pentecost as quite as important as Christmas and Easter, but Christmas and Easter wouldn’t do us much good without Pentecost.  At Pentecost the Spirit was poured out on the disciples, and that meant that God the Father was with them, that Jesus had already come back to them.

After saying that we believe in the Holy Spirit, we declare that we believe in some other key things.  We believe in the one holy catholic apostolic church.  There’s one church; there  are many denominations, but they are all part of one church.  It’s a holy church; there are lots of ways in which the church is un-holy, but it is brought into existence by the holy God and it’s special to him in connection with his work in the world.  It’s a catholic church; the Roman Catholic Church especially uses the word catholic, but the word applies to the whole church.  It affirms that the church is spread through the world, because God cares for the whole world.  And it’s an apostolic church.  The church is apostolic as it seeks to proclaim and live by the gospel that goes back to the apostles.

There is one church so there is one baptism, so we recognize the baptism of anyone who was baptized in any church.  Baptism is a sign of our cleansing and forgiveness.

And finally we know that we have something to look forward to beyond this life.  We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.  When we die it’s like going to sleep, and the people who originally drew up the creed have been asleep for nearly two thousand years, sleeping safe and sound with Jesus.  But one day they and we are all going to be raised from the dead and enjoy the life of the world to come.

I believe in God.  I believe in Jesus.  I believe in the Holy Spirit.

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