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Sermon Preached at Sung Eucharist 17 June 2018
The Reverend Canon Peter Moger
The C of E sometimes gets a bad press when it comes down to specifics of faith and belief. Unlike some of brother and sister Christians, who are very anxious to define exactly what they believe, Anglicans have always tried to steer a ‘middle way’. The C of E is a ‘broad church’ in which Catholics and Evangelicals, Liberals and Conservatives do their best to co-exist.
The advantage of this is that it’s inclusive and recognises that people receive and understand the truth about God in different ways. The flip side is that the C of E is often accused of being woolly and refusing to stand firm on essentials. Hence the apocryphal story that: “In a recent poll, when Anglican bishops were asked if they felt that bishops suffered unfairly from being caricatured in the media. 77% said, ‘It depends what you mean by caricature,’ 22% said, ‘It depends what you mean by unfairly,’ and 1% said, ‘It depends what you mean by bishop.'”
‘It depends what you mean.’ So are all matters of faith and belief purely relative, or are there absolutes? – even for Anglicans! Is there a ‘bottom line’, and if so, ‘what is it?’ When a priest takes up a new appointment s/he makes the Declaration of Assent, that the C of E professes the faith ‘uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the Catholic Creeds’, but that it is called by God to proclaim afresh that faith in each generation. So there is a tension here – between the givenness of the historic statements about our faith – and the life of a Church which is ever open to the renewing work of the Holy Spirit – the Spirit who will ‘lead us into all truth’
One of those historic statements – one of the ‘Catholic Creeds’ – is the Nicene Creed. It forms part of the liturgy of the Eucharist. We recite it every Sunday – but where did it come from and what’s it doing there?
What we call the Nicene Creed is, quite simply, a summary of basic Christian belief. But it’s important to remember that it’s the product of a particular period of history. The title suggests that it was the product of the Council of Nicaea – one of the great councils of the early Church which met in 325 – though in fact some parts of the Creed weren’t written until later – maybe, some think, at the Council of Constantinople in 381.
It’s the sort of document you get when people of differing views sit around a table and try to hammer out something they can agree about. Put bluntly, it’s ‘committee-speak’. It’s not poetry, it’s not a hymn, not Scripture, nor even particularly derivative of Scripture, but the work of a committee.
If we think that today’s Church is in a mess because it can’t agree about everything, it’s all pretty mild compared with the Church in the 4th century. That was a Church in turmoil. There were serious disagreements – most of them over the nature of Christ. How it is that we can speak of Jesus being both divine and human? This was the hot issue of the day.
As so, carefully constructed phrases were put together to try and express this in terms that the whole Church could accept. The phrases sorted out those who were ‘in’ and those who were ‘out’. The phrase which we translate into English as ‘of one Being with the Father’ or (from the BCP, ‘being of one substance with the Father’) is an example of this. The key word is the Greek word homoousios (meaning ‘of the same substance’). But this word – agreed at the Council of Nicaea – was later questioned on the grounds that it wasn’t in the Bible. Some of the debates have changed little over the centuries!
So what’s this ancient theological (or even political) document doing as part of our regular worship? When it was first written, it didn’t form part of the order of the Eucharist. In fact the Creed wasn’t officially part of the Eucharist until 568 and even then it’s uncertain as to how widely it was used in worship.
Now its place in the service is significant. It acts as a sort of pivot – after the readings and the sermon, but before the Intercession and our sharing in the bread and wine of communion. The Eucharist is about God sharing our life in order to change us. So, the Creed comes at the point in the service when we will have encountered God during the readings and will have begun to be changed by that encounter. This encounter with God and the transformation which follows is usually something which impacts on us as individuals. (We often talk about bits of the Bible hitting different people in different ways). But we come to the Creed not just as individuals but as members of the Church. The Creed is a corporate statement of belief. Not just for us here in York, but for the whole Church. One writer has put it this way:
‘We must get away from the notion that the Creed consists of ….. statements of ‘fact’, and hang on to the idea that it expresses something about the relationship of worshippers to the Church, to the Christian community as a whole. Saying things together is a badge of belonging.’
[Averil Cameron, in Living the Eucharist, 58]
In this sense, the Creed is ‘Catholic’. The word ‘catholic’ appears towards the end of the creed [‘We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church’] and it’s important to remember what it means here. Many Evensong worshippers from across the world like to ask after the service, ‘why do you say catholic in the Creed if this is a Protestant church?’ But in the 4th century, there were no Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Protestants or Anglicans. The word must be understood in its original context – meaning ‘according to the whole’ – the Church across all times, in all places and encompassing all who believe in Jesus Christ.
The Creed is also an ecumenical text – a set of words that Christians from different places and backgrounds can share. The context in which the earlier forms of the Creed was put together was one of the ecumenical councils of the Church – and the words were designed to provide a uniting statement of faith for Christians whose individual interpretations of the faith varied.
When we meet with other Christians, we probably won’t agree on everything. But we can all say the Nicene Creed as an affirmation of the faith we share. The Creed is ecumenical.
Now I’ve said quite a lot about the function of the Creed – but rather less about its content. It would be foolish to try and cover the content of the Creed in a single sermon! But, if we are to get some grasp on what the Creed actually says, we need to look again at what the Eucharist is about. Remember, it is about God meeting with us to share our life in order to change it. God shares our life through becoming one of us in Jesus (incarnation) and changes our life through the death and resurrection of Jesus (redemption).
The Creed actually spells this out for us. [see p …]. Each paragraph deals with one person of the Trinity. So the first talks about God the Father – the creator of all. The second paragraph, which is by far the longest, states in skeleton form, the basics of our belief in Jesus: that he is the Son of God – God in human form (or ‘made incarnate’) – that he died, rose again, ascended and that he will return. This is the guts of the Creed – remember, most of it was written to sort out the controversy surrounding the incarnation – and that Jesus is both God and human being. But here, within this 2nd paragraph are the basic essential statements about God sharing our life and transforming it. ‘He was made man’ – ‘he was crucified for our sake‘ and ‘he rose again’. God sharing our life in Jesus – and transforming it. The final paragraph talks about the Holy Spirit – the person of the Trinity who gives life to Church – and points us beyond the present to the future, where God’s transformation of our life will be complete. When we participate in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.
The Nicene Creed is a helpful reminder us of the essential truths of Christian belief. But it’s important to remember how much it is an historical document. One of the things that the words of our liturgy do is to preserve the memory of the Church – and that applies very much to the Creed. But for most of us, the theological problems of the 4th century are light years away. For us, I suspect the main purpose of the Creed is to be a badge of corporate identity. That, as we say it, we affirm that we are Christians – that we share that faith with others down 2000 years of history and today across all traditions, cultures and nationalities.
As individuals, the Creed can be a personal statement of our acceptance of the basic truths of creation, incarnation, redemption and the hope of resurrection. Of our belief in God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The act of believing – of having faith – is crucial for us. In St John’s Gospel – we are told that the book has been written precisely for that purpose, tha
‘we may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing [we] may have life in his name.’ [20.31]
This is also what the Creed is trying to tell us.
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