I bet some of you love a good mystery, don’t you? When I ask people what kinds of books they like to read, often I hear people say they can get lost in a great mystery novel. Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie – there’s nothing like a mystery to keep us turning the pages and wondering what will happen next.
The thing about mysteries is that people love to try to figure them out. That’s why they exist, right? To be solved! People love a mystery – and so people throughout the centuries and pastors on Holy Trinity Sunday, try all sorts of different ways to explain the nature of God.
Analogies and illustrations abound – and I think I have used them all over the years. There is the one of using an egg – and saying how just like an egg has the yolk, the egg white, and the shell but yet is just one egg, so There is Jesus and the Spirit and God the Father and all together they are God.
Or there is the one where you talk about how water can take the form of liquid, ice, and steam – all of them are water, just different forms – just like God is in the form of the Father, the Son, the Spirit.
Or there is the illustration I heard recently – just like Neapolitan ice cream has vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry but all of it together is Neapolitan ice cream – so the Father, the Son, the Spirit together is God.
All of these illustrations fall short, though. While it may be human nature to try to figure out exactly mysteries, understanding the nature of God and describing who God is neatly and succinctly is simply not possible. God exists in mystery. Our human words and thoughts about God can always tell something about God, but not everything. Yes, God is near and part of our every moment and breath – but God is also a vast mystery.
The creeds we recite in church every Sunday were the attempt of the early church to chip away a little at that mystery, get everyone unified in belief and describe the nature of God.
The three creeds we are most familiar with in the Lutheran church are the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed and the Athanasian Creed. Each creed longer and more complex than the one before it. Today we did the Nicene Creed together – the Athanasian Creed is three times longer than the Nicene Creed. It’s popular for some churches to recite the Athanasian creed together on this Sunday, Trinity Sunday – but it must not be too popular because they didn’t even include that creed in our new red hymnals.
It’s a hard creed. It begins and ends with law – the first lines are, “whoever wants to be saved should above all cling to the catholic faith. Whoever does not guard it whole and inviolable will doubtless perish eternally.” The final lines of it are – “those who have done good will enter eternal life, those who have done evil will enter eternal fire. This is the catholic faith. One cannot be saved without believing this firmly and faithfully.” And between these two harsh proclamations is an awful lot of dissecting the personhood of God – Father, Son, Spirit.
I read this creed and I think, no one would know, if they only heard this creed, that the heart of the Christian faith is grace.
The creeds were all the attempts of human beings to put into words what absolutely cannot be put into words. They were written during a time when intense debates were happening about the nature of God. Great minds wrestled with how to confess the Triune God of Sacred Scripture faithfully and fully.
But certainly not everybody likes creeds. Some churches never recite the creeds anymore. This makes sense for a lot of reasons –
In our democratic society there is now a tendency toward individualism and anti-authoritarianism.
In our age there is less and less respect for history.
There is a great downplaying of doctrine – ‘doctrine’ is holding to a certain set of beliefs. Methods, social change, experience and gifts are often considered much more important than doctrine.
Some would claim that the creeds are just human documents, not the divine Word of the Gospel.
Some groups such as the Quakers, object to creeds because they fear that they will get in the way of the free interpretation of the Bible. They also consider them to produce division.
All of these are valid points. But let’s think about ways the creeds are still useful:
Well, first, it’s good to learn from the struggles of the early church. The creeds were created as the church dealt with controversial ideas and struggled to determine what it truthfully believed. They certainly don’t say everything about our faith, but they do remind us of important parts of it.
Next, the creeds do help us define our faith. For example, once we have learned the Apostles’ Creed, we will always have an answer to “what do you Christians believe?” You will know what separates the Christian faith from others.
And most importantly, the creeds help us declare our faith. Before ascending to heaven, Jesus told the disciples that they were to be his witnesses to all the world. Reciting the creeds week after week fulfils this need to declare our faith. The Apostles Creed is a useful way for every Christian to declare his or her faith throughout everyday life. Martin Luther said that a Christian should confess the Apostles Creed eight times daily.”
It’s kind of funny how in the church we go from Pentecost Sunday – which is all about the movement of the Spirit and the ambiguity of how God works – through history and still today to this day of Holy Trinity, where our ancestors tried to nail everything of God down into neat and tidy statements.
That right there says something huge about the magnificent mystery of this faith we share. There are surely Christians who resonate more with Pentecost Sunday Christianity – where we get to dream about the Spirit of God moving wildly in our midst and inspiring us, we feel deeply how God is always changing us and bringing us in surprising ways into the new.
But there are surely Christians who resonate more with Trinity Sunday – where we remember tried and true formulas of our faith. We confess creeds passed down to us from the early apostles of the church and some find great comfort in that unchanging nature of faith and church.
We need both – the Pentecost people, the Trinity people, and everyone in-between. We need the movement of the Spirit and the grounding of our history and teachings of our ancestors.
That reminds me of something I enjoy about our synod assembly each year – seeing the wide variety of people that make up the church. Sometimes we rightly joke about how little actual diversity there is in our area – but there is certainly an assortment of people nonetheless – From the elderly white-haired couples whom you can guess have probably been delegates from their congregation a multitude of times over the decades, to the young intern pastor with the pony tail, to the very pregnant woman with a clergy collar dancing along to the praise band, to the buttoned up, suit-wearing, bearded fellow looking like he might just split apart if he is asked to clap along to one more song, to our keynote speaker this year with the sleeve tattoos and hipster glasses, we were, all of us together, the church gathered at Concordia the last couple days.
And in the same way that the wider church is blessed and challenged when we listen to as wide an array of voices as possible – so it is here. We need each person here – from the youngest to the oldest – bringing your particular insight and strengths and hopes and scars into our midst. We need those who have been here for decades and remember how things have always been done and we need those who come fresh into our midst and say, “hey, why not try this?” We need the crafters, the fixers, the leaders, the team-members, the teachers, the techy folks, those who read the Bible daily and those who are pretty sure they don’t know where their Bible is, the cooks, the bakers, the artists, the musicians, the woodworkers – everyone. God has brought us all together in this place, none of us by mistake. All to be a part of our ongoing life of faith here. All of us to contribute in some way to making sure this gospel of Jesus Christ is shared. How will you do that today?
Graduates, I think that is the question I hope you will carry with you into all your adventures to come. You have been loved and nurtured in the Christian faith here. Yes, your church home here is proud of you and will always be praying a blessing on you. But now, as you step into the future, each day think about how you can use your own particular gifts and quirks and energy to be a part of sharing God’s love wherever you go.
On that note, on this Holy Trinity Sunday, I close with a poem from Malcolm Guite…
In the Beginning, not in time or space,
But in the quick before both space and time,
In Life, in Love, in co-inherent Grace,
In three in one and one in three, in rhyme,
In music, in the whole creation story,
In His own image, His imagination,
The Triune Poet makes us for His glory,
And makes us each the other’s inspiration.
He calls us out of darkness, chaos, chance,
To improvise a music of our own,
To sing the chord that calls us to the dance,
Three notes resounding from a single tone,
To sing the End in whom we all begin;
Our God beyond, beside us and within.