Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father,
from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, and from our Blessed Comforter, the
Holy Spirit, on this Trinity Sunday. Amen.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, before I begin this
morning, please open your hymnals to page 319, and mark that page with your
worship folder or one of the bookmark ribbons. In observance of Trinity
Sunday, at several points in the sermon, Pastor Nuckols will lead us in
responsively confessing our faith using the Athanasian Creed.
As I grow older, I become more and more convinced that
being a Christian is the most difficult religion in which to remain faithful.
That’s not to say that in certain situations, other religions don’t face
Many belief systems are persecuted in various
countries or regions by those who disagree with them, or those who just reject
All things being equal, though, it’s tough to be a
Christian. Part of that difficulty is due to characteristics we share with
several other faiths. For one thing, very much like some other faiths, yet
very distinct from many others, we don’t have a visible God who is easily
identified or experienced. We don’t worship a tangible object like a tree or
an idol, or a visible one like the sun or moon. A god you can touch and see
would seem to be more present and more accessible for us.
It’s also tough having a faith in which there isn’t
anything we can actively do to achieve its ultimate objective: the removal of
the guilt of our sins and the reconciliation with the divine that provides us
the assurance of eternal life. We can’t earn our deity’s favor through any
actions we might perform, even in part.
We can only surrender and acknowledge our inability to
do anything worthy of God’s blessings, and accept them in humility—not in pride
at having done more than someone else toward piety and salvation.
Christianity is also difficult because it and we are
the primary targets of all of Satan’s efforts to destroy faith, and to draw
people away from the one, true God. People of other religions, and no religion
at all, certainly face temptations to sin. Yet those temptations come from
their own sinful nature and the attractions of the world, rather than from the
devil. After all, why would Satan need to pull a Buddhist, a Hindu, a Muslim,
or a Jew away from a god or a faith that cannot save them from eternal
When you think about all those dangers and
difficulties in trying to live a faithful Christian life, what a blessing it is
that our Lord has promised that not one whom He has chosen will be snatched out
of His omnipotent hand.
We have His assurance that He will keep us safe in the
ark of His Church, protected from all threats that would turn us away. We can
never comprehend or answer why some fall from faith and do not return, while He
keeps us steadfast, even in our weakness.
Some of the many, many tools our loving God has
provided His Church through His holy Word are the creeds, those formal statements
of faith that describe God’s being and God’s work. We’re most familiar, of
course, with the Nicene and the Apostles’ creeds, since we use them so often in
our weekly worship.
But if you look carefully, the scriptures are chock
full of creeds. There are dozens if not hundreds of locations where an
individual states his or her beliefs about God. Some are simple, and some are
more extensive. They may not be as comprehensive as the creeds developed to
more fully explain the faith, the ones we recite so often, but they are
Look back to Israel’s statement, “The Lord is one.”
To Job’s, “I know that my Redeemer lives.” To David’s many statements in the
Psalms about the nature and action of God. In our epistle lesson today, Peter
delivers a creed of sorts—a powerful statement of belief about who Jesus is,
and what Jesus had done. And in our Gospel, doesn’t Jesus Himself give one of
the most succinct and powerful creeds about the nature and work of God: “For
God so loved the world, that He gave his only Son, that whoever believes in Him
should not perish, but have eternal life.”
Today is Trinity Sunday, a day that for some
unfortunately creates a great deal of awkwardness, anxiety, and even some
resistance to confessing their Christian faith in a creed. Some resist the
Athanasian Creed because it’s unfamiliar. Others don’t care for it because
it’s somewhat longer than the other common creeds, and at places seems to get a
Lord knows how inconvenient it is to spend a couple
extra minutes confessing the only thing that stands between us and total,
permanent death, right?
I’m sure that some don’t like the Athanasian Creed
because it confuses them, with all the talk about the complexities of the Holy
Trinity, too. We like to understand things, and frankly, I’ll be the first to
admit that while this creed, like the other two ecumenical creeds, makes a
valiant stab at it, the Holy Trinity remains an incomprehensible mystery to us.
And finally, there are those among us here who blanch
at using the word “catholic” that appears so frequently in the Athanasian
Creed. We’re Lutheran Christians, after all, and we darn tootin’ like being
Lutherans, not Catholics. Wasn’t that what the Reformation was all about,
Well, I hate to burst your bubble, but the Reformation
was first and foremost intended to return the church—the catholic church with a
small “c” established by Jesus himself—to the truths which the Apostles’,
Nicene, and Athanasian creeds teach and confess. In fact, if you look in the
Lutheran Confessions, the very first documents incorporated are these creeds.
If you have a hard time with the word “catholic”—if it
sticks in your craw as we read the creed today—I want you to try real hard to
say it anyway, but in your mind, go ahead and substitute the words: “one,
true” each time we come to it. If your brain can make that connection and that
leap, then maybe your heart can, too. Let’s stand and give it a try, up
through paragraph 18, with Pastor Nuckols reading the odd-numbered ones and the
rest of us the even ones.
[Athanasian Creed, lines 1-18 read responsively]
Yes, that pattern does get a little bit repetitive,
I’ll admit. But it’s that pattern which drives home the points, too: that
these things are crucially important to know and to believe about God, for as
we confess at the very beginning, “Whoever desires to be saved must, above all,
hold the catholic”—that is, the ‘one, true’—faith.”
That almost understates the matter, really. For it’s
not just “above all” we must hold our faith, but to the exclusion of any
beliefs which run contrary to it. It’s surprising how many nominal Christians
don’t seem to understand that. They think it’s OK to treat the faith and the
truths about it which God’s Holy Scriptures reveal to us like some sort of
buffet line. They find it perfectly acceptable to chisel off the sharp edges
of the Ten Commandments, and dilute the strength of God’s message, until they
can define a God they’re comfortable with.
Their God isn’t powerful enough to have created the
world in six days. Their God wasn’t angered enough by sin to have flooded the
entire world and wiped out the creation that He Himself had made, but for a
faithful few. Their God didn’t really open the sea to save His people from
their pursuing enemies; they must’ve just found a shallow spot. When you find
a little wiggle room on that, it’s easy to set aside other things, too—like
what sort of things God calls sin.
But do you know the real danger and the end result of
creating your own sort of God like that? It means you put yourself at odds
with what God has revealed to us in His Word, and it separates you from the
one, true faith which that Word declares—the one, true faith the Church
confesses in the creeds. It allows you to reduce God to less that God says He
is, and to re-make God in your own image—an inversion of the rightful order of things.
Is that the sort of God you want to create for
yourself? Think about it: A God not conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of
the Virgin Mary would carry the same corrupt, sinful nature as you and I, and
He would not be a suitable, unblemished sacrifice. If He did not shed His
blood for you on the cross, your sins are not atoned for. If He did not die
and take your sins with Him to the grave, they still cling to you. And if He
did not return to life as He had prophesied, you have no hope of victory,
But the One God we worship in Trinity and Trinity in
Unity—uncreated, infinite, eternal, and almighty—has accomplished all that for
you. Christ has kept the catholic faith whole and undefiled for you, and has
applied His perfect obedience and righteousness to you, so that you will not
We rise and continue with paragraphs 19 through 26 of
the Athanasian Creed.
[Athanasian Creed, lines 19-26 read responsively]
All three of the Christian creeds speak clearly to the
belief that our one God exists in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
and has existed in three persons from all eternity. This puts us at odds, of
course, with other monotheistic faiths such as Judaism and Islam. There isn’t
room in those religions for such notions. To divide God into more than one
person degrades His power and sovereignty, we’re told. And for a human being
to have a divine nature? Ridiculous! Preposterous! Blasphemous!
What really denies or degrades God’s
power and sovereignty, though: Telling God that He can’t exist in the ways He
has revealed Himself to be, or accepting it as beyond our limited ability to
understand? It seems that any human attempts to paint God into a corner or
shove him in a box are far more preposterous and blasphemous than bowing our
heads and saying, “As you say, Lord.”
We may not win over other “People of the Book,” like
Jews and Muslims, to Christianity, because only the Holy Spirit can do that,
working through the proclaimed Word of God. But we ought not and must not shy
away from the creeds because we’re afraid that their clear witness to the
Trinitarian nature of our God might offend them.
In spite of all attempts to paint it as such, we do not
worship the same God as those other major religions. Yes, we have some very
strong common roots, and we share portions of the Scriptures, even portions
copied over under supposed different human authorship. But there can be no
avoiding the fact that apart from the belief that the Son and the Holy Spirit
are co-equal and co-eternal with the Father, we cannot have the same God.
Another difficult truth is that many other supposedly
Christian denominations have abandoned the creeds of the Church as well.
Sometimes it came about because of an abandonment of liturgical worship for
free-form, spontaneous worship, an attempt to supposedly return to the basics
of the early Church, ignoring the historical evidence.
But the fact is: Christian worship has been
liturgical from the very beginning, as was worship in the synagogue and before
that, the temple and tabernacle. Creeds became a part of that worship because
stating a common faith publicly was a witness to an individual’s belonging to
the Church, and demonstrated a unity of the congregation under Christ.
Another familiar cry among those who have abandoned a
common, public testament of faith for an individualized, subjective testimony
of experience is, “Deeds, not creeds.”
While we do acknowledge that from our Christian faith
flows good works on behalf of our neighbor and to the glory of God, there’s a
huge problem with such a statement as “Deeds, not creeds”: Deeds are what you
do; creeds are what you believe. Is there any clearer way of advocating to the
world the false and dangerous teaching of works-righteousness, or a more
prideful way of undermining the absolute necessity of Christ’s sacrificial
death and the truth that faith in Him alone saves, than saying: “Deeds, not
We speak the creeds because we are compelled by
the Christian truth to acknowledge each of the three persons of the Godhead as
God and Lord, and the nature and work of each of those persons. Desiring to be
saved, we do and must think thus about the Trinity, and confess
this both as individual Christians and as Christ’s Church.
We conclude our responsive confession of the
Athanasian Creed, beginning at paragraph 27.
[Athanasian Creed, lines 27-40 read responsively]
If you were paying attention or are familiar with the
Athanasian Creed, you probably noticed that the middle section describes the eternal
natures and relationships of the three persons of the Trinity, while this
latter section goes into great detail about the person and work of Christ. In
fact, if you look closely, you can probably detect the echoes of portions of
the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds within each of those sections: The
begotten-ness of the Son, and the proceeding of the Holy Spirit from Father and
Son, in the middle section.
Now, as we look at the final section of this creed, we
see as we do in our other creeds the centrality of Jesus Christ to our faith
and our salvation. Note how this final section begins: “It is also necessary
for everlasting salvation that one faithfully believe the incarnation of our
Lord Jesus Christ.” Not that Jesus was a good and noble human being, chosen
and blessed by God and infused by the Holy Spirit.
Not that Jesus was a spirit being or an angel that
came to proclaim God’s message and to do miracles. Not that Jesus was a
manifestation of God, as the Lord previously appeared visibly to people in the
Old Testament. Rather, we confess the incarnation of our Lord
Jesus Christ: the taking on of human flesh by its assumption into the
wholeness of God. A complete unity of the human and the divine, as inseparable
as it is incomprehensible. A God of such love that He chose to be united in
body with humanity, and united in life, in suffering, and in death with
In love, the only Son was given for you, that you
might believe and confess these truths about God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
He has done the ultimate good, so that you need not worry that you haven’t done
enough to enter into eternal life.
As St. John recorded of Jesus’ words to Nicodemus:
“God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order
that the world might be saved through Him.” The good He has done is now yours,
through faith in Him.
This is the one, true, catholic faith; believe it
faithfully, believe it fully, confess it boldly and confidently, and you will
be saved, through Him.
In the name of the Holy Trinity: Father, (X) Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.