Sunday, May 22, 2016

Maurice and Wesley on the Damnatory Clauses in the Athanasian Creed

Today is Trinity Sunday and so we used the Athanasian Creed during the service at Christ Church. I love the clear presentation of Trinitarian theology in the Creed. It is a necessary expansion on the creeds that came before. Anglican theologian F.D. Maurice writes,

“Do we not feel that if we had only the Nicene Creed—if a new heresy had not called forth another exposition—we should have been in great danger of losing our apprehension of a truth, from having but one imperfect form of language to unfold it in? Nay, do we not feel that as the Apostles’ Creed, without the Nicene, would lead us into the danger of thinking only concerning the relation ‘in which the Divine Being stands to us; so the Nicene Creed without the Athanasian, would still lead us to think merely of divine relations, without remembering that there is an absolute ground visible in them and through them?”

I believe Maurice is absolutely right in what he says about the importance of the Athanasian Creed. Nevertheless, parts of it give me pause. I’m speaking of the so called “damnatory clauses” at the beginning and ending of the text. They read:

“Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith; which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly” and, “This is the catholic faith, which except a man believe faithfully he cannot be saved.”

It then goes on in some detail to precisely define the doctrine of the Trinity. This is the content of the catholic faith that we must accept or face the certainty of damnation.
When we read this creed at our Eucharist this morning, a parishioner--whom I respect a great deal—involuntarily blurted out, “I don’t believe that!” Now it wasn’t so loud that I could here it up front, but she told me about it after the service. I completely understand her reaction. At the risk of being exposed as a wishy-washy liberal, I have to say that I don't feel very comfortable with the so called “damnatory clauses.”
Is salvation such a rigorous theology exam? This seems extremely unlikely. In fact, if I were to quiz the members of my congregation, or even the Church as a whole, about Trinitarian theology, I suspect that a large majority would fail by the standard laid out by the creed. In fact, I generally feel uncomfortable with the idea that salvation is a matter of accepting certain propositions. Certainly the things we confess with our lips are only significant so long as they accurately represent the position of our heart. Could failing to comprehend the complexities of Trinitarian theology really be grounds for damnation?

Apparently, I am far from the only one to have ambiguous feelings about the Athanasian Creed. John Wesley at one time felt he could not subscribe to the creed for much the same reasons that we have already discussed. However, later in life he made his peace with it. He writes,

"I for some time, scrupled subscribing to that creed; till I considered (1.) That these sentences only relate to willful, not involuntary, unbelievers; to those who, having all the means of knowing the truth, nevertheless obstinately reject it: (2.) that they relate only to the substance of the doctrine there delivered; not the philosophical illustrations of it." (Sermon 55, On the Trinity)

I find this somewhat helpful. Certainly Jesus made statements that seem equally as exclusive. Such as, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16). I’ve never read this as referring to those who are ignorant or deceived, but those who stubbornly resist and reject the witness of the Spirit in their own hearts. Remember Jesus’ other words, “Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come” (12:32). 

Perhaps it is not so much the form of words pronounced by the creed the must be accepted, true as they may be, but the spirit or substance of those words. In my own sermon this morning I said, “Those who want a non-Trinitarian God, whether they realize it or not, enshrine selfishness and tyranny as the highest virtues! If God is a solitary, all-powerful monarch, fixated on his own glory, than in order to be like God we would need to aspire to those same characteristics. Godliness would be about being powerful and having things our own way. But If God is love, If God is himself a kind of family or society, devoted to glorifying each other--if God is Trinity--we need to love one another! When we realize that God is Trinity we see that togetherness, cooperation, and even sacrifice are grounded in the very nature of God.”

I think this describes what it means to accept the “substance” of the doctrine rather than just the theological articulation of it. It is much more important that our hearts be in tune with the reality of Divine Love as embodied in the Trinity, rather than we be able to comprehend it with our minds or explain it with our mouth. 

Again, F.D. Maurice is also very helpful on this point. I would like to post an excerpt from a portion of the Kingdom of Christ in which he discusses the topic:

To the best of my knowledge and recollection, I never have felt tempted while reading this Creed, however I may have felt tempted at other times, to indulge one hard thought about the state of any man who is living now or has lived in former times. I do not think that the Creed calls upon me to do this; nay, I think that its awful language forbids me to do it.

 I dare not ask myself who has committed the fearful sin, of ‘confounding the Persons and dividing the Substance,’ which it denounces. It may not be the man who has used the most confused and heretical forms of expression; it may not be the man who has even seemed to the Church to be most self-willed and refractory; it may be the man who is resting most contentedly in his orthodoxy; it may be myself. Nay, have I not a witness within, that every wrong act which I have done, or wrong thought which I have cherished, so far as it has diminished my sense of the distinction between truth and falsehood, right and wrong, has been of the nature of that sin which I describe by the words ‘ Confounding the Persons,’ and has brought me into the danger of committing it; that every self-willed, unkind, schismatical act or thought has been of the nature of that sin which I describe by the words ‘Dividing the Substance,’ and has tended to bring me into it?

For this Creed takes me into another region altogether from that of words and names and forms of the intellect, though it makes use of those words and names and forms, for the sake of correcting the abuses which they have produced, and as signs which may show me my way to deeper truths and principles. It is my own fault if I stay in the outer region, and do not let the Church guide me into its inner circle; it is my own fault if I do not warn others, and warn myself, of the connection between eternal truths and principles, and that ‘ doing good ’ or ‘ doing evil,’ to which, as the Creed declares in its last articles, eternal life or punishment are appended.

But why do I wish to retain this Creed, seeing that some may use it amiss for the condemnation of their neighbors, and not for good to them or to themselves ? I answer, that if I parted with it I think I should not help the cause of charity, and should do great injury to the cause of truth. The language of the Old Church may sound stronger and fiercer than that which is common in our day, but it is grounded upon the words, ‘This is life eternal, that they may know Thee the only true God.’ The bottomless pit which the fathers really dreaded was that of Atheism, the state of the human spirit left without God. I believe the more we return to this idea the more of inward charity we shall have, the more we shall understand our glory and our perils, the more we shall have of common hopes and common objects; the more we shall be free from vulgar selfish desires, and from superstitious fears. I could not give up this creed without saying, that the meaning and principle of it belonged less to this time than to former times. Whereas, I believe that they belong more to our time than to any time. For this, it seems to me, is the question which is in debate now. Are we to behold the unity which has its deepest and most real ground in that name of God which this creed speaks of, informing all society and all nature ; or are we to see everything broken, divided, un-harmonized; a dark form of self love, embodied in some visible tyranny, above us, and a gulf of utter nothingness beneath us? (582-583)

"If God is Love..." A Sermon for Trinity Sunday 2016

Perhaps one of the most important and powerful truths that Christianity has given to the world is the simple statement from Saint John, “God is Love.” It is a declaration that resonates with both Christians and Non-Christians alike, believers and skeptics. I once had a conversation about faith with a very kind a gracious woman who described herself as an agnostic. “I’m not sure there is a God” she said, “but I suppose I do believe in something greater than all of us that unites us, a higher power.” I pressed her further, “And what do you believe that higher power is?” She didn’t have to think long before answering, “Love. Love is the greatest and most beautiful thing that I can imagine. Love is my religion. I think if there really is a God he must be pure Love.” Although she is not a believer, she is not far from the Kingdom of Heaven, for as Saint John reminds us, “God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.”

Sometimes this simple religion of Love is contrasted with the complicated and obscure religion of dogma, and yet Saint John’s statement is not mere sentiment but the fruit of a profound theology. How did John come to his realization that God is love? The foundation of this conviction is his belief in the divinity of Christ. Not one verse before he tells us, “If anyone confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God” (4:15). As a result, “we have come to know and believe the love that God has for us” (4:16a). We can have confidence in God’s love for us because God’s very nature is love as revealed in Jesus Christ. From all eternity, before time and creation itself, God was pure, perfect, unconditional, unwavering, love. If this is true, we must confess the doctrine of the Trinity.

To some of you that might seem like a stretch, but hear me out. It is one thing to say that God loves us or that he loves the world, but it is something very different indeed to say that God—in his very nature and from all eternity—is Love. Love is a relational concept, it never exists except between persons. It simply wouldn’t make sense to say that God is love if he was just a lonely monad with no one to talk to or no one to love. God didn’t create the world out of loneliness or necessity. He had all the love and fellowship he needed already in his own nature, before he created anything. Before creation, before time, God was already a perfect community of persons in perfect unity. He was Trinity.

 In saying this we do not mean to imply that there is a committee or tribunal of three separate Gods. The word of God is clear in its insistence that there is one and only one God. Deuteronomy 6:4 tells us, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” We confess three persons, but one God. There is no contradiction here because we are not referring to the same thing when we say that God is three as we are when we say that God is one.

Bishop Kenneth Myers—attempting  to put the sometimes obscure, philosophical terminology of Trinitarian theology in more accessible terms—has said that God is one “what” but he is three “whos.” In other words, when we ask, “what is God?” We answer, “God is the almighty, uncreated, source, and personal creator of all things visible and invisible,” but when we ask, “Who is God?” We answer, “God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” God is one God, but included in that one God are three persons that exist in a relationship of mutual love.

 But why three? Why not just two? You have heard the saying, “Two is company, but three is a crowd” haven’t you? Understanding the mutual love of the first and second persons of the Trinity is fairly easy for us to conceptualize. The image of Father and Son is concrete and deeply personal, but the Holy Spirit seems to be the odd man out. It doesn’t help that our images of the Spirit are so abstract: wind, fire, and a dove. The Trinity is often spoken of in terms of the lover, the beloved, and the act of loving itself. Here again the Holy Spirit seems impersonal.

I find the work of a 12th century theologian named Richard of Saint Victor to be helpful on this point. He argued that in order for love to be perfect there must not only be a lover and a beloved but also a co-beloved. Have you ever observed a relationship—a friendship, a romance, or familial bond—that seemed unhealthily insular? One person’s devotion to another can sometimes be so intense that it is as if nothing else in the world exists. When one person relies on another exclusively for approval or identity we call that co-dependence. It is dysfunctional and anti-social and in the end is little different from selfishness.

This is especially true when it comes to romantic relationships. Whenever I council couples preparing for marriage, I tell them that if they rely exclusively on their partner to “complete them,” they will smother each other. I am convinced that even if a couple never has children, in order for their relationship to really flourish they need to focus their love not only on one another but on family, mutual friends, and supremely on God. This is what Richard St. Victor means when he says that love is perfected in a co-beloved.

The Holy Spirit is not only the embodiment of the love of the Father and Son for one another, but he is also that love turned beyond themselves. The love of God is so perfect that it demands to be shared, it over flows in creation. The Trinity is always seeking to include others in the circle of his love.

The doctrine of the Trinity has enormously practical implications. Those who want a non-Trinitarian God, whether they realize it or not, enshrine selfishness and tyranny as the highest virtues! If God is a solitary, all-powerful monarch, fixated on his own glory, than in order to be like God we would need to aspire to those same characteristics. Godliness would be about being powerful and having things our own way.
But If God is love, If God is himself a kind of family or society, devoted to glorifying each other--if God is Trinity--we need to love one another! When we realize that God is Trinity we see that togetherness, cooperation, and even sacrifice are grounded in the very nature of God.

When we realize God is Trinity we see also that there is room for diversity in unity. We don’t all have to be the same, but we can be unified despite our differences.
If God is love that reaches out to include others, we as his church should do the same. The Father sent the Son, and together they send the spirit, in order that we too can be a part of sharing the love of God with the entire world.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Pentecost, Christ Church, and the Knights of the Round Table.

Today Christ Church assembles for our 205th Annual Meeting, as has been our custom on the third week of May. This year, however, this important event in the life of our local parish also happens to overlap with an important event in the life of the wider Church, the Feast of Pentecost, Whitsunday, or what has sometimes been called the “birthday” of the Church.

There is precedent in history and legend for calling an annual meeting on the Day of Pentecost. No less famous or momentous a figure than King Arthur himself ordained that on this, the Day of Pentecost, all the Knights of the Round Table should assemble together to give reports of their heroic quests and renew their common oath, their code of chivalry, which bound them together in covenant.  Why, of all the major feasts of the Church, did Arthur choose Pentecost for his annual meeting? The historical and religious significance of the day provided a profound resonance with the aims of Arthur and his court. 

First, in the Old Testament the Feast of Pentecost commemorated the giving of the Law to Moses on Sinai, the day that God gave the Ten Commandments. This was the anniversary of the solemn covenant God made with his people. For Arthur, the Day of Pentecost seemed the most appropriate occasion for him to make covenant with his Knights and initiate them into his court by oath. The code of conduct he handed on to them was called the Pentecostal Oath.  In a similar way in which God’s law was meant to set Israel aside as a peculiar people consecrated for righteousness, Arthur’s oath was meant to hold his Knights to a higher standard.

The code of Chivalry associated with Arthur became especially important in trying to restrain the behavior of knights during the Crusades. Chivalry prescribes gentlemanly behavior, courteousness, and decency especially to the weaker members of society.
A Knight should not behave like a pagan or heathen, raping and pillaging, but as a Christian defending the powerless. To this day soldiers and police are still bound by a code of honor. For Christians, the Ten Commandments stand as a basic moral code to guide our relationship to God and to our neighbor.

Secondly, in the New Testament the Feast of Pentecost is the day in which the Holy Spirit is poured out in power on the Church and they are equipped to accomplish the Great Commission that Jesus gave to them to preach the Gospel to all nations.  The Holy Spirit is the Comforter; the Advocate that Jesus promised would come to his disciples after his Ascension. Through the Spirit Jesus’ friends experience his continued presence with them to lead and guide them. Through the ministry of the Holy Spirit new generations come to know Christ and have a saving relationship with him.

Jesus instructed his disciples to go to Jerusalem and to wait until they were clothed with power. The Holy Spirit is that promised power. A professor of mine, who worked as a church consultant, once relayed an encounter he had with a board of Church leaders. He was trying to challenge them to be bolder and said, “I feel as if 97% percent of what you do can be done completely without the Holy Spirit.” There was a period of silence in which the group considered what was said. Finally someone piped up, “Can you show us how to cover that extra three percent?”

Brothers and Sisters, this is not what God intended! We should step out in faith relying 100% on the Holy Spirit. He is the animating force that propels the Church forward in mission. Without the Holy Spirit the Church would be like a car without an engine. All it would be able to do is sit around and rust.

The outpouring of the Spirit for mission on Pentecost was another part of the symbolic significance of the day for King Arthur. His Chronicler Thomas Malory tells us, 

“So ever the king had a custom that at the feast of Pentecost in especial, afore other feasts in the year, he would not go that day to meat until he had heard or seen of a great marvel. And for that custom all manner of strange adventures came before Arthur as at that feast before all other feasts.”

Arthur and his Knights lived in expectation of great things. They were not satisfied to be ordinary. They looked and waited for God to provide them with opportunities for new and daring quests. For the Church as well, Pentecost was the Day in which God showed them great wonders. The Book of Acts tells us about the great rush of violent wind that filled the house in which they were gathered, the divided tongues, as of fire that appeared over their heads, and how the Holy Spirit enabled them to speak in new languages that were strange to them so that every person gathered in Jerusalem for the great feast heard the gospel proclaimed in his own native tongue. The newly energized Church was launched out on the greatest quest of all, to evangelize the world.

So today on the annual meeting of Christ Church, and the Day of Pentecost, we assemble here to take stock of how our mission is progressing. Despite the various challenges that come with a time of transition, we remain strong. Our congregational life remains vital and we continue to be a parish that faithfully proclaims the gospel and that reaches out to others with the love of Christ. Please take the time to read your annual meeting packet to get a fuller picture of how our various ministries are progressing. They contain the reports of our own "knights" and the daring quests in the service of our Lord.

We gather today also to celebrate the covenant and fellowship we enjoy together through the Holy Spirit. We ask him to write anew God’s Law on our hearts. As King Arthur and his Knights renewed their own oaths this day, let us also renew ours. Brothers and sisters remember your baptismal covenant, to persevere in resisting evil, to continue in repentance, to proclaim the Gospel in word and deed, to serve Christ in all persons, to strive for justice and peace, and to respect the dignity of every human being. May we seek to do all these things, not in our own power, but in the power of the Holy Spirit. 


Tuesday, May 10, 2016

What did Jesus' Ascension Accomplish?

When April and I moved out to Ambridge Pennsylvania so that I could attend Trinity School for Ministry it was very difficult. We were leaving behind our home, family, friends, and jobs. We didn’t really know anyone where we were going. The people, the seminary, and the region were all new and strange to us. Eventually, however, it began to feel like home. Our first child, Helen, was born while we were living there and we made many dear friendships with people from the seminary and the parish where we served. We may have come as strangers, but three years later, after graduation, it felt like we were leaving home all over again. It was especially difficult, because we knew that we might never see many of those friends again.

Goodbyes are hard.  It is never easy to leave behind those whom we have come to love and admire. We have all had this experience at one time or another, which is why the story of Jesus’ farewell to his disciples inspires such pathos.

Imagine how difficult saying goodbye to Jesus must have been for his disciples. They had been through the devastating experience of his arrest, trial, and crucifixion. They mourned his death and they were overcome by amazement and joy when he returned to them raised from the dead. When Mary saw the resurrected Christ she clung to him. She didn’t want to let him out of her sight. Even on that occasion Jesus told her, “Do not cling to me. I have not yet ascended to my Father.” He knew that his work was not yet done, and that he would once again need to say goodbye to his friends.

Sure enough after a period of 40 days in which he appeared, taught, and fellowshipped with his disciples, it once again came time for him to depart. He wanted to comfort his disciples in their grief.

Although saying goodbye is never easy, the sorrow of it can be tempered by the knowledge of what is to come. When my fellow seminarians and I said farewell to one another it was bittersweet. There was sweetness because we knew that we were all moving on to do what God called us to do, and what we had been preparing many years to do.

Jesus’ departure too had a grand purpose. We must not diminish its importance. Tonight I want to highlight three great outcomes that were accomplished through Jesus’ Ascension.

First, in ascending into heaven, Jesus presented his completed sacrifice before the Father. The atonement for sin is not finished until it is presented before God in the Tabernacle. The author of Hebrews describes Jesus as our high priest, the one who offers the perfect, once-for-all, sacrifice in the Holy of Holies. He writes,

“Christ did not enter a sanctuary made with human hands that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence.”

What does this mean? First, it means that Jesus is our priest and mediator. Just as Moses climbed the mountain to intercede for the people before God, Jesus ascends into heaven to make intercession for us with his Father.  Second it means that Heaven is the true tabernacle of God. Moses made a copy of the heavenly tabernacle he was shown on the mountain top according to God’s instructions. The high priest would enter that tabernacle in a cloud of incense to present God with sacrifice. What the author of Hebrews is saying is that in passing through the clouds of Heaven, Jesus Christ entered the true heavenly sanctuary and there presented the one, perfect, all sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the whole world.

When the priest came into the sanctuary, he would wear twelve jewels on his vestments representing the twelve tribes of Israel. He was symbolically bringing the people with him into God’s presence. In a similar way, Jesus brings us all into the presence of God with him. He is our representative and the human nature he presents to the Father is perfect and righteous. Jesus stands in heaven as the pledge of the righteousness and justification he has purchased on our behalf.

The second accomplishment was that Jesus ascended into heaven in order to begin his reign as Lord and King of the universe. He told his disciples, “All authority in Heaven and on Earth is given to me” and he ascended into heaven to claim that authority and sit down at the right hand of God. Jesus is not only interceding on our behalf as a priest, he is also reigning as a king.

Jesus’ ascension is like a warrior king returning to his throne after he has won a great victory in a far off land. He is welcomed with shouts of celebration. Having conquered his enemies, his reign can begin. Saint Paul says, “For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.” He extends that rule through the ministry of the church who is commissioned to announce his lordship to all nations.

Finally, Jesus’ ascension prepares the way for the Holy Comforter, the Advocate, the Holy Spirit. He told them, 

“But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7).

It is interesting to note the origins of our popular expression “goodbye.”  It originated as an old English term, “Godbwye,” which is a contraction of the phrase, “God be with ye.” Spanish contains a similar farewell, “vaya con dios,” which means, “go with God,” or “a Dios,” (Adiós) “to God.” Isn’t that interesting? In saying goodbye to someone we are actually asking God to bless them with his presence.

Jesus had to say goodbye to his disciples, but he did not leave them alone. Nor does he leave us alone. He gives us the gift of God’s presence through the Holy Spirit. Jesus makes us present to God through his glorified humanity, and the Holy Spirit makes God present to us in return. We are in Christ and he is in us through the power of the Spirit.

As we have demonstrated, Jesus had to depart this world, but his Ascension brought innumerable blessings to us. Therefore it is fitting this day not to mourn Jesus’ absence, but to give thanks for what his presence before God, his reigning on the throne, and his giving of the spirit means for us and for our salvation.