Proverbs 8:1–4, 22–31; John 16–15

Following this sermon, this congregation will do an amazing thing: we
will stand up and recite that we believe in things that we’re not
sure we believe in, and that we’re pretty sure we don’t know or
understand enough to know if we believe in them or not! It’s
called the Nicene Creed; I want to talk with you a little bit about what
“Nicene” is, what “Creed” is, and why
you’ll be okay saying these strange, archaic words without having
to leave your appropriately modern, critical minds outside of the
church.

“Nicene” refers to the ancient city of Nicaea in Asia Minor, which is
now the modern nation of Turkey. In 325 A.D., the first of four large
convocation, or “councils” of bishops was held there to decide what
common language Christians should use about the nature of God. Notice
that it took the Church three hundred years…300!…to come to an
agreement on a great theological controversy. (It puts into perspective
our impatience on some present-day disagreements about Christian
doctrine and practice!) There were two heresies that the Council of
Nicaea addressed: “Arianism” (the belief that only the Father is
divine; Jesus and the Holy Spirit are just high-quality creatures who
are not equal with God. When early Arians denied the divinity of the
Son and the Spirit, but still worshiped them and baptized in their
names, the early church decided that this was a form of pagan
polytheism. Arianism was thus sometimes called trithesism.) and
“Modalism” (the belief that God only morphs in 3 ways, playing three
different roles or “modes,” and is not three distinct beings).

The doctrine of the Trinity attempts to address the question, “How do
we understand, or experience, God?” There are two ways of answering.
The first is that God is transcendent (beyond anything and everything in
creation). The second is that God is immanent (very near; found in
creation). A triangle shows the relationship…make a triangle with your
hands; one hand representing the transcendence of God, the other hand
representing the immanence of God. They are brought together at the
bottom by the Holy Spirit (your thumbs forming a base line)
, but the
image is strongest when you bring the two hands together at the top to
form a triangle (compare with the strength of “arches” in a cathedral to
hold it up).

There are a couple of problems we run into when talking about the
Trinity, the chief one being what we say about Jesus, the Son, the
second “person” of the Trinity. It is the problem of the “incarnation”:
that God took on human flesh. You see, in the ancient world there was
a clear distinction between “spirit” (pneuma in Greek) and “flesh”
(sarks in Greek). “Spirit” was thought to be pure, untainted by human
evil or human limitations. “Flesh,” on the other hand, was an umbrella
term for all that was impure, tainted, unspiritual, and given to evil.
The scandal of Christianity was not that Jesus was a holy man, but that
his early followers came to understand that he was God incarnate…pneuma
assumed sarks, God had taken on corruptible flesh. The early Christian
movement was not naïve in pronouncing this; it was not an
incomprehensible thing, but they comprehended very well that God was
doing a new thing in the world: redeeming humanity by becoming one with
us!

The other problem with trying to explain the doctrine of the Trinity
is that we monotheists end up sounding like polytheists to people of
other faiths. Yet Christians have always held firmly to the belief that
there is truly only one God, but that there is more to God that is
revealed to humanity than in only one way. You see, the Trinity does
not so much explain the nature of God itself as it describes our
relationship with God. Whatever is sacred is relational. Hence we
experience God in three ways: as something beyond us, as something among
us, and as something within us.

We have to allow for more than a little mystery in our reflections on
the nature of God. Divinity is the “Ultimate Mystery” that goes beyond
our ability to understand everything. Oscar Wilde once said that
“Nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.” The Trinitarian Doctrine
is always under construction. We understand the Trinity the most when
we realize we do not understand…it requires a different sort of
“knowing.” As Billy Graham once said, “Knowledge is horizontal…but
wisdom is vertical!” This requires some theological humility on our
part.

There was a little girl in elementary school who started to draw a
picture of God in her art class. Her teacher said, “Susan, that’s a
nice thing to try to do, but no one has ever seen God.” Susan answered,
“They will in a few minutes!”

And now, what should we moderns do about reciting this ancient
“Creed”? William Willimon, Dean of the Chapel at Duke University,
tells this story from the time he was a seminarian (from The Christian
Century,
February 7–14, 1996, p. 137.):

In a church history course in my last year at Yale Divinity School,
the professor invited an Orthodox priest to lecture. He gave a rather
dry talk on the development of the Nicene Creed. At the end of the
lecture an earnest student asked, “Father Theodore, what can one do when
one finds it impossible to affirm certain tenets of the creed?” The
priest looked confused. “Well, you just say it. It’s not that hard to
master. With a little effort, most can quickly learn it by heart.”

“No, you don’t understand,” continued the student, “What am I to do
when I have difficulty affirming parts of the creed—like the Virgin
Birth?” The priest continued to look confused. “You just say it.
Particularly when you have difficulty believing it, you just keep saying
it. It will come to you eventually.”

Exasperated, the student, a product of the same church that produced
me, and a representative of the 60’s, plead, “How can I with integrity
affirm a creed I do not believe?”

“It’s not your creed young man!” said the priest. “It’s our creed.
Keep saying it for heaven’s sake! Eventually, it may come to you. For
some, it takes longer than for others. How old are you? Twenty-three?
Don’t be so hard on yourself. There are lots of things one doesn’t know
at twenty-three. Eventually it may come to you. Even if it doesn’t,
don’t worry. It’s not your creed.”

It’s the Church’s creed. We say, “We believe…” not “I believe…” in
the Creed. As one professor at Virginia Seminary used to say, “No
matter what the preacher might say in the sermon, following it, the
Nicene Creed is the church’s way of saying, “Nevertheless, We believe
in one God….”
The Creed is the church’s great “nevertheless!” It
took the Church 300 years to come up with the words of faith that they
could all agree on. 300 years! We today might want to say the Creed
differently; I certainly would use different words to express my core
beliefs about the Christian faith today. But it’s not meant to be my
personal statement of faith. You and I, when reciting the Creed, choose
to place ourselves in continuity with a great tradition of thinking
Christians who are always struggling to find the words to convey the
great mysteries of God to human beings. We are one with our spiritual
ancestors in rising to say, “We believe in one God, the Father, the
Almighty, and in one Lord, Jesus Christ…”

The point is that sometimes you choose to believe in something—or
someone—simply because you know in your heart that it’s true, lovely,
pure and beautiful, even though you do not know it in your head yet.
The fact that you may never know it in your head does not negate the
fact that you know it to be true on another, deeper than rationalistic,
way. For instance, there is something very true about this Cathedral.
Its beauty, its majesty, its spirituality, speaks to a truth deeper than
you may hope to know at any particular time—perhaps even now. The
artists, artisans and craftsmen gave expression to the great truth of
the mystery of a universal Christ that welled up from deep within them.
Anyone who has ever been in love knows that the heart has its own
reasons, and sometimes you simply choose to follow your heart.

That’s what we do here at every worship service. We invite you to be
led this morning by your heart. It’s okay to say it: “We believe…we
believe…we believe.” Amen.