Acts 2:14a, 22-36
And when they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted.
I know. Many of you will get to church on Sunday morning, glance over the bulletin and notice something unusual about the service. Instead of the usual Apostles Creed or Nicene Creed, the pastor has decided to use the Athanasian Creed. Youíll sigh and think, ďDid he really have to plan that for today? I have somewhere to be and now the service will go past the hour.Ē Perhaps thatís a flippant thought; I donít really think many of us actually fit into that terrible stereotype that we expect church to last exactly an hour.
However, the Athanasian Creed is incredibly long, and to many it is a tedious confession of faith. We are so used to the point by point confessions of the shorter creeds that we have a hard time with the long, more poetic confession of the Trinity and the Nature of Christ. Even though the theology is more sophisticated, the rhyme and rhythm of the Athanasian Creed is more lyrical and perhaps less logical, especially by our modern language expectations. After all, we are a culture that has learned to speak in a hundred and forty characters. Why bother with a long, complicated circular argument like the Athanasian Creed?
The Athanasian Creed was designed to be lyrical, an almost hymn-like explanation of Christian orthodox belief. They used circular teaching by putting the facts in repetitious statements, making it easy to learn from the sing-song patterns. It was written in response to the Arian heresy that denied that the Son of God was a subordinate entity, that he did not always exist, was a created being and is distinct from God the Father. From the late fifth or sixth century, the Athanasian Creed was probably not written by Athanasius, but was named after his orthodox Trinitarian understanding of God. It might be longer than we are used to speaking, but it is a beautiful and powerful confession of our Trinitarian faith. There is no better time than on Holy Trinity Sunday for us to confess this creed together.
No matter how well written a creed might be, we still have a great deal of difficulty grasping the concept of the Trinity. After all, this whole idea of not confounding the persons nor dividing the substance doesnít quite add up to what we know is true about God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit. How can they be three in one and one in three, equal and coeternal, the same yet different. How can they be three uncreated, incomprehensible, eternal and yet be not three beings but one? How can they be three almighties and yet only one almighty? Father, Son and Holy Spirit are God, but not three Gods, just one God. All are Lord, but not three Lords, just one Lord.
Then the creed gets into the differences. The Father is neither created nor begotten. The Son is not created but is begotten. The Holy Spirit is not created or begotten but proceeds from the Father and the Son. So there is only one Father, one Son and one Spirit, and the three are one in Trinity, none greater than the other, coeternal and coequal. We confess, ďSo that in all things, as aforesaid, the Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshipped.Ē
I know. My head hurts, too. The second part of the creed focuses more on Jesus Christ, the incarnation of God in flesh. This is not any less confusing to our human minds; how can Jesus be fully human and yet continue to be fully divine? He is both God and man; He is not two beings but one Christ. Jesus is both equal to the Father because He is part of the Trinity, but He is also inferior because He is flesh and blood. The easy part, as hard as this is to believe, is that Jesus suffered for our salvation, died, descended into hell, rose again and ascended into heaven to sit at the right hand of God the Father to judge the living and the dead.
See, thatís the part we focus on most of the time. We focus on Jesus being the Messiah, the Savior, the one who came at Christmas, who died on Good Friday and who rose again on that first Easter. We set this mystery of the Trinity on the back burner. We believe, but we donít think about it much. It makes our heads hurt.
It is ok to believe in the mystery and not try to explain it. The problem with explaining it is we often get caught up in explaining it away. We canít grasp the concept with our human understanding so we call it ridiculous. Like Arias, we establish a lesser god that is within our reach. We reject things about God that just donít make sense and we call them myths. Or we find scientific explanations for the tangible things so that we donít have to believe something that is outside our senses.
We do this with the creation, too. We can easily get buried by the question of evolution and the six day creation. However, we need to look at these mysteries beyond the words on the page and try to see the One behind the words. The creation story tells us about God the Creator and His love for His people. The details are interesting to discuss and important to study, but for this Holy Trinity Sunday, letís look at the story from the point of view of how we can respond to our Creator.
In the beginning, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered it. The Creator was able to speak and transform that formless and dark void into something new. He said, ďLet there be lightĒ and there was light. He ordered the days and the substance. He brought order to the chaos. He filled the emptiness with good things. He did all this in a way that makes sense, each day building upon the work of the previous day. He did not create the animals before there was food for them to eat. He did not create plants until the land and the sea were separated in a way that would provide all that the plants would need to survive. He did not create the fish before there were bodies of water in which they could live. In this story we see that God is. We see that God is powerful, compassionate, wise, capable and magnificent.
How do we respond to the story of the creation? We respond first with fear and trembling. The Creator, who can bring order out of chaos and life out of nothingness is certainly powerful and worthy of our awe. Based on this story we can trust in God, because God provides for our every need. It is humbling for us to see the wisdom of God, not only in this story but in the creation that exists outside our windows. How is it that the bluebonnets know to spring forth in March every year? And how do the animals learn to migrate? Everything is according to Godís plan, the earth turns and is recreated daily according to His design and purpose. There is comfort in knowing that in our times of difficulty God is able and willing to transform our lives with just a word, to bring order out of our chaos and hope into our emptiness. The One who has created this world in which we live must, of necessity, be magnificent, greater than all of creation. This is the God worthy of praise and worship. God spoke and it was good.
We canít possibly understand God completely, for He is greater than anything we can even imagine. However, He is good. He is trustworthy. He is faithful. We can believe in Him, not out of reason but out of faith. There is a place for reason, a place to study the words and try to understand what they mean. Instead of debating the Trinity or evolution on this day, letís focus on worshipping the God who is so great that there are mysteries we will never fully grasp with our human minds. This is the kind of God that is worthy of our praise, and who is able to accomplish the very works that He promised.
God is greater than His creation. He is wiser than the wisest man. He is more loving than the most loving mother. He is worthy of our praise and worship. He has created us in His image and has given us the ability to do magnificent things in His creation, but we will never be much more than a dot on the planet, a brief blip in the expanse of time and space in which we live. Despite our unworthiness, God has made us the crown of His creation. He has made us sons and daughters. He has given us dominion over all that He has done. It is a tremendous responsibility.
This is a responsibility for all human flesh, no matter what they believe. It is up to us to take care of the earth, to ensure the welfare of our neighbors, to use the physical resources in the world to meet the physical needs of the world. But God has given us, His Christians, an even greater responsibility. We are given the spiritual resources to meet the spiritual needs of the world, and He calls us to use our gifts to bring the whole world into faith.
Faith: yet another mystery of God. It is easy to talk about believing in God, until you are asked to explain your reasons to someone who cannot believe. How do we convince an atheist that we speak the truth when they see the truth from a much different point of view? Even more mysterious, however, is how someone hears the Gospel and believes. Every Christian is a miracle. Every heart that has turned to God is a miracle. The entire story of Christ is ridiculous. God is born in flesh, lives for thirty three years teaching about God and then is destroyed in a heartbeat by men who claim to believe in God. Three days later this God in man appears alive again and His ministry is continued by the most unlikely rag-tag group of disciples. They arenít really educated. They arenít righteous in the religious sense of their day. They donít have power or position or wealth. How could they possibly impact the world?
We ask the same question. A few readers of this devotional have been educated; they have strong theological understanding. Some of my ramblings probably drive them crazy. Most of us, however, have the stories and lessons from our Sunday School teachers, messages of sermons and bible studies with other Christians. We have our own reading and prayer, and the touch of Godís Holy Spirit, but how could God possibly expect us to take His Gospel into the world? How can He expect us to baptize in His name and teach the world to be obedient to His Word? Why would they believe us? Why would they ever even listen?
It is no wonder that they doubted. This whole thing is so outside the realm of human understanding. The whole thing is beyond ridiculous. It is ridiculous, except for the fact that it comes from the God who created the heavens and the earth. He made everything out of nothing and He continues to create in this big, beautiful world. He is the God who is worthy of praise, and if He thinks we can do, who are we to doubt?
Of course, the disciples doubted. We see that in todayís Gospel lesson and we ask ourselves, ďHow?Ē How could they doubt anything after all they had seen and experienced with Jesus? We tend to understand the word Ďdoubtí according the dictionary definition which is, ďto be uncertain about; consider questionable or unlikely; hesitate to believe; to distrust; to be uncertain about something; be undecided in opinion or belief.Ē The Greek word Ďdistazoí is apparently not quite so concise. It isnít that they didnít believe, but that they did not want to choose one way over the other. They wavered.
Think about it. If we look at the Chronology of that first Easter day, Matthew does not give us any of the appearance stories, except the women at the tomb. There the angel said that the women should tell the disciples to meet Jesus in Galilee. Matthew includes a note that the guards at the tomb are paid off by the priests to keep the secret of the resurrection and tell the lie that the disciples stole the body. Then Matthew gives us this scene, with Jesus giving the disciples the authority to continue His work in the world.
When they saw Him on the mountain in Galilee, they worshipped Him, but some doubted. What did they doubt? Was this before Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit on them that night in the Upper Room? Did they waver between recognition and fear of the unknown? Would you have believed that Jesus had been resurrected immediately, without some further proof, especially with rumors of foul play in the city?
Things were different once Jesus gave them the Holy Spirit. They had Godís power to believe, to speak and to change the world. They could not have done it on their own. They could not have baptized were it not for the Holy Spirit. They could not have taught Godís way without God at their side. Iím sure that even with the Holy Spirit, the disciples had moments when they continued to waver, not necessarily about God, but about the many confusing and mysterious things that they were called to teach. We continue to be confused and uncertain about so many things.
Arias certainly was confused. He wavered, or doubted, the nature of Christ and the concept of the Holy Trinity. As many anti-Trinitarians will tell you, the word isnít in the scriptures. Yet, we see the Trinity in so much of the Bible. The Godhead was there in the beginning. Jesus Christ was the Word through whom all things were made. The Holy Spirit moved over the face of the waters.
We see the Trinity again in todayís Gospel lesson, where Jesus commands the disciples to baptize in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We are not to baptize in the name of three Gods, but in the name of the one God in three, the Trinity: the uncreated, incomprehensible, coeternal and coequal Godhead.
The first apostles might have doubted, but they went forth in faith that Jesus would be with them to the end of the age. They may not have been perfect, but by the power of the Holy Spirit they were being perfected daily as they walked in the hope of the fulfillment of all Godís promises. They passed that faith and hope on to us through their witness to that first generation of Christians who then went out to make more disciples.
We, too, are called and gifted to go out into the world, taking hold of the authority we have been given in Jesusí name. The world will not believe we have such authority, but their rejection is no reason to be uncertain. We have the Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, who will work through our lives to bring redemption to this world one heart and baptism at a time. And then together we can continue to learn and understand everything that Jesus taught us, growing in faith and assurance day by day.
Maybe one day weíll look at that bulletin, see the Athanasian Creed and rejoice that we have been given the opportunity to sing Godís praises in a way that reminds us His character is far greater than our human minds can grasp, but so close to us that we can believe.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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