Sound Words

Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you. – 2 Tim. 1:13-14

The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod might be the only church that still follows the Trinity Sunday practice of reciting the Athanasian Creed. I’ve never run across it anywhere else and a good number of ministers outside of the LCMS I’ve mentioned it to have never heard of the creed itself. Part of my fascination was simply the language. As a geeky kid, once a year saying something like “the Father infinite, the Son infinite and the Holy Spirit infinite” was an impossible invitation to mystery. I imagine every kid who ever liked math and ran across the Athanasian creed was invited to ponder the infinite. And how I can give you a perfectly valid proof that is completely understandable in simple language that one infinity is bigger than another infinity. (Observe that the numbers 1, 2, 3… and so on are infinite. Observe that 1.1, 1.2, 1.3…and so on are also infinite. The 2nd infinity is bigger than the first. And you can intuitively grasp that.  But what the hell does it mean that one infinity is bigger than another infinity?)  “And yet there are not three infinities, but one infinite.” There are three infinite persons, but there is only one infinite God.

It is not meant to be understood.  If we could understand it, it wouldn’t be God. He is meant to be adored.

And yet in our hearts we have a desire for understanding. The apostle Paul certainly understood that. “That I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection, and may share in his sufferings…(Philippians 3:10).”  It is this tension that makes Paul’s letters still sing today. Whatever he was facing he was constantly searching for a way to describe what God is and what he is doing for His people. The way of Love: “I will show you a still more excellent way.  If I speak in tongues of men and of angles, buy have not love…(1 Cor 13).”  The mystery of God’s election and Israel: “For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all.  Oh the depths of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God…(Romans 11:32-33).” The way of a man and a woman: “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the Church…(Ephesians 5:32).”  As Paul more or less rightly bragged, “if anyone has reason to boast, I have more (2 Cor 11, Phil 3).”  Yet Paul reaching to know God, always returned to adoration. All theology ends in doxology.  He is meant to be adored.

So what we have in the creeds, and I would say especially in the Athanasian Creed, is a sound pattern of words. And in a religion where one infinite person of the Trinity is sometimes called “The Word of God,” words are important. There is a reason Satan is always changing the definitions of words, attempting to confuse things that God made plain. The creeds are a sound pattern of words. When Satan, the World or our own flesh want to pull some tricky business with us, the creeds are a light in a dark place. When our brains are tired of thinking, the creeds guard the good deposit given to us. They are not The Faith.  They are not the love in Christ Jesus.  They are not even the Holy Spirit that dwells within. These things – faith, love, Spirit – are more important. But faith, love and even the Spirit express themselves in words.  And these are a pattern of sound words.

When our own words fail us, the Scriptures promise that the Spirit intercedes. Think of the creeds as part of that intercession. A pattern of sound words leading us back to adoration. A theology in short, so that we can sing the doxology. Praise God from whom all blessing flow.  Including words…like “this is the catholic faith.”


Having lived most of my life east of the Mississippi and north of the Mason-Dixon line, when you talked about nature you were talking about two things: the color green and the gentle rolling hills. That can be and is beautiful, but it is all on a human scale.  Even in Pittsburgh, at the confluence of two mighty rivers and the foothills of the Appalachians, Mt. Washington is scaled by the mechanical inclines which used to ferry workers daily to the mills before they became merely for tourists. Around 1100 feet is the highest elevation. The contrast with Arizona or the West is part of this meditation. I’m sure you eventually get used to it and it recedes into the background, but beautiful is not the word I’d use.  I’d use adoration. The mountains are not on human scale.  Unless you became a hermit like St. Anthony, you would not live at the top of the mountains. As we drove to Las Vegas earlier this year I had a hard time keeping my jaw up.  Around every turn was a staggering view.  A lonely trail of asphalt with a few ants crawling along it dwarfed by the immensity of nature, untamed and unbothered by the speck speeding through it. Likewise for about 10 mins every morning and 10 mins in the evening something strange happens in the valley. The light has not fully gone away or come up.  The sun hides behind the mountains casting their shadow over the entire valley.  In the east there was always “the gloaming”, but this is different. The browns all move a shade or two darker yet still radiate.

The Trinity is a doctrine that we confess. And as with all doctrines it is important. As the Athanasian creed we will confess this week will say, “Whoever desires to be saved must, above all, hold the catholic faith…and the catholic faith is this.” But there are doctrines which can be understood.  For example I’d argue that the Providence of God can be understood. “God has given me my clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home…and still takes care of them.”  Even the pagans had some inkling of this calling Odin the All-Father or maybe more modern the Life of Julia with the government always present to supply. (Although I might argue that Odin was probably a healthier expectation of providence.) These doctrines are like those Eastern scenes.  They are on a human scale.  So much that we occasionally think humans can take God’s place entirely.  But the doctrine of the Trinity is not something to be understood.  It is something to be adored.

The second the human starts throwing around words like infinite, eternal, uncreated, almighty the only comparison we have are the mountains.  Who if they even notice us would do so merely in humor. Oh, we can reduce one or two with strip mines, but not the Rockies.  Not even the foothills. Pondering them is thinking about eternity and how it moves.  Scientists will tell us at one time they were flat.  The tectonic plates rammed into each other and threw them up.  Ok, if you say so. But in all of recorded history, they’ve moved nary a centimeter.

Some doctrines can only be adored. We see them and stagger. The fullness of the Trinity is beyond us.  Yet they have chosen to dwell with us, Father, Son and Spirit.  They have chosen to share their eternal life with us, whatever that really means. I simply believe it and adore.

Solid Spiritual Words

Text: The Athanasian Creed

It was Trinity Sunday. Probably the one Sunday a year where I don’t have a very specific biblical text as the basis of the Sermon. That’s ok, because the Creeds in the Lutheran tradition are part of the Confessions, sometimes called the symbols. The Bible is the Norming Norm, but the Confessions are the Normed Norm. The creeds are meaningful texts for preaching because they are faithful expressions of the faith. They are norms of doctrine and life which have been normed by the Scriptures.

In this case I had a specific teaching I wanted to cover: the faith which believes vs. the faith which is believed. Then I wanted to think a bit what it means to ponder the faith which is believed. The creeds point at that Holy Spirit given stuff – the faith which believes – while giving us sound Spiritual words to talk about the faith which is believed. Call it a teaching with an invitation to meditation on the unity of the Trinity.

From, To, and In the Love of God

Text: Athanasian Creed, Texts of the Day (all in the worship folder)

The Sunday after Pentecost is always set aside as Trinity Sunday. And the key piece of Trinity Sunday worship is the Athanasian Creed. Creeds can unfortunately be turned into dead letters. Something read or looked at, but not pondered within one’s heart. Not a symbol of a living faith. When they are dead letters they turn into checklists of mental assent or legalisms or even worse esotericism. What this sermon attempts to do is show them as invitations. “This is the catholic faith”. When you hear/say them as that, they become deadly practical. They help us remember what this sermon attempts to bring back.

Note: Here is the “funny” that the sermon starts off describing.

Godhead, Person, Incarnation

Text: Athanasian Creed ( Link has the versified text we used and the sermon references.

The creeds are the definition of the faith. They are the Faith which is believed. The Athanasian Creed, of the three great ones of the Western Church, is a masterful presentation of what we know. All of it can be tied to revelation, but the creeds presentation moves from those things which might be available to gently assisted reason to the more concrete revealed reality. The creed uses the names Father, Son and Spirit, but it starts out more philosophical with what might be call the attributes of God, shared by the Godhead in unity. The Christian Faith attributes these to the God of the Bible, but honestly many of these things are the god of classical theism. The second part of the creed moves into deeper revelation. It confesses and instructs how that God has revealed himself in three persons and how those persons are unique. The uniqueness that it wishes to establish is not hierarchy, but an order: Father Is, Son begotten, Spirit proceeding. The last part of this creed confesses the most concrete, but also the most controversial part of Christianity – the incarnation. In 40 verses it is an inexhaustible source of contemplation.

This sermon merely scratches the surface. It is more a Trinity Sunday encouragement to turn away from the confusion of our age and once again take up the solid definitions which are the gifts of ages of the church past.

And Some Doubted…A Trinity Sunday Meditation on Faith, Fear and Doubt


Text: Matt 28:16-20, Athanasian Creed
Full Sermon Text

The start of that title is an interesting bit in Matthew 28:17. It is made all the more interesting because of the liturgical day of Trinity Sunday. On Trinity Sunday we confess the Athanasian Creed which is the most strident of the three historic creeds in its statements and sweep. In that way it mirrors the statements by Jesus right around that interesting bit. What this sermon does is examine the current fetish with doubt, point to the real trouble which is not doubt itself but fear, and look at the ways that both fear and doubt are calls to The Faith, expressed in clear form like the creeds, and to faithfulness. Lastly, it attempts to knock down one of the great fears behind clear statements of the faith, by recalling Jesus’ final words and Peter’s Pentecost sermon…Let all Israel know for certain…(read/listen to the sermon to hear the rest).

A Specific God with A Specific Grace – Trinity Sunday


Biblical Text: John 8:48-59, Athanasian Creed
Full Draft of Sermon

I believe that Trinity Sunday, at least as we normally observe it, is the most offensive Sunday of the Church year. Let me explain that statement. The Sunday School answer – Jesus – is what we proclaim most Sundays. Scratching under that simple statement I would tend to hold that the three theological virtues (faith, hope and charity/love) take up a large amount of Sundays. Closely following or intertwined would be grace and the fruits of the Spirit. I’d like to say that in this I’m just following the texts of the day. And if I am being an orthodox preacher, I am saying what the texts have to say for the people gathered at St. Mark’s. So depending upon the texts you get some other subjects: prayer, discipleship, creation, eschatology (last things), and so on. And it is possible to be winsome and happy and non-offensive on most of those things. Likewise it is possible to be a complete a**. Traditionally the cross was the scandal – the cross was foolishness to the gentile and a scandal/stumbling block to Jews. It is still possible to hear and feel that scandal, but most people giving a preacher a listen don’t seem that shocked at the cross. (And I am aware that many would say that is because you must not be preaching the cross. I don’t think that is the case. If I have one cliche visible motion it is pointing at the cross on the altar like the Issenheim Altarpiece.) In a pluralistic society, the doctrine of God, the Trinity, becomes offensive. The bigger scandal isn’t the scandal of the cross where God dies. The bigger scandal is particularity. There is a God and this specifically is how He has revealed himself. And that specific revelation is the ground of truth and freedom.

Trinity Sunday, when marked by the reading of the Athanasian Creed, is one Sunday given over the the faith which is believed. While most Sundays include faith and some part of the (intellectual) faith which is believed, the emphasis is on encouragement in the faith which believes. The faith which believes, the work of the Spirit within us, is what saves. It does not come from us, but is given to us by grace. And that faith which believes is what grabs onto the cross like the old pictures and stained glass of the man holding onto the cross that is either going over a waterfall or is amidst the wind and waves. This is our stained glass window, but I’ve seen the same icon in other churches. Church Windows 2011-10-04 001 (1024x683) That is a great visual of the faith which believes. Trinity Sunday is about the faith which is believed. It says boldly and clearly – “This is the God we believe in.”

In a plural society such clarity doesn’t leave room for “muddling on” or a soft syncretism blending a little of Buddha, a little of the great spirit, a little of gentle Jesus and a little of precious moments. That is why I think it is the most offensive. It is also very necessary. Quoting myself in the sermon, please excuse me, “A lowest common denominator faith eventually betrays both – producing a confusion of God, which is no god at all, and a smear of cheap grace, which is not grace.” Are you building on the rock or on sand? The creeds, like Jesus in the festival discourse in John 7-8, are a statement of the rock.

Dogmatic shouldn’t always be a bad word, becasue this catholic faith saves…

Text: John 3:1-17, Athanasian Creed
Full Draft of Sermon

This was Trinity Sunday which is the traditional day for the Athanasian Creed to be recited. (I’m not sure how old the tradition is actually, but I remember it as a little kid.) Within the Lutheran Book of Concord there are the three historic creeds of the Western Church – Nicene, Apostle’s and Athanasian. The Athanasian is the longest and in many ways strongest in its wording.

The gauge of its strength might be in the last line which it leaves ringing in your ears: “This is the catholic faith; which except a man believe faithfully and firmly, he cannot be saved.”

You don’t get much more dogmatic than that. But in this case that dogmatism is a very good thing. And you are fooling yourself if you think Jesus wasn’t at times dogmatic. The text is Nicodemus coming to talk with Jesus. And while John 3:16 gets all the press, there are three elements that help us with our unease at clear doctrine. First, and for me the most memorable of Jesus’ lines, is his replay to Nicodemus – “You are the teacher of Israel?” (John 3:10) Its a sarcastic lament at the lack of spiritual understanding. Within the same text Jesus says three times, “truly, truly, I say to you”. In other word, pay attention to this, its important. And that phrase tells us what the third point of dogmatism is, Jesus was dogmatic about one very specific thing, himself. Even in John 3:16. God loved the word and sent his son so that whoever believes in him should have eternal life. John 3:15-17 repeats the “in him” three times. Not that the rest is unimportant, but salvation is in Jesus.

The doctrines of the church are there for a reason. They point to Christ. The are mileposts or guide markers on the narrow way. Is it possible that we turn them into a law that steals life? Yes. But that is not their intention. Clear doctrine helps us to stop lying to ourselves, repent and believe in Christ. Stuff as central as the Athanasian Creed should be strident.

Neither confusing the persons nor dividing the substance…

Full Text

Not that it matters to the reader, but our sound system was “re-tuned” this week. Projecting voice and presence is not always easy, but it got easier. Thank you Mr. Bayer.

This last week was Trinity Sunday – the end of the festival season and the day confessional churches bring out something called the Athanasian Creed. When the Western Church speaks of its three creeds it means: the Apostles which is the creed the developed from the church at Rome used during Baptism, the Nicene which is the universal creed (if we in the west dropped ‘and the son’ in the Spirit’s procession) stemming from the council of Nicea in 325 AD, and the Athanasian which is a little clouded in origin if not in how it speaks of the Godhead and of Jesus Christ.

It has two driving doctrinal points from which everything else grows.
1) We worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity, neither confusing the persons nor dividing the substance.
2) It is also necessary for everlasting salvation that one faithfully believe in the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.

You might ask why that is important. Can’t we just leave it a squishy spiritual concept? I’m typically all for squish primarily because we don’t know anywhere near as much as we think we do, but as this creed says – this is the Catholic Faith. These things have been revealed: the triune nature of God and the incarnation of that God in Jesus Christ. [Just a question, what does it mean that my spellcheck doesn’t know triune but instead suggests triumvir or tribune? Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.] They have been revealed because of a spiritual truth – you become what you worship.

Read the sermon for the support of that statement. But this creed states that: Although He is God and man, He is not two, but one Christ: one, however, not by the conversion of the divinity into flesh, but by the assumption of the humanity into God. Christ, through the incarnation, has redeemed our very nature. The disciple of Christ is being conformed to His likeness. In you the Spirit is reforming the image of God. We are exacting about who we worship, because that is what we are being made into.