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.”

The Year Uzziah Died…

Biblical Text:  Isaiah 6:1-8, John 3:1-17

The Sunday is Trinity Sunday, which is the final “Festival” in the Festival half of the church year. It is set aside to meditate on the Truth that captured the imagination of the first six centuries of the church – The Trinity. Part of that in the Lutheran church is the confession of the Athanasian Creed. (In the recording responsively.) But the texts for the day are rich is so many ways. This sermon does something I don’t do that often, it layers the Old Testament lesson in with the Gospel. And I did this because the story of Uzziah, mentioned in Isaiah’s call, and the story of Nicodemus layer so beautifully. They are stories of incense and pride. They are stories of desiring to see God in His essence, and missing God in what He has done. The year Uzziah dies, is the year we can see God. This sermon helps us see that.

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.