Scripture Reading – John 17:1-13 (NRSV)
After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, 2since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. 3And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. 4I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. 5So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.
6“I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. 7Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; 8for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. 9I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. 10All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them.
11And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. 12 While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. 13 But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.
+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
Over the last month, we have been learning about the Christian practice of confessing faith in God, and in particular we’ve focused on three statements of faith composed by the early Church: the Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds. We’ve looked at their history, their importance to the people who first composed them, and how we use them (or don’t use them) today. This evening, we come to the essential question for us as twenty-first century Christians: “So what?” Or, to put a more Lutheran slant on it, the classic catechetical question: “What does this mean?” Why do these creeds still matter?
In a way we’ve already begun answering this question, because the creeds continue to have many of the same functions for us as they did for the Christians who first put them into writing.
If we take seriously the concept of the creeds as symbols – in that classic sense of a broken object seeking its other half to become whole again – then they become part of our identity. We are Christians who take seriously the Church’s experience of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and we remain committed to living in accordance with that faith and in relationship with the Triune God. The fact that the Creeds are born out of the Church’s experience of God and encounter with Scripture cannot be overstated; contrary to how they are viewed by some people in the present, the Creeds are not relics of long-dead theological disputes, but a vital part of our understanding of who God has been, is, and promises to be. The creeds matter because they express what is central to us as those who bear the name of Christ, and who acknowledge him as the source of our life, the author of our salvation, and the ground of our hope.
That central expression of faith has great importance to the twenty-first century Church, which is living through the consequences – both good and ill – of the sixteenth-century Reformation project. In this evening’s reading from John’s Gospel, Jesus’ prayer is that his disciples would be one, united in purpose and in their witness to Christ’s truth. We sometimes operate with an idealized picture of the early church and ascribe greater unity to it than is perhaps warranted, but the reality is that the environment that produced the Creeds of the Church – a common theological language, a largely common experience of the world, and a commitment to upholding the witness of the apostles – was remarkable. Today, the church is more visibly divided than it has ever been before, and the different labels and theological traditions that have arisen over the last five-hundred-plus years have fragmented the body of Christ and harmed our ability to proclaim the gospel of grace and love. If there is any hope for more visible unity in our time, it begins with the kind of dialogue that produced the Creeds, and I think it also includes the Creeds themselves. Nicene Christianity, expressed through the Creed that bears the name of that Council, represents the high-water mark of unity in the Church, and to the extent that we can recapture the spirit of that Council and reclaim the center of the life of faith, we have the potential to find unity in the midst of our diversity.
Perhaps what makes the creeds most essential for us as modern (or post-modern) people is that they are a reminder of the fact that the church is a body that exists because the faith has been passed down through the generations. As a result, those who have been joined to the church as inheritors of the apostolic witness must be careful not to case aside that witness simply because of personal discomfort. We talked last week about the Athanasian Creed and its statements of condemnation, and I can tell you that those statements make me profoundly uncomfortable. But that in itself is not a reason to set that Creed aside in its entirety. In a world in which each person is increasingly become his or her own authority, the Creeds are a reminder that “no man is an island”, and that part of being the Church is taking seriously the fact that our life is normed by God’s Word revealed in Scripture – and, in large part, by the Creeds.
Of course, there is something to be said for robust engagement with the Creeds. Blind obedience is not a virtue, but principled acceptance that also acknowledges the need for questioning and exploring the nature of God – what theologian Daniel Migliore calls “faith seeking understanding” – certainly is. The Creeds didn’t settle every theological dispute for all time; the diversity in the church is a clear sign of that reality, and that diversity is also a gift to the church insofar as it helps us to understand that God transcends narrow understandings of the divine. As post-modern people, then, the Creeds can ground our study of Scripture and our reflection on God’s activity in the world, even as they provide a jumping-off point for deeper understanding and deeper faith in Christ.
Finally, I’d like to return again to those statements of condemnation in the Athanasian Creed and how they might function for us in the present. If we all agree – and I hope we do – that the answer to personal discomfort (or even principled disagreement) is not simply to throw out the whole thing, then what do we do with this Creed and those statements? I’d like to suggest that they provide something of a cautionary tale. I don’t believe that those statements are literally true – that is, I don’t believe that God is incapable of saving people who don’t subscribe to this particular formulation of the faith. In that sense, the Athanasian Creed provides an example of what happens when “faith” becomes too rigid, when we overstate the case, or claim a level of certainty that perhaps isn’t possible in this life. After all, as the Apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians, “We see in a mirror dimly.” And yet, the seriousness of that language can also serve to caution us against jettisoning our theological inheritance without cause. At its best, faith recognizes and celebrates diversity in the details while maintaining unity in the essentials, and to the extent that the Athanasian Creed warns us against both arrogant rigidity and freedom for its own sake, it is a valuable part of our apostolic faith.
Brothers and sisters, I hope that your faith has been enriched by this study of the Creeds of the Church. These statements of the faith are not relics of the past to be recited merely out of a sense of obligation, but vital and dynamic professions of faith that define who we are today. They connect us to our ancestors in the faith and our brothers and sisters throughout the world. They are guards against unrestrained personal liberty and reminders that we inherit a faith that is larger than ourselves. They help us to recall the danger of unwarranted certainty, and give us a starting point for deeper exploration of the God who has been revealed to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They are part of who we are as Lutheran Christians, and for their continuing role in the life of faith, we can confidently say, “Thanks be to God!” Amen.