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"The Nicene Creed - Banishing Ignorance and Apathy"


Rev. Alan Taylor

Mid-Week Advent Series
St. John Lutheran Church  
Galveston, Texas

Wed, Dec 4, 2013 

Mid-Week Advent 1 St. John, Galveston 12/4/13

“The Nicene Creed—

Banishing Ignorance and Apathy--

Confessing God before Men”

Jeremiah 20:7-13, Romans 6:1b-11

Matthew 10:26-33

LSB 733, 349, 934, 883

+ In Nomine Jesu +

““So have no fear of them, for nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known.  27 What I tell you in the dark, say in the light, and what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops.  28 And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.  Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.  29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?  And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.  30 But even the hairs of your head are all numbered.  31 Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.  32 So everyone who (confesses) me before men, I also will (confess) before my Father who is in heaven, 33 but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.”

Grace to you and peace, from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Creeds and Confessions aren’t born out of tranquility in the life of the Church.  Rather, they are painstakingly hammered out, reviewed and re-reviewed because of some controversy threatening to tear the Church apart.  The Nicene Creed is no exception.

When the Church entered the 4th century there was a new sense of hope on the horizon.  The persecutions of the 2nd and 3rd centuries had come to an end.  Constantine, who had been converted to Christianity, had taken the throne as Emperor.  Whereas previous rulers had allowed Christians to be arrested if someone accused them of being a Christian, Constantine put an end to the practice.

Christians had begun to flee into the Egyptian wilderness to live isolated, simple lives.  They reasoned that they’re acceptance by the Empire and they’re new found peace made it too easy to be Christian.  This was the birth of the monastic movement. 

For those who didn’t migrate to the wilderness, strangely enough, they’re newfound freedom and relative security didn’t bring unity to the Church.  Instead, it brought turmoil and division.  One of the questions the Church had to address was “what to do with the lapsed?” The lapsed were those Christians who, during the time of persecution, had forsaken their confession of Christ in order to spare their lives.  Those on one side of the debate thought that Christians who had suffered persecution and survived should decide the fate of the lapsed.  The other party thought the fate of the lapsed should be in the hands of the hierarchy of the Church.  Within the two groups, some thought the lapsed should only be restored on their deathbed, assuming, of course, they asked for forgiveness.  Others thought they could only be restored if they were tested again and stood firm.  The Church, under Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage, opted for a more gracious practice of forgiving and restoring them when they repented. 

Beyond the question of what to do with the lapsed, the Church was confronted in the 4th century with accusations that they were essentially atheists because they didn’t have a visible God.  Historian Justo Gonzalez summarized the situation.  “When the first Christians set out to preach their message throughout the Empire, they were taken for ignorant atheists, for they had no visible gods.  In response, some learned Christians appealed to the authority of those whom antiquity considered eminently wise, the classical philosophers.  The best pagan philosophers had taught that above the entire cosmos there was a supreme being, and some had even declared that the pagan gods were human creations.  Appealing to such respected authorities, Christians argued that they believed in the supreme being of the philosophers, and that this was what they meant when they spoke of God.”

It was time for the Church and for individual Christians to begin to confess what they believed about God.  Certainly, as some argue today, they could have just said, “we believe what the Bible says about God!” “We have no creed but the Bible!” But, what does the Bible say about God?  A confession was needed to unify the Church, to get Christians saying the same thing about God!  More than that though, a confession was needed that would confront and counteract the heretical teachings that were beginning to emerge regarding who God is, and more specifically, regarding Jesus.

During these Wednesday nights in Advent we will be looking at the Nicene Creed.  We’ll consider both what it says and also the historical context out of which it came.  We’ll celebrate some of the great people that God gave His Church at the time, men who steadfastly refused to deny the deity of Jesus, even for the cause of unity in the Church.

This isn’t going to be simply a history lesson.  Rather, hopefully we’ll grow to appreciate more what is behind those words that we confess so often and so freely.  “I believe in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.  And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds…And I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life.” In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Mid-Week Advent 2 St. John, Galveston 12/11/13

“The Nicene Creed—

Banishing Ignorance and Apathy--

Who do you say Jesus Is?”

Acts 7:55-60, I Peter 2:2-10

John 14:6-11

LSB 331, 359, 934, 350

+ In Nomine Jesu +

“Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.  If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.  How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?  Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?  The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works.  Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves.””

Grace to you and peace, from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

It has often been said, “those who are ignorant of history are destined to repeat it.” History, I think, would prove that statement to be true, especially within the church.  Having entered the third millennium of our struggle against the forces of darkness, it is evident that there really aren’t any new heresies out there to combat.  Those that seem new are really just rehashed, reshaped and regurgitated forms of something old. 

Some, however, would quibble about whether it is an ignorance of history or an apathy toward it that is the real problem.  Jimmy Buffett, that great philosopher and contemporary icon, put that whole argument to rest though.  When asked if the problem we face is one of ignorance or apathy, he responded, “I don’t know and I don’t care.”

Whether we are ignorant of our history or apathetic toward it, the fact is, it too often remains shrouded in darkness.  Hopefully in these Wednesday evenings in Advent we are going to remedy that little deficiency a bit.  Please understand, I don’t mean just for you, but for me as well. 

Do you realize, if it were not for some brave and faithful bishops, who lived in the 4th century, the church might well have gotten her confession of Jesus wrong!?

Justo Gonzalez, in his Story of Christianity, writes, “It was the year 325 when the bishops gathered in Nicene, a city in Asia Minor..., for what later would be known as the First Ecumenical— that is, the first universal— Council.  The exact number of bishops present is not known…but there were approximately three hundred, mostly from the Greek-speaking East, but also some from the West.  In order to understand that event as those present saw it, it is necessary to remember that several of those attending the great assembly had recently been imprisoned, tortured, or exiled, and that some bore on their bodies the physical marks of their faithfulness.  And now, a few years after such trials, these very bishops were invited to gather at Nicene, and the emperor covered their expenses. Many of those present knew of each other by hearsay or through correspondence. But now, for the first time in the history of Christianity, they had before their eyes physical evidence of the universality of the church.”

The council at Nicea was charged with dealing with several issues that were troubling the church, but none was more important than the pressing need to deal with what was called the Arian controversy.  Was Jesus, truly God, or was He a creation of God?

Gonzalez writes, “At first the assembly sought to settle the question through a series of passages of Scripture.  But it soon became evident that by limiting itself to biblical texts the Council would find it very difficult to express its rejection of Arianism in unmistakable terms.  It was then decided to agree on a creed that would express the faith of the church in such a way that Arianism was clearly excluded.”

That Creed, of course, we all know today as the Nicene Creed.  There were some early renderings of the Creed that expressed the fervent intent of the bishops to reject Arianism.  “But those who say that there was when He was not, and that before being begotten He was not, or that He came from that which is not, or that the Son of God is of a different substance [hypostasis] or essence [ousia], or that He is created, or mutable, these the catholic church anathematizes.*”

The key thing the bishops, driven by Scripture, wanted to confess about Jesus, is that He is of the same substance with the Father.  In other words, as Jesus said in John 14, “He and the Father are one.” As self-evident as that confession may seem to us, in the fourth century the church was on the brink of potentially taking a completely different path regarding her confession of the most essential question anyone has to answer in life, namely, “who do you say Jesus is?”

The future champion of the Nicene cause, though present at Nicea, was not permitted to vote because, at the time, he was a deacon and not a bishop was Athanasius.  He would go on to fight against the Arian heresy that seemed to persist even though it was strongly condemned at Nicea.  At stake was whether or not the church would get it right on the person of Jesus, the Savior of the world.  Is He God, of the same substance with the Father, or, is He, in some way, less than the Father?  If it is the former, He is Savior of the world, your Savior and mine.  If the latter, He is a mere prophet and you and I are still dead in our trespasses and sins. 

Rest assured, heresies will continue to arise.  In fact, it is true what they say…”If you are ignorant of history you are destined to repeat it.” While the Church soundly condemned the Arian controversy in the 4th century, we still have with us today a group of people that call themselves Jehovah’s Witnesses.  They have rehashed, reshaped and regurgitated the old Arian falsehood. 

So, against 4th century heresies and its contemporary regurgitations, we confess what we’ve learned about Jesus from God’s Word.  He is “the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of His Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made; who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made man.”

With that confession we will, by God’s grace, continue to put down heresies and schisms, both old and new and we will, by His grace, know Jesus aright. 

“This flower, whose fragrance tender

With sweetness fills the air,

Dispels with glorious splendor

The darkness everywhere.

True man, yet very God,

From sin and death He saves us

And lightens every load.”

In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Mid-Week Advent 3 St. John, Galveston 12/18/13

“The Nicene Creed—

Banishing Ignorance and Apathy--

God With Us”

Isaiah 52:7-10, Hebrews 1:1-4

John 1:1-16

LSB 355, 332, 934, 383

+ In Nomine Jesu +

“He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.  But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.  And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.  (John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’”) For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.”

Grace to you and peace, from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

An Alexandrian by birth, his dark skin and small stature moved his enemies to refer to him as “the black dwarf.” St. Athanasius though was a giant in defending the cause of orthodoxy in the 4th century.  Though the Nicene Creed had been written and endorsed by many of the Christian bishops, the Arian controversy continued to disrupt unity in the Church.  The Arians insisted that Jesus was created by God and thus didn’t exist from eternity.  In other words, they denied the deity of Jesus.

Some people in the 4th century considered the whole controversy a trivial matter.  I suspect some would take the same position today.  In fact, any discussion of doctrinal issues, particularly of subtle nuances in doctrine, leaves some yawning, longing instead for a more personal discussion on spirituality.  But the Church and particularly Athanasius understood that there was more to the controversy than it seemed.  In fact, for Athanasius, “the Arian controversy was not a matter of theological subtleties with little or no relevance. In it, the very core of the Christian message was at stake.”

In a memorable passage, he speaks of the incarnation (the birth of Jesus) in terms of an imperial visit to a city.  “The emperor decides on such a visit, and resides in one of the houses of the city.  As a result, not only that house, but the entire town, receive a special honor and protection.  Bandits stay away from such a place.  Likewise, the Monarch of the universe has come to visit our human city, living in one of our houses, and thanks to such a presence we are all protected from the attacks and wiles of the Evil One.  Now, by virtue of that visit from God in Jesus Christ, we are free to be what God intends us to be— that is, beings capable of living in communion with the divine.”

The cause to which St. Athanasius devoted his life, the defense of the deity of Jesus as clearly confessed in the Nicene Creed, wouldn’t be the official position of the Church until after his death.  The problem, history records, was with the sons of Constantine, the supposed legitimizer of Christianity in the 4th century.  While one son ruled supporting Arianism, the next ruled supporting the Nicene formula.  Julian, the last son of Constantine, finally ruled supporting paganism.  It wasn’t until the 2nd Ecumenical Council that met in Constantinople in the year 381 that the Nicene Creed became the catholic, or, universal confession of the Church.

Jesus, “being of the same substance with the Father, by whom all things were made; who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary and was made man; and was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate.”

Truly, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” Even today, God dwells among us, in His Word, in the sacraments and in the mutual consolation we afford one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.  God with us is the heart and the core of the Gospel.  It is what livens our hearts and steadies our faith.

It has been well said that we must seek Christ not only while He may be found, but also where He may be found.  The shepherds were given this direction: “This will be a sign to you:”—a proof that you have found Him whom you were seeking—“You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Luther says: “Word and Sacrament are the manger and the swaddling-clothes into which it has pleased Christ to lay Himself.” The lowliness may seem incongruous to the super spirituality of some, but our Lord will be found nowhere else.

“Then stepped forth the Lord of all

From His pure and kingly hall;

God of God, yet fully man,

His heroic course began.”

“From the manger newborn light

Shines in glory through the night.

Darkness there no more resides;

In this light faith now abides.”

In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

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