The Crowd and The Creed

Sunday 16th January 2005
Year A, The Second Sunday of Epiphany
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Isaiah 49:3; 49:5-61
1 Corinthians 1:1-3
John 1:29-34

I don't know about you but I tend to read novels with a very simple sound track in my head. I hear the characters talking but if, for instance, the scene is a large party, I don't hear the roar of conversation, breaking glass, the clatter of plates and the inevitable background music. What I hear is conversation as if the characters have been dropped into a sound proof bubble which they share with me. The same is true of my Bible reading. When attention is drawn to some massive sound event like the thunder and rams' horns while Moses stood in the presence of God, I temporarily register it; but when I read about Abraham I don't hear the bleating of his goats; when I read of battles in the Book of Chronicles they are not accompanied by the clash of swords and the cries of dying men; and when I read of the disciples on the shore of Galilee I don't hear the slap of the waves nor the creaking of wooden boats, although after our pilgrimage to the Holy Land, perhaps I will!

I was therefore tempted to hear John the Baptist speaking through the aged John the Evangelist in the measured tones of the theology seminar and then it dawne on me, remembering the Channel 4 programmes on the baptism of Hindus in the river Ganges, that John must have been bawling at the top of his voice. Mass baptisms don't only involve a great deal of praying, splashing and shrieking. There must have been the shouts of children and the cries of animals, rattling carts and cursing drivers, hawkers and entertainers, sellers of food and water, perhaps even rival preachers and prophets and, no doubt, a good cross section of eccentrics who tend to be attracted by new fangled religious movements. As for John himself, he was hardly kitted out for a quiet theological discourse in his camel skin loin cloth and sandals; and when he began shouting about Jesus I don't suppose the Kebab sellers stopped their shouting. The scene was much closer to a country market than the saturnine conversation in Barchester Towers.

So what was John shouting about? The other Evangelists and Paul make fragmentary references to the Trinity but the Gospel of John is the first sustained piece of writing about the nature of our God as Trinitarian and he does not waste any time in coming to his main theme; here we are in today's Gospel, in Chapter 1, with a graphic description from John the Baptist of how he experienced the Trinity. John saw Jesus on the day after His baptism and immediately associated Him with the presence of the Holy Spirit and he affirmed that he would not have recognised the significance of this without the prompting of the Father who had sent him on his mission to baptise. Already we have a specific reference to Jesus as the Son of God and an affirmation that their joint presence is honoured by the presence of the Holy Spirit.

The significance of the testimony of John the Baptist as reported by John the Evangelist was to dominate the Christian church for the next thousand years. First of all, there was a massive dispute about the nature of Jesus as both God and human being and how this related to His relationship with the Father. This phase of the controversy resulted in our Nicene Creed; which explains why our core expression of belief is dominated by statements about the nature of the Trinity rather than dealing with, for example, the Sacraments, the meaning of the death of Jesus on the Cross or the need for an ethical code based on love. The Church declared, under threat of dire consequences from the Emperor, that Jesus was both fully God and fully man, a formulation which commanded grudging adherence from all quarters of the Church, from Constantinople and from Rome.

But That, however, was by no means the end of Trinitarian controversy. This early version of the Nicene Creed, largely written by Greek speakers who looked to the imperial city of Constantinople for their leadership, said that Jesus was begotten of the Father and that the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father through the Son. Theologians in the West of Europe, centred on the Papal city of Rome, came round to the view that the Holy Spirit did not proceed from the Father through the Son but proceeded from the Father and the Son, the formulation which we use in our version of the Nicene Creed today. And this disagreement over the nature of the Spirit's proceeding (known to scholars as the 'Filioque' controversy) was the flash point for the split between the Western Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches.

Why does this matter? Well, in one profound sense it doesn't matter at all because the idea of our God having persons is simply a case of using our poor human language to try to deal with something well beyond it. The idea of 'persons' is grounded in Greek neo Platonic philosophy and it uses this idea of person as a metaphor. Alternatively, we might want to think of our god as having three attributes or qualities, god as creator (the father), God as redeemer (the son) and God as the sanctifier (the Holy Spirit), a form often used by Father John at the end of his sermons. At least this tries to define what God has done and continues to do for us without getting tangled up in a human metaphor for a sacred reality. In this description we have the God who made us, saved us and is with us now.

No matter how we describe this in philosophical or theological terms what matters is our recognition of God's actions in the world and their direct effect upon us. One test of how this works is to separate one of these three qualities from the other two: how would we view a God who made and saved us but is not with us now? Or a God who made us and is with us now but did not save us from our sinfulness? Or, even more improbable, a God who saved us and is with us now but did not make us? Put this way, rather than in the difficult language of the Creeds, you can see why it is important for us to understand what we say we believe about the Trinity. In what way is God our Father and creator? In what way was Jesus a man as well as a God and in what way did He save us? And in what way is the Holy Spirit with us now? In saying  the Creed we are making public statements which approximate to what is in our hearts but it is what is in our hearts that counts; it is the content of our faith which matters.

Of course the development and study of theology are tremendously important in giving us new tools for understanding our relationship with God but testimony is more than a statement of public compromises, which is what the text of the Nicene Creed is. It is not the text that matters but the way in which it works within us and the way in which we then articulate it publicly. Theology, in the words of St. Anselm, is faith seeking understanding; and we need that understanding not just for ourselves but also to enable us to communicate our faith to others.

Remember, John the Baptist bawled out his Trinitarian theology in a makeshift market settlement by a river with all the rawness and the risk of the new; he might have been thrown into the river for his pains and it was not long before he was thrown into prison and then had his head cut off. Few of us, I suspect, will be called upon for such heroics but we, as the people of God, saying the Creed, have a sacred duty to work out for ourselves, in the corporate context of Christ's church, what it means for us and for the world. If faith is not secure within us, the atheists will have a clear run; and this would never do.