Part 1: God the Father
Sermon by The Revd Dr Brutus Green
Based on readings: Isaiah 6:1-8, 1Corinthians 15:1-11, Luke 5:1-11
What we heard in the New Testament reading is probably the oldest recorded Christian creed. The words and syntax are unlike Paul’s other writing, and have that familiar propositional formula, so it’s likely Paul’s repeating a formula, widespread across the fledgling Church.
Now Creeds have a variety of uses. Early creeds state: these are the beliefs that hold us together as a community. By the time we get to the Nicene creed in 325AD, which we’ll say today, it’s still defining what it means to be a Christian, but it’s also saying what puts you outside the Church. So at the end of this creed (though happily not included today) you get ANATHEMAs; which basically mean’s “you’re out”: so Anathema be he who says that Christ did not suffer; anathema be he who says that Christ did not rise again…
So creeds define the boundaries of belief and groups. But for most Christian history creeds have been sung; And this is where they’re at they’re best — when they have become an act of praise acknowledging the place and work of God, rather than a barrier to keep people in and out. Hymns also do exactly this. Primarily they’re acts of praise, and a focus for the soul’s attention to the divine, but they’re also framed in the truths with which we define our faith.
So in this little hiatus between Epiphany and Lent I thought we might consider the creed in four parts over four weeks, the Father, Son, Holy Spirit and the Church.
So we begin with the Father.
The creeds all begin something like: we, believe in one God, the Father almighty… which is not to say that this one God is the Father almighty. Poor syntax causes confusion! So when we come to the creed shortly everyone MUST breathe after I believe in one God. Because, this in itself is a significant and stand alone statement. The modern translation confuses the matter.
Because a couple of lines later we have: “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,” which rather implies that our one Lord Jesus Christ is a thing separate from God. The older translation was far preferable which just continued: “And in one Lord Jesus Christ.” If you were to shorten the creed you would just put: “I believe in one God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and in the Church.” So you see, even today, poor syntax creates heresy.
Now someone told me earlier in the week that they believed in Jesus but not God, which struck me as quite odd and almost certainly a misunderstanding of both. So I’d like to think for a moment just about what it means to believe in God.
I think my tutor in Cambridge put it best when he said that the problem with atheists is that they don’t deny enough about God. Atheists don’t deny enough about God.
You see the common way of believing things is to count them. What do I believe in? Well there’s Helen and the 47 things currently lying on her desk, one church, two halls, 35 memorial plaques and 432 pieces of scaffolding… and I’ll keep counting and if I had world enough and time I could count all the things in the universe. And when I finish, says the Christian, I’d say, oh and one more thing, God. Now here the atheist bristles, puts up her hand, and declares, “OBJECTION!” To which God (being judge) says “over-ruled!”
No — that is the wrong way to think about God. God is not one more thing. He is not santa, your idealised father, or anything else. So in this the Atheist is right — there are not x billion things and one more which is God. God is not a thing. He doesn’t exist in the way that chairs, greyhounds and oak trees do. We can talk about all such things because they have matter, they start and end, one can usually point to them, because they are created things which belong to the universe.
The atheist says “there are a certain number of things in the universe which one can wave a stick at and after I’ve travelled all the way around the place I still will not have found this God-thing with which to wave my stick.”
But the Christian should not wish to say this. Because the first thing that is asserted of God, the Father in every creed is: “maker of heaven and earth”. In fact it’s the only thing that is said of the Father. The point is that just as you’d be very unwise to saw off a branch on which you’re standing, so too you cannot create something in which you’re already residing.
In simple speech: for Christians, God is not part of creation.
It makes no sense to refer to God as male, as good, as being one.
In fact it really makes no sense even to say God exists.
I’m not being liberal here, I haven’t stepped back into the 60s and I’m not going to start talking about the death of God. It’s a language issue. I can talk about dogs existing. My parents’ old dog Henry who sadly passed away many years ago no longer exists — at least on this plane. Zizi does exist. He’s at home getting some cheese out the fridge. My imaginary dog who is a greyhound-tyrannosaurus Rex cross does not exist — otherwise he would be terrorising New York. But these are all things within our world which we can see or imagine. Our language applies easily to things we know, we can grasp, draw and get our heads around, they have number, gender, shape and size.
We can’t do this with something outside our universe. Language deals with things we know; the context we live in.
Imagine for a moment a good chair, a good radio and a good dog.
Why is the chair good? Because it’s solid, attractive, comfortable. Why’s the radio good? It picks up signal, has many stations, perhaps it’s two way, has an elegant design. And the dog? Because he’s loyal, faithful, clean, doesn’t steal cheese from the fridge. The meaning of the word “good” overlaps very little between these different contexts. Now try and apply it to a context outside of space and time where is referent is God, who is, as we sang earlier, “Immortal, Invisible” and a bit of a mystery.
So the point is Atheists deny too little about God. Because they assume they can describe God, they can define the ground, draw a picture of God, and then perversely say, “actually no — God’s not really there.” Whereas the Christian must say — with humility — I don’t have the vocabulary to really say anything about God, at all — and I recognise that all my language and thoughts fall short.
But what the Christian can say is this: I believe that the world was created. This isn’t a statement about God at all — it’s a statement about the world, but a hugely significant one. And this is the real difference between Christians and atheists. Atheism denies that the world is created. It denies that the universe and you and I have any intrinsic or higher purpose. So there can be no redemption, no design, no future, no justice outside our brief life.
The Christian says I believe we are created; that there is some intent; that you and I have some purpose — though we may not know it; that what is true, good and beautiful is discoverable and we’re made to pursue this; that we matter — that there’s a future in which there will be justice and that our meaning will become clear.
Now it may seem that this comes down to belief in some sort of object or agency, but actually this belief, or unbelief in God is really about how we see the world. When we say ‘I believe in God’, we’re really saying: ‘I think there’s a point to all this’.
And, vitally, where atheism sees a bunch of organisms, selfish genes, some interesting sociological behaviour, herd instincts and historical anachronisms; the Christian sees the children of God, the imperative to love one another, the struggle of good and evil, the fellowship of the Church, born of communion in the sacrifice of Christ.
Believing in God means seeing the world and other people as meaningful, valued, created, and not random.
So that’s why that first statement of belief in God, is that the Father — a simple metaphor — is the maker of heaven and earth.
And it works backwards. We see a heaven and earth that is made, and so acknowledge the Father.
Now my hope is in these four Sundays just to give you a little more confidence in saying the creed. The ideas expressed in creeds are not as simple as they first appear. But they’re worth bearing with.
And it’s not: “If you don’t accept this, you can’t join in.” What we believe is not the be all and end all, but I think we in the Church of England become quite reticent to talk about our faith, and often that results in us not really giving enough thought to what we believe. My hope in the weeks to come is that we might put out into the deep waters and let down our nets for the catch, just to spend a little more time with these central ideas of our faith.