Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Trinity Sunday and the Athanasian Creed

By Rev. Joel A. Brondos

This past Sunday, Trinity Sunday, our congregation made its annual pilgrimage to the Athanasian Creed. Sure, there was an explanatory paragraph in the bulletin. That paragraph was not only intended to be informational, but to buck up the congregants for plunging into the thing with gusto.

Modern Christians (both clergy or laypeople) seem to need the reminder that the size of that ecumenical creed is commensurate to the size of its historic significance. And yet, the reading in unison of this confession no doubt left many members with the painful thought that on some occasions, the spirit might be as unwilling as the flesh is weak. And that is precisely the point.

On these Trinity Sundays, the credal behemoth is juxtaposed with the appointed Gospel reading for the day: the account of Nicodemus visiting Jesus by night in John 3. How appropriate. From the lectern the people hear “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the spirit is spirit.” From the nave they then respond with “it is necessary to everlasting salvation; that he also believe faithfully the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Whether Nicodemus and Jesus or Athanasius vs. Arius, it’s all about flesh and spirit: Was Jesus God incarnate, true man and true God, the Word made flesh? Are the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve nothing more than the dust of the ground? Can flesh be reborn of the Spirit?

Before continuing, a brief aside: the word “flesh” is used in at least two ways throughout the Scriptures. In some instances, “flesh” means skin and bones, body and blood. In other passages, it refers to the sinful nature. While the Scriptures describe a constant war between flesh and spirit, still, the one cannot ultimately be divorced from the other.

Without this crucial distinction, some have been led to imagine that God is to be blamed for creating sinful flesh and blood, while others have opted for mystical asceticism, trying to divorce their pure spirits from sinful physiques.

It would be a worthwhile investigation to track how flesh and blood became so closely identified with the sinful nature (or to ponder whether body and soul can be equated with flesh and spirit . . . but while you are catching me in flagrante delictu exceeding the 500 word limit for this article, I admit that, even without a license for prolixity to match the 660+ word quantity of the Athanasian Creed, I cannot even begin to approximate its quality.)

All this is especially significant for those who claim to be spiritual, but not religious -- by which they mean that their carcasses will never be found taking up any space and time located physically in a church pew. They never seem to take the time to contemplate and embrace the grace and gravity of the incarnation. Spirits are neither crucified nor baptized. Spirits seem quite impervious to thorns and nails. While it may flow quickly off a duck’s back, water doesn’t even do that much to spirits.

The wondrous and marvelous thing, however, is the coming together of flesh and spirit in Jesus Christ. In Him, the God who is spirit (who must be worshiped in spirit in truth, John 4:24) becomes the incarnate, body-and-blood Word made flesh for our forgiveness, life, and salvation in body and soul. In Christ the Spirit of truth comes to the sinful nature. All this happens where Christ gathers the bodies and souls of His people around Word and Sacrament, incarnational means of grace: water, Word, and Spirit; body and blood joined to bread and wine by word and Spirit. In the Divine Service, religion is never divorced from spirituality.

And so, the Nicodemus who learned by night about being born again by water and Spirit was one who came to remove the body of Jesus from the cross (John 19:39). This grisly act was no spiritual reverie, but one which has Nicodemus with angels, archangels and all the company of heaven joining with us in the confession of the Athanasian Creed, not as tedium but as Te Deum.