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“WE BELIEVE”: THE NICENE CREED

images-21“WE BELIEVE”: THE NICENE CREED

 

 

This is our second week talking about the Christian creeds. Last week we looked at the Apostles Creed and this week we focus on the Nicene Creed.

 

 

 

 

A potted history

 

Let’s start with a short history lesson.  The Nicene Creed is almost exactly one thousand seven hundred years old. Now here’s the story…

 

The Christian church had been spreading throughout the Roman Empire in the two hundred years since the missionary journeys which the book of Acts tells us about. As the number of Christians grew, there were a lot of disagreements in the church. People were struggling to understand things which weren’t specifically laid out in the New Testament. Concepts like the Trinity. Another major disagreement was about whether Jesus was fully human and fully God.

 

Now up until about the year 311, Christians had been spreading their faith (and disagreeing!) while being persecuted by the Roman emperors. But in 311 Constantine became emperor. And he supported the Christians. No-one can be quite certain why he did so.

 

Historians disagree about whether Constantine was a Christian himself, but what we do know is that he promoted Christianity as the preferred religion of the Roman Empire. And he wanted to make sure that all the disagreements were resolved, and that the heretics were removed.

 

The biggest disagreement in Constantine’s time was whether Jesus was fully human and also fully God. Constantine tried several times to get all the Christian bishops to agree about this. In the end, in 325 CE, Constantine arranged the Council of Nicaea. Every bishop in Christendom was to attend, and Constantine himself would attend. So they all headed to Nicaea, which is in modern day Turkey.  And there they came up with a creed which would define exactly what Christians needed to believe.

 

Even Constantine joined in. When we recite the creed, we say that we believe Jesus Christ is of one being with the Father. That is a phrase which Constantine himself helped to write! Did you know you were using Constantine’s words when you say the creed?

 

Human nature being what it is, of course the disagreements among Christians didn’t end there, and about sixty years later there was another council meeting where the church leaders thrashed things out again, and made some more changes to the creed. For example, at that council they added the statement that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son.

 

I think it’s pretty amazing that every word, every phrase in the creed we say has been debated because these were and are IMPORTANT things to get clear.

 

What’s the point of saying the creed?

 

But you might ask ‘Why do we need to say a creed together?’ Doesn’t each of us know what we believe? Isn’t that enough? Well, the history we’ve just looked at tells us that it isn’t enough.  People can think they believe the same thing, then find that they profoundly disagree.

 

But there are many reasons why saying the creed together is a good and important thing. In our lives, including our faith lives, we have ups and downs. We need continuity in our own faith life from month to month and year to year. We need continuity in our community of believers from year to year and even century to century.

 

When we say the creed we declare that THIS is our faith, THIS is what we believe. So whether we are having a good week or a bad week, or whether as a church we are arguing about the finer points of theology, THIS is what we believe. When we say the Nicene Creed we are declaring together our unity with one another, and with all the people around the world who also say the creed. Even more than that, we’re declaring our unity with all the people who have said the Creed for hundreds of years. For almost two thousand years, in fact.

 

Apostles’ Creed. Nicene Creed. Huh?

 

If we think back to last week, we talked about the Apostles’ Creed. What’s the difference between that and the Nicene Creed? The Nicene and the Apostles’ Creeds both tell us the same things, but the Nicene Creed says it in more detail. Our Prayer Book includes both Creeds, and either one can be used. They both confirm the same things about our faith.

 

So why do we need more than one creed? If we look at the Apostles’ Creed we find that the first two words are “I believe.” Now if we look at the Nicene Creed the first two words are “We believe.” BOTH creeds have a purpose. The Apostles’ Creed is a personal statement of faith. You and I each make a stand when we say ‘I believe.’ And when we say the Nicene Creed we are announcing that we are part of a COMMUNITY of believers. We say ‘WE believe.’

 

Why we say it when we say it

 

When we say the Nicene Creed it usually comes straight after the sermon. Have you ever thought about why it’s put there? It doesn’t have to be said then. It doesn’t have to be said at all. But there is a tradition going right back to the Middle Ages that the Nicene Creed is recited straight after the sermon.

 

Now there is a real beauty in the way our services are structured. We come to church with our own private dramas, and problems. The service gradually moves us away from these personal things to thinking and acting as a faith COMMUNITY.

 

As we progress through the service we come to the part which is called the Ministry of the Word. The Ministry of the Word includes our readings from the Bible, the sermon, and the Creed. So we listen to the word of God first from scripture. Then we listen to the word of God explained in the sermon. The scriptures and the talk help us to grow in faith, so now we’re ready to respond. We finally get to play our part in the Ministry of the Word. Instead of sitting and listening, we stand and we PROCLAIM what we believe by saying the Creed together.

 

 

 

One holy catholic and apostolic Church

As a community of believers, when we recite the Nicene Creed one of the things we say is “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.” The first thing to note is that even though this comes near the end of the Creed, it’s not just tacked on as an extra bit, after we have talked about Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is an absolutely crucial part of the Creed.

 

That word “catholic” can be problematic. You are probably aware that it doesn’t mean we are members of the Roman Catholic church. Catholic simply means “universal.” So we are saying “We believe in one holy universal and apostolic Church.”

 

There can be a danger when we think about being part of a universal church. We might think that makes it someone else’s job to proclaim the good news of Jesus. It’s a universal church so there are plenty of other people to do that job. It’s not up to me. But we are also saying that our church right here is a holy, catholic and apostolic church. 

 

It can seem quite an odd statement if you really think about it. We don’t always seem very holy. But we shouldn’t be disheartened. We cannot expect the church to be perfect. Are each of us perfect? No, of course not. But we, the community of believers, are holy because we have been set apart by God. So look at the people around you. Yes, you are all holy!

 

Now what about that word “apostolic”?  What do we mean when we say that we are an apostolic church? It actually means many things. It means that the Word which is preached in our church comes straight from the message Jesus gave the apostles. It means that what we believe about our salvation is what the apostles believed and taught. And it means that we are to live up to the apostles’ life of commitment.

 

It’s easy to just skip past that last sentence so I’m going to say it again. We are to live up to the apostles’ life of commitment. That’s what we are saying when we declare that “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.”

 

 

So what?

The Nicene Creed is all about what we believe – what we put our faith in. When we stand for the Nicene Creed we’re not stretching our legs after a long sermon. We are standing to answer the question which Jesus asks when he says “But who do you say I am?”

 

If you look at the Creed, almost all of it is about Jesus Christ. Jesus is at the absolute CENTRE of our faith and of our Creed. For US – for you, for me – and for OUR salvation he came down from heaven. For OUR sake he was crucified. For US he suffered death and was buried. And on the third day he rose again!

 

We only have the right to call the Father ‘OUR Father’ because of Jesus. We only have the Holy Spirit because of Jesus. Through Jesus Christ we have the forgiveness of sins. Because of Jesus we have the church.

 

When we say the Nicene creed we speak as a community, as a family.  THIS is what we believe. This is our God. The creed doesn’t prescribe for us what we are to DO with what we believe. That is between us and God. All I can say is ‘love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.’


 

 

Amen.