S. Trinity Sunday.15 “Athanasius Contra Mundum” John 3:1-17

Nicodemus had a problem. Did you notice it in our Gospel reading? “Sure! That he couldn’t figure out how a man can be born anew when he is old?” Well, that’s a difficulty, I grant you, but I don’t think it’s the problem—the new birth is a great mystery that no one really ever fully understands. “It’s baptism, then! Nicodemus doesn’t get that baptism is the new birth of water and the Spirit in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, right?” Well, again, I grant you that’s a difficulty Nicodemus has that certainly needed remedying—and skipping ahead to the end of the Gospel of John, the difficulty does seem to get sorted out, in the case of Nicodemus. I love happy endings, don’t you?

But Baptism is another Divine Mystery such that our failure to comprehend it fully is not exactly a problem. On the contrary, knowing we can never really comprehend the Mystery of Holy Baptism, such as we celebrate this morning with Samuel Sherrill, is perhaps actually a sign that we’re getting somewhere towards something like wisdom…

No, the problem Nicodemus has, as I see it at least, comes right in the first thing he says to Jesus: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.” You see the problem now, right? No? You don’t? Does this actually sound un-problematic to you, this sentence, nice and respectful of Jesus, even? Hmmm! Well then, you just may have the same problem as Nicodemus—Roh-oh! But good news! While it’s a very big and serious problem, a soul destroying error, in fact (“well, it was a terrible thing, Greg”), it is a completely solvable problem—one which we are here to help you with, today!

The problem, in fact, (and isn’t this convenient, on Trinity Sunday?) happens to be the exact one which the Athanasian Creed is written to solve!!! Now, maybe you were putting the Athanasian Creed more in the problem than solution category yourself, perhaps? (before I said that)? For one thing, it’s really long, and could well make the service run over the usual hour—which (Yikes!) sounds like a problem! For another thing, many people find it difficult to understand, and fail to see exactly how the Athanasian Creed helps. I mean: weren’t the Apostle’s and Nicene creeds good enough for you people? OK! Fair enough! More problems I’m here to help you with, for which I am, as they say: a trained professional. Actually, we should probably start here, with the Athanasian Creed; because, when you see how it is a solution to a very great problem indeed, then you will see (almost at the same time!) how it is solving the very problem Nicodemus (and maybe you?) have this morning. And then everyone goes away happy.

Dorothy Sayers wrote a wonderful essay at the beginning of World War II called “Creed or Chaos?” which a member was good enough to introduce me to recently. Sayers was the daughter of an English clergyman, one of the first women to get an Oxford degree, who wrote detective stories and worked in an ad agency for many years (sort of Peggy Olson to some English version of Don Draper?). She’s credited with coining the slogan “advertising pays!”. She was friends with C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis among others. Her association with the Inklings spurred her to address some theological issues, which she did with rare wit and intelligence, especially in the 1940’s during the war.

In “Creed or Chaos” she takes the reader through the Athanasian Creed’s theology, so breezily, in such a sneaky way, you hardly even know that you’re learning, and so can’t really get your guard up in time. She starts off by talking about Nazis (it was originally a talk given in England near the beginning of World War II) and how bad Nazis are. And that draws everyone in, right? She sounds like the narrator for “Wolfenstein”, very engaging. She says one of the mistakes most people make is thinking that Hitler and the Germans are just very naughty boys, who stand on the same Western dogma as we do, but fail to put it into practice very effectively. But in fact, it’s only because the Nazis were apostate, heretical deniers of everything Western, Christian theology teaches, that they were monsters who could not be reasoned with, but went around invading and gassing everybody. Sayers notes that, for a long time, the English and French and Americans had been trying to have Christian morality without Christian theology and so had made plenty of mistakes of our own. But we still paid lip service to the underlying dogma and so, in a pinch, had something to fall back on…

She said the war that is really going on is a religious war. The bombs, guns, gas chambers were only surface symptoms of a more basic conflict between Christians (oftentimes, not very good Christians!) and pagans (who as pagans, tend to be pretty bad), an irreconcilable quarrel (waged not only externally, but internally between our new/old natures!) on the ultimate nature of God, man, and the universe—a worship war!

And only the ancient Christian Creeds assert the Truth which wins out. See, you can’t have the good behavior, the free, just society you really want without the Christian Creeds, without the dogma. And that hard truth we continue to resist—which is why our society today is largely engulfed in the same war, just waged in colder, more economic, more technocratic, but perhaps even more brutal ways…

The creed states that our natures have been wrecked by sin, but that God has taken on our human nature in Christ Jesus, and by His death and resurrection has fixed the Problem, a solution we may enjoy only by faith in the fellowship of His Church around the Word and Sacraments which remain the only basis for a decent society. It is only to the extent the Church proclaims the contrarian dogma of the Creed, enacts IT in her liturgy and worship, that goodness, truth, or beauty have any chance at all in this old world of ours. (Tender sentiments and human morality lead straight to the gas chamber, unfortunately!).

It all depends on Jesus and on Him being true God and true man, who by dying and rising, saves us all. But if you subordinate Jesus to God, Son to Father, separate the man from Godhead, it all falls to pieces and the Nazis run roughshod over everything and everybody. It is only by believing the catholic [dogmatic!] Faith fully and firmly that anyone is saved…

Which was Nicodemus’ problem! (You thought I forgot? No, it’s the Three Card Monte sermon, the fast shuffle: “Is it here? There? No! It’s in your ear!”). Nicodemus says Jesus is just a teacher from God (rather than God Himself come to teach us personally!); he says God is with Him, denying thereby that God is Him—no prepositions, man! Lots of us do this, by mistake! Or we think that Jesus is not truly human as we are, and so fall off the horse the other side. The Athanasian Creed sets you perfectly straight on all of this: Three Persons, One God, One Lord, One Christ, True God, True Man…

The war still goes on, the battle fought by Nicodemus, Athanasius, Dorothy Sayers, by you and me too. It’s not a war with guns and bombs, but a spiritual battle, a worship war, a tough fight against the world, the devil, and our own sinful flesh (Nazis with different uniforms and salutes, but still bad!). They called Athanasius contra mundum because he stood against the world, worshiping Jesus in the Unity of the Trinity. May we so stand, fight the good fight of Faith and also win the victory in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.