|Calvary Episcopal Church, Rockdale
May 6, 2007
The Rev. Robert C. Granfeldt
I want to begin today with two apologies. One for a past sin, the other for one I’m about to commit – or
maybe it’s two I’m about to commit, which would make it a total of three apologies!
Last week I really did make a rather grievous mistake. In the course of my sermon I said some things
about Evangelical Christians that were not complimentary, and one person called me on it! Rightly so,
and to that person I say “thank you.”
Without going into detail, I criticized Evangelicals for what amounts to devaluing Scripture. I was
imprecise. I meant to criticize those I like to call the “neo-evangelicals;” those I usually refer to as the
“fundamentalist Evangelicals,” or “TV preachers:” the “Feel-Good” Preachers, the “send me-your-
money” preachers, and the “God wants you to be rich preachers.”
I am usually very careful to identify the kind of “pseudo”- or “neo-evangelicals” I’m talking about, but for
some reason I failed to do that last week, and simply said “Evangelicals” – a group, an orientation I
greatly respect and value, however much I may disagree with them, in some ways.
I apologize, and “I repent me of my sin” – and I have thanked the person for telling me!
My second apology is to those who were here on Wednesday and have already heard much of what I
have to say, this morning. More than once, in the past, I have intentionally shared with our Wednesday
morning congregation thoughts I was developing toward a Sunday sermon –and I’ve always told them
so. This is the first time, I believe, that I decided, after the fact, to turn what I had said to them into a
sermon, after the fact. So I apologize to those who heard on Wednesday most of what I have to say.
And,I guess I need to add, finally, that I know – because I have heard, second-hand – that there are
some who just do not like historical sermons. To them I say, I’m sorry…but! But in order to understand
the faith, we can’t just look at the teaching of the Church, today; nor at the Scriptures. Our Anglican
approach tells us our faith rests on the three-legged stool of Scripture, reason and tradition. All three
must be taken into account and understood to have a clear understanding of the Faith – and HISTORY
affects our understanding of all three! We cannot know the faith apart from the history of the faith! And
so all I can say is – I’m sorry, but here we go again – a lesson in history that I think is important!
It all started, this past week, with the fact that we were commemorating in our liturgical calendar, a man
named Athanasius, who lived from 296 to 373 of the Common Era (formerly called “A.D.”), and who is,
perhaps the person most responsible for the shape of Christianity since the Apostolic period ended,
some 200 years before his birth.
Athanasius was brought up with a fine classical education in the heart of learning in the Roman Empire:
the city of Alexandria, where he became first a deacon, and then a priest, serving as secretary to
Alexander, the Bishop of Alexandria – whom he also, later, succeeded.
In the same diocese was another priest, by the name of Arius. In his theology, Jesus, the Christ, was not
one person of the Triune God – the Trinity – but a lesser God, created by the father. Much of the belief
we have inherited without question had not yet developed in the Fourth Century, and a huge conflict
developed over Arius’ teaching. The head of the Roman Empire, Constantine was depending on the
unity of the Church to help him keep his far-flung empire together, and the Arian controversy
threatened to damage that unity! So Constantine stepped in and called a council of the Church to
discuss and settle the issue. So in the year 325 C.E., the first, ever, council of the whole Church met in
the city of Nicaea.
In the arguments designed to settle what the official faith of the Church was to be, Athanasius emerged
as the leader of the anti-Arian side.
To be clear: Arianism was not a Trinitarian faith, but considered The Second Person of the Trinity, whom
we call the Word of God and who was incarnate in Jesus Christ, to have been CREATED by God the
Father, and was therefore a lesser being. It has been a tenacious heresy, and it lives today in the faith
of those we call the Jehovah’s Witnesses!
In the battle at the Council of Nicaea, it was Athanasius that emerged as the leader of the orthodox
opposition. He and the Bishops who agreed with him, decided to compose a Creed – a statement of the
faith – that would deal with the heresy of Arius, and the challenge was to come up with precise wordings
that the Arians could not agree to but then turn to their own meanings.
What developed was a creedal statement that, with some additional changes that took place soon after
the Council – affirmed by the next Council, Constantinople – became the statement of the faith of the
Church; a Creed that we still affirm almost 1700 years later, on every Sunday and every Feast Day – and
will, again in just a few minutes: the Nicene Creed.
And there’s one word, in particular, that Athanasius brought to bear that made all the difference – and
still makes it, today! The word, in Greek, was Homoousion, meaning “of one substance,” or “one being”
of the Father. Not a created being; not a secondary deity! But sharing with God the Father his very
being as the Son – as the substance of the WORD who was made flesh!
When we read the Bible, today, we don’t think twice about the essence of the faith we find described in
it. It’s all there, just as we’ve been taught to believe. But it’s there because we’ve been raised and
taught to see it there. In the Fourth Century, it was not really that simple!
What we read in the Bible is NOT self-explanatory. It’s meaning – both the Old Testament and the New –
had to be parsed out of it: examined, analyzed, understood and developed into the coherent system of
faith we know, today. The Arians read it the Scriptures way – as did the Docetists, the Nestorians, the
Monophysites the Tritheists, and many, many more heresies that you’ve never heard of and couldn’t
care less about – and the Church, led by Athanasius and others that came before and after him, read it
another way: the way we have been taught to understand the Scriptures and its faith! And more than any
other single person, after the New Testament period, it was Athanasius who led the fight to define the
faith as we’ve inherited it – defined the faith that the Scriptures speak to us of, today!
If it were left to each of us to figure out what the Bible is saying and what it means, I dare say we’d all be
heretics – and it’s thanks to Athanasius, and others who came before and after him– that the Bible
speaks to us in the words we understand, today! Athjanasius is one of the fathers of our faith!
If that was all Athanasius did, it would be enough. But he did something else, too.
When we look at our Bibles we see a book that we don’t question. It IS the bible! But who says so? Who
decided what writings should be included in what Bible, and when?
The Bible didn’t just appear in Churches, one day, with the word “Bible” written on it, so everyone all of
a sudden knew this was a holy book – THE Holy Book!
What we know as the Bible, today, is a selection of many, many writings – writings of all sorts – that
circulated as separate writings by various people – some known and some unknown, that the Church
examined and tried over time – over centuries; that the Church examined and discussed and argued
about – argued sometimes violently! Hundreds of years, it took - with much dissension, and anger, and
heat, and argument, and dismay! In fact, still, today, we have, essentially, at least 4 different Old
Testaments – all MOSTLY the same, of course, but with differences amongst the Roman Catholic,
Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant bibles – 4 versions, really!
But about the New Testament we do agree! After centuries of fighting about what writings should
comprise the Books of the New Testament - along came our friend, Athanasius!
One year, in his annual letter to all of the Bishops of the Church, Athanasius commented on the
controversy over which books should be included in the Church’s Holy Book, the Bible, and shared
with his brothers his own list – which was the first time, ever, that anyone had proposed a list of books
identical to the New Testament as it has come down to us, today! And that didn’t happen until the middle
of the FOURTH CENTURY!
So on our liturgical calendar we remembered this week, on Wednesday, the 0ne thousand, six hundred,
thirty-fourth anniversary of the death of St. Athanasius, the man most responsible for our understanding
of the Trinity in which we profess belief, and the man who first settled on the Books of the New
Testament that we recognize, today, and that has taught and inspired the Church for 17 Centuries: the
man we could identify as the person most responsible for the shape of Christian belief since Saint Paul!
This is a story and a history we all need to know and to understand!
If the faith that we hold and profess is important, and if the Bible that we point to and extol is important,
we need to know and to understand how they came to be what they are, and where they came from.
We need to know that the faith evolved over centuries, as faithful servants of God spent their lives in
prayer and study, in discussion and argument, discerning the truth in ways faithful to both the tradition
that has come down to us and to the experience of the Church through the centuries.
And we need to remember that our scriptures evolved in the same way, written by faithful servants of
God, and received, sifted and valued, preserved and passed on by those same faithful, over the
centuries, until neither can they be separated from the faith, nor the faith separated from the Scriptures
– but it all stands together as the prized product and possession of the Church, the Body of Christ –
revealed to God’s Church over Centuries of faithful searching!
And all of it deserving and just waiting to be explored and mined by those who love their Lord and want
to know Him!
In His Name. Amen