When I was a teenager, I had posters of my heroes on my bedroom wall. People like Phil Lynott the lead singer of the rock band Thin Lizzy and Giacomo Agostini the motorcycle racer. I want to tell you about whose picture I would have on my bedroom wall today if I was allowed.
This Sunday I am going to be speaking about what the Apostles’ Creed says are the essential Christian beliefs about Jesus. As you can imagine a great deal has been written about this and my big challenge this week is trying to distil it all down into a manageable length of sermon.
Spoiler alert, the basic teaching of the New Testament and the Church is that Jesus is one hundred percent divine and one hundred percent human, without His humanity diluting Jesus’ divinity or His divinity diminishing his humanity. In Jesus, divinity and humanity are perfectly woven together so that Jesus can be the mediator between God and humanity.
Next week on May 2nd the church remembers a man called Athanasius (295-373). Athanasius is my theologian hero, he is to theology for me what Giacomo Agostini is to motorcycle, racing the GOAT. He was a bishop in the early Church from Alexandria in Egypt. Sadly, I suspect that very few of us have ever heard of him. This is a shame because, without Athanasius, we might not be Christian today.
Let me tell you, his story.
Athanasius became a leading theologian in the early Church and had a monumental battle with another church leader called Arius. What was at stake was nothing less than our salvation. The dispute between Athanasius and Arius was about the identity of Jesus. Specifically, it was about whether Jesus was fully divine or like us just a created being.
In one corner was Arius who said about Jesus “there was, when he was not.” Arius denied that Jesus was eternal God, he said there was a time when the son of God did not exist, so he must therefore be a creation of God, not God himself.
In the other corner was my hero Athanasius, who argued that the evidence of the New Testament was that Jesus was fully God and fully human, this belief is what we call the Incarnation. Athanasius said Jesus was divine in the sense that, as ‘the Word of God’ he existed with the Father from all eternity and was somehow equal in divinity with the Father. To sum up this position, Athanasius would argue about Christ: ‘There was never a time when he wasn’t.
Athanasius realized that if Jesus wasn’t fully divine and fully human, he couldn’t be our Saviour. Jesus had to be fully divine because human beings couldn’t save themselves, yet he had to be fully human or he was irrelevant to our sin problem and couldn’t be part of its solution. So according to Athanasius, the incarnation was necessary for the salvation of humanity because it enabled God to unite himself with humanity and restore the relationship between God and humanity that had been broken by sin. As Jesus was human and divine only he could be the mediator, the bridge if you like, that brought humanity and deity back together.
It’s hard to overestimate what was at stake in this dispute. If Jesus was just a created being, he couldn’t be our Saviour, the best he could be was a model for us to follow.
Eventually, in 325 AD the Church came together in a place called Nicaea (just outside Istanbul in modern Turkey) to settle the dispute. To cut a long story short, the Church agreed with Athanasius.
That wasn’t the end of the story sadly. The supporters of Arius didn’t give up, they regrouped got the support of several Roman Emperors, slandered Athanasius, and used underhanded church and secular political moves to have Athanasius deposed as Bishop of Alexandria and exiled five times. (if you need proof that mixing up the church and political power and the state is a bad idea, Athanasius’ treatment is the perfect example. ( This is why I won’t be celebrating King Charles’s upcoming coronation and installation as the Supreme Governor of the Church of England.)
Athanasius suffered terribly through all of this ill treatment but he never budged in his belief in the Incarnation. He tenaciously held on to and fought for the truth of the Incarnation. Eventually, he was returned to Alexandria and died peacefully there surrounded by his friends and supporters. More importantly his insight into who Jesus was and why the incarnation was important became and remained the orthodox teaching of the church ever since.
Interesting but so what?
The “so what” is that this dispute and what is at stake, our very salvation, despite Athanasius and Arius being long gone, is still ongoing. Your Muslim neighbour or work colleague would agree with Athanasius that Jesus was a created being not God himself. Those Jehovah’s Witnesses who come knocking at your door are just modern supporters of Arius. Sadly, I even heard a Methodist bishop in the US recently deny the divinity of Christ in a sermon, she reduced Jesus to no more than an example for us and so ruled him our being a Saviour for us. I could almost hear Bishop Athanasius turning in his grave.
Athanasius once remarked that
I am inspired by Athanasius determination to hold on to the truth of the incarnation, I hope you are too.