I am once more with the people of St. Andrew's in North Grafton on this Trinity Sunday. Below is my sermon manuscript for the day.
In the name of the one God, the three-in-One – creating, redeeming, and sustaining. Amen.
This first Sunday after the Feast of Pentecost is called “Trinity Sunday.” It gives us an opportunity to reflect on the Holy Trinity. The Bible itself doesn’t formulate a doctrine of the Trinity. The closest we come is to something like the words we heard today in St. Paul’s letter to the Church in Corinth. “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” Clearly that is liturgical language for Paul and it’s a terrific blessing that references Christ, Creator, and Spirit. Maybe we should have just stopped there. But it was left to the Church to figure out what that meant as time went on. And here is a newsflash for anyone here who may not know how quickly the church moves on anything: discernment takes time! And the speed at which the Church does this kind of work is nothing close to warp speed!
It wasn’t until the fourth-century, when Emperor Constantine converted to the Christian faith, that it all came to a head. Overnight, the Church’s relationship with the dominant culture changed from being a persecuted, counter-cultural sect to becoming the official religion of the empire. The Church, which had from its inception stood over and against the culture, now faced new challenges as a cultural force to be reckoned with—and with social responsibility for helping to shape public policy.
There is no way to overestimate the radical shift that required as the Church adapted to those new circumstances and a whole new set of challenges. The resulting Trinitarian faith of the Church is outlined in the Nicene Creed—which grew out of a meeting of the bishops at the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. Constantine called that meeting. One of the odd new things, then, as those bishops gathered at Nicaea is that they had been summoned there by the Emperor—who wanted the matter settled once and for all on what the Church was teaching about God. Kings like things settled, and don’t do well with open-ended theological questions. It’s no accident that the Church became more dogmatic as it became more and more established. Is God one or is God three, Constantine wanted to know? In the end the bishops responded by saying yes to both questions.
At Nicaea, there were on the one hand those who wanted to stress the notion that God is One. If they had carried the day, then Christianity would be very much in line with the theology of the other branches of Abrahamic faith: both Judaism and Islam stress that God is one. Moses and Mohammed are seen as great prophets and leaders and visionaries—but no Jew or Muslim ever claims to worship them, or pray to them, or ever say of either of them that they are “very god of very god.”
The problem with that approach for Christianity, however, is that the witness of the Church was and is that Jesus the Christ was more than a young and fearless prophet—more than Moses or Muhammad. The experience of the Christian community over centuries of proclaiming the life and death and resurrection of Jesus and living more fully into that reality was like that of the Johannine experience: that the Word that was with God…that the Word that was God…had become flesh to dwell among us. In other words, that we have seen, in Jesus, the face of the living God.
So at the other end of the spectrum were those who wanted to stress the three-ness of God’s Being—precisely because they were so clear that they had experienced the presence of God through Jesus and the Holy Spirit. But in stressing the three persons, it sounded to some like polytheism—which contradicted the monotheism of the Scriptural witness.
What a conundrum! And so they argued and prayed, and they argued and prayed some more. I suspect that the bishops who gathered at Nicaea felt at times much like we are feeling in the Church today in the midst of what seemed to be irreconcilable differences. Is God three or is God one, they asked. Someone had to be right and the other side clearly had to be wrong. Right? No. They eventually concluded that everyone was more or less half right and that none of them had the whole truth. Yes, God is one. But God is also three. Sometimes when you ask a really good question sometimes the answer is that both truths need to be held together in a creative tension—because if left on their own, then both sides are wrong.
The real miracle of Nicaea to my mind is that they hung in there with each other—arguing and praying—until eventually they began to hear one another. Until eventually they began to listen again for the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Oh yeah, remember Her? The promise was that the Spirit would guide us into all truth. So the doctrine that did emerge was “One God, revealed in three persons”—as outlined in the Nicene Creed that follows the sermon every week. Today’s collect is a nice summary of that teaching: our confession is to “acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity” even as we worship “the Unity.”
Now if we turn this simply into a matter for our intellect to grasp, we will miss the point and that is the danger of this sermon to this point, which perhaps seems too much like a lecture and not enough like “good news.” If we use this (or any other church doctrine) as a “weapon” to decide who is in and who is out then we misunderstand the meaning of “orthodox” faith. Literally that word “orthodox” is not (as is sometimes asserted) about “right belief” - as if one side has the “right” answers and the other side is “wrong.” Rather, when we sing the doxology—
Praise God from whom all blessings flow!
Praise God all creatures here below!
Praise God above ye heavenly host!
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost!
we are singing “words of praise.” Orthodoxy/doxo-logy; these two words share the same meaning—literally. It’s not about belief; but about praise. So if we mean to help people more deeply praise God, then we need to learn that the doctrine of the Trinity is not a math problem to be solved, but a mystery to be embraced in love.
Admittedly, the creed itself is a pretty “left-brained” document. This is one reason that for me, more than any other part of the liturgy, I prefer that the creed be sung, so it's more than just words. The creed is like a snap-shot taken halfway around the world almost 1700 years ago. So it has it's limitations. Many Protestant congregations simply don’t use it; feeling that it's outdated for contemporary congregations. Maybe they are right, and I confess that on some days I’m a bit envious of them. As a pastor, I see the harm that is caused to growth in faith when people get “stuck” on the creed. People aren’t sure they believe all that, and then they wonder if they are really Christians at all. So I get why some people wish we didn’t use it. But in the end I’m convinced that the hubris of thinking that what we do not grasp fully should be discarded is even worse. If we discard what we aren’t sure of from the faith, then I’m not sure what would be left. I’d rather leave it and keep wrestling with it. In fact, a wise teacher of mine once told me that when a young parishioner of his said she wasn’t sure what to make of the Creed, the teacher responded: “that’s ok…the Church will keep it around for you until you do!”
So it is of great comfort to me that our faith is communal—and that the creed begins with the word “we.” It truly is “the faith of the ecumenical Church”—even if on some weeks you or I aren’t sure what we believe as individuals. It reminds us that we are part of a larger body, and that our faith is deeper than what we can intellectualize. As much as I value scholarship and learning I take comfort in that.
Perhaps as we ponder and contemplate the Trinity it is more helpful as we make the move from head to heart to draw more on the right side of our brains—that is to offer images and poetry and to sing Trinitarian hymns, rather than limiting ourselves to left-brain logic and reason. Holy, holy, holy! Merciful and mighty, God in three persons, blessed Trinity! Sheer praise!
Some have offered the image of a three-leaf clover or of a tree that has roots, a trunk, and branches—to try to get a picture of the Trinity. The problem with those is that while they help us begin to embrace the notion of how Three can really be One and One can be Three—the images are too static and too flat. More helpful perhaps is the image of water—which has the same chemical make-up whether it is a solid ice-cube or a liquid that quenches our thirst, or a gas that we breathe in. You can even play with that one a bit in terms of scripture—the first person of the Trinity as the solid rock of our Faith, Christ as the living water that quenches our spiritual thirst, and the Holy Spirit that is as close as our next breath—filling our lungs with the gift of life itself.
Another image, from the realm of music. Imagine the sound that a “c” makes. I don’t mean the string on the guitar or the key on a keyboard or the fingering on a saxophone. All of those are too material. I mean the sound itself that “c” makes as it moves through time and space. Now add an “e.” And then a “g.” Three distinct notes; one harmonic chord. Imagine, then, the song of the Creator brooding over creation or the lullaby being sung every time a child is born into this world, male and female God creates them – in God’s own image we are created. And then add the song of Christ – born to the song of angels singing Glory to God in the highest and peace and goodwill on earth and rising to new life as even at the grave we make our song, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia. Finally, add the song of the Spirit—comforting the afflicted and sometimes afflicting the comfortable, always toward the end of renewing the face of the earth. And again, and always, for the sake of love. Three distinct notes—one “chord.”
Eventually all of our images will fall short. But we can ponder such images as faith seeks understanding—as long as we remember that the song God sings is Love, and the Trinity is all about how the love the three persons have for each other and for the world. The unity and diversity of God bear witness to the unity and diversity to which the Church is called—for we too, though many, are One.
The true marks of “orthodox” faith—on Trinity Sunday and on every Sunday of the year—are not about what we think in our heads or proclaim with our lips, but about how we share in the work that the Triune God has given us to do. The marks of true faith are made manifest in communities where God’s holiness is made known, and faith, hope, and love become palpable. Where you see those fruits, you will surely also see God the Holy Trinity at work.