Year C, Trinity Sunday
May 26, 2013
The Rev. Dr. Brent Was
“And the catholic faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the Persons; nor dividing the Essence. For there is one Person of the Father; another of the Son; and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one; the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal. Such as the Father is; such is the Son; and such is the Holy Ghost…. So the Father is God; the Son is God; and the Holy Ghost is God. And yet they are not three Gods; but one God.”
So, are we clear on the doctrine of the Trinity? Questions?
The Trinity. The Christian contribution to monotheism. Since the 12th century when then Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Beckett started it, the Sunday after Whitsunday has been dedicated to the Trinity. Three persons of one substance, three distinct personalities of the same underlying essence. The fancy word is hypostasis, which refers to an underlying reality as opposed to specific attributes, meaning that the unity of the Godhead is distinct from the attributes of the three persons of the same Holy Trinity. Is that more clear? This is the heart of our religion, it is important. I took on a lot of student debt to learn to understand this stuff. A lot. So today, we are going to take on the wee chore of contemplating the Trinity, and contemplating what use it is to us here in Eugene, in the merry, merry month of May, 2013.
First off, please don’t look to me for a clear let alone concise definition of the Trinity. Don’t look to anyone, really, who is offering a clear definition. Easy theology is like easy money: it isn’t. Like the truism that those who want power the most should be the last ones to get it, right? Those with the clearest definitions of the Trinity should probably be the last ones we listen too.
But it is odd, though, that God, the foundation upon which the body of Christ is built is basically indescribable, is barely sensical if you get right down to it. But this formulation of God, a Triune God is the most fantastic of the mysterious deep truths of Christianity. The deep, deep mystery of the idea of God in God’s self is the very thing that keeps our abiding faith abiding. Could you dedicate your life to the understandable? Do white robed armies of martyrs follow the describable? Could and explicable God stir billions of people over thousands of years? No. The numinosity of the Trinity ensures that it cannot be domesticated, not actually, though there are those that try mightily.
However, very much because the God we worship in common is so impossible to contain in our consciousness, it is critical that we as observant Christians have a path to discern the nature of our Trinitarian God. This is the double-edged sword of Protestantism: we are free of the magisterium of the Church and its place as keeper of all truth, describer, definer and gatekeeper of God. The backside is that we are responsible for doing it ourselves. The church is here to help, but our church does not have a monopoly on truth, or even God.
The key, though, is that while we should not, may not, can not rely on the Church for all truth, that we must do it ourselves, it is just as true that we must do this in community. The Christian as solo-practitioner is antithetical to the Christian religion. Much as our God formula posits a God in relationship within God’s self, we must also be in relationship. So there is our problem. How do we as Christians discern the nature of God for ourselves in community?
What is our first stop on the odyssey to grok the Trinity? Scripture. Scripture has two primary purposes. First, it carries our stories. From the story and wisdom of a single nation, Israel, through the new revelation of God in Christ, a story, our story of faith is contained in scripture in the very arc of the narrative itself. It is extremely organic. Second, scripture provides a vocabulary of faith. Probably half the BCP is cut and pasted out of the psalms. The rest is from other books of the bible. The Hail Marys, the Our Fathers, the Alleluias, even our words for God, all sourced in scripture. So what does scripture say about the Trinity? Well, it is a mysterious doctrine, not explicitly Scriptural, that was the original Unitarian argument. But there is a good case is made for it in the Gospels. A triune shape of the Godhead can be inferred. And while Paul is deeply concerned with the ontological, or foundational shift in God’s relationship to the world through the revelation of the Father in the Son, he is not explicit in any sort of Trinitarian formula. Karl Rahner, the great Jesuit, refers to “near” Trinitarian references in scripture. OK, so the Bible implies it and certainly does not contradict it, but is not definitive. Where does a person of faith go next? How about Tradition?
What is the clearest, most concise catalogue of our tradition that could help us discern the Trinity? __ (The Catechism is pretty quiet on the nature of the Trinity.) The Creeds. The Nicene Creed is pretty clear. Of Christ it states, “…eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God.” And of the Holy Spirit, there is the pesky filioque clause “…proceeds from the Father and the Son,” followed by the less controversial, “With the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified.” OK, that is a good 1700 year-long tradition of a Triune God. That adds up. But more explicitly, what were the words I started with? “And the catholic faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity…” The Creed of St. Athanasius. It has been in use since the 6th century and it is still in the BCP hidden in the back with a few oddities and curiosities of history. We don’t use it much, but it is indicated as particularly appropriate for today, Trinity Sunday, as it is still the definitive, official(ish) statement of Trinitarian theology.
We have the creeds, a definitive tradition of the Trinitarian formula. What do we do with that, the creeds and the truth therein? Well, the creeds are complicated. They are definitive statements of faith, statements that have been carried in our prayer books and liturgies since nearly the beginning of the Church. The Nicene creed is a “sufficient statement of Christian faith” and the Apostles creed is the universal baptismal statement. Those are the technical definitions. And their use to us? They frame our own thoughts and prayers in relation to our ancestors. The creeds are objects and subjects of contemplation, meditation and prayer, spiritual poems to ignite our imagination, they prime the pump of a life leaning into God. I sometimes see them as Anglo-Catholic koans. It doesn’t matter what one hand clapping sounds like, it is the meditation, the contemplation on the question that matters. So it goes with the creeds. “Proceeds from the Father and the Son…” it is not believing in the statement that matters, it is the meaning making and holy imagination we cause in contemplating that statement that matters. The traditional creeds can focus our minds and hearts, give us questions in the discomfort they can cause, and simple answers they provide when that is what we need. “I know you are not a man like me but sometimes I need to think of you that way…”
So scripture is a good place to start our Trinitarian research. Our Tradition fills it in a bit. How about reason? Does reason, the third leg of the Anglican algorithm help us in discerning Trinitarian theology? I don’t know. I am a reasoning kind of person, pretty well trained in theological matters and my conclusion is that the doctrine of the Trinity is immanently reasonable, but it is reasonable not in the form of the doctrine, but the function. If the core of a religion is so mysterious as to be unapprehendable, incomprehensible, well there in that cloud of unknowing a very large, an infinite even God can happily reside. And our huddled, mortal selves have lifetimes worth of contemplation and prayer to keep us busy and immanently drawn unto God as we try to love that God with everything we’ve got and through that love, love our neighbor as our self. The function trumps the form.
As always, then, we must ask ourselves, why or how could this possibly matter? For me, it is the mystery of the Trinity that is important. When I am feeling too confident, when I am too impressed with myself and all that I know and do, contemplating the Trinity bursts my self-important bubble rather definitively. And when I am low, beat up a bit, scared, unsure, holding the swirling ball of God in God’s self in prayer reminds me that I may just be a mote in the soup of the cosmos, but I am a mote caught indelibly in orbit around that mighty God. It makes me feel better. And when I am around folks that confound me, confuse me, tick me off, smell bad and behave worse… when I sense more deeply the brokenness of the world and the brokenness of ourselves and those we share this church, this city, this life with. When I really, really experience, yet again, that church is the Father’s last great refuge of the weary, when I remember again that Christ came not for the well, but the sick, when I remember again that the church is island where all of the misfit toys are carried by ruah, the breath of God, the Holy Spirit… When I remember yet again that we are all one, many members of the same mysterious body of Christ, and mysteriously together at that, maybe even as mysteriously as we imagine our triune God might be one, well, that just makes me want to be, able to be a better person that I could, would be otherwise. Not much more we can ask of a doctrine. Glory to the Father, to Son and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be. AMEN.