Year B, Trinity Sunday May 27, 2018 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ – if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.”
It is Trinity Sunday. It is a principal feast of the Church, but they don’t really make cards for this one. Maybe it is because it is a day that we celebrate the very Triune nature of the God in which we live and move and have our being, and that is a hard one to put into a Hallmark moment.
The verse I opened with is from St. Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, and that is as Trinitarian a statement as can be found in the whole of Holy Scripture. Now, that doesn’t really mean that much, because truly, the notion of the Trinity is not exactly scriptural. Not exactly. That “not exactly-ness” is what motivated the original 17th century Unitarians; there is only shaky scriptural basis of the doctrine of the Trinity. The doctrine of the Trinity is the basic church teaching that the nature of our One Holy and Everlasting God is best described as being Three Persons of One Substance. It is shaky Biblically, but that is ok, because as Anglicans we don’t consider the Bible to be the sole source Divine authority or divine revelation. The idea of a three-part God is an idea that evolved as Tradition, which is just another way of saying our collective knowledge and practice of God, evolved. As Christian witness and experience increased in the first centuries, our knowledge and ability to describe God increased. So the Abba of Jesus, our ancestors learned, was more fully known as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, or, just as compellingly Beloved, Lover and Love, as St. Augustine intimated, or from Luther, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, or Mother, Lover and Friend from Sallie McFague, a contemporary ecological theologian. Other words might flow from your heart and your lips when you consider the Divine, and they count, too.
So that is the topic of our sermon today, the words we use when we consider God. So I am going to repeat something I did a couple of years ago on Trinity Sunday, I am going to read aloud the most definitive statement the Church has on the doctrine of the Trinity, the Creed of St. Athanasius. Did you know (or remember) that we have three creeds? The other two? __ Just checking. The third one, the Creed of St. Athanasius, is consigned to the fine print, literally, to small type in the “Historical Documents (and other Anachronistic Anomalies) of the Church” section way in the back of the Book of Common Prayer.
St. Athanasius of Alexandria was a 4th century father of the church. He was an important theologian, particular when it came to the nature of Jesus Christ. We won’t get too deep into the life of Athanasius because, though this creed bears his name, he almost certainly did not write it. It was probably written in the 5th or 6th century in Gaul, but took on Athanasius name because it was such a firm statement of the triune nature of God, a centerpiece of the good saint’s memory.
So turn to page 864 if you care to follow along, (put on your 4x readers, it really is the fine print), and hear the Creed of Saint Athanasius:
“Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic Faith. Which Faith except everyone do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly. (That’s one reason we don’t use this one very often. But I digress…”
And the Catholic Faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance.
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 co-eternal.
Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Ghost.
The Father uncreate, the Son uncreate, and the Holy Ghost uncreate.
The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible.
The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Ghost eternal.
And yet they are not three eternals, but one eternal.
As also there are not three incomprehensibles, nor three uncreated, but one uncreated, and one incomprehensible.
So likewise the Father is Almighty, the Son Almighty, and the Holy Ghost Almighty. And yet they are not three Almighties, but one Almighty.
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 likewise the Father is Lord, the Son Lord, and the Holy Ghost Lord.
And yet not three Lords, but one Lord.
For like as we are compelled by the Christian verity to acknowledge every Person by himself to be both God and Lord,
So are we forbidden by the Catholic Religion, to say, There be three Gods, or three Lords. The Father is made of none, neither created, nor begotten.
The Son is of the Father alone, not made, nor created, but begotten.
The Holy Ghost is of the Father and of the Son, neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding.
So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Ghost, not three Holy Ghosts.
And in this Trinity none is afore, or after other; none is greater, or less than another; But the whole three Persons are co-eternal together and co-equal.
So that in all things, as is aforesaid, the Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshipped.
He therefore that will be saved must thus think of the Trinity.
Furthermore, it is necessary to everlasting salvation that he also believe rightly the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.
For the right Faith is, that we believe and confess, that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man;
God, of the Substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds; and Man, of the Substance of his Mother, born in the world;
Perfect God and perfect Man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting;
Equal to the Father, as touching his Godhead; and inferior to the Father, as touching his Manhood.
Who although he be God and Man, yet he is not two, but one Christ;
One, not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by taking of the Manhood into God; One altogether; not by confusion of Substance, but by unity of Person.
For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one man, so God and Man is one Christ;
Who suffered for our salvation, descended into hell, rose again the third day from the dead. He ascended into heaven, he sitteth on the right hand of the Father, God Almighty, from whence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
At whose coming all men shall rise again with their bodies and shall give account for their own works.
And they that have done good shall go into life everlasting; and they that have done evil into everlasting fire.
This is the Catholic Faith, which except a man believe faithfully, he cannot be saved. (And it ends as it began on a pretty hard note).
So, you have been formally exposed to the Creed of St. Athanasius. Any questions, comments, complaints? Like what does this have to do with anything in my life or the life of my children or community? Or how is this going to help smash the racist, patriarchal, free-market fundamentalist imperial order? Why do we have this Creed? Why do we need the doctrine of the Trinity? Really, any thoughts?
This is important, actually. Really important. Things like the doctrine of the Trinity are the deep background material of our common life of faith. Everything has its starting point in God, so how we know, understand, approach, describe, imagine, project upon the notion of the God we worship matters and has deep and abiding meaning. The meaning we make of God sets the trajectory for everything that follows.
So what does the doctrine of the Trinity mean? Well, that’s the kicker, and really the brilliant center of our faith. In around 417, St. Augustine, the father of most Christian thought, completed a bear of a work called On the Trinity. In hundreds of pages of very technical Latin, he laid out the Trinity in ways that stuck. But what stuck? As Jaroslav Pelikan, one of the great 20th Century historians of the church notes, at the very end of Book 15, Augustine basically says that all that he had written was done primarily so that we do not remain entire silent on the subject. That opens up the writing life to a lot of us!
On the Trinity, the Creed of St. Athanasius, the hints of a Triune God in scripture like our readings this morning tease us with, the ten-word answer in our Catechism, they are an onomatopoeia of our central metaphor for God. Each of these forms of explaining the Trinity demonstrate implicitly that words are insufficient to the task of describing God. If “kaboom” is the way we render an explosion, then hundreds of pages of indecipherable theology is a fine rendering of the deep mystery that is the our transcendent and immanent Godhead. (It takes a lot of words to demonstrate how insufficient words are).
In the majesty and grandeur of God hinted at in Isaiah, the hem filling the temple and the seraphim calling back and forth “Holy, holy, holy Lord”, we are experiencing “not sighs too deep for words”, but awesomeness too great for words to carry. Gazing at the Milky Way on a clear night. Standing on a beach as a storm makes land fall. Bringing a child into the world. Seeing a loved one off into the eternal rest and light perpetual of death. Witnessing horror radiating from a combat zone, or a crime scene or a cancer ward. Thin spaces, each of these, overflowing with the power and the glory and the mystery of God, each surpassing language’s capacity to bear the Divine fullness that is and is becoming. That is what the doctrine of the Trinity expresses in its unabashed inability to make one iota of rational, reasonable sense. And that, when it really comes down to it, makes a lot of sense as a center of a religion.
And with a religion with such a center, a center true to the ineffable mystery from which flows all being, then we have the chance to see the face of God in those stars, in that wind, in that newborn, in the grace of death, and the suffering face of your brother and sister in the creation. And witnessing this God, feeling Him, knowing Her, then and only then will we be able to fulfill the call of Paul, that “…if in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.” For it is in the willingness to suffer for and in the name of what is right and good at true, that salvation, Christian salvation comes. Sacrifice, self-emptying, suffering for the other, an-other, that is the epitome of love made real in Jesus Christ and His suffering and death for us. Which brings us right back around to the beginning, for where true charity and love are found, God is there. Thanks be to God. AMEN