By the Rev. Darren Miner
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Episcopal Church has seven principal feasts in its liturgical calendar. As it happens, two of them fall back to back, Pentecost and Trinity Sunday. And since last Sunday was Pentecost, this must be Trinity Sunday. This day is the bane of junior clergy, because all too often senior clergy leave it to their juniors to preach on the mystery of the Trinity. Now, there is a way out: one can always preach on the assigned readings instead. But this Trinity Sunday, I have decided to rise to the occasion and say a few words about the central dogma of the Christian faith. Pray that I don’t stray into heresy!
Before you get too anxious, let me reassure you that you are not expected to understand this doctrine fully. No one does! During the reading of the Athanasian Creed, prescribed in the 1662 prayer book, one was asked to repeat these words: “The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible.” George Bernard Shaw was reputed to have added the words: “The whole thing is incomprehensible!” And he had a point; the mystery of God is beyond our understanding. A god that we could fully comprehend would not be the transcendent God of the Bible, but something less.
Given our limitations, why should we even try to understand the nature of God? Well, I can think of two good reasons. One is that we are expected to love the Lord our God with all our heart and all our soul and all our mind. Moreover, how can we say we love someone if we don’t try to know that someone as profoundly as possible? And so, we do our best to understand what God has revealed about the divine nature. The second reason for trying to understand God is to better understand ourselves. The Bible tells us that we are made in the image and likeness of God. In other words, we are made in the image and likeness of the holy and undivided Trinity. And Trinitarian doctrine, far from being a useless theological exercise, helps us understand our true nature and calling.
As many critics of the doctrine have noted, the Bible never uses the word Trinity. But the New Testament does talk about God as Father, God as Son, and God as Holy Spirit. The early Church experienced God in three different ways. And yet, at the same time, the Church firmly believed in the oneness of the Godhead, as expressed throughout the Hebrew Scriptures and as summarized in the Shema, the Jewish pledge of allegiance. Some early theologians dismissed the threeness as appearance only and not as reality. But most theologians firmly believed that both the threeness and the oneness that God had revealed to humankind in salvation history reflected the inner reality of the Godhead. They refused to believe that God dissembled. So they struggled to understand the apparent paradox of the threeness and oneness of God. In the end, the Church Fathers turned to the language of Greek philosophy to express the doctrine of the Trinity. But I will spare you the philosophy lesson!
It took over three centuries of heated debate to iron out an understanding that we might charitably call “the least wrong.” Many approaches were eventually condemned as heresy, because they either overemphasized the threeness or they overemphasized the oneness. For those not versed in Greek philosophy, the Church Fathers often used everyday metaphors and similes to help explain the Trinity. For example, the Trinity is like a three-leaf clover; or the Trinity is like water that can take the form of ice, liquid, or vapor; or my favorite, the Trinity is like three flaming torches, whose flames are combined and which burn as a single flame. But each of these similes ultimately fails if pushed too far and results in an incomplete and unbalanced understanding of God’s nature, in other words, in heresy. The Eastern Church attempted to pictorially represent the Holy Trinity as the three angels that visited Abraham and Sarah, united as one in a common meal. I love this icon! Even so, it seems to me that the threeness of the angels outweighs the oneness of the shared meal in this icon. (Clearly, the Orthodox disagree.)
At this juncture, let me summarize what the Ecumenical Councils and the Church Fathers finally agreed on—and it isn’t all that much!
There is one divine essence, one divine being, whose source is the Father and which unites the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit into a single Godhead. There is one divine will shared by the three persons of the Trinity. And yet each person is a distinct center of conscious selfhood. Each person is active in every act of God, and yet each person has a function that, from the human perspective, may appropriately be associated with one particular person of the Trinity. For example, when we speak of Creation, we think of the Father. When we speak of Redemption, we think of the Son. And when we speak of Sanctification, we think of the Holy Spirit. Yet the full Trinity takes part in Creation, Redemption, and Sanctification.
All three persons of the Trinity are co-eternal. In other words, there never was a time when they did not all exist. We say in the Nicene Creed that the Son is begotten, not made. But this is an eternal begetting from before time. Of the Spirit, we say that the Spirit proceeds from the Father or that the Spirit is breathed out of the Father. The distinct terminology—“begotten” for the relationship of the Son to the Father and “proceeding from” for the relationship of the Spirit to the Father—is deliberate. The Church Fathers wanted to make clear that these relationships are distinct modes of origination. When pressed to further explain the difference between the two divine relationships, St. John of Damascus admitted, “What the nature of this difference is, we do not understand at all.” Little has changed since then.
Finally, let me say a little something about what the Greeks called perichóresis and the Latins circumincessio. These are technical terms for the dynamic circulation of the divine life. The doctrine implies a divine relationship among the three persons of the Trinity that is not fixed and static, but in constant motion. Some have used a false etymology to explain perichóresis as a circle dance. While the etymology is false, the idea is helpful. Each of the three persons of the Trinity is ever dancing in and out and through the other two persons in a never-ending relationship of intimate interpenetration and dynamic indwelling that no earthly relationship can ever hope to approach.
Now I claimed at the start of this sermon that understanding the nature of God would help us understand our nature and our calling as creatures made in God’s image. Now is the time for me to make good on that claim! Our God is a community of persons sharing a common will. Likewise, humanity is intended to be a community of persons sharing a common will. We are called to love God, to love one another, and to work for the building up of God’s Kingdom. That is our common purpose, and it is something we can only do together. Our Triune God is a unity in diversity. Like our God, we are meant to live in unity, but not uniformity. We are meant to be diverse, but not divided. This understanding should affect not only how we live together in the Church, but how we live together in the world. This understanding of our God is perhaps the greatest theological argument against racism, sexism, heterosexism, and every other sort of “ism.” Finally, we are meant to live together in mutual love and even intimacy. Now, I am not advocating some 1960s-style form of “free love.” We needn’t be that literal. But the doctrine of perichóresis, the mutual indwelling of the persons of the Trinity, does point us to a destiny of mutual love, mutual trust, and mutual intimacy with one another. It points us to a destiny of mutual fellowship, mutual cooperation, and mutual sharing. And it is to our great benefit to strive for such relationships with one another even now, for it is precisely through such Trinitarian relationships that we discover our true selves and become the persons that God intends us to be.
So, in great gratitude for God’s self-revelation as Three in One and One in Three, let us give God praise:
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.
© 2015 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.