Sermon; Trinity Sunday 2017
Today is Trinity Sunday, the day set aside to specifically honor the doctrine and worship the mystery that is the Holy Trinity – three in one, one in three, separate but not divisible, unified but individual. And because of the difficulty in trying to explain this concept without falling into some kind of heresy, it's also the day most likely given over to guest preachers.
Unfortunately, everyone I asked to preach was mysteriously unavailable today.
All kidding aside, it can be tough to preach on the Trinity. Mainly because when we look into the Trinity, we are looking into the deep mystery of the eternal Godhead. And when we start talking about and exploring those deep mysteries, we need to be prepared to face our own inadequacies, insufficiencies, and desires for control and certainty.
There are two basic ways to talk about God – in the negative and in the positive, otherwise known as what God isn't and what God is (officially known as apophatic and cataphatic theology). Negative theology states that we can't know what God is because God is just too immense to know. For instance: God is not a creature, because God is not any thing since God transcends all things; God is not ignorant (not that God is wise because that assumes we know what all wisdom is); God is not evil (not that God is good because that assumes we know what all goodness is); and God is not confined to our concepts of space and time.
Positive theology attempts to know God through God's defining nature. For instance: God is loving; God is creator; God is omnipotent; God is a seeker; God is forgiving; God is one.
It's that last one, God is one, that sort of set us on the path to Trinitarianism.
In the beginning, a wind from God (or, “the Spirit of God”) swept over the face of the earth. And God said, “Let there be light.”
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
Jesus said, “Before Abraham was, I am.”
The Spirit of truth will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine.
In these and other places in Scripture, Christian scholars have found what they believe to be the doctrine of the Trinity – that deep mystery stating One in Three and Three in One, undivided yet individual. That doctrine was fought over for many years, in particular by the Arian heresy that stated there was a time when Jesus was not, thereby denying the Trinity. In response to this controversy, the Council of Nicaea was called in 325 and Trinitarian orthodoxy sort of won the day, giving us the Nicene Creed. The controversy continued up until 381 when the Council of Constantinople reaffirmed the Nicene Creed and, for all practical purposes, eliminated Arianism.
However, there are religious groups, the Jehovah's Witnesses being one, who deny the Trinity because that image, and that word, doesn't specifically appear in Scripture. But if we were to rely solely on scripture quotations alone, we would eliminate the third leg of our Anglican stool – Reason (the other two being Scripture and Tradition), thereby surrendering our God-given ability to think. But Scripture must be interpreted through our reason, and we must be willing to accept the mystery of God. Consequently the doctrine of the Trinity was formed over time, through reading, study, prayer, and interpretation, as well as being willing to say that God is more mysterious than we can imagine. Eventually, thanks to people like Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Basil of Cappadocia, the Church settled on the orthodoxy of the Trinity.
But because the Trinity is a mystery, the more we talk about it, the more we try to pin it down, the more likely we are to wander off into one heresy or another. And that's what was going on in the early days of the Church.
On the one hand we need to give thanks to God for the rise of the heretics because they got the rest of Christianity to actually think critically about this whole God-Jesus-Spirit thing which helped to define orthodoxy. On the other hand though, in attempting to totally define God in their terms, they did some really strange things. So I want to take a few minutes and have us look at some common Trinitarian heresies. As you have already noticed, these can be found in your bulletins.
Modalism: The three persons of the Trinity are different “modes” or aspects of the Godhead, acting in those different modes at different times in history, but never unified as one. A common modalist example is that of a woman acting as wife, mother, daughter.
Tritheism: The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three independent and separate Gods.
Arianism: Often called the greatest heresy. Developed by a priest named Arius, it essentially states that there was a time when the Son was not. This meant that the Son was a created being, and not divine.
Docetism: Taught that Jesus was a purely divine being who only appeared to be human. Some versions claimed that Jesus' divinity departed from him on the cross, others claimed he only appeared to suffer and die.
Ebionitism: Basically the opposite of Docetism – Jesus was sent by God, but was only and always a man.
Macedonianism: A sect founded by Macedonius, an Arian priest, that followed the logic of the Son being created in that the Holy Spirit was also a created being, and therefore not part of the Godhead.
Adoptionism: Taught that Jesus was born a human and then adopted (usually at his baptism) by God and infused with divinity at that time.
Partialism: Similar to Modalism (three components of one God), but that each person of the Trinity is only one-third of God.
Orthodoxy: Check out the Athanasian Creed on page 864-5 of the BCP.
So there you have it. The Trinity is a core doctrine of our faith. For anyone to claim to be an orthodox Christian, they must hold to that doctrine, with the creeds being a good place to start. Anything more and we begin to limit God, forcing God into a box of our own making, losing the mystery, and actually turning God into an idol. Anything less and we begin to deny the holiness of God, the divinity of Christ, and the revealed glory of the Trinity, essentially rendering God impotent.
This is one reason why the Episcopal church is a creedal church and not a confessional church – because the creeds are a sufficient standard of orthodoxy, allowing for an unlimited and mysterious God, while avoiding a confessional statement that reduces God and faith to nothing more than a series of intellectual propositions.
Today is Trinity Sunday. May you see God in all things and know that all things are in God. More importantly, may you abide in the mystery that is the Trinity.