Trinity Sunday A; 2023
Today is one of those days that tends to strike fear into the hearts of both preachers and listeners, because today is Trinity Sunday. It is the one day of the year when the Church explicitly celebrates and focuses on the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, co-equals of the Godhead and co-eternal, of one substance yet substantially differentiated. This is the Sunday when preachers generally try to avoid heresy. This is the Sunday when some people hope to hear a heretical sermon. This is the Sunday when most people probably just say, “Please don't confuse me or make my head explode.”
So . . . Trinity Sunday. Probably the best place to find a definition of the Trinity is the Athanasian Creed, found in your bulletin and on pages 864-865 of the BCP. This document was most likely not written by St. Athanasius, but has been attributed to him due to his defense of orthodoxy against the Arian heresy – in short, when Arius proclaimed that there was a time when the Son was not. This creed, while detailing the concept of the Trinity, also contains several anathemas; that is, everlasting damnation for those who don't properly believe. At a time of raging theological battles, this is to be expected, but it sounds a bit cold-hearted to modern ears. Personally, I am not ready to make hellish pronouncements against Jews, Muslims, Unitarians, or other groups regarding the Trinity.
Another place to go when looking into the Trinity is the Bible. Dcn. Sue and I attended the ordinations of several deacons and priests yesterday at the cathedral. At every ordination service – deacon, priest, and bishop – the ordinand proclaims that they believe Holy Scripture to “contain all things necessary to salvation.” You would think, then, that Holy Scripture would contain at least one reference to the Trinity, or “three-in-one,” or “one-in-three.” Spoiler alert: it doesn't. So from where do we get the idea of the Trinity? Basically through study and revelation.
Christians tend to find reference to the Trinity in the Hebrew Scriptures in the first story of creation (which was our first reading today): “In the beginning when God created . . . the spirit of God swept over the waters . . . God said, 'Let there be light'.” God the Father creating, God the Spirit hovering, God the Son the word. We see it when Abraham receives the three visitors at the Oaks of Mamre, but addresses them singly as, “My Lord.” The Spirit is also referenced as Wisdom, and Proverbs tells us that Wisdom was present from the beginning. We see it in the prologue of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” We also have many “I am” statements of Jesus in John, most famously, “Before Abraham was born, I am.” We see it with the Trinitarian grace of Second Corinthians. And Revelation is scattered with references to a Trinitarian God, although that might include a bit of proof-texting on my part.
I mention all of this because when we say Holy Scriptures contain all things necessary to salvation, that doesn't mean all things in Scripture are necessary to salvation, or that only things explicitly found in Scripture are necessary for salvation. After all, slavery, selling people to pay off debts, and polygamy are all Scriptural. Yet we have discerned these things should not be allowed. We've also discerned that women can be leaders in the Church and all people – black, white, gay, straight, male, female, transgendered, non-binary, all people – are all one in Christ Jesus. Some things are explicit, while other things have been, or have yet to be, revealed to us. That's part of what makes Holy Scripture a living document. It's also part of why Anglicans proclaim the value of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason. A very Trinitarian view of our faith.
As I said, the best explanation of the Trinity can be found in the Athanasian Creed: Three in One, One in Three, neither confounding the Persons nor dividing the Substance. Analogies of the Trinity tend to break down into one heresy or another, so analogies really don't work. I would even say that any explanation for God, theoretical or logical proofs, as well as analogies, don't really work when defining God.
Nevertheless, we still try. We sometimes try to define God by what God is – love, omniscient, omnipotent, almighty, eternal. That is what's called “positive theology.” We also try to define God by what God isn't, or as being beyond what we know – unknowable, not hate, invisible, transcendent, and coming to a place where all we think we know about God disappears into a holy, mystical union with God. That is what's called “negative theology.” In both positive and negative theologies we are grasping for human words, human concepts, and human understanding to define something that is so beyond our words, so beyond our conception, and so beyond our understanding. I think this is why God's answer of, “I AM,” to Moses' question of who is sending him is so perfect. I AM encompasses all we can know in all times. There is no past or future in God, there is only NOW. There is no this or that in God, there is only IS.
This is why when we talk about God or the Church to others we really don't use theoretical or logical proofs, we use experiential reflections. Each of us has experienced God in our lives at one time or another. Each of us has an experience of the Divine that draws us in. For some of us that is Holy Communion on Sundays. For others it's a ministry in which we participate. For still others it might be a holy conversation. One of my favorite experiences of the Divine is when I'm all alone in the church after a service with incense. Everyone is gone. The building is locked and quiet. Sitting in this space with the light playing through the stained glass windows, with incense still hanging in the air, for me, is a holy, peaceful time with God that can't be replicated by burning incense in your living room.
More often than not we experience God through relationships, not logical proofs. So when it comes to the Trinity, the only thing I can point to is a relational experience. For that I'll use marriage, because I think marriage is the best example we have, even though as an analogy it probably wanders into heresy.
For those of you who have been to more than one wedding at which I've officiated, you know I only have one wedding sermon. The details change, but the core remains the same. In that sermon I ask, “What's 1+1?” After a few seconds and some wrong answers, I say, “1+1 is THREE. You have the bride, the groom, and the marriage, and you need to pay attention to all three.”
The bride and groom, two individuals, are bound together in love, unified in one marriage. For the marriage to be successful those two people need to care for all three aspects of the marriage – the bride, the groom, and the marriage. Marriage, or a good friendship for that matter, reflects, however imperfectly, the holy union of the Trinity – three co-equal but differentiated substances woven together through a unified love. And here I'll stop before becoming too heretical.
For us Christians, the Trinity is not something clearly laid out in Scripture, but is something revealed to us through Scripture. The Trinity is not something for which we can offer logical proofs or accurate analogies, but it is something for which we can find evidence through relationships bound together in love, whether that is with our spouse, a good friend, or our children. The difference, of course, is that we are but an imperfect reflection of that Trinitarian union and unity. That reflection allows us to see and know in part; and one day, when all is revealed, we, too, will abide in that perfect relational love that is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
I leave you with the Trinitarian words of Saint Paul and God's abiding love: The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us all evermore.