Preached at St. Stephen’s Church, Pittsfield MA
Isaiah 6: 1 – 8
Romans 8: 12 – 17
John 3: 1 – 17
Growing up in the Church, as I did, I often found myself, in those moments waiting for the service to begin, exploring the Prayer Book that I held in my hands. I would flip though it, as perhaps you have done, and read the interesting bits. I liked to look at the The Calendar, and wonder who some of these people were: Bede, Dunstan, Dominic, Stephen. Over the years I have stopped wondering who they were, or even their place and role in history. I have come to know them as friends. As our Rule of Life says, in a somewhat different context: we remember that they are not dead figures from the past. Risen in Christ, they belong to the great cloud of witnesses who spur us on by their prayers to change and mature in response to the Holy Spirit who makes all things new.
Or I would make my with through the Table of Kindred and Affinity, where I would read: A Man may not marry his Mother, his Sister, his Grandmother, his Aunt. As I worked my way through the list, and picture the people I was not allowed to marry, I would wonder, not so much as why I may not marry them, but why on earth I would want to marry my mother, my sister, my grandmother, or my aunt, in the first place!
The other place that gave me endless hours of entertainment was the Creed of Saint Athanasius. I would read and ponder what this riddle that is our Faith, is actually about.
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.
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
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.
All this was pretty heady stuff for a teenager, but now that you know that about my teenaged self, is it any wonder that I ended up where I have in life, as a priest and now a monk?
At one point in the life of the Church, parishioners were expected to plough their way through the Athanasian Creed several times a year, but now it is relegated to the back of the Prayer Bookin the section referred to as Historical Documents of the Church. But while the text itself may be an historical document, the Faith it proclaims is anything but. For the Faith it expounds is nothing less than what Christians over the centuries have come to know to be true about God’s very being.
What Scripture proclaims, what the Creeds declare, and what Christians have affirmed about God over the last two millennia, is not some mathematical riddle the tells us that 3 = 1, but that God is a God who communicates with the creation; that God was revealed to us in the person of Jesus; and that God continues to be known to the people of God, even today.
For us as Christians, God is not some distant, uninterested and unknowable, divine being, far removed from human life. Rather for us, God is known and experienced, not only in history, but in the tiny moments of daily living. We see God in the wonder and beauty of creation, and the awe of worship; we touch God, in the person of Jesus, and the simple elements of bread, wine, water, and oil; we know God, who is closer to us even than our own breath.
We see and touch and know God, not as three gods, but as one eternally creating, redeeming and sanctifying God, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is this knowable, loving and sustaining God whom we describe as Trinity of Being, and Unity of Substance. But it is so easy to become lost in the math, and ignore the reality of our experience.
Father Benson, the founder of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, in a letter dated 10 November, 1875, once said this:
I quite feel that the practical neglect of the doctrine of the Trinity has been the great cause of the decay of Christendom. The Church —the Sacraments —Hagilogy, I had almost said Mythology —have filled the minds of devout people, partly for good partly for evil. ‘Thyself unmoved, all motion’s source’ this mystery of the circulating life of the eternal Godhead, has been almost lost to sight, spoken of as a mystery, and not felt as a power or loved as a reality.
I think what Father Benson was trying to say is that when people lose sight of their personal experience of God, and cloak God in unmeaning jargon then God simply becomes mumbo jumbo. For many people today, and perhaps even for some of you, all this god-talk is nothing less than meaningless mumbo jumbo.
For the Church to reclaim a vision of God which is not shrouded in mumbo jumbo, we need to feel God as a power, and love God as a reality. I believe that the world is desperate for the witness of the Church to a God who can be known, loved and felt.
We say, again in our Rule, that: our human vocation to live in communion and mutuality is rooted in our creation in God’s image and likeness. The very being of God is community; the Father, Son and Spirit are One in reciprocal self-giving and love. The mystery of God as Trinity is one that only those living in personal communion can understand by experience. Through our common life we can begin to grasp that there is a transcendent unity that allows mutual affirmation of our distinctness as persons. Through prayer we can see that this flows from the triune life of God. If we are true to our calling as a community, our Society will be a revelation of God.
The heart and example of Christian community, whether that be household, parish, or monastery, is the heart and being of God, who is community. Unless we live, and are known to live, in communion and community with one another, our witness to a God who is first and foremost community, will fall on deaf ears.
Our witness to a God who can be known, loved, and felt, stems from the witness of the way in which we live together with one another, not in our ability to decipher mathematical impossibilities.
If we are true to the mission of God, which is our mission, then God will be known, loved and felt, in our midst, not as some distant, uninterested and unknowable, divine being, far removed from human life, but rather as one eternally creating, redeeming and sanctifying God, who is knowable, loving and sustaining and whom we know as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Today as we rejoice in God as Trinity, we do so not to confound people with mumbo jumbo, but to proclaim to a world hungry for the good news of the eternal reality that God can indeed be known, that God is indeed loving, and that God is indeed forever present. This is our mission. This is our purpose. This is our call.
SSJE, Rule of Life, Our Founders and the Grace of Tradition, chapter 3, page 6
BCP, Canada, 1962, page 562
Ibid., page 695
BCP, Episcopal Church, 1979, page 864
Ibid, page 864 ff
Benson, Richard Meux, Letters of Richard Meux Benson, page 187
Ibid., page 187
SSJE, Rule,The Witness of Life in Community, chapter 4, page 9
Isaiah 6:1-8; Psalm 29; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17
Today is Trinity Sunday, when we celebrate one of our core doctrines: that is, that God is both one and a trinity of persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. As an ancient explanation puts it: “…the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God; and yet they are not three Gods, but one God…the whole three persons are co-eternal together and co-equal…the Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshipped.” That is from a 6th century formulation often called the “Creed of Saint Athanasius” which you can find in the back of the prayer book. It’s actually not from Athanasius, but has a more complicated history—and if you’d like to know more about it, please make your request known to the Great Google…
The early Church believed that the understanding of God as a Trinity was foreshadowed in the Hebrew Scriptures: “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…” [Gen. 1:26] And in the story of Abraham at the oaks of Mamre it says the Lord appeared to Abraham as three men, to whom Abraham bows low and addresses as “lord” (singular). And in Isaiah’s vision of God in the temple, the seraphs sing not one “holy”, but three: holy, holy, holy. These are all tenuous connections to the modern mind, but earlier generations made much of these poetic resonances, because that’s the way they thought about things. (By the way, the familiar Rublev icon of the Holy Trinity is often called the “Hospitality of Abraham” in reference to that story. The icon in the chapel this morning is one written by Br. Eldridge.)