The Lord be with you.
And with your spirit.
Let us pray.
O God the Father, have mercy upon us.
O God the Son, have mercy upon us.
O God the Holy Spirit, have mercy upon us.
O holy, blessed and glorious Trinity, one God, have mercy upon us.
No beating around the bush this morning: let’s jump right in with a deeply complex philosophical question. How do you eat an elephant? Leave aside, for the moment, the question of why you’d want to; it’s the how and not the why that concerns us. How do you eat an elephant? There is only one way: one bite at a time.
That’s some good folk wisdom, a proverb you won’t find in the Bible, but a good one nonetheless. When presented with an enormous task, it is easy to be overwhelmed, to be immobilized. The key is simply to break it down into simple steps: to do the first little thing you can do, and then next little thing, and so on. And after awhile, you find that the elephant is gone.
The elephant in the room of liturgical churches throughout the world today is the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. How do we speak of it? How do we think about it? How do we make sense of it? The whole concept, the whole doctrine, is so enormous, so complex, that it is easy to be overwhelmed, to be immobilized. So, back to our proverb. How do you speak of the Holy Trinity? How do you think about it? There is only one way: one word at a time, one idea at a time.
And that means there is only so much we can do this morning, perhaps only one small task — small, but important. And that means there are many questions we cannot and will not ask.
The question before us this morning is not whether the doctrine of the Trinity is true; of course it is true. It is expounded in Scripture from the beginning, from the creation of all things as God the Father spoke all things into being, spoke his logos — his Word — by whom, through whom and for whom all things were made, spoke as the Spirit hovered over the face of the water, spoke the words in the Garden, “Let us make man in our image.” You see it there, don’t you? The Father who speaks, the Son who is the Word spoken, and the Spirit who is the breath, the wind on which the spoken Word is sent forth to create. The Trinity is implicit in God’s covenant with Israel — implicit as an oak is implicit in an acorn — implicit in the covenant proclaimed in the Shema Yisrael: Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is the Lord is one. It is implicit in the Archangel Gabriel’s revelation to the Blessed Virgin Mary that she, consenting, will bear a son, the Son of God by the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the incarnation. It is shouted in the Gospels as God the Father tears the heavens asunder at the baptism of Jesus to announce to the world, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” even as the Holy Spirit descends upon the Son in bodily form as a dove to remain with him and in him. It blows through the Acts of the Apostles. It breathes in Paul’s letters and in Hebrews. It flickers and flames and blazes to light up the pages of the Revelation. Of course the doctrine of the Trinity is true.
The question before us this morning is not whether the doctrine of the Trinity is orthodox and catholic; of course it is orthodox and catholic. It is the consensus fidelium, the consensus of the faithful, hard fought and hard won in councils and unchangingly preserved in the creeds: the Apostles Creed by which the Church proclaims its baptismal faith, the Nicene Creed by which the Church proclaims its Eucharistic faith, and the Athanasian Creed by which the Church proclaims its non-negotiable catholic/universal faith:
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.
Of course the doctrine of the Trinity is orthodox and catholic.
The question before us this morning is not whether the doctrine of the Trinity is doxological, whether it is filled with the right glory of worship; of course it is doxological. It fills our Book of Common Prayer and orders our life of worship: from baptism in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, to the final words of the Daily Office — The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love and God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us all evermore. — to the Eucharist when the body and blood of our Lord Jesus is lifted to God and the priest says, “By him, and with him, and in him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all honor and glory is yours, Almighty Father, now and for ever,” and the people respond with the great AMEN. It is there as we and the Church worship at the moment of death:
Depart, O Christian soul, out of this world;
In the Name of God the Father Almighty who created you;
In the Name of Jesus Christ who redeemed you;
In the Name of the Holy Spirit who sanctifies you.
Of course the doctrine of the Trinity is doxological, filled with the right glory of worship.
No. The questions before us today are not whether the doctrine of the Trinity is true, or orthodox and catholic, or properly doxological. The question before us today is whether — and how — the doctrine of the Trinity matters: not to academic theologians who love this sort of thing, but to you and to me. Does it make a difference? Is it important? Does the Trinity matter?
God is love, St. John tells us (1 John 4:8). Is that important? Does that matter? Is it important to you that love is not some changeable emotion — one of many — that God feels now and again, but rather that love is the immutable essence of God, integral to his eternal character? Does it matter that God’s unfailing disposition toward you is love — again, not love as a fluctuating emotion but as a resolute commitment to will and to act for your good? If that matters — And who would dare say it doesn’t? — then the doctrine of the Trinity matters.
If God were one from all eternity, one not just in essence but also in personhood — God alone as both Jews and Muslims understand God — then how could God also be love? I suppose we could speak of God’s love for himself, but that begins to sound less like love in any meaningful sense of the word and more like narcissism, even when referred to God. No, love requires at least two: Lover and Beloved. And what if the relationship between Lover and Beloved is so intimate, so essential that it is not abstract, but concretely Personal — love not as idea, or emotion, or any such thing, but love as a Person? Lover, Beloved, and Love co-existing from all eternity, of one being realized in three Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
This is something like what St. Augustine had in mind in his description of the Trinity. And it is why marriage and parenthood are so highly revered in our faith as an icon of the Trinity, why we guard marriage and parenthood so jealously: husband and wife — lover and beloved — whose love is so intimate, so essential that it becomes concretely personal in the birth of a child. This is not the only human relationship that is iconic of the Trinity, of course; but it is the most fundamental, the one woven into creation from the moment God breathed life into Adam, created Eve from Adam’s rib, and commanded the pair to be fruitful and multiply. If marriage matters, if parenthood matters — And who would dare deny it? — then the Trinity matters. If God’s self-identification as love matters, then the Trinity matters.
We are partakers of the divine nature, St. Peter tells us (cf 2 Pe 1:3-4). Is that important? Does that matter? Is it important to you that God has elevated the dust and ashes of our fallen humanity, redeemed it, and drawn it into the very life of the Trinity — into the very heart of the relationship that obtains among Lover, Beloved, and Love: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? If that matters to you — And who would dare say it doesn’t? — then the incarnation matters to you, and the incarnation is the grand work of the Trinity.
There are many disputed questions among theologians, not least this one: If man had not fallen, not sinned, would the incarnation have happened? Don’t be too hasty to decide. One camp — admittedly the majority position — views the incarnation as the remedy for human sin, totally unnecessary if man had not sinned: no fall, no incarnation. But, the other camp — championed by the 13th-14th century Franciscan philosopher/theologian John Duns Scotus — thinks otherwise. For what it’s worth, I tend to agree with Duns Scotus. He argued that the Father always intended to draw human beings into the life of the Trinity through the incarnation, through the Son assuming human nature to himself. In this view, the incarnation is not the remedy for anything, but rather is an expression of the eternal purpose of the Father to have a holy people for himself in and through Jesus Christ. Now listen to St. Paul in Ephesians:
Ephesians 1:3–6 (ESV): 3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4 even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love 5 he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.
From before the foundations of the world — before man had fallen — God chose us, predestined us to become his adopted sons, to share in the life of the Trinity, in Jesus Christ. You see, maybe Duns Scotus was right. Maybe the incarnation was God’s plan all along, not as a remedy for sin, but as the means of making sons and daughters, of drawing us into the life of the Trinity. St. Athanasius said it this way — and now you’ll understand just what he meant: God became man so that man might become God. God became man to draw men into the life of the Trinity. If Duns Scotus is right, the crucifixion was the necessary remedy for sin, but the incarnation was the means of making sons and daughters.
Is that important to you, to be sons and daughters of God, to be partakers of the divine nature, to be drawn upward into the life of the Trinity? Yes? Then the incarnation is important, and the incarnation is the grand work of the Trinity.
Luke 1:26–35 (ESV): 26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, 27 to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” 29 But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. 30 And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
34 And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”
35 And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God.
And there is the Trinity in the incarnation. God the Most High — God the Father — will overshadow Mary, God the Holy Spirit will come upon her, and she will give birth to God the Son. And in the Son our humanity will be lifted upward into the very life of the Trinity. Does that matter to you? Then the Trinity matters.
In his letter to the Galatians, St. Paul wrote: So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God (Gal 4:7). Is that important? Does that matter? We have a terrible legacy of slavery in our country, a deep wound that divides us to this day. It is not difficult to read ourselves in God’s word to Judah through Jeremiah:
Jeremiah 30:12–13 (ESV): 12 “For thus says the Lord:
Your hurt is incurable,
and your wound is grievous.
13 There is none to uphold your cause,
no medicine for your wound,
no healing for you.
But, what if the wound of slavery could be healed? What if that story could be untold? What if slaves could become sons and daughters? What if the descendants of former slaves and the descendants of former slave owners could become brothers and sisters? Would that be important? Would that matter? If so, then the Trinity matters.
Human slavery and its terrible aftermath are simply the outward manifestations of spiritual slavery to the powers of darkness. The wounds of slavery will never be healed until we — former slaves and former slave owners, those who have suffered under slavery and those who have benefitted from it — are set free together from the enslaving power of sin and death. And now, hear the Great Emancipation Proclamation:
Galatians 4:4–7 (ESV): 4 But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, 5 to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. 6 And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” 7 So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.
If this matters, then the Trinity matters. God the Father has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts to free us from the law, through which came sin and death, so that the ancient tale of slavery which began in the Garden might be untold by the incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ; so that there might be a new story, a story not of slaves but of sons and daughters, brothers and sisters who through the Spirit cry out as one, “Abba! Father!” Paul here speaks of the reconciliation of man to God, but he speaks also of the reconciliation of ancient enemies — Jews and Gentiles — to one another. Does that matter? You know it does, because reconciliation matters here and now as it mattered there and then. And that means the Trinity matters. It is only by the Spirit that we are drawn into the life of the Son and can call his Father our Father.
Is the doctrine of the Trinity true? Of course it is.
Is the doctrine of the Trinity orthodox and catholic? Of course it is.
Is the doctrine of the Trinity doxological, filled with the right glory of worship? Of course it is.
But does the doctrine of the Trinity matter? Does it make a difference? Is it important?
If the love of God is important, then the Trinity matters.
If being caught up into the divine life is important, if partaking of the divine nature is important, then the Trinity matters.
If being set free from slavery and death is important, if being reconciled to God is important, if healing of ancient enmity is important, then the Trinity matters.
If being able to cry out, “Abba! Father!” is important, then the Trinity matters.
The Trinity is not some arcane, abstract dogma that interests only dry and dusty theologians and aging priests. It is our very life, the great and exciting mystery in which we live and move and have our being. And so we say now and unto the ages of ages — and join with me, please:
Glory be to the Father,
and to the Son,
and to the Holy Spirit.
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be,
world without end. Amen.