A Homily for the Feast of the Holy Trinity
Texts: Isaiah 6:1-8; Romans 8:12-17; St. John 3:1-17
Grace to you and Peace in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
To what can we compare the Most Blessed Trinity?
God’s existence as three persons united into one being is perhaps the most confusing belief in the Christian faith. The Church spent its first four centuries arguing about it, trying to figure out which understanding is the most faithful, and many of those ancient debates have re-occurred throughout the ages. Entire libraries worth of text have been published just to explain this one doctrine, but understanding remains elusive. When we try to explain our belief in the Trinity to our friends, to our children, to ourselves, we reach for analogies. “The Trinity is sort of like…uh…hm…an egg, a clover, a flame, a human, a hand,” we say, before trying to draw out similarities between an eternal God and something infinitesimally small.
And yet every attempt to explain it falls woefully short. Every analogy is wrong in some crucial way. Think back at the analogies you’ve heard to describe the Trinity – and I have to confess, these are some that in the past I have used myself.
The Trinity is like an egg, which has three parts – a yolk, the white, and the shell. Except no, that doesn’t quite cover it, because God can’t be broken down into component parts. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are each fully God. As the Athanasian Creed puts it, “We worship one God in Trinity, and the Trinity in unity, neither confusing the persons nor dividing the divine being.”
Ok, not an egg. So maybe the Trinity is like a woman who may at the same time be a daughter, a sister, and an engineer. But no, that’s not quite it either. It’s not that there’s one person filling three different roles. Rather, God is three persons. The Athanasian Creed teaches, “The Father is one person, the Son is another, and the Spirit still another.”
Or how about this: the Trinity is like a flame, which produces both heat and light. But that’s Arianism, the heretical belief that the Son and Holy Spirit are creations of the Father. To again quote the Athanasian Creed, “Uncreated is the Father, uncreated is the Son, uncreated is the Spirit.” And as the Nicene Creed puts it, Christ is “begotten, not made.”
Our analogies always fall short, and when we’re talking about the Trinity, every precise detail is important. Every time we try to craft an analogy, we fall into heresies like partialism, modalism, Arianism. God is larger than our language, larger than our analogies. God is sui generis, one of a kind. The Trinity is only like the Trinity.
Because of this, it can be tempting to throw up our hands in frustration. “What does it matter? It’s not like we’ll be greeted at the gates of the Kingdom and given a test on trinitarian theology,” we might think. “And this doesn’t have any bearing on the real world. It’s just a point of theology to be debated by academics wearing tweed jackets with elbow patches in lecture halls arguing over the precise meaning of Greek words or for pastors to preach confusing sermons on once a year.”
To be certain, though, Trinitarian theology is important, it does have bearing in our daily lives. Our theology defines who we are. One particular ancient heresy has come roaring back in recent years. The belief is called subordinationism – the doctrine that Christ, God the Son, is inferior to the Father rather than co-equal in majesty and glory. Again, the Creed teaches us, “In this Trinity, no one is before or after, greater or less than the other….” And yet, in direct contradiction to the Christian faith, certain theologians in the Fundamentalist world have used this heresy to subjugate women, arguing that they are inferior to men and should be subordinate. We’ve seen in recent days the pain and anguish this has caused in action as a senior Southern Baptist pastor condemned women to stay with their abusers and covered up sexual assaults. This is not the way of Christ. This is not who God is or what God wants for us.
Our beliefs do matter; not for the sake of passing some test or being able to explain the intricacies of doctrine but in practical and concrete ways. The Christian faith shapes our daily lives, explicitly or implicitly. Good theology may produce holy lives, but bad theology most certainly produces pain and suffering. Theology is important because it guides the life of the Church.
The Trinity, that sacred mystery beyond human comprehension, is not merely a theological statement detached from our lives. It matters. It’s best understood not through lengthy credal statements or inept analogies. Rather, we comprehend the Trinity through God’s active self-revelation in Scripture and the world. Simply put, we know who God is through what God does.
So where do we start? Let’s start at the very beginning (a very good place to start). In the beginning, was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. In the Beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, a wind, literally a Spirit, from God blew over the face of the deep waters. God spoke, and the by Word, the world was formed. Creating humanity in their image, God blew breath – again, literally the Spirit – into our first parents. The Triune God, in all of God’s glory, is at work in the cosmos. From before the foundations of the world, from everlasting to everlasting, God exists in Trinity, and in Trinity, unity.
The fourteenth century Greek monk Nicholas Cabasilas put it this way:
Even in the first creation there was a shadowy indication of the Trinity, for the Father created, the Son was the Creator’s hand, and the Paraclete was the Life-giver’s breath….God bestowed many blessings on creation in every age, but you will not find any of them being ascribed to the Father alone, or to the Son, or to the Spirit. On the contrary, all have their source in the Trinity, which performs every act by a single power, providence, and creativity.
And ages upon ages later, after Christ’s Resurrection and Ascension, a few years after the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost, Saint Paul show us the Triune God continuing to work in the world as the Father adopts us as children and co-heirs with and through Christ. All of this comes about through rebirth in the Spirit, poured out at Pentecost and poured out on us in Baptism.
We learn who the Triune God is through what God does: saving humanity. Just as all three persons of the Trinity were at work laying the foundation of the world, so they are all involved in our redemption. We know who God is through what God does, and the Lord is mighty to save! Blessed be the Almighty!
And then we hit the words that stop us in our tracks: “…if in fact we suffer with [Christ.]” How is this salvation? Especially when these words have been interpreted in such a way to keep people enslaved, in abusive marriages, and under oppression? What does this tell us about who God is? That our God is angry and wrathful, that God finds glory in human suffering? BY NO MEANS!
Dear ones, we misunderstand if we hear these words as condemnation to abuse. What does it mean to suffer with Christ, to suffer as Christ suffered? It means taking the Gospel into places of suffering. It means finding those in pain and sitting with them the same way that Christ, the very Word of God, took on human flesh and joined us in the grave to liberate us from the grave. It means that we respond to God’s call just as Isaiah did: when confronted with the overwhelming glory of the Triune God and he suffering of the world, we cry out, “Here I am! Send me!”
Beloved, the Lord is sending us out to the hopeless places to proclaim hope, to the places of pain to proclaim healing, to the places of death to proclaim life, to the places of loss to proclaim salvation. By divine grace and in response to the calling of the Holy Spirit, we are being called to participate in God’s liberating work of salvation.
We suffer with Christ when we go out to those places where people are suffering and we accompany them into new life. We suffer with Christ when we go to the places where women have fled from violence in the home and we ensure that they are sheltered, fed, and cared for. We suffer with Christ when we give of our time, our talents, our wealth, ourselves to support places like the Rescue Mission and the Dove Center in their efforts to care for the marginalized, to shelter women and children fleeing from abuse.
We know who God is through what God does, not by way of analogy but by mighty deeds of salvation. The Triune God is at work redeeming the world from violence and death, rescuing us from the power of Sin. Our Almighty Lord is sending us out to proclaim this liberation to the world, to show the world that our God cares for the suffering. What does this tell us about who God is?