Sermon for Trinity Sunday 2009
The Revd. J. Michael Povey, at St. Boniface Church, Siesta Key, FL.
Some four years ago a parishioner in Cambridge, MA asked me an odd question. “What” he enquired “would cause you to leave the Episcopal Church?” I think that he wanted me to say something about sex. I replied “I would leave the Episcopal Church only if we explicitly and deliberately denied the doctrine of the Holy Trinity”.
I believe that God the Holy Trinity is at the heart and core of who we want to be as Christians in the Episcopal Church. God the Holy Trinity is far more important and much more exciting than sex!
Back in my seminary days one of my co-students would have occasional melt-downs when, overwhelmed by sadness and despair, she would disappear and hide somewhere on the campus. We loved her and cared for her well being and one of the faculty members would be despatched to find her and to bring her home. One dark night the vice-Principal of our college sallied forth, flash light in hand to find her. His nocturnal exploration coincided with a rash of bicycle thefts from a bike rack on campus. A vigilant English bobby seized upon our vice-Principal, convinced that he had nabbed the bicycle thief. “No, no” protested the suspect “I am the vice-Principal of this College”. “Alright then” said the bobby “If you’re the vice-Principal, spell ‘feological’”.
I suspect that eyes glaze over and minds check out when we speak of the Trinity as we think of it as a bit of confusing “feology”. Far from that, I believe that the Trinity is to be enjoyed and experienced. It is as much a theology of the heart as of the mind.
The doctrine of the Trinity was formulated, to be sure, in the Councils of the Church. But it is not as though a group of Bishops got together one day and said “let’s make up a doctrine to confuse the faithful”. What they were about was to give expression to an experience of God which was both faithful to scripture, and to their experience.
Not fundamentalists by any chalk, they understood that Trinitarian belief was implicit in Scripture, but that it had to be teased out using their reason and their experience. Like the much later Puritan John Robinson, they knew that “God had yet more light to break forth from his holy Word”.
Having inherited a deep monotheism from their Jewish roots they sought to give voice to their conviction that total Godlikeness had been seen in Jesus, and that the Holy Spirit, present within them was also totally of God.
Their deepest conviction was that there was but one and only God who had been utterly manifest in Jesus, and was fully present in the Spirit.
But they also knew that Jesus was NOT God the father, and that the Holy Spirit was neither the father, nor the son.
They created new language to give expression to this belief and experience – language which was needed to make it clear that the Son and the Spirit were not created. For had they been created by God, then God could also destroy them.
So it is that that they refer to the Son as being “begotten”, and to the Spirit as “proceeding”. The Son and the Spirit are “of one substance with the Father”.
Here I add three “feological” caveats.
First, it is incorrect to refer to Jesus as God. We see and know the eternal God in Jesus, but we afford him the divine title of “Lord” to distinguish him from the eternal Father.
Second, the Nicene Creed is incorrect when it asserts that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son.
The eternal Father is the source of God-head from whom the Son is begotten and the Spirit proceeds.
(Those three words “and the Son” were included in a later version of the Nicene Creed, a version which was never approved by the Eastern Orthodox Churches).
Thirdly, though I have used the traditional language of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” – it is entirely congruent with scripture, tradition and reason to recognise the feminine in God. We may freely refer to God as Mother, and to the Spirit as “she”.
Our life in the Trinity is expressed in that same Nicene Creed which we rehearse at each Sunday Eucharist. Some folks have scruples about saying this, not wanting to say something that they do not believe.
But the Creed is not about what I believe, or you believe. It is a rehearsal of the faith of the Church as a whole. So we may all say it quite cheerfully as a poetic expression of something deeply valuable in our heritage and history. When we recite the creed we are saying “here I am, part of that great body of believers who down through the ages have expressed their faith in words such as these”.
I believe that “feology” is a good servant, but a bad master. The doctrine of the Trinity will serve us very well as we enter into the life of God.
It assures us that deep at the heart of the Universe is a God who is not single, lonely and isolated, but a God in whom there is an eternal dance of love. The Trinity is all about that dance: - giving, receiving, sharing, dancing and singing between father, son and holy spirit. In Christian experience we enter into that delicate and joyful dance.
And it assures us that community is the very nature of God. As Christians we say “a plague on rugged individualism”. “I did it my way” is a lonely and self-absorbed way of living. Instead we say – I am bound in love with a both irritating and fabulous community of faith which models its life in God the Holy Trinity - the community par excellence.
Dance with the Trinity today. Live in the Trinity in this irritating and fabulous parish!