St. Mary the Virgin Anglican Church, Trinity Sunday, June 7, 2020 The Revd. Canon Claude Schroeder
In today’s Gospel lesson we come to the climactic moment in St. Matthew’s Gospel, where Jesus, after His Resurrection from the dead, appears to the disciples one last time, and says to them, “ All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always unto the end of the age.” (Matthew 28. 18-20)
This is what in the Church is known as “The Great Commission”, the task Jesus has given us to draw others into a relationship of faith and obedience to Himself. How do we do this? The task of making disciples involves two things: baptism, which only ever happens once, whether as a child or as an adult, and it involves teaching, which begins hopefully in childhood and continues for the rest of our lives so that we might grow up and mature in our faith.
The teaching that been given to us to explore today is without a doubt the singularly most important, foundational, non-negotiable teaching that we have in the Church. The place where you can go to look this up is on page 695 of The Book of Common Prayer, where you will find something that is popularly called, “The Creed of St. Athanasius,” after the great 4th century Church Father and Bishop of Alexandria in Egypt, who became famous for his role in articulating and defending the core teaching of the Church concerning God and Jesus Christ.
This is how the Creed of St. Athanasius begins,
“Whosoever would be saved, needeth before all things to hold fast the Catholic Faith.
Which faith except a man keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he will perish eternally.
Now the Catholic Faith is this, that we worship one God in Trinity, and the Trinity in Unity
Neither confusing the persons, nor dividing the substance.” ( BCP 695)
So there you go. If you want to be saved, which is to say, if you want to become a whole person, and if you want to know and experience God and enter into communion with Him, and not die forever, but have eternal life, you need to hold fast the Catholic Faith, which is the Christian faith in all its fullness.
What is this faith?
“We worship God in Trinity, and the Trinity in Unity, neither confusing the persons, nor dividing the substance.”
This, in a nutshell, is the Christian faith, something that you can actually hold in the palm of your hand when you put your thumb, forefinger, and middle finger together and sign yourself with the sign of the Cross.
It’s usually at this point when somebody in the congregation scratches their head, and, if they are brave, raises their hand to ask a question. The question goes something like this. “How can 1+ 1+ 1 = 1?” When I went to school, I learned that 1 +1 +1 = 3, not one. How can God be “three” and “one” at the same time? This doesn’t make any sense to me.
This reminds me of an old Irish joke where a hopelessly lost tourist asks an old man by the side of the road, “Can you tell me how to get to Dublin?” And after a few minutes thinking, the old man replies, “ Well, if you want to get to Dublin, you don’t want to start from here!”
This is actually how it is with the doctrine of the Trinity. We find ourselves hopelessly lost in the Church, desperate to find and hold fast the Catholic Faith, and be saved.
But our starting point is all wrong.
So what for Christians is the starting point?
It may come as a shock to some of us discover that as Christian we do not actually take as our starting point a belief in God, and whether or not “God exists.” There is a very simple reason for this that has been highlighted for us by the arrival of the Coronavirus, and other events which we have been hearing about recently in the media. People are anxious, people are scared, people are sad, and people are mad. Some people, at least, are wondering, “Where is God in all of this, if there is a God?” “Why is God doing this?” or if He isn’t doing this, then, “Why is He allowing this?”
I sometimes hear people, “When I come before God, I am going to have some questions!”
I am not so sure this such a great idea. If Job’s experience in the Old Testament is anything to go by, when we come face to face to with God, we won’t be asking any questions.
And yet, we have these questions, and we are looking for answers.
But the answer to the question, “Where is God in all of this?” depends entirely on who you believe God to be.
The Christian method in theology does not to begin with a vague belief is some “ Superior Being ” or “Higher Power” or a concept of “the Divine,” which we may or may not call “God.” The Christian method in theology begins not with God, but rather with Jesus, and with His Birth, Baptism, and Temptation; His Preaching, Teaching, and Miracles; His Suffering, Death, Resurrection, Ascension, and Sending of the Holy Spirit,” and only then goes back and asks the question, “In light all of what we have heard and seen and experienced in Jesus, what does this tell us about who God is?” Here on Trinity Sunday we find our answer, but only after the Church has taken us by the hand and walked us step by step through the saving events of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
There is this critical moment recorded in the Gospels, where Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” “They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. (Matthew 16.14-16)
All of Christian theology can be understood as the answer to the question that Jesus posed to the disciples, “Who do you say I am?”
What we have been given to believe, along with St. Peter, is that Jesus Christ is the Son of the Living God, that in the person of Jesus Christ, our Human Nature and God’s Divine Nature were seemlessly united. This isn’t something we figured out on our own because we were particularly clever. No, this is something that has been revealed to us by Jesus’ “Father in heaven.”
With this, all of sudden, the cat is out of the bag.
Who is God?
God is the Father of Jesus Christ.
How did we come to know this?
We came to know that God is the Father through His Son, whom God raised from the dead.
And as we heard and experienced last Sunday at the Feast of Pentecost, God has poured and infused His very life into us through the Holy Spirit that He has given us.
And so we are compelled by the Gospel accounts speak of God in terms of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: not as three gods, but as three persons in one God, “neither confusing the persons nor dividing the substance.” God is the Father, who is the Creator of Heaven. Jesus Christ is His only Begotten Son, from before all worlds, who took flesh of the Virgin Mary, suffered, died and rose again for us. The Holy Spirit is “the Lord, the Giver of life, who together with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified.” All three persons of the Trinity share and partake of the substance or the “stuff” of divinity.
If you want to be a Christian in the Church, and experience the fullness of what it means to be a whole human person, and enter into life and communion with God, this who you are to worship, and how you are to think and speak about God. In matters of theology, salvation, and spirituality, grammar is hugely important. This is why we baptize in the name (singular) of the one God who is the Father, who is always with His Son, and who always with His Holy Spirit. Three persons in one God.
I remember at University taking a course in world religions where I was told that Christianity was one of the three great monotheistic faiths in the world, to be distinguished from other religions that believe in many gods. I now realize this was a mistake. Christians do not believe in “one god” as opposed to “many gods.” Christians believe in one God, in the sense that God, is at unity with Himself. God is love. And if you are going to have a Lover that implies a Beloved to whom Love extends more and more.
In the loveless and impersonal eastern religions, which are becoming quite popular here in the West, everything is “god”, and where “union with god” amounts to spiritual suicide, when you disappear as a person and are swallowed up by god like a rain drop is swallowed up by the ocean. But when we “hold fast the Catholic Faith”, and experience salvation, we become more truly ourselves, more truly human, more truly personal, more truly loving, which is to day more truly relational. This begins when, in baptism, we are united to the God/Man Jesus Christ in His death and resurrection, and are joined to and become part of the community and communion of persons who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
So God is not a spiritual force, as in “Star Wars.” (“The Force be with You.”) Nor is God a philosophical concept. The Holy Trinity is God, and He is not a math problem. The Holy Trinity is a communion of persons who are who they are because of their relationships with each other. The Father is who He is because of His relationship with the Son, whom He loves with a perfect fatherly love. The Son is who He is because of His Belovedness by the Father that issues in perfect love and obedience. The Spirit is who He is because because He communicates and bears both the love the Father has for the Son, and the love the Son has for the Father. ( Stanilou 54)
“What” God is cannot really known by us human beings.
But “Who” God is, can be known through God’s actions.
In our first reading this morning from the Book of Genesis we had the story of God’s action in creation, in which God’s Word and God’s Spirit each play crucial role. God speaks created things into existence: And God said, ‘Let there be’, and it was so! ( Genesis 1. 6,7 ff). And also God breathes the breath of life into his creation. (Genesis 1.30). It was St. Irenaeus, the second century Church Father who spoke of the Son and the Holy Spirit as the “two hands of God,” by which He moulded man into His image.
What is true of God’s action in creation, is also true of God’s action in salvation.
The Holy Spirit overshadows the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the Word becomes flesh!
And so whether it is in creation or salvation, God always acts as Trinity. All three persons are involved, where there is a unity of heart, mind, and action.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. And I am now nearing the 2,000 word mark in this sermon, and it so it is time for me to stop talking!
It’s why with my dying breath I want to refer you to the icon printed on the front cover of today’s bulletin. It is “The hospitality of Abraham” by the Russian iconographer Anton Rublev.( 1360-1427) It is based on the story of the visit of the three angels to Abraham as told in Genesis 18. 1-8 , which in Rublev’s hands became the basis for an icon illustrating the spiritual unity, peace, harmony, mutual love and humility that characterizes the life of the Trinity. The colour scheme, body language, and eye movement of the angels, and the composition of the various elements of the icon itself are highly symbolic, and bear close scrutiny, and well worth extended meditation and contemplation. As we behold the three figures seated around the table we notice there is room for one more: you the viewer. And as we trace the interior line created by the body the angels seated on the left (the Father) and on the right (the Holy Spirit), we discern a chalice which contains the center angel, (Jesus), hand raised in blessing over the meal that has been prepared…
It is through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the Cross for the forgiveness of sins that we enter into communion with the Holy Trinity, thus realizing the purpose for which we have been created. And it is this life-in-communion which has been given to us receive in the sacraments and embody in our relationships in the Church, when, according to Paul’s exhortation, we “ put things in order, agree with one another, live in peace and greet each other with “a holy kiss.”
So much for social distancing…
And so for today, I greet you all from afar.
May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.