In the Name...
And Jesus asked, "Who do men say that I am?" And his disciples answered and said, "Some say you are John the Baptist returned from the dead; others say Elias, or other of the old prophets." Then Jesus asked, "But, who do you say that I am?"
And Peter stood up and replied, "Thou art the Logos, existing in the Father as His rationality and then, by an act of His will, being generated, in consideration of the various functions by which God is related to his creation, but, only on the fact that Scripture speaks of a Father, and a Son, and a Holy Spirit, each member being coequal with every other member, and each acting inseparably with and interpenetrating every other member, with only an economic subordination within God, but, causing no division which would make the substance no longer simple."
And Jesus said, "What?"
Today is Trinity Sunday, a day we celebrate God in His being rather than for anything He has done. Throughout the year most of our church festivals are narrative. They tell a story - the story of Jesus, the story of salvation. Today, though, we turn from the sacred story to the sacred itself. The drama of the seasons has been interrupted, as it were, by a commercial break - a word from our sponsor. Indeed, it is sometimes said that Trinity Sunday is the only feast in the year devoted to a doctrine. But, that isn't really true because the Trinity is not so much a doctrine as a Person - three Persons, in fact. "Trinity" is really the name of the God we know as Father, and Son, and Holy Spirit.
Every day, we live surrounded by concepts which are hard for us to understand - gravity, microbial mutations, the Kardashians. The concept of God is something else that's too much for us to comprehend, like, for example, the roundness of the earth. We accept that the earth is round, but, we don't experience the earth as round. Most of the time, we act as though the earth was flat. To experience the earth as round requires us to have a larger perspective. We need to look at a globe, or see a photo taken from space. The earth is so large and we are so small, that we can't sense the true shape of our planet.
To experience the Trinity, we also need the equivalent of a globe or a satellite photo. We require something more accessible than the technical theological language which the church has constructed to explain the Triune God. Oh, we still need these words because they provide intellectual accuracy and precision. They speak to our minds. But, we also need an image that can engage the heart.
Various images are available. The great Welsh saint Patrick famously used the three-leafed shamrock to explain the Trinity to the Irish. Other times the symbol of a triangle internally subdivided into three more is used. But, today I'd like to present a different image. Not a static graphic, but, a moving picture. God the Trinity as God the Dance. God the Dance. Now, this particular dance is not a formal ballroom affair with many self-focused couples following a prescribed path. Nor is it a rave, where everybody does whatever. The dance we might consider for an image of Trinity is an old-fashioned folk dance, a circle dance with everybody's hands joined. A dance without beginning and without end with all the participants looking at each other.
In this holy dance called Trinity, the three who make the circle do not predate the dance and the dance does not predate the three. Each cannot be confused with the others, nor is one of greater worth than another. In this dance, each plays a specific role, and the three of them move in constant, eternal, rhythm, this way, that way, in and out, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That's the basic image of God the Dance. It's not too bad, it's easy to imagine, but, it's not complete. I said it was a moving picture and something about it is about to change.
Six months ago, we began the liturgical year with the season of Advent. Since then, our focus has been on major events in the story of Jesus, his coming and birth, his suffering, death and resurrection. For the next six months, now, until Advent comes again, our focus will be largely on how we live what Jesus taught by word and action. And the principal thing that Jesus taught is that the only way we can live by those words and actions is if we join in the dance.
In other world religions, the gods are totally other, totally removed from the human experience. They exist high up and far away. Senile and aloof. What's different about the God revealed in Christ is that He invites us to join in his experience. St. Athanasius, the greatest proponent of Trinitarian theology in the Early Church famously summed this up when he said that "Man is a creature who has received a command to become God".
And so, the dance circle breaks open, and the Son and Spirit, still holding hands with the Father, extend their free hands to us, inviting us into the circle, drawing us into the dance, that we may become participants in their life. And, not just us. We open our free hands and more and more people join in and the circle gets bigger and bigger. We are children of the Father, brothers and sisters of the Son, filled with the Spirit. We are made in the image and likeness of Trinity.
And being part of this dance is what carries us forward through life - when we're thankful for what we’ve been given, proud of what we’ve done, and hopeful about the future, but, also during the hours of darkness when we feel without place and without purpose. When we need assurance that beyond death there is new life, having our hands held by the Trinity is what gives us strength and direction.
That's why the Trinity is hard to capture in a snapshot. It's constant motion. And like the roundness of the earth it's hard to comprehend because we're in the middle of it. And yet, the being of the Trinity is our source of being, the life of the Trinity is our source of life.
St. Athanasius lived in a time when some said that Christians should present the Trinity as just three separate gods. Others said that the idea that Jesus was God Incarnate should be dropped altogether. During those difficult years, when it seemed the entire Church would fall apart, Athanasius stood firm for the Trinitarian view and later, when the Church adopted his definition in its creeds, it named one of them in his honour.
The Church of England has always required that this "Athanasian Creed" be read on this Sunday, but, the Episcopal Church never has for reasons I’ll explain in a footnote.* Nevertheless, it’s attached and I’d like you to recite it in place of the Nicene Creed, today, and, yes, it's going to sound awkward and stilted, even bizarre, because it presents the language of the mind, written in Greek in a time of controversy seventeen hundred years ago.** But, it would never have been so widely accepted if ordinary Christian people had not found within it the experience of the heart, the experience they knew to be true of the life of the Trinity within them, if they had not heard, in the background of the theological lyrics, the tune of God as dance.
Today, we celebrate that tune and give thanks that, because of it, we know who God is. Knowing that, it's easier to appreciate all that He does and get on with doing what we must do. Join hands. Join God’s dance.
In the Name...
*Unitarianism/Deism was popular in the Thirteen Colonies and many people (including Founding Fathers) who attended Anglican parishes leaned to it. The Athanasian Creed was omitted from the 1789 American Prayer Book in an attempt to keep theological waverers comfortable. Even so, King’s Chapel in Boston, the oldest Anglican parish in New England, refused to join the new Episcopal Church and formally became Unitarian, as did a number of Anglicans.
**In Greek, the Athanasian Creed actually sounds poetic and has been set to music.
THE ATHANASIAN CREED
Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the Universal Faith. Which Faith except everyone do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly. And the 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 incomprehensible. 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.
So likewise the Father is Almighty, the Son Almighty, and the Holy Ghost Almighty. And yet they are not three Almighties, but one Almighty.
So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Ghost is God. And yet they are not three Gods, but one God. So likewise the Father is Lord, the Son Lord, and the Holy Ghost Lord. And yet not three Lords, but one Lord. For like as we are compelled by the Christian verity to acknowledge every Person by himself to be both God and Lord, So are we forbidden by the Universal Religion, to say, There be three Gods, or three Lords.
The Father is made of none, neither created, nor begotten. The Son is of the Father alone, not made, nor created, but begotten. The Holy Ghost is of the Father and of the Son, neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding. So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Ghost, not three Holy Ghosts.
And in this Trinity none is afore, or after other; none is greater, or less than another; But the whole three Persons are co-eternal together and co-equal. So that in all things, as is aforesaid, the Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshipped. He therefore that will be saved must think thus of the Trinity. Furthermore, it is necessary to everlasting salvation that he also believe rightly the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. For the right Faith is, that we believe and confess, that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man; God, of the substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds; and Man of the substance of his Mother, born in the world; Perfect God and perfect Man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting. Equal to the Father, as touching his Godhead; and inferior to the Father, as touching his manhood; Who, although he be God and Man, yet he is not two, but one Christ; One, not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh but by taking of the Manhood into God; One altogether; not by confusion of Substance, but by unity of Person. For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one man, so God and Man is one Christ; Who suffered for our salvation, descended into hell, rose again the third day from the dead. He ascended into heaven, he sitteth at the right hand of the Father, God Almighty, from whence he will come to judge the quick and the dead. At whose coming all men will rise again with their bodies and shall give account for their own works. And they that have done good shall go into life everlasting; and they that have done evil into everlasting fire. This is the Universal Faith, which except a man believe faithfully, he cannot be saved.