The Trinity: Sermon for the First Sunday after Pentecost
“Christ be with me, Christ within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me, Christ beside me, Christ to win me, Christ to comfort and restore me.” Amen.
Good morning. Today is the first Sunday after Pentecost, also known as Trinity Sunday – also known as the most confusing day on the church calendar. Even though every week we affirm our belief in a Trinitarian God, I suspect that very few of us – including me – are able to get our heads around the concept of the Trinity without groaning. But the
Trinity is one of the foundations of our church. Each week we recite:
“We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made…
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.”
This has been the statement of our faith for almost two thousand years, and – with very little variation – that of most mainline Christian denominations all over the world. It is really important – so you would think that we would all be completely clear on what it means. Well, I’m not sure I am – and I’m not convinced that anyone really is. Still, because it is Trinity Sunday, and because it is important to try to understand it, and, most importantly, because the rector has completely weaseled out and left the seminarian to preach, I think we’ll have to make the effort.
Most of the biblical passages that make up the ideas in the Nicene Creed are found in the New Testament. That’s because even though God is present throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, the God that we refer to in the Nicene Creed is different- not in his own nature, but in who he is in relationship to Jesus. The New Testament God is not only God the Creator, but also God the Father – the father of Jesus. The Nicene Creed is about relationships; the God of the Nicene Creed is both the same as and more than the God of the Hebrew Scriptures – and he is more because of his relationship with Jesus. So, in the first part of the Nicene Creed we are saying that we believe in God AND God in relationship to Jesus.
The second part of the Creed is what we believe about Jesus. We believe in Jesus the son of God. Just as God can only be understood in relationship to Jesus; Jesus can only be viewed in relationship to God. Now, here is where it starts to get complicated: we also say that we believe that Jesus is “begotten” from the Father – begotten but not made. What’s the difference? Is it important? Yes. It was important enough to split the Christian church into two parts in the third century.
During the first two hundred years of Christianity, theologians and church leaders were still trying to make sense of Jesus and his message. A few weeks ago I told you that by the end of the first century there were 30 gospels and at the end of the second century there were four gospels– the same four we have now. I also suggested that each of the gospel writers had an agenda when they wrote their accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings. Most scholars agree that the author of the Gospel of John is focused on Jesus’ divinity. Its writer wants us to know that Jesus was and is divine – that Jesus is not just the son of God; Jesus is God. The way the early church fathers interpreted John’s words had an enormous impact on the way Christianity was shaped. The difference between the words “begotten” and “made,” which may seem small to us, was crucially important to how they saw the relationship between God and Jesus – and the nature of God himself. C.S. Lewis put it this way:
“We don’t use the words begetting or begotten much in modern English, but everyone still knows what they mean. To beget is to become the [parent] of: to create is to make. And the difference is this. When you beget, you beget something of the same kind as yourself. .. But when you make, you make something of a different kind from yourself. ..That is the first thing to get clear. What God begets is God; just as what man begets is man. “
Jesus is not the same as God. He was not made by God. Jesus is something new, different but equal to God – made of the same essence – “oo-see-ah” – as God. And because Jesus has always been equal to and part of God, we can understand all things to have been made by both Jesus and God.
Of course, not everyone thought that’s what Jesus said. Different theologians had different ideas about the relationship between God and Jesus – and between God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit. And they fought over it, just like churches fight over things today – because, sadly, Christians have been arguing since the beginning of the church. What is most tragically ironic about the argument over what came to be called the fill-ee-oh-kway controversy is that it ended up causing the first Great Schism of the church. Perhaps that’s because it wasn’t resolved by theologians, but by a politician. We recite our beliefs the way do because in 325 A.D. the Emperor Constantine held a council – the Council of Nicaea – where it was decided that God and Jesus were of one essence. That didn’t sit well with Christians who believed that God and Jesus were equal but not of the same essence. They believed that since Jesus and God were not the same, the Holy Spirit could not have come from both of them, only from God. Pretty technical stuff isn’t it? It doesn’t seem like it should make much of a difference – whether the Holy Spirit came from God alone or from both God and Jesus -but it is the primary reason that the Christian Church split into two parts -and remains split today.
It’s important because the nature of the Holy Spirit depends on what – or who – it’s made of. Let’s think about it. We use a lot of different images to try to describe the Holy Spirit: a roaring wind, tongues of fire, and the cleansing waters of Baptism. But the disciples didn’t know what the Holy Spirit would look like. All they knew was that Jesus was talking about going away – and about weeping and mourning. He was talking in riddles about him being in the Father and the Father in him and them in him and them in the Father. Can you imagine how confused they were? These were uneducated men! But in the midst of all of this, Jesus said something very reassuring: he said that he would never leave them alone. That his peace would always be with them. That he would send them instructions through something called the Holy Spirit – and that they would receive power and wisdom and understanding – and they would know the truth. Can you imagine how relieved they must have been – and even more so after he died? Put yourself in their shoes; they were in despair. They lived in a harsh, unfriendly world full of inequities. They had lost their friend, their shepherd – their savior. And into this darkness, his spirit came to them – and they knew the truth: that God was and would always be with them. Don’t you sometimes wish that would happen to you?
It has – and it continues to happen every day. We just may not be any better at recognizing the Holy Spirit than they were. Maybe that’s because we are expecting tongues of flame or mighty winds – and it is right in front of us – in our front gardens, the first star in the night sky, or a perfect sunset. Most importantly, it is in the people sitting next to you – at your dinner table, on BART – or in your pew. The presence of the Holy Spirit is in the very center of each of our souls. When I had the privilege of preaching at St. Clement’s on All Saint’s Day, one of the things I talked about was how all of us belong to one community – those of us who live and those who have died. I reminded us that when someone dies they live on in our hearts and through our memories of them. That’s a gift. But how much more of a gift is to know that someone who died for you lives in you? And not just in your limited human memory, but in every human soul? Here on earth we love and are loved and live and die -and we become parts of each other’s lives – but we are part of God always– before we are born, when we suffer, when we rejoice, and when we die.
The Nicene Creed reminds us that we believe not only that Jesus will come again, but that he is here now. The same God who created us is the same God who saved us and the same God that is in us. You just have to believe it – believe it and do the only thing that God asks of us: We have to let God love us. It sounds simple doesn’t it? It’s hard to believe that the result of all of this theological debate and compromise boils down to just that. And yet it’s so hard to do – so hard to walk to the edge of the cliff and jump, so hard not to try to swim against the tide, so hard to give up the power and control that we desire or fear or treasure. Can you do that? Can you let go of fear and anxiety and pain and self-doubt and believe that God is in us? That God is with us? And God is beneath us and above us and with us in quiet and in danger and in the hearts of friend and strangers. We bind unto ourselves today the strong – and loving -name of the Trinity, by invocation of the same – the three in one and one in three. Amen.
Click below to download this sermon: