On Trinity Sunday it’s awfully easy for somebody like me, a former theology professor, to get lost in some pretty convoluted formulas that might be fun for some people to play with but tend to shut many people out.
If you want to see a good example of just how convoluted the doctrine of the Trinity can get, there’s a creed you can look at that we Episcopalians used to recite and sing pretty regularly. It’s the “Quicunque Vult, commonly called the Creed of Saint Athanasius.” It starts: “Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic Faith. Which faith except everyone do keep it whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.”
Now doesn’t that sound inviting? And then you get all the long-winded explanations about the Trinity where almost every sentence seems to say something and then turn right around and take it back: “The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Ghost eternal. And yet they are not three eternals but one eternal.” Then there’s the reaction Dorothy Sayers once imagined in her mock catechism, which I’ve mentioned before: “The Father is incomprehensible, the Son is incomprehensible, and the whole thing is incomprehensible. Something put in by theologians to make it more difficult – nothing to do with daily life or ethics.” (Dorothy L. Sayers, Creed or Chaos? [New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1949], p. 22.) It’s really pretty outrageous stuff, especially if we make a requirement out of it.
Still, I have to admit I get a kick out of all those “say-something-and-then-take-it-back” phrases. It’s sort of like playing with Zen koans—you know, stuff like, “What’s the sound of one hand clapping?” or “Show me your face before you were born.” I like just about anything that plays with the ways we like to order the world, anything that suggests life might not be as shallow as it looks in corporate boardrooms or on prime-time television. After all, if it’s really God we’re talking about, and not some projection of our favorite wishes, what we say ought to reflect how God confounds almost any description we might cook up.
In another sermon—preached about sixteen hundred years ago—St. Augustine said, “If you comprehend it, it isn’t God” (Sermon 117.3.5). If God isn’t a mystery, then God isn’t God. But the God of Christian faith is a mystery—a presence that becomes harder and harder to describe as our meeting with God deepens. So one of the signs we should look for when people claim to meet God is if they keep saying things and then taking them back. If they act too certain, if they act as if there could be only one, exact list of things everybody ought to say about God, it’s a sign that they haven’t really met God, or that they’ve missed or forgotten one of the most important things about their meeting: If God isn’t a mystery, then God isn’t God.
So if they were really paying attention to what they were saying, whoever wrote the Athanasian Creed (it was not Athanasius) would never have threatened that God won’t let you through the door if you don’t believe all this exactly the way it’s written. I’ve never quite understood why so many of my favorite writers of the past—St. Augustine included—could do such a great job of showing how the presence of God has to be a mystery—something we discover but can’t describe too clearly—and then tell us that we’d better talk about God exactly the way they do, or else. Were they paying attention? If God is God, a mystery we can neither escape nor capture, then people who meet God are never going to talk in exactly the same way about their meeting, and we shouldn’t make that a condition for whether they belong with us.
My Church’s Book of Common Prayer now puts this creed in the section we call “Historical Documents.” That means we think it’s worth reading and studying, but not something we have to agree with, and definitely not something we need to use in our regular worship. Why, we don’t even insist that you have to agree with the creeds we do use in worship. There are only two—the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds. We think it’s healthy to stand with the ancient Church and recite these regularly as part of our life of prayer. But there’s nothing wrong with reciting them and then deciding that today we might have to use different words and ideas to point us toward what they were struggling to say back then. There’s never just one perfect way to speak of God’s common life with us.
And that includes the doctrine of the Trinity. It’s an imperfect attempt to summarize a vital discovery. When the first Christians started gathering, when the movement started spreading, the one discovery they seemed to share in common was that somehow they were being drawn into the very life of God. Jesus’ risen life, the Church’s Spirit-filled common life, and the very life of God mingled so intimately that they couldn’t be separated. And all the walls that seemed to divide them in daily life were transformed into doorways that linked them all together. Their differences didn’t vanish—they grew more rapidly than their minds could follow. And yet somehow those very same differences made them one body in Christ, members of one another, sharing a common life.
There’s a word for this sort of happening. It’s one that Anglicans use all the time. It’s called “communion.” When we use it we always mean something like sharing life in common with one another. When we share bread and wine in Holy Communion, we and God share life in common with one another. We don’t just remember a story about Jesus. We don’t just think about God while we eat bread and drink wine. We and God share a common life with one another, a life that includes the risen Jesus and the life-breathing Spirit. If that’s not really happening, then it’s not Holy Communion.
But we use “communion” in other ways too. My Church is part of the Anglican Communion. We’re also in “full communion” with a number of other Churches. Some of them have exotic-sounding names: The Mar Thoma Syrian Church of Malabar, India, the Old Catholic Churches of the Union of Utrecht, or the Moravian Church. But one of them is the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and GraceUnlimited is funded by them as well as by our Episcopal Diocese.
When we’re in full communion we don’t get absorbed into one, giant superchurch. We keep our identities—Episcopalians are still Episcopalians; Lutherans are still Lutherans, etc. But now we officially recognize that we’re members of one another. I celebrate the Eucharist—Holy Communion—all the time in Lutheran parishes. Lutheran Pastors do the same in Episcopal parishes. Lutheran pastors have become rectors of Episcopal parishes, and Episcopal priests have become pastors of Lutheran parishes. We’re not all the same, but we’re members of one another. We’re different, but we’re also one. We share a common life.
That’s what Jesus’ first followers were discovering about their life with God. No matter how odd or broken they seemed to be, they were all being drawn into the Communion—the common life—of God’s Spirit in Jesus’ Christ. That’s what I hope we are discovering in our life with God today—no matter how odd or broken we seem to be, we’re all being drawn into the Communion of God’s Spirit in Jesus Christ. And that, friends, is the doctrine of the Trinity in a nutshell. We share a common life.
One of the first expressions of that teaching in the New Testament is the blessing in this week’s reading from St. Paul: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” The doctrine of the Trinity began as a blessing, a blessing that summed up the common life, the communion, that was moving them into uncharted territory.
Of course, it got way more complicated than that. Though it took a while, the movement eventually drew some of the best minds of the time into its orbit, and they tried to explain the Trinity in ways that would make sense in terms of the world as they understood it then. And they had some very complicated views of the world. Eventually a good number of them wound up telling us that in God there are four relations, three persons, two processions, and one substance or essence. (But not a partridge in a pear tree.) Hmmm. Who knew?
Actually, knowing how they got there, I can appreciate what they were trying to say. They were trying to say that God is more—and more mysterious—than just an invisible, single person. Sure, the one we meet in the Communion of God’s Spirit in Jesus Christ is certainly not impersonal. Instead, you could say that this God is interpersonal. God isn’t just like me by myself, only bigger. God is more like what happens when “you” and “I” become “we,” when we discover that the different lives we live also share in a common life that moves among and through and beyond us.
Today our views of the world are even more complicated than they were back then, so it’s still easy to make our life with God look really complicated. And you’re still going to find complicated books written about the Trinity—though probably not at a truck stop. There’s a place for books like that, especially if you’re chronically curious about nearly everything. If you’re not that obsessed, don’t worry. That’s probably a good thing.
But at its heart, the doctrine of the Trinity is not “something put in by theologians to make [life] more difficult.” It all began as a blessing. It was of course a blessing charged with a sense of mystery—the Communion of God’s Spirit in Jesus Christ, a common life that fills and moves us right here and right now, just as it fills and moves the whole universe. But a mystery-charged blessing is still a blessing, first and foremost. It’s a blessing that invites us to see ourselves and our neighbors and people we don’t even know as blessings in our own right, as vital players in what has to be the greatest jazz ensemble that ever was or will be—the Communion of God’s Spirit in Jesus Christ.
Episcopalians are not known for spouting Bible verses. But I have a suggestion for you today. The next time somebody asks, “What’s all this business with the Trinity?” Just memorize and quote 2 Corinthians 13:13. Maybe you don’t get asked that question as often as I do, but I seem to remember people getting tongue tied about answering it even when I was a kid. In any case, I’ll bet you ask that question yourself sometimes, if only on Trinity Sunday. So memorize 2 Corinthians 13:13. And the next time the question comes up, answer with a blessing: The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of … us.