It’s Trinity Sunday. Take your prayer book and turn to page 864. The prayer book prints what it calls “historic documents” of the Church. They make great sermon reading. See, at the bottom, the section headed “Quicunque vult, commonly called the creed of Saint Athanasius”? (Actually, Athanasius wrote in Greek in the fourth century and the Athanasian Creed was written in Latin probably in the sixth, but don’t worry about it.) “Quicunque vult” are simply the first two words of the Latin text: “Quicunque vult salvus esse…” “Whosoever would be saved…” In the old days, this would have been read on Trinity Sunday after matins—and on a bunch of
other feast days. I almost know it by heart:
“Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic Faith, which Faith except everyone do keep whole and unde-filed, without doubt he will perish everlastingly. And the Catholic Faith is this: that we worship one God in Trinity and Unity, neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance.”
A bit further down the page: “The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible…And yet…they are not three incomprehensible but one incomprehensible.” Got it now?
“When shall we have done away with the incomprehensible jargon of the Trinitarian arithmetic?” wrote one American. Can you guess who? Thomas Jefferson! “No man ever had a distinct idea of the Trinity,” he wrote somewhere else, “It is the mere Abracadabra of the mountebanks calling themselves the priests of Jesus.” Puts me in my place, doesn’t it?
Jefferson may have a point. He had obviously sat through the Athanasian Creed on too many sunny Trinity Sundays in Charlottesville. But the smug ration-alism he imported from Europe clearly gave up at the mind-blowing claims of the Christian gospel. And we know his response. It was quite literally to take a pair of scissors to the gospels and cut and paste together a version that he deemed acceptable. Deprived of mystery and miracle, he tried to present us with what he saw as the “diamonds among the dross”—the “Jefferson Bible”—the true rational teachings of Jesus. The result is an impossible gospel and an unreachable standard.
About twelve or so years ago I was invited to speak at a science and religion conference on Star Island—it’s a kind of Unitarian “Shrine Mont” just off the coast of Maine. After one of the day’s sessions I was quietly sipping my gin and tonic when I was suddenly pinned against the wall by a man with a Perrier water and the stare of the Ancient Mariner. “What we need to do,” he said, “is to look at all the religions in the world, pick the best from each, and go out and do it.”
I have two problems with that. First, religion is not a spectator sport. It isn’t like buying a car where you shop around and compare brands. The primary attitude of the religious spirit is hands extended in prayer. Open to reality. Ready to receive. The second problem is the idea of “doing it.” The problem is that most of the time we either don’t “do it” or can’t “do it” from within ourselves. The second attitude of the religious spirit is the need and desire to be transformed by reality beyond ourselves.
It’s Trinity Sunday. And we keep it for good reason. After six months of stories—Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Ash Wednesday, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost—we get to ask, “What does it all mean?” What do you believe about the fundamental character of the world? What is the single most important undergirding principle behind the world? What matters most? What is most “true” and most “real”? What is the character of the “reality beyond ourselves”? What is worth remembering about the Christian insight into the way the world works?
Today, the Church answers the question with two very short readings. They are both “last thoughts” or “last words.” From Paul, as the final goodbye at the end of his second letter to the Corinthians: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” And from Jesus, as his last words before he took leave of his disciples: “Baptize them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit….I will be with you always, to the end of time.”
Paul’s parting wish for the Church at Corinth and Jesus’ last promise and command to his friends both join together Father, Son and Spirit—Jesus, God and Spirit. And they give this union all the gravity and seriousness of a “last testament.” If you asked Jesus or Paul if they believed in the “Trinity” in the sense of the Nicene Creed, you would probably be met with a curious stare—the word hadn’t been invented yet. But if you asked Paul or Matthew to summarize the essence of their gospel and ministry in one line you would probably get something like the verses we’ve just read. Matthew: “Baptize all nations in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” Paul: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”
Behind all the creeds and formulae, behind all the struggle of faithful Christian scholars throughout the ages to help us find words to describe the character of the incomprehensible, there is a fairly simple yet shining truth: God loves the world. God loves the world as the perfect Father loves his children. God loves the world not from a far off star but up close in real and concrete situations. The whole God loves us in the flesh of human life. He loves us by the river, he loves us in the operating room, he loves us on death row. He loves us in Jesus his Son. God loves the world. God loves the world to shape the world. God loves the world by being in every fibre of its being as its Spirit—drawing its parts together in a community of love embracing and flowing through the spaces between its atoms. This is nothing less than Paul wished for the Christians, that they would know “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ which makes human the overarching love of God and grants us the gift of sharing in the community of the Holy Spirit.”
Our God is not a distant God, not some abstract idea of an impersonal and perfect deity. Not some perfect “number one.” The very essence, the very “stuff” of our God is community and sharing and life-giving. Trinity talk is community talk. You can’t love in isolation. You have to love in community. God’s very “stuff” is community stuff: Father, Son and Spirit. In the Christian Church there is no such thing as “my” communion. There is only “us” in the sharing of the Holy Spirit.
We were baptized in the name of that Trinity. “Baptize” means literally to “dye” as one would dye cloth. We are dyed in the color of the Trinity. It is an indelible part of our character. God’s sharing of God’s life with us is so profound, so intimate, so permanent, so inescapable, that we are baptized in him, we are “dyed in the wool” with the color and character of God. We are dyed in the Trinity.
Is it rational? I think so. I can certainly talk about it. Can I get my mind ’round it? No. But you have to admit that the Trinity is a lot more fun than Thomas Jefferson.