In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
If you are a good book of common prayer Christian, you will know from your prayer book that there are certain days on which, instead of the Nicene Creed which we are shortly to say after I finish speaking, the rather less well-known creed of Saint Athanasius is appointed to be said. In fact those days are: Christmas Day, Epiphany, Saint Matthias, Easter Day, Ascension Day, Whitsunday, the feasts of John the Baptist, James, Bartholomew, Matthew, Simon and Jude, Andrew; and upon Trinity Sunday! Well praise God that this is a common worship service, and also that on at least this rubrical command you have a precentor who is a bit flexible. I did suggest at the 8 o’clock service this morning that we might say the Athanasian Creed, and was not greeted with huge appetite for doing so.
The Athanasian Creed is curious in several regards, the principal two being that it almost certainly was not written by Saint Athanasius, and it is definitely not Creed! It is a rather curious statement of faith that which is deeply Trinitarian in nature. There’s a good reason why it was included in the prayer book, and it’s there to remind Christian people, regularly throughout the year, 13 times in fact, that there is something about how we understand God which is about relationship and unity.
The creed begins like this:
WHOSOEVER will be saved: before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholick Faith.
Which Faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled: without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.
And the Catholick 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…..
…to which centuries of wags in theological colleges and back pews of parish churches have, I am sure muttered, “the whole thing incomprehensible…!” And I could read on, but I won’t, but it continues in the same vein stressing all the time that all three persons of the Trinity are eternal, almighty, Lord and so on, but that there are not three eternals, there are not three almighties, there are not three Lords, but one.
I wouldn’t blame anybody here this morning for never having heard of this text, and it’s one of those bits of the prayer book which have largely become obsolete.
But it was there for a reason. It is there for a reason. It is there to try to make some kind of sense this formula that we use all the time, that we’ve used already in this service and will use again: in the name of the Father, and of the son, and the Holy Spirit: that’s how I began this sermon. The Gloria ended with the words “thou only art holy, thou only art the Lord, thou only O Christ, with the Holy Ghost, the glory of God the Father.” The blessing at the end of this service will define God Almighty as “the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” And so on.
But I think that it would not be unreasonable to say that for a lot of Christian people, the Trinity kind of exists as concept that we know is there, but that we don’t necessarily use in our day-to-day life. Are there moments when we are facing times of stress, or decision, sickness or profound danger, where we think “oh, the doctrine of the Holy Spirit can help me.”? I wouldn’t blame you if that is not a thought process with which you are accustomed.
So the doctrine of the Trinity can exist as a sort of high, overarching clever theological ‘thing’ that never impacts on our lives, or it can of course be interpreted in a way which is actually heretical, where we use the term as Father, Son and Holy Spirit to mean almost three separate gods, you know God the Father who is the big guy with the beard in the sky, he who created the world but with whom we don’t engage much otherwise. The son, O, that’s Jesus, we can cope with that, nice chap, likes animals and children, died on the cross, shows us how to live. And the Holy Spirit, the kind of super soaker water pistol by which God squirts his power around, you know doing stuff.
And honestly on a day to day basis, does it really matter if we resort to one of those two positions? Well, probably not.
But there are deeper truths in the Trinity. It took the early church quite a long time to get the Trinity clear in their own heads. And that’s why stuff like the Athanasian Creed got produced. The deeper truth is that what the doctrine of the Trinity shows us is an example of perfect balance, communion and relationship. Here we have three persons, distinct, but utterly united. Here we have the Father, the Son, Holy Spirit, all of them absolutely equal, all of them the same nature, but with their own identity and attributes, in which there is no domination, there is no power relationship, there is only absolute, beautiful, simple love. The Father loving the Son and the Spirit, the Son loving the Father and the Spirit, the Spirit loving the Son and the Father.
At the heart of it all is a model of love from which we all might learn. At the heart of it all is a model of love which is supposed to form us as we pray ourselves into the mystery of God day by day and week by week. We are, after all, created in the image of God. And the image of God is a relationship. The image of God is three persons, and one nature. The image of God is love perfectly balanced, eternally equal, constantly giving and receiving, constantly offering, constantly blessed.
And into that everlasting, eternal, perfectly balanced relationship of love we are drawn, because we know that we share with Christ, through his death and resurrection, and so we are identified with that second person of the Trinity, somehow, mysteriously, we are drawn into that relationship of love. So the doctrine stops being a far, distant, academic exercise for beardy weirdos in Oxbridge towers, and becomes part of the nature of our experience. As St Paul wrote, “we suffer with Christ so that we may also be glorified with him.” Nicodemus trips up on the teaching of Christ because he approaches it from a functional point of view: how can I be born again? How can I climb back into the womb? Christ says, no, you’re not getting it, you’re born again because you rise with Christ. You’re born again because you are, at the heart of your being, stamped into you, God’s child, and God is Trinity, and God is love, and he so loved the world…
But for that to work we need a doctrine of the Trinity, because it’s simply not good enough for Jesus to be a nice chap, and the Holy Spirit to be some kind of holy spray to be poured liberally on stuff that gets into trouble. Because that would not lead us into eternity. What leads us into eternity is the fact that we can experience the life of the Trinity, partially, fractionally, broken, now. And that is because the Holy Spirit dwells in our hearts, and he is God. And the Son is placed into our hands at the altar rail, and he is God. And stamped in our being, in the Garden of Eden, is the image of God, as we are moulded in the Father’s hands, dust, infused with the Trinity’s breath and fire.
And so we find that deep down, under all the mess and the failure and the infirmity, there is relationship; and there is the call upon our lives to enter into that eternal dance of three persons, the one nature, perfect, balanced, self-giving, ever receiving love. The image of God in you, in me, in the world. “O that it was so!”
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen