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Comprehending the Godhead

Preached at St. Mark’s, 6744 S. King’s Hwy, Alexandria, VA 22306 (MAPTP internship) on June 19, 2011
Trinity Sunday, Year A (RCL): Genesis 1:1-2:4a; Psalm 8; 2 Corinthians 13:11-13; Matthew 28:16-20

Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful, and kindle in us the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and we shall be created, and you shall renew the face of the earth.  O God, who by the light of the Holy Spirit did instruct the hearts of the faithful, grant that by that same Holy Spirit, we may be truly wise, and ever enjoy His consolations, through Christ our Lord. Amen.

There is a story told about St. Augustine of Hippo, the great philosopher and theologian. He was often preoccupied with the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Augustine wanted so badly to understand this doctrine about one God in three persons, and to be able to explain it to others, carefully, logically, and completely.

One day, as he was walking along the sea shore reflecting on the Trinity, Augustine happened upon a little child, all alone, playing at the shore. This little girl, who had made a hole in the sand, would run down to the surf, fill a little cup with sea water, run back, and then pour the contents of the cup into the hole. Augustine drew close to the child and asked her, “Little one, what are you doing?” She replied, “I am trying to empty the sea into this hole.”

Augustine asked her, “How do you think that you can empty this immense sea into this small hole using that tiny cup?” To which she answered back, “And you, how do you suppose that with your small head you can possibly comprehend the immensity of God?” With that, the little child disappeared.

Today we celebrate Trinity Sunday. It is the one Sunday where we remember the blessed Holy Trinity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. The primary difference setting this Sunday apart from other Sundays during the year is that today, on Trinity Sunday, we focus on the “being” of God rather than the “doings” of God: we pause to look at who God is rather than what God has done. On Trinity Sunday, we move from the “sacred story” to the mystery of the Sacred and Holy itself. The readings today all marvel at the wonder of God.

First, “In the Beginning,” we hear in Genesis the story of the Six Days of Creation and the Sabbath. The text tells the mighty acts of God, invoking the Word that brought all things to life, that ”logos” who we now know from the Gospel of John to be God the Son, and that wind which sweeps across the face of the waters is God the Holy Spirit. Through most of this account, we hear the Creator at work, that ‘He,’ who is God, speaks into being ALL that is made, and then repeatedly declares it to be very good. Please notice verses 26-27 when God creates man and woman. It reads,“Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.” This movement from the singular God to plural entities likely refers to the divine beings of God’s heavenly court, but the ‘more than one’ is alluded to early on in scripture.

Psalm 8 speaks to how we marvel at the wonders of God, and in verses 4 & 5, it raises a very important question. “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, * the moon and the stars you have set in their courses, What is man that you should be mindful of him? * the son of man that you should seek him out?” The essence of that question is: Why should I think God cares about me? Well, one answer comes for the commission of humankind at the time of creation - God has given us really important work to do - it is the vocation of dominion over that which God has created. In another word, it is Stewardship.

Paul’s epistle to the Corinthians ends with some counsel about faithful living, some final greetings and parting exhortations, and a full blessing evoking the sense of the Trinity: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” This benediction is nowhere to be found in any other letter attributed to the Apostle himself, and yet we begin our worship each Sunday the way Paul ends this letter.

Finally, in Matthew’s Gospel, at the Great Commission of the Disciples by our Risen Lord, the Son of God speaks with power granted from his Father. Jesus sends the eleven to carry his message of redeeming love out into the world, and before ascending into heaven, he promises to be with them always, “until the end of the age.” The Holy Spirit will guide the disciples in the mission field, and they are to baptize in the name of the Triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The Blessed Trinity is the foundational doctrine of God Almighty in the Christian faith. The term "Tri" is a combining form which means three, and "Unity" represents a state of being that is united or joined as a whole. Combine “Tri” + “Unity” together, and you get “Trinity.” It is a way of endorsing what the Bible reveals to us about God, that God is yet three "Persons" who have the same essence of deity. The word ‘Trinity’ is not found in scripture, although throughout the Bible, we are taught the central truths which lead to this doctrine.
Jesus spoke about the Father who sent him (the Son) and about the Holy Spirit whom he (Jesus) was going to send. Jesus said that the Father had given him (the Son) all that he has and that he in turn has given to the Holy Spirit all that he has received from the Father. In this we see the unity of purpose among the three persons of the Trinity.

In the story of salvation we usually attribute creation to the Father, redemption to the Son, and sanctification to the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, though they are distinct as persons, neither the Father nor the Son nor the Holy Spirit ever exists or acts in isolation from the other two persons of the Godhead. St. Paul refers to this threefold activity of God as: “love, grace, communion,” and Jesus sends his disciples to teach, make disciples, and baptize in the name of the Trinity.

I don’t know if you’ve spent much time exploring our Book of Common Prayer, but it includes a small section called “Historical Documents of the Church.” Perhaps in some earlier time, when a new seminarian droned on and on about what they were learning in seminary which did not excite you, you reached for the Prayer Book and started leafing through pages you had never visited before. We’ll have none of that today, please! Yet if you were to turn to Page 864, you would find the Creed attributed to St. Athanasius. At my presenting parish (Grace Church, Alexandria on Russell Road), once a year we would wrestle with its lengthy verses and tongue-tripping language, trying to better understand the mystery of God as three persons. To do that, the Athanasian Creed repeats everything it says about the three aspects of God, three times in three different ways. It’s very repetitive! If you are not already familiar with it, I commend to your reading. Try reading it aloud. With others. Not now! It just might remind you of Pentecost last week when we heard the lesson from Acts in all those different languages.

If you page forward still to the Articles of Religion, Article I (BCP 867) that pertains to our “Faith in the Holy Trinity” reads: “There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions; of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the Maker, and Preserver of all things both visible and invisible. And in unity of this Godhead there be three Persons, of one substance, power, and eternity; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.” This is effectively the short-form of the Creed of St. Athanasius.

So this religion which we share has inherited and cultivated the strong conviction that God is One, while beginning to articulate the faith in the three aspects, or natures, of God: Father as Creator, Son as Redeemer, and Holy Spirit as Sanctifier.

Last week on Pentecost, we celebrated the gifts of the Holy Spirit. This week we consider those gifts in relation to the gifts of the Father and the Son. We honor the gifts of the Holy Trinity in the Church that are manifest through you and me. As we hear that great story of creation in Genesis - how God made the heavens and the earth and all that is in them, and fashioned all humankind, we may wonder: How is God’s very image and likeness in each one of us?

I think about this a lot recently because toward the end of this school year and continuing into this summer, many VTS families, some recently graduated and now being ordained deacons and priests, others continuing in seminary next year, are being “fruitful and multiplying.” We’ve had over a dozen births since November!

For me, it was not uncommon to have a newborn at Tuesday morning small group worship, in Christian Ethics, in the Refectory for lunch, or later in the day in Systematics. Each time I gazed at young Miriam, I wondered what kind of person she will grow up to be? How will her personality be shaped over time? Each of us is certainly unique - a culmination of physical, spiritual, emotional and intellectual gifts. God’s own multifaceted presence shows us just how complex our own reality can be. To be made in God’s image is the very unique gift of personality that each of us uses to relate to God in all God’s aspects: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

This past semester at VTS, I took both Systematic Theology and Christian Ethics. Those two classes simply made me head spin, and I marveled at the majesty of my professors’ comprehensive knowledge of their respective subjects. Specifically in Systematics, we began working our way through the work of God in relation to each of us, starting with creation and going all the way through redemption and the last things, the final triumphant working-out of God’s grace. For all these doctrines, much has been written and even more said about any or all of it. Lord knows, I have a small appreciation of the challenge St. Augustine faced as he tried to squeeze that proverbial ten pounds of doctrine about the Blessed Trinity into the five-pound ‘bag’ called his brain. My head often hurt from trying to fit it all in!

It sounds simple and we think we understand ... but the mystery of God is great and immense. So lest we grab our little cups, dig our tiny holes, and try to move the ocean from one place to another, remember that little girl who admonished St. Augustine of Hippo: “How do you suppose that with your small head you can possibly comprehend the immensity of God?”



( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
Jun. 20th, 2011 09:51 am (UTC)
Again an excellent homily. I remember back to the time when I was teaching the confirmation classes at St. Christopher's and here at All Saints': I used to offer the following: "you Candidates for Confirmation see me as a priest, my wife sees me as her husband, some others see me as a Captain in the Navy, but in actuality I am just DPC". They saw me in one role and yet we all have multiple ways that others see us. That seemed to help my students to see God in the Trinity. You did a great job of explaining the roles of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit and your story about St. Augustine and the little girl reminds us all the "suffer not the little children to come unto me" leads us to understand that "out of the mouths of children come a lot of wisdom". Once again, David, yours was a job well done. Love, Dad
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