The Feast of the Holy Trinity: 3 June 2007
(Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31/Psalm 8/Romans 5:1-5/John 16:12-15)
Now These Three Remain
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Many of my earliest and fondest memories of church center on food: the vanilla wafers in Wilsie Fletcher’s Sunday School Class; the great pitch-in dinners prepared by Daisy Frei, Pauline Williams, Ruth Widner, Merl Roop, and other saints of kitchen and table at Lonsdale; the church picnics in Cades Cove. More recent were the weekly coffee hour “banquets” following morning service at St. Thomas’, and now the meals we share together each Sunday afternoon and Wednesday evening– all expressions of Christian ministry, fellowship, and hospitality. We are a feasting people.
Liturgical churches even make it “official” by building feast days into the calendar – twelve principal feasts in the Orthodox Church and varying numbers in other expressions of the faith. Anglicans – at least those in the Episcopal Church – celebrate seven principal feasts. For the most part these commemorate events in the life of Jesus or in the church. Just a mention of the name of the feast recalls the event, which is, of course, a large part of the purpose: Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost. All Saints is less tied to a particular event but instead connects two of them: Pentecost, the formation of the Church as the universal body of Christ extended in space and time, and the Parousia – the second coming of Christ – when that body shall be gathered together from all space and time into the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.
There is one more feast – the one we celebrate today – the Feast of the Holy Trinity. It is the odd man out. There is no specific event to which we can point and say, “There it is. There’s the Trinity.” There is not even a specific scripture we can read which defines the Trinity or even uses the word. No, this feast commemorates not an event but an idea, a doctrine of the church. Even that’s not quite right. The Feast of the Holy Trinity acknowledges and celebrates not just an idea, but the reality of the unique being and nature of our God expressed as a doctrine of the church. And though there is no event or single scripture underlying the Feast of the Holy Trinity, the realization was present in the earliest expression of the church – in the letters and gospels of the New Testament, in the patristic writings, in the creeds of the church – that our one God exists in unity of essence and trinity of persons: one God in three Persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. What the Father is in essence – in divine DNA, if you’ll pardon the anachronism – so, too, is the Son and the Holy Spirit. The “members” of the Trinity are identical in their divine nature; none is more or less God than the others. Yet, they differ – they are distinct – in their personhood. Though all are eternal, the Son is begotten from the Father and the Spirit proceeds from the Father. Though all authority in heaven and on the earth has been given to the Son (Mt 28:18), there will come the end when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, when the Son himself will also be subjected to the Father, so that God may be all in all (1 Cor 15:24 ff). Though the Holy Spirit is equal in divinity, he is sent by the Father, in the name of the Son (John 14:26) to speak not on his own behalf, but only what he has heard; to glorify not himself, but Jesus the Son. In essence unity, in persons trinity: one God in three Persons.
Certainly not everyone in the church agreed or agrees with a particular expression or understanding of the Trinity. Our history is littered with ideas propounded, defended, refuted and rejected – sometimes willingly, sometimes under threat of excommunication. Many, if not most, of the modern popular descriptions of the Trinity are actually heresies vigorously rejected in the 4th century. The remaining ideas are often penny wise and pound foolish, containing an ounce of truth and a pound of error. For all I know, I might have been denounced by the Nicene Fathers for the “explanation” I have given – though I try to be, and think I am, fully orthodox. The doctrine of the Trinity is a theological mine- field unlike any other. Perhaps the best we can do – any of us – is humbly to pray,
Lord Almighty, God of our ancestors in faith,
glorified and worshipped in the Holy Trinity,
whom neither mind can comprehend
nor word have power to express,
whom no one has anywhere seen,
of whom we only learn from the Holy Scriptures,
thus we believe and thus we confess You to be God:
the Father without beginning
and Your only-begotten Son
and Your Holy Spirit (www.jfrankhenderson.com/liturgy, adapted).
Given the historical and theological complexity of this doctrine you might wonder why, some two and a half years ago, I proposed Trinity Church as the name for our community. And here I have a confession. I didn’t. I didn’t propose the doctrine of the Trinity as the basis for our name. I had something entirely different in mind, something more humble, but something equally challenging in its own way. I had in mind a classic text of St Paul.
When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. But when I became an adult, I set aside childish ways. For now we see in a mirror indirectly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know in part, but then I will know fully, just as I have been fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love (1 Cor 13:11-13, NET).
That’s the trinity I had in mind: not Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but faith, hope, and love. It’s there in our motto,
and in its explanation
We exist by faith in our Lord Jesus Christ,
the hope of the world,
who showed his love
in his life, ministry, death, and resurrection
for us and for our salvation.
Without ever diminishing that Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – it is this trinity – faith, hope, and love – that I wish to celebrate with feasting this day.
Faith – what is it? Let’s start with two quotes that answer that question very differently. The first is from a recent book Jim & Casper Go To Church, by Jim Henderson. Jim is a minister, author, and church critic – critic in the sense of interested observer and evaluator, like a movie or restaurant critic. He hires an atheist, Matt Casper, to travel with him to several churches throughout the country in order to rate them through the eyes of a non-believer. It’s an interesting premise and an interesting book. In an afterword Jim summarizes his conclusion about Christian faith, a conclusion he holds in common with his atheist friend, Casper.
There is a difference between certainty, and confidence or hope. As followers of Jesus, we put our faith in a set of beliefs that we choose to think of as real. We cannot prove any of them – that is why it is called faith. What bothers nonbelievers is when we assert that we “know” something, when they know that none of us can know anything until we die. I am very comfortable asserting my faith and my hope and my confidence that Jesus is God, but I will not say that I know he is God in the way I say I know there is gravity. I hope the story I have bet my life on is true, but neither Casper nor I will know for sure until both of us are dead (Henderson, J. Jim & Casper go to church. pp. 166-167. Tyndale House Publishers.).
The second quote is from the New Testament, from the anonymous author of the letter to the Hebrews.
Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen (Heb 11:1, NKJV).
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen (Heb 11:1, NRSV).
Could any two definitions be more different? For Jim Henderson, faith is choosing to accept – as if real – a set of beliefs; it is a bet on something quite uncertain. For the author of Hebrews, though, faith is the very substance of our belief, the evidence for the promises not yet seen. People sit around coffee shops discussing Henderson’s definition of faith. Christians go to the cross, to the arena, to the stake, to the gallows, to the prisons, proclaiming Hebrews’ definition of faith.
Perhaps the chief difference is one of focus. My faith often looks like Henderson’s: flaccid, tentative, more bet than certainty. But Jesus’ faith – now that’s another matter entirely. What if, instead of focusing on my faith, I focused on the faithfulness of Jesus?
We know that no one is justified by the works of the law but by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by the faithfulness of Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified. I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So the life I now live in the body, I live because of the faithfulness of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me (Gal 2:16, 20, NET, emphasis added).
I can doubt my faith, but how can I doubt the faithfulness of Jesus Christ who embraced the cross for me? And it is, after all, not my faith – weak and uncertain – that saves me; it is the faithfulness of Jesus as Paul insists repeatedly in Romans (e.g. 3:22, 26) and Galatians (e.g. 2:16, 20) and Ephesians (e.g. 3:12) and Philippians (e.g. 3:9). It is not their own faith that inspires martyrs, but their firm belief in the visible, tangible, substantive faithfulness of Jesus. And the outcome of his faith, the vindication of it, was his resurrection on the third day. That is not a belief that we accept as if real; that is reality itself.
Now I want to make clear for you, brothers and sisters, the gospel that I preached to you, that you received and on which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message I preached to you – unless you believed in vain. For I passed on to you as of first importance what I also received – that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as though to one born at the wrong time, he appeared to me also (1 Cor 15:1-8, NET).
So testifies Paul – the Paul so certain of the reality of the resurrection that he willing gave his life and his death for the gospel of Jesus Christ. My faith is not the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen – but the faithfulness of Jesus Christ is, the vindication of his faithfulness through his resurrection is. Let us then hold fast to the faithfulness of Christ, for it is our hope.
Hope. We use that word mainly in an ephemeral, emotional way: this thing – whatever it is – would make me so happy, I hope it happens. Maybe it’s the lottery. Maybe it’s that boy at school. Maybe it’s the promotion. Whatever it may be, that’s a far cry from biblical hope, from Christian hope. William Sloan Coffin knew the difference. He was a Presbyterian minister and noted peace activist. When, toward the end of his life, he was asked how he felt about the state of the world and the outlook for peace he replied, “I am not optimistic, but I am hopeful.” What’s the difference between the two? Optimism is emotion. Hope is proclamation – proclamation that, in the face of everything that might seem to suggest otherwise, Jesus is Lord.
V. The genocide in Darfur continues unabated.
R. Yes, but Jesus is Lord.
V. The war in Iraq is spiraling downward into chaos.
R. Yes, but Jesus is Lord.
V. The hope of the poor and the alien is being taken away.
R. Yes, but Jesus is Lord.
I am optimistic about none of these things, but I am hopeful about all of them; for, in spite of everything that suggests otherwise, Jesus is Lord and he is our hope. Yes, Jesus is the hope of the world: not America, not the Republicans or Democrats or Hillary or Barak or Mitt or John, not power, not money, not the military, not the diplomats or the World Bank or even Bono. Jesus is Lord and he is our hope. Now, let’s be clear. That’s not an excuse for passivity – Jesus is Lord so he will take care of all these issues and we need do nothing. Absolutely not. It is a clarion call to action. Because Jesus is Lord and we are his disciples, we have work to do. We must be about his business as he was about his Father’s business. “As the Father sent me,” Jesus said and still says, “so I send you.” As Jesus to Israel, so we to the world. Jesus is the hope of the world and that hope is realized, in part, through you and through me.
This hope will never disappoint because it is based upon God’s very nature. This hope is the firm conviction that what God has been in the past for others he will be in the present and in the future for us.
For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, regarding the affliction that happened to us in the province of Asia, that we were burdened excessively, beyond our strength, so that we despaired even of living. Indeed we felt as if the sentence of death had been passed against us, so that we would not trust in ourselves but in God who raises the dead. He delivered us from so great a risk of death, and he will deliver us. We have set our hope on him that he will deliver us yet again, as you also join in helping us by prayer, so that many people may give thanks to God on our behalf for the gracious gift given to us through the help of many (2 Cor 1:8-11, NET).
God delivered us in the past, Paul writes, and so we have set our hope on him that he will deliver us yet again. This isn’t emotion. This isn’t optimism. It is firm conviction based upon God’s demonstrated and unchangeable character. It is Christian hope based upon God’s love shown to us through Christ our Lord.
Love. Such a vague term. Often fleeting, self-serving, manipulative. But when it’s genuine – what power! Genuine love is from God and through God.
The person who does not love does not know God, because God is love. By this the love of God is revealed in us: that God has sent his one and only Son into the world so that we may live through him. In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins (1 John 4:8-10, NET).
Once again, as with faith and hope, the focus shifts from me, from us – What feeble love I have! – to God, the source of all love. I believe in the power of love not because I’m capable of it, but because God loves me and will love you through me.
Dear friends, if God so loved us, then we also ought to love one another. No one has seen God at any time. If we love one another, God resides in us, and his love is perfected in us.
And we have come to know and to believe the love that God has in us. God is love, and the one who resides in love resides in God, and God resides in him. By this love is perfected with us, so that we may have confidence in the day of judgment, because just as Jesus is, so also are we in this world (1 John 4:11-12, 16-17, NET).
And right in the midst of this glorious passage on love, John adds,
By this we know that we reside in God and he in us: in that he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son to be the Savior of the world (1 John 4:14, NET).
And there it is! That Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – is the very source of this trinity that we celebrate with feasting this day: faith, hope, and love. Amen.
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