+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
It’s that most wonderful day of the church year where you are subjected to my dense ramblings about the most difficult concept in Christian theology to understand or explain, so let me start with a bit of silly self-disclosure. It is, in fact, a bit of a confession. I am not alone in being “geeky” about both Church history and about things more traditionally called “geeky”: Star Trek and Dungeons and Dragons and things of that nature. For whatever reason, I am friends with lots of clergy around my age who have similarly combined church-nerdery and science-fiction, fantasy, and gaming “fandom.”
So, my confession is that my online handle, my username, on Twitch and Discord–the primary platforms where people stream their videogame and tabletop game content and chat about it live–is “Quicunque Vult”, the first two words and Latin title for what is traditionally called the Athanasian Creed. Occasionally I will leave a comment during a livestream, which invariably makes some poor professional videogamer try to pronounce Quicunque Vult when he or she is playing a challenging game in front of an audience of hundreds or sometimes thousands. I hope that this is not online trolling, but rather internet evangelization, and that they will look up the Athanasian Creed as soon as they’re finished with their livestreamed game session. Perhaps the chances of that are slim, but I live in hope.
Now, I realize that while its unlikely that any given professional gamer will have heard of the Athanasian Creed, it may (unfortunately) be similarly unlikely that even a life-long churchgoer will have been exposed to it either, unless they had a particularly pedantic priest teach their Confirmation class. In the old days, and still in the Church of England where they have retained the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, the faithful would have recited the Athanasian Creed instead of the Apostles’ Creed several times a year, including on Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, and Pentecost. Naturally, they’d also recite it on Trinity Sunday (the Feast we observe today), because it is the earliest expression of the fullness of our Trinitarian belief as Christians. It is in our prayerbooks on page 864, and while I am sore tempted to have us recite it in full this morning, I won’t for two reasons. First, it’s in remarkable small print in our prayerbook which, as somebody with premature presbyopia, I can understand would be a difficulty for some. Second, because the bishop has been in recent years less inclined to grant me permission to stray from the rubrics, I reckoned there was about a 95% chance he’d say “no” if I asked to substitute the Athanasian for the Nicene Creed today, and I decided it wasn’t worth getting him irritated at me over it. That said, I commend it to you for your edification after church (or now, if this sermon is getting too much in the weeds for you).
The TLDR (“too long, didn’t read”) synopsis of the Creed is this: the Christian faith is defined dogmatically (that is to say in its essential doctrine, not in the pejorative sense we sometimes associate with the word “dogmatic” these days) by its understanding that God is three persons in one substance, or essential reality. If that sounds confusing, it’s because it is, it’s ultimately a mystery, but we do have some language given by God in Scripture to get close to the divine meaning. Each of these persons–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–is equal in glory and majesty, in being eternal and uncreated, and in being almighty and ultimately incomprehensible.
They are distinguished not by rank or activity (it is not, as I’ve said in previous Trinity Sunday, sermons that there is a division of labor within the Godhead) but, rather, firstly by the fact that the second person of the Trinity (the Son) is eternally begotten of the Father–that the First Person of the Trinity is in some sense the origin or font of what the Church Fathers called Deitas or “godhood” from whom the Son eternally received the same–and, secondly, that the Third Person of the Trinity (the Holy Spirit) proceeds from the First and Second Persons, that he is sent by the other two.
Now that’s a lot of theological hair-splitting, which is among my favorite pastimes, but you may well ask what the point is. The point, I think, is that the Holy Trinity is defined not by the way we human beings typically, sadly define our relationships in a transactional way–who’s job is this or that; who’s in charge of whom–but rather by preëxistent, equitable relationships of perfect love and by mutual mission (sending) to accomplish the divine will. Thus, the mystery of the Trinity is the heart of the Christian community as God intends it to function. That is to say that the mission of God, the Trinitarian Mission, is the model for the Church’s mission.
We are all one body, individually members of it, and equally redeemed and worthy. Love is the only principle by which our relationships within that body should be defined. And this love naturally leads to mission, to sending. Just as the Father’s love necessitated the sending of the Son to redeem the world and the love they shared, which is the Holy Spirit, inevitably led to that same Spirit’s being poured out upon all flesh that Good News might be spread to the ends of the earth, so should our unity in love inevitably lead to apostleship, to going out to be heralds of the Gospel in a world for whom that Good News is its only hope.
What is the alternative? Church history, I contend, shows us that treating the revealed truth of God’s Triune nature as a matter for merely rational debate, for deconstruction, naturally leads to a worldview in which the individual is entirely on his own to save himself, and anybody with a robust sense of one’s own sin-nature and status as redeemed by Christ alone, knows this to be an exercise in futility. We have seen this transition before over the course of just a few hundred years, a relatively short period in the context of the Church’s history, and you’ll forgive my somewhat unecumenical tone here, which I hope you know I only take when the issue at stake is essential to Christian belief and practice.
Both in England and in this country, the Puritans began by attempting to purge our church of its Catholic content, including, eventually, the dogmatic statements of the Church Fathers, Creeds included. Having purged their version of the church of its universal birthright, some took theological expurgation as the primary mode of religious discourse. Thus they attempted to cast off revealed truth as a whole, in favor of only that which could stand up to the assumptions of Enlightenment-era reason. The first thing to go was the Doctrine of the Trinity, and one was left with Unitarianism (our famous 18th Century American Deists being, for all intents and purposes, a subset of the same). Eventually, the great majority of these Unitarians came to the logically-necessary end of this project of theological-sloughing, and “purified” the church of the “presumption” of making any claim whatsoever about the truth or falsity of any theological proposition, adopting “Universalism”, which is really a euphemism for claiming that religion must merely be a personal aesthetic choice rather than any kind of consistent, commonly held belief system.
Now, I’ve known some Unitarian Universalists over the years, and they’ve mostly been perfectly nice people attempting to live moral lives. But, it seems to me an awfully lonely way to live, to believe the point of religion is to make some kind of meaning for myself–just for myself lest I presume to push it on somebody else–in a seemingly meaningless world, without recourse to saying “this is true (or false)” without adding the codicil “for me.” This strikes me as making the statement meaningless at best, and probably of making the whole endeavor of finding meaning itself inherently, ironically meaningless. All of this is to make the bold claim (about which somebody, not me, should write a monograph) that the road to theological perdition begins with the rejection of the Trinity and ends with being incapable of saying anything meaningful about religion at all.
So, today, we give thanks for, of all things, a theological concept. Lest we be tempted by the spirit of the age to claim that a theological claim is neither here nor there, that it is an entirely private matter, we can set our hope on the proposition that there are at least a few that change everything about how we live our lives and how we find meaning and purpose as individuals and as a community. God made everything and called it good. God came among us and died for us and rose again. God enlightens and inspires and strengthens us to live in love and to spread that love to all. These claims are either true or false, not just “for me” but for the whole world. Believing them to be true changes everything for the better in this life and gives us the assurance of even greater things in the next.
+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.