I did not preach this Sunday — well, I did, kind of — and so it looked something like this.
Trinity Sunday (Year C)
- Proverbs 8:1–31
- Acts 2:14–36
- Psalm 8
- John 8:48–59
48 The Jews answered him, “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?” 49 Jesus answered, “I do not have a demon, but I honor my Father, and you dishonor me. 50 Yet I do not seek my own glory; there is One who seeks it, and he is the judge. 51 Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” 52 The Jews said to him, “Now we know that you have a demon! Abraham died, as did the prophets, yet you say, ‘If anyone keeps my word, he will never taste death. ’ 53 Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? And the prophets died! Who do you make yourself out to be?” 54 Jesus answered, “If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. It is my Father who glorifies me, of whom you say, ‘He is our God. ’ 55 But you have not known him. I know him. If I were to say that I do not know him, I would be a liar like you, but I do know him and I keep his word. 56 Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.” 57 So the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” 58 Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” 59 So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple. (John 8:48–59 ESV)
This is Trinity Sunday, the day the church has chosen to try and explain the inexplicable. To describe the indescribable. To define the indefinable. And we try any number of ways to explain this inexplicable and deeply irrational thing — that we believe in one God who is actually three separate and distinct persons and yet still only one God.
I’m going to let Athanasius, the fourth-century saint whose lengthy creed we claim as authoritative but otherwise leave mouldering on the shelf only to dust off and confess this day, do the hard work for me:
[W]e worship one God in trinity, and the Trinity is unity, neither confusing the persons nor dividing the substance.
For the person of the Father is one, that of the Son another, and that of the Holy Spirit still another, but the deity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is one — equal in glory, coequal in majesty.
What the father is, such is the son, and such is the Holy Spirit. The Father is uncreated; the Son in uncreated; the Holy Spirit is uncreated. The Father is unlimited; the Son is unlimited; the Holy Spirit is unlimited. The Father is eternal; the Son is eternal; the Holy Spirit is eternal—and yet there are not three eternal beings but one who is eternal, just as there are not three uncreated or unlimited beings, but one who is uncreated and unlimited. In the same way, the Father is almighty; the Son is almighty; the Holy Spirit is almighty—and yet there are not three almighty beings but one who is almighty.
Thus, the Father is God; the Son is god; the Holy Spirit is God—and yet there are not three gods but one God. Thus the Father is Lord; the Son is Lord; the Holy Spirit is Lord—and yet there are not three lords; but one Lord. For just as we are compelled by the Christian truth to confess that each distinct person is God and Lord, so we are forbidden by the catholic religion to say there are three gods or three lords.
The Father was neither made nor created nor begotten by anyone. The Son is from the Father alone, not made or created or begotten. The Holy Spirit is from the Father and the Son, not made or created or begotten but proceeding. Therefore there is one Father, not three fathers; one Son, not three sons; one Holy Spirit, not three holy spirits. And in this Trinity none is before or after, greater or less than another, but all three persons are in themselves coeternal and coequal, so that (as has been stated above) in all things the Trinity in unity and the Unity in trinity must be worshiped. Therefore, who wants to be saved should think thus about the trinity.
Thus we should think about the Trinity. What a mouthful. Small wonder we leave these pages alone for early the entirety of the church year. Recite this, and you’ve taken up a good portion of a typical worship service!
But note what this is. Athanasius is not giving us an explanation. He’s not saying what the trinity is, though he is spending his time telling us what the Trinity isn’t — three fathers and three sons and three spirits, or that the Son emanated from the Father and the Spirit from the Son. He’s also not telling telling us how this is so. He’s confessing the Trinity as a true understanding not just of how we perceive God at work, but who and what God actually is.
In effect, Athanasius is saying this Trinity we worship as one God, undivided and indivisible but somehow three very separate persons, is a mystery we confess rather than understand. Something we experience, rather than explain. Trinity needs no explanation. It is the truth that explains.
In our first reading, we have wisdom — Σοφια in Greek, חָכְמָה in Hebrew — claiming to have been there since before the beginning, before The Lord said “Let there be light!,” separated the waters, and filled the world with green things, creeping things, flying things, and people.
I was beside him, like a master workman, and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the children of man. (Proverbs 8:30–31 ESV)
From the beginning, this Spirit was with God, rejoicing and celebrating in the work of creation, in all the things and creatures God created.
This Spirit is God, is with us still, blows through this world like the breath God gives to all that lives, delighting in us, celebrating with God in the goodness of even a fallen creation. In the children of men, evil and sinful though we can be.
And in our Gospel reading, Jesus tells a group of Judeans after a long and drawn out discussion about light and truth and doing the work and being one with the father, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” The Judeans — Jews is most translations, it’s the same word in Greek — are already angry at Jesus. He’s not one of them, he’s challenged some of their most cherished assumptions — particularly the faith that their patrimony, their heritage, their ties to their ancestor Abraham — will somehow save them, or privilege them before God.
But Jesus will have none of it. Whoever keeps his word will never taste death, Jesus says. He glorifies only the Father, and does only what the Father commands and empowers him to do. And he confesses, “Before Abraham was, I am.”
In the present tense. Like Sophia, there at the beginning, being the Word through which the creation was spoken into being. Being the light that came into the world.
There’s something very strange, however, about the Son we meet in our gospel reading today.
A little further on in his very lengthy creed, Athanasius writes of the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ:
Although he is god and a human being, nevertheless he is not two but one Christ. However, he is not one by the changing of the divinity in the flesh but by the taking up of the humanity in God. Indeed, he is not one by a confusion of substance but by a unity of person. For, as the rational soul and the flesh are one human being, so God and the human being are one Christ.
Christ is human, God wrapped in flesh. One of us, lifting our humanity up.
This chapter of John begins with a woman caught in the act of adultery being brought to Jesus and asked his opinion on what should be done. “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her,” he says to the Pharisees who presented her. They slink away, and Jesus pardons the woman, telling her, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”
He could save her from the wrath of those who would impose the law.
The chapter ends with Jesus hiding as many of those same Pharisees pick up stones to hurl at him. Because he claimed to be older than Abraham.
He could not save himself.
This God in flesh, who was there before the beginning, who was the word through which the cosmos was breathed into being, who with wisdom rejoiced in the creation of the world, could save a woman from the frightful consequences of the law. Could pose the question that disarmed all her accusers.
But he could not save himself.
This God almighty has to slink and hide and cower while angry religious leaders with stones in their hands search for him, seeking his death.
He can save us. But he cannot save himself.
This is what it means to confess a Triune God of Father, Son, and Spirit, in which the Son is incarnate in our midst, in flesh as one of us, fully God and fully man. When you meet Christ, a cowering Christ fleeing those who will kill him, you meet God. When you meet Christ, betrayed and humiliated and tortured and crucified and helpless to save himself, you meet God.
Conversely, because it is our humanity that has been elevated, when you meet a person treated this way, to meet this kind of suffering, to meet betrayal and humiliation and torture and helplessness and death, you meet God. When you meet a person cowering in fear, seeking safety, running from those who hands claw and grasp, or who clutch tightly stones of judgment and condemnation, you meet God.
Not in glory. Not in strength. Not in wealth. Not in comfort. Not in greatness. Not in purity or position or privilege or power.
But condemned, in suffering, sorrow, fear, pain, death. This is where God is.
This is who God is.
This is what it means, these dusty old words of St. Athanasius, words we don’t like to say or even much think about. When we confess God as Trinity, we confess our faith and trust in a God who takes so much joy in the creation that he became enfleshed in it, shared our uncertain and difficult lives, suffered with us, and suffered at our hands, dying a deeply unjust death so that we who trust and follow may have eternal life.
He created the world, breathed it all into being. But he cannot save himself.
That, sisters and brothers, is what it means to confess God as Trinity.