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First Sunday after Pentecost: Trinity Sunday: “Third Forces”

 

Genesis 1:1-2:4a

The Creed of St. Athanasius

 

Happy Father’s Day, everyone! To all fathers, grandfathers, great-grandfathers, and all who have taken on the role of fathering others, we lift up the beauty and the difficulty and the importance of what you do. Thank you. And to all of us reflecting on our relationships with our fathers today—peace.

 

My own father died thirty years ago. Yet my relationship with him goes on—more complex and refined as I get older and look at our lives in a new light. Perhaps it’s the same with you.

 

And what about that other relationship we reflect on today—the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit of the Trinity? Has your understanding of that primary part of our Christian family story changed at all over time?

 

Part of what stirs our Trinity reflection is the annual appearance of the Creed of Saint Athanasius, which you will recite at length this morning. To begin to connect both aspects of this Sunday, let me start with a brief story.

 

I just returned from a visit to my brother in Alabama, and I brought him a surprise gift: a battered jewelry box containing all my father’s military insignia and medals. Throughout my childhood, I’d seen it tucked away in my father’s top dresser drawer, but I still understood its contents no better than a child.

 

These were clearly precious artifacts, I knew, symbolizing my father’s rise from the cavalry to the rank of Air Force colonel. But what these objects signified, what they revealed about my father, was lost on me.

 

Sure enough, my brother—his namesake and my only sibling with military experience—quickly made sense of that box. He explained each pin, bar, and ribbon to me; put them in rank order; and added his appreciation for the honor each one signified.

 

In that moment, something new came out of that box. A new arising in me of how my father’s life in service was linked to mine. A new insight into his values—of hard work, of achievement, of devotion—that I could carry forward.

 

I wonder if, for you, this morning, the Creed of Saint Athanasius is much like that battered box was for me. Clearly a precious artifact of our church history. Yet in words that you can’t really decipher; its symbols, its message about the Trinity obscure.

 

So let me play the role my brother played to set this container of faith somewhat in order for you. Its context; its purpose; its language. Then we can explore how one contemporary theologian is putting the question of the Trinity in a whole new light. And see if anything new arises for you. Any new insights into how a refined relationship with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit might activate your life as a Christian.

 

First, this is not really a creed—or written by Athanasius of Alexandria, who lived in the fourth century. Composed to be spoken or sung as part of worship,[1] it speaks the language of worship, rather than belief: “We worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity.”

 

It was attributed to Athanasius because it staunchly defends his theology—although probably written about 100 years after his time. And around 150 years after the Nicene Creed.

 

A standard part of the Catholic liturgy, it was later adopted by Protestant churches as well. For centuries an official belief statement of the Episcopal Church, along with the Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creed, it was traditionally said on 19 occasions during the church year.

 

Then in 1801, our bishops, clergy, and laity in the United States removed it from our Articles of Religion—although it still appears in the Book of Common Prayer as a historical church document. Now, generally fallen out of use, it’s still said on Trinity Sunday in some Lutheran, Catholic, and Episcopal churches, like ours.[2]

 

What was its purpose? Well, every phrase in this document was aimed at two extremely hot controversies in the early church. The first half is all about the major theological obsession of the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th centuries: “How can Christ be God, and God the Father be God, if there is only one God?”

 

And the second half reflects the complex debate about Christ’s being: “How can Christ be fully divine and fully human at the same time? Wouldn’t he need to be partly human and partly divine?”

 

The early church was fractured on both questions, splitting believers along extremely fine lines. There’s a marvelous account of this history in Bart Ehrman’s new book How Jesus Became God, in which he charts the repeated clash of many competing doctrines.[3]

 

Finally, in the third century, a theologian named Tertullian became the first Christian author to adopt the term Trinity as a way of understanding the relationship of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Distinct in number from each other, even as they stood together as One.[4]

 

Even if you’re uninterested in the tricky questions of this debate, I bet you’ll get a sense of the stakes involved when you recite the Athanasian Creed. It clearly condemns those who don’t believe this version of our family story about the Trinity and Jesus’s nature: “He therefore that will be saved must think thus of the Trinity.” If not, “he shall perish everlastingly.”

 

That fierce language may be enough to make you snap this old box shut. To say, nothing here is alive for me as a question of faith. I’m not concerned with defining the persons of the Godhead—their substance or their divine attributes. And I certainly don’t believe I’ll perish if I disagree.

 

But what if we bring our twenty-first-century questions to this day? Look at the meaning behind this debate instead of its surface?

 

I got a new glimpse of my father when I put the language of his devotion into the context of my life . . . What if we did the same with our early Christian ancestors?

 

According to Ehrman, their main concern was how to worship properly.[5] Although cerebral Christian leaders got stuck in theological glue, ordinary Christians asked their questions because they truly wanted to know the right way move forward in faith.

 

Should Jesus be worshiped? If so, should he be worshiped as God, or as a lesser divinity? Or is God the Father alone to be worshiped?

 

Our questions about the Trinity today may be different, but no less important to our moving forward in faith—if we take our relationship to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit seriously, allow it to become more complex and refined. And ask: how can it teach us to act in the world?

 

I’ll suggest one direction that opens up my curiosity about our unusual family story of the Trinity. Maybe it will spark yours too.

 

In her recent book The Holy Trinity and the Law of Three: Discovering the Radical Truth at the Heart of Christianity, Episcopal priest and mystic Cynthia Bourgeault asks: “Imagine the spaciousness that would suddenly open up in Trinitarian studies if rather than starting with three fixed ‘persons’ and asking ‘who?’ we started with three interweaving forces and asked ‘how?’”[6]

 

What if our notion of the Three-in-One was not a fixed triangle of identities—but a mandala of love that stays in motion, that somehow keeps creating more and more new energy?

 

Bourgeault rekindles our imagination about the Trinity by envisioning a set of triads of three independent forces that together generate a new fourth dimension. Take an example in nature. A seed and moist ground encounter the Third Force of sunlight to produce a whole new creation, the sprout.[7]

 

Likewise, across time and space, divine creative forces in changing combinations of three make new energy fields arise. Think about the surge of life brilliantly described in our Genesis creation story this morning.

 

This new Trinity model is based on the interplay of threes—unlike our usual binary way of thinking.[8] The unified Creator God + The Body of Christ + activation by the Holy Spirit give rise to the New Creation: the Kingdom of God.

 

In the here and now, this model invites us to look for Third Forces in our lives that can reconcile opposites; that can shift the deadlock of two-way conflicts into innovative solutions. It challenges us to imagine Father, Son, and Holy Spirit not as persons but dynamic energies. And it includes us again in this energy field, acting as co-creators of the arising Kingdom of God as the Body of Christ. Suddenly the box of our ancient Trinitarian story, the faith of our fathers, is open to us again.

 

Nearly a thousand years ago, an Orthodox monk named Symeon the New Theologian described this moment, when we, as the Body of Christ, become a Third Force of healing and creativity in the world.[9] An intimate part of the living Trinity:

 

We awaken in Christ’s body

as Christ awakens our bodies,

and my poor hand is Christ. He enters

my foot, and is infinitely me.

 

I move my hand, and wonderfully

my hand becomes Christ, becomes all of Him

(for God is indivisibly

whole, seamless in his Godhood).

 

I move my foot, and at once

He appears like a flash of lightning.

Do my words seem blasphemous?—Then

open your heart to Him,

 

and let yourself receive the one

who is opening to you so deeply.

For if we genuinely love Him,

we wake up inside Christ’s body

 

where all our body, all over

every most hidden part of it,

is realized in joy as Him,

And He makes us utterly real,

 

and everything that is hurt, everything

that seemed to us dark, harsh, shameful,

maimed, ugly, irreparably

damaged, is in Him transformed

 

and recognized as whole, as lovely,

and radiant in His light.

We awaken as the Beloved

in every part of our body.

Amen.

 

~ Rev. Clare C. Novak, Associate for Interfaith Ministry

St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church, Incline Village, Nevada

June 15, 2014

 



[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Athanasian_Creed.

 

[2] http://www.churchsociety.org/issues_new/doctrine/creeds/iss_doctrine_creeds_athanasianabout.asp.

[3] Bart D. Ehrman, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee (New York: HarperOne, 2014), pp. 323–52.

[4] Ibid., p. 311.

[5] Ibid., p. 348.

[6] Cynthia Bourgeault, The Holy Trinity and The Law of Three: Discovering the Radical Truth at the Heart of Christianity (Boston: Shambala Publications, 2013), p. 92.

[7] Ibid., p. 16.

[8] Ibid., p. 45.

[9] Ibid., pp. 175–6.