Friday, June 24, 2011

The Knottie Trinity

Scripture for Trinity Sunday includes Genesis 1:1-2:4a; II Corinthians 13:11-13; Matthew 28:16-20

Let’s see: Trinity Sunday… Fathers’ Day… Trinity Sunday… Fathers’ Day… ? Trinity Sunday and Fathers’ Day?

Sure, both can be our subject today, and this is eased by an overlap with that first member of the Holy Trinity: Father.

And a father—any father—will serve as an illustration of what the doctrine of the Trinity says, and doesn’t say. Dan, for example, is a father. He is also a son. And he is also a friend.

I know you rounded those first two corners with me: Dan as father, and as son-- both identities echo the first two natures of God. You were expecting something to parallel the Holy Spirit, and what I gave you is friend. Three weeks ago, when I last preached, I brought to our discussion of the Holy Spirit, third person of the divine, Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of the traditional names Advocate or Counselor, his preference: Friend. One who knows you so well that it comes as second nature to stand up for you, champion you, guide you with the personal attention, affection, and fearlessness of a natural coach.

So the same man stands as a father, a son, and a friend. These are three of his natures, and each helps make him who he is.

To further the analogy between the multiple identities of Dan and those of God, we’d need to speak of those three natures of his as three persons, for that is what we say of the Trinity.

And that’s where some mischief creeps in. Take “three persons” literally and you not only make God sound like a committee, but also wrap the whole of God in flesh and blood, reducing the spiritual to the physical. The doctrine of the Holy Trinity invites us to see God enfleshed in Jesus Christ, but the personhood of God the Father and of God the Spirit is not about fingernails and hair follicles. That God has three persons takes us into the realm of metaphor, which is the province of language.

For this, I needed a classics consultation. So I emailed both partners of our parish classicist couple, Amanda and Chris, with this question: Do I recall correctly that the Latin word “persona” has a special use in theater? Within hours, Chris emailed from Kansas, where they’re visiting family. His answer was Yes: In Roman theater the masks (worn by actors) were called “personae”, and very early that Latin word takes on the meaning of “character”. Chris offers to help us out here, so I’ll quote him: “Without looking into the history of ideas about the Trinity, I would guess that the term personae was used to communicate that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three different appearances/aspects of the same unitary divine nature—three characters played by the same actor. But I dimly recall that the Church fathers spent a lot of time arguing about the doctrine of the Trinity…”

Indeed they did. And if you want to sample what came of those arguments, our Book of Common Prayer has in the wayback a section titled Historical Documents. And there you’ll find the late 4th-early 5th-century Creed of Saint Athanasius. Let me give you a taste of it.

“…We worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity;
Neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance.
For there is one person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Spirit.
But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit is all one, the glory equal, the majesty coeternal.
Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Spirit.
The Father uncreated, the Son uncreated, and the Holy Spirit uncreated.
The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Spirit incomprehensible.
The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Spirit eternal.
And yet they are not three eternals but one eternal.
As also there are not three uncreated nor three incomprehensible, but one uncreated and one incomprehensible.
So likewise the Father is almighty, the Son almighty, and the Holy Spirit almighty.
And yet they are not three almighties, but one almighty.
So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God;
And yet they are not three Gods, but one God.”
That’s not the whole of the Athanasian Creed, just 14 of its 44 verses, well more than twice the length of the Nicene Creed, perhaps five times the length of the Iona Community Creed we will use today. Yes, there’s a reason you may have never heard of it. But it’s worth hearing this ancient text insist that what the doctrine of the Trinity does not say is that we worship three Gods.

What it does say is that there is one God engaging humanity in three ways, three ways-in to the character of the divine, three ways to relate to God.

One way is best expressed by the creative love that gives life as does a father, a mother, and binds that life in covenant love, compassion, mercy, and justice. To relate to this first person of the Trinity is to open ourselves to those same powers being formed in us.

A second way is best expressed by the Word made flesh, love enfleshed in the one who walks with us, Jesus the Christ, the Son of man and Son of God. To relate to this second person of the Trinity is to dare grow up into his likeness.

And a third way is best expressed by the Spirit that animates and transcends the physical, freeing creation to enjoy, worship, and serve its maker and redeemer. To relate to this third person of the Trinity is to entrust ourselves and one another to the wind that fills our sails, and to trust the still calm when for a while our sails are empty.

To say that these three personae are like the character masks of Roman theater could be misleading. The purpose of the Holy Trinity is not the masking of God, but the revealing of God, each revealing something more of the essential character of God. On the other hand, perhaps the notion that there is one actor behind these three character masks of God, one reality that each expresses in its distinct way, honestly says what we know: that God is often experienced as a hidden presence, is always a mystery to be known in mystical ways, and, when all is said and done, there’s an awful lot we do not know.

The one God engages us in three ways. Three ways-into the divine. Three ways to relate to God.

The Holy Trinity speaks to our minds, and seeks our hearts.

I was reminded of that as I prepared this sermon, and kept hearing a fragment of a poem: “Batter my heart, three-personed God…” was all I could remember. I looked it up, and there it was: one of John Donne’s nineteen Holy Sonnets.

I was drawn into three of those poems, and will print them here. You who love the King James Version of the Bible may enjoy the Elizabethan language of these poems—and, when a word stumps you, just wonder over it.

For example, in the third of these sonnets Donne calls the Trinity “knottie.” Isn’t that a wonderful word? It echoes his prayer in the first of these poems, that God would break the knot that ties us, betrothes us, to false gods. Christ frees us, then binds us to the one true God by tying the knot between our souls and the Holy Spirit in baptism.

So, if you’ll read these poems now, you’ll bring this sermon to its close. Notice that in the knottie language of the third sonnet we’re told what comes of God being made like man: by his Passion, Jesus Christ gives us the spiritual wealth by which we reclaim life that would otherwise be lost to us.

From John Donne’s “Holy Sonnets”


Batter my heart, three person'd God; for, you
As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend,
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow mee, and bend
Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new.
I, like an usurpt towne, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but Oh, to no end,
Reason your viceroy in mee, mee should defend,
But is captiv'd , and proves weake or untrue.
Yet dearely I love you, and would be loved faine,
But am betroth'd unto your enemie:
Divorce mee, untie, or breake that knot againe,
Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I
Except you enthrall mee, never shall be free,
Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee.


Wilt thou love God, as he thee? then digest,
My Soule, this wholsome meditation,
How God the Spirit, by Angels waited on
In heaven, doth make his Temple in thy brest.
The Father having begot a Sonne most blest,
And still begetting, (for he ne'r begonne)
Hath deign'd to chuse thee by adoption,
Coheire to his glory, and Sabbaths endlesse rest;
And as a robb'd man, which by search doth finde
His stolne stuffe sold, must lose or buy it againe;
The Sonne of glory came downe, and was slaine,
Us whom he had made, and Satan stolne, to unbinde.
'Twas much, that man was made like God before,
But, that God should be made like man, much more.


Father, part of his double interest
Unto thy kingdome, thy Sonne gives to mee,
His joynture in the knottie Trinitie
Hee keepes, and gives to me his deaths conquest.
This Lambe, whose death, with life the world hath blest,
Was from the worlds beginning slaine, and he
Hath made two Wills, which with the Legacie
Of his and thy kingdome, doe thy Sonnes invest.
Yet such are thy laws, that men argue yet
Whether a man those statutes can fulfill;
None doth; but all-healing grace and spirit
Revive againe what law and letter kill.
Thy lawes abridgement, and thy last command
Is all but love; Oh let this last Will stand!