St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“The Mystery Abides”
Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, you have given to us your servants grace, by the confession of a true faith, to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity, and in the power of your divine Majesty to worship the Unity: Keep us steadfast in this faith and worship, and bring us at last to see you in your one and eternal glory, O Father; who with the Son and the Holy Spirit live and reign, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Jesus said to the disciples, "I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you."
I saw a picture on the internet this week for all preachers who follow the Lectionary. “If you want to avoid heresy this Sunday when speaking of the Trinity, say nothing and show pictures of cats.”
Alas, if it were only that simple. Trinity Sunday. I preached it last year. And I am preaching it this year. Harrison, (our deacon) you have next year, no matter what. The only Sunday in our year which is set aside to a doctrine. Now, if I can play teacher, turn in your prayer book to page 864 and 865. Go ahead, I will wait. The Creed of St. Athanasius. Now if you want to get into the nitty gritty, there you go. (For readers: It is given in full at the bottom of this blog entry.) It is an ancient text, written after the Apostles and Nicean, and you will hear echoes of both in it. We add doctrine to fight heresy. And heresies spring up in mystery, as we struggle to put handles on the ephemeral.
In college, I had a Catholic roommate. He was devout, and good guy. I learned a lot from him, and I loved talking about our differences. One of the things that stuck with me was when he said one time, “You protestants feel the need to explain away everything.” Now back then, I did not get what he meant. Looking back, he was inviting me to embrace the mystery. That is what I needed. It is what I still need.
St. Athanasius set out to elucidate the mystery, without explaining it away. I, in my eager attempts to be right, did the same. I have come away in the following decades, running to mysteries, in hopes of finding the awe that we seem to have lost in the modern age.
I remember speaking with a fertility doctor one time, and he was sharing how he loves that he works in mysteries every day. He knows what works, but how? Why? He is as clueless as the rest of us. Now, spending time with the mysteries enables him to ponder, guess, and get cozy with them. When he does this, the outcomes seems to be that. He is abiding in the mysteries as he does his best to get the fertilized egg to abide in the womb.
Today, as we try to snuggle into this idea, think on the unthinkable.
It is easy to picture God as Other. The word Holy means “set apart,” and God is that. Unknowable. Unsearchable. Far removed from the sin and squalid nature of this world. It is easy to picture a god “away up there.” The opening words of Jesus’ prayer, “Our Father, who art in heaven” reflect that idea.
There is a wonderful scene in a show about ancient Rome, and two soldiers are discussing the stars, calling them the campfires of the gods. They are on their backs looking up at the stars, staying warm by their fire, and assuming that the gods are doing the same, peering down at them.
Like most, we have a sense that the world is so big, so huge, that there had to be some hand working out the details. It is so AWE-inspiring that it is hard not to envision, but so set apart from us that it is beyond our comprehension.
In high school I was on a ski trip with my youth group, and we were staying at Massanetta Springs, a Presbyterian retreat and conference center just outside of Harrisonburg. Behind our dorms was a snow covered hill, and being from the flat land of Tidewater, I climbed up the crusty ridge, and got above the street lamps. I got up high enough that I could see the Milky Way stretched out so far, so wide. I felt so small and tiny. “Who was I that God should be mindful of me?” was the feeling I had. Little did I realize at the time that I was echoing the psalmist in Psalm 8 (vv. 3-4)
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established;what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?Thinking of God as the Other comes naturally.
And we all, I trust, have felt the presence of the Holy in our lives. Those times when we felt a warmth, a presence, a love which was beyond words. The intimate nature of the Divine cannot be planned for, nor can it be created. Religion is the “reconnecting with God,” [literally re-ligamenting] but this first-hand experiences with the Divine is what drives our re-connecting.
Nature. Thin spaces. Tragic moments. God seems to be in the very air we are breathing, surrounding us, coming into us, becoming one with us. We catch glimpses of this, but we do not reside there. I am not sure that we could. It would be too much. It would be overwhelming. But those moments of the Inner God, as powerful and overwhelming as the Outer Other, can be easy to see as well.
There have been times and places where the palpable nature of the Divine was so immediate, faith stopped and knowledge began. Like in the movie Contact, the main character has an encounter with an alien life form. She KNOWS it happened. She does not doubt for a second. In her attempts to give words to what she experienced, she fails. She was a scientist, and could write the equation, but she knew she could not give words to what took place. All she could say was, “They should have sent a poet. They should have sent a poet.”
God the Outer Other, God the Inner Known, two persons of the Trinity. So many faiths speak both of these. But one of our distinctions in our faith is saying that both are true. And more.
The Incarnation, the idea that the eternal stepped into time and space is much like the line from the movie Contact. They should have sent a poet.
The opening hymn to this concept is what John was attempting in his opening of his Gospel. You have to start with the poetic to begin to grasp the conversation. Some of you have been going to church, maybe even this church, longer than I have been alive. Because of that I want you to hear John’s hymn with fresh ears. And for those of you who have never heard it, I want you to hear it and catch a clear vision of what he is getting at the first time. Here is John’s hymn from Eugene Peterson (in his Message translation):
The Word was first,
the Word present to God,
God present to the Word.
The Word was God,
in readiness for God from day one.
Everything was created through him;
nothing—not one thing!—
came into being without him.
What came into existence was Life,
and the Life was Light to live by.
The Life-Light blazed out of the darkness;
the darkness couldn’t put it out.
There once was a man, his name John, sent by God to point out the way to the Life-Light. He came to show everyone where to look, who to believe in. John was not himself the Light; he was there to show the way to the Light.
The Life-Light was the real thing:
Every person entering Life
he brings into Light.
He was in the world,
the world was there through him,
and yet the world didn’t even notice.
He came to his own people,
but they didn’t want him.
But whoever did want him,
who believed he was who he claimed
and would do what he said,
He made to be their true selves,
their child-of-God selves.
These are the God-begotten,
The Word became flesh and blood,
and moved into the neighborhood.
We saw the glory with our own eyes,
the one-of-a-kind glory,
like Father, like Son,
Generous inside and out,
true from start to finish.
John pointed him out and called, “This is the One! The One I told you was coming after me but in fact was ahead of me. He has always been ahead of me, has always had the first word.”
We all live off his generous bounty,
gift after gift after gift.
We got the basics from Moses,
and then this exuberant giving and receiving,
This endless knowing and understanding—
all this came through Jesus, the Messiah.
No one has ever seen God,
not so much as a glimpse.
This one-of-a-kind God-Expression,
who exists at the very heart of the Father,
has made him plain as day.
For me, the miracle of the Incarnation is not God would or could be human. God can do whatever God wants. But Jesus was so clearly of a different nature, from the first to the last, he was so markedly different that those who knew him testified to their very last breath that Jesus showed us what God was like by being who he was. The Incarnation shows us the very nature nature of God by someone being the Quintessential Human, or the Son of Man as Jesus put it. Peterson again:
This one-of-a-kind God-Expression,
who exists at the very heart of the Father,
has made God plain as day.
We believe in the Three-in-One and One-in-Three for the very idea that the Outer Other, the Inner Known, and the One-of-a-Kind resemble one another. They are the “spittin’ image” of one another. Their natures, character, persons are so intimately entangled it seems to be a Divine Dance, as Father Richard Rohr has called it.
How? Why? I do not know. I do not need to know. I abide in the Mystery, and I am okay with that. God is God, and I am not. Like that question I had on that hill in Harrisonburg 30 odd years ago. “Who am I that God is mindful of me?” Psalm 8 answers that in verses 5 and 6.
Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet.And wait, there is more. “For God so loved [you and me] enough that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him, might not perish, but have everlasting life.” John 3:16
Today as we ponder the Mystery of the Trinity, know this, God the Father, God the Son, God the Spirit, Three-in-One loves you now and always. Do you really need the How? The Why? The Mystery Abides. Abide in the Mystery. Amen
The Creed of Saint Athanasius
Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic Faith.
Which Faith except everyone do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.
And the Catholic Faith is this: That 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 Ghost.
But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one, the Glory equal, the Majesty co-eternal.
Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Ghost.
The Father uncreate, the Son uncreate, and the Holy Ghost uncreate.
The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible.
The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Ghost eternal.
And yet they are not three eternals, but one eternal.
As also there are not three incomprehensibles, nor three uncreated, but one uncreated, and one incomprehensible.
So likewise the Father is Almighty, the Son Almighty, and the Holy Ghost Almighty.
And yet they are not three Almighties, but one Almighty.
So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Ghost is God.
And yet they are not three Gods, but one God.
So likewise the Father is Lord, the Son Lord, and the Holy Ghost Lord.
And yet not three Lords, but one Lord.
For like as we are compelled by the Christian verity to acknowledge every Person by himself to be both God and Lord,
So are we forbidden by the Catholic Religion, to say, There be three Gods, or three Lords.
The Father is made of none, neither created, nor begotten.
The Son is of the Father alone, not made, nor created, but begotten.
The Holy Ghost is of the Father and of the Son, neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding.
So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Ghost, not three Holy Ghosts.
And in this Trinity none is afore, or after other; none is greater, or less than another;
But the whole three Persons are co-eternal together and co-equal.
So that in all things, as is aforesaid, the Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshipped.
He therefore that will be saved is must think thus of the Trinity.
Furthermore, it is necessary to everlasting salvation that he also believe rightly the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.
For the right Faith is, that we believe and confess, that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man;
God, of the substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds; and Man of the substance of his Mother, born in the world;
Perfect God and perfect Man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting.
Equal to the Father, as touching his Godhead; and inferior to the Father, as touching his manhood;
Who, although he be God and Man, yet he is not two, but one Christ;
One, not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh but by taking of the Manhood into God;
One altogether; not by confusion of Substance, but by unity of Person.
For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one man, so God and Man is one Christ;
Who suffered for our salvation, descended into hell, rose again the third day from the dead.
He ascended into heaven, he sitteth at the right hand of the Father, God Almighty, from whence he will come to judge the quick and the dead.
At whose coming all men will rise again with their bodies and shall give account for their own works.
And they that have done good shall go into life everlasting; and they that have done evil into everlasting fire.
This is the Catholic Faith, which except a man believe faithfully, he cannot be saved.