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Sunday, May 30, 2010

Sermon: The Mystery of the Trinity

by Interim Pastor Hollie Holt-Woehl
The Holy Trinity

One of the most difficult doctrines of the church to understand is the Trinity, that God is three persons, yet one. It is difficult for us to grasp because God is difficult for us to grasp in all of God's fullness.

There are different approaches to trying to grasp things we don't understand, I will look at two approaches the church has used to understand the Trinity.

The first approach is the intellectual approach through a statement of belief, called a creed. If we look at a little used creed, called the Athanasian Creed (which, by the way, didn't make it into the new hymnal), you see the work of this long creed to teach about the Trinity. I am just going to read half of this creed, by the way "catholic" used in this creed means "universal."

Whoever wants to be saved,
should above all cling to the catholic faith.
Whoever does not guard it whole and inviolable
will doubtless perish eternally.
Now this is the catholic faith:
We worship one God in Trinity,
and the Trinity in unity,
neither confusing the persons,
nor dividing the divine being.
For the Father is one person,
the Son is another,
and the Spirit is still another.
But the deity of the Father, Son,
and Holy Spirit
is one, equal in glory,
co-eternal in majesty.
What the Father is,
the Son is,
and so is the Holy Spirit.
Uncreated is the Father;
uncreated is the Son;
uncreated is the Spirit.
The Father is infinite;
the Son is infinite;
the Holy Spirit is infinite.
Eternal is the Father;
eternal is the Son;
eternal is the Spirit.
And yet there are not three eternal beings,
but one who is eternal;
as there are not three uncreated
and unlimited beings,
but one who is uncreated and unlimited.
Almighty is the Father;
almighty is the Son;
almighty is the Spirit:
And yet they are not three almighty beings,
but one who is almighty.
Thus the Father is God;
the Son is God;
and the Holy Spirit is God:
And yet there are not three gods,
but one God.
Thus the Father is Lord;
the Son is Lord;
and the Holy Spirit is Lord:
And yet there are not three lords,
but one Lord.
As Christian truth compels us
to acknowledge each distinct person
as God and Lord,
so the catholic religion forbids us
to say that there are
three gods or lords.
The Father was neither made
nor created nor begotten;
The Son was neither made nor created,
but was alone begotten of the Father;
The Spirit was neither made nor created,
but is proceeding
from the Father and the Son.
Thus there is one Father,
not three fathers;
one Son, not three sons;
one Holy Spirit, not three spirits.
And in this Trinity
no one is before or after,
greater or less than the other;
but all three persons are in themselves
coeternal and coequal;
and so we must worship
the Trinity in unity
and the one God in three persons.
Whoever wants to be saved must thus think about the Trinity.

Notice the rhythm of the creed "Uncreated is the Father; uncreated is the Son; uncreated is the Spirit." but they are not three they are one we hear three times. When we have tried explain the Trinity we use examples like water, ice, and steam, the image sort of holds but it can't be all at once and so our best efforts to understand the mystery of the Trinity break down. If you are trying to explain the Trinity to a confirmation class, inevitably you will have one astute confirmation student who will ask, "So if God shows up for dinner do you set three place settings or one?" The Athanaisan Creed is an intellectual approach to understand the Trinity.

The second approach the Eastern Orthodox church has used the understand the Trinity is a visual approach through the use of icons. An icon is a window through which we get a glimpse of the divine. On your bulletin cover for today this is Andrei Rublev's Icon often called the Old Testament Trinity, it was created around 1410.

St Nocone, head of the monastery of the Trinity at Zagorak in Russia, had asked Rublev "to represent the Trinity as source and exemplar of all unity." To get at this Rublev choose the story of the three visitors who came to Abraham near the Oaks of Mamre. These three visitors are God's presence to Abraham and Sarah as they receive hospitality from Abraham and Sarah and in return the visitors give them the gift of a son. So at the center of the icon is the table which represents hospitality, around the table on three sides are the visitors which are shown with wings to highlight that they are divine heavenly beings.

These three beings look as if they are the same person in three different positions. Each of the three holds in their hand the same sceptre, symbol of power, and has the same halo which is white, pure light; they have equal dignity and equal royalty.

Let's look at the clothing of the three. All three individuals wear the color blue - symbol of the divine truth in which they dwell. The Father, the image on the left, seems to wear a fabric that changes with the light that seems transparent.

The Son, the image in the middle, has the deepest colors; a thick heavy garment of the reddish-brown earth speaks of his humanity and a cloak of blue speaks of his divinity, the gold stripe over his right shoulder speaks of the uniting of heaven and earth.

The Holy Spirit, the image on the right, has a garment of clear blue sky, wrapped over with a robe of green. So the Spirit of creation moves in sky and water, breathes in heaven and earth. All living things owe their freshness to her gift of new life.

Now let's look at the postures of the three. The Father looks forward, raising his hand in blessing to the Son. It is impossible to tell whether he looks up at the Son or down to the chalice on the table, but his gesture expresses a movement towards the Son. "This is my Son, listen to him…"The hand of the Son points on, around the circle, to the Spirit. In this simple array we see the movement of life towards us, The Father sends the Son, the Son sends the Spirit. The life flows clockwise around the circle. And we complete the circle. As the Father sends the Son, as the Son sends the Holy Spirit, so we are invited and sent to complete the circle of the God-head with our response. And we respond to the movement of the Spirit who points us to Jesus. And Jesus shows us the Father in whom all things come to fruition. This is the counter-clockwise movement of our lives, in response to the movement of God. And along the way are the three signs at the top of the picture which draw us into the Trinity: the mountain, the tree, the house.

The Spirit touches us, even though we do not know who it is that is touching us. She leads us by ways we may not be aware, up the mountain of prayer. In the scriptures mountains are often places where people encounter God. The Spirit leads us on a journey to the Father, it may be steep and rocky journey, but the Holy Spirit goes before us along the path.

The journey to the Father leads to Jesus, the Son of God, and it leads to a tree. This could be the oak tree at Mamre under which the three angelic visitors rested and received hospitality. It is a great tree which spreads its shade in the heat of the day. The tree represents a place of security, a place of peace, a place of hospitality, a place where we begin to find out the possibilities of who we can be. It is no ordinary tree. It stands above the Son in the picture, and stands above the altar-table where the lamb lies within the chalice. This tree could also signify the cross, because of the Christ's sacrifice this tree grows. The tree of death has been transformed into a tree of life for us.

The tree is on the way to the house. Over the head of the Father is the house of the Father. It is the goal of our journey. It is the beginning and end of our lives. Its roof is golden. Its door is always open for the traveler. It has a tower, and its window is always open so that the Father can incessantly scan the roads for a glimpse of a returning prodigal.

We return now to the table at the center of the icon. It is at once the place of Abraham's hospitality to the angels, and God's place of hospitality to us. That ambiguity lies at the heart of communion, at the heart of worship. As soon as we open a sacred place for God to enter, for God to be welcomed and adored, it becomes God's holy place. It is we who are welcomed, it is we who must 'take off our shoes' because of the holiness of the ground.

Contained in the centre of the circle is a sign of death. In the chalice is the sacrificial lamb. [Eastern Orthodox communion has the bread mixed in the chalice with the wine.] The holy meal brought to the table. All points to this space, this mystery: within it, everything about God is summed up and expressed, his power, his glory, and above all his love. And it is expressed in such a way that we can reach it. For the space at this table is on our side. We are invited to join the group at the table and receive the heart of their being for ourselves.

We are invited to complete the circle, to join the dance, to complete the movements of God in the world by our own response. Below the altar a rectangle marks the holy place where the relics of the martyrs were kept in a church. It lies before us. The icon invites us into the mystery of the Triune God to come into the depth and intimacy of all that is represented here.

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ, Come follow the Spirit up the mountain of prayer. Come, live in the shadow of the Son of God, rest yourself beneath his tree of life. Come, journey to the home, prepared for you in the house of your Father. The table is spread, the door is open. Come.

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