Sunday, June 11, 2017

Incomprehensible

Incomprehensible



I will not give you a song and dance about the Trinity, but you will need a prayerbook in your lap. You may be seated.

As Lost Sinners cavort on Shell Island for their pagan spring festival, it’s a pleasure this morning, to speak to The Last Remnant of The Faithful Saved. Thank you for being here. Faithful to the end, we always have our two services here in church on Shell Island Sunday.

As well as Shell Island Sunday, we have Trinity Sunday today, one of seven Principal Feasts of the Church, the only Sunday of the year that we celebrate an incomprehensible doctrine. Not only incomprehensible in fact and thought, it is incomprehensible by definition, doctrine and creed. A mean trick throughout the church, standard practice for this day, is to assign the newest, youngest, junior and most innocent deacon or priest on parish staff to preach Trinity Sunday, and watch what a fool he makes of himself trying to clarify the Trinity, inevitably engaging the ancient heresy of modalism, in which each person of the Trinity is assigned certain functions, and where even Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier seems modal but God, Breath and Word is not. Here at Holy Nativity, I am neither the newest nor the youngest nor the most innocent, and I am junior to nobody; and so the only way to get me into the pulpit this morning was to escape to Shell Island for picnic and sunburns. They will be eating pulled pork and fried chicken and popping beer cans while you and I pray for rain.

Our gospel this morning is the very end of Matthew, with a verse that has Jesus, early in the first century, invoking the Trinity, a doctrine that was not fought bloody, resolved and settled as orthodox Christianity until three centuries later. Which has lead some scholars (I am no scholar), to suggest that the end of Matthew Chapter 28 is an addendum added later by church authorities, putting Trinity on the lips of Jesus himself in order to make it inerrant and unchallengeable, so there we have it: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” 

Trinity Sunday is therefore indeed one of our special days for baptism, for which reason I like to begin at the processional, sprinkling Holy Water from the font as you mark yourself with the sign of the Cross in remembrance of your own baptism. 

And so, what have we here today? You will need a prayerbook: please take a Book of Common Prayer from the pew rack in front of you, and turn to page 864. In the back among Historical Documents, this is the Athanasian Creed, the Quicunque Vult or Creed of Saint Athanasius. One of three ancient creeds of the Christian Church, it’s attributed to Athanasius, bishop and saint, who gave us key theological elements of the second paragraph of the Nicene Creed, but we do not know that Athanasius knew this creed that bears his name, or indeed had anything whatsoever to do with it: its date is not known but scholars generally seem to date it later than Athanasius (who was fourth century), but perhaps put his name on it because it reflects his theology of God the Son: 

  • eternally begotten of the Father,
  • God from God, Light from Light,
  • true God from true God,
  • begotten, not made,
  • homoousios to Patri 
  • of one Substance, one Being, with the Father.

And originally Latin, not Greek, it seems not common to Eastern Orthodox Christianity, so not “universal,” but “Western Church.”

Your prayerbook is open to page 864, the Quicunque Vult, which Latin Quicunque vult salvus esse, ante omnia opus est, ut teneat catholicam fidem: for whosoever would be saved must unfailingly believe the doctrine set forth in this creed. It starts out saying that, and there’s a paragraph about the Trinity, and a paragraph about the Son, and it concludes that whoever fails to keep this faith undefiled is damned everlastingly.

There was a time in the Western Church when, 13 Sundays a year, instead of the Nicene Creed or the Apostles Creed, the congregation stood and recited this Athanasian Creed, including always every year on Trinity Sunday. We do not stand and say it in the Episcopal Church. Why? Because it’s too long and we don’t want the Baptists to beat us to Morrison’s Cafeteria. Because its fierce, angry certitude and condemnation no longer reflects where we are as Christians: we are not so bold as to assert that what we believe, our theology, our doctrine, is so correct and absolute that anyone who disagrees with us is going to Hell. And because no one is sure of its date, or its origin, or any tie to Athanasius. So, this creed is tucked away in the back of our prayerbook among Historical Documents. You can read it, you may decide for yourself. Study it as old, interesting, and perhaps naive and overly certain.  


There is one line from the Quicunque Vult that attracts me, and that you may mistakenly have thought I was trying to be funny as I began my homily a moment ago: look at your prayerbook. Bottom of page 864, paragraph that says, deadly serious, 
“The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible. And yet there are not three incomprehensibles, but one incomprehensible.


If you thought you understood the Trinity, you were mistaken. Any priest who tries to explain it is foolhardy. By doctrine and creed, it’s incomprehensible, you are not supposed to understand it, you are not meant  to comprehend it. It’s holy mystery: neither the Church itself nor the ancient church fathers understood it, nor expected you to understand it. The Trinity is incomprehensible. Ineffable, indescribable, a mystery beyond understanding. And here’s the thing. We are Episcopalians, Anglicans, who are perfectly comfortable and at home with incomprehensibles, with things that we may sense, but cannot explain. Just as with the ineffable presence of Jesus In and As the reading of the Gospel — the ineffable, Real Presence of Jesus In and As the Bread, the Wine, Jesus in and as our human assembly the Body of Christ for the celebration of Eucharist — just so with our One, Holy and Indivisible God, Three in One and One in Three: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.



Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.


Trinity Sunday sermon, Holy Nativity Episcopal Church, Panama City, Florida, June 11, 2017. The Rev. Tom Weller. Text Genesis 1:1-2:4a and Matthew 28:16-20

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