Trinity Sunday

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on June 11, 2017 (Trinity Sunday)

Trinity Sunday is generally known among rectors as “Curate Sunday.” It’s a day that often gives preachers pause since the whole mystery of Trinitarian theology is…complex and mysterious and difficult to explain and fraught with the potential to preach heresy. One wrong step and you enter the realm of Adoptionism or Arianism or Docetism or, God forbid, Modalism. All debunked Trinitarian heresies that arose before the final version of the Nicene Creed was established in 381.

Thus it often gets foisted upon the junior member of the clergy staff. Their seminary imagestraining is a bit fresher, or so the thinking goes, and thus better suited to explaining the doctrinal mysteries of the Trinity. Also, some rectors like to cop out and avoid the whole thing, figuring it’s their ecclesiastical right to throw the curate to the proverbial lions.

However, in light of a certain impending birth, we’ve been massaging the preaching schedule a bit these past weeks. With Melinda’s due date rapidly approaching, we had Noah preach last Sunday and I’m preaching this morning. Just in case.

It is difficult to wrap our heads around the fullness of God, which is what the Trinity expresses. The fullness of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Preachers certainly get themselves into a lot of trouble when attempting to explain the unexplainable. And the whole concept of ‘one plus one plus one equals one’ leads to some pretty fuzzy math and a whole lot of head scratching.

Fortunately, the Trinity isn’t ultimately about archaic formulas or inscrutable theorems; it’s about love. I think that’s what our readings point us towards this morning. And it all starts at the beginning. “In the beginning,’ actually. There are few things that display God’s love in such a tangible way than the very creation of the world. This familiar — and rather long — passage from Genesis that sets the stage for all that is to come, is an act of love.

Let’s face it. It would have been a lot less trouble for God to just forget about creating the world and all those troublesome human beings that go with it. Why not save yourself a whole bunch of heartache and make something much less high maintenance. Like a paper airplane. Or a new hat. Why bother creating an entire world that will be taken for granted and polluted and plundered? Why create a humanity that will turn away from you and reject you and hurt one another over and over again? Where’s the satisfaction in that? Where’s the pride of authorship in the creation of a vexing, frustrating, ungrateful world? Why go to all that trouble? Why bother?

But here’s the thing: God creates the world not for himself, not as an act of divine vanity, but for us. It is a generous act of self-giving, hope-filled devotion. And that in itself is an incredible display of divine love. One we are hardly worthy of but one that gets at the very compassionate, loving, abundant nature of God. Which is precisely what we celebrate on Trinity Sunday.

And as Christians who experience the fullness of God as Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier, this relates to that other great display of divine love, of God giving his son Jesus to this broken and sinful world in order to redeem and save the world. That’s love. That’s saying, yes, they’ve made kind of a mess of this, so let me go down there and show them how it’s done. Of course, there will be misunderstanding and rejection and even crucifixion but they will be given a living example of what it means to live a life in perfect harmony with God. And through faith in Jesus Christ they will be forgiven and made new. That’s love.

As we come to the final Sunday of the September-to-June program year and celebrate the last day of our full Sunday School program and the last day with the entire choir — and, yes, for the record, church does continue all summer long — it’s perhaps appropriate that we read the final sentences of Matthew’s gospel and hear of Jesus’s last words to his disciples as he gives them what we know as the Great Commission.

And it’s interesting how it begins: “When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted.” This line could well apply to any congregation in the history of worshipping congregations. It is not inauthentic to worship God even as some doubts about God’s very existence persist. It’s called having an authentic faith. And Jesus understood this even as he stood for this final time in-between heaven and earth, between doubt and belief. We may not fully comprehend the fullness of God — and that’s okay. All will be revealed in the fullness of time; perhaps not in this world but surely in the world to come. And Jesus doesn’t simply ignore the seeds of doubt or the possibility of misunderstanding. He leans into them and tells us that despite the tension between worship and doubt our role is to go. To go out into the world and spread this good news of Jesus that drives out fear and imbues those who follow him with a passion for justice. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

The comedian Steven Wright, in his inimitable deadpan style, used to talk about wanting to name his dog, “Stay.” That way he could basically engage in psychological torture every time he called him. “Come here, Stay. Come here, Stay.”

At first glance, that’s what the Christian life can feel like. At the start of Jesus’ ministry, we hear Jesus say to the disciples, “Follow.” And here at the end he says to many of these same disciples, “Go.” To live in the fullness of God is to both follow Jesus and be sent by him. These aren’t contradictory but complementary; both equally critical sides of the faith coin. When we come to church we are here to follow Jesus. We are fed by God’s word and nurtured in the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood. But it doesn’t end there. At the end of our time together we are collectively told to go — to “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”

Follow and Go don’t keep us paralyzed like that poor dog named “Stay” but empowered by the dual call to follow Jesus and to go serve Jesus in the world. The Christian faith lives on this continuum of contemplation and action. We follow Jesus and then we go forth and share the good news of Jesus.

Our faith lives compel us to “follow” and propel us to “go.” And when we do, we return God’s love with love. We become partners with God, co-creators, co-missioners; working with God to change the world.

So the Trinity is not some dusty doctrine but a dynamic driver of devotion. The Trinity is not some static theory but a stunning window into the fullness of God. And that is worthy of our utmost thanks and praise. So, follow. And go. And in so doing you will know everything you could ever possibly need to know about the mysterious and holy and life-giving Trinity that is the fullness of God.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Trinity Sunday 2015

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on May 31, 2015 (Trinity Sunday, Year B)

This conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus has to go down as one of the most infuriating exchanges in the history of human interaction. Like the most egregious case of “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus,” they’re both talking right past one another. We see this all the time in international diplomacy or race relations or couples therapy. And their discussion seems to embody the ancient Chinese idiom “like a chicken talking to a duck.” In other words, a conversation between two people speaking entirely different languages. In order to have an actual conversation, both parties must speak the same language — otherwise misunderstanding and miscommunication abound.

In this case, Nicodemus speaks literally, Jesus speaks metaphorically, and we just stand chic and duckback and observe this linguistic train wreck. It’s really two monologues rather than anything resembling dialogue. And it’s maddening to try and follow the arc of the conversation. It’s like watching a tennis match where every time a ball is hit to one of the players he smacks it over the fence into another court. You just can’t follow the action.

Jesus and Nicodemus are indeed speaking different languages. That whole Pentecost concept we encountered last week of speaking in a variety of tongues and yet being understood in our native languages is out the window here.

In fairness, Nicodemus can’t possibly understand what Jesus is saying; he’s not yet equipped to do so. And so we end up with that awkward exchange about being born from above and Nicodemus, clearly flustered and confused, asks how it’s possible for someone to be born again — “Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”

In a word, no. Of course not. And it’s about as absurd an image as a camel trying to enter the eye of a needle. The new birth, the birth from above, happens when we are baptized by water and the Holy Spirit; it ushers in a new relationship with God through Jesus Christ. We can see this, now, standing as we do on this side of the Resurrection. But for all Nicodemus could comprehend, Jesus may as well have been speaking like one of the parents on Charlie Brown. Or reciting the Nicene Creed.

Because in a sense this is the perfect conversation for Trinity Sunday. The whole nature of Trinitarian doctrine is confusing, bewildering, mysterious and in the end can leave us asking, as Nicodemus puts it, “How can these things be?” One plus one plus one equals one; the three in one and one in three; a divine dance of love. Throw in words like only-begotten and co-eternal and the only logical response is, “How can these things be?” So, that’s not a bad refrain for Trinity Sunday.

We will never, at least in this life, know completely how these things can be. The fullness of God is more mystery than certainty; more article of faith than verifiable fact. Human words and formulas only take us so far because they are, by their very nature, incomplete.

Some of you know that when it comes to sermon writing, I’m a creature of habit. For years I’ve set aside Thursday mornings as the time I get most of it done. Always at a coffee shop. It’s become something of a Pavlovian response for me as I literally can’t write a sermon without coffee — nor would I subject anyone to the byproduct of un-caffeinated sermon preparation. This Thursday morning I was all set to head down to Redeye Roasters. I already had a few ideas banging around my head and even at the gym earlier that day I was thinking about the doctrinal challenges of preaching on the Trinity.

And then I got a phone call from one of our regular Saturday night service parishioners whose 41-year-old son was dying of cancer. He’d had a rough night and the hospice nurses were pretty certain the end was near. So obviously I scrapped my regular routine and told him I would drive right down to Pembroke to administer last rights.

And I was again reminded that all the theological and linguistic gymnastics in the world can never explain the fullness of God. It can’t get at the depth of God’s love for us or describe the powerful healing presence that comes through faith in Jesus Christ or reveal the glimpses of resurrection glory that shine even in life’s darkest and most painful moments.

TrinityWe can try our best to parse out the unity of God in three persons, an attempt that will always fall short, or we can simply be present for those in the throes of grief as an embodiment of God’s love. We can show rather than tell. And that’s what I invite you to do in the coming days. To think about the ways in which you practice God’s love for yourselves and for those around you. Friends, family, strangers. It’s human interaction that puts flesh on theology and doctrine; otherwise we’re left with a sack of dry bones.

I should note that eventually Nicodemus did come to understand what Jesus was talking about. You may recall that in John’s gospel, darkness is codeword for lack of understanding so it’s significant that Nicodemus came by night when he sought out Jesus for this initial, unsatisfying conversation.

Despite his confusion during that first encounter, at the time of Jesus’ arrest we hear Nicodemus referred to as “one of them,” meaning a disciple of Jesus. And after the crucifixion he joins Joseph of Arimathea this time, significantly, in the daytime — in the light — to prepare Jesus’ body for burial. So the veil has literally and metaphorically been lifted from his eyes. He understands Jesus’ identity with his very soul. Nicodemus may not have been able to write a theological treatise on the Trinity but he has a fuller understanding of God because of his interactions with Jesus. And that is enough.

“How can these things be?” I don’t know. At least not precisely. But perhaps this is why John, our patron saint, John the Evangelist, also makes this crystal clear. Amid all the language of Trinitarian doctrine, John reminds us again and again that “God is love.” That’s not a bad working definition and it’s one we could stand to heed more rather than less; to show more rather than tell.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Trinity Sunday 2014

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on June 15, 2014 (Trinity Sunday)

A priest friend of mine from Lexington, Kentucky, came to Boston this week and I spent Wednesday with her doing “Boston stuff.” Granted with two priests involved there were a lot of churchy things on the list — some of which were planned and some of which were 10463914_10151867634167609_6417863697744260883_nserendipitous. One of the best parts was calling in a favor and having the rector of Old North Church take us to the top of the tower on one of the clearest days of the year.

Wow is that high up — and definitely not part of the regular or even “behind-the-scenes” tour. Climbing up a bunch of increasingly narrow wooden ladders, past the oldest bells in the United States, I could almost see the headline in the Globe about the three Episcopal priests who plunged to their deaths trying to warn the city about the arrival of the Redcoats 239 years too late. You may recall that in last week’s sermon I mentioned that I’m not a big fan of heights.

Laurie and I also happened to stumble into the Church of the Advent on Beacon Hill just in time for Evening Prayer which was a great precursor to a dozen oysters at the Union Oyster House. In between, we hit Paul Revere’s House, talked our way into Trinity Church in Copley Square, without paying the $7 entrance fee which I think is unconscionable, walked through the Public Library, went to the diocesan offices where we ran into retired bishop BarBp3EEKtCQAAxcUk.jpg-largebara Harris — the first woman to ever be consecrated a bishop — and took a selfie, walked to the MFA, and a bunch of other stuff before getting back on the ferry. It was a full day, an awesome day, and my feet still hurt.

But along the Freedom Trail we also poked into some of the churches on the route. Kings Chapel, Old South Meeting House, Park Street; and got into a conversation about Christian Scientists as we passed but didn’t go into that massive center on Mass Ave. All of these different faith traditions are self-described as “non-creedal” which simply means they don’t have a creed to anchor their beliefs.

I’ve been reflecting on this ever since as this morning we celebrate Trinity Sunday, the theology of which is outlined in the words we recite every week in the Nicene Creed. We are decidedly a “creedal” faith. We use the Nicene Creed on Sundays, we say the Apostles Creed every day during Morning and Evening Prayer and at baptisms and funerals. There’s even the Athanasian Creed in the Historical Documents section of the Prayer Book which, while liturgically unwieldy, is great to check out during boring sermons about the Trinity.

But what does it mean to be a creedal faith? Do we have to sign on the dotted line? What if we have some doubts? Does it then become disingenuous to say the Creed every week? Does it make us less of a Christian or a lousy Episcopalian? Should we just lip synch the parts we struggle with like a spiritual Milli Vanilli?

Here’s the thing about creeds — it’s important to put a stake in the ground as a church and say this is what we believe. And if you strip everything else away we need to believe that God exists, that Jesus is the Son of God, that the Holy Spirit breathes life and renewal into everything we do, and that we come together as a community to worship and then be sent out into the world to live out this faith. That’s the heart of it; that’s what makes us Christians.

But let me give you permission right here, right now, to have some doubts. People of faith have a long tradition of doubt and in a lot of ways I see doubt as the flip side of an authentic faith. Unless you have doubts, unless you test your faith and question it, it sits on the surface of your heart rather than truly getting into the bloodstream and becoming that which allows you to live and move and have your being.

This reading from Matthew’s gospel includes the very last sentences of his account of Jesus’ foray among us. And we hear, “When they saw Jesus, they worshipped him; but some doubted.” And you know what? Jesus doesn’t care. He doesn’t say, “Okay, all you true believers, go over here and all you doubters, go away.” Guess what? If we banished those who ever had doubts about their faith, the church wouldn’t exist. There would literally be no one left. No parishioners, no clergy, no one would be stirring, not even a church mouse.

But Jesus doesn’t even address this issue, he simply says “go.” Go out and share this faith that you have been given. Go baptize people in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Don’t sit around navel-gazing and wallowing in your doubts, get out and live your lives and all will be revealed in time.

And his very last word to the disciples is this: “Remember that I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” In other words, you may not do things perfectly, heck you may even make a royal mess of things, but I will be there. I will never forsake or forget you. I will be present with you in times of joy and in times of sorrow. Being faithful doesn’t mean things will always be rosy — in fact I guarantee you’ll end up in some pretty painful and uncomfortable situations. But I will be there offering relationship and solace, hope and comfort.

And that’s why a creedal faith matters; that’s why reveling in the fullness of God that is the Holy Trinity matters. Ultimately, it’s not about theories or formulas or theology but about relationship with God and one another. That’s why we’re here — both in the cosmic sense of “why do I exist” (which is why we heard the Creation story this morning) and in the literal sense of “this is why I go to church” (which is why we heard about those disciples, some of whom continued to have some serious doubts).

IMG_3077Last week on Pentecost we had a few baptisms — five to be precise, but who’s counting? One of the things I love about baptisms is that you can get all your theology lined up and talk about why we do this and what it means when we call something a sacrament and why we baptize in the name of the Trinity but then a baby squirms or screams and some water gets splashed around and we realize that relationship with God isn’t always neat and tidy. It can be messy and disjointed and imprecise. We may not always understand or subscribe to the right formula. But it’s all okay; we can color outside the lines and God still loves us. And Jesus will indeed be with us through it all, even to the end of the age.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Trinity Sunday 2010

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on May 30, 2010 (Trinity Sunday, Year C)

It’s been said that more heresy is preached on Trinity Sunday than any other day of the year. I’m not sure whether or not this is true, but it does highlight the confusion generated by the concept of one God in three persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Long theological tomes have been written on the subject. Church councils have been convened on the subject. Christians have been martyred over the subject. And the confusion remains. Human language is always inadequate to explain the fullness of the mystery of God. And the historical debates and controversies make this, at least, very clear.

But talking about the Trinity only gets us so far. The Trinitarian debates of the fourth century and its byproduct the Nicene Creed are undoubtedly foundational to our understanding of the faith. Through this conversation we know that God is the Father “of all that is seen and unseen.” And that “Jesus Christ is the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father.” And that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son.” But for us, talking about the Trinity is a world apart from experiencing the Trinity.  Because the Trinity is the fullest expression of God, it isn’t just dull, dry doctrine; it’s living faith. For God is a dynamic power, a presence bursting with energy; a Creator intimately involved with our everyday lives, a Redeemer who came into the world to save us, and a Sanctifier that breathes holiness into every corner of life. This isn’t just theoretical; this is life-giving truth.

So, here’s a little secret: the fullest expression of God is not about arcane or complex theological language. It’s not about some new-fangled math that claims one plus one plus one equals one. The fullest expression of God is simply this: that God is love. That’s the essence of God’s fullest expression. Again and again the Gospel of John brings home this point: God is, above all, love. And that’s what the Trinity is all about. 

In a sense, there’s nothing simpler or more basic than love. So, maybe we’re the ones who make the concept of the Trinity so complex. Maybe it’s our sinfulness and brokenness that confuse the divine simplicity of God. Maybe we complicate the fundamental essence of God. God is love, so the Trinity, too, is love.

Which brings us to a question. How do you experience love? How do you know what love looks and feels like? We know love because we are loved or we love others. So it’s through community and interaction with others that we experience love. The Trinity, which is ultimately the heart of God, is bound together in community, in a community of love. Because the Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – is itself a community. These three persons are in loving relationship and loving community with one another. The ultimate community, perhaps, but just as much a community as your family or this parish. And so the Trinity as the fullest expression of God, models communal love. The difference is that it is a community based exclusively on love. In our own communities we certainly strive for loving community. And there are moments when our communities reflect glimpses of this divine love. But we’re human. And so, many things thwart our efforts toward fostering loving community. Like pride and self-interest, insecurity and fear. But rather than despair, the relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit gives us hope. It points to what can potentially be created when people join together in love. And the possibilities are astounding.

About a month ago there was an editorial in the Boston Globe by BU religion professor Stephen Prothero based on his new book “God is Not One.” The subtitle was classic academic fare: “The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World–and Why Their Differences Matter.” In it he argues that it’s not only misleading but dangerous to fall into the trap that suggests that “all religions are the same.” It’s a nice and comforting notion that we all believe in the same God, that we’re all following different paths up the same mountain, and that in the end we’re all going to the same place. 

The problem with this idea is that it reduces religion to the least common denominator. If you’ve ever been to a poorly thought out interfaith service you know just how tepid such an approach can be. Rather than note and celebrate the differences between Christianity and Judaism and Islam and Hinduism and Buddhism, they often try to combine everything into an Oprah-like God operating on a creed of “I’m okay, you’re okay, we’re all okay.” And, to me, that doesn’t do God any justice.

This isn’t to say that we or any other single group has a monopoly on religious truth. To proclaim that would be the ultimate in human arrogance. But we can proclaim our understanding as the revealed Truth as we have come to know and experience it. Of course, God can work in other ways but for us the Trinitarian experience of God is the way and the life and the truth whereby no one can come to God the Father, as we know God, except through Jesus Christ. That’s not being exclusive; it’s being authentic to our identity as Christians.

The reality is that we don’t believe in the same God as others do. Because the fullness of the God we worship can only be expressed as the interplay of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And that’s a hard pill to swallow for our watered-down cultural notion of God. Religious tolerance is a great virtue and there is no doubt that we can all learn things from the spiritual truths acquired in different traditions. But to live lives of religious integrity we have to recognize the differences – not only that we come to different conclusions but also that we ask different questions and are concerned with different issues.

Bearing this in mind, the relationship of the three persons of the Trinity is not a remote model for us. It’s not something we stare at and strive for. The Trinity’s love must be shared. It needs an object for its love. And that’s where you and I come in. In a very personal and unique way, we are the object of this Trinitarian love. God doesn’t just love in the abstract; God loves us. That’s the miracle of the Holy Trinity of God. It exists to share God’s divine love with you and me. And it’s why we can say with such conviction that “God is love.” 

The point of Trinity Sunday is not to honor doctrinal complexities. It is to rejoice in God’s love for us; to revel in the unique ways in which we as Christians experience the love of the Triune God in our lives; and to remember our charge to share God’s love with others.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2010

Trinity Sunday 2005

A Sermon From All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor
Sermon preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector, on May 22, 2005. 
 (Trinity Sunday, Year A).

We generally don’t like creeds. They scare us away. They’re so…absolute. Of course if you’re a child of the ’60’s they send up all sorts of red flags: conformity, authority, oppression. (And just for the record I did spend 14 months living in the ’60’s.) But many Americans equate creeds with being “told what to believe.” And we tend to resent anyone telling us what to do, especially when it comes to our beliefs. 

So it’s interesting that right in the middle of every Sunday service we say this thing called the Nicene Creed, that central affirmation of our Trinitarian faith. A statement that receives special emphasis on this Trinity Sunday. Most people don’t object, of course. But focusing on it does lead to some questions about the role of the Creed in our faith lives. You may occasionally wonder about a particular statement or wonder if it’s something that you actually do believe without reservation or hesitation. And if not, then what? Must all doubt be erased in order to be a “good” Christian? Is it inauthentic to stand up in church in front of God and this community and proclaim something despite certain uncertainties? It is a creed, after all.

But if it makes any of the ex-hippies among us more comfortable, you’ll be glad to know that the formation of the Nicene Creed was a turbulent, riotous, and raucous time. It was a time of intense intellectual debate, accusations of heresy, and intrigue. Sometimes it’s comforting to know that the church hasn’t really changed much since 325 AD. But the good news of this is that it was born out of the community of faith. This isn’t always pretty, it’s often messy but it does, generally, make at least some room for the Holy Spirit. Faithful Christians gathered with Scripture in one hand and the traditions of the Church in the other and what emerged was a clear, concise articulation of the faith. One that has served us well for the past 1,680 years.

But it’s important to make a distinction here. The Nicene Creed doesn’t simply tell us what to believe. When we say the Creed we begin by saying we believe. “We believe in one God.” That is, we as a Christian community spanning the generations, believe in this God we have come to know through experience. We’re not making a final conclusive statement, we’re making a promise about putting our whole faith and trust in this one God we have come to know through our individual and collective journeys of faith. We know this one God through the three “persons” of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Words are inadequate to describe this God but we, who have come to know God in our lives, “believe.”

Some of you may be thinking, then why bother to say it at all? It’s a good question. First of all, it gives us a common identity by allowing us to proclaim the one-ness of God within the context of the worshiping community. Saying it week after week helps to form and shape us as Christians who believe in a Trinitarian God. Secondly, the Creed is a source of unity among Christians of different denominations. This is an important point for groups that so often seem to find little common ground. At least we can agree on the outline of what we mean when we speak about God.

At one point a debate raged among mainline denominations over whether we really need to say the Creed at every service. The best comment I ever heard about this was by a former seminary professor of mine. The late Jim Griffiss, who served as the canon-theologian to the current Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, claimed that after hearing some of the sermons he had to endure, the Nicene Creed was the only thing he had to hold onto to restore his faith.

But he touches on an important point. The main function of the Creed in the life of the wider Church is liturgical. It is part of our public worship. Perhaps the best way that I can express the importance of the Nicene Creed in your life is to remind you that it is ultimately a prayer. I bid you to pray the Creed rather than just recite it as if it were the Christian version of the “Pledge of Allegiance.” It is a prayer. And if we waited to pray until we had absolutely no doubts, our prayer lives would be empty. Of course not everything in our journeys of faith is black and white. There are many shades of gray and uncertainty and doubt. Praying the creed doesn’t erase these. If anything it invites us deeper into the relationship with God. And that often leads to further questions. So the Creed isn’t a statement that we wait to say until we have absolutely no doubts. If it were, the words “Let us stand and affirm our faith in the Nicene Creed” might lead instead to an awkward moment of silence. 

Instead, when we pray the Creed we are drawn into the heart of the Trinity. And to be drawn into the Trinity is to be drawn into the very heart of God. The Trinity is God in the fullest expression. And the fullness of God is the one-ness of God. The Trinitarian God is indivisible. So what we say about God the Father also applies to God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. And what we say about God the Son also applies to God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. And so on. It’s so simple it’s complex and at the same time it’s so complex it’s simple. Unity and mystery. A holy dance into which we are invited through the Nicene Creed.

Let us now stand to pray and affirm our faith in the words of the Nicene Creed…

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2005

Trinity Sunday 2004

A Sermon from All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor, NY
Sermon preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector, on June 6, 2004. 
 (Trinity Sunday, Year C).

It’s been said that more heresy is preached on Trinity Sunday than any other day of the year. I’m not sure whether this is true or not, but it does highlight the confusion generated by the concept of one God in three persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Long theological tomes have been written on the subject. Church councils have been convened on the subject. Christians have been martyred over the subject. And the confusion remains. Human language is always inadequate to explain the fullness of the mystery of God. And the historical debates make this, at least, very clear.

But talking about the Trinity only gets us so far. The Trinitarian debates of the fourth century and its byproduct the Nicene Creed are undoubtedly foundational to our understanding of the faith. Through this conversation we know that God is the Father “of all that is seen and unseen.” And that “Jesus Christ is the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father.” And that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son.” And we praise the great saints who shaped this formula. People like St. Athanasius. But for us, talking about the Trinity is a world apart from experiencing the Trinity. The Trinity isn’t dry doctrine, it’s living faith. Because the Trinity is the fullest expression of God. And the fullest expression of God is anything but dull. For God is a dynamic power, a presence bursting with energy, a Creator intimately involved with our everyday lives, a Redeemer who came into the world to save us, and a Sanctifier that breathes holiness into every corner of life. This isn’t just theoretical. This is life-giving truth.

So, here’s a little secret: the fullest expression of God is not about arcane or complex theological language. It’s not about some new-fangled math that claims three is really one. The fullest expression of God is simply this: that God is love. That’s the essence of God’s fullest expression. Again and again the Gospel of John brings home this point: God is, above all, love. And that’s what the Trinity is all about. 

In a sense, there’s nothing simpler or more basic than love. So, maybe we’re the ones who make the concept of the Trinity so complex. Maybe it’s our sinfulness and brokenness that confuse the divine simplicity of God. Maybe we complicate the fundamental essence of God. God is love, so the Trinity, too, is love.

Which brings us to a question. How do you experience love? How do you know what love looks and feels like? We know love because we are loved or we love others. So it’s through community and interaction with others that we experience love. The Trinity, which is ultimately the heart of God, is bound together in community, in a community of love. Because the Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – is itself a community. These three persons are in loving relationship and loving community with one another. The ultimate community, perhaps, but just as much a community as your family or this parish. And so the Trinity as the fullest expression of God, models communal love. The difference is that it is a community based exclusively on love. In our own communities we certainly strive for loving community. And there are moments when our communities reflect glimpses of this divine love. But we’re human. And so, many things thwart our efforts towards fostering loving community. Like pride and self-interest, insecurity and fear. But rather than despair, the relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit gives us hope. It points to what can potentially be created when people join together in love. And the possibilities are astounding.

The other lesson about community we learn from the Trinity is that its dynamic power cannot be contained. The community of God that forms the loving bond between the Father, Son, and Spirit is not merely internally focused. A community so focused upon itself is limited. But community finds its deepest expression when that love is shared, when it moves outside of itself. The relationships of the three persons of the Trinity are not a remote model for us. It’s not something we stare at and strive for. The Trinity’s love must be shared. It needs an object for its love. And that’s where you and I come in. We are the object of this Trinitarian love. God doesn’t just love in the abstract; God loves us. That’s the miracle of the Holy Trinity of God. It exists to share God’s divine love with you and me. And it’s why we can say with such conviction that “God is love.” 

Through our relationship with God, we live in community with God. Our community with God is the single most important community we have. For it is a community that offers us life and salvation. It is stronger than any human club or fraternity, it’s stronger than any sports team or alumni association. It’s even stronger than the community of our own families. And when we live in community with God, we live in community with one another. It is impossible to love God without loving one another. It just doesn’t work. 

Trinitarian love is why we celebrate this day. The point of Trinity Sunday is not to honor doctrinal complexities. It is to rejoice in God’s love for us. And to remember our charge to share God’s love with others. And so it is that we end our time together each Sunday morning with a Trinitarian blessing. Asking God’s full expression of love to be among us and remain with us always.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2004

Trinity Sunday 2001

Trinity Sunday, Year C
June 10, 2001
Old St. Paul’s, Baltimore
The Rev. Timothy E. Schenck

One plus one plus one equals…one. I wouldn’t necessarily use this reasoning in math class or on the SAT’s or when balancing the checkbook. But one plus one plus one does indeed equal one; at least when you’re doing Trinitarian math. God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit equal the full expression of the one, living, and true God. And while we celebrate and praise the triune God each and every Sunday, this particular day, Trinity Sunday, challenges us to examine how the ultimate expression of “oneness” touches our lives, our hearts, and our souls.

From a purely rational perspective, of course, one plus one plus one doesn’t equal one. Any first grader can tell you that one plus one plus one equals three. Everybody knows that. Even someone as mathematically challenged as I am can count to three. And three is an important number in the church. The fullest expression of God is found in the three persons of the Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. I sometimes joke with people that the real reason I went into the priesthood was because all the math I ever need to know, can be found on the first three fingers of my right hand. If you can count to three, you’re well on your way to a basic understanding of Christian theology. 

But the significance of the Trinity is so much more than just a mysterious mathematical equation. It’s the very source of our life. It’s the starting point, the ending point, the Alpha and the Omega, of who we are and how we live in relationship to God. The Trinity is the full revelation of the God “who was and is and is to come.” For it is God who creates us, Christ who redeems us, the Holy Spirit who sanctifies us. And these actions take place not in isolation but in a unity that surpasses human understanding. For while the blessed Trinity is God’s fullest revelation to humanity, it is also divine mystery. We experience God through the three persons of the Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit but we can also never fully understand and comprehend the fullness of God’s glory.  One plus one plus one equals one but we don’t really know how or why.

And it’s not for lack of trying! Theologians have written volumes on the subject of the Trinity, professors have taught entire courses on the subject of the Trinity, and church- wide councils have been convened on the subject of the Trinity. And I get about 8 minutes from this pulpit on a Sunday morning in June. Now I’m not complaining. But I can’t tell you exactly how one plus one plus one equals one or exactly why one plus one plus one equals one. The concept of the Trinity cannot be fully explained but it can most definitely be experienced. When we worship in this sacred space together and revel in the awe of God the Father’s creation, when we are touched by the redeeming love of God in Christ, when we allow our lives to be guided by the power of the Holy Spirit, we experience first-hand the power and presence of the Holy Trinity. When we reach out to others in love, when others reach out to us in love, we experience first-hand the power and presence of the Holy Trinity. The “oneness” touches all of us.

I should point out that the Christian doctrine of the Trinity that has been handed down to us was not arrived at easily or without controversy. Much blood was shed before and after the Council of Nicaea in the year 325 AD, from which we derive the Nicene Creed recited each week in our liturgy. At the heart of the matter was Christ’s relationship to God. Was Christ truly divine, “of the same substance” of God, equal in every way, or somehow lesser than God? If there was only one God, how could Christ and the Holy Spirit also be considered part of that one God? Wouldn’t that make three Gods, not just one? Again, it’s the question of how one plus one plus one equals one. Given the degree of religious apathy in today’s society it’s hard to imagine your average person fighting in the streets over this issue but that’s exactly what happened. Everyone had an opinion on the Trinity from emperor to peasant. And it was literally seen as an issue with life or death consequences. The tradition that we’ve inherited was forged out of this battle and the resolution achieved at Nicaea. The council affirmed the equality and divinity of the three persons of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. And we affirm this aspect of our faith each Sunday when we say the Creed. “I believe in one God…and in one Lord, Jesus Christ…and I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of life who proceeds from the Father and the Son.”

Over the years, some have questioned whether the Creed plays a useful or helpful role in our worship. Do people really know what they’re saying? Does the doctrine of the Trinity matter to us in this day and age? When we speak the words of the Creed out of a deep sense of conviction and faith we see the Nicene Creed for what it truly is: a uniquely bold statement of our faith. Without the doctrine of the Trinity expressed with such power in the Creed, the Christian message just doesn’t hold together. Without a belief in the co-eternity and the co-equality of the three persons of the Trinity, our faith lacks its very foundation. Through grace we are forgiven, healed, renewed, and loved because of the power and presence of the one, living, and true God. We may not be able to explain it, we may not know exactly how one plus one plus one equals one, but we can experience the power of the Trinity each and every day. Because to seek God, to know God, to love God is to seek, know and love the blessed and mysterious Trinity. And this isn’t the realm of “fuzzy math,” but of divine truth and love.

 © The Rev. Tim Schenck 2001