Holy Trinity A2017
by Pastor Sarah Stadler
In 381 of the common era, approximately 300 years after Jesus lived, died, was raised, and ascended, church leaders gathered for the Council of Constantinople. The council was called by Theodosius I, the Holy Roman Emperor, in the city of Constantinople, a city now called Istanbul in the present-day nation of Turkey. This was the second time the Roman emperor had convened church leaders to debate the core beliefs of Christianity. The first time had been in 325 in Nicea where they wrote the first version of the Nicene Creed. In 381 at the Council of Constantinople, the leaders of the church formulated the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, the doctrine which states that Christians believe in one God in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each equally and fully God. The output of the council was the Nicene Creed in basically its present form. From the first council in 325 to the second council in 381, the major item up for debate was whether the Holy Spirit was equally God in relation to both God the Creator and Jesus.
Are you still awake? Have I bored you completely?
On this Holy Trinity Sunday, we lift up a doctrine of our church, a doctrine unique to Christianity, a doctrine inexplicable not only to non-Christians but even to us who practice this religion. I have to squelch my urge to explain the Trinity to you this morning—as if this doctrine could be intellectually completely understood. It can’t be completely understood. Even the most learned theologian could not honestly claim to take apart the Trinity and put it back together and make it make sense. So, instead of trying to understand the Trinity this morning, perhaps we can ponder whether or not the doctrine and our celebration of it is important and if it is important, why it is.
To the church leaders of the fourth century who met in Nicea and then Constantinople, the doctrine of the Trinity, declaring the very nature of God was deeply important. At the time, Christianity hadn’t been around very long. Jesus taught and healed, fed and befriended others, died and was raised in about 30 of the common era. The disciples and then Paul began the church by the power of the Holy Spirit from around 30 through the 60s. People taught by the disciples and Paul continued their ministry up through 110 or so which we know because the books of the Bible written most recently were written about that time, and they sometimes wrote in the name of Paul or one of the disciples. For the next two hundred years, Christians practiced their faith in secret, and when they did not practice secretly, they were persecuted, stoned, crucified, thrown to the lions. In 313 after Constantine came to power as emperor, he declared the Roman Empire to be the Holy Roman Empire and Christianity to be the religion of the state. For the first time in the history of Christianity, Christians were able to practice their faith in the light of day, and church leaders were able to discuss ideas of God in the public forum. Unfortunately, part of what came with institutionalized religion was…institutionalized religion. Nonetheless, for those who believed in Christ and passionately sought after a Jesus kind of life, space to discuss ideas about God was not just an intellectual exercise but a heartfelt pursuit.
Imagine a world without readily-available Bibles, a world with no devotionals, a world with little theological writing to be found whatsoever, a world where the limited Christian writing had to be scrupulously copied by hand and delivered via foot or horseback or ship if delivered to distant peoples at all. If we step into the mind-space and heart-space of that time for someone whose life had been changed by hearing about and experiencing the good news of Jesus Christ, then, we see that, for fourth-century Christians, discussing the nature of God was so very important. Because they wanted to know God. Because they wanted to understand God. Because they wanted to find community where people weren’t going to look at them strangely for seeking a life similar to that of a first century Mediterranean peasant. Because they wanted to talk about the things that mattered most to them. And then, suddenly, in 313, they could do these things without fear of persecution, and in 325 and 381, church leaders were formally called together specifically to debate and discuss ideas and to enrich their communal understanding of God.
For us, people of the 21st century in the United States of America, a nation at least supposedly birthed out of a desire for religious freedom, it may be difficult for us to understand the vigor with which church leaders of 381 discussed the nature of God. Is it honestly that important that God is one in three persons? That Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, that Creator, Jesus, and Spirit are each equally and fully God? I’m curious, actually, what you think. Is this important? There is not a correct or incorrect answer to this question, to be clear. Give time for people to share.
In the eleventh century, a theologian named Anselm offered a proof of God’s existence and said his faith was a “faith seeking understanding.” What he advocated was not giving up faith in favor of reason or understanding but actively loving God while seeking a deeper knowledge of God. For me, that is why Holy Trinity Sunday and the doctrine of the Holy Trinity are important. I’m never going to completely understand the mystery that is God, but I am always seeking understanding. I love God, and I “do” my love for God by loving other people in real, concrete ways. While I go about loving God by loving others, while I go about forgiving and serving, while I go about listening and helping, while I go about seeking justice and working for peace, I am also seeking to understand God. I interrogate my assumptions. I ask questions about the Bible. Friends lead me down the rabbit hole of logic and demand, gently and lovingly, of course, explanations to satisfy them. Holy Trinity Sunday pushes us to embrace a faith that seeks understanding, not a blind faith, not a flimsy faith, not an unquestioning faith, but faith seeking understanding.
While I don’t have a magic bullet this morning, while I can’t take apart and put back together a doctrine about the very nature of the Creator of the universe, here’s what I do have: the story of faithful people who loved God and sought deeper understanding AND my story of loving God and seeking deeper understanding. Whether or not you believe that God is one in three persons, whether or not this is important to you, I hope that you will continue to show up here and discuss what matters most to you. I hope you will risk asking questions of the Bible, and I hope you will interrogate your assumptions. To seek understanding is not a denial of our love for God but evidence of our faith in the one who said: I am with you always, to the end of age.