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Between the Incarnation and the Trinity

Sermon for Sunday, Januray 8, 2022

When thou, O Lord, wast baptized in the Jordan, the worship of the Trinity was made manifest; for the voice of the Father bore witness to thee, calling thee his beloved Son, and the Spirit in the form of a dove confirned the truth of his words. O Christ our God, who hast revealed thyself and hast enlightened the world: Glory to thee! (Troparion for Theophany).

Glory to God the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Happy Second Day of Christmas! We’re just beginning a week and a half of fast-free celebrating. Traditionally, Orthodox Christians are often in one another’s homes during these twelve days, either bringing gifts or simply spending a little time together. We’re not farmers, so mid-winter is not time off from work for most of us, but it’s healthy to make time for hospitality, even when the house is in its normal state. If your tree hasn’t become a complete fire hazard, maybe keep it up until Theophany. Make spiced cider or wine, have your favorite meals and treats. My family has a few kinds of cookies and cakes we only ever bake at Christmas, and now that my mother and sister are her in town it was a comfort to be reminded to make and eat these again. Some of us have adopted the Advent wreath as a way to bring home the expectation of Christmastime. If you love holly and evergreens and mistletoe, then go ahead and keep the house full of green till Theophany – even if it outrages your Christmas-Is-Pagan neighbor.

Some folks perceive Christianity as a huge list of things prohibited and commanded. Christians aren’t allowed to get drunk, or have recreational sex with one and all, or gossip or rob banks, or have any fun at all. And they have to cover their heads and go to church all the time… so many rules! Especially for families coming to the Church from other traditions, I’d say it’s healthy to be intentional about including holiday traditions so that you and your family experience the feasts and fasts of the liturgical year as a positive, familiar part of life at home, along with radical hospitality and personal involvement in charities like the local food bank. When your life in Christ leads you to make costly and sacrificial commitments, then you and your family are living “in the world, but not of it” (1 John 2:15).

We’re going to be Christmasing for another week and a half until Theophany comes. Anciently the last day of this feast was the climax everything else leads up to. Theophany celebrates the baptism of Christ, the sanctification of the waters of the Jordan and of the whole world when God enters into his creation.

In the hymns of the coming week and after, you’ll also hear the theme of the manifestation of God. Theophany literally means the manifestation or revealing of God. We sing the same root word daily at Matins, “God is the Lord and has revealed himself to us…”

Specifically, in the coming feast we will see the revelation of the one God in three Persons, the Trinity.

Visit any Orthodox service, and one of the first things you will notice is the Trinity. Everything is in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Anything worth doing is worth doing three times.

Our non-Christian friends also believe in one God. They shake their heads at our insistence that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one God. Does it matter?

Honestly in a lot of today’s Christianity the Trinity does not matter. It’s in their denomination’s Statement of Faith, but there’s not much connection between the Trinity and real life. It seems like a weird accessory, bolted unnecessarily onto a simple Jesus religion.

If your whole Gospel is, “Jesus died so you can be forgiven and go to heaven,” then it’s hard to explain why the Trinity is a doctrine to defend, other than the fact that it’s always been so. This is like the way many Evangelicals baptize – not because baptism does anything, but because the Lord commanded it. And they have the Lord’s Supper every month, not because they expect to receive the Body of Christ, but because the Lord commanded it. It’s a thing you do because it’s a thing you do.

One reason the Trinity is not emphasized in today’s religion is that it’s hard to explain. Almost every metaphor or simile you try ends up teaching one or another of the ancient heresies that the Church has already tried on and rejected in her first centuries. (See youtu.be/KQLfgaUoQCw).

I recently read a book where the writer compared the Trinity to the myth of Cerberus, the three-headed dog that was supposed to guard the gate to the underworld. Cerberus would have three brains, three “centers of consciousness,” but one dog.

Now if a three-headed dog is your best description of the Holy Trinity, then I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest the Trinity is not a foundational reality you think about every day. It’s just a box you have to check on the way to what you really want to teach.

The Holy Trinity is not one of the doctrines of Orthodox Christianity; it is the root and foundation of all our belief and practice, our dogma and ethics, our salvation and our God.

We’ll come back to that in a minute.

There’s a field of study called apologetics. It seeks to persuade people of the existence of God. But if you ask me, apologists tend to start their reasoning about God from the wrong place.

Apologists and catechists often begin by arguing that something exists, or can exist, that can be called god. French writer Blaise Pascal called this “the god of the philosophers.”

They assemble logical arguments to demonstrate that it is legitimately arguable – maybe even necessary – to say that a deity of some kind exists.

Now logic is an excellent tool. It’s a set of methods for critical thinking that allow you to look at the facts you’ve got on hand and make statements about them. It is logic that enables us to state that all hedgehogs are reptiles; Sir Isaac Newton is a hedgehog; therefore Sir Isaac Newton is a reptile. QED, my dear Watson!

Actually logic requires you to start with some kind of given information you agree (or assume) to be true. The Latin word for something that is given is datum; a bunch of things given are data.

Both the data you start with and your reasoning have got to be accurate, or your logic won’t tell you anything reliable. But if I accept the data you start with, and each proposition and induction you make, then at the end we might be able to agree on a proposition.

Thing is, God is not a proposition. God IS.

The difference is that propositions exist in your head. But reality has been defined as that which still exists when you stop thinking about it. And while the philosophers and debaters are over there hammering out their conclusions about the deity, over here simple fishermen and monks and unpretentious disciples are meeting God face to face.

Back in 1980, I spent my junior year of high school in the Philippines as an exchange student. There I attended a Roman Catholic school. I wasn’t a Christian at the time, so when I heard the unfamiliar word “Trinity,” I asked our religion teacher, and he gave me an excellent, very Orthodox answer.

He said: The Church has experience of three divine Persons. They’re called the Father, the Son (that’s Jesus) and the Holy Spirit. But all three of them insist they are one God. So when we say “God” we might mean any one of them, or all three Persons. We don’t explain or rationalize the Trinity; we confess it and celebrate it.

He was saying this is not a conclusion we figured out – it’s what the Church has received from God. It’s data. And, like the four Gospels, the Church’s experience of God comes before any doctrines and conclusions.

The saints tell us, in essence, “This has been my experience of God. And if you want the same experience of God, then here is what I did and how I got this way.”

You know, there’s a logical fallacy called Appeal to Authority. A thing isn’t necessarily true because somebody says it is.

But if you and I disagree about whether Hobbits have bellybuttons, and I refer to a book by JRR Tolkien, that’s an appeal to a legitimate authority: Tolkien *invented* Hobbits. In that context, what he wrote isn’t an argument, it’s data.

When we want to know what the Lord is like, we start by reading the Gospels. In fact there are folks called “Red Letter Christians” who advise reading only the words in red, the words Christ spoke.

But who selected and put in order and wrote down those words? The apostles. They decided which teachings and acts of the Lord would go in their book. They’re quoting the Lord Jesus Christ, but the red-ink words of Christ are the testimony of the apostles. Our faith, and all we know about Christ, comes from the deposit of faith the apostles handed down to us. That’s why we believe in one holy, catholic, and *apostolic* Church.

The lives of the saints in the centuries following are an ongoing conformation of the apostolic tradition: the Church’s continuing experience of God who purifies, illumines, and unites human persons to the Trinity to see for themselves.

*     *     *

Speaking of human experience of the living God, here’s a curious fact: The love of God is not a very prominent feature in any religion I’ve ever looked into.

Islam emphasizes the mercy and righteousness of God, but at a distance, like a king or judge.

The dharmic religions, the various Hindu and Buddhist faiths, emphasize becoming compassionate but they don’t ultimately conceive the Godhead as personal. They believe identity and personal existence are illusion. And without identity you can’t have relationship, or love.

In the Psalms and Prophets we see the steadfast lovingkindness of God, both for his chosen people and for the one who cries out to him and trusts in him. But modern Rabbinical Judaism typically identifies love as a commandment that man owes to God and to one another. “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, and with all thy might, and thy neighbor as thyself.” God is said to love the nation of Israel, but not much is said of God’s love on a personal level.

In the New Testament, we encounter a God who is not only capable of love, but in Saint John’s words, God is love. That is, love is not just a thing God does, it describes his nature.

And here is why the fact of the Trinity matters: Before the heavens and the earth were created, before human beings or angels existed, God is love. The three divine Persons of the holy Trinity relate to one another in love, from eternity to eternity, before the Word of God ever spoke anything else into being. Before there was anyone else to love, from age to age, the three divine Persons love one another.

In other words, as important as the fact that God is, is the fact that God loves.

There is danger in reasoning from our experience to describe what God is like. But in fact we reason in the other direction: As there is perfect love among the three divine Persons of the Godhead, so our marriages, our families, and our parish community should be.

“Each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function; so in Christ, though we are many, we form one body, and each member belongs to all the others” (Romans 12:4-5).

There’s a quote attributed to Saint John Chrysostom: “The husband and wife should be like the hand and the eye. When the hand hurts, the eyes should weep. And when the eyes cry, the hand should wipe away the tears.”

Fr John Romanides wrote about the misunderstanding that says “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” He was corrected by a rabbi who told him the command “Love your neighbor as yourself” can only be interpreted as: “Love your neighbor as BEING yourself.” The other person is not in essence other than you.

In this life we see only dimly the reality that we are eight billion persons who share a single human nature.

We catch a glimpse of that reality when we feel empathy for one another, when we become peacemakers, and reconcile people or communities that have been alienated. When we “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15).

This is what the Lord prayed to the Father for us, “That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us” (John 17:21).

Have I used up my one Greek word for the day yet? No? Then here you go: Perichṓrēsis means being in the same place. Saint Maximus the Confessor used it to mean being inherent in one another. Saint John Damascene used this word when he wrote that the three Persons of the Trinity “are made one, not to combine, but to cleave to each other, and they have their being in each other without any coalescence or combining.”

Trivia: the root word of perichṓrēsis is almost identical to a word for dancing, so it has also become a word for a circle dance. When we face each other and make space for one another, there is a place for each person within the dance. We aren’t merged into a single big person, but we join in a single action.

The love of God for mankind and for us personally is the Holy Trinity in action. God’s overflowing, exceeding, abundant generosity is inherent in the nature of God.

Does God love you? Your performance can’t change the nature of God; you don’t have the power to make God love you less or more. “He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45). And he “demonstrates his own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us… when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son” (Romans 5:8,10).

And so the Lord commands us to become like him, to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:44-45).

All our doctrine and practice goes back to the reality that God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are one God, acting on the world from the overflow of their love.

In practical terms, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant” (Philippians 2:3–7).

“If anyone desires to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35).

There is a direct line from the three Persons of the Godhead, through our doctrines of creation and salvation and sanctification, to our way of life as people created and loved and brought home by the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It’s a mistake to pursue a moral catechism as a list of rights and wrongs; our life in Christ originates in the agápē love of the Godhead, the threefold oneness that shows us who we are as “members of one another.”

Robert Coleman once said, “Show me your gods and I will show you your people.  Because we become like those we worship.  Worship a god of war and I will show you a warring people.  Worship a god of licentiousness and you will live a life of license.  But worship a Holy God and you will strive to become holy.”

God created us so that the joy he has in himself might be ours. Worship the source of love and abundant life, flowing from the overflowing steadfast love of the Trinity, because God is love. Taste and see that the Lord is good.

Come, let us worship and bow down to the Holy Trinity, one in essence and undivided: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, now and ever and to the ages of ages. Amen.