Category Archives: Theology & Doctrine

Sermon, March 3

Adjusted Epistle text: 2 Cor 3:12-13; 3:17 – 4:2; 4:5-6

Since, then, we have such a hope, we act with great boldness, not like Moses, who put a veil over his face to keep the people of Israel from gazing at the end of the glory that was being set aside. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transfigured into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit. Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God. For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

 

It happened when he was praying: the image of his face: different;  his cloak: white, flashing.

That’s Biblical scholar Richard Swanson’s translation of verse 29 in today’s Gospel – staying closer to the original Greek syntax: 

It happened when he was praying: the image of his face: different;  his cloak: white, flashing.

And then there is the cloud – and the Voice – and the glory. The text piles on clues that point to God’s presence, ways God’s people have seen and known God for millennia. 

This Gospel story – known as the Transfiguration – always comes around in the lectionary on the last Sunday in Epiphany, the Sunday when we turn towards Lent, begin the long walk towards Good Friday and Easter. That’s where the story falls in the Gospels, too – on the cusp of Jesus’ turn towards Jerusalem. At the Transfiguration, this moment on the mountaintop, three of Jesus’ disciples get a glimpse of the Divine within Jesus – this brightness, this strangeness. They see – and we see, with them – that the man we follow on this rocky road is not just a man. Not just a wise teacher. Not just a kind healer. He is God, living among us, loving us. As Paul writes in today’s Epistle, we know the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ – a passage so rich and lovely that it’s woven into our Epiphany Eucharistic prayer, if you’re wondering why these words sound familiar!

This is the mystery and the paradox we hold together in our understanding of Jesus: He was actually and fully a particular human being living in a particular time and place. His Jesus-ness was not a costume or an avatar. And yet, Jesus was – Jesus IS – one Person of the Holy Trinity, the divine Logos by whom all things were made; the eternal Word that became flesh and dwelt among us; the Anointed One, the Messiah, the Christ, from before time and forever, sent to liberate and redeem humanity and Creation. 

So while Jesus was truly and authentically human as a first-century Jew from Nazareth, there was also something ultimately incidental about the way the Christ, the Logos, the Light that is the life of all peoples, took human form. In another time and another place, God might have worn another body and another face.

It happened when he was praying: the image of his face: different;  his cloak: white, flashing.

The theologian Soren Kierkegaard wrote a famous allegory about the Incarnation of Jesus: Suppose there was a king who loved a humble maiden. This king: he is so wealthy, so powerful, so respected, so feared. Those who come before him in his throne room tremble before his power. Yet his heart melts within him for love of this simple, poor young woman. How can he approach her and win her love? His power and glory tie his hands: If he appears to her in all his kingly might, she might agree to be his bride – but would she love him, or would she merely consent out of awe or fear or duty? Would she be happy with him, or merely obedient? He does not want to overwhelm or command. He does not want a subject, but a partner, a friend, a lover. And so, because he fears that he cannot raise the maiden to his glory without crushing her freedom, he lowers himself. He becomes ordinary and poor. Not in disguise but in truth: he sets aside his throne and crown. He puts on simple, ragged clothing – and walks the path to his beloved’s door. 

If the point of the Incarnation, of the whole Jesus project, was to be able to approach us, and tell us that we are loved, what body, what face would best suit that task? A body and a face that look like us. Whoever us might be. 

Representation matters. You might have heard someone say that. It’s shorthand for the increasing realization that seeing people who look like us, in positions of power or success, in movies and books, in schools and churches, is important. If none of the people in charge and none of the heroes of our stories look like us, deep down we’re not sure that people like us ever get to be in charge. Ever get to be heroes. That perception can operate within us even if we never think those words. In the past month I’ve had two different women my age or older say to me, “I never knew how much it mattered to me to have a woman priest until I had one.” The funny thing is, as I thought about it, I realized that was true for me too. My early life was blessed by a lot of wonderful priests, who all happened to be men. Discerning my call to ordination happened in parallel with Phil and I joining a mission church in North Carolina, the Church of the Advocate, led by our dear friend the Rev. Lisa Fischbeck. I was called before Lisa became my priest; but Lisa’s priesthood absolutely helped me find my way into my priesthood. 

God who knows us so well, both our potential and our limitations, knows that representation matters. That we needed God to be both transcendent and imminent; both beyond and among; both infinitely other and utterly familiar. And so God gave Godself to us as Jesus – a paradox and mystery that has given Christians the freedom to imagine Jesus the Christ with other bodies, other faces. 

Luke’s Gospel doesn’t use the word “transform” or “transfigure”, metamorpho, the word Mark and Matthew use, the word the Church uses to name this feast. Instead, Luke says Jesus’ face changed. His face became different. Still Jesus, but – different. Let’s look at some different Jesuses. 

This is a black Jesus – African-American. A really important 20th-century theologian, James Cone, wrote about why it’s important to imagine Jesus as black. He wrote, “Jesus Christ is not a proposition, not a theological concept which exists merely in our heads. He is an event of liberation, a happening in the lives of oppressed people struggling for political freedom. Therefore, to know him is to encounter him in the history of the weak and the helpless.” (God of the Oppressed, p. 32) And that’s why, he argues, there’s a deep truth in depicting Jesus as African-American – because if God chose to come two thousand years ago as a poor Jew in a backwards corner of the Roman Empire, God might well come today as a black child living in a neighborhood blighted by poverty and neglect. 

Here are some other ways Christians have envisioned Jesus. A Chinese Jesus, in the work of artist He Qi. A feminine Jesus, in the work of artist Janet Makenzie. Here is Jesus before his birth: his parents Mary and Joseph, reimagined as Maria y Jose, a young couple without money, without friends, without a safe place to birth their baby. This is by an artist named Everett Patterson. And there’s this image, a Good Friday image: Mary holds Jesus after his death – but they’re shown as children. Kids. 

Imagining Jesus as looking like us, whoever we are, is, I believe, a bold and faithful thing to do. We do it because we know that Jesus is more than just Jesus: 

Jesus is the Eternal one who enters time, the Universal one who becomes local. And we do it because we trust that the point of it all was to come close to us. To tell us that we are loved, and to invite us into renewed relationship with the Divine. We depict God in our image to remind ourselves that we are made in God’s image. 

I want to show you another Jesus: Jesus imagined in the image of a community that has heard again and again that God does not love them as they are. What do you notice about it? … 

The original Jesus bust, under all the colorful paint, came from a thrift store as a broken chunk of plaster. That’s where the artist found it. The artist is an acquaintance of mine; and I’m pretty sure she doesn’t have a lot of use for church. She is one of so, so many LGBTQ+ people who have gotten the message loud and clear that churches believe they don’t belong. That God’s love is conditional, and the condition is denying your own heart, soul, and body.

But the artist didn’t leave the broken Jesus bust at the Goodwill, or buy it and break it to smithereens. She took it home, and fixed it, and made it beautiful. She made it into a Jesus whom she and her friends could be safe with. A Jesus whose face shows the glory of God the way they need to see it, to know themselves beloved. Then she put it in an auction at a community event – and I bid on it till I won. (People who knew I was a pastor were shoving money at me, to help…!) 

I brought this Jesus here to St. Dunstan’s because I knew there would be people here who would find them beautiful and meaningful. One person looked at it and said to me, If I walked in the door of a church and saw this, I would know right away that I was safe here. I knew, too, that others would find it a little odd. Who might need an explanation to see how this Jesus is like these other Jesuses. And I know there are people here who will find it uncomfortable – even with the explanation. Who just can’t see this as Jesus. There are people who will see it as disrespectful – though I don’t believe that’s the artist’s intention, and it’s certainly not mine. There are people who will have a hard time seeing it as anything other than a joke, a piece of satire – which is also not the intention. Wherever you fall on that spectrum, I ask you to try to look at this as an icon – a holy image intended to help us focus on the divine. It might not be the image that works for you. That’s why churches have lots of different icons! 

I’ve begun to talk, with a few people, about where to hang this image of Jesus. We’ll probably put off the decision for a few months, because it’s fragile, and we’re about to do a lot of demolition and renovation around here. But I hope we can find a place for this Jesus – their face, different; their garment, shining and sparkling. 

In today’s Gospel, the transfiguration story leads right into a healing story. We chose to include it even though the lectionary offers us the option of dropping it – because it’s an awkward story. We want Jesus to be nice, and Jesus is not nice, here. I want to be clear, though, that Jesus isn’t yelling at the the father of the afflicted child. (The whole story is much clearer in Mark’s version!)  Jesus is yelling at the argumentative crowd. He’s fed up because he’s come from this mountaintop moment of clarity about his mission, and walked right into a big argument about whether he’s a fraud and whether his message matters and why are you bothering the Teacher with this sick kid and who do you think you are anyway?!?

Jesus’ frustration in this passage has been oddly comforting to me, this week, as many of us have watched with dismay as the United Methodist Church debated whether LGBTQ+ Methodists can be both fully themselves, and fully members of their church. And as Anglican Communion leaders – whom, I stress, have no authority over the Episcopal Church – have reminded us once again that they do not share our church’s affirmation of same-sex marriage. People have an amazing capacity to stand around arguing and trying to score points off each other, while someone vulnerable suffers in their midst. But Jesus marches in, tells them to knock it off, and heals the child.

I attended a talk a few weeks ago by Heidi Carter, a Christian sexuality educator. She said when she talks with queer kids about their churches, they say one of two things things. Either, My church loves and supports me completely, it’s one of my safe places; or else: I can’t tell my church who I really am. They might not love me anymore; they would try to change me. Matthew Swanson writes about this Gospel: “The description of the effect of… the demon is terrifying. It rips the boy to shreds. It shatters him. It crushes him.”

Jesus heals the child. Where are we, in this story? 

It is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

The knowledge of God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ – a knowledge that is like a light, a knowledge that illuminates. Paul is alluding to Jesus’ transfiguration in this passage, but he’s also calling Christians to transformation –  to transfiguration, in fact; it’s that same Greek word, metamorpho. He says, Because we have seen God’s glory revealed in Jesus, because that light has shone into our hearts, we are being changed, day by day, to reflect that glory more and more ourselves, by living lives of integrity, freedom, and boldness. 

If the point of the Incarnation, of the whole Jesus project, was to be able to approach us, and tell us that we are loved – and call us to lives of integrity, freedom, and boldness – what body, what face would best suit that task? … A body and a face that look like us. Whoever us might be. 

Can you see the light of the glory of God in the face of this Jesus? I can. I see that light, that glory, in the artist’s courageous choice to reclaim Jesus from the hands of those who have hurt her. I see that light, that glory, in the reminder to look for Jesus among those pushed to the margins, those whose worth and humanity are treated as negotiable. I see that light, that glory, in the fact that beauty and holiness can take many different forms. I see light and glory in this garment, shining bright – in this beloved face, different. 

 

Richard Swanson’s commentary on this Gospel: 

https://provokingthegospel.wordpress.com/2019/02/25/a-provocation-transfiguration-march-3-2019-luke-928-45/

Kierkegaard’s parable: 

http://www.readingtheology.com/the-king-and-the-maiden-by-søren-kierkegaard

Sermon, Nov. 18

Folks, we are two Sunday out from Advent, closing in on the end of one year and the birth of a new one, by the Church’s reckoning, and we’re talking about the end of the world. Not nuclear or environmental catastrophe, those mundane human disasters, but the honest-to-God End Times, when all the structures in which we have come to trust will be thrown down, not a stone left upon stone. When humanity will be terrified and confounded by wars and rumors of wars, by messianic pronouncements, by nation rising up against nation, earthquakes, famines – and all of that is just the beginning of the birthpangs, the early contractions before labor REALLY gets underway. 

Let me pause here for a vocabulary check. You might say that Jesus is talking about the apocalypse. A word that we use to mean the sudden and catastrophic end of the current age – maybe the end of everything. “Apocalypse” comes from the Greek for “to uncover or reveal.” In its original sense it referred to teachings or writings that do what Jesus is doing here:  reveal the signs of the coming end of things. As for the end itself, Biblical scholars would call that the Eschaton: the final, fulfilling event in the divine plan. I’m not going to tell you that you’re using the word apocalypse wrong, because we’ve used it that way for so long that its meaning has shifted. But I am going to use the church’s word for the end of everything, Eschaton, to remind us that we’re talking about God’s fulfillment of history – and that we’re not talking about, say, zombies. 

We don’t know a lot about the Eschaton. The texts are complicated and unclear. But our Scriptures and our tradition tell us it’s going to happen. How do we think about that, as Christians? As Episcopalians? 

When we get into the End Times, my mind always goes to a couple of literary characters. One comes from the work of James Thurber, the great mid-20th-century humorist. In an essay in his book “My Life and Hard Times,” he recalls a colorful character from his youth in Columbus, Ohio: The Get-Ready Man. Thurber writes, ‘The Get-Ready Man was a lank unkempt elderly gentleman with wild eyes and a deep voice who used to go about shouting at people through a megaphone to prepare for the end of the world, “GET READY! GET READ-Y!” he would bellow, “THE WORLLLD IS COMING TO AN END!”’ His startling exhortations added a certain note to many civic occasions. 

On the other hand, a New Yorker cartoon some years back showed a similarly wild-eyed, gaunt, unkempt elderly man on a street corner, holding up a sign that read, “It’s just going to go on and on…”

I like to think of those gentlemen as marking out two schools of thought about the end of the world: Get Ready,  versus On and On. 

This is a significant division within contemporary Christianity. Some Christians are deeply concerned and interested in end times, spend a lot of time with Scripture texts that predict or describe, made the Left Behind series into bestsellers, and even promote policies that they believe will help bring on the Eschaton. Get ready!!

Then there are the On and On Christians, including most Episcopalians. Our chosen bestsellers are more likely to be written by Barbara Kingsolver or Bob Woodward. We worry about nuclear and environmental disaster, for sure, but the Eschaton per se is not really on our radar. We acknowledge the Eschaton and the Second Coming of Christ as teachings of the church, but don’t give it a lot of thought. I mean, it’s a weird thing to believe – that Jesus is going to float down from the sky someday and replace everything tattered and broken in this world with the living, joyful wholeness that God intended for us.  

The earliest Christians, our ancestors in faith, were mostly in the Get Ready camp. They expected that Jesus would return ANY MINUTE NOW, to usher in God’s new world. They waited and watched, expectant, impatient. Some even quit their jobs and refused to marry.

Their expectation was based on things Jesus had said – in texts like today’s Gospel, in which Jesus’ small-town-born disciples are impressed with the size of the Great Temple in Jerusalem, and Jesus says, Don’t get too attached. On the brink of the Last Supper, arrest, and death, Jesus tells his friends that big, terrifying changes are in the wind. 

As I read the text, with 2000 years’ hindsight, I think that Jesus is talking about two different things at once: the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple about forty years later, a genuinely apocalyptic event for Jews and Christians of that time. Jesus predicts that the Temple will be destroyed, as it was; that his followers will be persecuted, as they were; that there will be bitter conflict over the Gospel, as indeed there was and is; that the Gospel must be proclaimed to all nations, as indeed it has been.

But later in the same chapter, he also describes a more cosmic final ending (and beginning) that has yet to occur: “The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken… They will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from… the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.”

In a couple of weeks we’ll hear Luke’s Jesus prophesying with similar words: “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars… People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world.Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

The emotional tone of these texts, I find, is interestingly ambiguous. There is fear, certainly – even terror. In Mark 13, Jesus tells his friends, “Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! Pray that it may not be in winter. For in those days there will be suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the creation… until now, no, and never will be.”

These apocalyptic prophesies stir up dread, of course. But there are also hints of a kind of fierce, bitter hope.  The world as it was had not been kind to the people who became the first Christians. They had reason to find comfort in the vision of a world turned upside down, a Great Day in which God’s might would sweep over the powers and principalities of this world, leaving rubble and ashes. 

It’s fitting that the lectionary pairs Jesus’ apocalyptic words with the song of Hannah, many centuries older. Hannah was one of two wives of a good and loving man, Elkanah. Hannah had no children, while the second wife, Penninah, had many sons and daughters. And Penninah used to mock Hannah cruelly. Hannah prays fervently to God and God gives her a son, Samuel, Israel’s great prophet and kingmaker. When she dedicates Samuel to God’s service, she sings this song – so like the familiar Magnficiat, the Song of Mary, but different too, mostly because Hannah is angrier than Mary. 

Hannah sings, “My heart exults in the LORD; my strength is exalted in my God. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory. Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth… The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn.”

In context, Hannah’s anger reflects her rival’s cruelty. But I hear a resonance with the combined fear and exaltation in some Christian apocalyptic texts: God’s New Day is coming, and those who made the current age a living hell for many are going to get theirs. And I hear, too, a resonance with the voices of friends and acquaintances today, who look at our brutal society, our polarized politics, our wounded environment, and say, only half kidding: Burn it all down. Even though I’m doing fine, even though my house is warm and my kids are healthy: It’s all too broken to fix. Burn it down and start fresh. 

Episcopalians tend, by history, theology, and social status, to be On and On type Christians. We build stone churches and establish endowments. We plan for the long term. But here as a dark season grows darker, as the old year decays and the new year stirs towards birth, I think there are gifts for us in the Get Ready. I find that each year, Advent’s rich brew of hope and trepidation gets more real to me. 

Beloveds, we live in an amazing time. The number of people around the globe living in extreme poverty declined sharply between 2000 and 2015. In roughly the same years, the percentage of Americans who believe that LGBTQ+ people should be able to get married rose from 35% to 62%. And I am always mindful that I could not have served this  church as a priest anytime earlier than 1976. There is so much possibility in the world, and so much to love. There are so many moments when I just pause and breathe and think, This is good. Thank you. 

But there are moments, too, when I’m so hungry for the fulfillment of these ancient prophecies. Because things are so broken. Close to 200 dead in Paradise, California, after a wildfire made worse by global climate change. A black security guard apprehends a gunman and is himself shot dead by police. My friend Dave, the priest in Baraboo, had to find words for a letter to his congregation about high school boys doing the Nazi salute in a prom photo.  

How long, O Lord? Until this world’s long labor finally births God’s new reality? Get ready! 

As we lean towards Advent, as we lean into the darkness of this season, I find that what’s most whole and most true for me is to live in the On and On with some of that spirit of Get Ready. Doing what little I can to leave things better than I found them; while trusting – hoping – fearing that God may upset the whole apple-cart at any time, and replace it with something better. 

First-century Christians thought they were living at the end of time – expecting the Eschaton to break through at any moment. It’s easy to look back and think they were wrong, 

but they weren’t, really – because what was important is the way their Get Ready mindset, their confidence in God’s transcendent purposes working inexorably towards fulfillment even through our struggle and confusion, made them live in their present as people of God’s future. 

I look to those ancestors in faith to teach us how to live in the On and On inflected by the urgent, angry hope of Get Ready: Recognize that everything is provisional. Hold lightly the ways of this age – even the things that are working pretty well for us. Expect loss. Expect grace. Expect change. Jesus says, Keep your eyes open! Stay awake! 

Get ready!

Sermon, May 27

It’s Trinity Sunday. Again. Seems like just twelve months ago that I was last trying to find something to preach about the Trinity. Trinity Sunday is the only feast day of the church that’s devoted to a doctrine, rather than a holy person or story. I know there are preachers who really enjoy preaching about doctrine. I find it a little dry and chewy, myself. Like an overly-healthy energy bar. 

As I stared at a blank document on my laptop earlier this week, it dawned on me that part of the challenge is that I’m just not very interested in the Trinity. Don’t get me wrong: I love God! I love knowing God as Source, Redeemer, and Spirit!But I don’t for a moment believe that our theological formulations, even at their most elaborate and nuanced, are actually describing the nature of the Divine. The mystery is too big, and our language far too small. 

But it’s clear that the Trinity – this teaching, this doctrine, this way of mapping the interior of God – has been tremendously important to our ancestors in faith. I learned last year that the annual observance of a Sunday devoted to the Trinity may go back to Dunstan’s time – might even have been part of his effort to get the English people thinking rightly about God. And the doctrine of the Trinity mattered a whole heck of a lot to many people, during the first thousand years of our faith. So I spent some time with some of those ancient voices this week. And, you know, I got interested. 

Let’s go back to the early 4th century. The big heresies of the previous couple of centuries had largely focused on Jesus: Was he really God, or just a human granted special divine wisdom and power by God? Was he really human, or just sort of a human suit that God put on in order to get our attention? And so on. 

As the Church settled on understanding Jesus as both fully human and fully divine, the next problem emerged: If Jesus is God, alongside God the Father, Creator and Source, then what do we do with that, as a faith committed to monotheism, belief in one God? Because that sure sounds like two gods. And that’s even before we get to this weird undefined Holy Spirit business. 

One solution to this quandary is called Arianism. Arius was born in North Africa, around the year 250. We don’t have many of Arius’ own writings – because they were purged after his teachings were declared heretical. But his ideas weren’t that crazy – nor were they unique to him. For example, Arius was influenced by the writings of Origen, an important early theologian of the previous generation.  Both were interested in how Jesus Christ, as the Word or Logos of God, related to God the Creator. Many of Origen’s ideas are at odds with the official theology of Christianity that took form through the great church councils of the fourth century. But Origen was early enough to be looked back on fondly as an Early Church Father who was still figuring it all out, while Arius became the Great Heretic of the 4th century. 

The core of Arianism is simply this: Jesus is the Son of God. Wait – doesn’t that sound familiar? Sure! We teach that too. For Arians, that meant that there was a time when there was no Jesus yet. Arius remarked in a letter to an ally, “We are persecuted because we say that the Son has a beginning but that God is without beginning.” Jesus – as the Word, the Logos of God – was God’s first and best creation. Arius wrote, “[Jesus] has subsisted before time and before ages as perfect as God, only begotten and unchangeable.” (Quoted in Wikipedia, “Arianism”). Everything else was created through the Son – that should sound familiar; it’s in the Nicene Creed: “By whom all things were made.” It followed, for Arians, that Jesus – though infinitely perfect and holy – was also in some sense secondary, subordinate to God the Father, Creator of Heaven and Earth. 

Now, listen: The Bible does not offer a coherent, complete theology of the Trinity. That’s why there was room for these great debates. And it is not hard to assemble texts from both the Old and New Testaments that sound like they support Arius’ view – starting with Genesis 1. What’s more, Arius’ ideas made intuitive sense to a lot of people – including a lot of leaders. We’re talking about a great, powerful Monarch who has a Son who acts as his agent and emissary. Sure, that sounds right! It’s a lot more logical than the weird philosophical abstractions of Basil and Gregory and Athanasius. (More on them in a moment.) 

By the early third century, Arian Christianity was spreading. I read a little about Wulfila – which means, Little Wolf – who was a missionary to the Goths, a group of Germanic tribes. As part of his missionary work, he even developed a Gothic alphabet so that he could translate the Bible into their language – although he skipped the book of Kings, as he feared all those battles and intrigues would only encourage their worst habits. 

To the extent that I’d thought about Arians at all, I’d only ever really imagined them assembled in a big hall, arguing theology with Trinitarian Christians. It had never occurred to me to think about Arian Christians out there making disciples of all nations, with conviction and joy. We have Wulfila’s statement of faith – listen: “I, Ulfila, bishop and confessor, have always so believed, and in this, the one true faith, I make the journey to my Lord: I believe in one God the Father, the only unbegotten and invisible; and in his only-begotten son, our Lord and God, the designer and maker of all creation, having none other like him; and in one Holy Spirit, the illuminating and sanctifying power.” (Wikipedia, “Ulfilas.”)

It doesn’t sound that strange, does it? But the ways in which it’s different from the theological core of Christianity as we have inherited it are fundamental, if subtle. And that was very obvious to church leaders at the time. They were concerned that Arian teachings might endanger people’s salvation, since they would not understand Jesus’ divinity correctly. Facing pressure and unrest, the Emperor Constantine called together all the bishops of the ancient world to hash it all out, so he can have both more stability in his empire – and fewer bishops NAGGING him. 

The First Ecumenical Council gathered at Nicaea, a city in present-day Turkey, in the year 325. While other matters were on the docket, like the date of Easter, the question of how Jesus is part of God was the big issue. Arius argued for his position, using Scripture, reason, and rhetoric. And he lost. He was declared a heretic, and his works were consigned to fire. 

The Nicene Creed, the ancient statement of the church’s faith that we recite together every Sunday, came out of this gathering. It contains the early Church’s official, universal theology about the Holy Trinity – which does not leave room for Arianism. The Creed affirms that Jesus did not have a beginning:  “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father…” That odd phrase “eternally begotten” is key here. It means that Jesus is in some mysterious sense God’s son, “begotten, not made”. BUT unlike a human son, Jesus has also always existed. So, eternally begotten. The Creed also makes it plain that Jesus, though a Son, is not subordinate to God the Father and Creator. “God from God, light from light, true god from true god, … of one Being with the Father.”

“Being” is capitalized in our Creed because it’s an important word and concept -the English translation of the Greek word ousia, part of the theological vocabulary that emerged at this time. Ousia referred to the essential God-ness of God, the divine Being, shared by all three Persons of the Trinity – in contrast to hypostasis, meaning that which makes each Person distinct – Father, Son, Spirit; Source, Word, and Breath. 

The fourth-century theologian Gregory of Nyssa wrote that though each of these Persons have their particular attributes, their hypostases, they are at the same time so united in their shared divinity, their ousia, that there’s no space between them. In fact, he says, you can’t actually contemplate one them without bringing the others along, because they’re so interconnected. He writes, “Anyone who mentions only the Spirit also embraces… the one of whom he is the Spirit. And since the Spirit is of Christ (Rom 8.9) and from God (1 Cor 2.12)…, then just as anyone who catches hold of one end of a chain pulls also on the other end, so one who draws the Spirit (Ps 118.131) as the prophet says, also draws through him the Son and the Father…. In no way is it possible to conceive of a severance or division, such that the Son should be thought of apart from the Father or the Spirit be disjoined from the Son.” He concludes that the distinctions, the hypostases, among the Persons of the Trinity can never sunder the ousia, the continuity of their shared divinity; while at the same time that fundamental commonality will never dissolve or subsume the distinguishing notes of the hypostases. (Epistle to Peter)

Gregory’s brother Basil wrestled with Trinitarian theology as well, and he says something I think is really interesting: If you’re talking about the Trinity and you count to three, you’re doing it wrong. Listen – Basil writes, “The Unapproachable One is beyond numbers, wisest sirs … Count if you must, but do not malign the truth. Either honor Him Who cannot be described with your silence, or number holy things in accord with true religion. There is one God and Father, one Only-Begotten Son, and one Holy Spirit. We declare each Person to be unique, and if we must use numbers, we will not let a stupid arithmetic lead us astray to the idea of many gods…” If we count, we do not add, increasing from one to many. We do not say, “one, two, three,” or “first, second, and third.”… [In the case of the Father and Son,] as unique Persons, they are one and one; as sharing a common nature, both are one.”   (On the Holy Spirit) 

To put Basil’s point another way:  When we are talking about the different Persons of the Trinity, we are speaking of distinctiveness and, more, of uniqueness – such uniqueness that each is its own category unto itself. So the proper way to count the Trinity is not, one, two, three, but One, One, One… makes One.

This is strange, abstract stuff – like I said, you can see why Arianism was a little more intuitive! But I find I’m attracted to it. The Creed and the Church’s formal doctrinal language about the Trinity can make it feel rigid and dry. But Gregory and Basil and other contemporary theologians were very, very aware that they were fumbling to put words to profound mystery. Gregory writes, “Both the communion [the ousia] and the distinction [the hypostases]… are beyond a certain point ineffable and inconceivable…”

So spending some time with the history of the Church’s understanding of the Trinity helped me get interested. But I still can’t take it as seriously as they did – 

Because I simply don’t believe that God would consign people to eternal flame for not thinking about God’s complexity in the exact right way. That said: Being in community, belonging to something larger than ourselves, sometimes calls us to take something seriously that we otherwise might shrug off as unimportant.

Today we are beginning an experiment in taking Trinitarian theology seriously. And it’s going to be uncomfortable. But only a little bit. To explain, I have to hop back to history for a moment – and it may help if you open your worship booklets to the Nicene Creed, on page 4. 

The third section of the Nicene Creed begins, We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. At least, that’s how we all learned it. That last phrase, “And the Son,” is called the Filioque clause. (Filioque is, And the Son, in Latin.) This section of the Creed was added at a second great Council in the year 381 – but this phrase, the Filioque, was added later still, and only in the Western church – the Orthodox churches of the East kept the earlier wording and theology, and keep it still. This became a big dispute in the 7th century. I’m hoping Leonora, our resident Byzantine theologian, will tell us all about it sometime. The dispute had lots of layers – about the Filioque itself, which seems to make the Holy Spirit the “lowest-ranking” part of the Trinity; and also about the authority of the Pope and the legitimacy of the Church altering the fundamental doctrinal formulations of earlier councils. 

Fast-Forward to the late 20th and early 21st century. Driven by a desire to return to the earlier form of the Church’s theological teaching and to strengthen ties between Orthodox and Western Christians, the Episcopal Church joins other Western churches in saying, You know, we don’t need the Filioque. It’s not important to us, doctrinally; the earlier Creeds were foundational; we should drop this phrase. We haven’t updated our prayer book since our Church made that decision, so most everybody is still using the Filioque. But our Church authorized a Filioque-free version of the Creed in 2000. And this season we’re going to try it out.

I’ve been saying the Filioque for 43 years, give or take. Some of you have been saying it for much longer. It’s going to take us a while just to get used to the different rhythm of the text – before we can even begin to ask ourselves what the new/old wording might mean to us. I suggest that when we say it together, we observe a rest, a pause, where the Filioque used to be – to help us notice its absence as we get used to the change, and so that those of us who inevitably forget or haven’t noticed the change aren’t left behind as the rest of us march onwards into the next line. 

Let’s just read that much together, from “We believe” through “… the Prophets”:

We’ll trip over it, friends. I’m absolutely certain that I will. But … these aren’t just words. They are a statement of the Church’s faith, passed down through the centuries, and shared with churches around the world. This version… is more so. More faithful to our ancestors and our kin. And it elevates and honors the Holy Spirit. So I’m inviting you to join me in the minor discomfort of taking our theology seriously enough to change our words. 

Let’s stand and proclaim the Nicene Creed together, this statement of the faith in which we make our journey to our God. 

 

Some sources…. 

Basil and bad Trinity math: 

https://afkimel.wordpress.com/2012/12/02/st-basil-and-the-stupid-arithmetic-of-the-trinity/

Gregory of Nyssa:

https://afkimel.wordpress.com/2018/05/01/st-gregory-of-nyssa-perichoretic-trinity-2/

Aelfric’s homily on the Trinity at Rogationtide, used as a reading today, was found here:

https://aclerkofoxford.blogspot.co.uk/2013/05/lfric-on-sun.html?m=1