Sermon for Trinity Sunday

Proper C  ~  May 30, 2010

Holy Trinity & St. Anskar


+ In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity,



ur patronal feast is an annual invitation to reflect upon the Doctrine of God. All we can do is reflect – and adore – because the One we are teaching about cannot be known or spoken of, only glorified. In doing so, we are always in peril of error, but the least perilous path is to speak of what God is NOT, rather than what God IS. Our Muslim cousins remember this fact in their famous Arabic affirmation, Allah hu Akbar, God is greater. God is greater than anything we can imagine or articulate. Any positive definition of God is ipso dicto heretical, because it places limits (finis) on the Unlimited. Even orthodox statements that sound like positive affirmations are really negative: omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, omnibenevolent, for example really say that God’s power, knowledge, presence, mercy, and love are unlimited.

            Likewise, the orthodox Dogma of the Trinity, while appearing to assert something about God positively, actually ¬speaks of God negatively: God is neither One nor Many, because God is both.: One-in-Three and Three –in-One, which is nonsense – or rather a paradox. Like a Buddhist koan, the Dogma of the Trinity defines the limits, not of God, but of human reason. Our minds do not have the capacity to comprehend God. We can adore and praise, but never understand. Our words of praise are nonsense: “Three-in-One and One-in-Three”.

            Any attempt to wrap our minds around this Mystery is bound to lead into error. Still, taking due care we can say something. First, we can recognize the error of modalism (or Sabellianism) – the favorite Western heresy – which says that the Names of the Three Persons are  simply names of three modes of action of the One God toward creation (Creation, Redemption, Sanctification). This error has some warrant in our own Prayerbook, where the terms are used this way at the beginning of the Great Litany. But the orthodox doctrine holds that all three divine Persons are active in all three functions. Moreover, if these functions defined the Persons, then where was the Trinity before the creation of the world? Fortunately, our seminaries have been doing their job, and one hears this kind of thing less frequently, nowadays.

            My own current, favorite analogy for the Trinity is a triangle, in which each of the constituent angles is composed of sides that it share with the other two. This neatly illustrates the coïnherence of the Three Persons. It also illustrates the ancient observation that Three Persons are necessary to overcome the dualistic opposition that inevitably attends a dyad; but I am afraid the triangle also errs in making the Three Personas numerically distinct, and thus separating them. The Mystery maintains that the Three Persons cannot be separated, and the Three are not numerically distinct.

            And here we just don’t know what we are talking about! There are three Persons and One Substance, but the Persons are not numerically distinct instances of the One Substance, nor are they three distinct “jobs” God does for us. Yet, they are not to be confused with one another.  What these three Persons refer to is simply beyond us. God is not one, nor is God three: God is beyond the structure of human reason, which insists on a distinction between “one” and “many”.  That is, God is beyond the first distinction of philosophy. God cannot be approached by theology except by negation: God is neither one nor many, God is both.

            When we call God “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”, we repeat a formula that is revealed, not invented. God has revealed Himself to us. In the Person of the Divine Son, incarnate in Jesus Christ, God is revealed as the Community of perfect Love, in Whose multi-Personal image humanity is created – the Community humanity is called to join, a calling prefigured and fulfilled at the Eucharistic altar. This means that you and I are much closer in being than we think. Our separateness is, in fact, an illusion, which Christian tradition calls “sin”.  Perhaps this is what St. Paul meant in his ecstatic words:


Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; *

    death no longer has dominion over him.

The death that he died, he died to sin, once for all; *

    but the life he lives, he lives to God.

So also consider yourselves dead to sin, *

    and alive to God in Jesus Christ our Lord. Alleluia.