Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen!
Back when we lived in Oxbow, we were always doing lots of small town community volunteer things. There would be a park clean up day or help the pool board get the swimming pool ready for another summer. I often found that many times my personal event coordinator would sign me up for these work bees. Thanks, Dear! One such time was indeed working on the old pool, the final season before we got our new pool in Oxbow. My main job was draining the deep end of the pool so we could clean it out. There was a ground water leak that came back into the pool and kept filling it up. So we had to get a huge pump and keep trying to drain the water out. My job was to stand in the bottom of the pool, holding up a drain hose for an hour. As I nobly held my post, my mind started drifting towards theology - deep theology. You can’t have shallow theology in the deep end of the pool, right?! So naturally, the deepest theology of them all is the mystery of the Holy Trinity, God in three persons.
At the heart of Christianity is above all else, mystery. In the very centre of all that we believe, love, trust and know is a veiled, unknowable, mysterious, infinite God that is beyond our finite faculties to know and comprehend. We don’t know this God by nature. In fact, it is impossible for us to know a Holy God when we are such unholy people. This is why our mysterious God has to reveal Himself to us, letting us know Who He is and what He does. And the very first place people encounter God is in His fingerprints - the telltale signs of design and divine presence in the world around us.
A few years ago we took a road trip down to Montana to Glacier National Park. They have this incredible drive that should be on everyone’s bucket list. It’s called the “Going to the Sun Road.” It was a make work project built way back in the depression. It’s a road that is carved out of the side of a mountain and the scenery is absolutely mind blowing, like nothing else I’ve seen in the world. The road hugs the mountain side the whole way and is a very spiritual drive - you are constantly praying you don’t plummet off the road to your death a thousand feet down the mountain! A very spiritual experience indeed!
But when you look out the window and see all of that glorious creation, it always points you back to a Creator. And this is everywhere. The beauty of creation and also the circumstances surrounding the creation. Scientific discoveries also point us towards a Creator too, the more we learn about planet earth. Just think about life here on our blue planet. Everything is fine-tuned for life to exist. The planet is the exact distance from the sun, not too hot, not too cold, it’s just right, baby bear! Think about gravity. It’s precisely correct for life. A smidegeon more or less and life would be crushed and obliterated. Or we zoom in to the microscopic life of viruses that we are all experts in now. Bacteria! They have these irreducibly complex machines, flagellar motors - they are outboard motors that could never have evolved randomly to work in such perfect harmony to make motion possible. And of course, the finest example in all creation of a Creator is that of DNA. We hear about it all the time in high-profile criminal investigations because it pins specific people to crime scenes. It definitively does so because our DNA is unique to us. DNA is information. It is software programming on a computer. Without it, the computer can’t run. Such complex, specific code didn’t randomly come together. It had to be written by a programmer. All of life on earth is written with code and information.
Our Creator, our God reveals Himself to His creation. Like a galactic game of “Guess Who,” God leaves clues for us and wants to be found. Moreover, He guides us along the way to knowing Who He is and what He does. If only there were a standardized way of knowing God though. If only there was a way that all people could know this mysterious God who has revealed Himself to the world in a faithful, trustworthy, accurate and unchanging record of some kind? Something that has stood the test of time. Something like, I don’t know, a Bible! Oh wait! We have one of those! And it’s a good thing we do. For the Scriptures are what reveal to us everything we need to know about the mysterious nature of God.
As we read the Bible, we get knowledge and information about our God and Creator. And from the Scriptures, we organize that information into Theology literally “Words about God.” And through the miracle of time, that information got placed into the creeds of the church. Basic, summary statements from the Bible about Who God is and what He does for us and our salvation. Many of your Christian friends may say we don’t need creeds. We just need the Bible. But the creeds tell us the basics about God as well as the history of the church. The creeds were born from controversy. Group A said this about God. Group B said no, it’s this. Opposing opinions. How do things get reconciled? Well hopefully with debate and consensus arriving at the truth in the best case. Bloody war and conflict in the worst case. The creeds represent the best case scenario. God leads His people to know who He is and what He does. This is the truth of the Scriptures distilled down to true, simple, easy to remember statements that fly in the face of falsehood.
And so, as you astute Lutherans know, we have the Apostles’ Creed which is a simple Baptismal creed, the Nicene Creed that is the core of our faith and we confess it every week and then today, only but once a year, the Athanasian Creed! This Creed is the deep end of the pool! It’s too long to be a proper creed actually. It’s more of a mini-essay. But it hammers out the mystery that this Creator God has revealed Himself to us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Not three gods, but One God in three persons, a blessed Trinity. The Athanasian Creed hammered out the true facts about God out against the heretics who claimed the contrary.
It all comes back to what the Scriptures reveal about God. And the Bible has revealed that God is our Father (John 3:16), that His Son Jesus died on the cross and rose again to win forgiveness of sins, life and salvation to all who believe by faith (1JN 1:7) and that the Helper, the Holy Spirit bears witness to this truth (JN 15:26). All three Persons are given the names of God. All three Persons do stuff that only God can do. So they are distinct and at the same time they are one, just as Deuteronomy 6:4 says “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.”
Now before your eyes glaze over, if they haven’t already, you need to know this. Because when the Jehovah’s Witnesses show up at your door and try to convert you over to Jehovah’s organization, you can throw this one at ‘em. Tell them that God is His essence is Homoousios. They will turn on their heels and run away from you like vampires stuck in a South Hill garlic patch! I guarantee it. Homoousios. Works like a charm. Why? Because the JW’s believe in the heretical doctrine of Arius the heretic. He believed that Jesus, the Son of God, was a created being. That He was less than the Father, subordinate to Him. The JW’s believe this too – Jesus is not God Himself, but the first of God’s creations. So the next time our pamphlet pushing pals perch themselves on your porch, you tell them straight up. “I believe that God the Holy Trinity is Homoousios and you and the grandchildren of Arius will not even eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.” They will instantly know they are messing with a theological commando and not just uneducated joe schmuck, and they will flee from you!
Ok, but in the words of Martin Luther, “What does this mean!?” What the heck is Homoousios? Contrary to popular belief, it isn’t an ancient Greek swear word. Rather it means you’ve entered the deep end of the pool! It literally means “same essence.” It means that God is truly One God at the same time that He is Three Persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
People have always struggled with this deep mystery. Our finite brains try really hard to grapple with the infinite God. And heresy happens when one aspect of God is pulled out of the mysterious tension. How can Jesus be both fully human and fully God? He’s only human! HERESY! He’s only God! HERESY! So hammering out these theological details is of vital importance. Because if you get it wrong, everything else falls apart. It’s like seeding a row in the field or the garden. If you don’t start out straight, even if you’re only out by 1/8th of inch, but the end of the row you’re way off course by oodles and oodles of feet! It’s the same thing when it comes to knowing God as Holy Trinity. The Creeds hammer it all out for us perfectly. And the Athanasian Creed does a pretty extensive job of making sure all of our theological ducks are in a row.
But in all honesty, I know that this is deep stuff and pretty thick theology. It’s challenging! It’s like climbing up the side of a mountain, muscles straining to reach the next foothold. Why would you exude all that force and effort to climb a mountain when you could simply take a gondola and enjoy the view? This is what simple, child-like faith offers us. We ascend the Holy Trinity Mountain by faith and contemplation of the mystery rather than brute force slugging by reason and speculation. Because trying to figure out a Divine Mystery like the Holy Trinity either makes you insane or you become a heretic like Arius. Instead, we like the ancient Church Fathers, can simply believe the truth of Scripture and allow the grace of God to wash over us, filling us with the mystery of His forgiveness and love, just as it did in our Baptism, just as it does as we gather around the Lord’s Table. We don’t fully understand any of our Lord’s mysterious ways. And that’s OK. By faith we simply cling to that which reason is unable to. “Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:8). Notice that Jesus doesn’t ask ‘will He find brilliant people who have everything figured out?’ Our Lord looks for faith. Faith that sees His sacrifice on the cross as a gift of grace for them. Faith that sees the Spirit of God dwelling within His people. And faith that worships One God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity, neither confusing the persons nor dividing the substance. To our Triune God be the Glory, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, now and forever. Amen!