2 Corinthians 13:11-13, Matthew 28:16-20, John 14:1-17, Psalm 8
ne Tuesday morning several years ago, I was busy, working in my office, crafting a sermon, when I was interrupted by a phone call. The woman on the other end of the line only introduced herself as Sister Eunice. She wouldn’t say who she was calling for or what her goals were, but she wanted to ask me some questions. I, perhaps somewhat foolishly, agreed to try and answer them.
She started asking her questions and it quickly became clear to me that, in her mind at least, I was on trial and that if I did not give what she saw as the right answers, she would judge me a heretic or worse. Then she asked this question: “Is Jesus Christ God?” She wanted a yes or no answer.
Actually, I guess she wanted a yes answer. But let me tell you something: the Christian church spent a few hundred years trying to figure out how to give anything but a yes or no answer to that very question. The answer it did come up with is something called the Trinity.
I’m going to confess something to you here. I have never really wanted to preach a sermon about the Trinity. This is not because it isn’t an important topic in itself, but because I have just found that it isn’t all that important to people.
Oh there was a time when it was considered to be vitally important. Did you know, for example, that there was a time when there were regularly riots in the streets of the City of Alexandria over the question of what was the precise relationship between the Father and the Son? Did you know, that, in the fourth century, Gregory of Nyssa complained that he couldn’t go anywhere in the City of Constantinople without someone wanting to argue with you over the Trinity. He said, if you asked someone for change, they’d try to start and argument over whether the Son was begotten or not, is you asked the price of a loaf of bread, somebody would tell you that Father was greater than the Son; if you asked whether your bath was ready, the attendant would go on and on about how the Son was created.
Now those are people who are really engaged in the question of the Trinity. People today, by contrast, have almost no interest in the issue whatsoever. They want, like Sister Eunice, to declare that Jesus is God and get onto other much more important things. The Trinity has just become this completely theoretical concept that you’re supposed to agree with but that has absolutely no practical application. Yes, you can find places where people earnestly discuss Trinitarian theology, where people disagree, but you are not going to find anyone taking it as seriously as people once did on the streets of Alexandria or Constantinople.
Now, on one level, I do find that to be a really good thing. I am glad that people don’t feel the need to attack and hurt one another over or cause riots over slight disagreements about the relationship between the Father and the Son. But, at the same time, isn’t this stuff supposed to matter? And yet we behave like it doesn’t.
The Trinity is not really a Biblical concept. Yes, there are a couple of references to the formula, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in the New Testament. We read both of those texts this morning. But those are not statements of fully formed Trinitarian theology. What we do find in the New Testament are reflections on the experience of the people in the early church. These earliest followers of Jesus had experienced something very powerful. Somehow, in this person of Jesus of Nazareth, they had experienced the presence of God in a way that they had never experienced it before. They also knew that Jesus had said a number of things that, at least when they remembered those statements afterwards, seemed to indicate that he also understood himself to be the revelation of God – statements like the one in the Gospel of John where Jesus says, “If you know me, you will know my Father also.”They also knew that they continued to experience the presence of God in the life of the church through the action of the Holy Spirit among them.
I am convinced that that is about as far as those earliest Christians went with their thinking about the nature of Jesus. They didn’t seek to precisely define the relationship between the Father and the Son or the Son and the Spirit. They just knew what they had experienced. And besides, they were kind of busy doing other things: preaching the gospel, acting with compassion, dealing with some persecution of their faith here and there. Who had time for a philosophical discussion of the internal relationship of the God that they had experienced in three ways?
And then something happened. A guy named Constantine happened. Constantine was fighting to take over the Roman Empire and, on the night before his greatest battle, the story goes, Constantine received a vision that told him that, if he fought under the sign of a Christian cross, he would prevail. He did, he won, he became Roman Emperor and before you knew it, Christianity had gone from being an outlaw religion to the most important religion of all.
We have no way of knowing how genuine Constantine’s conversion was but some have noted that it may have been a politically smart move for him to make. For one thing, his army was full of Christians and fighting under a Christian banner was a great way to win them over to his cause.
Constantine also had another problem. The imperial administration was in a mess. And, as he looked around, the Christian Church was about the only institution that was organized enough to unite and hold together an empire that was falling apart. He was looking to use the unity of the church to build up the unity of his empire.
But there was a problem: the church wasn’t united. As soon as the persecutions ended and the church found some breathing space, guess what happened. People started to find the time to have philosophical discussions about the internal relationship of the God that they experienced in three ways. And, lo and behold, when it came down to defining it and putting it into words, they didn’t quite agree.
In particular they disagreed over what was the precise relationship between God the Father and God the Son. Did the Father create the Son? Had the son always existed? Were they equals or was one greater than the other? Those kinds of questions.
Well, Constantine wasn’t going to have that kind of disunity in a church that was supposed to reunite his empire. So this is what he did: he brought all the church leaders from all of the different parts of the empire together to a place called Nicaea, put them in a big room and said, “I don’t care what you decide, just agree on something. You’re staying here until you do.” And that is when the church basically came up with the doctrine of the Trinity and in particular the statement of it that we find in Nicene Creed that we read this morning.
So that kind of answers the question of why church came up with the particular doctrine of the Trinity at that time. And it maybe helps you understand why it was important to Constantine that they agree even if he didn’t care what they agreed. What it doesn’t explain is why everyone apart from Constantine was so worked up over the question. Why were they rioting in Alexandria? Why was it the only topic of conversation in Constantinople?
Well the reason why has much more to do with politics than with theology. This is the thing that people miss: Constantine, and the Roman Empire with him, may have embraced Christianity at least as a political tool, but there were some things that did not change. Most importantly, Roman Emperors had, ever since the days of Caesar Augustus, been seen as divine. They were gods. And Constantine, despite his need of the church, did not, give up his divine status. He was still a god and that was one of the foundations of his political power.
And, in that political context, the discussion of the place of Jesus within the Trinity takes on a different meaning. If Constantine is divine and Jesus is divine and both are subordinate to God, than it becomes easy to see the emperor and Jesus as equals. It makes it easier for the emperor to act with divine authority over the church and all Christians – to demand their unquestioning obedience. There were many Christian leaders who went to Nicaea and argued for that position, but they lost of course. The final decision that was made at the Council of Nicaea was to make it absolutely clear that the Son was in no way subordinate to the Father – not in his creation and not in his nature.
Constantine may have professed not to care what the church decided, but he did come to regret it. He and many of his imperial successors ultimately rejected the decisions of the Council and embraced the heretic position that the Son was subordinate to the Father. It was just easier to run the Empire as they wished that way.
So, in that sense, what the church was arguing about at the Council of Nicaea was not just some theoretical question. It was a vital, every day question that was well worthy of being discussed in every bakery, every bath house and every home. The question was, who do we really answer to: Jesus or the emperor.
I am a Trinitarian Christian. I believe in a God who is one and yet I recognize that I have, and the Christian body has, experienced that one God in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I’ve never really worried about the matter much beyond that. I’ve certainly never got caught up in those ancient arguments over what are the precise relationships between the persons of the Trinity. Those seemed to be theoretical formulations that had little to do with the practical needs of a Christian life.
But recognizing that the people who fought for the decision at Nicaea were fighting for some very practical implications of how God was going to be seen in the empire makes me think that maybe some of those fine distinctions that they made can be useful to us.
For example, the question that Sister Eunice asked me all those years ago, “Is Jesus God,” could be one of those fine distinctions that matter to us. I know that simply affirming that Jesus is God is something that a lot of people do today, but the Christian faith decided a long time ago that it cannot just be as simple as that. To say that Jesus is just God does not adequately capture what Jesus has done for us.
Yes, it is true that Christians believe that we have experienced God in this person of Jesus. But we cannot say that Jesus is God without also confessing that he is fully human. We cannot talk about Jesus divinity without talking about his humanity. It would not have been enough for Jesus to simply be God and pretending or appearing to be human. The whole point of having a saviour like Jesus us that he understands what it is to be human with all of the problems, all of the weaknesses and all of the temptations that go with that. If Jesus had not been completely and utterly human, it would not have mattered that he was divine because he would not have connected with us in any way that mattered.
And when we confess that Jesus is totally human, and yet completely divine (as the church confessed at Nicaea), it also does something else. It elevates Jesus above any authority – including church authorities, civic and political authorities – that this world can muster. What Jesus asks of us is more important than what any of those other authorities can ask. That doesn’t mean that we cannot choose to honour and respect such authorities when we deal with them in this world, of course, but there is a remarkable freedom that is given to us as followers of Christ, of the one who is, “eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made.” We answer to a higher authority to any found in this world.
My challenge to you this week, therefore, is simply to live as a Trinitarian Christian. What that means, in my mind, is not that you have to wrap your mind around some complex definition of the relationship between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. What it practically means is that, when you come up against very human problems in this world – weakness, temptations, fears – you remember that you have an advocate on your side in Jesus who understands what you are going through. That can make a whole lot of difference.
And when the powers of this world get you down – the gods of this present age (whether they be the market, the power of consumerism, the power of racism or hatred) – it means remembering that there is a higher authority to whom we answer and that you are set free to serve the one God – the God made known to us in Jesus Christ.