Sunday, June 11, 2006

Romans 8:14-17/Athanasian Creed - “Athanasius, Can You Help Us Dance?”

Holy Trinity (Year B - LCMS Readings)
Thursday, June 8, and Sunday, June 11, 2006

For today’s celebration of the Holy Trinity, the teaching that our God is one in three, three in one, one God, but three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in preparation and studying about the teaching of the Trinity, I came across the quote that you have on the insert in your bulletins. It comes from a blogger, someone who writes a Weblog or Internet journal. She goes by Maggi Dawn and is a Anglican priest and college chaplain. As she discussed what it means that our God is Triune, three in one, she says,

“We do not need to create, as it were, a good enough party to wake God up and make him think he might join us. It's quite the other way around. The Trinity are already having a party of their own. There they are, communicating, loving, worshipping, laughing, dancing, always and forever, without a break. Grace, love and adoration flows constantly between the Godhead. Welcome to Trinitarian worship - the party where God is, and always was, and always will be, engaged in mutual adoration and praise, and where you can be drawn right into the centre of God….” (original location of quote)

She’s right about worship, of course. Worship isn’t about trying to get God to come down to us; worship is where God invites us to see that He’s already with us, already given us His gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation through Jesus.

She’s also got a beautiful way of talking about the Trinity—the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit having an eternal party celebrating who they are as God, celebrating true love. It’s such a mystery to us, just what does it mean that we have one God who is also three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It’s such a mystery, but rather than trying to explain it in detail, Maggi Dawn simply describes the Trinity as “communicating, loving, worshipping, laughing, dancing, always and forever, without a break.” She’s picking up that idea from Scripture where we see God showering His people with love, where we see God rejoicing in the salvation of His people, where we see Father, Son, and Holy Spirit all giving glory to one another as one God.

Maggi Dawn helps us to see that worship is where God invites us to join the party. In worship, God is asking you to dance. But just how are we going to dance today in this service dedicated to the teaching about the Holy Trinity?

We’re going to dance school with Athanasius. You walk into this dance school and ask the instructor, “Athanasius, can you help us dance?”

You see, traditionally on this Sunday of the Church Year, the first Sunday after Pentecost, the Church has focused on its doctrine of the Trinity, and when teaching about the Trinity, one of the best instructors is Athanasius, so if we’re going to learn this Trinity dance that Maggi Dawn is talking about, Athanasius has got to be our instructor.

Athanasius was an early church father who lived from 298-373. On your insert, you’ve got a creed printed out that’s named for Athanasius (Athanasian Creed as .pdf). While he probably didn’t write the creed itself, it’s named for him, because he worked most of his ministry to counter false teachings about God, teachings that would’ve gotten rid of the teaching of the Trinity. Athanasius is kind of known as an expert on the doctrine of the Trinity, so of course we’d go to him for help.

Traditionally, the Athanasian Creed was read on Holy Trinity Sunday, but as you can see, it’s quite long. It’s repetitive, over and over again saying that God is one in substance, but God is also three persons. It’s repetitive as it tries to explain something that can’t be explained. It’s thorough, trying to make sure that false teachings about the nature of God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, making sure that the false teachings are rejected. It takes awhile to read, it’s kind of cumbersome. I imagine that the people complained about having to read this creed in worship, and awhile ago, most congregations stopped reciting this creed. Maybe they stopped because it doesn’t seem like much of a dance.

You look at how Maggi Dawn describes the Trinity, a party, laughing, dancing, and it doesn’t seem that kind of celebration is part of the Athanasian Creed. Maggi Dawn says that worship is where the Trinity invites us into their party, but I’m not sure Athanasius would’ve been very much fun at the party. He doesn’t seem like he was a dancer. Athanasius was constantly on the lookout for false teachings, kind of angry in his demeanor and writings. When he’s talking about the Trinity, it doesn’t sound like what Maggi Dawn describes.

Maggi Dawn encourages us to dance and celebrate the Trinity today, well, maybe Athanasius can’t help us dance. What do you think Athanasius would say if we asked him, “Athanasius, can you help us dance? Can that long-winded, repetitive, cumbersome creed that you inspired teach us how to dance with the Trinity?”

I think Athanasius would say yes, because he understands a dance is made up of steps, and in order to dance, you’ve got to know each step. Athanasius can teach us the steps, keep us from making the wrong steps, and in the process, we’ll have learned how to dance with the Trinity. Athanasius can teach us about the truth of Scripture, the truth about the Trinity, and when you’ve learned those points of Scripture, that’s when you’re able to dance and celebrate.

Flip your bulletin inserts over, and there you’ll see that we’re going to learn two dance steps this morning, two teachings from the Athanasian Creed. So if you’re ready, put on your dancing shoes so to speak, and we’ll learn the steps in this dance of the Trinity. Because the truth that the creed teaches are the steps in this dance, you could call the Athanasian Creed the Danceable Truth, a true teaching that leads us to celebrate who our God is.

Step #1 – The creed says, “And the catholic faith is this, that we worship one God in trinity and Trinity in unity, neither confusing the persons nor dividing the substance. For the Father is one person, the Son is another, and the Holy Spirit is another.”

Here “catholic” means “universal” or the faith of the whole Church. That faith doesn’t confuse the persons of the Trinity, each is one person. The creed talks about how the Father didn’t die on the cross; the Son was the One who died on the cross. In that way, each person of the Trinity has His own role, His own identity.

It’s easier to learn how to dance if you can see it, so the Church has often used visuals to help teach about the Trinity. For Step #1, there you can see the diagram showing the three persons of the Trinity, and while all three are God, the diagram also says that “the Father is not the Son,” “the Son is not the Spirit,” and “the Spirit is not the Father.”

That’s an important step in this Trinity dance, because some people were teaching, and still do, that the Father and the Son are just two sides of the same coin. That’s the wrong step that the creed is trying to help us avoid making. Take a wrong step in a dance, and you might step on your partner’s toes. Take a wrong step in this dance, and suddenly you’re dancing with some kind of false truth that doesn’t come from God.

If the Father and the Son are just two sides of the same coin, that causes problems for the times when Jesus talks about the Father as separate from Him. Jesus prays to the Father, the Father speaks from the clouds about Jesus, Jesus dies crying out to the Father. Scripture doesn’t talk about them as the same person, so we shouldn’t take that step either.

OK, so you’ve learned one step in this dance. Let’s try one more.

Step #2 - Just as we are compelled by the Christian truth to acknowledge each distinct person as God and Lord, so also are we prohibited by the catholic religion to say that there are three Gods or Lords.

While each person of the Trinity, Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit is distinct, has their individual roles, so we still say that they are one God. They are one in substance, one in will, one in thought.

The picture you have there is from one of our stained glass windows. It’s a combination of two traditional images that try to explain the Trinity. There are three circles linked in the center. The three circles are the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit, but they are interlocking circles showing that we have one God. Then there’s the triangle which has three sides, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but together those three sides form one triangle, one God.

Again, there’s a wrong step that we could take here and completely mess up the dance. Some were teaching, and still do, that the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit are three separate beings. Jesus says that He and the Father are One, so we can’t teach that they’re separate. If we had three gods, we’d be breaking the first commandment, which the New Testament never rejects. Some people accuse Christianity of having three gods, but that’s not true. That’s not what Scripture says, and that’s what the creed tries to explain.

Those are just two steps in the Danceable Truth of the Athanasian Creed. Walking through those steps, walking through those teachings seems kind of deep, works the brain in a way that it wasn’t meant to work. We’re trying to put into words a mystery of God that is beyond words.

Perhaps you’re fidgeting on the dance floor, thinking, “Yeah, yeah, I got the idea. Let’s just dance already.” But the problem is if we dance without learning the steps, if we just start talking about God without studying, if we just worship without knowing what we’re worshipping, we’re going to end up taking a lot of wrong steps.

Athanasius doesn’t seem like he was having a party celebrating the Trinity, and the Athanasian Creed doesn’t look like a dance, but they have given us the steps so that we know how to dance, so that we know how to celebrate our God who is one in three, and three in one.

And now that we know some of the basic steps, some of the basic teachings about the Trinity, now we can continue to celebrate, party, dance with God today. You see, today, the day of the Holy Trinity shouldn’t just be about saying we got the right words on paper on how to explain God. Yes, the day is named for a doctrine, a teaching, an explanation of Scripture, but that’s not what we’re celebrating today. No, today is a celebration of who God is.

That’s why I like this other quote I found from another blogger, Grey Owl. He sees the whole dance, not just the steps.

“I believe in the trinity - I also believe that, like most Christian expressions about God, it is a poor model for a fantastic and glorious reality that we are incapable of understanding completely.” (original location of quote)

At first, it seems wrong to say that the Trinity is a “poor model.” Yet, it’s exactly what we’ve been saying today with Maggi Dawn: there’s a party going on in the Trinity, and the party seems beyond our explanations of the Trinity. We’ve got to learn the steps of the dance, but the dance is more than just the steps. We’ve got to learn about our God, but He is more than just a list of teachings. Like Grey Owl says, we’re trying to explain something that is “a fantastic and glorious reality that we are incapable of understanding completely.”

So again, the day of the Holy Trinity isn’t about celebrating that we got some right words on paper to explain our God. The day of the Holy Trinity celebrates the fantastic and glorious reality of who God is.

Have you ever seen the video game “Dance Dance Revolution”? They have it now at the Family Room at the YMCA. The players stand on an interactive pad on the floor that’s connected to the game. On the TV screen, the game tells the players what steps to take in the dance—forward, side, one foot, two feet, spin, etc. If you watch the TV screen, it’s kind of boring—left, left, right, jump, left, right, left. However, if you watch the players, then you see the dance, then it’s a beautiful thing watching all of those individual steps become a great dance. The dance is more than just a series of steps; there’s more happening that can be explained by the individual steps. The whole is greater than the parts.

In that same way, if we just look at the steps, the teachings outlined in the Athanasian Creed, if we just think of today as a list of doctrinal statements, there’s not much of a dance, not much of that “worshipping, laughing, dancing” of the Trinity that Maggi Dawn talks about.

You see, the Trinity is greater than those individual teachings. The whole is greater than the parts. The ways we explain the Trinity can never hope to completely explain the beauty of who our God is.

You’ve been invited into the dance celebration of God, and while God has taught you some of the steps, there’s more going on than you can understand. However, God has also sent His Holy Spirit into your heart, kind of teaching you the dance from the inside. As the Holy Spirit works in your heart, giving you glimpses of the Trinity dance, you start to see the beauty of who God is, of how He made us in His image, of how the Son came to save us, of how the Spirit creates faith in our hearts, of how the Trinity works in our world and in our lives, of how they wait for us to be with them forever in life after death.

So today’s worship is more than just a series of true statements. There’s something more going on here that we can’t explain. It’s the Danceable Truth of the Holy Trinity. As Maggi Dawn says, “Welcome to Trinitarian worship - the party where God is, and always was, and always will be, engaged in mutual adoration and praise, and where you can be drawn right into the centre of God….”