The confession of faith which we will recite today begins with frightening words:
Whosoever will be saved, *
before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic Faith.
Which Faith except everyone do keep whole and undefiled, *
without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.
Without doubt perish everlastingly
Perhaps this strength of this language has reminded you, as it has me, of firestone preachers at youth retreats, or pulpit supply when the Pastor was on vacation, or a derisive depiction of a preacher in fiction.
Some may scoff at such messages which boil down to “turn or burn”. I know I have.
I know that the ways of God are too mighty and mysterious to be captured in a soundbite. We follow the God who spoke the whole cosmos into existence, and ordered it in its vast array of difference and beauty. He made all things and called them good. He called us human beings ‘very good’, though I suppose right now we might have to take that particular description on faith.
It just seems, on the face of it, so very narrow-minded to suggest that unless a person confesses the right faith, then there is no hope for them now or for eternity. Isn’t this arrogant and exclusive?
But this confession of faith, written by Christians in the 5th Century, and recieved by our Church as one of three creeds which summarise our faith is exactly this. It is a warning that unless we know God, the true God, there is no hope for us now, or for eternity.
Turn or burn, indeed.
When we proclaim this creed together for a few minutes, I imagine we will all be struck by the unique precision and care of the language, the depth of its rigor, and the other-worldly elegance of the God it tells us about, for example:
The Father is made of none, *
neither created, nor begotten.
The Son is of the Father alone, *
not made, nor created, but begotten.
The Holy Ghost is of the Father and of the Son, *
neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding.
So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; * one Holy Ghost, not three Holy Ghosts.
And in this Trinity none is afore, or after other; *
none is greater, or less than another;
But the whole three Persons are co-eternal together *
It is a dizzying, even disorienting, exploration of the hidden mystery of the nature of God, which always seems just out of reach, as if behind a curtain or lost in the corner of the eye. And yet we Christians have the audacity to expect that the intellectual achievement of being able to concieve of one God in three Persons, without counfounding the Persons nor dividing the Substance is common to everyone.
How dare we make salvation so unachievable! How dare we withhold inclusion from so many, who don’t have good educations or haven’t the time to comprehend these deep matters! It’s just a new kind of legalism, isn’t it? A legalism of the imagination, a law of the intellect that really boils down to yet another thing we must do in order to be saved.
This seems so far away from the simple faith the Apostles were given in the Great Comission: Teach others all that I have taught you, and baptise them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Are we not guilty of placing impossible burdens in front of our neighbors, and hiding away in our esoteric ivory tower of pristine religion far from the ambiguities and realities of the world on our doorsteps?
Such an approach to the Christian faith tends to see individual persons as rational and unbiased decision-makers, and then casts those of us who share the faith as information-givers, such that those who do not share our faith may come around to agreeing with us that Jesus is Lord and professing faith in him.
But we do not live in a world populated by rational decision makers, to whom we might reason and convince. Truthfully, we live in a world populated by the dead who are on their way to eternal death, and nothing we can do can change that for them.
The faith we proclaim, the faith of the One in Three, the Trinity in Unity, is not the pious reflections of long-dead scholars, but it is the testimony of the God who has come to save us, and now dwells in us to bring about the renewal of all things. The doctrine of the Trinity doesn’t arrive in our Church by the straining of the mind, but by revelation, by God’s self-disclusure to the unworthy and unrepentent such that we might come to life everlasting and share evermore in the wonderful life shared by the Persons of the Godhead, in whose image we were made and to whose likeness we are being restored.
That we proclaim this Triune faith on the Sunday after Pentecost is a way of testifying to the scripture that says “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth”.
This faith we have, far from being the intellectual achievement of the best and brightest of the Church, is still a gift. It is a gift of the Spirit that we can open the Scriptures and find therein the truth of who, or what, God is.
Similarly, the knowledge of this truth is not an achievement about which we can boast, as though we came to this by ourselves. The sharing of this faith is also a divine and spiritual work, firstly because by the Spirit people are ordained to proclaim and defend this truth, and secondly by the Spirit we all share in the proclamation of this knowledge, and thirdly because when it is understood and confessed, we know that it is the Spirit who has enabled the stony-hard heart to be warmed by the grace of Triune Love, that by grace God has made himself known to sinners.
It ought to cause us no confusion that without the knowledge of God there can be no salvation. This is obvious. But the mystery of the Trinity is such that it is through being saved, being regenerated and made new creatures, that this confession could ever be uttered from our lips. God in Three Persons is not known in the strength of the intellect, but in that moment where God embraces us and breathes the Spirit of Life, whom we had rejected with our sin, for which Christ died according to the will of the Father, such that we are made able to stand upright and walk in the way of Jesus Christ our Lord, restored to the dignity once lost by our first parents Adam and Eve, sharing in God’s loving purpose of bringing order from chaos, light from darkness, and peace from conflict.
We baptise people in this Triune Name, Father, Son and Spirit, because it is by the action of the Trinity that a person is saved. And we baptise them with our hands, with the water of this good earth, because we who belong to the Church are participants in that Triune life. God is not a monad, far off and commanding that we obey or be rejected. No, the true God is ever with us, operating through the most common and sensible things, like preaching and study, like good works and loving embrace, like bread, wine, and water, through our sisters and brothers, constantly bringing those who do not know him to the knowledge and love of him.
This glorious doctrine of the One-in-Three, the Trinity in Unity, the Father, Son, and Spirit, is Good News for us and for all the world. Through us God is revealing himself to the world. Through our proclamation and through our actions, through our love for one-another that by grace becomes like the love between the Persons of the Godhead. And it is knowledge of, or maybe better said, encounter with, this Triune God which will make sinners into saints and the dead, alive.
To confess the Trinity is to confess that we were helpless by ourselves, and when we name the One-in-Three we are only telling what we have seen and experienced through the hearts, minds, and bodies that he himself has redeemed.
Let us today boldly proclaim this faith in the God who has saved us, and let us carry this proclamation out with us, may it be ever on our lips, as we enter a world gripped by darkness, godlessness, evil, cruelty, and every manner of violence and hate. Knowledge of the truth cannot wait, for even now many head to perdition because they have not known the true lover of their souls. And when we share the knowledge of this doctrine, even with frail human words and fragmented philosophical concepts, and failing anaologies and descriptions, let us be confident that even then we are sharing the very reality of the God Who Is, not just by what we are saying, but by the fact we are saying it.
Because the God who has saved us and now lives in us desires that all those who stumble about in the dark should come home into the brightness of his dwelling of everlasting bliss, where that love which brought all creation into existence, the love of the Three in One, may be known and shared by us human beings. For we were made in God’s image, and we will not be at peace until we know him again.