Grace and Peace to you, on this Trinity Sunday.
And not only that, but Grace and Peace to you on this first Sunday of our 8-week sermon series in which questions from the pews are answered in the pulpit.
Today’s question is exceedingly relevant to this day in the church year, Trinity Sunday.
The question is this: “In the Apostles Creed it says Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit. In the Nicene Creed it says that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father AND THE SON. What gives?”
So essentially, the question becomes, “Jesus comes from the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit comes from Jesus, how does that work?”
The first thing we need to consider is that we can talk about the Trinity in multiple ways.
On one hand we can talk about the inner Being of God.
On the other hand we can talk about our experience of God, about how God has interacted with God’s people from the beginning.
An imperfect analogy for these two ways of thinking about the Trinity would be the difference between being part of a Family
looking at a family from the outside.
Think about the things you can say about your own family dynamics that you really can’t say about those of your neighbor’s family, no matter how much you know about them.
Simply put, from the outside you can only understand so much. Inner Being and Outward Experience are two very different things. This is true of both family life and the Trinity.
Yet, in this sermon I’ll try to talk a bit about the Being of God as expressed in the Creeds, and then about the Experience of God for all of us.
Let us pray
To begin, it is worth noting most Heresies are caused by saying too much—about nailing things down too fully (putting God in a box).
Orthodoxy—saying something right about God, on the other hand, is so often taking the middle ground between two extremes. And so it is with the Trinity.
The faith, as found in the creeds, threads the needle between two extremes—Modalism and Arianism.
Modalism was a view of the Trinity that simply said, “1 God is 3 because that one God comes to us in three ways.” (The Ice/Water/Steam analogy) In Modalism it’s as if God put on three different masks—different modes of being. So Modalism’s focus is on the oneness of God above all other concerns.
As you can imagine this wreaks havoc on what scripture says about God. Think of Gethsemane, “Father take this cup from me.” It’s like Father and Son are a ventriloquist act.
The response to Modalism in the West was to define God as one in Substance, Essence, and Nature, but three in Person. In the East they defined God as one in Will, but separate in Hierarchy—The Son and Spirit are subordinate to the Father.
This Eastern response to Modalism is where we get Arianism.
Arianism is an extreme form of this concern over the Hierarchy within the Trinity… eventually the question arises “How subordinate are Spirit and Son to the Father?” (Where do they fit in the pecking order?)
Are they in fact God, or just exalted creatures?
Are they God at all?
Is Jesus just a good man and the Spirit just the effects of God’s actions?
Through a few quirks in history the Arian movement moves from the East to West and takes off in Northern Europe. Specifically these Arians deny the full Divinity of Jesus.
To combat this belief, the Western Church, around the 6th century, adds a line to the Nicene Creed, “The Holy Spirit Proceeds from the Father AND THE SON.”
That’s what’s going on with these creeds—they are describing the Being of God in a way that doesn’t go off the rails, either denying the uniqueness of Spirit and Son, or obliterating their divinity, claiming they are creatures.
But let’s step back a bit, let’s move from being to experience, from Creeds to Scripture.
Let’s get closer to an answer to the question!
Firstly, there is a solid basis for this addition to the Nicene Creed—adding “And the Son.”
As we read today Christ blows his Holy Spirit upon the Disciples—they receive the Spirit, which gives them peace and the power to forgive and retain sins.
Throughout John’s Gospel the Holy Spirit is so connected to Jesus that it almost feels like it is a disembodied version of Jesus—Jesus’ ghost if you will. (Though it’s worth nothing that in John, Jesus also calls the Spirit “Another Advocate.”)
Still, the Apostle Paul talks about the Spirit as “The Spirit of Christ.” And equates being filled with the Holy Spirit with having the “Mind of Christ.”
Yes, the claim of Nicaea that, “The Spirit Proceeds from the Son,” meshes with our experience as God’s people as expressed in the New Testament.
At the same time, dear Mary points us to the other side of things. Her child, Jesus, is conceived by the Holy Spirit. His birth is the work of God, and we know that to be true because the Spirit, that “Shy Sovereign,” has made it so, and seal his Sonship to God.
For that matter, at Jesus’ Baptism the Spirit, like a dove, points to Jesus, declares, and affirms, that Jesus is the Son of God, the beloved of God.
Yes, the claim of Apostle’s creed that, “Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit,” stands in scripture.
Yet this mystery goes back far beyond these Gospels. Within the first three verses of Genesis we find Spirit and Word transforming the “Formless void.”…
But to give some sort of answer, we might Spring boarding off the start of John’s Gospel—we might say:
“The Pre-existent Son of God, the Word who was with God and was God, was brought into this world by the Power of the Spirit, and the Spirit affirmed Jesus’ identity at his Baptism.
After Jesus’ death and resurrection, and in a variety of ways, Jesus gave the Spirit to his disciples. The Spirit continues to point us to the mind-blowing reality that Jesus is God’s Son.
And for that matter, in our Baptism, the Spirit, comes to us letting us know we are adopted into Jesus’ family—we are made Children of God—connected to the Holy Mystery of the Being of God!