The Fire Next Time: Infinite Desire, Eternal Love, and the Mystery of the Holy Trinity

By Joshua Paetkau

This sermon was preached on June 7, 2020, which is Trinity Sunday. It was preached shortly after the murder of George Floyd in the United States by a police office on May 25, 2020. On June 4, 2020, Chantel Moore, a young First Nations woman, was shot and killed by a Canadian police officer during what was supposed to be a “wellness check.” This sermon looks to the relationship of eternal love that characterizes the blessed Trinity, and sets forth a message of fierce love from the generative fires of creative, creating love.

God gave Noah the rainbow sign

no more water,

it’s the fire next time. —“Mary Don’t You Weep”

One week after Pentecost — the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the apostolic community — we arrive at Trinity Sunday.

Trinity is, in a way, the most doctrinal and least episodic of the principal feasts of the Church. It is not attached to any one particular event or story, but to the revelation of God as a Trinity of persons — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — through the person of Jesus Christ as attested to in the Old and New Testaments.

As Christians we believe that God is Three-in-One and One-in-Three, not because we want to be difficult or obscure, but because this is God’s self-revelation to us. The mystery of the Blessed Trinity is intellectually demanding but also, and by the same token, a deeply sensuous and sensual one. Wrestling with the mystery of the Trinity — grappling to understand the God who is infinite — is to fall in love with God as Trinity, to fall into the love that the Triune God eternally is, and to abandon ourselves to mystery wherein God meets our infinite desire with his eternal love.

The Athanasian Creed enters into this mystery with the trembling tones of judgment. “Whosoever would be saved, needeth before all things to hold fast the Catholic faith. Which Faith except a man keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he will perish eternally.”[1]

The Athanasian Creed is one of the historic creeds of the Church, which is affirmed by the Anglican Church of Canada, though rarely used in its worship. Its opening lines emphasize the theme of judgement, and it returns to that theme at the end with these words: “They that have done good will go into life eternal; they that have done evil into eternal fire.”

The framing of judgment is not meant to condemn anyone — God alone can fully judge the hearts, minds, and deeds of anyone — but to allow us to enter into the profound seriousness of our faith. Within these statements of judgment, the beautiful mystery of the Trinity unfolds and a way for us to enter into the reality of God’s infinite love and perfect equality, that is, through Jesus Christ, fully God and fully human, who descended into the depths of human experience — even to the very depths of the hells that we create — for us.

It has been a hard and heartbreaking week, and the world is reeling in the aftermath of the brutal murder of George Floyd at the hands of police officers, sparking a wave of protests around the planet. The “horror and consternation with which we watch things unfold,” to quote our Prime Minister, have been amplified by the draconian, militaristic, and authoritarian response of the American president. There are those who were shocked by the brutality of Floyd’s death, and yet there was nothing new or unprecedented about it. James Baldwin, the great American novelist and civil rights activist, warned about the crippling effects of racism in his book The Fire Next Time (1963). In his 1964 book The Torture of Mothers, Truman Nelson wrote,

How can I make you believe this? This is what is blocking the long outcry in my throat, impacting the anger and frustration until I become too dumb and sick with the gorge and glut of my own indigestible fury. Even keeping my voice down, even speaking to you in a whisper, my breath staggers and halts under the weight of this monstrous wrong.

Nelson was writing about the case of the Harlem Six, but in any case, the name George Floyd stands within a long list of names to which we must now add, in Canada, the name of Chantel Moore. These names signal that not all is well in our nations. It has been a hard and heartbreaking week in the world, and the anger, indignation, and protest that have been sparked is important. An ugly word, racism, has permeated the news in the mouths of politicians, protesters, church leaders, and others: anti-Black racism, anti-Indigenous racism, antisemitism, anti-Asian racism, structural systemic racism.

What I would like to talk about this evening is the pain of being human. This is an old pain, an ancient one, even older than the forms of racially charged injustices and hatred that we face today, though they are connected. James Baldwin, in a moving reflection of the last time he saw his estranged father, wrote: “I believe that one reason people cling so stubbornly to their hatred is that they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.”[2]

We need to deal with pain, because hatred will tear us to pieces — not only as a country, but at the level of our personal being. We were not created for hatred. We were created to rejoice, glorify, and love God with all the force of our created, sensual being. We were created to love the God who first loved us and bears our pain with us in the person of Christ, and who reveals the holy and beautiful mystery of the Blessed Trinity to us. God is one in substance, and three in persons, and the substance that is God is pure, unadulterated love. God is love (1 John 4:8b) Even before the foundation of the world, God is a pure relationship of perfect love.

The diversity of persons does not lead to dissension or disunion in any way, for, as the Athanasian Creed tells us, “In this Trinity there is no before or after, no greater or less, but all three Persons are co-eternal together and co-equal.” The Creed continues, “He therefore that would be saved, let him thus think of the Trinity.” The point here is not to police the mind or cast judgment upon others, but to invite the one reciting the Creed into the mystery of divine love, saying, “This love is salutary, it is healing, it is salvific.”

The mystery of the divine love between the Persons is uncreated, infinite, eternal, and incomprehensible to the finite human creature, even as God is uncreated, infinite, eternal, and beyond the comprehension of our minds. Yet this love creates us, and comprehends us, and, in Christ, invites us to live through the divine being of love — to make love perfect in ourselves through the practice of loving others.

Now, the forces of hatred and decay have become so entangled with the fabric of our reality that it can be difficult to find the threefold cord of faith, hope, and love. This is why it is so good to read the opening chapter of Genesis, to catch a glimpse of the original intention of the Creator in creating the world; an intention that clings to its fabric even when we find it difficult to see or even believe. Where do we see the generative and infinitely flowing love of the Blessed Trinity reflected in our world? How do we bear the pain of the world in its fragmented state?

Charles Williams, in his novel War in Heaven, puts the question to us starkly. The words, within the novel, are spoken by Kenneth Mornington, an editor of a publishing house.

“O damn and blast,” he cried with a great voice. “Why was this bloody world created?”

“As a sewer for the stars,” a voice in front of him said. “Alternatively, to know God and to glorify him for ever.”

“Quite,” Kenneth said. “The two answers are not, of course, necessarily alternative.”[3]

The considerable question posed by Kenneth Mornington is one that faces us every day. The bloodiness of this world — the deep, abiding pain of this world — is something we confront constantly and unavoidably. We are not innocent in the matter, for we break the body and shed blood of Creation every day. We depend on the lives of other creatures for our sustenance.

Yet it is in the midst of this bloody world that we come to know and glorify God. It is within this bloody world that we come to know beauty, splendor, justice, trust, and love. It is within the created order that we come to know Love as the deepest Law of Creation. As Tennyson said,

Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation’s final law—
Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek’d against his creed—

We find ourselves embroiled in paradox, and the way we think through and live through this paradox is very important. What does it mean to say that this world was created as a sewer for the stars and to know God and to glorify him for ever? What does it mean to find beauty, trust, and love in this bloody, sweaty, stinky, betrayed and betraying, hateful world?

Tennyson, I believe, was on to something. To trust the God who loves us is to become love itself, love in deed and in action. This, really, is much the same as what we read in 1 John 4:10-12:

In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.

The early Church, the early Christian communities, were at times regarded as a criminal element by the long arm of the Roman state. State-sanctioned violence was perpetrated against them with impunity; they were a community which — at their best — refused to allow social status and identity to define them. The gradations of being — the privileged status of some — had been overcome through the power of faith revealed in baptism.

In baptism, every man, woman, and child was born into the household of heavenly citizenship, in which they exercised responsible moral agency. The fact that this was so was a powerfully subversive claim in a society in which only the male head of the household was held to be a full person according to law. According to Roman law, only the paterfamilias, the man of the house, the head of the household, counted as a full human being and responsible moral agent.

Women, slaves, and children were considered, to varying degrees, to be things, not people. A son, in this understanding, existed as a sort of in-between category. Sons were wards of the head of the household, and so had the status of slaves, but with the potential of becoming free, full, moral agents.

So St. Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, is saying something very radical when he says:

You are all Sons of God through faith in Jesus Christ. You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed and heirs according to the promise.

Authority, here, we see is conferred upon the entirety of the baptized community. They are all one in Christ, they all share in the gifts of the same Holy Spirit, and through Christ have become heirs to the promise made to Abraham that his descendants would a blessing to all nations. We read in the gospel the words of Jesus that “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations baptizing in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

I probably don’t need to say that this great commission of Christ has been abused and distorted at times, over the centuries. Jesus did not say, “Forcibly convert people to Christianity.” Jesus is talking about spiritual, moral authority, which must come from a place of deep integrity and passion. Those who were Jesus’ disciples were also his friends. They were the men, women, and children that he spent time with, the people he ate and drank with, and taught and argued with, and whose company he deeply and gratefully enjoyed.

The woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and dried them with her hair — she was a disciple of Jesus.

To be a disciple of Jesus is not just something that we read about or think about, but a reality that involves our whole being: body, mind, and soul. There is something beautiful, there is something sensual, about being a disciple, and this sensual, embodied, joyful aspect of discipleship is something we must recover, because without the passion of love, our regard for God’s creation begins to cool within us, and without that fire of joy, callousness and indifference are allowed to grow and hatred gains a foothold — self-hatred and hatred of others.

We need to recover the authentic love for self, rooted in the fact of God’s love for us. This requires a presence, within our historical moment, within our place in time, rejoicing in the life that God has given.

I will end with a passage from James Baldwin: “To be sensual, I think, is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread.”[4]

The Rev. Joshua Paetkau is the priest at the Parish of New Carlisle and Chaleur Bay in New Carlisle, QC, Canada.

[1]The Book of Common Prayer (Toronto: The Anglican Book Centre, 1959), 695

[2]James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son (Boston: Beacon Press, 1955)

[3]Charles Williams, War in Heaven, 79. 4.

[4]James Baldwin The Fire Next Time, 38.


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