In the name of the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Do you want to know what goes through the preacher’s head as the Gospel is about to be read on Trinity Sunday? It goes something like this, “Joy, joy, joy! It’s that time of year again! Breathe deeply, quickly utter several prayers during the last stanza of the Sequence hymn, and, if need be, grip the sides of the pulpit to steady yourself. Don’t remember Brother Elric, the twelfth-century monk who, after botching a sermon on the Trinity, took a vow of silence for the rest of his life. It would be better to remember the words of Frederick Buechner, who so aptly remarked, ‘Sermons are like dirty jokes, even the best ones are hard to remember.’”
This is Trinity Sunday, the Sunday after the feast of the Pentecost. This is one of the odd times in the church year where we celebrate not an event, nor a person, but a doctrine. On most of the “special” Sundays, there is a Gospel text that speaks directly to our celebration. Not so today. It is the DOCTRINE of the Holy Trinity we hold up in celebration this morning, and that is cause for some explanation.
A few years ago, I attended a continuing education conference at the Seminary of the Southwest, where we studied John’s Gospel. It was a good conference, but at one point we had a discussion that surprised me a little. One of our instructors was trying to get us to read John’s Gospel through more “pure” eyes, if you will. She wanted us to remove the lenses we had built up over the years of hearing other people explain what John was saying; lenses of the other Gospel accounts being laid over the top of John for the sake of harmony, lenses of our own experience in the world jaundicing how we hear John’s words; and the lenses of Episcopal tradition and reason. That’s where I ran into a problem.
In the context of trying to get us to look anew at how John describes “the Word – λόγος (Logos) of God,” commonly understood to be Jesus, one instructor referred to the Nicene Creed and its statement of the Trinitarian God we believe in, as the “Classic Comics version” of who God is. That comment sparked my need to defend the Creeds of the Church as well developed and valid statements of how we believe in God. I was a little surprised at how strongly I felt that need to defend our creedal beliefs. That set me wondering, what is so important about the Holy Trinity and what does the doctrine say about what we believe?
We believe in one God – the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth. We believe in God’s only begotten Son, Jesus Christ. Conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. We all know this version of the Holy Trinity and more or less accept it as written. We understand God the Father, who made everything that is and walked in the Garden with Adam and Eve. We have a little more difficulty with the Christ, but we still basically get that Jesus was 100% human AND 100% divine; God incarnate who – as John says at the beginning of his Gospel, was with God in the beginning, and in fact WAS God. And last week’s Pentecost readings make somewhat clear the Godly aspect of the Holy Spirit. That is the power of God at work in the world. But we should remember that Genesis starts with the story of the Spirit of God moving across the water. So Scripture says that all three aspects of God have been alive and at work since before time began. But how do we get our heads wrapped around what this doctrine of the Trinity really means? And is there any value in such a study?
For centuries theologians have tried to find a way of expressing the Holy Trinity in some way that would really connect with people – really grab them with its reality, no matter how hard it might be to get the concept of “three in one, one in three,” logically. St. Patrick is said to have taught the pagans of Ireland about the Trinity by using the image of a shamrock, three leaves and one entity. The image of the Trinity in liturgical vestments is many times still an equilateral triangle with three interlocking circles, which, when rendered by some artists, looks for all the world like a shamrock without the stem. But that image does not do it for many people.
I have said in the past that it was in this struggle to find an acceptable metaphor to explain our trinitarian understanding of God that I came upon the one I like the best, and it is the image of Taylor’s hair. Donna often does Taylor’s hair in at least one braid. These braids start at one in the same place – Taylor’s entire head of hair. And that head of hair is split into three equal and distinct pieces, which are then wound into and out of each other so that they remain distinct but completely intertwined, until they come back together at the end to be indistinguishable from each other again. Remove one strand and the braid collapses. Comb the hair together and the braid ceases to exist. That is Trinity.
But the most important thing about Trinity – the thing we should never forget is – WE, HUMANS invented the concept in order to try to put into words what we had already EXPERIENCED. Let me say that slightly differently, humanity experienced God’s presence and then tried to explain it as God the Father/Creator, God the Son/Redeemer and God the Spirit/Sustainer. We knew God, then we tried to describe God.
Elsewhere in John’s Gospel, Nicodemus (a Pharisee) came to Jesus. Nicodemus said to Jesus, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” In the 1977 mini-series, Jesus of Nazareth, Lawrence Olivier played Nicodemus and had this great ability to seem both wise and wondering at the same time. That is the way that I visualize Nicodemus — both wise and full of wonder. When Nicodemus came out to talk to Jesus, he probably did not think that he was going to meet the Word of God. He also probably did not go out to that place expecting to see God the Redeemer. Instead, he went out to learn something more about what this rabbi – a man whom he believed to be a “prophet of God” – had to say. But he got so much more.
Nicodemus experienced, up close and personal, God Incarnate. Jesus explained to him about being open to God, about being willing to experience baptism by the Spirit in order to be prepared for discipleship. Then comes a very important part of the story. Jesus tells Nicodemus, “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?” How indeed.
It is only partly about what we are told concerning heavenly things. It is much more about how we experience heavenly things here on earth. Nicodemus experienced, just as we do, a God who is so awesome and all-encompassing that there is no way for us to use words to adequately describe God.
Saint Augustine said we only gain knowledge of God as Trinity from our knowledge of love. “Love is of someone who loves,” he said, “and with that love, someone is loved. So here are three things: he who loves, and that which is loved, and (the) love (itself). What this means for the Christian community is that our life is based on and in the mutual overflowing love of the Trinity.” This means that we – the Christian community – in order to experience the wholeness of the Triune God, must be with each other, in community. We must stay together because to love, without having an object for that love, means the love ceases to exist. Just like once a single strand of hair is taken out the braid, the braid ceases to exist. We are the children of the Holy Trinity.
God loved God’s children so much that, time after time, God made covenants with faithless humans and never turned away from them – always being ready to take them back. God loves us so much that after the Resurrection, God sent a Holy Spirit to comfort, encourage and empower us on the way. And God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son to the end that all who believe in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
Let me close with the wonderful trinitarian words of the Apostle Paul in the second letter to the church in Corinth. “Finally, brothers and sisters, .… Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.”