Trinity Sunday, Year B – Isaiah 6:1-8; Psalm 29; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17
A week ago today as you celebrated the Feast of Pentecost here at Christ Church, I was worshiping in the home church of my parents in Pennsylvania. The pastor of their church, not an Episcopal church mind you, had a children’s sermon to discuss the day – Pentecost – the day that the Holy Spirit came into a room full of Jesus’ disciples, a visitation that was marked with powerful and mysterious acts.
The pastor asked the children assembled on the chancel steps what Pentecost meant. One young girl said enthusiastically, “It’s the birthday of the Church!” “Well,” the pastor replied, “I think it’s better to think of it as the birthday of the Holy Spirit!” They then proceeded to sing “happy birthday” to the Holy Spirit.
At moments like those, I do try to hold my tongue. I’m a guest, not in charge. But it can be quite difficult at times, especially for anyone who has studied basic theology or church history. As well-meaning as the pastor’s comments were, I’m afraid they probably succeeded in confusing more people than they helped.
Today, the Sunday after Pentecost, is Trinity Sunday. Perhaps this is because it is after the coming of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost that we have the three persons of the Trinity set before us, traditionally called Father, Son and Holy Ghost. But as evidenced from a children’s sermon last week in PA, the topic of the Trinity can still be quite confusing. If Pentecost is the birthday of the Holy Spirit, is the Father responsible, or Jesus? Both?
Indeed, there is no other theological topic in Christianity that seems at the very same time to be both settled but also quite perplexing. Father, Son, Holy Ghost. Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. Are these three Gods? No. Though Muslims still to this day demand that we believe in three gods. How then can we approach the mystery of the Godhead, and better yet, explain it to those who don’t share our faith?
People have tried to come up with helpful examples over the centuries, but all of them fall short. It seems that any attempt to analogize the Trinity can quickly devolve into a round of the blind men trying to describe the elephant. We get tripped up by language and ontology. It seems we just can’t quite get our own minds around it, this great mystery of our faith.
We strive to find physical representations of the Trinity. People have suggested the Trinity is like an egg: yolk, white, and shell – three parts of the same thing. No, others say, that’s not quite it. Still others suggest the Trinity is like three states of water in nature: liquid, ice, and steam. Hmmm, voices say, that’s won’t quite do either.
Legend says that Saint Patrick used a three-leaf clover to teach the Irish about the Trinity, which itself seems helpful to some and confusing to others, leading Eric Idle of Monty Python fame to quip: “God is like a shamrock: small, green and split three ways.”
Another image from the Celtic that I love is the Celtic Knot – three strands interwoven so skillfully that it is hard to tell them apart. You see this motif throughout Celtic art. And yet, as beautiful as this image is, some theologians object – it just isn’t perfect.
And perhaps it is very meet and right that we have always failed to come up with a perfect analogy or image for the Trinity, perhaps this fact encourages us to leave the mystery a mystery.
The simple truth is, the term Trinity is never mentioned in the Bible. Search from cover to cover and you won’t find it, except in explanatory notes that were added later. We humans, with our feeble language, have tried to explain God and the mystery of our experience of God. We have read this theological idea back into scripture. The reading from Isaiah 6 this morning is one classic passage used to suggest the Trinity in scripture – Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts. Three holies! It must mean the Trinity! However, were you to ask a Jewish scholar what this means, she would likely tell you that it wasn’t meant to suggest Jesus and the Holy Spirit hanging in the background of the temple, but rather saying that God is holy three times means that God is really, really, really Holy.
Other questions remain – is Jesus God? If so, how so? Who is this Holy Spirit? Is this the same spirit that is mentioned in Genesis 1, seen brooding over the face of the waters? Is this the same spirit that descended upon Jesus like a dove at his baptism? It didn’t take long as the Early Church took shape for fights to break out over these questions about God and the nature of Jesus, but more importantly fights broke out over the answers. One group excommunicated another. Individuals were driven out of faith communities because their understanding of the nature of God simply didn’t fit with the majority opinion. There were winners and there were clearly losers. There was even violence between opposing groups. Is this really what Jesus would have done? The Coptic Church of Egypt split from virtually the rest of the church early on, literally over one iota – I will spare you the related Greek lesson, but this one iota was enough to create a deep and lasting schism in the church. It was only in the last century that the Pope “forgave” them and brought them back into something that looked like communion with the rest of the Western church. Of course, behind the theological camp making there were other issues – power, authority, control.
Yet, regardless of these theological disputes, your average church-goer accepts the doctrine of the Trinity without flinching, even if it doesn’t make much sense. Just as the cross has become a symbol of our faith that we wear and display, so symbols of the Trinity adorn our churches. Look around, and you will probably see one. Equilateral triangles, trefoils, and other quite intricate and beautiful three-fold symbols can be seen in almost any church’s décor, but sadly they have become so much a part of our scenery, as it were, they are so commonplace that, we often stop noticing them. They have faded into the background, and more often than not, people choose not to contemplate the mystery.
Like an anatomy chart on the wall of a classroom, some theologians would like to declare the mystery solved, the case closed. It’s as if the doctrine of the Trinity has been tamed, hung on our walls to be studied. Instead, I believe we remain mere beginners in making sense of this great mystery.
The writers of Isaiah 6 and Psalm 29 clearly understood the awesome power and mystery of the transcendent, unapproachable God, whose mysteries are veiled from our eyes. But note, the language in the other two lessons this morning shifts when discussing God’s nature and our relationship to God. It softens. “When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs.” Familial language. Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus describes the coming of God’s son into the world not as an act of transcendent power but as an act of love, not to condemn the world but to save the world. The spirit of God is not tamed or predictable, Jesus tells Nicodemus, the spirit of God is like the wind. If the day of Pentecost teaches us anything it should be that.
“How can these things be?” Nicodemus asks, with the rest of us.
When I was in seminary we spent many hours studying the history of Trinitarian theology – indeed the seminary was named “Trinity.” We debated the finer points ad nauseam until one day, when studying the Athanasian Creed, one exasperated classmate threw down his pen, rubbed his eyes and moaned, “I think this theology is like Christianity defined by lawyers! It takes all the joy out of it for me!” The Athanasian Creed can be found in the prayer book beginning on page 864 if you are curious.
Indeed after a hearty theological debate on the nature of the Trinity, God may seem more distant, more unknowable than before. The infant Jesus of Christmas morning or the risen Lord of Easter may seem more like bugs under glass than anything that might inspire us. So it can be in seminary. But there was one tradition that we examined during our studies that intrigues me to this day.
The Western Church centered in Rome and transformed by the Reformation was indeed full of lawyers, making precise, air-tight, logical cases about the nature of the Trinity. The Eastern Church, however, never quite succeeded in being quite so precise, but rather embraced the mystery of the Trinity more readily.
Eastern theologians speak more often of the three persons of the Trinity existing not as a static, two-dimensional flow-chart on the wall, but rather existing in what they would describe as a cosmic dance. The great theological term is perichoresis – to dance around, peri as in perimeter and choresis as in choreography.
When two people dance, one of the partners in the dance is always “leading,” but it is not out of control issues, it’s just the way that kind of dancing works. There is a give and take when you dance with another person, otherwise there would be chaos and many bruised toes. Now, I am not an accomplished dancer. I won’t be on “Dancing with the Stars” anytime soon, but I have learned a little in the classes I have taken. So much of dancing is getting out of the way of your partner, a careful balance of leading and following. This kinetic understanding of the relationship between the members of the Trinity is much more helpful to my mind. Imagine then a dance of three persons, how much more complex the steps become.
No dance is ever the same. Sure the steps may be familiar, but your foot will always fall in different place, your body at a slightly different angle.
Ok, so the analogy isn’t perfect. Some no doubt will object, but for me it is one I can contemplate again and again, as long as the dance may last.
Still another Eastern theologian we studied saw the great mystery of the Trinity as having little to do with logic and more to do with relationship.
John Zizioulas named his seminal work on the Trinity, “Being as Communion.” The upshot of his work is this: God exists not as three persons who happened once upon a time and have now reached some kind of cosmic equilibrium, but rather God exists because the Father begets the son, and from them proceed the Spirit. It is not a one-time event, but an eternal dance of leading and yielding, of give and take, of begetting and proceeding.
It is that God is eternally in relationship that defines who God is. It is not what God does or where God is but it is the eternal relationship of the three persons of the Trinity that makes God God. This is the glory and the majesty of the Trinity. God is because the Father chooses to be in communion with the Son and the Spirit. It is the Father’s way of being, namely the act of communion, that defines God.
And so the story of the Trinity throughout scripture is one of divine give and take, of self-limiting, of one member yielding to the others. And the story isn’t finished, this divine dance is eternal, the members of the dance, our creator, our redeemer and our sustainer, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, The Source, the Word, and the Breath, are forever engaged in this dance.
Do you see how if God is because God exists in relationship in communion how profoundly this affects who we are as human / beings? If the very nature of God is communion, then we, creatures created in God’s image are not isolated individuals. By our very nature, we exist in relationship. We are born into a relationship with our parents, we are born into communion.
Think about it. Are we not at our worst when we act selfishly, demanding our way, not yielding to the other, breaking this communion. Is this not the very essence and nature of sin – creating disharmony between God’s creatures, interrupting the dance, tripping up those whom God has given us to dance with. Salvation, then, is joining in again with the dance, learning to lead but also learning to yield. The example God sets for us is God’s very self, God’s very being – a communion, a relationship.
Nothing annoyed me more in my days in seminary than those who refused to embrace the mysteries of our faith. It was as if they were asking us to stop dancing, to stop imagining, to stop dreaming. Some people want it all defined, all figured out. But for me, I pray that the Trinity will always be mysterious, something kinetic, ever changing as I change. And I would say the same thing about the Eucharist. God save me from ever “figuring it out”! Countless books have been written by countless authors over the centuries trying to explain Holy Communion, to define its terms, to control it. I will have none of that. I prefer, instead, to let the mystery be a mystery. I prefer, instead, to let God speak to me in unexpected and different ways every time I receive the Holy Eucharist. Instead of logic and precise definitions, I prefer to dance. Amen.