Trinity Sunday, Year B
Isaiah 6:1-8; John 3:1-17
Today is Trinity Sunday. Today is the day, always the Sunday after the Day of Pentecost, when we celebrate the ancient Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Now, if you ask your average Episcopalian to define the Holy Trinity, most would reply, “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” (or “Holy Ghost” if you’re an old-school, Rite I fan). But, if you then said, “Tell me more about it! What does it all mean?” I think the reply would get a bit less certain and a bit more confusing. You might even hear those magical words, “Ask the priest!”
The questions and confusion are real. Do we believe in three Gods or one God? If Jesus is God, where was he before he was born on Christmas? When Jesus died on the cross, did God die too? And where did the Spirit come from? Lots of questions emerge as well as plenty of chances to get things wrong.
So here I am, ready to explain it all to you in just a few minutes time! The truth is that most clergy aren’t enthusiastic when it comes to trying to explain a complex doctrine like the Trinity outside a seminary classroom with the doors shut. If you could see all the Facebook comments from my 200 or so clergy friends, everyone from seasoned veterans like George Werner and Rodge Wood to those who are still in seminary, we’ve learned to tread carefully around the topic or even just ignore it altogether.
Today is also known as, “The rector gets the deacon to preach” Sunday. Jesus’ words in this morning’s gospel come back to haunt us a bit, “Are you a teacher, and yet you do not understand these things?”
<<I found one meme that warns of both the complexity and the pitfalls of trying to explain the Trinity.
I also found one meme that gives preachers and “easy out” on Trinity Sunday.
The clergy of Facebook can be a clever bunch, especially when we are avoiding writing a tough sermon.
But why is it such a complex topic? Because Christians have fought over it and divided over it for almost our entire history. Some people like to use illustrations from nature. St. Patrick used the three leaf clover. Others have used the illustration of water as liquid, vapor, and steam. But in the end NONE of these illustrations can help us wrap our limited human brains around such an incredible mystery. Many theologians who have tried to solve the mystery once and for all have wound up being accused of heresy. Some were even killed!
The truth is, the word “Trinity” doesn’t even appear in the Bible. But there are hints that to believe in God means to believe that there is mystery there, not just a simple idea.
The very first verse in Scripture tells us, “In the beginning God…” God is eternal. God didn’t have a beginning. But the word for God here, in Hebrew is plural. Hmmm. Then we hear, “The Spirit of God moved over the face of the waters.” And later in the same chapter, we hear God say, “Let us make humankind in our image.” Wait, who’s this “our” all of a sudden?
And this morning we hear from Isaiah that God is not just holy, but “Holy, holy, holy”!
The Church has attempted to distill down the doctrine of the Trinity based on Scripture, Tradition, and Reason. Our ancient creeds have tried to help us understand God as both one and three. But there’s language like the Son is eternally begotten of the Father. And the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. There is some complex language here that isn’t always easy to understand.
This morning, I’m not going to attempt to perfectly describe the Holy Trinity to you with theological and philosophical precision. I dare say many of you would be asleep by the end. What I do want to share with you this morning are the things I believe the doctrine of the Trinity teaches us about God and, therefore, about ourselves.
One of the images of the Trinity that I think teaches us much about God is one of the oldest – the image of the three angels visiting Abraham and Sarah. These three guests are seated at a table, sharing a meal. They are companions (breaking bread) but they are also communing.
What the Trinity tells us is that God in his very essence exists in a relationship. Father, Son, Holy Spirit – there’s a “community” here. There is one God but three persons make up who God is. The very nature of God is not to be solitary but to be in relationship.
When are we at our best? When we are alone, trying to make the world a better place, praying for justice and peace? We know from experience how much more we can do together, not individually. When we live in community, when we listen to each other, when we break bread together, when we share the work it takes to bring God’s kingdom on earth, then we are most like God. When we try it on our own, we will probably fail. We need each other, not because we are weak, but because we are like God.
Another image that speaks to me about who God is and what God is like is another ancient one. God in the persons of the Trinity is in a perpetual dance. Now, this isn’t the kind of slow, couples’ dance you see at the prom. This is a communal dance, with several partners. Oh, let’s say three.
Have you ever danced with more than one partner? I used to enjoy contra dancing and English country dancing, both of which evolved into square dancing in this country. Dancing with more than one partner to some pretty fast-paced music is tricky. There are variables that complicate matters – height differences, varying levels of skill. I am not a born dancer. I don’t have a great sense of rhythm, but I was determined to learn these complicated steps. A few bruised toes later, I had perfected some of the basics of community dancing. A lot of what you are doing is getting out of your partner’s way! Step back, so he or she can step forward. Don’t crowd your partner, but be yielding and cooperating instead. Eye contact is very important. When you are spinning around with a partner, one of the best ways not to lose your lunch is to lock eyes with him or her. Be present. Keep your mind on what you are doing, and you’ll have a LOT of fun!
If the members of the Holy Trinity are engaged in an eternal dance, we can see it reflected in our relationships with each other – if we demand our way, we will injure toes or worse. If we don’t know when to lead and when to follow, the rhythm and flow will be broken. If we dance like we are alone, all harmony will be lost. But if we yield to each other, if we give way to our partner or partners, instead of always demanding to lead, we can learn the steps it takes to enjoy the dance.
There is equality in the Trinity. We love to rank Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in order of importance, but if any one of them were missing, we wouldn’t have a community and we wouldn’t have a dance.
As much as we try to explain the Trinity in philosophical and theological terms, I think it may be as simple as our experience of each other. We believe in God: Father, Son, Holy Spirit. Our creator, our redeemer, our sustainer. We are at our best when we live in community. We are at our best when we live with the care and concern you have to have when dancing. And we are at our best when we recognize our equality with each other.
This is when we are most like God. And when we fall out of community, fall out of step, forget our equality, we are at our worst.
The final image I want to offer you to help the Trinity teach us about ourselves is the Celtic knot. We are a parish named for an Irish saint, so it’s no surprise that you should find Celtic knots all over the place. You’ve even got one in your hands this morning. On the top of your bulletin you’ll see the Trefoil. No, it’s just a Girl Scout Cookie.
Trace the three-fold knot with your finger. You’ll find there is no beginning and no ending. It is eternal. Your finger will actually dance as you trace it. But notice the circle. It is also eternal. It is woven into the knot as well, but represents the one. Three and one.
Have you ever tried to draw a Celtic knot yourself? It’s quite hard. It takes focus and intentionality. We find in it beauty and complexity. Our minds often want to dissect, to tear mysteries apart so we can understand them, but what if we just sit with it, meditate on it – the beauty and the complexity of the Trinity. It is both simple and profound.
Have you ever seen a small child tear apart a beautiful flower in an attempt to learn how it is put together? In the end she’s left with the parts of the flower, but the beauty has been lost. When we learn to enjoy beauty in its natural form, whether earthly or divine, we can begin to live into that beauty and that mystery.
So, when someone asks you, “What is the Trinity all about?” It might be easier, rather than trying to explain it to them with deep theological illustrations, instead, why not invite them to dance?