sermon preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Curate
Trinity Sunday, May 22, 2016
When I was about eight years old, I learned about the Ten Commandments and thought they were the greatest discovery ever. If we would all just agree to keep these ten commandments all the time, God would be happy with us, and we would be happy with each other, and peace would bloom all over the earth. I couldn’t yet bear the thought that maybe we human beings simply can’t keep the commandments all the time—but then, a more mature understanding could not come to me until I myself grew in experience and wisdom. As Jesus suggested in today’s Gospel reading, I have experienced my faith as a continual unfolding, an ongoing revelation of truths that were always true, but that I couldn’t bear before now. Sometimes this unfolding means that I have to let go of understandings that no longer work. And so I followed a path from being an attempted “do-gooder” to discovering myself to be a hopeless sinner, and then relaxing into God’s forgiveness and redemption of me and finding hope again in Jesus.
Today is Trinity Sunday—one of the seven principal feasts of the Christian year, but an odd one, because we are not honoring a human being or commemorating an event, but seemingly sacralizing a doctrine. There are two dangers here for the preacher. Alan Jones, the former dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, once said, “It is impossible to preach on the Trinity for more than sixty seconds without lapsing into heresy.” He’s probably right. The other danger is that the seminary-educated priest can delve deep into the notes from his systematic theology class and assault people with terms like perichoresis and Sabellianism and hypostasis and mutual indwelling. And the danger of doing both at once is probably far greater than we’d like to admit. So before I go any further, I want to stress a couple main points.
|photo by SoAngela Hardt, El Salvador, 2007|
First, all human beings are theologians. You are a theologian when you ponder, even for a moment, the mysteries of the universe. When you do what country singer Lee Ann Womack once suggested and “still feel small when you stand beside the ocean,” you are engaging in theology. And when, for instance, you go out of your way to show love to someone who is of no use to you, you are applying your theology and continuing to develop it as well. Theology is the study of God, and it happens in everyday life, whatever else you might want to call it.
Second, the Christian life is not something you can think your way into. Don’t get me wrong—I identify as an intellectual. But postulating things about God is not likely to help us fall in love with God. Sitting in an ivory tower, well-fed, privileged, and content can be terrible for one’s faith. I know lots of people who believe intellectually that there is a God, but for whatever reason, they feel no need to let God affect their lives in any way. In other words, faith is caught, not taught—and it comes not in isolation, but through participation in community.
We might well wonder what the Trinity has to do with any of this. For many people, the Trinity might seem to be only a theologian’s intellectual game, irrelevant to our faith in any real sense. But what if I told you that the Trinity is not just an idea about God, but an experience of God and an invitation to a dance? What if I told you that the Trinity is a great example of the continual unfolding of things we couldn’t bear before now?
It all started when a small group of Jews found themselves worshipping a human being. This tendency became much more pronounced after Jesus’ death, when dozens and then hundreds of people claimed to have seen him alive and talked with him and eaten with him and learned from him. But Jews believe in one God, not two. How, then, to make sense of this new reality? Must there be two gods after all?
No, they realized over time. There is but one God, and Jesus is a manifestation of that one God. He referred to himself as the Son of Man, a metaphor steeped in the Old Testament, but it became obvious to them that this also meant Only Son of God—a person in unique, eternally loving relationship with the same God who had given them the Law and the Prophets.
But wait: there’s more. God the Creator, after receiving the Son back into Godself again, sent the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. Are there three gods, then? No—still just one. And the Holy Spirit may also show up in the Old Testament: we heard about Lady Wisdom today—in Greek, Sophia—in Hebrew, Chokhmah—feminine in both languages. The Book of Proverbs tells us that Lady Wisdom was there at the beginning, working alongside God the Creator as the first of God’s creations—an Old Testament image. But as Trinitarian theology developed over the centuries, the church came to an understanding that God the Son and God the Holy Spirit are not created but have always been. And now we are into deeply poetic language. Theology must be poetic, I think, in order to be worthwhile. If you think you fully understand God, then by definition, you don’t.
Christians have experienced the Trinity in so many ways. Karen Armstrong writes that since God invented mathematics, the divine being is not limited by the construct of number—such is the Trinity for someone who finds poetry in math. St. Augustine wrote that our every thought contains a Trinity: the thought process is informed by our memory, experienced in our understanding, and manifested through our will. We can be Trinitarian theologians, too. We can mine the Old Testament for poetic hints of the Trinity: in the three strangers who visit Abraham in the desert, for instance. Or we can look for the Trinity in other mythologies, such as the Greek Muses of literature, science, and the arts. Three is a magic number, as they used to say on Schoolhouse Rock! And no metaphor is out of bounds as long as we recognize that all metaphors do break down.
In her play The Zeal of Thy House, renowned British author Dorothy Sayers explored the Trinity using a metaphor of creativity. Here’s a quote:
For every work of creation is threefold, an earthly trinity to match the heavenly.
First, there is the Creative Idea, passionless, timeless, beholding the whole work complete at once, the end in the beginning: and this is the image of the Father.
Second, there is the Creative Energy begotten of that idea, working in time from the beginning to the end, with sweat and passion, being incarnate in the bonds of matter: and this is the image of the Word [that is, Christ].
Third, there is the Creative Power, the meaning of the work and its response in the lively soul: and this is the image of the indwelling Spirit.
And these three are one, each equally in itself the whole work, whereof none can exist without the other; and this is the image of the Trinity.
Idea, Energy, and Power: Sayers further expounded this metaphor in her book The Mind of the Maker. And her metaphor really works for me. I can observe it every time I create something, whether it’s in words, in music, or in physical form. Let’s say I want to write a novel. It starts with an idea, and contained in the idea is the whole work, but it isn’t fleshed out yet. So I flesh it out, expending energy and time and, in the old days, paper and ink, to create the work as God created the universe. The book has the physical boundaries of cover and pages, and the time of my work has a beginning and an ending, as did the earthly life of Jesus. Finally, I can share the finished novel with others, and if I’ve done a decent job harnessing the energy to give birth to the idea, the story I have created has Holy Spirit-like power to inspire others … Idea, Energy, Power. Father, Son, Holy Spirit. They are all separate persons, but they work together with unified purpose at every moment for the sake of the finished work—and we can call this finished work love.
It’s hard to conceive of the Trinity without leaning in the direction of one of two heresies: the absolute unity of God at the expense of the Three, or the absolute diversity of God at the expense of the One. In the West, we tend to lean towards too much Unity, as with my preferred metaphor, the fact that I can be a father, a son, and a husband all at the same time. The problem here is too much Unity: I am not in any way three persons. But Diversity reigns in the East; there’s a classic icon by Rublev showing the three persons of God sitting at a table and inviting the viewer to come and eat with them. The metaphor breaks down instantly when we seem to see in front of us three gods rather than one—but it’s still beautiful, and it still contains a part of the truth.
As beings that God has created, we are products and images of the Creative Idea, Energy, and Power of God, and while we can speak of the three aspects individually, they cannot really be separated. We are the characters in the Great Story. And as if that weren’t enough, the author, the originator of the first Creative Idea, has also become a character in the story!
Oh, wow—look at my wrist. I’ve already been preaching heresy for several minutes. Maybe it’s time to stop. But I will drop one seminary word on you: perichoresis, the Greek word for rotation. This analogy emerged in the 4th century with the Church Fathers of the East, but it has been revitalized in recent years by theologians like Jürgen Moltmann and Miroslav Wolf. Whatever one person of the Trinity does, the other two are doing as well, with unity of purpose. The three persons of the Holy Trinity are forever engaged in a dance of love, always giving love, always receiving love.
If we are made in God’s image, we can see in ourselves the family resemblance. God is creative and innovative, and so are we. God cares about the material world in which we live and move and have our being. God is compassionate, and this compassion bursts out in human beings at the most surprising moments. At our best, we love in spite of our fears. We can be brave and principled and altruistic. And we are hard-wired to be in community with others. We are not solitary because God is not solitary. God is One, but that One lives in community, even all by Godself. That One is not sitting still, but dancing, forever and always.
A dance doesn’t feel at all like a dogma, does it? In this dance, we move from stale certainties into new curiosities and questions. When you wonder about the Trinity, don’t be terrified of heresy. Rather, enjoy the dance … the dance of creating, redeeming, and sustaining … the dance of idea, energy, and power … the dance of life in this created universe, created to love and to be loved in return. Amen.
|photo by SoAngela Hardt, El Salvador, 2008|