And Jesus said, “What?” – A Sermon on the Trinity
A Sermon by The Rev. Barbara Mraz
St. John’s Episcopal Church
St Paul, Minnesota
June 19, 2011
‘“And Jesus said, ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
– Matthew 28:16-20
Whenever I hear Beautiful Savior, the signature hymn of the St. Olaf choir, I tear up, not only because it’s a stunning piece of choral music, but also because a good part of my own history is transposed into the notes, melody and ethos of this fine work.
My mother Agnes was a full-blooded, lifelong, third-generation Norwegian. She was many other things, of course, including being a Lutheran, and a woman of her time who sublimated many of her own interests and ambitions to that of her husband and children. Her frustrations were often conveyed indirectly:
“Well, it sure would be nice if someone would have peeled the potatoes before I got home…”
“Mom, do you want me to peel the potatoes? Tell me!”
“No, never mind. I’ll do it.”
When my mother and I would watch the sublime St. Olaf Christmas Concert on television (St. Olaf being the consummate Norwegian-Lutheran School, probably in the universe), she would murmur, “It would be really something to go to a school like that and be in that choir.” I never knew it this was a message for me (who had no intention of going to St. Olaf) or an expression of her own sadness about a dream deferred.
And then the concert would close with “Beautiful Savior,” the soprano voices soaring to the heavens in the final chorus, and we were both transported to a place where God and mystery and the Church Victorious and Jesus and the Faith of Our Fathers were all blended into an overwhelming feeling beyond words, beyond music, and the tears came because of the sheer beauty and truth of it.
Such moments of transcendence are rare, of course, and today marks one of the Church’s attempts to dissect such moments and make them understandable. This is “Trinity Sunday,” that day dreaded by preachers because the sheer volume of material that exists on the subject, and the elusiveness and complexity of the topic.
Trinity Sunday is grounded in the words of today’s Gospel in which Jesus tells the disciples to baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
Actually, Jesus never described himself explicitly as God, although he did say he was a reflection of God. The word Trinity doesn’t even appear in the Bible. It wasn’t until hundreds of years after Jesus, when the bishops of the church and their armies met in 325 A.D. in Nicaea, in present-day Turkey. There, with heated debate and possibly some bloodshed – they cobbled together the Nicene Creed, that enduring attempt to define the three parts of God: the God who created the earth and its beauty; the Son who taught, healed, and sacrificed; the Holy Spirit that pours God’s love into us and lives in us still. We still say the Nicene Creed most Sundays, and in my opinion, it remains one of the most challenging parts of our liturgy to understand on a logical level.
You may have some idea of how many pages of diagrams, metaphors and theological haranguing exist which try to “explain” the Trinity. Shamrocks; a triangle inside a circle; an egg with its shell, white and yolk; water as liquid, steam and ice…. Endless attempts to visualize and “boil down” the nature of the Trinity and the mystery of God.
St. Augustine alone wrote 14 volumes about the Trinity, and in 1054 the Christian Church ripped itself in two in what is called “The Great Schism,” partially because of an argument about the Trinity. There was, originally only one Christian church, but what became the Western (or Roman Catholic) segment of the Church argued that the Holy Spirit descends from the Father and the Son, and what became the Eastern (or Orthodox) segment of the church insisted that the Holy Spirit proceeds directly from the Father.
One of the many dubious “sermon helps” that clergy are routinely sent on the Internet actually contained something useful this week. This is what it says:
“Here is a joke, which you may not like to use unless your congregation is mature enough to appreciate it. (I’m taking a gamble here that you guys are “mature enough”….)
Jesus said, ‘Whom do men say that I am’?
Peter answered and said, “Thou art the Logos, existing in the Father as His rationality and then, by an act of His will, being generated, in consideration of the various functions by which God is related to his creation, each member of the Trinity being coequal with every other member, and each acting inseparably with and interpenetrating every other member, with only an economic subordination within God, but causing no division which would make the substance no longer simple.”
And Jesus answering, said, “What?”
Confusion about the Trinity abounds. My priest friend Devon writes this about the Trinity:
I mean, who are all these people? How can God the Father be his own son? And if Jesus is God, then to whom is he talking? And where does the Holy Spirit come in? Is it the spirit of God, the spirit of Jesus, or something else altogether? If they are all in one, they why do they come and go at different times? Do they operate independently, or are they somehow connected? Does one rule the other two, or are they all equal? Do they ever see things differently?”
And Jesus said, “What?”
The thing is (and here is the takeaway for today) the Trinity is not as much about God as it is about us. Instead of comprehensively defining the character of God (which is outrageously arrogant and impossible), it attempts to describe ways in which we experience God.
Certainly hearing the staggering description of God in the Creation story – – the force, the being, the power that created the heavens and the earth, separated the light from the darkness, put the planets in their orbits underscores the fact that, and we cannot fit the infinite reality that is God into any formula or diagram or definition or doctrine our human minds can devise. Any language about God limits God, yet we need this language to give shape to our experience.
The most wonderful thing about an ever-changing, limitless God is that rarely do we have the same experience twice in a row. As one theologian said, “Some days God comes as a judge, walking through our lives wearing white gloves and exposing all the messes we have made. Other days God comes as a shepherd, fending off our enemies and feeding us by hand. Some days God comes as a whirlwind who blows all our certainties away. Other days God comes as a brooding hen who hides us in the shelter of her wings. Some days God comes as a dazzling monarch and other days as a silent servant. If we were to name all the ways God comes to us, the list would go on forever: God the teacher, the challenger, the helper, the stranger; God the lover, the adversary, the yes and the no.” (Cited in a sermon by The Rev. Devon Anderson, Pentecost, 2004).
“You cannot make an experience into an argument,” Soren Kierkegaard said. But of course we need guide posts, core teachings, rituals, and a textbook to lead us on the Way, and help us interpret our experiences. A description of God as Trinity is one of those things, and as such, it a great gift to us from the earliest Christians, an expansive way of describing what cannot be described but we know pervades our lives.
A note here about liturgy. What we now call the “Holy Spirit” used to be called the Holy Ghost, a term that may be problematic, if not strange, for many of us today. The reason it was called “ghost” is because the Latin root of the word “Spirit” is gast, and the early writers of the Prayer Book simply translated Spirit as ghost, which is inaccurate. This endured until the 1978 translation of the Book when the writers went back to the original term, which is Spirit. Certainly works for me, and probably all of us who have seen too many movies.
Of course, the “trinity” has been appropriated in all sorts of ways in many subcultures. The New Orleans Cajun Trinity is onions, celery and green pepper, and when garlic is added it becomes the Holy Trinity because “it makes any dish divine.”
Early last week, our new rector stopped by for some meetings and I ran into him in the hallway outside of his office, looking at the lovely leaded glass window, which is part of the door to his office. Helen Boyer had designed the windows for the doors of the rector’s office, my office, and the sacristy, each presenting an image of one of the “persons” of the Trinity.
On the rector’s office it says “Redeemer.” Our new rector looked puzzled and then said, “Oohhh, I get it. It’s about the image in the window.”
“Right!” I said. “It’s about the art, not a job description. You do not have to be “the Redeemer.”
I thought he looked relieved.
We need not hold ourselves responsible for explaining what cannot be explained. Perhaps the most faithful response is to continue to sniff around the edges of mystery, and to boldly confess to each other what it is like when we are in the presence of God. Maybe God calls us, through the Trinity, to hunt for something closer to an experience than an answer.
Those were rare moments of harmony, sitting there in the living room so many years ago, my mother and I listening to the St Olaf Choir, when I didn’t need to explain myself or argue; she didn’t have to, beat around the bush. At least once a year, in those holy, transcendent moments, we didn’t have to say anything or do anything because our spirits were completely filled with the beautiful savior.