In January, as some of you may have heard me mention before, I had the “opportunity” to participate in an annual rite of passage within our Episcopal Tradition – General Ordination Exams. Exams designed to measure your knowledge, skill and preparedness for the priesthood. There are seven questions over four days.
On the third day, the fifth question would be in the category of Christian Theology. I walked in to the room feeling really good. The first four questions had boosted my confidence and I was thinking, I know this stuff, I’ve got this. And then I read the question:
“Dorothy Sayers famously observed that if people depended upon the Church to answer the question, ‘What is the Trinity?’ the vast majority of people would respond:
‘The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the whole thing incomprehensible.’ Something put in by theologians to make it more difficult – nothing to do with daily life or ethics.’”
Write an essay of explaining how the doctrine of the Trinity is relevant to “daily life or ethics.”
So, the first part of the question makes the point that the Trinity is beyond our understanding, in fact the whole thing is incomprehensible. But then you are asked to explain it and make it relevant to daily life. Nice. At that moment it felt like they might as well have asked me to explain the 2nd law of thermodynamics.
But since that day I have been wrestling with this question and because today is Trinity Sunday I thought I would preach on the Trinity, despite I might add being warned on many fronts; preaching journals, clergy colleagues, professors, even my favorite preaching blog that said don’t preach on the Trinity, run don’t walk, to the psalm and preach on hope, instead. Chickens!
At its most basic level the Trinity is an idea that developed as a way for early Christians to begin to make sense of their experience of Jesus, who had risen from the dead. And the power of the Spirit that we celebrated last week in Pentecost. Christianity emerged as a sect of Judaism, a religion of course committed at its core to monotheism (the belief in one God) as proclaimed in the Shema Yisrael “Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one.” As the divinity of Jesus was experienced in the first century and was also beginning to be articulated in scripture, prayers, and sermons and likewise the power of the Spirit was also being profoundly experienced, how were the followers of The Way able to reconcile One God, three encounters? God as the Creator of the world, God as Jesus the Christ the incarnate and risen Redeemer and God the Spirit, advocate and sustainer. What emerged was the belief in One God in Three Persons and Three Persons in a unified single God, Father, Son, and Spirit – Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier.
In a post-doctrinal world the non-theologians among us, including me, begin to fear that we are heading off into a how many angels can dance on the head of a pin conversation. The other danger in preaching on the Trinity is that it is virtually impossible to talk about the Trinity without saying something heretical. As one person put it, “You simply cannot describe God in human words, without saying something that someone in the past was condemned for. Maybe even burned at the stake. If you emphasize the three more than the one, then you’re guilty of polytheism. If you emphasize the one to the neglect of the three you are guilty of monarchianism.” And then there is modalism – describing the persons of the trinity by their roles or modes of operation, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. This one is “very naughty.”
A couple of months ago my wife, Sheryl, gave me a replica of a famous icon by the Russian artist Andrei Rublev, entitled Old Testament Trinity. The image of three beatific beings draws you into a community of hospitality and love. Although some have attempted to identify different persons in the icon with persons of the trinity, it is impossible. Where one ends, another begins. What pulls you in is the community of the three persons, which are indistinguishable, and unified. I think that at various times and different seasons of our lives we may be drawn in by one face of the Triune God, and by the mystery that is God, encounter all three.
Let me tell you one way that this has happened to me. In June our daughter Sarah is getting married. She and her partner, also named Sarah, have planned a beautiful ceremony on top of the Stillwater library. It looks like we will have to schedule a “legal” wedding in August now. Having a gay child has brought me closer to God, has helped me to see Christ in others, and experience God’s Spirit in new and transformative ways. When Sarah first told us she was gay, there was a truth about it that rang true for me. God had created Sarah just the way she is. God created her as a wonderful and beautiful child of God. God the Creator had beckoned me into the Triune community of love through the creation of my daughter.
Being gay in America is getting easier but it is still not easy. Too many young people are bullied and made to feel less than because of who they are attracted to. As we have walked this journey of self-acceptance with our daughter our hearts have grown to connect in a deep and meaningful way with people who are often times forced to the margins. The question reverberates through my soul – who do I push to the margins? Who do I refuse to welcome? Watching my daughter and her fiancée’s expansive love for one another and the world, challenges me to do a better job of living into the challenging question in the Baptismal Covenant: “Will you seek Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?”
And most recently I have been overjoyed by watching the Spirit of God turn the hearts of voters and legislators throughout the land as we begin to provide the basic human right of being able to marry the person you love. Because of my daughter I have been drawn into the circle of God’s own community of love as Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier, in ways I never could have imagined ten years ago.
Before we leave our exploration of the Trinity this morning I would like to bring it home to St. John the Evangelist on this particular Sunday.
This last Monday Ray Manzarek the keyboardist for the 1960’s band The Doors passed away. Because of his death the show Fresh Air played an interview with him from a few years ago that was absolutely compelling. For fifteen minutes Manzarek regaled Terry Gross, the host of the show, with a story about composing the song – “Light My Fire.” Walking through each phrase of the song and explaining how it was created. With great enthusiasm Manzarek said now if you listen carefully to this phrasing you will hear the influence of Bach. Followed by here you can hear the chord progressions of jazz great John Coltrane. Listening to the creator talk about a work of art that he brought to life and hearing the spirit of the music was overpowering. A metaphor of the Trinity that had been rolling around in my soul for a while began to take shape, the Trinity – as the Composer, the Musician, and the Music. With Jim Frazier’s leave taking today, I see it as the Choirmaster, the Choir, and the Music. Each has their own role and yet in some mystical way they are one. Throughout his tenure at St. John’s and I imagine throughout his career, Jim Frazier has crafted a musical experience that for so many draws them in deeper to the heart of God. Jim who has brought the Spirit alive in the music through the incarnate voices of the choir, helps us to know God, to enter into the mystery of the Triune God.
There is a difference between knowing God and knowing about God. Knowing about God, being able to definitively explain the Godhead and its own internal relationship, is an impossibility, it always has been and will continue to remain a mystery. It is however a mystery that has transformative power that allows us not to know about God, but rather to know God. As the spirit of music, choir, and master move us, so in a similar way do the persons of the Trinity.
“This is a Trinity of Persons into whom we were plunged at baptism; this is the mystery of the divine life which fills us and joins us together and sends us to be God’s presence and activity in the world.”
This baptismal activity that we are called to in the world is beautifully captured by one of Barbara’s dismissal prayers:
“Go forth into the world and know
That there are deeds of compassion and courage
That will never be done unless you do them…
And words of hope and healing that will never be spoken
Unless you speak them.”
The Book of Common Prayer. (1979). New York: Oxford University Press
Adkins, J. (2013, April, May). Baptized Into What Name? Lectionary Homiletics, XXIV(3), 63-64.
Hughes, S. K. (2013, May). What do you suppose we mean by that? Give Us This Day, pp. 268-269.