2 Corinthians 13:1113; Matthew 28:1620
In the name of the one holy and undivided Trinity. Amen.
This Sunday is, in the liturgical calendar, Trinity Sunday. It is a day in which we are to consider the theologically complex idea of the Trinity. There are lots of ways to express the Trinity. The traditional one is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Some find this language not expressive of the fullness of God, because it seems to give male gender to The Holy One. So some use the three functions of the persons of the Trinity: the Creator, the Redeemer and the Sustainer. But the Trinity is the doctrine of the Church that gives us a way to understand the nature of God, in God’s fullness.
The Trinity is one of the least understood, least well explained doctrines of the ancient church. And it is one of my favorite “mysteries of the faith.” The Anglican theologian Dorothy Sayers said this of the Trinity, “The Father, incomprehensible, the Son, incomprehensible, the whole darn thing incomprehensible.” Martin Marty, the wise contemporary Lutheran theologian, said that St. Augustin used the concept of the Trinity because it seemed at least a little bit better than saying nothing when one had to say something.
My parish in Minnesota had a matriarch of great wisdom. Francie turned 99 last week and got her wish to have a ride on a motorcycle much to the delight of everyone. When inquiring minds pressed for clarity about a theological issue, Francie simply said “It’s a mystery.” For Episcopalians, mystery is allowed! The Lutheran Bishop in that area of Minnesota once said to me, “Howard, you Episcopalians drive me crazy. You see 600 shades of grey and love them all!” There is some truth to the fact that to be an Episcopalian requires a high level of tolerance of ambiguity, of resting easy with theological concepts that might still be evolving as we Christians journey with the Holy One. A bishop friend of mine once preached on Trinity Sunday, “God keeps getting bigger!” It is true, that the concept of God does keep expanding; as we move more deeply into relationship with The Holy One, we see more aspects of God’s love and desire for us.
The Church has struggled with how to describe God in God’s wholeness. And because God’s wisdom is not ours, we use language to describe a God which is beyond the ability of human language to express. St. Patrick used a very simple, but brilliant example to express the Holy Trinity. Patrick, when sharing the message of the faith to the Celtic chieftains of Ireland, is said to have reached down and plucked a shamrock from the ground and taught that by its very structure, that while there were three distinct leaves, they are one plant. Brilliant. Simple. It seems that the best way to approach the Trinity is to sing or tell mythical stories about it, or, like Francie, the matriarch of my Minnesota parish, simple accept that “it’s a mystery.”
The very best example and most satisfying metaphor for the Trinity I have ever heard was given me by a 14 year old boy in the first confirmation I ever taught. Tommy Potter (not Harry Potter) now has a Ph.D. in biological science, and he used the aspen tree as his example. There are huge, unseen, underground root systems that support aspen groves.
The root systems are so large, that aspens that were once part of one of the largest aspen communities—in northeastern Minnesota, where I lived previously—began to flee the coming ice of the last ice age, which would cover parts of North America in 1,000 feet of ice. The aspen root system, moving many miles in a year, began to move across what is now the Great Plains and finally escaped the encroaching ice by climbing into the safety of the Rocky Mountains. Their path is clear; these massive, invisible, underground root systems have been found all across the Great Plains as the soil was first broken by the first farmers.
Tommy pointed out that the root system is like God, Creator, a huge and unseen presence giving life to everything. But the aspen trees emerge from the root system to be seen and experienced, just as Jesus was. And when we humans rejected Jesus Christ, we cut him down, like a tree being cut by a logger. And because of the nature of the aspen community, another aspen tree emerges from the root system; that, in Tommy’s formulation, is the Holy Spirit. I’ve yet to hear a better metaphor.
One of my favorite hymns is called “St. Patrick’s Breastplate”—hymn 370 in the hymnal—hard to sing, but a wonderful expression of the Trinity:
I bind unto myself today the strong name of the Trinity, by invocation of the same, the three in one, the one in three.
And then we sing:
Christ be with me, Christ within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me, Christ beside me, Christ to win me, Christ to comfort and restore me.
This constant presence of The Holy One, in all three persons of the Trinity, is the rock solid basis of my personal faith. I have given this hymn, in its entirety, to those being sent to war, facing life threatening disease, and confronting deeply disturbing things about themselves or their relationships. They nearly all say “I felt the power of that ancient song and it gave me strength to know that The Holy One is with me always.”
This is the first reality of the Christian faith. From the very beginning of time, which we hear in the prologue to the Gospel of John, God has been a community in and of God’s self. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God,” (Jesus being in John’s gospel The Word made flesh)…but listen…“He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him, not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”
But there is more you should know. Cosmologists, the physicists who study the beginnings of things, tell us is that all the matter in the universe is immortal…yes, it changes form, just as water can become steam or ice, but it never is lost. That means, Dear Ones, that at the beginning, when God, the Creator, blew the Ruach—the Spirit, the breath of God—out over the empty void of nothingness, the matter and energy, that is uniquely us this day, was present. And when and if the universe comes to an end, that same amount of energy will still be intact. God is the alpha and omega, the beginning and the end. And we, the energy that is us this very morning, that energy was present at the “Big Bang” of creation—that vast creative process which God began before there was time, or space or form to the matter. The nature of reality is that God was a community, a community in which we were in a mystical way present. That means that seemingly silly things like “God knows when a sparrow falls,” are literally true. The sparrow, and the aspen and each one of us are made of the same matter and energy that is God.
The Trinity reveals that God is seeking to reach out to us, to lavish love on us, and we, like frightened children, flee. And so the entire cosmic dance of creation, of all life, begins and ends and swims in a vast sea of God’s love. Everything is loved…animate, inanimate, human.
John of Damascus, a 7th Century theologian may have said it best. He created the concept of pericoresis (perry-co-ray sis). This Greek word comes from peri, meaning around and Choresis, meaning dancing. He wrote:
Father, Son and Holy Spirit are like three dancers, holding hands, dancing together in perfect love, perfect freedom and perfect harmony. They are deeply one yet they are three. They are unified in one intimate, indissoluble substance, yet they are recognizable community. Most importantly, they are what they are only in relationship to one another—in shared purpose, and in mutual love that is expressed through each other for eternity. And so should we be united together.
The theologian and spiritual director Margo Maris has gone so far as to say our task as Christians is to learn to “slow dance with God.”
And so, Dear Ones, that is the truth of it. Even God requires community to be fulfilled, complete, actualized. How much more, then, must we, humans, require community to be whole and fulfilled. We are, as the hymn says, “one in mission, we all are one in call. Without the others, the journey is too hard, too isolated. It is why we need a church community.
And if we are afraid, if we shake with fear about an intimate encounter with the Living God…take heart. The 14th century mystic Catherine of Sienna wrote this poem of encouragement for us:
I won’t take no for an answer, God began to say to me, when he opened his arms each night wanting us to dance.
Dance, Dear Ones; dare to dance in the holy community, the Trinity of love. It is our destiny.