May 22, 2016

Trinity Sunday Year C

It was a world of many gods. As Abraham set forth from Ur of the Chaldeans into an unknown future, he brought with him a new kind of faith. One God, who could no more be carved in stone or cast in metal than the sun be bottled up in some portable container. This was indeed novel in a world where deities of all types abounded in great mythical pantheons, deities more often than not at odds with one another. One God, Abraham declared. One God, Moses proclaimed. One God, Isaiah announced, who was holy, holy, holy, beyond all human attempts to package and control.

Then, along came the Christians. "Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit." What's this? The concept was...confusing to those who had dispensed with multiple deities, who had fully embraced the notion of one God. Why complicate things? And what does Trinity mean anyway?

Throughout the centuries, many scholars of the Church have tried to explain the conundrum. It is like the sun, one said, which we experience as a ball of energy we see in the sky, but also as the beams of light that stream down upon us, and still again as the emanating heat that warms us. And explanations like this make a kind of sense. St. Augustine used psychological categories to explain the Trinity in terms of memory, understanding, and will. In our own time, some have chosen functional terms, speaking of the God who creates, redeems, and sanctifies.

T.S. Eliot once suggested that we humans, as a species, cannot bear too much reality. No wonder then that most of us live our lives from little question to little question: What’s for supper? Who won the game? Who is more important? Such queries pass the time and prove distracting. Now and then, though, we realize what thin ice we tread, how easily the diverting, superficial surfaces can crack and give way under us. In those moments when the big questions have to be asked—we realize we need, as Alyce McKenzie puts it, a faith "for grown-ups," a theology with God enough at its center to bear the burdens of life and death.

The doctrine of the Trinity is just such a theology. In one way this peculiarly Christian affirmation can seem abstract and even inconvenient. This notion of the inner life and relations of God is difficult, but on Trinity Sunday Christians assemble to proclaim what is at once both more than we understand but not less than we believe. The Trinity’s fullness surpasses us, but not entirely. Squinting, we point to the splendor we have only just glimpsed, the mystery of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

A mystery, Augustine said, is a truth incomprehensible apart from revelation and even then it remains unexplainable. The Trinity evokes and proves his point: this Mystery dazzles us, leaves all our attempts at elucidation pieced together from the doctrines of creation, salvation and God’s abiding presence.

The Trinity, as a doctrine, reminds us that there is always more to God than we conceive, always more of God than we can explain, always more than we can teach or prove. God is as near as our breath, but not so familiar as to warrant presumption. God is beyond time and space, but not so mysterious as to be inaccessible. If that is a difficult truth it is also a "grown-up" one. And so Eugene Peterson has written that the Trinity is actually the most practical and comforting of all Christian doctrines.

In John’s gospel Jesus says, "When the Spirit of truth comes…he will take what is mine and declare it to you. For all that the Father has is mine." In another place, we hear Jesus declare, "Do you not know that the Father is in me and I in the Father?" Still elsewhere he prays that his disciples may be one "even as the Father and I are one." This is not the language of dogmatic formulation; no, this is the language of relationship, the language of mutual devotion.

The twelfth-century scholar, Richard of St. Vincent spoke of God in terms of shared love, a community in which that love is expansive and generous. It is love that cannot be self-contained. It overflows from Father to Son to Spirit and back again. The love of God, the love that IS God is like a divine Dance, a dynamic and graceful and deeply intimate movement. In this movement, the God who is "I AM" is not alone, never alone, for the very essence of God is relationship.

This is far different from those mythological deities of old who were always fighting with one another, rivals and annoyances of one another. No, what we see in the Trinity is a dance of Persons who are mutually affirming, mutually caring. For the very essence of God is relationship, community, unconditional love. It is even more remarkable then that God, who in this Dance needs no other, chose to create and redeem a people so that we might join in this relationship.

Remember the Gospel account of the baptism of Jesus, where the Trinity is revealed to us. The heavenly words of God the Father to Jesus, "You are my beloved, with you I am well pleased," and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove descending from heaven. These words are meant for us as well: "You are my beloved, with you I am well pleased.”  In the baptismal service in The Book of Common Prayer, similar words are spoken over the newly baptized individual: "You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism, and marked as Christ's own forever." The prophet Isaiah said it beautifully: "Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine." It is a prophetic call that invites us to participate in the Divine Dance. The same call that is always inviting us into relationship as God’s beloved.

In ancient times, people had many gods made in their own image; now we all too often try to be gods ourselves, carrying the weight of the world on our very human shoulders, feeling guilt and shame and resentment. On this Trinity Sunday, God gives us a priceless gift that we can share with all those we meet, all those whose life's baggage has become so full, so heavy, that they have forgotten who they are and whose they are. We can dare to look them in the eye and quietly remind them that we are not God and don't need to be. There is one God, who is relationship, who is Divine Dance, who is Love. And who invites us into God’s divine community we call the Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.