I'm not preaching this Sunday, so I'd thought that I'd post the sermon I preached last year.
Trinity Sunday, Year C
May 30, 2010
Today is Trinity Sunday, the one day of the year in which the church celebrates the Triune God, a central doctrine of Christianity. 1 God in 3 Persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
I’ve heard it said that you can’t talk about the Trinity for more than a minute or two before you inadvertently wander into heresy. Unfortunately, I have to preach for more than two minutes, so I apologize in advance for any heretical ponderings – please don’t call the Bishop.
We usually use analogies to try to explain the mystery of the Trinity – but every analogy falls short in some way. A popular analogy is water. The Trinity is like H2O – it can be water, ice, and steam – liquid, solid, and gas. One substance, and 3 ways of being. I really like that analogy, but unfortunately if taken too literally it leads to a heresy – that of Modalism. A Modalist only allows God to be in one mode at a time. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit all coexist together in the same time and place. Ice, water, and steam do not.
I think a more helpful analogy is that of my cat. I have a black cat named Gandalf. He is an indoor cat, and hates closed doors. If a door is closed, he wants it be opened. Gandalf will sit in front of the door, stare at it, and give a pitiful meow that can only mean “Why is door closed, why, why, why?”
Cats are pretty smart creatures, but their intelligence varies greatly from cat to cat. Some cats learn to open doors on their own, other cats will never learn on their own but they could be taught how to open a door, and still other cats will never learn how to open a door. The handles on our doors are levers, and Gandalf could theoretically open them. All he needs to do is to hit down on the handle with his paws – it could work.
Gandalf has not figured this out. He has come close. He will stand on his back legs, put his front paws up on the door and then stare intently at the door handle. It looks like he is on the verge of figuring it out – but he never does. He is just not quite smart enough.
This analogy doesn’t explain the Trinity, but I think it explains us humans trying to explain the Trinity. People trying to explain the mystery of God are like my cat staring at the doorknob – so close and yet so far away from ever understanding. A cat might accidentally open the door, or someone may show a cat how to open the door – but a cat will never fully understand how doors and doorknobs work. And so humans might stumble upon some truths and have other truths revealed to us, but we will never fully comprehend the full nature of God.
All language is so inadequate when it comes to describing God - so why bother? Why do we bother with a Trinity at all? Christians have 3 choices when it comes to describing God:
- We can give up on describing God entirely. In which case, how do we know what God we worship? Is it the same as Zeus, Athena, Baal, Allah, Quetzalcoatl? Or a different God? Obviously this first choice is no good, we need to know what God we worship. Our second choice is:
- We can come up with a very simple concept of God, one that is easy to understand but fails to do justice to the multitude of witnesses to God that we find in the Bible, Church tradition, Christian worship and experience. Or...
- We can do our best to remain faithful to Biblical witness and Christian experience of God – even though the end result is difficult to understand. Orthodox Christian theology has always adopted the last of these choices.
A long time ago Christians realized that taking the easy way out when it came to describing God was not good enough. I think that it shouldn’t be good enough for us today either. St. Augustine of Hippo once said – “If you can fully grasp it, it’s not God.”
“If you can fully grasp it, it’s not God.”
What little we do know of God we know through the testimony of those who wrote and edited the Bible, the handing down of Church teaching and tradition, our communal and personal experiences during worship, prayer, and daily life, and our reason. All these testify to a God that is complex beyond our understanding, but there are some concrete things that we can know about God.
We know that God is creative – God is responsible for the existence of the world and all that is in it.
We know that God is loving and merciful – God came down to us as Jesus, who lived and died as one of us in order to reconcile us to God.
And we know that God is relational – That is the truth that the doctrine of the Trinity tries to express. God is relational, both within God’s own self and also with what God has created.
God is relational. We learn this from the words of Jesus in today’s gospel: "When the Spirit of truth comes …. he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears…because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine." In another place in John's Gospel, Jesus declares, "Do you not know that the Father is in me and I in the Father?" Still elsewhere Jesus prays that his disciples may be one "even as the Father and I are one."
This is the language of relationship and mutuality. Richard of St. Vincent, a 12th century scholar, contemplated this and “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” and overflows.
The Eastern Church describes the Trinity as perichoresis, which literally means “dancing around.” Perichoresis refers to the mutual inter-penetration and indwelling within the threefold nature of the Trinity, God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. “The love of God, the love that IS God is like a divine Dance, a dynamic and graceful and deeply intimate movement…. 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.”(The Rev. Canon C. K. Robertson)
I’ve heard people say that God created the world and humanity because God was lonely. I don’t believe that at all. The Triune God is never alone in the same way that we are alone. God didn’t need us to be God’s dance partners. And yet, God did choose to create us, and redeem us, and invite us to join in the divine Dance. We are called by name to participate in this divine dance of love.
So many people feel alone, unloved, and separate from others. What would the world be like if everyone knew that God loved them and invites them to dance? The world would be a very different place indeed. The Kingdom of God is a place where everyone will know that they are valued and loved and welcomed into relationship.
This is the gospel we are meant to proclaim to the world, a gospel that speaks of God as relational and God’s love for us. “There is one God, who is relationship, who is Divine Dance, who is Love.” (The Rev. Canon C. K. Robertson) And all people are God's Beloved, invited to dance. Will you answer God’s invitation to dance?