First Sunday after Pentecost —Trinity Sunday
If we are going to talk about such a deep and complicated theological belief as the doctrine of the Trinity, I think we need to start out a little “lite” and add some humor, so I’d like to turn to the first reading from the Hebrew Scriptures. It’s a great reading describing the Seraph touching the burning coal to Isaiah’s lips as God commissions him to his prophetic ministry.
This passage happened to be read in a parish some years ago in the presence of the nuns who staffed the school. Sister Margaret had a huge sense of humor and a laugh to match. They were using an older translation of the Isaiah passage and the lector reading it, instead of saying, “The angel…holding a live coal taken from the brazier,” said, “The angel, holding a live coal taken from the brassiere…” Sister Margaret had to put her head in her lap as laughter poured out of her. It took until the offertory for her to regain her composure.
Trinity Sunday. Who made it so for us Anglicans? Thomas Becket was consecrated Archbishop of Canterbury on the Sunday after Pentecost in the twelfth century, and his first act was to decree that the day of his consecration should be held as a new festival in honor of the Holy Trinity. This observance spread from Canterbury throughout the whole of western Christendom. To put this all in some perspective, that was roughly eight hundred years after the concept of the Trinity as a doctrine of the Christian faith was defined by two councils of the Church and it took four hundred years after the Resurrection of Jesus for the Church to figure it all out.
Well, they had this dilemma. The disciples and most members of the first Christian communities were faithful Jews whose experience of God was Yahweh, a name too sacred to be spoken, the creator of the cosmos and true God of all the world. The Hebrew people had a long, complicated history with their God.
Then comes Jesus who shows us the face of God and is revealed in scripture as God’s Son. Jesus is the incarnation of God, God-in-flesh, who comes down to earth to teach us how to live as God’s beloved ones. Before he leaves this earth Jesus promises to send the Holy Spirit who will come with great power to lead us in truth.
Those first Christians then had to make sense of all this. They had to wrap their head around the idea that God whom they had known through revelation in the Scriptures and the Prophets was now manifested in diversity: the God of their experience as Jews, in Jesus as Messiah and also in a powerful Spirit, the ruach or creative breath of God. And there is no mention of the Trinity in the Bible so they probably scratched their heads for the first hundred years or so trying to figure it all out. It took a lot of debating, arguing, and praying to come up with the doctrine of the Trinity and it took four hundred years!
Still, it is hard to explain the mystery of the Trinity and it’s easy to understand that people struggle with it. Perhaps a good metaphor is that as the church we are one but are many individuals with many personalities and perspectives. Yet we partake of one bread and one cup as the living body of Christ in the world.
Just as there is diversity and unity in the church, so is there in the Trinity.
The ancient Celtic Christians long devoted their creative energies not so much to laying out a clearly articulated theology of the Trinity, but rather to calling upon the triune God in the rhythms and rituals, relationships and routines of daily living—including art, poetry, and music. For the earliest believers in places like Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales, the Trinity was not an idea to be grasped but a mystery to be experienced and a relationship into which they might enter.
The encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus in the Gospel today supports that understanding and should be a relief to anyone who struggles with this or any other doctrine of the Christian faith. Nicodemus was a man of compassion with a legal and enquiring mind. He was used to weighing up evidence with a craving for truth and justice. This encounter with Jesus was one of mutual respect as we see from the fact that they each refer to the other as ‘Rabbi’. It was a meeting full of genuine concern about important issues.
Nicodemus was a man of utter integrity, yet he was still not able to make that final leap of faith, to accept the whole of Jesus’ person and teaching. Jesus never turned him away. Jesus loved him and what he wanted Nicodemus most to grasp—and us most to grasp—is the love of God, a love that claims us as God’s own and invites us into deep relationship.
The promise of the Gospel is that the Spirit is always busy, in your life and mine, in our congregation, in our worship, in our life together, unfolding more and more of the mystery of God. God’s revelation about the mysteries of our faith is an ongoing process and will continue throughout our lives. If we take just one thing away with us today about the Holy Trinity may it be this: The doctrine of the Trinity is not merely teaching about who God is but is also about relationship. Yes, it is about the relationship between God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But more than that it is about God’s life with us and our life with each other.
The life of the Trinity is life lived in community. This community. Right here. Right now. In every word we share with one another, everything we do for one another, every way we are Christ for one another. Beyond that, all I can say about the Trinity is that there are some things we just cannot fully explain. And maybe, we’re not supposed to. And I think I’ll just leave it at that.