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Who’s Afraid of Preaching on Trinity Sunday?

Sunday, May 27, 2018 (Trinity Sunday)
Isaiah 6:1-8
Romans 8:12-17
John 3:1-17

Trinity Sunday is a day when, in many churches, seminarians or assistant curates are tapped on the shoulder to preach, so that the head clergy can dodge the bullet of explaining a difficult concept. This implies that on most other weeks we can dig into the readings and find some accessible lessons that can be pretty easily applied to our lives. But when we get to the day bearing the name “Trinity,” we figure we’ve left the arena of practical application, and entered the territory of ‘theology.’ And so we bring in the theology students who exist in closer proximity to text books; who can maybe make some sense of all this theoretical stuff; and who are less preoccupied with what we would call the ‘real world.’

But the reality is that at this moment we don’t have any seminarians to pass this off to, at least not quite yet. So let’s see if we can reflect on the Trinity in a way that actually does tie in with our spiritual lives, and with our lives in general. Which is basically to ask why the predominant family, or branch, of the Church has judged it important to hold to a monotheism (a belief in one god) that is decidedly not as strict as the monotheism we see in Judaism and Islam. And then to ask how this view can help shape our worldview in as Christians in a life-giving way.

And the tricky thing here is that when we parse out the doctrine of the Trinity, we’re wading into conversations and debates from 16 or 1700 years ago. And in these conversations there are images and words that have different associations today. Or they’re words that meant something in Greek, and then meant something a little different when translated into Latin. And now mean something a little different in English, to someone in the 21st century. So if you find you have an uneasy relationship with the doctrine of the Trinity, I’d encourage you to approach it by asking: what truth about God was the Church trying to hold on to and express by eventually coming to speak of God as a Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?
So rather than go to a seminarian, let’s do the opposite. In the early 2000s, Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury at the time, delivered a lecture on the basics of Christianity to the Islamic University in Islamabad, Pakistan. And for that audience he tried to sensitively and simply present the faith of the family of Churches of which we as Anglicans are a part. Here’s a lengthy, but really good excerpt:

We believe that Jesus, Son of Mary, is fully a human being. But we believe more than that.
Because of the divine authority that he shows in his power to teach and to forgive, as our gospels describe it, we say also that the whole of his human life is the direct effect of God’s action working in him at every moment.
Some of our teachers have said that his human life is like iron that has been heated in the fire until it has the same power to burn as the fire does.
We call him the Son of God. But we do not mean by this that God has physically begotten him, or that he is made to be another God alongside the one God.
We say, rather, that the one God is first the source of everything, the life from which everything flows out. Then we say that the one God is also in that flowing-out.
The life that comes from him is not something different from him. It reflects all he is. It shows his glory and beauty and communicates them.
Once again, our teachers say that God has a perfect and eternal ‘image’ of his glory, sometimes called his wisdom, sometimes called his ‘word,’ sometimes called his ‘son,’ though this is never to be understood in a physical and literal way.
And we say that the one God, who is both source and outward-flowing life, who is both ‘Father’ and ‘Son,’ is also active as the power that draws everything back to God, leading and guiding human beings towards the wisdom and goodness of God. This is the power we call ‘Holy Spirit.’
So when we speak of ‘the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,’ we do not at all mean to say that there are three gods — as if there were three divine people in heaven, like three human people in a room.
Certainly we believe that the three ways in which God eternally exists and acts are distinct — but not in the way that things in the world or even persons in the world are distinct.

What does Archbishop Williams do here? He starts with Jesus. The beginnings of our monotheism that is a little less simple than that of Judaism and Islam is in the experience that the early Church had in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. This group started off with a clear-cut understanding that God was God (way out there), and creation is creation (way down here), and never the twain shall meet. Creator is creator; creature is creature. But those who followed and those who came to believe in Jesus had an experience that changed their understanding of God; God was no longer so far away. And God wasn’t just close to us in terms of measurable distance; but God was close to us in the way that God dares to become vulnerable, and powerless, hanging on the Cross. So in Jesus we see God; sometimes God’s majesty, like when he’s transfigured on the mountaintop, or raised on Easter Sunday. But we meet God, and find our understanding of God stretched, by seeing God’s love, and forgiveness, when we look at the Crucified God. So the Church passes down a faith that says that Jesus is fully human, but also fully God; a human being, but more than that. God is like fire, but also like the iron heated in that fire.

And so Archbishop Williams continues: “God is the first source of everything.” But God is also in that flowing-out. “The life that comes from God is not something different from God.” And this life Jesus; God’s life that comes to be enfleshed on earth. The eternal logos, or Word, or Wisdom, or Son of God. One God, but Father and Son. Or to use an image, we might think of how there’s the sun (the ball of gas in the sky); but there’s also the rays of the sun that originate from the body in outer space, and shine on the earth. Others have put it like this: the Father is the Lover; the Word, or Son, is the Beloved.

The beginnings of a Trinitarian understanding of God are found in that experience of Jesus. An experience that stretches our understanding of God, but in a way that brings God closer to us.

But having just celebrated Pentecost last week, we know that we don’t stop with those two relationships of Lover and Beloved. Williams says that there is “source and outward-flowing life,” (the first two Persons of the Trinity), but also that “power that draws everything back to God, leading and guiding human beings towards the wisdom and goodness of God. This is the power we call Holy Spirit.”

Our faith that’s expanded and changed in our experience of Jesus isn’t just about worshipping a dead and then resurrected person rather than (or in addition to) a more abstract, distant understanding of God as ‘Creator’ or ‘Father.’ It’s about what Paul writes to the Church in Rome: “You have received a spirit of adoption… we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, of God and joint heirs with Christ.”

And the Gospel reading from John gets at this reality too: “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Some in the early Church spoke of God as like the sun in the sky, but also the rays from the sun that shine down on the earth, and then also the heat that comes from this process. Distinct, but related.

Or, if God is Lover and Beloved, God is also the love that exists between the Lover and the Beloved. The good news is that this isn’t just about God; but the Holy Spirit is the power of God given to us that adopts us, brings us into the life of the Trinity; the God who is in God’s very self, relationship. Jesus, in sharing our human nature — living and dying as a perfect offering to God — opens up for us life with God. One thinker, Jurgen Moltmann puts it this way: Jesus “throws open the Trinity.” And it’s the Holy Spirit who makes us holy (cleanses us like the live coal that cleanses Isaiah’s lips). The Spirit comes into our hearts and leads us back to God. The outward-flowing life of God that goes back to the source.

Imagine God as source — as a waterfall. And imagine God as the flowing water; the river that flows out from the bottom of the falls. And then imagine God as that bend in the river that gently brings us back to the source, the top of the waterfall. This is what we mean when we talk about living “in Christ.” Or in the Eucharistic Prayer, “Unite us to your Son in his sacrifice, that we, made acceptable in him, may be sanctified by the Holy Spirit.”

So the understanding of God as Trinity, at its best, helps us to speak of our experience of God who isn’t distant, but who comes to us. And then brings us into the very life of God. And though our understanding of God as Trinity is shaped by the experience of people who have perceived God at various moments in history, Trinitarian faith goes a step further and says that ‘the way God acts tells us about what God is like in God’s very self.’ If we have come to know God as one who forgives, and reconciles us, and who wants to bring us into relationship — adopt us as children. Then God’s very essence is one of relationship. We have experienced God in time as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, or Source, and Word, and Sanctifying Spirit — and that suggests that God also exists beyond time as a series of loving, reciprocal relationships. God isn’t a stern old man in the sky. God isn’t some mystical kind of space dust, or gas. Instead, God is love: lover, beloved, and the love between them. God is a dance; a dynamic partnership within God’s self, but also that extends outward and invites us in.

The one God creates us, calls us, chooses us, makes a covenant with us, by saying “you really should dance.” (Come live in covenant, or relationship with me.) And God also comes to us in our human nature and existence and says “this is how you dance.” (This is how you live; ‘what would Jesus do?’) And God is also the extended hand that invites us, adopts us into the dance. For this Divine Love that comes not to condemn, but to save, we give thanks.

© 2018 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter