Preached at St. Andrew's Cathedral, Jackson, MS.
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31; Psalm 8; Romans 5:1-5; John 16:12-15
"We worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance... The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Ghost eternal. And yet they are not three eternals, but one eternal... And in this Trinity none is afore, or after other; none is greater, or less than another; But the whole three persons are co-eternal together..."
...Athanasius, fourth century defender of the faith at the Council of Nicaea, has many things to say to us. His words, themselves a creed, a statement of belief about the Trinity and the Unity and the Substance and the Persons are in the historical documents section of our prayerbook. "The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible... As also there are not three incomprehensibles, nor three uncreated, but one uncreated, and one incomprehensible." Indeed. Perhaps we cannot bear it just now.
Augustine, in the fifth century, spent a lifetime writing his reflections on the Trinity, having so many things to say to us that he never finished his work. "In this Trinity the Son and none other is called the Word of God, and the holy Spirit and none other the Gift of God, and God the Father alone is He from whom the Word is born, and from whom the Holy Spirit principally proceeds... The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Son also. But the Father gave Him this too, not as to one already existing, and not yet having it; but whatever He gave to the only-begotten Word, He gave by begetting Him." Perhaps we cannot bear this, either.
Perhaps an image would be easier, more comprehensible. The Trinity is like a shamrock, one leaf with three lobes. The Trinity is like water, one substance with three forms. The Trinity is like a triangle, one shape with three points. Or perhaps a formula would be more bearable, some variation on one plus one plus one. Father, Son, Holy Spirit. Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. Almighty God, Incarnate Word, Holy Comforter. Primordial Nature, Consequent Nature, Superjective Nature. And yet there are not three natures but one nature...
There are many, many, many things theologians and scholars and preachers and saints have said about the Trinity, much of which is not easy to bear, either for its obscurity or for its oversimplification. Some of it is orthodox, definitive of our faith, and some of it is not, but then, when we are attempting to capture the immensity and particularity of God in an image or formula or even a creed, as my liturgy professor from seminary said, "Relax. In the most strict and proper sense, it's all heresy."
Would that Jesus himself had offered us an answer to how God is Three in One and One in Three, but that must have fallen into the category of things he didn't tell us because we could not bear them. His Trinity Sunday sermon was never preached. Well, not from a pulpit anyway...
In John's Gospel especially, Jesus does speak of Father, and Son, and Holy Spirit, but he doesn't bother with theological words like substance or co-eternal or even Trinity. Instead, Jesus speaks of dwelling, and sending, and empowering. The Father and I are one, he says. If you know me, you will know my Father also...and I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate...the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name. And if, like the disciples before us, we were to try to figure out what Jesus means by this, to argue and answer and try to understand (for we cannot bear the unknown), to treat the Trinity as a riddle to be solved and not a mystery to be embraced, Jesus has one more word to speak to us, a single word at once obscure and simple, mysterious and mundane, divine and deeply human...Love. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. Abide in my love.
So it is that a manner of living, rather than a manner of speaking, is perhaps the best and most bearable way of saying something about the Trinity. For beneath all the theological words and creeds and formulas is God, who, somehow, is not just in relationship but is Relationship, who is not just in community but is Community, who doesn't just move toward the Other but is the Motion itself, who doesn't just love but is Love. Jesus' whole life, a life lived in and for relationship, in and for community, always moving toward the Other in and for love...his whole life was a sermon on the Trinity, if a sermon is, at its best, a meeting place of God's story and ours.
But it can be so much more difficult for us to believe in a Love like that, and certainly more difficult for us to speak of it, than it is for us to proclaim our belief in a doctrine like the Trinity. Our story, after all, is one full of division and fear and suffering and scarcity. Just this week a tornado tore through a town that could have been ours. It was an election that nearly pulled us apart. We buried a long-time member of our community of faith. We are remembering and grieving, this weekend, the impact of war on the lives of courageous women and men. Hurricane season is here. Our lives are full of arguments, sorrow, uncertainty, brokenness, prejudice, pain, power lost, and power found. There is never enough time or money, but there are always at least two sides, and we take them against one another.
There is more to our story, though. In the beginning, we were made in the image of God, which is to say, in the image of Relationship, in the image of Community, in the image of Movement toward the Other, we were made in the image of Love. When tornadoes and hurricanes strike, when the goodwill of people and nations is threatened, we have a heart to go help, so we go. When neighborhoods are in need of renewal, we have a mind to work together, so we do. When lives around us are in need or trouble, we have hands to hold theirs, and ears to listen, and mouths to pray, so we do.
Catherine LaCugna, a theologian of our own time, understands the Trinity then as "ultimately a practical doctrine with radical consequences for Christian life," for in baptism our "solitariness and separateness" are transformed into communion, into relationship, into love, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Even those ancient creeds - the Apostle's Creed we say at baptism, the Nicene Creed we say every Sunday, the Athanasian Creed...well, bless his heart, it's incomprehensible... Even those ancient creeds, for all their careful and good theology about a God who is mystery beyond our imagining, cannot help but speak of God always in motion toward the Other, toward one another as Three in One and One in Three, toward us and all creation. We believe in one God, the Father, the almighty, maker of heaven and earth...God is Relationship. We believe in Jesus Christ...for us and for our salvation he came down...God is Love. We believe in the Holy Spirit...who has spoken through the Prophets...(and if we ever speak of God, aren't we all prophets)...God is Motion. We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church, the creed goes on to say, and so the Church becomes the sign and sacrament, LaCugna writes, of life lived in relationship, of life lived in community, of life lived in love, lived in the image of God.
There are many more things I could say to you about the Trinity this morning, but none of us could bear it, I'm sure. The Trinity isn't best preached from a pulpit, anyway. You see the Trinity if you see love, Augustine concluded. May our lives, then, our community, our relationships, our hearts and minds and hands, be a sermon today and every day; by our love, let us say something about God. Amen.
Artwork: "Thoughts on Communion," by Barbara Desrosiers.