Speaking of God 05/27/18 (Trinity B)

Speaking of God
Texts: Isaiah 6:1-8; John 3:1-17
Rev. Heather M. Hinton
May 27, 2018 ~ Trinity Sunday (Year B)

THE DOCTRINE OF THE TRINITY: Why bother?

It’s Trinity Sunday, so we might as well begin with ancient church father St. Augustine’s unforgettable echo of the insight of earlier Greek theologians. Si comprehendis, non est Deus: if you have understood, then what you have understood is not God.

But we do try so hard to understand God, don’t we? The doctrine of the Trinity is one such attempt. And yet this particular doctrine of the church leaves me feeling as Nicodemus did: “How can this be?” I feel as befuddled and perplexed as he did when he asked Jesus to explain himself.

The Doctrine of The trinity holds that there is only one God, and yet that this one God exists in three Persons. The three are distinct from one another in their relations of origin and in their relations with one another, but they are also co-equal, co-eternal, and consubstantial, and each is God, whole and entire. God exists as three persons (or hypostases), but is one being, having a single divine nature.

The harder you think about it, the more impossible it is to untangle it.

Critics of the Doctrine of the Trinity like to point out that the Trinity is not a biblical concept. This is true. Nowhere in Scripture do we find the word “Trinity,” nor do we find any explanation as to how God is both three and one at the same time. We do, however, find the seeds of what will one day become Trinitarian theology throughout Scripture. In the beginning, according to Genesis, there is God, and God’s Spirit blowing over the waters, and the Word spoken by God which leads to all of creation. In the Gospel of John, we hear too that the Word is in the beginning with God, and later in that same Gospel we hear that Jesus is sending the Comforter, the Holy Spirit, to be with his disciples after he departs from them. And in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells his disciples to baptize the nations in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. There are similar hints at a triune God in the letters of Paul and John as well.

But even with these hints and allusions in Scripture, the Doctrine of the Trinity remains elusive to our understanding, and is nearly impossible to explain. So why bother? I can think of three reasons to keep the Trinity right off the bat. (I might actually have more, but it’s Trinity Sunday, so…three it is.)

ONE: Speaking of the Ineffable

First is the very fact of the doctrine’s inexplicability. Maybe the whole point is that God is mystery. We can’t put God in a box. As theologian Douglas John Hall says:

The Bible has a strong, built-in suspicion of all is-language, for the very good reason that this language almost inevitably betrays and truncates the mystery of being – of all being, really, but especially of the being of God. When the patriarchs insist God should identify himself (himself?), they receive the enigmatic response that, to this day, nobody can translate definitively: “I am who I am,” “I shall be who I shall be.” [1]

And as Herbert O’Driscoll says:

We do not think about the Trinity so much as experience it. Only then do we understand. And here is the paradox, that we understand the Trinity most when we realize that we do not understand. [2]

The Trinity reminds us that we cannot ever fully explain God. There is always deep Mystery whenever we speak of God, and perhaps in the end that is why so many mystics and contemplatives find themselves giving themselves over to silence. Perhaps in the end that is why so many people of faith find themselves living themselves over to poetry, metaphor, music, sculpture, color, texture.

So let’s turn to a poem by French Jesuit priest Henri de Lubac, written in 1960:

Beyond all conventions –
in the rejection of all untruth –
at the cost of security –
behind all negations –
when everything fails –
in the abandonment of everything:
the discovery of God.

TWO: God’s Multi-Faceted Revelation of Godself

Yet, as ineffable as God may be, there is also much that we can say about God, and the Trinity gives us some clues as to who God is. This is a second reason that the Doctrine of the Trinity is so central to the Christian faith.

God is the one in whose presence the seraphim cover their faces and their feet; the one who is so vast that his robe fills the whole of the temple; the one who causes Isaiah to cry out in desperate realization of his own smallness and humanity. This is the God the song called Psalm 29, which is assigned as one of the readings for today, describes:

…The voice of the LORD is over the waters;
the God of glory thunders,
the LORD, over mighty waters.
The voice of the LORD is powerful;
the voice of the LORD is full of majesty.
The voice of the LORD breaks the cedars;
the LORD breaks the cedars of Lebanon.
He makes Lebanon skip like a calf,
and Sirion like a young wild ox.
The voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of fire.
The voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness;
the LORD shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.
The voice of the LORD causes the oaks to whirl,
and strips the forest bare;
and in his temple all say, ‘Glory!’
The LORD sits enthroned over the flood;
the LORD sits enthroned as king forever…

And, the Trinity tells us, God is also the one who loves us so deeply that the only thing to do was to come to earth and live among us, flesh as we are flesh, bone as we are bone. God is revealed in the particular person of Jesus Christ, in whose presence people were healed, disciples were inspired, and the world was changed. God is divine, and God is also thoroughly human, coming to us in an actual historical person in a unique and spectacular way. God is in Jesus; Jesus’ very nature is God. God is divine; God is human.

But God is not binary; God is not two poles that might stand in opposition to one another. In addition to being creator and Christ, the Trinity teaches us that God is also as close as breath – the Spirit, blowing where it chooses, filling us with new life over and over again.

As we earlier turned to the poetry of a Jesuit priest to explore God’s ineffability, let’s now turn to a holy vision of fourteenth century English mystic Julian of Norwich in order to express what we can say about God:

…in this he showed me something small, no bigger than a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand…and it was as round as a ball…On this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it, the second is that God loves it, the third is that God preserves it. But what did I see in it? It is that God is the Creator, the protector, and the lover.

THREE: God in Community

So far we have the mystery of God held in tension with the availability of knowledge of God. The Trinity doesn’t let us stop there, though. God is more than just function – Creator, protector, lover, as Saint Julian put it. The Doctrine of the Trinity also tells us that all three of these persons are always and forever in community. In the words of minister Delmer Chilton, “God exists in a family of unique individuals who are stronger together than they could ever be apart.”

Again, let’s turn to artists who, like mystics, point to the meaning of the Trinity so much more eloquently than my words ever can.

[SLIDE of Holy Trinity Icon by Rublev]

This icon was written (yes, icons are said to be “written,” not “painted”) by 15th century Russian artist Anrei Rublev in the 15th century. Known as “The Holy Trinity,” the icon is based on the Genesis story (Gen. 18) in which Abraham is sitting at the door of his tent in the heat of the day by the Oak of Mamre when he sees three men standing in front of him. Abraham bows to them, orders a servant to bring them food, and waits on them under a tree. In the next chapter the three men are revealed to be angels who tell Abraham and Sarah that they will indeed have a child. It’s from this story that the author of the letter to the Hebrews will, thousands of years later, admonish the community to practice hospitality, for by doing so “some have entertained angels unawares.” (Heb. 13:2)

Rublev’s icon received various interpretations through the ages, but by the 19th and early 20th century the consensus among scholars was that the three angels who visited Abraham represented the Christian Trinity, “one God in three persons.” The head of each angel is inclined toward one of the others, so that the foundation of the composition is a circle. The angels aren’t inserted into the circle; rather they create it. Our eyes can’t stop at any of the three figures and rather dwell inside the space they create. There is much symbolism in the icon; if you’re interested, I invite you to look into it on your own. Once again, Google can be one of our companions on our spiritual journey! The point is that God’s three-ness is also one-ness – a never-ending circle of community.

But maybe such visuals don’t work for you.

[blank slide]

In that case, I invite you to ponder the art of the body as expressed in dance in order to approach the community of the Trinity. A few years ago, on another Trinity Sunday, I spoke to you about the Greek idea of perichoresis, literally “going around” and “envelopment.” The early Christians described the Trinity as an eternal “holy dance,” of each member around the other two: Jesus around God and Spirit; Spirit around God and Jesus; God around Jesus and Spirit – all intertwined and always on the move. As Ruth Duck explains:

Dancing together implies mutuality, as partners move together and the movements of one influence those of the other. Dancing together involves unity, as the movements of all contribute to the dance, without losing the individuality of any.

The very nature, the very essence of God, is community – a diverse yet united whole, moving together, breathing together, living together.

THE INVITATION OF THE TRINITY

God’s ineffability; God’s knowability; God in community: these are just three of the gifts of the Doctrine of the Trinity. Now, finally, after too many words, we come to the invitation that comes along with those gifts.

If the very nature of God is one of community, then there is also an invitation into that community. If God, the three-in-one, is sitting at a table, then we are invited to sit at that table too and partake of the life-giving sustenance we find in God. If God, the three-in-one, is forever dancing and flowing and moving, then we are invited to join in the dance. If God is Love lived out in community, then we are invited to add our love to the Trinity’s communion of Love. We are invited to receive God’s love, and then, when God wonders who will bring God’s love to the world, we can answer with Isaiah: “Here I am! Send me!”

Friends, I may not be able to explain it, but it seems to me that the Doctrine of the Trinity is indeed as important as our forebears have been teaching for hundreds of years. I, for one, think I’ll keep it.

Thanks be to God.

 

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