Sermon for Trinity Sunday
St. Margaret’s Church
Sermon for Trinity Sunday, Year C
Rev. Martha Kirkpatrick
May 26, 2013
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31; Canticle 13; Romans 5:1-5; John 16:12-15
It is Trinity Sunday — thank you for being here! Please take out the Book of Common Prayer, and turn to page 852. About halfway down the page you see a Q and A in the Catechism. “Q: What is the Trinity? A: The Trinity is one God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Now please turn to page 864, where you will find the Creed of Saint Athanasius, which has been around since the 6th century. This is the creed that contains the basic statement of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. I will not ask you to read it now, but I invite you to do so later. You will note some key words. One word, repeated many times is “incomprehensible.” “The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible.” and later, … there are not three incomprehensibles, nor three uncreated, but one uncreated, and one incomprehensible.” So that in all things “The unity in Trinity and the Trinity in unity shall be worshipped.”
There’s a reason these things — the catechism and the historic documents of the church — are at the back of the Book of Common Prayer, in fine print, rather than in the middle or the front. What we find central in the BCP is worship, the sacrament of baptism, and the eucharist. The purpose of this book is not instruction, it is to guide us in worship. In fact the Athanasian creed itself states that “the Catholic faith is this: to worship One God in Trinity.” We are to know the Trinity by the experience of worship. More on that in a minute.
When it comes to the Trinity, “incomprehensible” about captures it. The notion of the Trinity is a mystery. It does not come explicitly from scripture, though there are some biblical references that speak of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is a great irony — and grace — that the doctrine emerged out of disputes in the first several centuries about the nature and relationship of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. They could only go so far with this. And so we are left with … a mystery. Thanks be to God. It simply cannot be grasped cognitively. So what do we do? Ours is a trinitarian faith. We can glide over this cognitive challenge, dutifully recite the trinitarian tenets of the Nicene Creed, say the trinitarian collect and proper preface as though we know what we’re talking about, and smoothly move on to something else. But it is here, a cornerstone of our faith. And it is here because even in its incomprehensibility it tells us something important about God. There is something in the Trinity that opens us to the multiple ways in which God makes Godself known to us.
Now it goes almost without saying that there are different ways of knowing. Cognitive knowing, which helps us pass an algebra exam, is helpful for many things, but not here. There is knowing by experience, the only way we truly learn what it’s like to swim, to ride a bicycle, to be a friend, to fall in love. Spiritual teachers say more: they speak of the difference between ordinary knowledge and direct knowledge.(1) Ordinary knowledge is from the outside: from study, from models, from our culture. Direct knowledge is from the inside, and can really only be known in the moment. It is induced by the situation, something the soul knows and often can’t explain. We need both, but often we will preference ordinary knowledge over this direct inner knowing. We bring these two types of knowing together through our engagement. In the Christian life this looks like worship and prayerful reflection. It looks like contemplative prayer, and reflective prayer with scripture. This is the way we seek to know God as Trinity, the same way we seek to know another person, by full engagement. By entering into relationship.
One of the most important things we learn from the Trinitarian nature of God is that God is relational. We can’t know God without entering into relationship, in all that that means to us and more. We must open our hearts, make ourselves vulnerable, make space for active listening, make this engagement primary in our lives.
The Trinity expresses a dynamism between unity and diversity. The unity of the Trinity doesn’t come about by sameness, by each person of the Trinity being an exact copy of the other, but by some degree of otherness, of difference, that is still held in the unity of God. In this way the Trinity expresses God’s desire for the world. “The triune God engages the world in reconciliation — bringing those who have been estranged into right relationship, without erasing created differences.” (1)
So without getting twisted into theological knots about how the persons of the Trinity relate to each other, what we are called to engage is how the three persons of the Trinity relate to us, to you and me individually, to us as a community, and to creation as a whole. When we look at the Trinity this way, we begin to see ourselves in relationship to the three persons of the trinity, they, the Three-in-One, can become companions on our journey of faith.
At the end of the day, take some time to prayerfully reflect on what has happened to you this day. This practice of reflection is so important to the life of faith. We are simply too distractible, too caught up in the affairs of our daily lives, to catch the movement of God. Most of the time, sad to say, except for the highly enlightened few, we go through life half asleep. We have to look in ordr to see God at work in our lives, and this is largely done in retrospect. We are like the disciples on the road to Emmaus who recognize the resurrected Jesus only after the long walk, when he breaks bread with them. Then he disappears, and they say “were not our hearts burning when he was talking to us?” At the time, they were too caught up in their own personal story to really see. The stories of the work of the Holy Spirit in the early church, as the apostles go forth and meet Lydia and Cornelius and have their experiences are told not in real time, but in retrospect. And Paul said/and Peter said … this is what happened to me, and this is what I now see was going on.” Our own lives as people of faith depend on this too, the ability to prayerfully reflect back, to pay attention to things we missed, or that have been drowned out, to tune our hearts to God.
Reflecting on the three persons of the Trinity can help us see and know God in wider and deeper ways. Praying with the Trinity can help us over our stuck places, and out of our dark places. Most of us have a day when we reflect back on things we regret, sometimes its something deeply painful or even shameful. We might regret something we did or said, or didn’t do. And those feelings may trigger old mental habits reminding us of a judging God, perhaps imposed on us by parents or teachers or the church as a means of control, as in “don’t do that. Remember, God sees everything.” A discipline of praying the Trinity reminds us that God is also Jesus, love in action, compassion, and forgiveness. We are helped to see others who love us and forgive us and pick us up when we fall as the hands of Jesus in our lives. Sometimes an unexpected detour happens in the course of our day and through that we have a blessed encounter with someone we otherwise would have missed. And we see the Holy Spirit blowing through our lives in unexpected ways and places. The unfathomable mystery of the Trinity may help us to let go of a need to explain or understand when tragedy strikes. It is not my theology, and it may not be yours either, to claim that God causes EF5 tornados. What I do see is that God the creator brings all things ultimately to God’s good purposes. I see Jesus in the love and compassion and bravery of all those who step in and take risks for others: the teacher who threw her body over a couple of her students to protect them, and the teacher who calmed the children’s fears by getting them to sing. I see the movement of the Holy Spirit in the hope-filled process of rebuilding lives.
Theologian and author Alister McGrath has said “the purpose of the Trinity is to keep a human’s experience of God from being impoverished.” There is much that we do not know and will never know. What we do know is that we are invited into this mystery of Trinitarian relatedness. In Christ, in baptism, we are invited into this circle of hospitality. Out of the movement of the Three-in-One is love made visible. And we in turn, filled with this love, are strengthened to be Christ’s body in the world. May it be so. Amen.
(1) (Cynthia Bourgeault, quoting A. H. Almas).
(2) Dwight Zscheile, People of the Way: Renewing Episcopal Identity (New York: Morehouse, 2012), 60.