Trinity Sunday is one of the only days of the Church year named for a doctrine rather than a person or an event.
The question for the preacher is how to approach it: do I really think that I can explain the Trinity in 8 to 12 minutes of sermon? Is that really enough time?
David and Jonathan Bennett, brothers and Roman Catholics theologians, on their website called “ChurchYear.Net”, state that the common wisdom is that if you talk about the Trinity for longer than a few minutes you will slip into heresy because you are probing the depths of God too deeply.
So, in reality, 8 to 12 minutes might be too long!!!
ChurchYear.Net says: “The Trinity is one of the most fascinating - and controversial - Christian dogmas. The Trinity is a mystery. By mystery the Church does not mean a riddle, but rather the Trinity is a reality above our human comprehension that we may begin to grasp, but ultimately must know through worship, symbol, and faith. It has been said that mystery is not a wall to run up against, but an ocean in which to swim."
They say that the best description (certainly, the safest description if avoiding heresy is your goal) is found in the Nicene Creed. They write “essentially the Trinity is the belief that God is one in essence, but distinct in person. Don't let the word "person" fool you. The Greek word for person means "that which stands on its own," or "individual reality," and does not mean the persons of the Trinity are three human persons. Therefore we believe that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are somehow distinct from one another (not divided though), yet completely united in will and essence."
The funny thing: their next words are “How can this be?” echoing Nicodemus in the Gospel reading. How does one explain this?
Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s quote from the Krista Tippett interview that I used last week ended with the same idea: "no faith, not even the Christian faith, can ever encompass God or even be able to communicate who God is. Only God can do that.”
The Trinity is a concept designed to describe the indescribable. The nature of God and our relationship with God can not be explained by “how.” Explaining the Trinity is like describing why looking at the mountains still invokes an overwhelming sense of beauty and amazement, no matter how long we live among them.
So know from the outset: explaining only leads to more questions, if not confusion.
Metaphor helps. The ChurchYear.Net guys illustrate the Trinity as a musical chord. Think of a C-chord. The C, E, and G notes are all distinct notes, but joined together as one chord the sound is richer and more dynamic than had the notes been played individually. The notes (sic.) are all equally important in producing the rich sound, and the sound is lacking and thin if one of the notes is left out."
The key element of Trinity is relationship.
The book, An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church (edited by Don Armentrout and Robert Boak Slocum), states that “The Trinity is a perfect relationship of love in which neither unity nor distinctness of the divine persons is compromised. God’s life is understood to be dynamic, loving, and available to be shared in relationship with humanity for salvation.”
While ponding God’s being in Trinity further might be helpful, perhaps the best way to move forward is to give voice to our understandings of God in a way that invites the thoughtful reflections of others.
I believe that it is this type of sharing: sharing our own personal experiences, and hearing the experiences of others, that leads to transformation of being born by water and Spirit that Jesus speaks of in the Gospel. It’s not the explaining of how things are, or by the dictating of what we must do, but by seeing our life’s journey as an exploration of “the earthly things”: the fabrics of our world, the meaning of our lives, and the mystery that is God’s love for all.
A significant part of this exploration, for us, happens in the church. Michael Hopkins, an Episcopal priest, wrote this on his blog:
We are members of the Episcopal Church because of our calling to be a people at one with one another. It is because of the communion I experience in it, relationships, connectedness, that constantly give me a glimpse of relationship with God, in fact that are manifestations of that relationship itself. As Episcopalians, the church becomes our laboratory for human relationship, a body through whom God continues to choose to work in spite of its flaws. Put succinctly and personally, I am called to be a part of you and I cannot separate this call from my call to be one with God. (From Glory Into Glory, Michael Hopkins)
We are intertwined with one another and with God. We can’t really explain it…but we somehow know it’s true.
This morning’s Gospel reading was likely chosen by the Lectionary people because it contains all the elements of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. However, it is this line that truly points to the mystery of Trinity:
“The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8)
We are in relationship with God, each other, and the whole world. We will never be able to fully explain what that means, but our hearts, minds, and souls compel us towards fully living into the oneness offered to us by God.