Sermon: Sunday, May 26, 2013: The Holy Trinity

Texts:  Proverbs 8:1-4,22-31  +  Psalm 8  +  Romans 5:1-5  +  John 16:12-15

The "Shield of the Trinity" or "Scutum Fidei" diagram of traditional Western Christian symbolism.

The “Shield of the Trinity” or “Scutum Fidei” diagram of traditional Western Christian symbolism.

Preaching on the Sunday the church commemorates as the festival of the Holy Trinity is full of traps for the preacher, or so I am told.  “Don’t preach doctrine,” I’m advised.  No one wants to hear a sermon on doctrine, especially the doctrine of the Trinity.  It’s a mystery.”  And, the best advice of all: “No flowcharts.”  So, it is with some trepidation that I have ascended into the pulpit this morning to preach, and worse, to preach about the doctrine of the Trinity.

The Holy Trinity is, indeed, a mystery.  But it’s not a mystery the way the pyramids are a mystery, or the way the huge statues on Easter Island are a mystery.  We use the word “mystery” to describe those immense, incredible works of humanity precisely as an invitation for someone to solve the mystery.  Calling something a mystery almost immediately draws us into the role of detective.  Like the old story of the sword in the stone, we approach a mystery wondering if we will be the one to finally release it from its trap.

Or, the other option I suppose, we allow the word “mystery” to scare us away.  “The Holy Trinity?  Don’t bother giving it a second thought, it’s a mystery…”  But that’s not the kind of mystery it is either.  In fact, in the realm of Christianity to say something is a mystery is to say that we are called to spend our lives asking questions of it, probing it for wisdom, being shaped by its knots — but not to solve it.

So, with some humility, let’s spend just a short bit of time on this festival of the Holy Trinity considering its mystery.

To begin, as Christians we are the inheritors of a beautiful and ancient tradition of thinking and speaking about God that comes to us from our Jewish sisters and brothers.

Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad

Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God.  The Lord is One. (Deut. 6:4)

Shema Yisrael at the Knesset Menorah in Jerusalem

Shema Yisrael at the Knesset Menorah in Jerusalem

This is the shema, which we read in the 6th chapter of Deuteronomy, the 4th verse, a statement of faith that, for Jews, is about as close to a creed as they get.  It is the basis for what we have come to call monotheism, the belief that there is only one God.  That God is not one among many.

This inheritance is the entry into the mystery.  Not a clue.  Not a piece of evidence.  But a doorway.  We belong to a community with a long and beautiful tradition that has known in its blood that there is only one God.  So whatever the Trinity is, it is not three Gods, but one.

But we who are Christians are also a family marked by a very special relationship to God through the revelation of God in the person of Jesus of Nazareth: a living human being who was born, who lived as a teacher of the love of God, who spoke the truth to those in power, who was crucified for confronting the authorities of his day, who was raised from the dead (another mystery of the faith), and who assured us that God would send an Advocate to guide us in truth and continue to instruct us in the paths and promises of God.

Jesus spoke during his lifetime about his relationship to God as being like that of a son to a father, but he muddied the waters a bit there. He said cryptic things that we’ve been reading for the last few weeks.  Things like, “whoever has seen me has seen the Father;” (John 14:9) or “I am in the Father and the Father is in me;” (John 14:10) or, this week, “He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.  All that the Father has is mine” (John 16:14)

Jesus is the second person, the second stopping point, in contemplating the mystery of the Holy Trinity.  Jesus exists as both God and human, giving humanity new access to divinity — and the other way around.  And all this talk about glorification, well… it’s a mystery!  But, as is so often the case with scripture and the words of Jesus, it appears to have something to do with teaching us to see the world as God sees it, not as we do.

When I hear the word “glorify” I tend to think of lifting someone or something up with praise and adoration.  If I’m glorifying you, then I’m assuming the position of a lowly one so as to draw attention to you, the elevated one.  But in Jesus, God is glorified, God is lifted up.  And, Jesus says, God will glorify him, God will lift him up.

Glorification, in the realm of God, becomes something altogether different — not the elevation of one over another by acts of praise; but, instead, the mutual sharing of life together, the revelation that our life is shared in and with each other by acts of love and self-giving.  Part of the mystery of God in Christ Jesus is the radical reorienting of reality that brings God down to earth, that lifts humanity up to heaven, that gives us a shared body to which we all belong.

The Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity whom we celebrated last Sunday at the festival of Pentecost, is that Advocate, the presence of God with us that was promised by Christ.  The Holy Spirit is the point in the mystery of the Trinity that breaks open the relationship of God to Jesus and makes that relationship available to each and every one of us.

Here the mystery gets even thicker.  Consider this, that for the first three centuries of the Christian church there was widespread disagreement about the nature of this Holy Spirit.  Was it God?  Was it of the same substance as God?  Was it equal with the Father and the Son?  Those questions weren’t decided formally until the Council of Nicea (from which we get the Nicene Creed) in the year 325.  And, of course, as it is with most decisions in church, the fact that the council voted on it didn’t settle the issue for everyone involved.  People continued to struggle to understand the meaning of the Holy Spirit.

This is a wonderful illustration of the words of Jesus from today’s gospel.  There he says, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.  When the spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth…” (John 16:12).  Remember, Jesus is speaking these words at the Last Supper.  They haven’t yet seen him crucified, or raised from the dead, or appearing among them in the locked room.  They aren’t ready yet to understand, much less trust in the mystery of the Holy Spirit.  But centuries later the church was able to look back at all that had happened, all that had been said and taught, as well as their own experience of how God was alive with them, through each other, in the Church and they were able to say something new about God’s unity in community.

Living here on the other side of the resurrection, having experienced the power of God through the church, the child of the Holy Spirit, we are in a position to trust in the mystery of the Holy Trinity — not to understand it, not to solve it, but to trust in it.

The Holy Trinity by St. Andrei Rublev, using the theme of the "Hospitality of Abraham." The three angels symbolize the Trinity, which is rarely depicted directly in Orthodox art.

The Holy Trinity by St. Andrei Rublev, using the theme of the “Hospitality of Abraham.” The three angels symbolize the Trinity, which is rarely depicted directly in Orthodox art.

If we go back to the ancient Hebrew assertion that the Lord is God, the Lord is One, and we pair that with the word from the book of Genesis that gives us these words from God, “let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…” (Gen. 1:26) then we arrive at one of the many teaching moments of the mystery of the Trinity.  We trust, as a matter of faith, that our God is one.  That’s what we’ve been taught since we were children.  We don’t have three gods, we have God: the three-in one and one-in-three.  And we’ve been taught that we are created in the image of God.  But what does that mean?  Am I three-in-one?  Are you one-in-three?

The power of a mystery of faith doesn’t come from how we untie its knots, but how it unties ours.  Here the mystery of the Holy Trinity addresses one of our most basic errors: that we think we exist alone, in solitary.  That we can be human all on our own, without relationship to anyone else.  That’s certainly how we structure our society.  We create the expectation that each person be able to care for themselves in a very narrow way, economically, and we penalize and humiliate you if that is not possible.  But we don’t do such a good job of noticing all the ways we are interdependent upon one another for things that can’t be measured with dollars: safety, belonging, friendship, wisdom, respect and love.  These things, just as necessary for life, can only come from community.  We cannot live, we cannot be human, alone.  We can only do it together.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu talks about this concept using and word found in the Zulu or Xhosa languages, ubuntu, which means (roughly translated), “people are people through other people.”  We aren’t fully human alone, we are only fully human together.  And the mystery of the Holy Trinity is ready to teach us this: that we are created in the image of a God whose own life takes place in community.  We are made in community just as God exists in community; and we belong to the one body of Christ, just as God is one.

Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad

Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God.  The Lord is One.

The essence of a mystery, the way we use the word in church, is not to unravel it but to dwell within it.  To let it unravel you, and then bind you back up.  This is just one more way, I suppose, that we are created in God’s image: that we, too, are mysteries.  Each of us many in one, and one among many.  We do not need to be solved, only loved, and that is the gift that the Holy Trinity wants to offer us: the open door to life lived in the communion of God who creates, redeems and sustains us; God who surrounds, accompanies and empowers us; God around us, toward us, through us; God our parent, our sibling, our family.  God in all, for all, forever.




Sermon: Sunday, June 3 2012 — The Holy Trinity, 1st Sunday after Pentecost

Texts:   Isaiah 6:1-8 and Psalm 29  •  Romans 8:12-17  •  John 3:1-17

Pastor Erik, 16, on summer tour with Nexus in Charleston, SC, circa 1989

When I was in high school, each summer — right around this time of year, in early June, just after school had let out, but before summer had kicked into full swing — the high school choir from my church would go on a choir tour.  We’d spend the spring putting together, choreographing and rehearsing a show and then we’d take it on the road.  We went to Texas one year, Tennessee another.  We even came here to Chicago once in the late 80s — maybe you’ve heard of us?  We we called “Nexus.”  We were sort of the 80s church-based equivalent of Glee.

The summer tour was the highlight of the year.  It was the thing that kept us all motivated to come to rehearsals each Wednesday night.  But tour wasn’t all about the concerts we’d do each evening, or the people we met in each of the stops along the way.  No, mainly, tour was all about what happened on the bus.

In order to transport 30 kids, 5 sponsors, 6 sets of risers, drums, guitars, and all the suitcases for all the singers and sponsors, you needed a tour bus.  But we were low-budget.  We weren’t traveling in the sort of luxury tour busses you see pulled up outside the Vic or the Riviera on a Friday night.  No, we traveled in used school busses, purchased by the church and repainted white and red with the name of our congregation on the side.  They were low tech.  They lacked air-conditioning.

It was on the bus that our group of 30 played out all our high school dramas.  We fell in love over the tops of stiff-backed chairs with green plastic upholstery.  We played I-Spy and 20 questions.  We told stories and jokes.  We flirted, we teased, we fought, we made up.  We were a society on the bus, we were a microcosm of the world.  We were popular and we were awkward.  We were studious and we were slackers.  We were fair-of-skin and we were be-speckled with pimples.

If we’re lucky, we’ve all had “summer tour” experiences in our lives.  Maybe it was a sports team that went to regionals, or a debate team that competed in the out-of-town tournaments.  Maybe it was a group of fraternity brothers or sorority sisters that shared a house (and a bathroom).  Maybe it’s the group of friends that goes to Vegas or rents a house on the beach.  Maybe it’s the group that gets together for breakfast once a week at the diner, or maybe it’s the people who gather on Friday nights to play poker or Scrabble.  Whatever the pretext for your grouping, it’s the people you share life with.

Life is meant to be shared, wouldn’t you agree?  Life isn’t really life if we isolate ourselves from the world, if we simply endure time spent in the company of others so that we can get back to being alone.  Sure, there are introverts and extroverts among us, we all have different needs for solitude and levels of tolerance for social situations.  Yet, even the most introverted of people finds some pleasure in human company of one sort or another, even if it is simply sitting close to one another as one reads a novel and the other other a newspaper.  There is joy that comes from being in community.

Biologists and sociologists would say that the human being is a social animal.  Archbishop Desmond Tutu talks about the African idea of ubuntu.  Roughly translated ubuntu means, “people are people through other people.”  It means that apart from community, there is no humanity.  It’s something we all forget in ways both big and small.  In our actions and our attitudes, in our foreign policies and in our household relationships, we can begin to treat each other like objects, like tools that exist simply to meet our individual needs.  The notion of ubuntu reminds us that it’s not so simple, that every human action has reactive consequences for the rest of us.  When a person remembers this, when a person lives in a way that respects her or his impact on the rest of us, they say that person has ubuntu.

One of the ways we talk about this theologically comes up today in the church’s observance of The Holy Trinity.  For the last half year we have traveled with Jesus, from the preparations for his birth during Advent through his passion and resurrection during the Three Days and Easter.  As the end of his earthly ministry drew near, Jesus promised his disciples that he would not leave them orphaned but that he would send an Advocate, the Spirit of truth.  We celebrating the sending of that Holy Spirit last week with the festival of Pentecost that brings to an end the fifty days of Easter.

Today we begin the second half of the church’s year, a season the church calls simply “Time after Pentecost” or “Ordinary Time.”  The sanctuary, which has been draped in blue, then white, then green, then purple, then white, then red will soon be dressed in the greens that symbolize growth in the life of faith throughout the summer and the fall.

But this season begins today with one last festival, a white day in the church’s calendar, the festival of the Holy Trinity.  The day is white like the robes traditionally worn for baptism, to remind us that in baptism we have entered into a new kind of life, the kind of life that can only be lived in community.

Paul’s letter to the church in Rome puts this to us so beautifully, combining not only the communal life of God — the Creator, the Beloved, and the Spirit — but also the ways we are drawn into this life with God when he writes,

When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.”

When we say, quoting Genesis, that humanity is made in the image and likeness of God, this is part of what we are saying as well — that God, who exists in the community of the the Parent, the Child and the Spirit, has created us for community as well.  That we are not only parents and children, but by the Spirit we are adopted into a family of being that includes everyone, everywhere.

This was the part that was always so hard for us to remember on the summer tour bus, which had a sort of predictable arc to its storyline.  After months of late night rehearsals we boarded the bus with lots of energy and excitement.  Seats were claimed with purses and pillows, with seniors always asserting their right to the prime seats in the back of the bus. The first few concerts would go well enough, but we didn’t really hit our stride until about half way through.  Early tour romances were quick to burn out, but provided plenty for the rest of us to talk about.  By halfway through, we had established a new way of relating to each other.  We were a unit.  Hours spent on the bus driving from Iowa to Ohio had forged a new identity, and our closeness came through in our performances.

Then it would start to unravel.  Friendships fell apart over jealousies.  Condescension devolved into bullying.  Things were said and done that were hard to forgive and the bus started to feel like a prison on wheels.  We lost our ubuntu and started living for ourselves, nursing hurt feelings and wounded pride.

You’ve probably seen what it looks like when teenagers have a big falling out with each other, when they lose their ubuntu.  It’s not pretty.  It’s even worse when adults do it though.  When we lose our ubuntu we have all sorts of ways of taking it out on each other.  Our cliques become more brutal than any school lunchroom or tour bus, as we sell each other into poverty and bomb each other into oblivion in the name of self-interest and self-defense.  Our ubuntu is so obscured that we lose track of our common humanity.  We need to start over.  We need to be reborn.

That is the case with Nicodemus, a leader among the Jews — caught between the demands of empire and the passionate new vision for humanity and all of creation taking the country by storm as the Jesus bus stops in one town after another.  He know in his gut that no one could do what Jesus was doing without God’s power and purpose on his side.  But he can’t imagine how to cross the distance between the ways things are and the way things are supposed to be.  He asks, “how can anyone be born after having grown old?”

Don’t we know this question all too well ourselves?  How can we start over at this age?  How can we become new people, now that we’ve already bought a house, or finished a degree, or raised a family?  How can we become new people when all we’ve ever known is this way of being, these passed down prejudices, these categories of us and them?

Jesus says the answer is love.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

The only way our tour bus ever made it back to Des Moines in one piece was by the power of love.  Somewhere, out on the road together, we remembered that the God we were singing about each night in each of those churches was real, and so was that God’s love for us.  We were still young enough for our hearts to be open to the possibility of forgiveness, and repentance, and reconciliation.

As our church enters the second half of the year, the long green season of ordinary time, we are called to remember the white robes of our baptism that symbolize our adoption into the community of God — our Maker, our Savior, our Power.  It does not matter if we have grown tired and hopeless, if our have grown bitter and angry, if we have grown jealous and fearful.  In Christ Jesus, by the power of the Holy Spirit, God is making us new.  We are being born again, in and for and through one another.