This is the sermon I preached this week, Trinity Sunday, though perhaps I should say, “This is more or less the sermon I preached last week,” because I preach from the aisle without a manuscript or notes. You can find the lectionary here.
Today is Trinity Sunday. As I was preparing to preach this week about a basic and foundational aspect of our Christian faith: God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, I realized that I have never identified quite as closely with Nicodemus as I do this week.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus is trying to explain a Truth to Nicodemus, who just is not getting it. Nicodemus, who truly wants to understand, asks another question, to which Jesus gives essentially the same answer. Still Nicodemus doesn’t quite get it and on it goes. You can almost hear the pleading tone in Nicodemus’ voice and the frustration in Jesus’. You might wonder why it is that Jesus can’t say any plainer what he is saying, and why Nicodemus can’t understand what is being said. Because, like Nicodemus, we desperately want to understand what Jesus tells us because we know how important it is, it can be hard – really hard- to simply accept what Jesus is saying without really understanding it.
That is, my friends, a bit like I feel as I try to understand and then preach about the Trinity. No matter how much I read, no matter how much I wrack my brains trying to remember all those discussions in seminary, no matter how much I pray, the Trinity is a bit elusive. So, like any good Episcopalian, I head to The Book of Common Prayer to see what it might say…
In the “Historical Documents” section, beginning on page 867, there are the “Articles of Religion,” written in 1801 at our General Convention. The very first item in the Articles is about the Trinity, which gives us a pretty good idea of how important it is:
I. Of Faith in the Holy Trinity.
There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions; of
infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the Maker, and Preserver of all things both visible and invisible. And in the unity of this Godhead there be three Persons, of one substance, power, and eternity; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.
And on page 864, in the ancient Creed of Saint Athanasius, it says, among other things:
“…we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the Persons nor dividing the Substance…But the whole three Persons are co-eternal together and co-equal. So that in all things, as is foresaid, the Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshipped.”
Little wonder, then, that Trinity Sunday is a Sunday in which we preachers often try to come up with some pithy, easy-to-understand explanation of the nature of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. You’ve probably heard some of these:
- there is the egg: the whites, the yolk, the shell
- there is water: liquid, ice, vapor
- another favorite is the shamrock: three leaves all part of the same plant.
While there is no denying these provide images intended to ease our understanding, there is also no denying that these do nothing, really, to explain the Trinitarian God. In fact, they do lots to detract from our understanding because they are limited by our imaginations and language. We humans tend to forget that the God we know and try so hard to define defies our human understanding because, quite frankly, God is God and beyond our full comprehension.
So I am going to forego the temptation to provide an image of the Trinity. I am going to acknowledge as I stand here as your priest and pastor that the best explanation I can offer, the most helpful to you and me and us in our faith formation, our lives as Christians, is to say, “The essence of the Trinity is a mystery, a holy mystery, but a mystery nonetheless.”
You see, as interesting as it may be, as important as it is, for most of us the question isn’t whether or not we can explain the Trinity. The questions that matter most to us as we live our lives is:
- How does our faith in God always present prepare us and shape us each and every day?
- How are we motivated and challenged?
- How are we assured, comforted, and consoled?
- Are we able to accept the invitation to move deeper into the heart of God?
- Are we willing to let go of our human need for intellectual understanding to allow ourselves to be transformed?
The essence of the Trinity is a mystery, a holy mystery, but a mystery nonetheless.
One of the ways I understand God, the one Substance in three Persons, the Trinity in Unity, co-eternal and co-equal, is that God is transcendent, incarnate, and immanent.
God transcendent is beyond all human experience. This is God unfathomable within the confines of human understanding and imagination. God who created us in the divine image and likeness, God who created us for no reason other than perfect Love, because God is God, who understands what is in our hearts and minds more deeply than we do, and recognizes our need for the incarnate and immanent to support our understanding.
Without changing the Trinitarian Godhead at all, the transcendent God became incarnate in the form of Jesus. Jesus lived with us, as one of us. Jesus showed us how to live as God would have us live. Jesus told us and showed us what it means to truly love one another, to be willing to risk some or all of what we think is important to live in the ways that are truly important. Jesus lived to invite us into relationship with God in the ways that are truly life-giving, life-affirming. And Jesus died for us, not so that we would idolize or emulate his suffering, but so that we would understand the depth of God’s love for us. Jesus showed us by his human sacrifice that God’s love knows no bounds, no conditions. God loves because God is God.
As God had done since the dawn of time, Jesus promised us that we would never be alone. The Holy Spirit is God immanent, assuring us that God keeps God’s promises, and that we are never alone, God is always with us, working in and through us. We are graced by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. We are continually and constantly invited to move deeper into the heart of God.
God has been, is, and will always be at work in the world at all times for all time. Jesus, the man, lived in a particular time in a particular place with a particular group of people. The Holy Spirit brings past, present, and future together in relationship with the one God.
Today is Trinity Sunday and we are celebrating the mysterious, confounding Trinitarian Godhead, who is known to us through our faith. We are celebrating the promise God has made, makes, and will continue to make to be present in the world, to be present with all people, for all time, in ways known and unknown, obvious and less clear. And we are celebrating our heart’s desire, our willingness through our faith, to accept the grace that is the Trinity and to honor the gift that is our transformation.