A Sermon by Pastor Carley on Trinity Sunday
Genesis 1:1-5; John 1:1-5
I was listening to a Jewish Rabbi at a conference some years ago. He said something like this: “We Jews believe in one God. This is the foundational truth of our faith. Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. Christians believe in three gods, a Trinity of gods.”
These words unsettled me. I still remember the feeling of hearing those words. I just wonder if we make enough room for mystery in our understanding of God. Trinity embraces mystery.
The concept of Trinity has a fascinating history. First, the word “Trinity” is not found in the Bible. That, in itself, is a shocking statement! The closest we come are passages which talk about God as Creator, Word, and Spirit, like in the story of creation. There are other glimpses of the three presences in the Old Testament. God’s Spirit is well known, inspiring the prophets, the psalms, and the prayers. The Old Testament has rich story and poetry about the ways God shows up in visible, tangible, incarnate forms in our lives – from the messengers to Abraham to the presence of Wisdom, or Word within God.
In the New Testament, John picks up the term “word” for Jesus existed with God in the beginning. In the first few verses of John the Trinitarian presence is describe as Word, God and Light. There are two New Testament passages which give names for the triune God in a worship setting, but they use different names:
Matthew 28:19 – Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit….
2 Corinthians 13:13 – The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.
These give us some evidence that the early followers of Jesus spoke about God in three ways: God/Father, Son/Word/Lord, and Holy Spirit. There is evidence for these three kinds of presence, but there is no place in the Bible where it is explained. There are just the stories.
When the first church councils were convened in the 3rd and 4th centuries, they were assigned the task of writing statements about the church’s understanding of God that would function as the “correct” understanding. In the process of describing God – Creator, Jesus, Spirit – they used the concept of Trinity. This was not a new concept. Divine threesomes abound in the religious writings and art of ancient Europe, Egypt, the near east, and Asia. In addition, Philo of Alexandria, a Jewish philosopher and theologian, read the Hebrew scriptures as teaching that God created the cosmos by his Word (logos), the first-born son of God, and affirmed Spirit, too, as power, emanating from God. Even Philo, the Jew, found Creator, Word and Spirit present in the holy texts about the One God.
Try as we might, the attempt to explain God in words is a blatantly futile task. The One who created us and is both beyond and within us, is and always will be, a mystery. As long as we understand this when we read the documents of the church, they continue to be helpful. But when we begin to believe that these few words contain the whole of God, we are sure to lose our way. The Trinity is mystery. We will never figure it out and we aren’t supposed to. There is much to our relationship to the holy presence of the universe which is beyond our minds, and can only be entered from the heart.
As Presbyterians, known for our passion for good scholarship, this is not an easy thing to expect us to accept easily
The Eastern Church Fathers did not have so much trouble with this mystery. Nor did the mystics like the Desert Mothers and Fathers, or those who followed them in the west developing the monastic, mystical traditions, like Benedict, Francis & Clare, Hildegard of Bingen and so many more.
Today, we let go of our need to understand, and look at Trinity as a way to point to something about how we experience God in the world. The ancient Celtic Christians may be able to help us with this. The Celts were an tribal people who lived throughout Europe and Asia Minor, as early as the 4th century BCE. During the Roman Empire, they resisted domination and were pushed to its wild fringes, notably to Ireland, where Rome never took hold.
Here is where they can help us: the Celts were very Trinitarian – in their religion, in their poetry, in their prayers and blessings. They loved the number three and things in triads. Their writing is full of arrangements of three statements that sum up a thing or person or quality, or simply link otherwise incompatible things. If there were a paradox or a pun in the triad, so much the better! Life is like that – it holds together things that seem disconnected. Asian poetry has the haiku, English has the limerick, even the Hebrew poetry and wisdom use the grouped phrases to hold concepts together.
The Celtic visual artists developed a whole art form based on connections. They carved the great high-standing crosses and illuminated Gospel manuscripts with their characteristic knots – weaving in and out in one continuous line, interlacing God and humanity, heaven and earth, spirit and matter.
The triquetra is a Celtic Christian symbol for the Trinity and it is the foundation of this knotted art. You see one example of it on the front page of the bulletin. The one on the bulletin is composed of the foundational triangular 3-leaf pattern made of an eternal loop. Woven into it is a circle – a knotted circle – again in one continuous line. One line, one circle, woven into one design. The triquetra is a living symbol of moving, flowing life, which is beauty and love and peace, all woven together. It is beautiful, as well as wise. It is the oneness of interwoven connection which gives strength; not pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps independence.
The Trinity is not so much about three as about One. This is the crux of what I have learned for this sermon. Focus on the One and don’t get tripped up by the three. If we did actually worship three gods, there would be no Trinity. Just three gods. We may experience things as separate, but that is an illusion. We may talk about Creator, Christ and Spirit as separate – that, too, is an illusion. It looks like three, but it is one. That is the mystery of Trinity.
J. Philip Newell is one of the leading scholars on Celtic Christianity. In his book, Listening for the Heartbeat of God, he observes that the most widely recognized feature of Celtic spirituality is its creation emphasis. This comes from Trinity. How many of us have had a sense of deep communion with God when we have stopped breathing before a grand vista, a pounding waterfall, or a beautiful flower? In much of our Christian practice, the only response to this experience we have been taught is gratitude – which is good and beautiful. Behind the urge to be grateful, though, is a notion that God is somehow separate from creation – above it, the one who made it and let it go, or something like that. We turn away from creation and towards God to give thanks. There is a separation.
But Trinity takes us a step beyond gratitude. Trinity affirms that God is incarnate in all reality. That God comes to us in the very ordinary, tangible experiences of our lives. God actually touches us in the scent of the flower.
Some have mistakenly asserted that the Celts worship nature. That cannot be true in their understanding of Trinity. For them, because of the three in one, there is no separation between nature and God, between Spirit and humans, between Jesus and food. Their honor of creation is because they know God is in it. Creation is never separated from Creator.
A second learning from reflecting on the Trinity derives from the fact that God is alive. If God is alive then God is not static. The living God can never be contained in words or statements or pictures.
I like to take photographs. Something I have observed, of late, is that the photographs never capture the scene, no matter how good my camera may be. I had this experience recently at a wildlife refuge. I came out of the trees, and looked across the marshy meadow, just as evening light was slanting across the sky. In a leafless tree in the middle of the meadow, at the very top of the tree, was a bald eagle, perched, observing his domain. His head glowed like it was lit from within. His whole being was alight with regal beauty. I took a picture. It reproduced the details, but held none of the magic. That picture is only a reminder of the presence of God which that moment held. The pictures do not and cannot contain the sacred which blesses when light and feathers meet in my presence. That was a trinity moment. The coming together of three to inspire.
While it is certainly true that God comes to us through the beauty of creation, Trinity says yet more. Trinity says, like John, that God is love. Trinity is relationship. Love. While it is much more, love is a movement toward the beloved for good. God’s very being is a movement of love. Trinity basically says that God is a verb much more than a noun. God is moving towards us and within us for good.
So, again we learn from the Trinity that this journey we walk is never made alone. We are accompanied by the creatures, the air, the human family and our immediate, personal kin. In our increasingly isolated society, we need a revival of Trinity thinking – that our lives are all bound up with each other, like a knotted cord. The love relationship of God in trinity models harmony, unity, interrelationships, interdependence – all characteristics desperately needed by the human family if we are going to survive. It is too easy for us to isolate ourselves from community these days.
Cain asked, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” And the implied answer from God is “Yes, you are.” We do not live our lives in isolation. We are connected, like the trinity is connected, for we are made in God’s image. When we get caught up in our own perfection (or lack thereof), or divide because of our own rightness, we hide the image of God.
Trinity is a wonderful mystery of the connection, presence and love of God. It can never fully be understood with the rational mind, but can only be known experience. The point of Trinity Sunday follows Pentecost, the day the followers experienced no separation between themselves and God and Spirit and Jesus and each other. The boundaries were gone. They were all one. It was a Trinity moment. Hear O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is One. Trinity helps us experience that! Amen.