…I was left in the dust after about two sentences. I always feel a little bit that way on Trinity Sunday. At least this year I’m not facing the group that appeared 2 or 3 years ago for this occasion. It was when Mike was just new in the parish, so I was looking out at a philosophy professor, who was, moreover, fresh from the Orthodox tradition. Joining us that day also was Charlie’s daughter Becky, who is Jewish; and there was a Roman Catholic as well in the congregation, besides all the regular Episcopalians – all sitting there waiting to hear me tell them all about the Holy Trinity. It was probably the Holy Spirit’s idea of a really good joke, but it was pretty unnerving.
I just had to do the best I can with something that is actually very foreign to me, and unique in the Christian year: which is the celebration of an idea. It’s not a self-evidently good idea – my friend the rabbi is fond of telling me that , ‘if you people believe that, I’ve got a bridge I’d like to sell you’…. And it’s not an idea we find in Scripture – there’s nowhere in the Old or New Testaments that defines what the Trinity is, or suggests that we need to be-lieve in it. The closest we get to it is at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, where our Lord is giving his last instructions to his disciples, and he tells them to baptize in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, a formula that must have been in use from the earliest days of the church. So this idea is most certainly our idea, we Christians, who thought up this preposterous bit of mathematics (1+1+1=1) for some good reasons, almost 2000 years ago, and have stuck to it ever since.
As I tell you all nearly every year, this may be an idea, but it’s rooted firmly in history – the history of God’s deal-ings with his people, in which he appears in many different roles, many different guises. God is, you might say, a little hard to pin down. We meet him as the Lord our governor, creator of all that is. We meet him in the silence of our hearts as a still, small voice. We meet him as conquering defender, as shepherd, as father or mother, as friend. It’s hard even to talk about the multiplicity of how we have encountered God, how God encounters us. So people get used to describing the attributes of God as if they were almost separate entities – we hear about the Glory of God appearing on a mountaintop. We hear about the Presence of God – the Shekhinah – dwelling with Israel in the wilderness. Today we hear about the Wisdom of God, which is how God made the whole Creation – only now this Wisdom is a character of its own in the drama – a real person who speaks in her own voice to tell us what Creation was like. She was God’s helper – a master workman (or you can also, they tell me, translate that phrase as ‘a little child’) doing what had to be done, not a part of God but somebody off to the side, bearing witness to the operation.
Well, once you’ve gotten used to talking about God like this, it’s not much of a jump from there to talking about God’s Spirit, the Spirit that animated the prophets, the Spirit that was in Jesus – and there we come to a really radical jump….. Because it was Jesus who prompted a new way of thinking about the God of Israel, the God who from time out of mind is one God, who is a jealous God, who shares his power with no other. It’s the experience of Jesus which forces the church to re-evaluate its understanding of God’s oneness. This is not universally approved: one of the occasional crackpot e-mails that our website gets arrived just last week, explaining to me at great length that God (or the One Alone God, as my correspondent refers to him) is one, and only one, and anybody who tries to mess with that formula is motivated by Satan – or maybe is Satan, I forget, and we are all going to hell for doing so. (I have to admit that this sounded more serious than just floundering around up here trying not to make a fool of myself in front of philosophy professors and Catholics and Jews…) Despite this dire warning, I’m here to say that I don’t think the church’s efforts to cope with Jesus are either crazy or satanic. They may not be the best possible solution to the problem, but they’re the best I can think of.
The problem is, of course, that when you experience Jesus, you experience so many of the qualities that we associ-ate with God that you’re driven to describe him in the terms we ordinarily use for God. He does what God does – gives life, heals, establishes justice, creates a community, defines holiness, mercy, compassion, wisdom, in ways that only God can do. In the experience of Jesus, the church finally has to say, we have experienced God. How do you describe such a person in the categories of first-century Judaism? You call him a ‘son’ of this or that, of God. Jesus is the spit and image of God; if you want to know what the God you can’t see is really like, you have to look at him; then you’ll know.
The process by which people come to use language about God for a human being is complex, but fairly easy to track. The task of making sense of this language – of trying to make it square with the language of God’s being one, and only one – takes another 3 or 400 years; you could even say that it’s taken right down to the present. We still get all tangled up in our categories – human, divine, one vs. many – that’s where we were in our conver-sation the other night. That’s where I bow out, with comments like ‘If it looks like a duck, and walks like a duck, and sounds like a duck, and does what a duck does – it’s probably a duck….’ But, as incompetent as I am in philosophical categories, I can still feel my way into the sense of the church’s affirmation that our trust is in one God, who appears to us, who acts, who reveals himself in the forms of Father, Son and Spirit, and whose very being has this triune form. His unity is the unity not of a monolith but of a community; his nature is love, which can only be expressed among a community, which flows from one to an Other who is not simply the same as oneself. The Greek fathers refer to what happens within the nature of God as perichoresis – literally, the ‘dancing around’ of love among the holy Three. It’s a wonderful metaphor for a musician, or for anybody – the love between the Father and the Son, personified by the Spirit, dancing around in the heart of the Godhead and spilling out to the world itself, an other Other, and forming the foundation of everything we know about community among ourselves as well.
The passage from St. Paul that forms our second lesson seems like a strange one to include in a set that is sup-posed to draw our attention to God, not ourselves. I suppose that it’s here because it does mention all three members of the Trinity. But in doing so it reminds us of both the grounding of this doctrine in our experience – which is also Jesus’s experience – and the way the doctrine leads us right back to experience. Paul says that the work of Jesus in our lives is to make us ‘justified’ and at peace with God, that is, not liable to blame or punishment for our own shortcomings. For Paul this is simply a fact, that we can rely on. It is a work of sheer grace, which gives us access also to God’s glory – something we can even boast about.
But then he drags in, as something else we can boast about, the antithesis of glory, namely suffering – and he gives us another progression, which doesn’t seem to make quite as much sense. Suffering, he says, leads to endurance – well, that’s logical enough, except when it doesn’t – but I presume he’s talking about Christian suffering, which, when accepted in the mind of Christ, probably does lead to endurance. Then that endurance produces character – another step that will find echoes in our experience. But then he says that this character produces – of all the strange results – hope. Not what we usually think of as an attribute of what we usually call ‘character’ – we might rather say that a person of ‘character’ displays courage, or faithfulness, or another of the active virtues. But Paul usually knows what he’s talking about, and he says that what we get from all this suffering, all this endurance, all this character, is hope. This is a hope we can trust, because the Holy Spirit has been given to us as the channel of God’s love.
We’re back to experience again, not high-powered theology – the experience of ordinary human beings who love and suffer and hope, all because our God loves us enough to suffer with and for us in the person of Jesus, and continues to abide with us in his Spirit. As Julian of Norwich says, where one part of God is present, all of God is present. Where the Son has redeemed, where the Father has poured out his love, where the Spirit counsels and sustains, there are God’s wisdom, God’s love and God’s power – and there is our hope. If that’s what the doctrine of the Trinity leads to, it seems like a concept worth our while to try to get our minds around, once a year.