June 12, 2022, Holy Spirit, Vashon the Rev. Jeffrey Gill
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31, Psalm 8, Romans 5:1-5, John 16:12-15
There’s a joke among clergy that the Curate always gets to preach on Trinity Sunday. It’s a great opportunity for a recent seminary graduate to demonstrate his or her vast knowledge of historical theology, to put their newly honed eloquence and erudition on display… (Or their humiliating ignorance, as the case may be!)… Or just to show how clever they can be, trying to make it all relevant and meaningful. I guess I get to be your curate today, and you’ll have to be the judge.
Last Sunday, the Day of Pentecost, was the feast day for this, the parish of the Holy Spirit, commemorating the coming of the Spirit to empower Jesus’ disciples for their work in the world. And today we celebrate another feast day dedicated to the Holy Trinity. Over the course of my ordained ministry I have been rector of three parishes, two of them named Trinity (one in Topsfield, Massachusetts and one in Seattle).
This is the only feast day in the church’s calendar that is dedicated not to a person or an event, but to a doctrine – or a “teaching” as formulated in the church’s official creeds. I know, Christians are less and less fans of doctrines and creeds, and more and more fans of actually doing and living what the Christian life is all about – and I have to say that’s not all bad. But some would argue that the two really must go hand in hand.
And yes, I know, when it comes to the doctrine of the Trinity, it’s tempting to throw our hands up and say, “It’s outdated and arcane.” One God in three coequal, co-eternal persons who are of the same essence, or Christ’s two natures existing in hypostatic union – none of this was ever going to be a self-evident proposition! Some of us here would say we just plain don’t believe parts of it and kind of mumble our way through – or maybe even go silent in certain places. Some are quick to note that it perpetuates patriarchal understandings of God. Or others that it doesn’t square with our rational world view, or that it’s just too complicated to try to understand. There are those who say, Trinity, schminity, it doesn’t really matter what you believe. And then there are those like a woman I heard some time ago who said, “I really don’t believe much of this, but I just love saying those words, I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth… – they give me such comfort!” Even its protagonists end up saying that in the end, the Trinity is a mystery!
I guess we’re kind of all over the map, aren’t we?!
And let’s be clear – Christians have always been all over the map when it comes to the Creeds. There has never, even in the beginning, been a unanimous consensus on how to articulate the church’s understanding of the nature of God in light of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. I used to have a bishop who surprised a group of questioning parishioners once by saying it was not up to every one of us to believe every part of it. It is an affirmation of our collective unconscious, theologically speaking. One person may really resonate with one part and someone else another, but together, this is the glue that holds us together.
One very important fifth century theologian, Augustine of Hippo, said to his fellow bishops, “What then… shall we say of God? For if you have been able to comprehend what you would say, it is not God; if you have been able to comprehend it, you have comprehended something else instead of God. If you have been able to comprehend Him as you think, by so thinking you have deceived yourself.”
So, our goal is not to comprehend God, or to have God all figured out, because as soon as we do, then, well, that would not be God. In the end, the trinitarian creeds and the theological reasoning behind them are our finite minds doing their best to grasp an infinite God.
But we should not lose sight of what this doctrine of the Trinity intends for us to do and to be. As Christians we are people who understand ourselves to be created in love by an infinite and generative God, who creates all things out of nothing. We hear the voice of Wisdom in the Book of Proverbs today describing the wonders of creation, the beauty and the wildly extravagant diversity of the created world, the earth, sky, and waters, mountains, rivers, and fields. Our affirmation of God as the creator of heaven and earth draws us into a deep reverence for all of creation and a deep sense of wonder and awe before the beauty and grandeur of all that God has made. That kind of wonder and awe must also find expression in our care of creation and our determination to walk softly on the earth, to be good stewards of all that God has entrusted into our hands.
As Christians, we also confess that “we believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one being with the Father” – yes it is a mouth full! But it’s saying we are committing ourselves to an understanding of God that includes a deeply human dimension – a God in whose image we are made, and who took on human flesh and was born of a human mother, lived and grew, ate and drank, laughed and cried, so human that he suffered, died, and was buried! This Trinitarian God we confess in the Creed is not far from us, but is Emmanuel, intimately “God with us.” And Christians who really believe that will care for the very humanity that is made in God’s image, even as Jesus did. If God is not too good to stoop to the least among us, to care for outcasts and sinners, the poor, the sick and the lame, how then can we not do the same? Our belief in the triune God is a call to love and to care for each other; it’s a call to solidarity with all those whom Jesus loved.
And then there’s that mysterious Holy Spirit – “the Lord, the giver of Life, who proceeds “from the Father” (if you’re an Eastern Christian) “and the Son” (if you’re a Western Christian). (We’ll have to save that little controversy for a whole class some other time!) But what does it mean for us as Christians to say that the third person of the Holy Trinity is Spirit – proceeding from the other persons of the Trinity? In professing such an understanding of God we affirm the work of the Spirit in the world, through the church and its ministries, but also through all of creation, making God’s presence known, pervading all that is. In our gospel today, Jesus said to the disciples, “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; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.” It is that Spirit of truth that we believe and trust has guided and continues to guide the church in its ongoing search for truth in our ever-evolving reality of the human experience.
Last Sunday on Pentecost, our Feast of the Holy Spirit, we heard about tongues of fire setting upon the disciples. In the 7th century, St. Maximus the Confessor suggested that those who saw tongues of fire upon the disciples were seeing those disciples as they truly are – not only in that moment, but always and everywhere, ablaze with the power and presence of God. And also that as Christians we are called to be mystics, unveiling the presence of God in all things. Our profession of belief in this third person of the Holy Trinity commits us to living lives in the Spirit and to seeing the world, its people, its needs, its possibilities always with new eyes and new vision. It is the Spirit that compels us to get out of ourselves, that sends us into the world, and that guides and empowers the work we do to bring all things to their fulfillment.
Belief in and worship of this triune God, this trinity of persons in unity of being, Creator, Incarnate One, and Life-Giving Spirit, matters, because it begins to shape the people we become, and therefore the kind of world we help to bring into being.
It has been said that “what we worship, we become” – for better or for worse. And to quote Augustine of Hippo again in another place, he said, “God became human so that, indeed, we might become divine.”
Just by speaking of one God in three persons, we have said that there is complexity to God – that God does not fit neatly into the categories of our human understanding. God is both transcendent – above all things and beyond them – and at the same time imminent – the God in whom we live and move and have our very being. And that God is Spirit, and as Jesus said to the woman at the well, “the true believers will worship God in Spirit and in truth.”
How we understand the Trinity will not be determined finally so much by statements of belief or exactitude of doctrinal formulations as it will be by how faithfully we live into the life of the Trinity – by our sense of awe and wonder and care for all of creation; our identification with human need and suffering and our willingness to serve others as Jesus did; and by having our eyes open to the presence of the Spirit working in us and in all things.
What we worship we form a bond with and we then become. And that’s why we worship the triune God – to become as God is. One of the great hymns for this day, sung to the tune of St. Patrick’s Breastplate, says it so powerfully and beautifully:
I bind unto myself today the strong Name of the Trinity, by invocation of the same, the Three in One, and One in Three.
We are bound to the strong name of the Trinity, and that is surely a comfort and a balm to our spirits, but equally a challenge to live more fully into the image of the One we worship. May our worship be genuine; may it be in Spirit and truth. May it finally bring us to our Oneness with the One we worship – Creator, Incarnate One, and Life-Giving Spirit.