Monday, July 02, 2012

Guest sermon: Jan Robitscher speaks of What is the Trinity--its meaning

“For God so loved the world...”
(Jn. 3:16)

Trinity Sunday
Jan Robitscher
St. Mark’s Church
Berkeley, CA
June 3, 2012

Isaiah 61-6
Psalm 29
Romans 8:12-17
John 3:1-

In the Name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen

Today is Trinity Sunday. It has come to be seen as the logical conclusion to the celebrations of the half of the Church Year, beginning in Advent, when we hear again the story of our salvation, through Christmas and Lent, Easter, Ascension and Pentecost last week.

In some parishes, there is a curious tradition on Trinity Sunday. You see, nobody wants to preach on this day because the doctrine of the Trinity is so complex, indeed, such a great mystery that it is impossible to preach on it without falling into one or other heresy!

So this impossible task is usually given to the youngest or most recently ordained person on the parish staff. Well, I am none of those, but I’ll be brave, trusting that God: Father, Son and Spirit, will keep me on the right path.

This day has been called an “idea feast” because it celebrates a doctrine rather than a person or historical event. I remember seeing a stained glass window once which was the ancient symbol of the Trinity. In the middle was a circle “God”. Then there was a triangle: at the top, “Father”; at the bottom left, “Son”; at the bottom right “Holy Spirit”.

On the connecting bars of the triangle were the words (all in Latin) “IS NOT” On the bars connecting Each part of the Trinity to God, the word “IS”. So, while the Father is not the Son and the Son is not the Spirit, they are all God. Confused?

The window is essentially correct in it’s theology. But I would say that this is NOT an “idea feast”. The reasons why we are confused are at least two. First, that wherever we are on the religious spectrum, we are all products of good old rugged American individualism. We can’t help but think of the Trinity as three individual beings.

This is where, if we kept going, we would fall into one or other heresy, and, if we struggled at it long enough, it would surely end in an argument. But let’s not go there. The second reason we are confused is that we think that “mystery” is something we don’t understand, or a riddle to be solved. In Christian theology, “mystery” means “a divinely revealed reality that words can never fully express.”1 Perhaps a little history might help.

Though the Bible [teaches] the truth of the Trinity of God implicitly
in both Old and New Testaments, the development and delineation of this doctrine was brought about by the rise of heretical groups or teachers who either denied the deity of Christ or that of the Holy Spirit. [They actually had “hymn wars”--the Christians won!]

This caused the early church to formally crystallize the doctrine
of the [Trinity]. Actually, Tertullian in 215 A.D. was the first one to state this doctrine using the term, Trinity.2

By the early sixth century, the Rule of St. Benedict speaks of ending the Psalmody of the daily Offices with the Gloria Patri--Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit... and the prayers of Celtic Christianity were strongly Trinitarian. By the 11th century this feast was sometimes celebrated on the Sunday before Advent--at the end of the Liturgical Year.3

But we owe it to no less than St.Thomas Becket for obtaining permission to celebrate a Feast for the Trinity, his first act after his consecration as Archbishop of Canterbury on the Sunday after Pentecost, and this practice spread quickly through England and beyond so that by Pope John XXII in 1334 Trinity Sunday became a universal feast. OK.

So if the history, though interesting, does not provide us a way into this Feast, what about today’s lessons?

Isaiah and Nicodemus each had encounters with God. Isaiah’s call was in the course of a vision of the heavenly court: angels calling out so that their sound shook the air, incense, and the very hem of God’s robe. Rightly, Isaiah feels himself unworthy to be there.

Yet in love God does not condemn him, but rather sends an angel to touch his lips with a live coal. It must have been terrifying, but Isaiah seems to have survived unhurt. With this “absolution”, God asks for a volunteer to deliver a very strong, prophetic message, and Isaiah answers, “Here am I; Send me.”

Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night. He is a Pharisee, of some learning, and he came to “sound out” Jesus as far as his questioning faith would take him. With more questions, Jesus begins to teach him of “being born of water and Spirit”. This makes little sense to Nicodemus. Although Jesus seems a bit exasperated, he does not send Nicodemus away, but, in love, the passage culminates in perhaps the best known verse in all the Scripture:

“For God so loved the world that he sent his only Son,

so that everyone who believes in him may not perish,

but may have eternal life.” (Jn. 3:16)

I like to think that Nicodemus eventually got, by faith, what Jesus was trying so hard to tell him...

Each of these encounters with God shows a part of God’s love for, “God is love” (1 Jn. 4:16). Love is that force that differentiates and unifies.4 That’s how God can be three persons while being one.

The persons of the Trinity give themselves to each other in love, and God shows us that love in different ways. We are invited to enter into that love through the Incarnation. It is Jesus who showed us the full extent of love, giving himself in death and resurrection.

This is not the mushy, fickle love we know, but it is a reflection of the self-giving love that dwells between the persons of the Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit;

So where does that leave us, right here in the community of St. Mark’s? Whether we know it or not, we are surrounded by the Trinity and we see many reflections of this expression of God’s love. And this love affects us in both an “inward” and an “outward” way.

Although we do not have a Trinity window here, we have only to look around and count three’s to remind ourselves that God the Trinity is here. Or we can listen to the choir or as we sing the hymns to hear the Trinity expressed in poetry (perhaps the only way possible), and the notes of chords blend to form beautiful music that is a reflection of God’s love for us. Perhaps the poet George Herbert said it best:

My music shall find Thee,
and ev'ry string Shall have his
attribute to sing;
That all together may accord in Thee,
And prove one God, one harmony.

Although we need the Scripture, history, charts, music and poetry, ultimately all of these fall short of naming the mystery that is God the Holy Trinity. However we try, from the traditional Father, Son and Holy spirit to Dame Julian of Norwich, who (as we will hear in today’s anthem) attributes feminine qualities to the Trinity5, in the end we are left in that silence which is our “wonder, love and praise”.

But this silence is the beginning of our deepest relationship with God. For the way into this mystery is in the Christian life, itself. From birth--and rebirth in the waters of baptism--to death--we are signed with the cross--that very ancient representation of Jesus’ sacrifice for us and reminder of the Trinity.

And this liturgy, from beginning to end bears the Sign of the Cross. We speak the Trinity in the Nicene Creed and we will hear it when the choir sings the Te Deum: “We praise thee, O God...” Bread and wine are blessed to become for us the Body and Blood of Christ, using a prayer that is addressed to God, includes Jesus’ own words and invokes the Holy Spirit.

And we sign ourselves at various times as a way of saying “Yes, I receive this blessing and gift and remind myself of the Trinity”. All these are the “inward “ reflections of the Trinity. But every act of love we do here, whether in worship or with and for each other or at Hot Meals or the Prayer Shawl group or any other ministry we do--all of these are outward reflections of the love of the God the Holy Trinity. As a fellow preacher put it,

The loving mutuality of the Church has its source in the loving
mutuality of the eternal Trinity.6

So I invite you: Look around and see God’s creative acts! Hear the music! Receive God’s redemptive acts: the Life of Jesus in bread and wine-become the Body and Blood of Christ! Feel the power of the Holy spirit’s sanctifying acts to console us, guide us, gifts us and lead us into all truth as we are sent out to “love and serve the Lord”! Feel the baptismal water as you go by the font! Know that, while we can never exhaust the reality of the Trinity, this Love of God, that we live.

This one-day season of Trinity Sunday is far more than an “idea feast”, or the celebration of a theological doctrine. It is a “Faith Feast”--a recognition that the Trinity--God the Three-in-one--the love of God--surrounds us on every side. It is the air we breathe and in all creation; the water in which we “swim” in baptismal rebirth; the Eucharist, in which we receive the very life of Jesus; the gifts of prayer and service poured out upon us by the Holy Spirit,who will lead us into all truth as we take the next steps in our life together.

All of these are the reflection of God’s love in and with and for us, here in the community of St. Mark’s. And in this creating, redeeming and sanctifying love of the Holy, Triune God we are sent out to the wider Church and to the world, and this is Good News, Indeed!

To God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit be glory for ever and ever.


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