Sermon Preached on Trinity Sunday
St. Barnabas by the Bay Episcopal Church (Villas, New Jersey)
May 30, 2010
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Trinity Sunday – a celebration in the church’s calendar since 1334. Trinity Sunday – a day on which parishioners flock to church expecting to finally have this mysterious notion of a God who is “three, but one” explained. Trinity Sunday – an opportunity for clergy to invite seminarians and others to be the guest preachers so as to avoid all of the pitfalls of attempting to explain something so beautiful, so true, and yet so incomprehensible. Trinity Sunday – this year, the day I choose to return from vacation. What was I thinking?!
For most of us, when we think of the trinity, we think of the traditional language of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” This is the language of much of our worship: our opening acclamation begins “Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” It provides the framework for The Nicene Creed and The Apostles’ Creed. You’ll find the language in the Eucharistic Prayer as we recall the story of our salvation in preparation for receiving the sacrament. And I will conclude the service with a blessing that also invokes this trinity. In between, we’ll sing hymns that make references to this different “persons” or “aspects” of the triune God. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Of course, we have other names for God; other images and metaphors that can help in our understanding of this vast mystery. In our recent history, many new formulations of the trinity have emerged: Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer(1); Earth Maker, Pain Bearer, and Life Giver(2); Mother, Lover, and Friend(3); One, Holy and Undivided Trinity(4). But these less traditional ways of naming the trinity are not a new phenomenon. In fact, in the 14th c., English mystic Julian of Norwich wrote, “I beheld the working of all the blessed Trinity: in which beholding I saw and understood these three properties: the property of the Fatherhood, the property of the Motherhood, and the property of the Lordhood, in one God”(5).
Father, Son and Holy Spirit – yes. But also “Fatherhood, Motherhood, and Lordhood.” Each of these alternatives – whether from 700 years ago or from the last three decades - these alternatives – and others - have been developed by theologian/worshippers who seek more inclusive language or language which they hope will clarify the mystery of the three-in-one. Have they been successful? I suppose each of us must answer that question for ourselves. Simone Weil, in her book Waiting for God, puzzles over the question this way: “There is a God. There is no God. Where is the problem? I am quite sure that there is a God in the sense that I am sure my love is no illusion. I am quite sure there is no God in the sense that I am sure there is nothing which resembles what I can conceive when I say that word”(6).
Trinity Sunday – a day on which we gather once again in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Today is a day to marvel at God’s creation, a day to delight in God’s dwelling on earth in the person of Jesus, and a day to rejoice that the Spirit of truth is with us and continues to lead us in the way of Jesus even amidst the ever-changing circumstances of our lives and of our world. And a day to acknowledge that our attempts to explain the trinity – to explain God - will always fall short. God will, thank God, always be a being greater than any language we might use. In the letter to the church in Rome, Paul writes, “Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand . . .”(7) New Testament theologian, N. T. Wright, suggests that Paul’s use of the word “grace” in this passage is “shorthand. . . for the sphere of God’s continuing love. . . a room into which Jesus has ushered all who believe, a room where [we] now stand, a place characterized by the presence and sustaining love of God"(8).
In a moment we will stand together to recite the words of The Nicene Creed. Words which none of us can fully understand or explain, words which some of us struggle to fully accept or believe, words which tell us something of the nature of God and something of God’s love for us, words that we speak together in this room called Grace, a room where we are invited to be at peace with God, with one another, and with ourselves – a trinity of relationship.
Trinity Sunday – a day on which we gather once again in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit – to worship God, the one, holy and undivided trinity; a day for worship, a day for Sabbath keeping, a day to marvel at a God who has chosen, as the psalmist writes, to create us just a “little lower than the angels” and to adorn us “with glory and honor.” And we do not have to understand why or how; we simply are called to give our thanks and praise.
(1) While I was unable to locate the origin of this Trinitarian formula, I did find an easy-to-understand and helpful discussion of some of the problems with this language here: Alistair E. McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction , 3rd edition, (Blackwell Publishing) excerpt available online accessed on May 29, 2010.
(2) From The New Zealand Prayer Book
(3) Sallie McFague, Models of God: Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1987).
(4) From Enriching Our Worship
(5) Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, chapter 54 available online accessed on May 29, 2010.
(6) Simone Weil, Waiting for God (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), p. 32, quoted in Sallie McFague, Metaphorical Theology: Models of God in Religious Language (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982), p. 1.
(7) Romans 5:1-2a.
(8) N. T. Wright, "The Letter to the Romans: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections," The New Interpreter's Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, Volume X (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), p. 516.