Sunday, June 19, 2011

Homily for Trinity Sunday

Trinity Church, Jacksonville

If it were up to me—if it were up to any of us, really—to make up a religion from scratch, to define its doctrines and practices and rules of behavior, I very much doubt that we would come up with anything much like Christianity. For starters, some of the Ten Commandments might need to be revisited, and the whole business about the Son of God getting crucified is just … well, distasteful. Actually, it’s because Christianity is so very odd, so very much something we would not come up with on our own, that gives it a certain credibility as actually having been revealed by God. And the centerpiece of our faith’s glorious unlikeliness has got to be the doctrine of the Holy and Undivided Trinity—God who is Unity of Being and Trinity of Persons, to whom we give laud and honor on this feast day. The Trinity is a most unlikely doctrine. It is unbearably complex and maddeningly easy to get wrong if we start trying to explain it. I’m particularly fond of the language from the ancient Creed of St Athanasius, which you can look up later if you want to; it’s in the back of the Prayer Book in the section labeled “Historical Documents.” The Athanasian Creed reminds us that “the Father is incomprehensible, the Son is incomprehensible, and the Holy Spirit is incomprehensible; yet there be not three incomprehensibles, but one incomprehensible.”


The notion of the Trinity is implied in a handful of passages in the New Testament, but not in a way that might not otherwise be accounted for without resorting to the mental gymnastics of the Athanasian Creed and the mountain of books that have been written on the subject. The fully-developed doctrine of the Trinity of the sort that we now consider a linchpin of Christian theological orthodoxy was not refined and distilled and hammered out completely until some 300 years after the time of Christ, and even then only at the cost of a great deal of sweat and tears, not to mention a fair amount of blood.

So…what does this mean for the ordinary Christian? That is, the average Christian (let alone the average non-Christian) who has a limited interest in the subtleties of theology, who will never take a course on Trinitarian thought, or even read a book on the subject, who may, on a good day, read a tri-fold leaflet, or perhaps even listen attentively to a sermon on Trinity Sunday. Such people are regularly made into semi-hypocrites by the demands of the liturgy, in the demands placed on them by the Church’s response to their desire to be baptized or confirmed, or to have their child or godchild baptized, or even, the way we do things now, to just be present at a service that includes a baptism. These average, theologically unsophisticated people are apt to profess semi-blind belief in the Trinity, and then proceed directly to ignore the Trinity, not out of any duplicity or malice, but because they perceive the Trinity as simply irrelevant to their real workaday lives.

The task of a preacher on Trinity Sunday, then, is not so much to explain all the subtleties as it is to somehow make a case for the relevance of this core doctrine of the Church, to show that, without it, the gospel would no longer be the “good news” we claim it to be. So, let’s give it a whirl.

Many of you may recall a film that was released several years ago, The Truman Show, starring Jim Carrey. A man named Truman was living what he thought to be a normal life in the town in which he had been born—holding a job, raising a family, doing the ordinary things that ordinary people do. What the viewer of the film soon realizes, however, is that it’s all fake. Truman is in fact the main character in the ultimate reality TV show, and he’s the only one who doesn’t know it. His whole life has been lived on a huge television sound stage, with a very high ceiling painted to look like the sky. Everything around him is a prop, and all the people in his life—his parents, his wife, his employer and co-workers, everyone—all the people in his life are paid professional improv actors. Their job is to preserve the illusion for Truman that his world is a real world, so that the people who are in the real world can tune in and watch him 24 hours a day, seven days a week, just like they’ve been able to do since the day he was born.

Now, I don’t want you to have me committed or anything, but I will tell you that in a handful of moments of bizarre philosophical speculation during my life, long before I ever saw The Truman Show, I have indeed wondered whether what I experience and take for granted as reality is, in fact, reality. Maybe you’ve fantasized along these lines too; I don’t know! The thought of it, however, is disorienting and disintegrating precisely because we realize deep down that we are not fully human except as we know ourselves in relation to others. Even a hermit defines himself as having no contact or limited contact with others; without others, he would have nobody to not relate to! Psychologists tell us that, when we’re born, it takes a while for us to realize that we’re actually a separate entity from our mother. Then we expand our world and know ourselves in relation to our father and other family members; then neighbors, friends, and the rest of the world.

For Truman, his crisis arrives when he begins to notice some glitches, some inconsistencies, in the massive illusion that the TV producers had maintained for him, and he grows suspicious. He starts thinking back over his life and remembers more glitches and inconsistencies. In the climactic scene of the movie, he’s on a sailboat on the stage set’s fake ocean, undeterred by the storm the producers concocted as a means of inducing him to return to shore. He reaches what, for him, is literally the end of the world, the edge of the earth—in other words, the wall of the sound stage. At this point, he has a conversation with a voice booming down from above—a God-figure if there ever was one!—yet, it’s only the TV show’s producer. He comes clean with Truman, but nonetheless attempts to talk him into returning to the only world he had ever known and resuming his normal life, rather than walking through the door to the outside world. (There’s obviously a lot at stake for the producer; if Truman walks through the door, the show’s long run is immediately over.) To his credit, Truman realizes that he literally faces dehumanization unless he makes the choice to walk through the door out of his artificial world where he had not one authentic relationship, because the only authentic human life is a life lived in relation to others.

In many cultures, there is an enduring myth of a human child raised from infancy by wild animals. Assuming this could happen, would such a person be truly human? He or she would have the DNA of the species homo sapiens, but, without ever having been in a human relationship, could we say that this individual is really and fully a human person? I think this is a good question, a very good question indeed.

And it leads directly to the relevance of the doctrine of the Trinity for our lives. You see, the life of Holy Trinity—God’s own life, God’s own experience of God’s own self—reflects the structure of human experience, your human experience and mine. It would be much more accurate to say, of course, that it is our human experience that reflects and bears the imprint of the structure of God’s life as trinity of persons in unity of being. Just as we would not be human without being in relationship with other humans, just as Truman realized he would not be a real person unless he walked through the door of the sound stage and into the real world, so God would not be God if He were not trinitarian. God is a single being, but He is also a community of persons in relation with one another: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, never to be confused with one another, and never to be separated from one another, and thereby forming the template for our humanity, wherein I am not you and you are not me, but I can never truly know myself apart from my relationship with you, and you can never truly know yourself apart from your relationship with me.

This all leads, of course, to a central affirmation of both Jewish and Christian faith, one that goes back to the beginning of the book of beginnings, the Book of Genesis. In that primeval narrative of human origins, we learn that we are made in the very image and likeness of God. Unlike bacteria and snails and rabbits and horses and even porpoises and chimpanzees, we bear a family resemblance to God. This is what sets us apart from all living creatures. Yet, as we have seen, we are obviously not truly ourselves apart from community with others. So, if God were not trinitarian, our “resemblance” to Him would be meaningless. However, God has revealed Himself as a holy and undivided Trinity. God experiences “community” within His own being. As human beings created in God’s image, we reflect that community in the structure of our life and experience, particularly our life together in the Church.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: As it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.

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