Trinity, Mount Vernon
With the increasing ethnic and cultural diversity in our society, there is a great deal of discussion these days about what it means to be an American. What is it that is common to the American experience, whether our roots lie in Europe or Asia, Africa or the South Pacific … or among the first human settlers of this land? There are probably a number of plausible answers to this question, but one of them is certainly social mobility. We take it for granted that each of us has the right to live wherever we choose to and can afford to live, to pursue whatever livelihood may appeal to us—and to succeed or fail at it, as the case may be—to choose whatever hair style and wardrobe we deem appropriate, and to move in any social circle to which we may aspire, whatever the circumstances of our birth may have been.
This is part of what it means to be an American, but it has not always been thus in the various lands of our ancestors. In medieval Europe, if your father tended a forge and made horseshoes for a living, your last name was probably Smith, and if you were a male, you would probably end up doing the same thing for a living. If you were the son of a man who turned cattle skins into leather, your last name was probably Tanner, and it was a trade that had occupied your forebears and would occupy your descendants for a multitude of generations. Your parents chose your marriage partner, and it was always somebody of equal social and economic standing. You were taught from a very early age to be content with your station in life—whatever it was—to not chafe against it, but to accept it gracefully. Any attempt to move beyond one’s class was considered a threat to the social order. It was actually thought of as sinful, as an act of ingratitude to God.
Of course, in 1776, the American Revolution did some serious damage to this concept, and thirteen years later the French Revolution, with the assistance of Madame Guillotine, tried to finish the job. For many in the world today, particularly for Americans, the whole idea of any fixed and inherent “order” in social relationships, the notion of stratified classes in society, is the height of civil heresy. If it did not seem quaint and foreign, it would be positively hateful.
But we have, in more recent times, followed this path to some disturbing extremes. We have taken the revolutionary ideal of a classless society, of a society in which practically anyone can aspire to practically anything, and turned it into a matter of rights. Are we not, as a society, inordinately obsessed with rights and entitlements? We have a right for everything now, and some judge can probably find it in the constitution. I once read about a residential real estate developer who refused to sell a home to a man just because the guy was a lawyer, and the developer thought it would only be a matter of time before the lawyer would find something to sue about. So what did the lawyer do in response? He sued, of course! The logical conclusion to all of this is that if anybody has a dollar more than I have, or looks at me cross-eyed, or cuts me off in traffic, or misspells my name, or is in any way better off than I am, then I’m a victim. My rights have been violated. Equal opportunity isn’t enough; I want equal results.
Nowadays, the “cutting edge” has to do with issues of sexual orientation with respect to marriage and ordination. And in some parts of the Anglican world, there is a serious move afoot to allow lay persons to preside at the celebration of the Holy Eucharist. Now, no doubt, some of these changes are good and just, and others may not be, but the relevant fact is that all this is done in the name of equal rights, all this is done in the name of opposition to “hierarchy,” it is all done largely in reaction to the oppressive social order that we inherited from medieval Europe, and which remains the standard today in many non-western cultures. Anything done in reaction is done in fear, and fear is incompatible with the message of the gospel.
Trinity Sunday offers us an alternative to fear. Trinity Sunday offers us a vision of order, a vision of hierarchy, but without the oppression and coercion that the revolutions of the 18th century rebelled against, and which we, in our quintessentially American hearts, still feel driven to guard against. Scripture tells us repeatedly that our God is a god of order, not of chaos. St Paul exhorted the Corinthians that everything should be done “decently and in order.” As Christ is an icon, a sacrament, of God, and as the church is an icon, a sacrament, of Christ, so the church should reflect, in the way its life is arranged, the nature and character of God. As the church, we are to reflect this attribute of orderliness. But this is difficult. It is difficult for those of us reared in the traditional American values of fairness, individual initiative, and competition. It is just as difficult for those of us formed in the more recent American values of egalitarianism, diversity, and rights. Order is by nature hierarchical. One comes before two, and two comes before three. Yet, it is a complex mystery, because three is greater than two, and two is greater than one.
The question is, then, can order be hierarchical without being oppressive and coercive? The answer lies in the inner life of the holy and blessed and glorious and undivided Trinity whom we worship and adore on this feast day. Our creeds teach us that the three “persons” of the Trinity—God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit—are so united one with another that they share the same essential Being, the Being we name as God. They cannot be separated and pitted one against another. We cannot pray to the Father and hope the Son doesn’t hear. We cannot implore the Holy Spirit to keep a secret from the Father. They are one God—Trinity of Persons, Unity of Being. Yet, the Persons of the Trinity are distinct: the Father is not the Son and the Son is not the Holy Spirit, and so forth, through all the possible combinations. Each has a peculiar ministry within the “community” that comprises God. The Father reveals God’s transcendence—His complete holiness and “otherness,” the immortal and invisible and inaccessible light Who is eternally distinct from the universe He has made. The Son reveals God’s immanence—His presence and involvement with and providential care for all of creation. The Holy Spirit reveals the unity of God. He is like the line that connects the dots. He is the light that shines on the Father and the Son and allows us to see them.
Now, we speak of the Father as the “first” person of the Trinity, the Son as the “second” person of the Trinity, and the Holy Spirit as the third “person” of the Trinity. There is a fundamental order, an essential hierarchy, to God that simply is. It is not open to question. Each member of the Godhead, in effect, accepts His “station” in life, not seeking to usurp another one, much as the cobbler’s son was counseled to learn how to make shoes and not entertain fantasies of marrying the Duke’s daughter. Yet, within this order, each Person of the Trinity defers to the other two. There is not even a hint of jealousy or competition or concern with rights.
So Trinity Sunday is far from being the celebration of an abstract doctrine. It is an act of worship and praise toward God who, within the inner life of the Trinity, provides us with a model for Holy Order, hierarchy without oppression. Our life together is to be characterized by order. Just as the persons of the Trinity are not interchangeable, ministries within the Church are not all alike, not interchangeable. Each is peculiar. Those who are called to ordination exercise a certain authority and leadership within the community, but they are not for that reason greater than or more important than those who minister as members of the laity. Each defers to the other in an appropriate way, reflecting the mutual deference of the persons of the Trinity. Those who are called to the sacrament of marriage manifest in their lives the sacred mystery of the relationship between Christ and his Bride, the Church, but they are not therefore greater than or more important than those who are called to holy singleness or those who don’t know yet to which state they are called. And within marriage, women and men are not interchangeable. Each represents to his or her partner the transcendent Other who is in fact God calling us into union with Himself. Those who live in religious communities have a unique opportunity to live out the New Testament injunction to “pray without ceasing” and are immeasurably blessed in their vocation. Yet, they are not thereby greater than or more important than the majority of us who are called to live and work in the world. Some ministries and states of life seem to collect more honor and recognition than others. Yet, all are necessary, all are complementary. In fact, it is only within the apparent restraints of order and hierarchy that the truest freedom and authentic giving is to be found. To know the Holy Trinity is itself Eternal Life, and to serve the Holy Trinity is perfect freedom.
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.