St Andrew's, Carbondale w/ St James', Marion--John 16:12-15, Romans 5:1-5, Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31
You’ve probably noticed how difficult it is for human beings to get along sometimes, right? That’s why we have wars. That’s why we have lawyers. That’s why we have conciliators and facilitators and psychotherapists. Countries have conflicts with other countries; we see it on the news every day. Very serious cutthroat competition drives our marketplaces. Extended families are dysfunctional across multiple generations. Even those who claim to be followers of Jesus squabble amongst themselves over all kinds of things, both major and minor. And I’m sure that none of this comes as any news to you. It’s just the environment we live in.
But, as Christians, as followers of Jesus, we have a distinctive attitude toward all this ubiquitous conflict. We certainly live under its shadow—whether the conflict is global or local, whether it’s substantial and dangerous or just petty and annoying. But we are people who, simply by virtue of our identity in Christ, are committed to the imperative of reconciliation. Reconciliation is not just an aspect of the gospel; reconciliation is the gospel. The possibility and hope of reconciliation—reconciliation with God, reconciliation with other people, reconciliation with ourselves, reconciliation with creation, with the cosmos—this is precisely the good news that is our mission to propagate by deed and word. Indeed, the catechism in our Prayer Book articulates the mission of the church as restoring “all people to unity with God and one another in Christ.”
This is daunting, isn’t it? I, for one, find it extremely intimidating. But the good news is, we don’t have to make it up from scratch. We don’t have to accomplish it on our own power, as a result of our own resourcefulness and our own hard labor. It’s God project. And within the life of God itself, we find the resources we need.
Today is Trinity Sunday, which reminds us that when we as Christians say “God,” we mean something rather more complex and interesting than, say, Jews or Muslims or people who just use the word casually without giving it very much thought. The doctrine of the Trinity wasn’t fully fleshed out in the mind of the Church until around four centuries after Jesus was no longer present on this planet in his human body. It’s infamously hard to understand, and even harder to explain. There is no single adequate way of speaking about the Trinity—though lots of wrong ways!—just a few phrases, like “trinity of Persons in unity of Being”—that have distilled as less inadequate than all the others.
We have all sorts of symbolic abstractions that we use to navigate these perilous theological waters. You’ve probably seen that chart that has the word “God” in the middle of a triangle, and the words “Father,” “Son,” and “Holy Spirit” at each of the corners. Between each corner and the center is a line labeled “Is,” to indicate that each of the Persons of the Trinity is truly and completely God. The lines that actually make up the triangle are labeled “Is Not,” indicating that the Persons of the Trinity are not to be confused with one another. Really, it makes most anybody’s head swim, doesn’t it?
So it’s helpful to bear in mind that there’s a difference between the doctrine of the Trinity and the Trinity itself, as important as that doctrine is. God cannot be reduced to or contained by any doctrine, though the doctrines of the Church are true as far as they go, and we’re not at liberty to play with them; they’re the least bad descriptions of whatever it is they describe. Now, to end of making that distinction between the doctrine of God and God himself, let me call your attention to an icon that originates in Russia about 500 years ago, but has become quite well-known in both its native Eastern environment and in the Christian west as well. In the development of Christian devotion, this image has come to be understood as representing the unrepresentable Trinity in the “least inadequate” way.
It depicts three “angels” whom we read about in Genesis. They visit the patriarch Abraham and deliver the news that his aged wife Sarah will nevertheless bear a son within the next year. Abraham prepares a meal for them, and this icon shows them seated at his table for the meal. Because, according to the Law of Moses in the Old Testament, you can’t depict God artistically, this icon has entered the Christian spiritual tradition as a kind of surrogate image for the Holy Trinity. The “angels”—and an angel is always an ambiguous figure in the Old Testament—the angels whom we mystically see as representing the three Persons of the Holy Trinity, are gathered at a table for a meal. Now, think about it: a meal is an intrinsically social occasion. All of us have found ourselves in situations—at a dinner party, in the dining car of a train, perhaps on a cruise ship—when we’re sharing a meal with people we’ve never met before, and in those circumstances we feel an impulse—or an obligation, at any rate—to make conversation, to be sociable. So the fact that we see, by analogy, the Persons of the Trinity sharing a meal together demonstrates that they are in relationship with one another. They are not compartmentalized, not siloed, not abstracted, but engaged with one another, in relationship with one another.
Now, notice that each bears a symbol of royal—or, in this case, divine—authority, but each one’s head is inclined in deference to the others. They are absolutely co-equal, and at the same time mutually subordinate.
This “picture” says way more than “a thousand words.” It is a mystical image of the what our missionary goal—that is, reconciliation of all people with God and one another—an image of what our missionary goal looks like. The Holy Trinity shows us a God who goes out of Himself to be in relationship with humankind. This results not only in “peace with God” but sharing in God’s glory.
This “outgoingness” of God is intimated by the personification of Wisdom in this morning’s first reading from the Book of Proverbs. We read
Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice? On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads, she takes her stand. … “I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always.
Then, in St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, God’s love is described as having been “poured into our hearts,” a robust image of God’s outgoingness, of God extending himself, of God’s “sociability,” of his desire to be in relationship with us, because God is, in his very nature, “communal”—a divine community of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Unity of Being, Trinity of Persons.
Jesus, in his farewell address to his closest disciples on the eve of his death, talks about the Holy Spirit who will be sent after his departure, and describes the Holy Spirit as the “Spirit of truth.” This reminds us that an authentic relationship is indeed an environment in which truth can be told. Think how rare that is in so many of our relationships, both individually and in community. We often don’t feel safe in speaking truth, for fear of what the response will be. We figure that a fragile and insecure and not entirely truthful relationship is better than a broken relationship, better than no relationship at all. But as we see the Holy Trinity, represented by angels, gathered around the table in this icon, it’s clear that they are not going anywhere without one another. Their commitment is solid. When we’re in a secure relationship, we can tell the truth, because we’re not afraid that those who hear the truth we speak are going to bolt, to break off the relationship. We are Trinitarian Christians because the relationship between the Persons of the Trinity provides the template, the model, by which we can safely speak truth to one another. The Trinity is the seedbed in which we can grow into the sort of reconciled mutual deference that mirrors the life of God.
So, you see, we have much more to celebrate on Trinity Sunday than a doctrine, as significant as the doctrine is. The Trinity itself, God himself, not the doctrine, is our very life and salvation. The Trinity is the roadmap and the resource for our missionary work of restoring all people to unity with God and one another in Christ. 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.