Readings online here.
In all my years as a campus chaplain, I’ve been free to do a lot of supplying in other parishes, both Episcopalian and Lutheran, because no campus ministry is so foolish as to try having a service for college students on a Sunday morning. The Catholic community at Butler likes to advertise their afternoon Mass as “a great way to start the day.” Anyway, in all these parishes I’ve visited, I’ve noticed a pattern. It seems that lots of rectors (or pastors, as the Lutherans call them) like to be out of town on Trinity Sunday. It makes me wonder if they would just as soon avoid preaching on the Trinity.
So who’s missing today? Actually, I don’t think Fr. Sam would avoid this. When it comes to a head-spinning topic like the Trinity, I’m pretty sure he’s as wonky as I am, ready to explain how and why, for instance, Thomas Aquinas taught that in God there are five notions, four relations, three personal properties, two emanations, and one substance. (When I hear that, I can’t help thinking of “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”)
But even though I’m sure Sam would have loved to preach today, here I am once again preaching on the Trinity while somebody’s out of town. At least I’m getting used to it.
I think we can all understand why many would just as soon talk about something else. If you try to make the Trinity easier to understand, somebody will call you a heretic. And if you try to avoid whatever terminological faux pas you had just supposedly committed, somebody else will call you a heretic. (Example: “St. Patrick’s Bad Analogies for the Trinity”) At least it’s just name-calling these days. There was a time when you could get burned at the stake.
A preacher could always cop out and just have everybody turn to page 864 of the Prayer Book to recite the long-winded and convoluted Athanasian Creed, where we discover that we’d better agree wholeheartedly with every line of it, or else “perish everlastingly.” (Do notice that this creed is placed in the “Historical Documents” section. It’s no longer considered binding. Also, we now know that St. Athanasius did NOT write it.)
But rest assured, this Sunday is not about taking an ancient formula and using it to club people over the head. It’s not about celebrating a formula but a life—nothing less than the Christ-shaped, self-giving life God lives with us, in us, and through us. We’re celebrating a way of living with God that began to take shape soon after the Church’s first Pentecost. Listen to how Paul puts it: “We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ … because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit [who] has been given to us” (Romans 5:1, 5). In today’s Gospel Jesus says, “All that the Father has is mine” (John 16:15), and Paul pushes the idea one step further: All that God has is ours too.
That’s the doctrine of the Trinity in a nutshell: God holds nothing back from us; God is utterly self-giving—and I mean utterly SELF-giving. In every gift God gives to us, God gives nothing less than God’s very self: “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God.” God manages to give God’s whole self away to us in love, and yet without ever running out.
I wish I could draw everybody a picture, but of course I can’t. The Nicene Creed offers us one picture—“Light from Light”—and that helps. The source is light, the beam is light, the reflection is light, and they can’t be separated or confused. Not bad, but still too impersonal. And the trouble with any picture is that you can step back and look at it without getting too involved. But you can’t do that with God. God holds nothing back, gives nothing less than God’s very self to us, so we can’t step back from God. We can’t stay uninvolved when God is already thoroughly involved with us. If we want to have even the slightest inkling of what that means, what difference it makes, we’re just going to have to live it.
Now how do we do THAT? Well, if God is God’s gift to us, maybe we should start seeing ourselves the same way, as gifts—gifts to each other, gifts to God, and even gifts to ourselves. Lady Wisdom, whom St. Paul gender-bendingly identified with Jesus, says, “I was daily [God’s] delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race” (Proverbs 8:30-31). Wisdom is the Creator’s delight, the Creator is Wisdom’s delight, and so is the human race and the whole inhabited world. Can we learn to delight in one another that way, to delight even in ourselves?
It’s not an easy thing to do. After all, we’ve made quite a mess of things. I’m not alone when I confess that I feel as though I’m running out of useful things to say OR do about our growing divisions in this country, about the next devastating act of violence, about our inability to agree on what’s a fact and what is not. Everything I say or do starts to seem empty and futile in the face of the next disheartening headline. I continue to be dumbfounded at the number of ways we come up with to deny our own giftedness to each other.
Yet at the risk of looking foolish and out of touch, I simply can’t give up on the conviction that God has resolved never to give up on us, to love us into repentance and into new life, no matter the pain we may cause God. Even now, in all this mess, God is stubbornly bent on making gifts out of each of us—gifts to each other, gifts to God, and gifts to ourselves.
And so we too need—stubbornly—to resolve never to give up on one another, to love one another into our own unique giftedness. It’s something we can’t do off by ourselves. One of the deepest puzzles about our lives is that we discover our own individuality only in our life together, only by working at community even while others seem to work against it. And we become a community only as we each learn how to be our own unique selves. The doctrine of the Trinity teaches us that the same thing holds true for God. Even God’s uniqueness happens in community.
So on this Trinity Sunday, in the face of all that seems to speak against it, we celebrate the community that God is. But just as importantly, we celebrate the community that God is making of us, despite all we might do to resist it. Look around you. Look at the people you know best and at the people you hardly know at all—and at the people you just can’t stand or even fathom. Surprising as it may sound, you’re looking at the very life of God, happening among us right now. You’re just as much a part of that life as any of the rest of us. And that makes all the difference in the world.