Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, Connecticut
Trinity Sunday – May 30, 2010
A few years ago on this Sunday, Anne Watkins, who was the designated preacher, shared a snippet of a conversation she had earlier that week with another preacher about the task of preaching about the Holy Trinity. “Perhaps,” her colleague suggested, “you’d like to consider saying that the Trinity is a mystery, cannot be readily explained in words, then sit down and just leave it at that!” I am sorely tempted to do that this morning!
There are some things we just cannot fully explain. And maybe we’re not supposed to—like the mystery of our faith on which we reflect today. We observe this day as “Trinity Sunday,” a celebration included on the church calendar since 1334 and the only time when we specifically commemorate a doctrine of the Church. In its simplest form, the Trinity is an expression of how we know and experience God. A large part of that mysterious equation is the unexplainable doctrine that there is only One God but that God manifests in three divine and equal Persons.
Mind you it took the Church nearly four hundred years to get all this straight, so we should not worry if we’re a little unclear as to what it all means. After the sermon, we’ll be naming those three persons of the Trinity: Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit—in that ancient profession of the Christian faith, the Nicene Creed, and making certain statements of belief about each of them. Even so, it may still give you pause. You may still not “get it” and it may still make you scratch your head in puzzlement.
And, while the theologians of those first four or so centuries did the best they could to pin all this down for us, we should recognize that what they have left us with is the work of a male-dominated church and culture. We even refer to these crafters of the Creed as ‘the Fathers of the Church.” Simply put, our theology comes from the minds and wills of those who were in power at the time and, although we believe that the essence of the decisions they made in the great ecumenical councils of the church were inspired by God the Holy Spirit, we can still in good faith challenge some of the finer points.
One example of this is how we have traditionally used only masculine pronouns to refer to God. Certainly this is appropriate when we talk about Jesus, the Son of God, who actually took on flesh and became one of us. But God is beyond gender and, if we are going to attach a particular gender to God the Father—whom Jesus has told us we should address more intimately as “Papa”—why should we not consider that the third person of the Trinity—the life-giving Holy Spirit—be referred to with feminine pronouns. It is curious that in the original Greek text the word for “Spirit” is neuma (πνεύμά) which is neuter in gender, yet the text we read today does not refer to the Spirit as “it” which would be a bit odd, but “he.”
Largely, this is a because of who owned the language of theology in the days when the Creeds were written and that would be men. And my sense is that, when Jesus told the disciples, “I have many other things to tell you but you cannot bear them yet,” some of those things may have been about how the church would one day see a very different place for women than it did in that first century—including their call to all orders of ordained ministry.
What Jesus’ promise of the “many other things to tell” raises for me is the need for us to expand our minds and to think outside the box about God and God’s vision for this world. Theology can be mind-boggling—especially some of its more complicated aspects such as this doctrine. We need to reach deep inside of ourselves and discover again the gift of imagination that we enjoyed in our childhood.
If we think that we have already arrived in our faith, as if there is no more growing to do, as if the work of the Holy Spirit in us and in the world us has been accomplished. In the business of knowing God, we are all beginners, all of the time. The great theologian Karl Barth once wrote that all of us Christians must continually cultivate among ourselves the “spirit of the amateur.” There can be no “professional Christians,” said Barth.
To be a Christian is always to be willing to grow, to change, to be proved wrong, to be shocked and surprised by the work of the Holy Spirit among us.
While browsing at Borders the other day I met up with an Episcopal priest who is on sabbatical. One of her routines has become visiting a different church on Sunday—usually not an Episcopal Church so that she can see what life is like on the other side. Last Sunday she attended a church nearby and was informed by one of the congregants that “they had the true faith, were the most doctrinally correct church. They had gotten it all right.” For me, there’s something disturbing about that trend of thought. Does God really live in that narrow place where everything is either black or white and we have all the answers about everything? Or does God prefer to hang out in the kind of place that fosters growth, renewal, amazement and surprise and where we can view everything in brilliant living color? I’m hoping it’s the latter because I know that’s where I want to be.
The promise of the Gospel is that the Spirit is always busy, in your life and mine, in our congregation, in our worship, in our life together, unfolding more and more of the mystery of God. God’s revelation about the mysteries of our faith is an ongoing process and will continue throughout our lives. If we take just one thing away with us today about the Holy Trinity may it be this: The doctrine of the Trinity is not merely a teaching about who God is but is also about relationship. Yes, it is about the relationship between God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But more than that it is about God’s life with us and our life with each other.
The life of the Trinity is life lived in community. This community. Right here. Right now. In every word we share with one another, every thing we do for one another, every way we are Christ for one another. Beyond that, all I can say about the Trinity is that there are some things we just cannot fully explain. And maybe we’re not supposed to. And I think I’ll just leave it at that.