Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
Trinity Sunday – May 31, 2015
+In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. Amen.
A little boy riding his bike stopped in front of the church and noticed the open doors. The priest was just coming out of the church and invited the boy to come in and take a look. The boy said, “But what if somebody steals my bike?” The priest assured him, “No worries. The Holy Spirit will watch it for you.” So he followed the priest into the church and observed how the priest dipped his finger into the holy water font, made the sign of the cross, and said, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen”
“Can I do that?” the boy asked. “Sure,” said the priest. So he dipped his fingers into the font and made a kind of cross-like motion on himself and said, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son. Amen” The priest looked at him with a puzzled look and asked, “What happened to the Holy Spirit?” “Oh,” said the boy, “outside watching my bike.”
Trinity Sunday. That’s today’s headliner. Who made it so for us Anglicans? Thomas Becket was consecrated Archbishop of Canterbury on the Sunday after Pentecost in the twelfth century, and his first act was to decree that the day of his consecration should be held as a new festival in honor of the Holy Trinity. This observance spread from Canterbury throughout the whole of western Christendom. To put this all in some perspective, that was roughly eight hundred years after the concept of the Trinity as a doctrine of the Christian faith was defined by two councils of the Church and it took four hundred years after the Resurrection of Jesus for the Church to figure it out.
Well, they had this dilemma. The disciples and most members of the first Christian communities were faithful Jews whose experience of God was Yahweh, a name too sacred to be spoken, the creator of the cosmos and true God of all the world. The Hebrew people had a long, complicated history with their God.
Then comes Jesus who shows us the face of God and is revealed in scripture as God’s Son. Jesus is the incarnation of God, God-in-flesh, who comes down to earth to teach us how to live as God’s beloved ones. Before he leaves this earth Jesus promises to send the Holy Spirit who will come with great power to lead us in truth.
Those first Christians then had to make sense of all this. They had to wrap their head around the idea that God whom they had known through revelation in the Hebrew Scripture and the Prophets was now manifested in diversity—the God of their experience as Jews, in Jesus and also in a powerful Spirit, the ruach or creative breath of God. And there is not mention of the Trinity in the Bible so they probably scratched their heads for the first hundred years or so trying to figure it all out. It took a lot of debating, arguing, and praying to come up with the doctrine of the Trinity and it took four hundred years!
Still it is hard to explain the mystery of the Trinity and it’s easy to understand that people struggle with it. Perhaps a good metaphor is that as the church we are one but are many individuals with many personalities and perspectives. Yet we partake of one bread and one cup as the living body of Christ in the world. Just as there is diversity and unity in the church, so is there in the Trinity.
Here is a place where the Celtic understanding of faith can inform our belief. Those ancient people long devoted their creative energies not so much to laying out a clearly articulated theology of the Trinity, but rather to calling upon the triune God in the rhythms and rituals, relationships and routines of daily living—including art, poetry, and music. For the earliest believers in places like Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales, the Trinity was not an idea to be grasped but a mystery to be experienced and a relationship into which they might enter.
The encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus in the Gospel today supports that understanding and should be a relief to anyone who struggles with this or any other doctrine of the Christian faith. Nicodemus was a man of compassion with a legal and enquiring mind. He was used to weighing up evidence with a craving for truth and justice. This encounter with Jesus was one of mutual respect as we see from the fact that they each refer to the other as ‘Rabbi’. It was a meeting full of genuine concern with important issues.
Nicodemus was a man of utter integrity, yet he was still not able to make that final leap of faith, to accept the whole of Jesus’ person and teaching. Jesus never turned him away. Jesus loved him and what he wanted Nicodemus most to grasp—and us most to grasp—is the love of God, a love that claims us as God’s own and invites us into deep relationship.
I think that after such a heavy contemplation of something as profound as the mystery of the Trinity, we need to go a little “lite” and even add a little humor so I’d like to turn to the first reading from the Hebrew Scriptures. It’s a great reading.
It happened to be read in the parish church some years ago in the presence of the nuns who staffed the school. Sister Margaret had a huge sense of humor and a laugh to match. They were using an older translation of the Isaiah passage and the lector reading it, instead of saying, “The angel…holding a live coal taken from the brazier,” said, “The angel, holding a live coal taken from the brassiere…” Sister Margaret had to put her head in her lap as laughter poured out of her. It took until the offertory for her to regain her composure.
This is a wonderful passage, whatever is flaming! I wonder if our preoccupation with technology and the luxury of having any piece of information we want at our finger tips has impaired our ability to imagine, to dream, to let our creative genes take over. Can we see the burning coal, the hem of the Lord’s robe filling the temple, angels with six wings singing, the whole place filled with incense. Sounds a little bit like worship here, doesn’t it?
If we would allow ourselves to imagine, we might very well see in our mind’s eye a vision of God calling us, asking us, that gnawing question: “Whom shall I send?”
The prophets weren’t the only ones who were gifted and sent by God to do God’s work in the world, nor were the disciples, nor were those first believers who crafted the doctrine of the Trinity. We are gifted. We are part of the household of God and share in the eternal priesthood of Jesus through baptism. (Later) This morning we will welcome Jameson Joseph Drozd into that household. He will join the rest of us gifted and beloved daughters and sons of God who are asked to respond to God’s question just as the prophet did. It is a choice. We can answer with humility and determination: “Here I am. Send me!” And we can make a difference.