Thursday, June 7, 2012

Holy Trinity!

Scripture for Trinity Sunday includes Isaiah 6:1-8; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17

To devote one Sunday to the central Christian vision of God as the Holy Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit seems, well, stingy— more giving a nod to ancient doctrine than modeling a profound bow to the living God.

Far back in antiquity, this was simply the Sunday next after the Day of Pentecost, and that proximity gave it an afterglow which, by the Middle Ages, got the Church thinking that it made sense to let this Sunday mark the conclusion of that half of the Christian year, Advent to Pentecost, that presents liturgically the life of Christ and the bestowal of the Holy Spirit.

So I think of Trinity Sunday as a big bold exclamation mark, our way of saying, “See where all this story of redemptive love comes from? God! See where all this commitment to incarnate love leads to? God!”

Exactly when it was that Trinity Sunday began to be observed we don’t know. But in 1334 a memo went out from Rome urging this observance everywhere. It already had special cachet in England, since St. Thomas Becket had been consecrated bishop on that day in 1162. Those of us of a certain age will recall that the old Book of Common Prayer measured all the rest of the Sundays of the year by numbering them after this day (as in the Umpteenth Sunday after Trinity), whereas these days the Prayer Book numbers the second half of our Sundays as “after Pentecost”.

That’s not to diminish the importance of the Trinity; I hear it, rather, as a choice to anchor the whole of the Christian year in the one story of what God has done for us in Jesus
Christ, whose giving of the Spirit is understood not as the end of that story but the beginning of our story as the Church. To recognize Pentecost as the birthday of the Church is to claim as our own the whole story of salvation which is still being written by our choices, our commitments, our communion with God.

The vision of the Holy Trinity remains central to our faith and practice, no less so as we hear the persons of God recast from Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to Creator, Redeemer, and Guide. Are those terms as intimate as the originals? Are they fresh and accessible in an age when many yearn to reach beyond needlessly masculine reference to God?

And speaking of what may seem dated, what is meant by “the persons of God”? In ordinary language, three persons would sound like a committee; and if there’s one thing the doctrine of the Trinity does not want to say, it is that we worship three gods.

So here is where we need to read the footnotes and recall what we must have heard in at least one Trinity Sunday sermon from the past, that the term “personae” comes from the ancient Roman theater. On a familiar level, any drama brings us characters emanating from the creative processes of an author’s writing and the actors’ taking on those roles. On a less familiar note, ancient actors used masks to express their characters, and these masks were called “personae”.

It doesn’t ring true to imagine Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as masks of God. That’s too superficial an image to describe the intimate reality we expect of God. But to say that God has more than one character sounds credible, and to listen to such New Testament texts as we’ve heard today is to notice that indeed from the first century three characterizations of God were familiar: Abba Father (in Aramaic, Abba was a term of endearment, what a child called his or her Dad), the Son of Man sent into the world to save people from what diminishes them, and the Spirit who intimately engages our spirit and gives new birth to what is spiritual in us.

John’s Gospel is a rich sketch book of how these personae of God operate. Jesus takes his Father’s truth and makes it known to people. After his ascension, this work of revelation is continued by the Spirit who demonstrates what Jesus has taught, and implants this truth in people, equipping them to do in the world what Jesus does in the world, a costly love that glorifies God whose likeness (image, persona) in us is this very ability to love.

In the rough and tumble forum of world religions, the concept of the Trinity takes its share of hits, often because it is not understood. And often it is not understood because Christians have not presented it well. In the unfolding conversation between Christianity and Islam, the Trinity is a stumbling block to Muslims. They may have 99 names of God, each revealing a characteristic of Allah, but their cri de coeur is that there is one God; and they fault Christians for believing there are three.

Shame on us, if that misunderstanding is the result of our poor public relations. Good for us, that the dialogue with Muslims will point us to the doctrine this day advances, for this vision of God is not the property of seminary professors and their students. The Holy Trinity makes theologians of us all, as we discover that getting the sense of this vision is not an elective—it’s required that we get clear how we have one God, not three, while having access to God in three ways, not one.

We’ll gain more and more of that sense, not so much through exercises in symbolic geometry like the equilateral triangle, the trefoil clover leaf, the three fish in circular motion, or the traditional tic-tac-toe model you’ll find in today’s announcements sheet.

We’ll gain the vision by practice. From very early times, Christian prayer has been made to God the Father through Jesus Christ the Son in the Holy Spirit that unites us to God. Catch those prepositions—to, through, in—and notice what we might call the aerodynamics of the Holy Trinity, how prayer moves.

And if you’re a Foundations course alum, you know how triangles pop up everywhere in the big picture of Christian practice. My favorite is nicknamed The Benedictine Promise, a shorthand way to grasp the big picture as it is experienced in monastic communities. You have a graphic for this today, too.

Picture a triangle. At the peak is stability, where the promise is that we will keep finding God as we enter more and more deeply the relationships and patterns of a congregation’s life. Bloom where you’re planted.

At the next point of the triangle is obedience: the promise is we will keep finding God as we listen deeply to the world, to holy scripture, to the wisdom of the church over the ages, to each other, to the whole of creation, and to the deepest longings and prayer of our hearts.

At the third point is conversion of life: the promise that we will keep finding God on the journey and in the new place our obedience calls us to go to, in losing the familiar and becoming ready to desire and find new life, in openness to our own transformation.

A commitment to stability allows the hearing required by obedience. Our commitment to obedience, to deep hearing, will guide our steps both to risk and to safety. Our commitment to conversion as a way of life leads on to more blooming where we’re next planted.

In the mystery of Trinity, these three points are in continuing spin and dance. The Trinity is much about movement, freedom, becoming.

And when I look at that model, Stability reminds me of God our Father/Mother/Maker/Sustainer. Obedience makes me picture Jesus who redeems by fulfilling a call and a vision not of his own design. Conversion of life causes me to imagine the Holy Spirit, mighty wind of holy change.

The Holy Trinity makes theologians of us all, enrolls us as disciples in a discipline not requiring a classroom, but a practice of life in a costly love out in the world.

And if you think that’s surprising enough to justify an exclamation mark, well, so be it! It’s the nature of this day. It’s in the nature of this faith.