Experiencing the Trinity: A Sermon for Trinity Sunday, 2018

Trinity Sunday, Year B

May 27, 2018

Today is Trinity Sunday. Although it’s Memorial Day weekend which traditionally marks the beginning of Summer, and our thoughts may be wandering to the plans we have for the weekend, barbecues, or the Bratfest, or more distantly on promised vacations and trips to places old and familiar or new and exotic, the church’s year challenges us to focus instead on one of the central and most perplexing doctrines of our faith—the Trinity.

In my experience, both as an academic and teacher and as a pastor, the doctrine of the Trinity is more stumbling block than crutch, more alienating than inviting. Just as it emerged out of centuries of conflict during which Christians sought to define, or at least set limits around what we might say and believe concerning the relationships among Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, even now the doctrine of the Trinity seems to perplex, confuse, and raise doubts for many Christians and seekers. Most of us, I would suspect, if we are comfortable in our faith, have let such concerns and queries lie undisturbed in the further reaches of our consciousness. The same is true of our spiritual lives—we may have deep connections with Jesus Christ, or with the Holy Spirit, and perhaps, some of us, even with God the Father, but to experience the Trinity is likely somewhat foreign to us.

Indeed, when we think of the Trinity at all, it’s likely we think of it, or they, as divorced from our experience and existence as human beings, so abstract and beyond knowing that we cannot experience it at all, but rather only approach it, attempt to grasp the Trinity intellectually. And when our efforts to grasp the Trinity intellectually fail, we either abandon it, and Christianity altogether, or decide that we will not attempt to understand or contemplate on it.

But to do that, I think, is to miss something profoundly important about the Trinity and about us as human beings. We are created in God’s image. I wonder whether you’ve ever thought about the implications of that. Certainly, that suggests that there is a certain goodness, in us, no matter how stained that goodness might be by our sins. But more than that, as Christians we believe that God is three-in-one, God by God’s nature in relationship, reaching out beyond Godself, loving in Godself. All that implies that being created in God’s image, we are created to be in relationship as well. The creativity and love that God experiences in Godself, in the dance, as it is often called, of the trinity, leaps out and over into all of creation, and into us.

So, the Trinity is not just abstract doctrine, it involves relationship—in Godself, with humanity, and all of creation, and God as Trinity pulls us into relationship with God and with our fellow humans and all of creation.

So there is, or could be, a profound, deeply powerful, spiritual experience that opens to us when we reflect on the Trinity. We see aspects of that spiritual experience in all three lessons today.

The prophet Isaiah has a vision, “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and lofty.” It is so important to the biblical tradition that the song the seraphim sing has become our song in the Eucharistic liturgy. For many scholars of religion, the vision described by Isaiah and his response to that vision, have become something of a paradigm for understanding religious experience in general, not just Jewish or Christian.

Isaiah describes a vision in such vivid detail that it may seem to us as if we are with him in the temple. He claims to see God, but the vision itself is of God’s throne and a being so vast that the hem of God’s robe filled the temple. Seraphim were in attendance, flying and singing. As Isaiah looked on, he felt the temple shake as if it were in an earthquake and the temple itself filled with smoke. It’s more than a vision, however. It is an experience that engages all of Isaiah’s senses: sight, sound, touch, even taste—for it includes that marvelous and rather frightening image of one of the seraphim bringing a coal to Isaiah’s lips.

Isaiah’s response to that awesome vision was to recognize the vast gulf that divided him from God. He described himself as lost, a man of unclean lips, unable to perform the tasks to which God might be calling him. But nonetheless, Isaiah responds to God’s call like other prophets responded. In spite of their sense of unworthiness, when God asks, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Isaiah responds without hesitation, “Here I am, send me.”

There’s a rather different image and experience of God described by Paul in today’s lesson from the profound 8th chapter of the letter to the Romans. Last week we heard verses from the same chapter, verses which I’ve always found of great consolation when I’m struggling to pray or express myself to God: “the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”

In today’s reading, Paul is exploring our relationship as followers of Christ with God. He uses two powerful images in these verses. First, the notion of adoption. In Roman society, unwanted children were often abandoned but because such a priority was placed on producing offspring and heirs, children who were legally adopted had the same status and inheritance rights as biological children—just as is the case today. And we all know stories of couples who have gone through extensive struggles to adopt a child. So for Paul to use this image of our relationship to God is to suggest that we are truly God’s children—joint heirs, as he says. It’s a potent image of the intimacy of our relationship with God.

There is perhaps an even more potent image of that relationship when Paul uses the Aramaic word, “Abba” suggesting that Christians in his day prayed to God using this term. It’s in the language Jesus spoke and it’s a word for father that could be compared to our word, “Daddy,” used by children to address their fathers in the home. We know Jesus used it to refer to God—it likely underlies the Greek in the Lord’s Prayer, and Mark has Jesus pray “Abba” in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Don’t misunderstand me. I think the important point here is the intimacy of the relationship implied, not the gender. Scripture uses both male and female imagery for God, both maternal and paternal images. Our focus should be on the intimacy, not the gender. And it may be, that because of our own experiences of those relationships using either paternal or maternal is not intimate or life-giving, but alienating and painful.

Still, it’s worth pointing out that in these two passages, from Isaiah and from Romans, we have two different modes of experiencing God—the transcendent, awe-inspiring, terrifying, humbling of the scene in Isaiah, and the intimate, immanent, connected imagery of Paul.

These two modes are connected in the being of God—through the Trinity. We encounter God both as transcendent and as immanent, sometimes those experiences come at us in both ways, sometimes one is more common or transforming than the other.

It’s also important to recognize that for some of us, any such experiences are rather uncommon. We seek God, or desire God, and God seems to remain distant, or silent. We want the certainty of an experience like Isaiah’s, the certainty of knowing God is there, the certainty of call. Or we desire the certainty of intimacy, the immediate sense of God’s presence in our lives, and our connection with God. We desire these experiences, and they remain elusive, distant. God seems to remain silent.

There is mystery in all this, mystery in the Trinity, mystery in the heart of God. It is a mystery that I cannot solve for you, provide any easy answers. I can only assure that I find consolation, hope, and strength in knowing that whether or not I feel connected with God, God’s love draws me toward Godself, and in the love of God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, I can rest as God’s beloved adopted child. My prayer is that you are able to experience that love and consolation as well.

Batter my heart, three-person’d God: A poem for sermon prep on Trinity Sunday

As I am reflecting and preparing for Trinity Sunday, my thoughts turned to this poem by John Donne:
Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

God’s playful delight: A Sermon for Trinity Sunday, 2016

Today is Trinity Sunday. It is also the day when we mark the end of our program year. At our 10:00 service, some of our children and youth will be assisting in the service in more expansive ways than is typical. They will read the lessons, serve as ushers, and be Eucharistic Ministers. We will also recognize all of the volunteers and leaders who work so hard throughout the year to make our Christian formation program a success.

We do these things on this day because the church tends to follow roughly, the academic year and with graduations occurring at UW and the high schools in these last weeks of May, and many of us looking forward to travel plans this summer, the pace of life at Grace will begin to slow. That’s a welcome development after all of the hard work and excitement that we’ve experienced over the last few years.

Still, not everything will come to an end. Even as we mark the ending of our program year, other activities are ramping up. The long moribund Outreach Committee has been re-invigorated and will have its initial meeting after the 10:00 service today. This summer will be a time when we plan carefully and lay the groundwork for some new programs and new ministries that we hope to roll out in the fall.

While all of this is going on, it’s actually remarkably fitting that we reflect a bit on the Trinity today. This is the one Sunday in our liturgical year when we focus on one of the doctrines of our faith. In many ways, the Trinity is that element of our faith that distinguishes us most clearly from our monotheistic brothers and sisters in Judaism and Islam. For while we agree with them on the central confession that God is one, for us Christians, the Trinity is our effort to explain and understand how we experience and know God, through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit as well as God in Godself, and how the threeness of God relates to the one-ness of God.

I’m not going to try to explain the Trinity to you—it would take much more than the 10 or 12 minutes available to me in a Sunday sermon. Instead, I would like to explore a little bit some of the implications for our faith and shared life of this belief that God is three in one. I would like to focus on two elements in this, first, that inherent in God is community, fellowship. And second, that God is creative, that God’s power and love flow out of Godself into the world and into us.

First, that God is, by nature, a God who seeks and is community. Just as we rejoice when we welcome and recognize the gifts and talents of the younger members of our community, just as we celebrate the presence among us of people from diverse backgrounds, just as we embrace strangers and visitors, the life we share in community is a reflection of and witness to the life of the God who is One in Three, unity in trinity. And as our gospel reading reminds us. The ongoing life we share is a life in which we experience God’s continuing presence and guidance, and that the questions and struggles we face as a community are resolved through the Holy Spirit’s continuing presence and leadership among us. The gospel reminds us that that our struggles to be faithful, our doubts, uncertainties, our conflicts are overcome when we listen to each other, listen to the Holy Spirit, and discern the movement of God among us. When we do that, the future opens up in all of its possibility and creativity, and we move forward in ways we cannot imagine on our own. We experience the creative power of God at work in and through us.

Indeed, at the heart of the Trinity is creativity, creativity that flows out into the universe, flows out into us. We see that creativity at work and at play in today’s reading from Proverbs. The reading from Proverbs is a poem of Wisdom. Wisdom, personified here as female is speaking:

“Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice?

“On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand; beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries out.”

We may find it hard to imagine Lady Wisdom taking her stand at the crossroads, beside the gates of the town. Such imagery may bring to mind the sort of protests of which we are familiar around here, but that’s a little misleading. In the biblical tradition, the city gates or portal was the place where justice was meted out; where injustice was decried and people who had been wronged received their due. The crossroads or marketplace was a place where ideas were exchanged, decisions affecting the community decided. So here, Lady Wisdom is proclaiming her role in creating community. She speaks from the centers of human life, from and about economic and social relationships.

But Wisdom isn’t just present in human society. She also is present in God, at the creation. She reminds us that it was through wisdom, in wisdom, that God created the universe. She helped to give it order:

“When he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker, and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.”

Here, Wisdom describes herself as the master workman, and in the reading we get a strong sense of Wisdom participating in creation in some way, helping plan it or at least observing it. But, wait. There is another possible interpretation here. What’s translated as “master workman” could also mean, “little child.” That offers a completely different meaning of the text. Let’s read that verse again.

“When he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was with him, like a little child, I was his delight, rejoicing before him always, and delighting in the human race.”

I love that dual image, of Wisdom as a master worker, wisdom as a little child. I especially love that last verse, “I was his delight, rejoicing before him always, and delighting in the human race.”

I think we tend to miss out on something central in God’s nature when we overlook God’s playfulness, delight, joy. In the Psalm from last week (Ps104), a marvelous song in praise of creation, there’s a verse I particularly love:

27 There move the ships,

and there is that Leviathan, *

which you have made for the sport of it.

We see the beauty and wonder in creation, but we also see unimaginable creativity. To think of the wonder of creation as evidence of God’s sheer joy and playfulness, and wisdom, running like a child beside God, as uncontrollable as a four or five year old is when they overcome and overwhelmed by the joy of life.

Wisdom is God’s delight, the delight of a parent for her joyous child. We are God’s delight. When we live in hope and faith, when we open ourselves to the possibility of the future and trust that God is holding our hand as we run headlong, we are God’s delight. As a community, when we open ourselves to God’s creative possibilities, and open ourselves to the gifts of others, we are God’s delight. As a community, when we reach out and grasp the hands of our neighbors and allow them to share with us their joy and their creative wisdom, we are God’s delight. When we do all that, we participate in the creative power and creative wisdom of the Trinity, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.


Trinity and Beloved Community: A Sermon for Trinity Sunday, 2015

On Friday evening, Corrie and I attended the gathering at the Alliant Center where the Rev. Alex Gee and others introduced “Our Madison Plan” the culmination of more than a year’s work of conversation, research, and planning in the effort to address the racial disparities in Madison and Dane County. As I stood listening in the packed room, I reflected on the challenges that we face as a community. It’s not just race and class that divide us; it’s not just the wide disparities in opportunity and educational achievement. As Rev. Gee pointed out, there is a deep cultural challenge that we face. Although he was addressing the challenges in the African-American community, his analysis extends to American society in general. Continue reading

Trinity Sunday

Almighty and everlasting God, you have given to us your servants grace, by the confession of a true faith, to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity, and in the power of your divine Majesty to worship the Unity: Keep us steadfast in this faith and worship, and bring us at last to see you in your one and eternal glory, O Father; who with the Son and the Holy Spirit live and reign, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

William Temple, 1944: The Universe is the Fundamental Sacrament

Today is the commemoration of William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury, who died on this day in 1944. It is said he died of exhaustion


Some of his prayers:

O God of love, we pray thee to give us love:
Love in our thinking, love in our speaking,
Love in our doing, and love in the hidden places of our souls;
Love of our neighbours near and far;
Love of our friends, old and new;
Love of those with whom we find it hard to bear,
And love of those who find it hard to bear with us;
Love of those with whom we work,
And love of those with whom we take our ease;
Love in Joy, love in sorrow;
Love in life and love in death;
That so at length we may be worthy to dwell with thee,
Who art eternal love. source: Paxtonvic

O Almighty God,
the Father of all humanity,
turn, we pray, the hearts of all peoples and their rulers,
that by the power of your Holy Spirit
peace may be established among the nations
on the foundation of justice, righteousness and truth;
through him who was lifted up on the cross
to draw all people to himself,
your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen. Source: jrwoodward.net

O Lord Jesus Christ, Thou Word and Revelation of the Eternal Father, come, we beseech Thee, and take possession of our souls. So fill our minds with the thought and our imaginations with the picture of Thy love, that there may be in us no room for any thought or desire that is discordant with Thy holy will. Cleanse us, we pray Thee, of all that may make us deaf to Thy call or slow to obey it. Who with the Father and the Holy Ghost art one God, blessed for evermore. Amen.

The Universe is the fundamental sacrament:

“In truth the Church is itself the permanent sacrament; it is an organized society possessed (though not always availing itself) of a supernatural life—the life of God—which united humanity with itself in Jesus Christ. But all of this again was only possible because the universe itself is an organ of God’s self-expression. Thus we have the following background of the sacramental worship of the Church: the universe is the fundamental sacrament, and taken in its entirety (When of course it includes the Incarnation and Atonement) is the perfect sacrament extensively; but it only becomes this, so far as our world and human history are concerned, because within it and determining its course is the Incarnation, which is the perfect sacrament intensively—the perfect expression in a moment of what is also perfectly expressed in everlasting Time, the Will of God; resulting from the Incarnation we find the ‘Spirit-bearing Body,’ which is not actually a perfect sacrament, because its members are not utterly surrendered to the spirit within it, but none the less lives by the Life which came fully into the world in Christ; as prat of the life of this Body we find certain specific sacraments or sacramental acts.” Christus Veritas

On the Trinity

“The Holy Spirit, as made known to us in our experience, is the power whereby the created universe—which the Father creates by the agency of the Son, His self-revealing Word—is brought into harmonious response to the love which originated it. The divine self-utterance is creative; within the thing so created the divine self-utterance speaks in Jesus Christ; the divine impetus which is in the created thing by virtue of its origin is thus released in full power to make the created thing; Love by self-sacrifice reveals itself to the treated thing; Love thereby calls out from the created thing the Love which belongs to it as Love’s creature, so making it what Love created it to be.” Christus Veritas

“Thus nothing falls outside the circle of the Divine Love. The structure of Reality when regarded analytically is a stratification wherein the lower strata facilitate the existence of the higher, but only find their fulfillment as those higher grades inform them. The structure of Reality when viewed synthetically is the articulate expression of Divine Love. God loves; God answers with love; and the love wherewith God loves and answers is God: Three Persons, One God.” Christus Veritas



Trinity Sunday, Year B–lectionary reflections

This week’s readings are here.

As I was listening to the reading from I John 5 (9-13) on the Sixth Sunday of Easter, it struck me that the lectionary had passed over I John 5:7-8 which is included only in a footnote in the NRSV). In so doing, the lectionary editors passed over one of the most controversial texts in the History of Christianity: the so-called Johannine Comma. They read:

There are three that testify in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit, and these three are one. 8And there are three that testify on earth:

The great Humanist Erasmus ignited the controversy when he published his new Greek New Testament in 1516 with his Latin translation on the opposite page. It was based on a comparison of the best available manuscripts and concluded that these verses were a relatively late addition to the text. He was attacked by many who thought that he was altering the Word of God. In response, Erasmus said that if anyone could find a Greek manuscript that included the verses, he would restore them in his next edition of the text. One such manuscript was miraculously discovered and in 1522, Erasmus’ third edition of the text restored the verses (although he continued to doubt their authenticity).

I bring this up because this coming Sunday is Trinity Sunday, when we focus on the doctrine of the Trinity. We do this even though the Trinity is not attested in Holy Scripture (the word “Trinity” nowhere appears) and the doctrine is a development from scripture and from early Christian reflection on the nature of God.

Our texts this week offer several insights into the divine nature. In the familiar and awe-inspiring passage from Isaiah 6:1-8, we read of Isaiah’s vision of God, an image so immense that the hem of God’s robe fills the temple. Surrounded by seraphim who sing the Sanctus, Isaiah is confronted with God’s majesty and his own frailty and humanity.

In the lesson from Romans 8, a passage earlier in the chapter from which we read on Pentecost, Paul affirms the Holy Spirit’s connection with us. As God’s children, we are adopted, and through the Spirit our cry of Abba, Father, is the cry of a child for a parent. But adoption doesn’t mean any less of a relationship–we are children of God, just as Jesus Christ is the Son of God. We are heirs with Christ. This profound relationship that is ours through Christ is similar to the relationship that inheres in the Trinity, which is why it is included in our readings today.

The Trinity is a difficult concept to understand, and difficult to discuss. In these two readings we see two aspects of the Divine nature–the divine transcendence and otherness of Isaiah’s vision of God in the temple, and God’s immanence, God’s presence in us through the Spirit.

The Trinity is central to the Christian understanding and experience of God, perhaps most importantly in the idea that at the heart of God’s nature is relationship, relationship among Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and that because we are created in God’s image, we are created in relationship with God, and created for relationship with others.

Hilary of Poitiers, 367

Hilary was bishop of Poitiers and an important defender of Nicene trinitarianism. Conflict with Emperor Constantius led to his exile in Phrygia. He authored hymns, one of which appears in The Hymnal 1982. His most important theological was probably On the Trinity. Theologically, this was overshadowed by Augustine’s On the Trinity of the early fifth century.

But it is interesting in itself. He begins with himself, with his spiritual autobiography, but also with theological anthropology, just as Augustine would later do in his own trinitarian reflections.

7. Therefore, although my soul drew joy from the apprehension of this august and unfathomable Mind, because it could worship as its own Father and Creator so limitless an Infinity, yet with a still more eager desire it sought to know the true aspect of its infinite and eternal Lord, that it might be able to believe that that immeasurable Deity was apparelled in splendour befitting the beauty of His wisdom. Then, while the devout soul was baffled and astray through its own feebleness, it caught from the prophet’s voice this scale of comparison for God, admirably expressed, By the greatness of His works and the beauty of the things that He has made the Creator of worlds is rightly discerned. Wisdom 13:5 The Creator of great things is supreme in greatness, of beautiful things in beauty. Since the work transcends our thoughts, all thought must be transcended by theMaker. Thus heaven and air and earth and seas are fair: fair also the whole universe, as the Greeks agree, who from its beautiful ordering call it κόσμος, that is, order. But if our thought can estimate this beauty of the universe by a natural instinct— an instinct such as we see in certain birds and beasts whose voice, though it fall below the level of our understanding, yet has a sense clear to them though they cannot utter it, and in which, since all speech is the expression of some thought, therelies a meaning patent to themselves— must not the Lord of this universal beauty be recognised as Himself most beautiful amid all the beauty that surrounds Him? For though the splendour of His eternal glory overtax our mind’s best powers, it cannot fail to see that He is beautiful. We must in truth confess that God is most beautiful, and that with a beauty which, though it transcend our comprehension, forces itself upon our perception.

8. Thus my mind, full of these results which by its own reflection and the teaching of Scripture it had attained, rested with assurance, as on some peaceful watchtower, upon that glorious conclusion, recognising that its true nature made it capable of one homage to its Creator, and of none other, whether greater or less; the homage namely of conviction that His is a greatness too vast for our comprehension but not for our faith. For a reasonable faith is akin to reason and accepts its aid, even though that same reason cannot cope with the vastness of eternal Omnipotence.

9. Beneath all these thoughts lay an instinctive hope, which strengthened my assertion of the faith, in some perfect blessedness hereafter to be earned by devout thoughts concerning God and upright life; the reward, as it were, that awaits the triumphant warrior. For true faith in God would pass unrewarded, if the soul be destroyed by death, and quenched in the extinction of bodily life. Even unaided reason pleaded that it was unworthy of God to usher man into an existence which has some share of His thought and wisdom, only to await the sentence of life withdrawn and of eternal death; to create him out of nothing to take his place in the World, only that when he has taken it he may perish. For, on the only rational theory of creation, its purpose was that things non-existent should come into being, not that things existing should cease to be. (from New Advent)

What fascinates me is how he speaks of his “soul” and “mind” as independent things, certainly independent of the “I” speaking, and also of his body, as weighing down the soul’s efforts to attain to the mind of God. Perhaps I’ll read more, if I have time.