Pastor Tom Sorenson
Trinity Sunday, May 26, 2002
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
On our secular calendars, today is the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend. To commemorate Memorial Day, we began our service this morning by singing the Navy Hymn, Eternal Father, Strong to Save. In the church calendar, today is Trinity Sunday. You know. That peculiar Christian conception of God that is one of the things that distinguishes from the other great monotheistic faiths. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Three in one and one in three. Each fully God and yet each not complete without the others. Did you know that the only doctrinal difference between the Western church and Eastern Orthodoxy when they finally split apart in the fifteenth century was one word in the creed that talks about the Trinity? Itís true. That split the church. It makes your head spin, but to this day capital O Orthodox Christians blame the West for the split because the West inserted that one word into the Creed about the Trinity.
Actually, Matthew 28:19, known as The Great Commission, that we heard this morning, is one of the very few places in the New Testament where the classic Trinitarian formula of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is used. It comes immediately after Jesusí promise to the disciples, and to us, that He is with us always. That suggests that there must be some close connection between Jesusí promise and the idea of the Trinity, of God as three in one and one in three. Maybe there is, but the whole idea of the Trinity seems so obscure, so mysterious, that most of the time most of us would rather just forget about it. Once upon a time a group of Congregationalists decided to do just that. They split off and started a new church. Theyíre known as the Unitarians. I used to kid my Unitarian friends at Seattle University by calling them Congregationalist heretics, which in fact they are.
On the other hand, some of our somewhat more conservative ecumenical partners sometimes kid us, and only half in jest at best, by saying that UCC really stands for Unitarians Considering Christ. Over the years I have become convinced that that label actually does fit many of the people in our denominationís very liberal churches, like a certain large church in Seattle where there will be an ordination service in two weeks that we here have something to do with but which shall otherwise remain nameless. And some of those folks donít consider Christ much.
But as a denomination we are not Unitarians Considering Christ. We are a Trinitarian faith tradition. We continue to use the imagery and language of the Trinity when we talk about God. Thatís what I do here every week, for example, in the benediction I use: "May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all...." That blessing, which comes from St. Paul, doesnít say Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but it comes close and means the same thing. The communion prayers I use from the UCC Book of Worship are also Trinitarian in form, giving thanks for the work of God in creation, the Son in salvation, and the Holy Spirit in sustaining Godís saved creation.
And yet--the Trinity is so obscure. Itís so obscure that in fact, from the small o orthodox Christian perspective it is almost impossible to say anything about it that isnít heretical. Letís try a few common understandings and see: There is one undifferentiated God that we call by three different names. Nope. Heretical.. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three ways or modes in which God acts. Nope. Heretical. The Father is really God and the Son and the Holy Spirit are somehow parts of that God. Nope. Definitely heretical. Now please understand. I donít care if youíre a heretic in one of these ways. Iím probably one too much of the time; and besides, heretics are often very interesting people. The fact remains, however, that if you think of the Trinity in any of these ways, or in most other ways, from the traditional Christian point of view, you are, technically speaking, a heretic.
So why do we bother with the notion of the Trinity at all? Well one reason, as Tevye said in a very different context in Fiddler on the Roof: "Tradition!" The tradition in which the UCC stands is a Trinitarian tradition. The Trinitarian way of understanding and talking about God has served our ancestors in the faith well for a couple of thousand years now. We should be very careful about abandoning an understanding that is so central to our tradition, even if we canít immediately see itís value.
But thereís more to it than that. We readily reject other parts of our tradition, like the absurd notion that women canít be ordained or that God sanctions racism and slavery, both of which were once part of our tradition. Let me try to give you some idea of what I think that something more is. I think the notion of the Trinity is important in preserving two primary concepts in our understanding of God. It protects the notion that God is in essence a God of love, and it preserves the notion, which may seem to contradict that first notion but actually does not, that God is ultimately mystery. Letís look very briefly at how the idea of the Trinity, the odd Christian idea that God is one true God in three distinct (but not separate) Persons, does that.
One of the most important things to keep in mind about the Trinity is that this doctrine is fundamentally about relationship. And relationship in this context is fundamentally about love. The idea of the Trinity tells us that God is so radically about being in a relationship of love with others that God is even in that kind of relationship with Godself. God is so radically about love that a relationship of love exists, must exist, even within the Godhead itself. The Trinity is the way God relates to Godself. That relationship is not static. Itís not like the way I relate to myself or you relate to yourself. It is fluid, dynamic, moving, waxing and waning, ebbing and flowing, the movement of Divinity between and among the Persons of the Trinity. The best way I know of to image the Trinity is of a ball of roiling, fluid motion of three parts that are yet one entity that move constantly in and out of each other in a ceaseless dance of love. If you take that image literally youíre a heretic. But it comes closer to being a valid image for me than any static image can.
And because that relationship of love within the Trinity is so dynamic, so active, so strong, it overflows the Godhead and extends into creation itself. The Trinity is the way God relates to creation as well as to Godself. The ceaseless interaction of love between the persons of the Trinity spills out into creation. That roiling flow of love that is the Trinity moves in and through creation drawing us, even us, into that Divine dance of love. The Christian Trinitarian God is the dynamic moving power behind the universe in a way that a more static monotheistic God cannot be, at least for me. We call the Divine players in that dance Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Or, if youíre troubled by the exclusively male nature of that language, as many of us are, then Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit. But these persons are not static, distinct entities. They most certainly are not two men and a bird, which is the dismissive way some feminists describe them. They are, each of them, the power of God in relationship--in relationship with God and with us. It is as Trinity that God envelopes us, embraces us, creates, redeems, and sustains us. The God that we know through faith is God in relationship with us, indeed, in a relationship of love with us. That radical relationality of God is preserved by the doctrine of the Trinity.
Now, youíve probably noticed how Iíve been struggling to come up with language and images that make some sense out of the Trinity. That struggle is in itself at lease as important as the language and images I came up with, because it points to the other great thing about the Trinitarian conception of God. The Trinity, which we canít really get our minds around and which our human language is utterly inadequate fully to describe, preserves the most important truth about God--a fact the Church far too often wants to forget. That truth is that God is ultimately mystery. The best definition Iíve ever heard of spirituality is that is its "our lived relationship with mystery." (Fr. Stephen Sundborg, S.J., President of Seattle University, in a talk at the official opening of the SU Institute of Ecumenical Theological Studies, July, 1997). Not with God. With mystery. For what we in our tradition call God is ultimately just that, mystery. As the late, great Catholic theologian Catherine LaCugna (who grew up on Capitol Hill in Seattle and taught at Notre Dame) says, the fact that God is mystery does not mean that there are things about God that we have yet to learn. The mystery of God is not something to be solved, like the identity of the killer in an Agatha Christie whodunit. Rather, it is Godís nature to be mystery. God will always be mystery. We might forget that about God, as we do every time we think we have God pinned down to what it says about God in a book, even in The Book, or every time we think we have God domesticated into something we are comfortable with, that confirms our prejudices and presents no challenge to our inadequacies. No, God is not those things. God is not anything we can fully know. God is mystery. The Trinity is a mystery. Any words that try to pin it down fail. And so, it is the ideal doctrine for preserving the mystery of God.
So, the Trinity is a doctrine that both preserves the mystery of God and draws us into Godís nature as love. That God is mystery does not negate our knowledge that God is love, for it is mysterious, ultimately unknowable nature of Godís love that grasps us, holds, and will not let us go. That God can love us is a mystery. As the Psalmist says: "What are human beings that you are mindful of them? Mortals that you care for them?" Yet with the Psalmist we affirm that God is mindful of us, does care for us. Indeed, God loves us. God loves you, and even me. We donít understand how that can be; but in the doctrine of the Trinity we have an understanding of God that tells us that God is love in relationship even though how that can be remains ultimate mystery. So let us celebrate the fact that we are Trinitarians and not merely Unitarians Considering Christ. Let us celebrate the fact that we canít fully understand the Trinity. Thatís one of the great things about it. It is the way that we as Christians live, in love, with mystery.