Sermon for Trinity Sunday May 31, 2015 Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays
Secrets, secrets are no fun. Secrets, secrets hurt someone. Or so say the children on many a schoolyard. Looking back, we can understand why children are so interested in keeping, and telling, secrets: they are imitating the adults in their lives, who puzzle, frustrate, and sometimes scare them by keeping important things from them, things like sex, death, and money, things that adults tell themselves children aren’t ready to know about, but of course it’s at least as true that the adults are uncomfortable talking about these things, or even thinking about them.
Kind of like clergy and the Trinity. The annual duty to preach on the Trinity makes a lot of clergy uncomfortable, so sometimes we sidestep the topic, or get someone else to preach for the day, and sometimes we tell ourselves that the congregation wouldn’t be interested, or, God have mercy, wouldn’t understand. When of course the real problem is lack of confidence, inadequate formation, and/or the preacher’s own doubt.
I’m sympathetic to those discomforts, but only up to a point. After all, while the Trinity is a mystery the human mind can never encompass, it is not supposed to be a secret. God wants us to know that God exists as the three Persons of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, who are co-equal in glory, co-eternal in majesty, and truly one in substance, undivided, uncreated and incomprehensible. But how do we know? The word trinity appears nowhere in scripture. Which isn’t really a problem, because the New Testament was not written to be systematic theology. Instead, the New Testament a collection of documents written by and circulated among the earliest Christian communities to preserve their memories, solve their problems, and encourage them in a hostile world.
So then, how do we know about the Trinity, or anything about God? Here’s the thing: learning about God doesn’t work the same way as learning about the world. We can learn basic things about the world through our senses, and more subtle things through scientific experimentation and analysis, but we can only learn things about God that God chooses to reveal to us. Scripture shows God does not make these revelations all at once, in a handsome, leather-bound, indexed and cross-referenced set of theology books that dropped out of the sky someplace, but in dribs and drabs, in encounters with ordinary people, over the course of millennia. Perhaps God is like a wise teacher who knows better than to give the most complex material first, or maybe just a close friend who values the experience of the journey as much as arriving at the destination. While human intellect can broaden and deepen our faith, and this is an excellent object of our endeavors, the faith our reason acts upon comes to us only through an ongoing relationship with God. This is why it’s so important to bring children up in the Church, for the openness and curiosity of children is a special gift that makes them better-prepared to learn and grow in God’s ways than at any other time in life. A relationship with God, the source of all love and all faith, is the birthright of every human soul. And, as I mentioned before, children are really good at sensing when we are keeping important things from them.
In the case of the doctrine of the Trinity, early Christians rose to the challenge of making sense of the revelations of God that marked the life of Christ, marrying intense thought with childlike openness and wonder. God didn’t explain the nature of the Trinity to them, for that is not God’s way, but God had already shown them, at the beginning of Jesus’s ministry, the moment of his baptism, where the voice, the man, and the dove were enfolded in the cloud, and at the end, when Jesus commissioned his followers to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and throughout, when he spoke about his relationship with his Father and the Spirit and when he revealed the love shared among the Three by sharing that love with the world, in his words and deeds. The doctrine of the Trinity was the product of early Christians’ intense engagement with God, with Scripture, and with each other, a messy process founded in personal experience that produced dead ends, factions, and misunderstandings along the way. But maybe the process was as important to God as the outcome, as it kept the Church’s attention squarely on God, and enforced humility on her brightest minds and most zealous advocates.
For the same reasons, the Trinity is just as important to us now. Without the intellectual humility we gain by wrestling with a profoundly divine mystery, we could approach Jesus like Nicodemus did, very much in the dark, demanding answers according to our own hopelessly limited understanding, and thereby denying ourselves the opportunity to receive the transcendent truth that God loves to share with us through encounter, through the relationship we call faith.
Ironically, we think God is keeping secrets from us, when God is the source of all truth, all enlightenment, and God is also a person who longs to be closer to us, to share as much as we can absorb. We are the ones who keep God a secret; we are inherently limited, but we actively strengthen our limitations, closing ourselves off, through distraction and indifference, or worse yet, by preferring our limited conceptions of God to the real deal. God understands, of course; God knows our anxieties and all the ways they can limit us. So God sent the Spirit to continue our enlightenment and our mission of proclaiming the truth of God’s love for the world both in word and in deed. It’s no accident that Trinity Sunday comes right after Pentecost. Now that the Spirit is among us, we live in a deeper, stronger relationship with God. And so, the love God has within the Trinity, and for us, and for all Creation, is not limited by our anxiety or reticence, for God’s love crosses all boundaries, including the limitations of humanity and the boundaries of reason itself. By sharing in the faith of the Trinity, we share in the life of the Trinity, the love that gives life to the world, and inspires our hearts to love as they were made to love, in the very image of God.