“Holy Father, Holy Son, Holy Spirit – three, we name thee. While in essence only one, undivided God, we claim thee. And from noon ‘til set of sun, through the church the song goes on.” Amen.
Today is the first Sunday after Pentecost, also known as Trinity Sunday. It is unique in that it is the only Sunday of the church year in which we honor a doctrine rather than learning about the history of God’s actions in the world. This doctrine – the Trinity – is so notoriously difficult to preach that it has become a “gentle” hazing ritual for seminarians to preach on this Sunday – what Columba calls, “Stick it to the Seminarian Sunday.” Wait – where is Emily?
It's true that no one wants to teach a complex and ancient doctrine that was so controversial and complicated that it took 100 years for church leaders to agree on it. We’d rather be uplifted by commenting on a miracle or two. In fact, back in the 1960s California bishop James Pike famously suggested that since no one understands it anyway, we might as well get rid of Trinity Sunday. But there are good explanations why we haven’t. Because although the concept of the Trinity itself is too hard for most of us to understand, the reasons it exists aren’t.
The concept of the Trinity – of a three-part God- explains a lot about the nature of God and those of us who worship God. Our readings today start with our very first introduction to God. “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.” And into that emptiness, God speaks - and something – someone – responds. God is not alone. Our very creation is somehow a joint effort. This is the primary idea of the Trinity, that God, while one, lives in community.
This is a complex notion. We wonder how one God can have three distinct parts. That’s because we think of God as a person in the way we are people. But God doesn’t have physical boundaries or distinct personalities the way we do. When we talk about God being three in one, we are really saying that God is one being with three functions. This is different than other belief systems in which multiple gods have specific roles, like creation, destruction, or love. We believe that our God does all those things at all times. This concept is incredibly difficult for us, because we think of the world linearly – as past, present, and future; as flesh or spirit; right or wrong; good or bad. But our God cannot be divided into separate characters. God is like music, made up of different notes and tones, but compromising one exquisite song. God is a dance - perpetually moving, shifting, and welcoming new participants. God is inexplicably beautiful and poignant, existing at all times and in all places, constantly creating, sharing, and loving. God is a mystery.
And human beings have a hard time accepting mysteries. We not only want to solve them, we assume that we can. The first Christians were no different. Early on they divided into groups based on their understanding of the mystery of Jesus, with each faction believing the other was wrong. Eventually, one group found a way to talk about God that most people seemed to understand. Instead of dwelling on the ambiguities, they began telling a story about God that began in the beginning and moved through time in a straight line. They simplified the confusing multifaceted actions of the one God by describing them as being performed by three entities. This became our Christian doctrine: God the creator made the world. God the Savior, Jesus, saved the world. God the Holy Spirit remains in the world. This linear storyline has helped us understand the way God acts, but it has left us confused about what God is. Understanding that requires us to consider ourselves – God’s creation.
There are multiple creation stories, some older than the two we find in our Hebrew scriptures, but all of them have one thing in common: they tell us that God made human beings in their own image. “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over …the earth.” This means that all creation carries a spark of divinity within us. It does not mean that we are designed to control our world. Rather, we are meant to be responsible for creation, especially those parts that are more vulnerable than we are. Our creator has already given us all more than what we need, so we should not seek to use our divine spark to gain more blessings. We are like God when we work not for our betterment, but for the care and increase of God’s holy creation. And we are asked to do this just as God does, by exercising our multiple gifts – our many parts – with one mind and one Spirit.
In the Christian church, we spend most of our time talking about the Way of Jesus. We hear stories that demonstrate the path of compassion, justice, and love we are meant to walk. For us, Jesus is the most real and comprehensible aspect of God, because Jesus is human. Our understanding of God is less clear. We think of God as all-knowing and all-powerful, but we struggle with a God who seems more likely to judge us than help us. We are haunted by the vision of an old man with a long beard who shakes his finger at us and threatens to destroy the creation he made because we don’t appreciate it. This God is remote and erratic, someone that we’re not sure we even want to get to know better.
This is a projection – an image created by humans that reflects everything that frightens us about ourselves – our selfishness, our lack of self-control, our anger, our violence. We try to contain the glory of God by limiting them to physical forms we can understand and evaluate. But God transcends human physicality and behavior. The Trinitarian creed teaches us that God is all that is good in humanity, including our diversity. God is all genders, all races, and all capabilities – and God lives in harmony with themself, just as we are created to do.
This is why all sin has its root in separation - and why it is so difficult not to stray from God’s laws - because sometimes living together simply seems like too much to bear. We are tempted to hide from the horrors of the world around us, and to exclude those who are different and disturbing from our worship and our lives. We think there is serenity in isolation, enduring our burdens alone rather than having to make ourselves vulnerable to each other by asking for help. But when we do things that tear us from God and one another we contribute to the destruction of God’s creation. We must not believe that because we are created in God’s image, we can someday obtain the God’s power. This is heresy, because it places the salvation of the individual over the survival of God’s interconnected world.
From before time and forever, we are created to live together as one, just as God does – by practicing kindness, justice, and compassion and by working together for the improvement of God’s creation, even when we do not “agree with one another. Live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss… and the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit will be with all of you.” Always. AMEN.