92 years ago yesterday the United Church of Canada came into being at a hockey rink in Toronto. Among the challenges that the founding denominational partners had to grapple with were the Articles of Faith, 20 statements that defined the United of Canada. These founding statements of faith shaped our identity, even today. Reviewing those 20 Articles of Faith you will find some rather dated language, words we don’t use any longer and the questions about God we still wrestle with today. Included is our church’s view of the Trinity:
We believe in the one only living and true God, a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in His being and perfections; the Lord Almighty, who is love, most just in all His ways, most glorious in holiness, unsearchable in wisdom, plenteous in mercy, full of compassion, and abundant in goodness and truth. We worship Him in the unity of the Godhead and the mystery of the Holy Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, three persons of the same substance, equal in power and glory.
As I read this statement I am struck by the tone and the wording. The tone here is one of certainty and clear definition. God emerges from these words as “eternal, unchangeable, and truth”. When I close my eyes I picture a large rock, sturdy and strong, large and immovable, able to withstand any storm and solid enough to remain intact no matter the conditions or the times. I imagine hard times and good times and knowing that the rock of salvation is there, we can lean on God, know who God is and who God is not, and count on God to be present to us whenever and however we need to see our Creator.
But I have to confess that whenever I have taught persons going through confirmation how the doctrine of the Trinity works (the most well-known technique is to ask participants if they know ice, water and steam are all of the same substance) they are busy taking down the information like you would try to memorize the 50 US states and their capitals. It’s unfortunate that the Trinity has remained for many of us more a puzzle to be solved and less a possible relationship we could experience as mystery.
And here we return to our identity as members of the Christian Church in the west, for our purposes here I include Western Europe and North America. In our part of the world we place a high value on solving mysteries, rationally finding efficient solutions to perplexing challenges, developing techniques that save lives, making life more comfortable and adding choices we can make with our longer lives. It’s a gift to have this mindset but it can also limit us from seeing and experiencing the Divine. There is so much in life that is beyond our understanding with rational thought, so much we can only know by embracing mystery, not trying to solve it like a puzzle. As I shared with you before there is an old expression, the person from the west hears a story and asks, “Did it happen?” and the person from the east hears the same story and asked, “Is it true?” Note the difference.
One thing I know to be true is the 15th century icon painted by Russian artist Andrei Rublev The Trinity. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/0/0b/Angelsatmamre-trinity-rublev-1410.jpg/300px-Angelsatmamre-trinity-rublev-1410.jpg There is a lot to unpack here. Father Jeff Core puts it this way…
This icon takes as its subject the mysterious story where Abraham receives the three visitors described in Genesis 18. He serves them a meal. As the conversation progresses he seems to be talking straight to God, as if these 'angels' were in some way a metaphor for the three persons of the Trinity. In Rublev's representation of the scene, the three gold-winged figures are seated around a white table. Rublev gives each person of the Trinity different clothing. On the right, the Holy Spirit has a garment of the clear blue of the sky, wrapped over with a robe of a fragile green. So the Spirit of creation moves in sky and water, breathes in heaven and earth. All living things owe their freshness to his touch. The Son has the deepest colours; a thick heavy garment of the reddish-brown of earth and a cloak of the blue of heaven. In his person he unites heaven and earth, the two natures are present in him, and over his right shoulder (the Government shall be upon his shoulder) there is a band of gold shot through the earthly garment, as his divinity suffuses and transfigures his earthly being. The Father seems to wear all the colours in a kind of fabric that changes with the light, that seems transparent, that cannot be described or confined in words. And this is how it should be. No one has seen the Father, but the vision of him fills the universe. The life flows clockwise around the circle. And we complete the circle. As the Father sends the Son, as the Son sends the Holy Spirit, so we are invited and sent to complete the circle of the Godhead with our response. And we respond to the movement of the Spirit who points us to Jesus. And he shows us the Father in whom all things come to fruition. This is the counter-clockwise movement of our lives, in response to the movement of God. The Spirit touches us, even though we do not know who it is that is touching us. He leads us by ways we may not be aware of, up the hill of prayer. It may be steep and rocky, but the journeying God goes before us along the path. It leads to Jesus, the Son of God, and it leads to a tree. A great tree in the heat of the day spreads its shade. It is a place of security, a place of peace, a place where we begin to find out the possibilities of who we can be. We are invited to complete the circle, to join the dance, to complete the movements of God in the world by our own response.
This week I had coffee with an old friend who has found comfort in a local Roman Catholic Church. My friend was born into the United Church but found too much explaining and not enough mystery was preventing him from experiencing God’s grace. He told me about a recent sermon by his Priest. “Father penned two columns. On the right side he wrote the doctrines of the Church about God, how the church has described and identified God, a neat and tidy definition able to satisfy the most curious mind. On the left side he listed what we look for in relationship, what we need to have a conversation, a dialogue, a connection. It was obvious there was not much on the left side that could be found on the right side. The message was clear, we as a Church have done an excellent job in describing our God but have not done such a good job in opening up the way of communion with our God. To know the definition of God is to be reassured, perhaps even finding peace. But to know God is something else entirely. It is the latter that people are crying out for. Does the Church have a response?”
I wondered about that myself. This week I entered into that dance with the mysterious Trinity. I leaned into the Creator who nourished me with the life I witnessed in Creation. I leaned into the Son whose parables helped me navigate the challenges of the week at the church and in my personal life. And I leaned into the Spirit whose energy and vitality was to be found in pockets of our church life and in the community and whose dynamism was both palpable and contagious. In all three cases I had a relationship with the Trinity, I danced with the Trinity, and the Trinity brought life to my life.
May you dance with the three persons of the Trinity, may you find life at the Table and may you be fed in a mysterious way that brings life and life in abundance. Amen.