Date: 22 May 2016 – Trinity Sunday
Text: Psalm 8, Proverbs 8:1-4,22-31
Site: Bethany United Church – Halifax, NS
I appreciate Alfred Woodworth’s passionate words about the good news of the Bible. His work with the Canadian Bible Society is fueled by his conviction the Bible truly is “good” news. Whether we are talking about the sacred words and stories of the Torah which we Christians often refer to as the Old Testament or the books of the New Testament that were made canon by Church Councils, we are talking about how humans express our faith and understanding of God. It’s impossible to capture the reality of God in mere words but generations of believers have attempted to be faithful to the stories passed on to them by their ancestors. In fact most of the Bible as we know it are stories handed down in the oral tradition before they were written down. And even for generations that were born and lived after the Bible was canonized and legalized literacy was limited to a small minority of people.
In fact in early church worship the practice was for a literate person to read one of the letters of Paul to the churches, perhaps a story from the Torah and then reflect on where these texts were speaking to believers of that time. Much later, when the Church became a part of the empire and was sanctioned by many states, worship places shifted from local homes to huge cathedrals. Then the common way to communicate these stories, this good news, was through stained glass windows.
While the Bible itself reflects many, many stories of God’s presence in the lives of believers there are many aspects to God’s character that remain a mystery. These mysteries are often addressed by theologians who attempt to use various formulas or dogmas or doctrine to help us understand the workings and intentions of our God. One such doctrine is the Trinity, God three in one, God as Creator of all that is, God who came in Jesus, and God who remains dynamic and real in the Holy Spirit. I have been reminded by some persons who believe in the same God I profess, at my doorstep, that there is no description of the Trinity in the Bible. And in a literal way they are correct. It is more implicit than explicit. God is referenced in the Bible in a variety of forms and actions and these can be named as Creator, Jesus and Spirit but laid out in this neat and tidy package, no it is not there.
For most of my formative years as a Christian I heard few sermons on the Trinity and what I did hear were usually Children’s sermons, where the Minister would speak of the various forms of what we call water; steam, liquid, ice. All are water but each have their own form and function as action in a unique way. But as usual with western Christianity the explanation was just that, an explanation, a rather dry, objective, rational, attempt to understand who God is, as if God could be proved like a mathematical formula.
Now I do think rational thought is a gift from God and I do think that whatever way we try to explain who God is to us needs to take account of our experience and our rational thought. But I also think this understanding needs to be something that gets inside us, in the marrow of our bones, and that helps us live our lives in discipleship with passion and conviction. I am not sure that explaining God as three in one really has a lasting effect on the lives of people in their day to day life.
One lecture at the Atlantic School of Theology changed all that. Our Professor of Systematic Theology brought in an icon, commonly used in the Orthodox tradition of the Eastern Church, to help us understand who God is in our lives.
An icon is not just a picture. It is a work of religious art and it attempts to create a kind of window from everyday life into the world of the divine. It is an attempt to get across a particular spiritual truth or truths by visual means. This particular icon was painted somewhere between 1410 and 1420 by a Russian monk, Andrei Rublev.
For Rublev “relationship is at the heart of God. Each person in the Trinity loves, adores, defers to, and rejoices in the other. It is even more remarkable that God, who in this relationship needs no other, did choose to create you, me, each and every individual we encounter, and the whole of Creation—so that we might join in this dance.”
Icons are virtual equivalents of the Divine Scriptures. This icon was inspired by Rublev’s reading of Genesis 18:1-8, a section of which reads, “The LORD appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground. He said, ‘If I have found favor in your eyes, my lord, do not pass your servant by.’” Another portion of the text refers to the three visitors as angels, but Abraham referred to them as Lord, singular, so Rublev painted three angels as a representation of the Lord as Holy Trinity. The symbolism of where they are seated, what they are wearing, etc. tells us that the angel on the right is the Holy Spirit, the angel in the middle is the Jesus, and the angel on the left is God the Father.
Author, thinker and painter Alexander Boguslawski says of this painting, “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… The Father seems to wear all the colours in a kind of fabric that changes with the light…that cannot be described or confined in words. The Father looks forward, raising his hand in blessing to the Son…This is my Son, listen to him… The hand of the Son points on, around the circle, to the Spirit. In this simple array we see the movement of life towards us, The Father sends the Son, the Son sends the Spirit. The life flows clockwise around the circle. And we complete the circle: we are invited and sent to complete the circle with our response.”
Henri Nouwen sums it up like this, “As we place ourselves in front of the icon in prayer, we come to experience a gentle invitation to participate in the intimate conversation that is taking place among the three divine angels and to join them around the table. During a hard period of my life in which verbal prayer had become nearly impossible and during which mental and emotional fatigue had made me the easy victim of feelings of despair and fear, a long and quiet presence to this icon became the beginning of my healing. As I sat for long hours in front of Rublev’s Trinity, I noticed how gradually my gaze became a prayer. This silent prayer slowly made my inner restlessness melt away and lifted me up into the circle of love, a circle that could not be broken by the powers of the world. Even as I moved away from the icon and became involved in the many tasks of everyday life, I felt as if I did not have to leave the holy place I had found and could dwell there whatever I did or wherever I went. I knew that the house of love I had entered has no boundaries and embraces everyone who wants to dwell there.”
I want this sermon on the Trinity to be more than an explanation that helps you think more clearly about how God can be three different things and yet one being. I really don’t think at the end of the day that really matters. What does matter is connecting to the essence of your being, the deep place you were called to be. For me there can be no deeper places than around this table of Creator, Jesus and Spirit. Just as God is not complete until God creates, and humanity does not fully become human until we are animated by the Spirit and the Spirit is not present unless it is enlivened by the Creator and the Saviour, we do not become all that we were meant to be until we are in relationship. Jesus is asked about the deepest commandments and he answers that first we must be in relationship with the Creator, then we must be in relationship with each other and then we only truly learn to love ourselves when we have found our place at this dynamic table of mutual affection.
The Trinity is a reminder to us all that we need to be in this dance of relationship; divine, human, earthly, connected. If you want to understand the Trinity, if you want to understand God, you dance, you engage those around the table, you are present to those around you. One step at a time. Amen.