“Jesus said…’Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit …’”
- Matthew 28:19
This is Trinity Sunday. It is the only Sunday in the year that doesn’t focus on either an event in the life of Jesus or on his teachings. Instead it is focused on a doctrine.
Dorothy Sayers in her book, The Mind of the Maker, tells a story about an encounter between a Christian missionary and a Japanese gentleman in Tokyo. The missionary is caught up trying to explain to this polite, non-Christian the three-fold nature of the Holy Trinity. The Japanese man clearly wants to understand what the missionary is saying, but try as he might, he still remains puzzled. How can three be one and one be three? Finally, in a statement of “aha!” mixed with exasperation, the Japanese man confesses, “The honorable father, I understand. The honorable son, I understand. But the honorable bird, I do not understand at all!”
With two-thirds of the Trinity understood, the Japanese gentleman is probably way ahead of most Christians. A T-shirt that used to be sold at General Conventions read, “Have you hugged an Episcopalian today?”. If the inscription were rephrased to read, “Have you asked an Episcopalian about the Trinity today?” chances are not many would sell. Nor would Episcopalians pull out their prayer books and turn to the first of the Thirty Nine Articles and read the definition of the Trinity (don’t do it now, you can read it after the Eucharist). In fact, in our world of hurtling high-tech and galloping global changes, while you and I are constantly time-starved, you may wonder what relevance the Holy Trinity has at all. When was the last time somebody stopped you on the street or at church for that matter, and asked you about the nature of the Trinity?
So, let me try this approach: ask yourself this question this morning, “What is the most important thing in my life?” You may not like the quest ion because it is rather limiting, isn’t it? You may not like thinking of a thing as the most important aspect of your life. You may prefer persons or persons as being most important. If so, then you are getting my point.
Last week a man from a little town in Oklahoma which had been wiped out by a tornado was interviewed on the evening news. His house had been destroyed. Only rubble remained. But he and his family had survived, unhurt. He told the reporter, “It’s ok. We have our lives. That’s what’s important. These material things are not important.” He spoke true.
We know we spend a lot of time and energy, probably too much, on things. And we know they’re not the most important part of our lives. Whether it’s money or career or our golf or school or politics…whatever things dominate our existence, we know deep down, that’s not the most important part of our lives. However, knowing that and doing something about it, are quite different, aren’t they?
What I had in mind when I asked the question, “What’s most important in your life?” was relationships. And that has to do, not with things but persons. How you relate to others is the most important aspect of your life. At least I believe so. I trust you do also or you wouldn’t be here today. How do we relate to other beings? Other people? How do we relate to God? Our relationships are the most important things in life.
Why is the doctrine of the Trinity so important that it has become the very definition of what it is to be an orthodox Christian? Because it is all about relationships. The Trinity is about how God relates to us, and we to God. It is about how God relates within himself. The Trinity is all about relationships. It is not just some dry obscure doctrine of the Church, but is a theological statement about God’s love. It is based on experience. Every doctrine is. Recall how doctrine comes about: first comes an experience, then comes reflection on that experience, then comes a statement of belief or doctrine. Something happens. What does it mean? We believe, based on our experience, this.
Based on how God has interacted with humanity, we believe he is one God with three aspects. Stop and think about it. That’s how we come to our conclusions about ourselves, our own being, isn’t it? As a result of our experience of what it is to be human, we, after reflection, come to believe that we are this marvelous trilogy of being: body, mind, and spirit. Any thing which negates or ignores any of those facets of our being diminishes our humanity.
What must be remembered this Trinity Sunday is that Christian doctrine begins as an experience rather than a system of theological intricacies. The three-fold experience of God comes before the three-fold explanation of God. The Trinity wasn’t invented by theologians. It began in the lives of everyday people who experienced a relationship with Jesus and whose lives were consequently forever changed.
One of my favorite stories in the Bible is that of Nicodemus and Jesus. That story illustrates what I’m talking about. Remember? Nicodemus, a member of the Sanhedrin, a leader and a teacher of Israel, sneaks out at night to talk to Jesus about what Jesus was teaching. Do you think that the night Nicodemus went to Jesus, after he had made up some excuse to get out of the house, do you think that he figured he was going to have discourse with “the uncreated second person of an undivided trinity of persons in one Godly substance?”, or that he was going out to meet with “the Logos made flesh”, and would be back in about an hour?
No, that night, on the Mount of Olives, with the moon riding high above Jerusalem, the wind was blowing up from the valley. The wind was rustling the leaves and stirring the branches of the trees. Jesus had been talking with Nicodemus about the work of God in our souls. How God can take lives which are full of failure, emptiness, and dissatisfaction, and make them strong and alert and joyful and victorious. And when Nicodemus said he didn’t understand, Jesus said, “Listen to the wind! Listen to the wind! You hear it. You see it in the trees. But where it has come from and where it is going no one can tell. Now, Nicodemus, the Spirit of God is just like that…invisible, yet unmistakable. You can’t grasp it, yet it is powerful. Turn your face to it. Let it fill the sails of your soul!”
God’s Spirit freely acts in the lives of those who open their hearts to him. Furthermore, we have been promised that the Son of God who has come to us from heaven, makes it possible for us to be with God in heave. All of that is possible because “God so loved the world….” Nicodemus came to know this truth. He kept contact with Jesus, even to the point of helping bury his body after the crucifixion. Nicodemus had a relationship with Jesus. He experienced the love of God in Jesus. He experienced the power of the Spirit in his life.
St. Augustine gave us the image of the Holy Trinity as Lover, Beloved, and Love. It is a good image because it reminds us of the relationship between God and his creation, and between the persons of the Trinity in the Godhead. God the Father, the Creator, the Lover out of his love brought into all that is, seen and unseen. God the Son, the Redeemer, the Beloved sent by the Father into the world not to condemn but to save. God the Holy Spirit, the Sanctifier, the Sustainer, Love itself, present with you and me today. Amen.