Sermon by the Rev. Marek Zabriskie on Trinity Sunday, June 16, 2019.
Zen Buddhism has several distinctive features including the teaching of koans as instruments for spiritual awakening. These are short, impenetrable questions that are designed to help our minds reach a level of reality beyond human reason.
One famous koan asks, “What was the appearance of your face before your parents were born?” Another poses the question, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” Students of Zen spend much time pondering such questions in their quest for spiritual enlightenment.
Christianity has some parallels in the teachings and parables of Jesus. Take Jesus’ expression, “Those who find their live will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39). But the most challenging Christian koan so to speak is not something Jesus taught, but rather something that Jesus participated in, namely the Trinity.
Today is Trinity Sunday, the first Sunday after Pentecost. It is the only Sunday of the Church Year where we focus on a doctrine rather than a teaching or a story from Scripture. The doctrine of the Trinity is at the heart of Christianity. It has helped Christians sharpen their faith and keep it alive for centuries.
We are all aware of people who never darken the door of a church but who have a deep sense that there is something behind and beyond reality as we know it. How can one look across the Grand Canyon or survey the ocean stretching off into the horizon or look up at the night sky and see the vast galaxies of stars and not believe that there is something more?
Since the beginning of time, we humans have tried to comprehend that something more. In the ancient world people believed that the earth was ruled by many gods who competed and controlled various facets of life and regions of the earth. Then Judaism emerged and the experience of the Jewish people led them to believe that there was only one God. Yahweh was God’s name. They were the first people to believe in monotheism or the existence of one God.
The first followers of Jesus were Jewish, so they, too, believed that there is only one God. But over time, they came to believe that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah of Savior for whom they had been awaiting. As they watched him heal, teach, preach and express compassion for all people in every station of life undergoing all sorts of challenges, illness and affliction, they came to believe that Jesus was the Messiah, or the Christ in Greek, God’s incarnate Son.
Before Jesus died, he promised to send them the Holy Spirit, an advocate and counselor who would be with them at all times and in all places. No longer was God incarnate in the form of Jesus limited to one given place and time. God could now be available to all people at all times in the form of the Holy Spirit that dwells within us and around us. This was the gift that was given to the Church on Pentecost, which is known as the birthday of the Church.
In the fourth century, bishops from across the Christian world, mostly in Europe and Asia, gathered in the town of Nicea in what is now Turkey to try to clarify their beliefs in God and to determine what is the true about the nature of God. When it was over, some bishops were banished for holding wrong beliefs in Christianity and refusing to alter their views. Those who remained produced what we now know as the Nicene Creed, which exemplifies in whatever imperfect way our most basic beliefs about God and what God has done throughout history.
Christians have upheld this understanding of the Trinity as understood in the Nicene Creed for sixteen centuries. We believe that God has manifested God’s Being in three distinct ways across time – as Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer or Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We are baptized after birth and commended after death to God in the name of the Trinity.
I admit that this doctrine can be confusing. The English preacher Colin Morris says that any preacher with good sense will call in sick on Trinity Sunday. Many Rectors assign their Associate or Curate to preach on this Sunday and watch them squirm in a whirlpool of theology. Afterall, how do you explain that 1+1+1=1. St. Patrick used a three-leaf clover to teach the Trinity, pointing out that a single clover had three separate, but interconnected petals.
Others point to H20 which can be manifested as water, ice and steam. One preacher friend of mine after preaching on Trinity Sunday found a Three Musketeers candy bar on her windshield and a note that read, “All for one and one for three! Happy Trinity!”
If you struggle to understand the Trinity, you are in good company. St. Augustine, one of the greatest minds that the Western world ever produced, spent a decade writing 15 books on the subject of the Trinity. Augustine once famously said, “If you don’t believe in the Trinity, you will lose your soul. But if you try to understand it you will lose your mind.” We are wise to remember that the Trinity is a sacred mystery that we will never fully grasp.
This reminds me of the little girl in Sunday school, who was intently drawing with her crayons when her teacher asked her what she was drawing. “I’m drawing a picture of God,” she said. Her teacher replied, “But nobody knows what God looks like.” The little proudly replied, “They will when I am finished.”
Such is the intent of many writers in the Bible such as John, who wrote the book of Revelation. He wrote, “At once I was in the spirit, and there in heaven stood a throne, with one seated on the throne! And the one seated there looks like jasper and carnelian, and around the throne is a rainbow that looks like emerald.” (Rev. 4:2-3). Frank Baum, the author of The Wizard of Oz was an Episcopalian. He found his ideas for City of Oz by reading the book of Revelation. Indeed, the Nicene Creed and the Trinity allow us to peer behind the curtain and see something about the very nature of this being we call God.
There have been those who were put off by the doctrine of the Trinity, thinking that it was too primitive belief. The great American writers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau found it unnecessary as do their Unitarian descendants today. Thomas Jefferson wrote:
When we shall have done away with the incomprehensible jargon of the Trinitarian arithmetic, that three are one, and one is three; when we shall have knocked down the artificial scaffolding reared to mask from view the very simple structure of Jesus… and get back to the pure and simple doctrine he inculcated, we shall then be truly and worthily his disciples.
But Jefferson was a Deist like George Washington and more than a handful of Episcopalians. A Deist believes that God operates like a divine watchmaker, who wound the universe like a great clock and let it go to tick away on its own. God of the Deists is a very distant, hands-off God, unaffected by what happens on earth and unable to intervene and make a difference.
Deists struggle mightily to know what to do with Jesus, God in a human form, and the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus sent to us after he ascended to heaven. They do not trust that the God who healed and worked miracles through Jesus is still at work in the world today.
The Trinity, by contrast, is about the closeness of God. It reminds us that God is searching, seeking and looking for us. God is on our side and wants what is best for us. At the end of Matthew’s Gospel Jesus sends the disciples out into the world to baptize everyone in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. People who are spiritual but not religious often have a very private faith. But Christianity is a public faith. We may have a deep, abiding personal faith, but we were are called to move out into the world and share God’s love with everyone.
How can God inhabit three distinct forms as Father, Son and Holy Spirit? Are we in fact tri-theists instead of monotheists? On this Father’s Day, think of our fathers and the roles that they have played. My father was a banker, who worked for a while on Wall Street. I used to meet him at the train station in Ridgewood, New Jersey and carry his briefcase as we walked home together. But my mother knew him as her husband, a hard-working man, constantly in motion, traveling and spending time with the family at home. I knew him as my father. He was fun, taught us many lessons and liked to play baseball with us or work in the yard. He was one man, who served as a banker, a husband and a father. Three dimensions of one human life.
So, it is with God. Theologians speaks of many “dispensations” of God. God was the creator of the entire universe. We don’t have to believe that God created the universe in six days, but God set all things in motion and designed all of creation.
Over time, humanity got in one bad rut after another. So, God sent many prophets, hoping to get humanity back on track. Finally, God sent Jesus, God’s only Son, to come among us and show us what God’s love looks like in human flesh and to guide us back to the path that we were meant to follow. But we crucified Jesus, nailed him to a cross and left him to die. Then miracle of miracles, God sent Jesus back to us to show us that Jesus had conquered death and nothing could ever separate us from the God’s love.
Upon ascending to heaven, Jesus sent the Holy Spirit, advocate or counselor to be among us. The Holy Spirit or Paraclete is an anxious Greek legal term for someone who will argue our case in the court of the Lord on the Day of Judgment. This means that we are never alone. No matter what we face, we have an advocate at our side to guide and comfort us.
The Trinity is an earnest human attempt to describe something that can never be fully described. All religious language is ultimately poetic. It is imagery used to describe the indescribable.
In one of his books, author Robert Capon says that humans trying to describe the nature of God is like a bunch of oysters trying to describe a ballerina. We simply are not equipped to describe God adequately. Of course, this has not stopped us from trying.
At the end of The Divine Comedy, Dante is led into Paradise, where he catches a glimpse of the three circles of the Trinity, but he is almost blinded by the dazzling brightness. His vision failed him so that he couldn’t fully absorb it. There was too much to see and too much to behold, but he was caught up in “the Love that moves the sun and other stars.”
To believe in the Trinity is to accept that God’s love underlies all love and has breathed each of us into creation. It is to be caught up in the endless flow of God’s love for us, which is the “Love that moves the sun and other stars.”
I remind you of this morning that in many Muslim countries, if an individual or a family becomes Christian they risk being put to death for apostasy for believing in the Trinity. You and I do not risk death for any faith beliefs in this incredible pluralistic country. That is one of the many great things about our country. We do not have to die for the Trinity. We are only asked to live for the Trinity. As we stand today and recite the Nicene Creed may we say it with more comprehension and more conviction. Amen.