The Rev. Dr. Alison L. Boden
Princeton University Chapel
May 27, 2018
Isaiah 6:1-8; Romans 8:12-17
A very happy Trinity Sunday to all of you! Now that I’ve said that, I’ll reveal myself to you, perhaps, as a charlatan for admitting that the concept of the Trinity is something that remains a bit of a mystery to me. The word “mystery” in that sentence buys me a bit of theological credibility because the concept of the Trinity has been described by esteemed Christian thinkers over the millennia as “a mystery.” Okay––I’ve got theological cover…for the fact that I join millions of other believers today and always in feeling quite inarticulate in the provision of a comprehensible definition of the Trinity. “Three in one and one in three”––this borders on The Three Musketeers and that is not the Gospel of Jesus Christ; it’s Alexandre Dumas. And it’s not theology; it’s friendship.
The historical origins of the idea of the Trinity are theo-political. The concept of the shared divinity of God, of Christ, and of the Holy Spirit is absolutely biblical, and understood by Christians to be articulated especially strongly in certain texts and also as thematically constant from the Spirit’s brooding over the waters of creation in Genesis to the conclusion of John the Revelator’s amazing visons. The Church historically has tried to capture this reality doctrinally. Two different Church Councils, one in the year 325 and the other in the year 381, resulted in a text we refer to as the Nicene Creed, and it settled the affair of whether God and Christ were of similar substance (no!) or of the same substance (yes!). God is not three, God is one––“One in three persons, blessed Trinity.” We sang those words a few minutes ago in our opening hymn; they are perfect for Trinity Sunday and may be the reason why Isaiah 6:1-8 is prescribed for this day. In it are the words, “Holy, holy, holy”: the title of the hymn. Otherwise, that text speaks of an amazing call to discipleship and prophecy for Isaiah. As a dyed-in-the-wool Protestant, I hope you’ll understand that I’ve been taught that every biblical text is a call to discipleship. Of course, I’m sure that this text is appropriate for Trinity Sunday! But I hope you’ll bear with me as I take this sermon in another, more Trinitarian, direction.
I appreciate the insight of one theologian I read this past week who noted that concepts of the Trinity really need to be pieced together individually, and so that’s what I’d like to encourage in these minutes. The Trinity is a concept for every Christian to articulate for themselves, coming from how each of us understands each of the three members. Let’s start with the first member of the Trinity––God the Creator. Who is God to you? I’m going to mention just some of the ways that people experience each member of the Trinity, hopefully it will ignite your recognition and imagination rather than restrict it!
God the Creator––for some of us, God’s mighty acts in creation profoundly form our beliefs. God, the entity in the universe and that is the universe, creates all that is out of love, God’s divine love is overflowing and so all that is becomes, becomes what it is. Yes, we are molecules, we are substance, we are grit, and we are also the substance of God’s love. The natural world is, too. The cosmos is also. The whole created order is an act of love, is love. “God is love,” proclaims the First Letter of John. To so many people since the dawn of our existence, the clearest identity of God is simply the fact of love. God is love.
For many, the aspect of God as Creator is central. God dirty up to the elbows in the act of shaping the world we know. God inhabits all that God has made––God present in every human, God leaving the divine trace all over pine trees, turtles, the night stars. God creating still and always––God’s touch within the new music and visual art and everything of beauty that continues to usher forth. God revealing to us constantly the wonders of the universe God has already made––equipping us to understand, to declare ourselves the recipients of “new” knowledge. Our small knowledge truly is of all that God continues to create across the vastness of earth alone and of the universe!
And to many, this first person of the Trinity is God the Father. For them there is something powerfully real and true about relating to God as father––a healthy, empowering sense of being fathered by God––loved and cared for as by a father, cherished, guided, preserved. In recent decades, women and men have grown in their use of the understanding of God as mother––providing particularly motherly love and care, cherishing, guiding, preserving. Each person has their own experience of their human mother and father (including the experience of their radical absence), and all of this forms whether and how the image of God as divine parent is natural for us.
And the second member of the Trinity––Jesus the Christ: he is our redeemer, and that fact is central to how many Christians experience him. As a human family, our own sin had doomed us, our disobedience, our cruelty. Christ is our savior; he opened heaven to us, the forgiveness of all our sins. Our bodies die, but our souls live on eternally in the presence of God. How powerfully do many Christians relate to Christ as redeemer, with faithful gratitude every day for his setting us free––not from sin, we still do that––but from the consequences of our sin.
Some Christians identify most powerfully with Christ as brother, as someone who walked the steps of a fully human person, who is the companion beside us as we chart our own course. He is the son of his mother, Mary, and he knows about the beauty and challenges of life with family. To some Christians, Jesus the Christ is known most profoundly as liberator––as he unshackled us from the consequences of our sin, he also works our liberation from human bondage as well. He is the leader of every worthy struggle to shake off oppression, discrimination, the yoke of injustices, of grinding poverty. He gives strength to fight off disease and addiction. Our shackles come in so many forms! Wherever people strive for peace, for justice, for well-being, equality, Christ is known to them as very much in their midst.
And then there is the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is, as I’ve said, the wind brooding over the waters in creation. It is also the tongues of flame that descended on the believers in Jerusalem at Pentecost, which we celebrated last week. The Spirit is, in essence, all things to all people. I’ve heard some say that they recognize the Spirit daily as what, in secular terms, is thought of as one’s conscience. When something deep in the heart or mind discerns the truth about how to act, how to be in the world, the ethics of living, that this is the Spirit at work. To some, the Spirit is the force of holy encouragement that comes upon them when they are flagging. To some, it is wisdom, or peace, or the profoundest sense of love. For many, it is holy guidance, illuminating the way that a life should be lived. It is the felt presence of God in our lives, as close to us as our breathing.
Your own experiences of God, Christ, and Spirit may be altogether different, broader, deeper, richer than these quick musings of mine. Whatever they are, I encourage you to think about how they are not just interrelated for you, but how they are one. In his formative text on the Trinity, De Trinitate, St. Augustine wrote 1,600 years ago about a trinity of the lover, the beloved, and the love that exists between them. He said, “Now love is of someone who loves, and something is loved with love. So then there are three: the lover, the beloved, and the love.” The writer Fred Buechner has said, “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit mean that the mystery beyond us, the mystery among us, and the mystery within us are all the same mystery. Thus, the Trinity is a way of saying something about us and the way we experience God.” Mystery beyond, among, within us––Buechner makes the Trinity something not simply that we observe happening within the Godhead, but something that we actually participate in. We are infused, suffused, with the mystery as well.
So let us celebrate Trinity Sunday not only by embracing a doctrine that leaves many mystified, but also by embracing the mystery itself, one that includes even us, in its soft and holy embrace.
Happy Trinity Sunday!