Romans 8:12-17 and Isaiah 6:1-8
doctrine, devotion, discipleship
Trinity Sunday June 3, 2012
Roy W. Howard
Today is Trinity Sunday and that presents a challenge for the preacher. It’s not because a brief sermon is an inadequate form to convey the mystery of Triune God. The sermon alone is an inadequate way to express anything. It is one movement in the whole of worship in which the people of God offer praise and gratitude. The whole dance – music, prayers, silence, song, sermon and the sharing of a common meal – is important. No, the main challenge is to talk about the Trinity at all because it is considered by many to be so obscure as to be irrelevant.
Somewhere along the way, too many Christians adopted the thinking that either the Trinity was impossible to understand and therefore irrelevant, or that the Trinity was irrelevant and therefore unnecessary to understand. In the process, Christians in large numbers, and not a few of them clergy, inhabiting a great many congregations have become in-the-closet quasi-Unitarians who believe in one God – a Kind Higher Power – but have great reservations about Jesus – the en-fleshed Word of God – and even more trouble with the Holy Spirit – the very breath of God permeating creation
I think the error began with the notion that with just enough study can fully comprehend God, the Triune One, who exists as three persons – distinct yet undivided – in a communion of love for one another, overflowing into all creation. Such comprehension is impossible, because God always eludes our grasp.
But there is a different way of knowing the Triune God that is more akin to wonder and adoration, than comprehension. This way of knowing has more in common with poets who teach us to pay attention. In her book, Small Wonders, Barbara Kingsolver, says “I am a scientist who thinks it wise to enter the doors of creation not with a lion-tamer’s whip and chair, but with the reverence humankind has traditionally summoned for entering places of worship: a temple, a mosque, or a cathedral. A sacred grove, as ancient as time.”
Similarly, if we approach God, as with all life, with wonder, faith and adoration, not with a desire to grasp and reduce God into propositions and religious facts, we may begin to live into the richness of the Triune One who loves us, entered into the very flesh of our existence for us and even now sustains us in eternal life.
There have been many attempts to explain the Trinity and many of them are not helpful. One that I enjoy the most is from the 14th century German Christian mystic Meister Eckhart who when asked what is the heart of the Trinity said, somewhat whimsically, “the heart of the Trinity is this: the Father laughed and gave birth to the Son who then laughed back at the Father and gave birth to the Spirit who laughed again and gave birth to all of creation”, including human creatures born to laugh with joy in God and whose destiny it is to give life and laughter to the world.
Saint Paul contrasts the way of the flesh with the way of the Spirit. I want to suggest that the way of the Spirit is the way of wonder. To live in Christ is to live in wonder, to be dazzled gradually by God’s mystery. It is to live openhearted, humble in the face of all that remains necessarily beyond our grasp. After all, if I could grasp God so fully as to relieve all my questions, than what kind of god would this be in the end? Puny indeed. And would become of faith and wonder? Vanquished; squeezed away in my tight grasp.
Some will argue that doctrine of the Trinity was imposed upon the Church by narrow-minded, cranky old men. I disagree. Not that the Church has had its share of narrow-minded, cranky old men; that is certainly true. But they didn’t impose the Trinity on us. The vision of the Trinity came from the experience of people with God and their reading of scripture.
Isaiah caught in the temple with a flaming coal on his lips as the angles sing Holy, Holy, Holy; Saint Paul testifying to the Spirit that unites our very lives in union with Christ; Jesus breathing upon his disciples the Spirit of Truth. This is the witness given in Scripture to the Creator God who comes among us in the flesh and sustains us in the Spirit.
I think those folks had it right who said, the primary purpose of humanity is to praise God and enjoy God forever. (Some of us learned this at an early age, in the form of question and answer. What is the chief end of man? To glorify God and enjoy him forever.) In whatever form, the advice is this same: praise and enjoyment of God are the primary ways we humans are to experience God. Praise and wonder.
Jesus declares all that the Father has is mine. Then he sends the Spirit of truth who in turn speaks all that is truth in Jesus and the Father. And so we see this undivided dance of God whom we experience as a parent’s love, as a Son who accompanies us in forgiveness, and as the Spirit who sustain us in all circumstances. It’s this experience of God that leads to a doctrine, but doctrine is deadly unless it leads to devotion, and devotion is self-indulgence unless it leads to discipleship in the world, living with faith, wonder and joy.
Doctrine leads to devotion that leads to discipleship. This is a Trinitarian way of life that bears witness to the Trinity of love, filled with compassion for the broken, love for the lost, mercy for the fallen, and grace for the sinful. Then we may be ready as the poet says, to “run, rise, and rest” with God.
The truth of love is made visible here at this feast of forgiveness.