Fr. John Allison
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31
June 12, 2022
Christ Church, Hudson
The prayer I just offered, the Gloria Patri, is our most common expression for the doctrine we recognize and celebrate today—Trinity Sunday. Your "amen" is the affirmation of this Trinity, our experience of the triune God. Never mind that the Trinity is one of our Faith's most difficult doctrines to clearly articulate, that its development was untidy and divisive, that it continues to confuse and obfuscate that which for many of us is known so clearly in our hearts—in our love for God, in our love for neighbor. Never mind that this is a doctrine that strikes fear into preachers' hearts, that to speak of it is to walk a fine line between heresy and orthodoxy. All of the these things, these difficulties, are going to continue long past this sermon, long past all of our lives, I think. What we can talk about, however, indeed, what we are called to live out together, is the much greater reality to which these words, this doctrine points.
In her book on the Holy Trinity Episcopal priest Cynthia Bourgeault recalls a story told to her by a long time friend and teacher Murat Yagan, a Sufi elder who had spent time in a remote corner of eastern Turkey in the years just after World War II. He had become friends with an elderly couple who made a simple living working the land. Their one sadness they told him was that they missed their only son who had gone off to Istanbul where he had become a successful business owner. One day Murat goes to see the couple and they eagerly invite him in for tea. They're quite excited because their son has sent them a tea cupboard from Istanbul and they are eager to show it to their guest. The woman had already arranged on it her tea set and Murat observes that it was a strongly built, handsome piece of furniture. He was polite but curious. Why had their son gone to such trouble to send a tea cupboard all the way from Istanbul. And why did this piece of furniture, whose most obvious purpose was storage, lack a cabinet or drawers?
"Are you sure it's a tea cupboard," Murat asked. "Oh yes," they assured him. But the question continued to nag at him and just before he was to depart he asked them if they minded if he had a closer look. With their permission he turned the "tea cupboard" around and saw two packing boards, which he unscrewed and removed. A set of cabinet doors swung open to reveal a working ham radio set. Bourgeault goes on to explain then that this radio set was meant to connect the couple to their son, but, unaware of its contents they were using it simply to display their china.
And so I ask, what is it that we conceal behind the packing boards of the Trinity? Why three? Why not two? Or one? How does it make any difference in our worship? In our lives? In how we love one another? As Bourgeault asks in her book, is our naming of the Trinity anything more than a shelf on which we arrange our china?
While it's certainly true that our doctrine of the Trinity wasn't fully developed until the fourth century it has its roots in the earliest days of the Christian movement. Paul, in his second letter to the Corinthians written about 30 years after Jesus' crucifixion, makes reference to the "grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. We see that formulation carried a bit further in the Gospel of Matthew with the earliest expression of our baptismal rite. Jesus commands his disciples to go out and baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. A few decades later in the year 125 the Roman writer Pliny in a letter to the historian Tacitus describes the Christians as worshiping Jesus as one with God.
There are of course, other scriptural renditions of the Trinity but, admittedly, none of the them go into the detail of our credal confession of the Trinity, which we will be saying together in just a few minutes. A bit of history is perhaps here in order in that much of the language used by the bishops present at the Council of Nicea in 325 when this doctrine was formally articulated does not effectively reflect our experience today. When we see references to the three persons of the Trinity it's helpful to understand that the word we read as "person" is translated from the Latin "persona" and its Greek equivalent "prosopon," which refer to the masks worn by actors in the theatre. The actors wore masks not for the sake of concealment but to play different roles. The root of the Latin "persona" means "to speak through" or "to sound through." Applied to the Trinity, then, this ancient meaning of "persona," what we translate as "person," suggests that for Christians the one God is known and speaks in three primary roles: as creator God of Israel; in Jesus, the redeemer, as the Incarnation of God; and through the Holy Spirit who sanctifies. Or, as a very old Celtic prayer addresses God: “O Father who sought me, O Son who bought me, O Holy Spirit who taught me.”
Now, all of this is well and good. It describes what is sometimes referred to as an external description of the Trinity. And for some purposes it's sufficient. It offers some understanding of how three "persons" comprise one God in a technical sense, but it still leaves me wondering about the larger significance, about those questions I started with: most particularly about how these three persons in one God makes a difference in my life as a Christian.
I think part of this feeling of lack is rooted in an observation I made at the start. Language can sometimes conceal larger truths. We get caught up in words, we live in our heads and scrutinize language to the point that we fail to engage the larger experience to which it points. To borrow an image from a Zen parable, the finger pointing to the moon is not the moon. To see the moon we must gaze beyond the finger. To see the Trinity we must gaze beyond the words used to describe it.
An image that is very special to me is the icon of the Holy Trinity by the 15th century Russian icon writer Andrei Rublev. It’s actually on the front of your bulletin today. It depicts the Old Testament story of the three angels who visited Abraham at the Oak of Mamre, what is sometimes referred to as the story of Abraham and Sarah's Hospitality. The three angels, who are not clearly male or female, are seated around a table on which rests a cup. As viewer, one's eyes move around the circle of the three figures, as one is invited to wonder which "person" is which, a gesture toward the unity of the three in one. The highest figure in the circle is allocated to the Son, to Jesus, who gestures to the cup as his own particular point of reference. The inclination of the heads to the figure on the left, however, gently suggests the sense of the Father as source or cause of the other two persons even as the circular movement moderates any sense of hierarchy. What I find most striking, however, is the open space at the table, as if the viewer is being invited into inclusion within this divine circle. The implication is that the Eucharistic elements are our means of incorporation into this divine circle of what theologian Sarah Coakley calls “gentle movement and mutual submission.” We become the fourth in this Holy Three. Our participation, through the Eucharist and in ministry, completes the circle and it lives through us, housed in our hearts. This is sacramental living. All things come from the God who creates us, whether we call God Father, Source or Ground of Being. We respond by giving all back to God, by returning it to the Source. In turn, through the Spirit our hearts grow in gratitude and love. This is sacramental living.
May we all come to share in this divine circle, loving one another as God loves us. Amen.