The Reverend Kathleen Killian
Trinity Sunday B 2021, May 30
Truly, Madly, Deeply
Today is particularly special to me as it’s the anniversary of my priestly ordination; and so the first sermon I preached as an ordained priest was on Trinity Sunday. Luck of the draw, I thought—as it’s the one Sunday a year the church devotes to a doctrine or set of beliefs rather than an event or action of God. Not only is the doctrine of one God, who isn’t really a who yet is three who’s baffling and seemingly contradictory, it can be a slippery heretical slope.
But then I had a dream: I was in church and the congregation and I were about to recite the Nicene Creed, the ancient affirmation of our Trinitarian faith. We stood up to and began, only by saying: We believe in madness . . .
I woke up with a sudden start: we do? I do? do we?
St. Paul called this madness the “foolishness of the cross” (Corinthians 1:18). Indeed, that God was born into the world, died on a cross, and rose from the tomb can be perceived as a bit mad, illogical, even absurd, not only to non-believers, but to believers alike. The Church herself has struggled mightily to explicate the who and the how of the Trinity, heatedly and repeatedly hammering out the doctrine until it was declared “official” in the year 381. Yet only ten years after the fact, the great theologian St. Augustine wrote: Can anyone comprehend the almighty Trinity? Everyone talks about it—but is it really the Trinity of which they talk?
For centuries we’ve been “talking” about the Triune God, or at least trying to, in a myriad of imaginative and evocative ways and in the language of triangles and trefoils, circles, spirals, and shamrocks, angels and hares (as in rabbits), and the familiar bearded old man with lamb and dove. St. Augustine himself talked about the Trinity as a trio of love: the Lover, Beloved, and Love; St. Bernard of Clairvaux spoke of the Holy Spirit as the kiss between the Father and Son; Meister Eckhart conceived the Trinity as peals of generative laughter; Hildegard of Bingen envisioned the Trinity as a unity of brightness, flashing, and fire; for Julian of Norwich the Trinity was Father, Mother, and Grace.
In the Bible itself, Trinitarian doctrine is implied yet largely unattested, as in our scriptures this morning. From Isaiah we hear of the presence of a God whose holiness is emphasized in a familiar refrain: Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory. Then Isaiah hears the voice of the Lord saying: Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Who is us? Is God referring to a heavenly council, or as in Genesis (1:26-27) when God declares that humankind be made in “our” image, is God referring to the plurality of the Holy One?
In our Epistle, St. Paul speaks of God the Father, Abba the Son with whom we are joint heirs, and the Spirit who leads the children of God. In our gospel from John, Jesus also speaks to God, the Son, and the Spirit, and their relational import. He tells Nicodemus that no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born of the Spirit and believe in the Son who God sent into the world to save it. Nicodemus struggles to grasp what Jesus is talking about. His ability to understand and believe seems to be contingent upon being birthed anew and the creative action of love.
But then as now, we believe or not through partial insight. It’s considered that what we know or are certain of accounts for only about 5% of the pie of our awareness. What we know we don’t know makes up about 15%, and what we don’t know we don’t know about 80%. Yet, this rather massive blind spot is not necessarily a bad thing, as nearly every mystic and saint will tell you: when you think you know it all, you are furthest away from experience. In other words, our knowledge of God will never add up to God or God’s presence.
So where does our ignorance of our ignorance actually leave us? I think in pretty good company with Nicodemus; as though he was educated and learned, a leader and “teacher of Israel,” he didn’t understand everything of what Jesus said to him; rather, he responded rather incredulously: how can these things be? to which Jesus answered: Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
Two thousand years later, might Jesus ask us the same: are you a disciple of mine, and yet you do not understand these things?
Like Nicodemus, we mostly come to God by way of the night, feeling our way, blinking in the dark, unsure yet hopeful, and carrying the heavy load of self and world, and of our beliefs both conscious and unconscious. But, as I believe it was for Nicodemus, we are drawn to Jesus by the gravitational force of God’s unconditional love that is ever calling us forth from the oppressive darkness of ignorance and sin into the freedom and light of new life.
This new life is the eternal indwelling and outpouring of God’s Self in Love. This exquisite intimacy of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit reveals a divine life that is relational, reciprocal, and responsive; interconnected, interdependent, and participatory in the revelation of its common purpose of love. This eternal life of God is shared with us because that is what the life of God is: a self-sharing of unconditional and creative love. This flowing unity of three Persons is expressed throughout the cosmos in at least seven billon ways.
So perhaps we’re not really talking about a doctrine or belief. Maybe the Trinity is the primary event or action of God, after which our own being and becoming is patterned. Three-ness is a rhythm, progression and measure intrinsic to the created order of birth, life, death; father, mother, child; beginning, middle, end; past, present, future; height, width, and depth; time, space, and matter.
The rule of three abounds in colloquialisms—we make three wishes and third time’s a charm; good things, as well as trouble, come in threes; on the count of three, ready, set, go! going, going, gone; as does the trope of three abound in fairy and folk tales, such as the Three Little Pigs, Three Blind Mice, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, and lions and tigers and bears, oh my! The narrative of our own faith accounts for three Wise Men, three Temptations of Christ, three denials by Peter, three Crosses at Calvary, three Marys at the Cross and Tomb, three days in the Tomb, and three Resurrection appearances; faith-hope-love are the great triad of Christian virtue.
We embody the triune God as the Creator Father and Mother when we are imaginative and generative, be it by writing a sermon or poem, making a meal or quilt, planting a garden and tending to relationship. When we have compassion and bestow its blessing upon the other who is different and hard to accept, we live as the beloved Son and Daughter of God. When we let go and forgive, and seek healing for all persons, God’s Holy Spirit is most assuredly moving within us. Though we might pray directly to one of the three divine Persons, our prayer is always trinitarian as Jesus ever prays in us and with us through the Spirit to the Father.
Being made in the image and likeness of the One who is Three means that our identity isn’t determined by “mutual negation” or “disjunctive divide”—I am me by not being you—but through mutual affirmation—I am me and you are also-me; or I am self and you are also-self. As Jesus teaches, we are all to be “one” as are he and the Father and Spirit, their unity imaged in life abundant or diversity. But we’ve got to get comfortable with asymmetry, and a reality that is not fixed or oppositional, but fluid, dynamic, and relationally transfigured by the mutuality of love.
God the Holy Trinity is indeed a mystery to be caught up into, even tripped up by! What a marvelous gift we have been given, this effort of flesh to discern and think, learn, contemplate, imagine and express an Absolute that is ultimately beyond answer; for if we were never to grapple with and reflect upon the mystery of life itself, we would become rather crude reductionists enslaved within our own dead skin of meaninglessness.
In considering our existential three-ness, we can’t help but be humbled and a bit mad: does 1+1+1= 3? or do the Father, Son, and Spirit equal one? Or is it unity? Or possibility? Or the sum of revelation?
Or is it grace, for which we ever pray.