Trinity Sunday/Memorial Day
One thing I am pretty strict with myself about is when I step in the pulpit on Sunday morning, I preach the Bible. It always starts with scripture, and is an attempt to help us reflect on the meaning of the scripture for our lives. There’s only one exception to that rule and that comes on this Sunday - Trinity Sunday.
“Trinity” is not something we read out of the Bible. it is something we read into the Bible. Jesus didn’t ever use the word Trinity.
The scripture this morning is just one of those places where Jesus comes close: He talks about himself, and God the Father, and someone he calls the “paraclete” - which we call the Holy Spirit. Jesus used the term paraclete interchangable with “Spirit of Truth.” There are five "Paraclete"/"Spirit of truth" sayings in John. All of these are part of Jesus' Farewell Discourse. Ours from chapter 16 is the last.
The role of the "Paraclete" is to guide us into all truth (16:12-15)
The word for "guide" is hodegeo, a compound word from hodos = way, road; and ago = to lead. So literally it means "lead in the way." To say that the Paraclete will guide the disciples into all the truth is to say that in the future the Paraclete will lead the community into the life-giving revelation of God in Jesus. [p. 773]
And, in the early church, the Trinity became part of that way of truth. This is so, even though the work is not in any of the Gospels, or the Epistles of Paul, or the the Pastoral Letters, or even that crazy book of Revelations. You’d think, as much as the author of Revelations like using symbolic numbers, he would have latched on to the Trinity. But he didn’t.
So where did the idea come from? It, like most doctrines, came out of the experience of the early followers of Christ. They were on fire with passion for sharing their faith, and they wanted to express it clearly. They asked, “How can we make clear our experiences of God the Creator and God the Son and God the Holy Spirit?”
Frederick Houk Borsch was dean of the chapel and taught religion at Princeton. - He arrived just as I was leaving, in 1981. He puts it really well:
There are probably a number of people who imagine that the idea of the Trinity was thought up by ivory-tower theologians who, typically, were making things more complicated than they needed to be and were obscuring the simple faith of regular believers. In fact, it seems that the process worked pretty much the other way around. Practicing believers and worshipers were driven by their experiences of God's activity to the awareness that God related in several different ways to the creation. ... Thus what these believers came to insist upon was that God had to be recognized as being in different forms of relationship with the creation, in ways at least like different persons, and that all these ways were divine, that is, were of God. Yet there could not be three gods. God, to be the biblical God and the only God of all, had to be one God. This complex and profound faith was then handed over for the theologians to try and make more intelligible. They have been trying ever since.
They have been trying, but not necessarily succeeding. Every book about the Trinity ends up saying, this is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be explored. Reading and writing long books, thinking about things that have no answers, may seem like a waste of time to some of us.
Henri Nouwen, who WAS at Princeton while I was there, he was the speaker at my class’s commencement ceremony, Henri Nouwen talks about "a docta ignorantia, a learned ignorance" [in Reaching Out]:
We all want to be educated so that we can be in control of the situation and make things work according to our own need. But education to ministry is an education not to master God but to be mastered by God. [p. 74]
At our graduation, he told us a story that makes more sense to me now than it did then:
I remember the educational story of a thirty-year-old Methodist minister from South Africa. When this man felt called to the ministry and was accepted by the church, he was sent as an assistant pastor to work in a parish without any formal theological training. But he was so convinced of his insights and experience, and his enthusiasm and fervor were so great that he had no problem in giving long sermons and strong lectures. But then, after two years, he was called back and sent to the seminary for theological education. Reflecting on his time in the seminary, he said, "During those years I read the works of many theologians, philosophers and novelists. Whereas before everything seemed so clear-cut and self-evident to me, I now lost my certainties, developed many questions and became much less certain of myself and my truth." In a sense, his years of formation were more years of unlearning than of learning and when he returned to the ministry he had less to say but much more to listen to. [p. 74]
Trinity Sunday can be a powerful reminder of the importance of things we do not know, knowing that we do not know them, and the spiritual growth that can result from pondering the mysteries. When we have the courage to ask questions that take us deeper into scripture, into the nature of God, into our own moral and ethical dilemmas, we cooperate with the Spirit of truth which leads us along the road to a fuller, more complete experience of God’s grace through Jesus Christ.
I’d like your help in naming some of those questions, some of those areas you wonder about, some of those topics you’d like to probe more deeply. So I’ve put a piece of paper in the bulletin and I’d like you to take a few minutes to write down topics, questions, faith concerns that are in your mind and on your heart. Maybe it is a theological doctrine you’ve never quite understood, or a Biblical story that seems contrary to your experience. Maybe you have heard about some practice, or read some inspirational book that you’d like to talk to someone about. Is there something that you’d like to hear explored - maybe explained - I do know some things! This is your chance.
It’s helpful if you sign - in case I have questions about your intent. But if you don’t want to, don’t. I’m at the place where I’m thinking about the direction sermons and classes might take beginning next fall, and this is one way for me to listen to where we are as a community.
In spite of the fact that I can not explain the Trinity - I do believe that it is true that relationship lies at the heart of God - that the Creator relates to the Redeemer relates to the Spirit - in a way that is the foundation for our relationships with God and with one another. I believe that the Spirit moves among us as we gather and that in our relationships within our community we are drawn along, guided along the road of Truth by the Spirit. May it be so this day and forever. Amen.