It Is Sometimes Said…, Trinity Sunday (C) – 1998
June 07, 1998
It is sometimes said that Trinity Sunday is the only feast in the church year devoted to a doctrine. This observation, while amusing, is off base. The Trinity is not a doctrine, but a Person – three Persons, in fact. “Trinity” is nothing less than the name by which we identify the God we worship. “Trinity” is the name of the God we know — insofar as we can know God — as Father, and Son, and Holy Spirit.
The primary difference between Trinity Sunday and the rest of the year is that on this day we focus on God’s being rather than on God’s doing; on who God is rather than on what God has done. On this day we turn from the “sacred story” to the sacred itself. The readings chosen for this day focus on the fact of God, pure and not so simple. During the rest of the year most of our Biblical readings are narrative: they tell a story, whether as history, or myth, or parable. On Trinity Sunday, we encounter not a collection of stories, but a set of visions. It’s as if we’ve moved from watching a film to gazing at a slide show, from a moving picture to a snapshot, from a drama to an icon.
The snapshot imaged before us reaffirms that the Trinity is not a doctrine but a mystery. Now, in theology, unlike the situation in detective stories, a mystery isn’t a puzzle we can figure out if we are given enough clues. In theology, the word mystery is a synonym for sacrament – not something to be solved but something to be experienced. A sacrament is something that draws us beyond the surface appearances of the image to something deeper or higher or broader – or all three. And a sacrament does this so very effectively that it becomes a means to experience that deeper or higher reality. Icons have been called “windows into heaven” and sacraments do even more; they open a door to another dimension; through it we have the opportunity to peek through and catch a glimpse of an otherwise invisible realm, and begin to participate in it.
What we see through that door, what we begin to experience, can be put into words, but the words don’t capture the fullness of the vision or the experience; whether of the temple filled with the hem of God’s robe and the smoke of God’s glory, or of a throne set in heaven with someone seated upon it.
There is always more than meets the eye in a sacrament: there is always some inward reality to which the outward, visible sign directs, draws, invites, guides, and brings us. Every sacrament is an open door through which grace flows, and through which we experience and anticipate in grace. The water of Holy Baptism and the bread and wine of the holy Eucharist reveal truths that doctrine cannot express, truths not simply assented to, but experienced – living truths from the hand of the one who is living, loving Truth.
This doesn’t mean that theologians have given up trying to understand or communicate these truths in other ways, though their efforts are much like translating poetry into prose. Often, rather than deepening our understanding, only confusion results from the attempts of theologies to explain. Worse than that, over the years when theologians have tried to define exactly how Baptism renews or regenerates, or how bread and wine can (at the same time) be the Body and Blood of Christ, division and persecution have resulted. The same is true of efforts to “explain” the Trinity – and it would be foolish to add to the succession of failed attempts! Rather, today let us follow the church’s warning and example in the lessons appointed for Trinity Sunday: to set the Trinity before ourselves much like the water of Holy Baptism or the bread and wine of the Holy Eucharist, as a sacrament to contemplate and experience rather than to analyze, as an open doorway through which we have access to God’s presence.
The important thing about doors, after all, is that they provide access. We’ve all seen the comedy bit where the character opens a door only to find a brick wall on the other side: the humor stems from the utter incongruity of having a door that leads nowhere. So while we might admire the woodwork and the craft in a well-designed door, it is important that we not forget its purpose; to go through. Just as the bread and wine of the Holy Eucharist are not about baking and wine-making (although these arts have a place in bringing the sacrament to fulfillment), so, too, the Trinity is not about craftily constructed Greek and Latin formulas designed to rule the limits of theological speculation, beyond whose boundaries lie the dangerous territories of heresy and schism. Our efforts at understanding, our doctrines and creeds, are at best doorposts, lintel, and threshold of the door leading towards the Being and Loving and Doing who is behind all created things, a God too big for definitions: and today we open the door marked “Trinity” for a moment and gaze through.
This door marked “Trinity Sunday” comes along more or less at the mid-point of the Christian year, and reminds us who it is upon whom everything else hinges. This is one of the reasons for the passages of Scripture we’ve heard today. We’ve joined Isaiah for a terrifying, mortifying glimpse of the majesty of God as the doors of the temple creak open in awesome slowness, and the pivots of the threshold shake. We’ve been dazzled by Saint John the Divine’s Technicolor description of the heavenly court, the throne and the torches, the sea of glass and the fantastic creatures who came to seen as emblems of the four Evangelists. Finally, we’ve heard Jesus give the promise of much more to come, including the coming of the one who will guide the disciples into all truth, when all of God’s children will be ushered through that door by the Spirit.
What do these readings tell us about God? What do they tell us about the mystery at the heart of life, the One upon whom everything hinges? What they show us is that God is, Saint Paul writes to the Ephesians, “above all and in all and through all.” (Ephesians 4:6)
There is no question that the God described by Isaiah and John is above all. No one could see these visions, no one could peek through these doors and not realize who it is seated at that throne. This is a scene beside which Dorothy’s encounter with the Wizard of Oz is just a pale, wrinkled, and faded copy. The Scripture shows us the real thing. This is the reality at the heart of the universe. There’s no one off to the side behind a curtain, pulling levers and producing special effects. This is not humbug; this is the gate of heaven, and awesome it is indeed!
The royal imagery in both readings reveals that God is “high and lofty” and is One before whom all the creatures – and what creatures they are! – Fall down and worship. This is clearly the One God, living and true, whom is “above all,” the God who, as John records, “created all things and by whose will “they existed and were created.” Everything hinges on God: God is – above all – above all.
However, at the same time God is also in all. Perhaps the most striking think in these readings is that the God of Heaven, the King, the Lord of Hosts, condescends to ask for human help in working out the divine plan for and in the world. What is more, God does not appear to expect only perfect people to be capable of carrying this burden and responsibility. Isaiah knows full well that he isn’t up to the task: he is a man of unclean lips, and he lives among a people of unclean lips. Yet he has been permitted to look upon the Lord; the temple doors have shaken to their foundations and swung open before Isaiah, cowering and trembling in fear. But even when the seraph has touched Isaiah’s lips with the cleansing coal from the altar; God still leaves the initiative in Isaiah’s court. God asks for help! “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”
This question reveals one of the most profound mysteries of God; that God works in people. Each of us has some share in the divine image after whose likeness we were made in the beginning. Each of us still carries a spark of that first creative fire in our hearts. And though that spark we carry in our hearts sometimes gets obscured or dimmed when we forget our original blessing because of original sin, God can bring that flame back to brightness within us with the touch of a live coal from the heavenly altar, a coal that burns away any thought of uncleanness from us, a heat that galvanizes us and make us able to bear the divine spark within us into the darkest reaches of a world in need of illumination and redemption. Each of us can risk the kiss of a coal held by an angel, a kiss that burns but does not consume – a special sign of divine fire! And it calls forth the fire in our hearts, the yearning burning fire of hearts that are restless until they rest in God.
Which brings us to the third truth about God presented in today’s readings. Not only does God work in us, but also God also works through us. For God not only ignited us with the coal of redemption, but blows upon us with the spirit of sanctification, bringing that spark up to a bright flame, with a wind blowing through our very souls, a wind that carries up forward to do God’s work with gladness and singleness of heart. God sends us forth in the power of the Spirit, back out through the doors these visions open for us, back out through the doors of this church, out into the world grown cold and listless – awaiting God’s fire, awaiting the breath of God’s Spirit to call it back to vitality and life.
God is Trinity: above us, and in us, and working through us – when we are willing to join Isaiah with a hearty “Here I am, send me!” God is Trinity, in whose name we are baptized with water and the Holy Spirit, and through whom we are called, we are cleansed, and we are commissioned in service to the Trinity. It is God’s being that empowers and inspires our doing.
Isaiah and John opened doors for us, and Christ has left us the Spirit to sweep us through them, into all truth, into all charity, into the love that moves the sun and the stars. God is Trinity, this God whom we adore: who was, and is and is to come – and to whom we ascribe all might, majesty, power and dominion, henceforth and forever more.
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