Saint James Anglican Church

Joseph Howe Drive at the Armdale Rotary, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada             


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Trinity Sunday 2010

 

"All that the Father has is mine … the Holy Spirit will take what is mine and declare it to you." -John 16:15

 

This story comes from a colleague of mine, now long retired. He once served for a considerable period of time as a pastor in a small fishing community. As such, he knew just about everyone in the village. He certainly knew everyone who came to church whether frequently or infrequently. One Sunday while conducting services, he noticed a "stranger" sitting near the back of the church. When the stranger came up to receive Communion, my friend noticed he was wearing a wool sweater, work pants, and a pair of rubber boots. Perhaps the stranger was a fisherman from the other side of the cove. Perhaps he was visiting one of the families in the village. This particular Sunday was Trinity Sunday. So the sermon was an effort to address the congregation on the subject of the Holy Trinity. When the service ended, my friend went to the back of the church, to the door, to greet worshippers as they left the service. Naturally the stranger in church, having sat close to the back, was one of the first people out the door. He shook the hand of my friend, broke into a broad smile, and without introducing himself said, "Well done father. Very nice heresy you gave us this morning". It turns out that the stranger was not a fisherman, but a new summer resident in the village. He was a retired professor of theology with a Ph.D. from a prestigious divinity school in New England. The comment about the heresy was of course a good natured "inside joke". The inside story is that many clergy do not look forward to preaching about the Trinity. The subject matter is dry. It does not easily lend itself to providing preachers with something for their congregations to take away. If you say too much about the Trinity there is the risk you will simply end up saying something mistaken --- mistakes that the church likes to refer to as "heresy". For instance, The Creed of Athanasius is printed in the back of the Book of Common Prayer. Articles 3 & 4 of this Creed tell us "we worship the Trinity in Unity ... neither confusing the persons nor dividing the substance." (Now there is a mouthful!) We are cautioned in talking about God not to "divide the substance", not to make three gods out of one; not to "confuse the persons", not to mix up the father with son with the Holy Spirit and so on.

 

It's not just preachers who find the doctrine of the Holy Trinity frustrating. Our fellow faithful in the other religions of Abraham, our brothers and sisters in the Jewish and Islamic faiths, find it very challenging when they hear Christians who claim to be monotheists talk about one God/three persons at the same time. Likewise, faithful adherents of religious traditions that worship more than one God (polytheists) find the notion of the Trinity equally challenging. I once had opportunity to spend a year lecturing on "world religions" for an introductory university class. Over the course of the year I invited members from a variety of faiths to come and discuss their religious tradition with the class. One of the mathematicians on the University faculty was Hindu. He gave the class a very interesting presentation on the divinities of Hinduism. He concluded with the suggestion that the Christian notion of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit appeared to him to be very similar---a challenging subject indeed!

 

The big fall back, of course, has been to simply insist that there is one God/three persons and that this must simply be accepted as a mystery. Many of you here this morning will likely recall this approach from Sunday school or confirmation class. The Trinity is a mystery. We must accept it as a matter of faith. The term mystery when used in this way is intended to close down the conversation, and paste over the thorny problems that the idea of one in three/three in one creates. However the term mystery can also be a way of opening up the conversation rather than closing it down. The idea of mystery can open us up to God rather than shut us down. The readings for this morning present us with two examples of mystery from this point of view.

 

It was while studying theology at university that I was introduced to the idea of mystery as something that can be known but cannot be exhaustively explained. A mystery is like a deep deep well filled with a seemingly endless supply of water. You can draw off the water you need, but the well itself cannot be drained. There are many of mystery understood in this way from the world around us. Members of the scientific community, for example, can describe, measure, and construct theories about a variety of phenomena while at the same time saying "but we are not sure how that works exactly " or "there are aspects of this that are not yet fully understood." Mystery. The Trinity is a mystery that opens us up to the wonder and awe of the Divine. Its like the hymn How Great Thou Art. " O Lord My God when I in awesome wonder … I scarce can take it in…How Great Thou Art…" The mystery of the trinity understood in this way allows us to be open to a God whose wonder and power exists on a grand scale. The Psalm for this morning reflects this view of things "O Lord our Governor, how exalted is your name in all the World." The power and splendor of God as creator is imagined in just this way in the reading from Proverbs. It is God as inexhaustible mystery that makes belief in God possible and credible in the contemporary world. God as mystery is an antidote to a small diminutive notion of god that cannot be taken seriously in the modern world. One of the problems I have with fundamentalism is that in an attempt to protect "God almighty" it requires us to take too many things literally, reducing God down to an unbelievable size. How could a God who is the author and source of the mystery that is the universe be anything less than such a mystery? Experiencing God as a mystery on a vast and cosmic scale is like experiencing heat and light from a huge energy source. We see the light. We feel the heat. The exact nature of the source remains elusive.

Yet, this is the same God who calls us into relationship, and it is here that we come to know God as mystery from another point of view. This past week in preparing for this morning I re-read an article on the Holy Trinity by Dr. Mary M. Schaefer. (Trinitarian Dimensions of Liturgy: National Bulletin on Liturgy Vol. 27 Number 138 Fall 1994.)
Dr. Schaefer once taught here at The Atlantic School of Theology. Her area of expertise is Christian Worship. Dr. Schaefer describes how the modern church has recovered the practice of offering prayer in the name of the Trinity. (p. 137) Today's collect for example has us pray, "Fill us with a vision of your glory, that we may always praise you, Father Son and Holy Spirit." Dr. Schafer writes, "Mystery surrounds us. We live in its midst. Not only that. We as persons are incomprehensible mystery to one another, even to those who know and love us best." (p. 155) Human beings are a mystery. You and I are a mystery. Yet we are able to make contact with others, build relationships with others, care for and love others. As we are able to reach into the mystery that is one another, so is God able to welcome us into a relationship with Divine mystery. That is one of the beautiful things we learn from this year's Gospel for Trinity Sunday. "All that the Father has is mine … the Holy Spirit will take what is mine and declare it to you." The awesome God calls us into an intimate relationship. This part of John's Gospel, writes Dr. Schaefer "invites believers to enter into the life of the Trinity, where the three persons interrelate in perfect communion giving to and receiving from one another." (p. 145)

 

Trinity Sunday is a call to contemplate the wonder and majesty of the Divine, and opportunity to reflect on the grandeur and majesty of God. We are asked to see God as the mystery from which all creation draws its life, yet who ultimately is not limited by creation despite its vast and wonderful complexity. The traditional name for God as this kind of mystery is the transcendent (totally awesome) God. Trinity Sunday is also a day to be called into a relationship with God, to rejoice as human persons in the created order, to rejoice in the solidarity of Jesus Christ with the human condition, to rejoice in the gifts that God the Holy Spirit pours into our hearts for the work of discipleship. The traditional name for God as this kind of mystery is the immanent (intimate) God.

 

May we accept the challenge to know and experience God-- not as theological problem, a dry and confusing idea, a kind of religious Rubik's cube, or an outdated proposition-- but know and love God as the a Divine mystery that has bonded with the mystery that is humankind.

 

Canon Rod Gillis, Trinity Sunday 2010