Sunday, June 11, 2017

Experiencing the Trinity

Trinity Sunday (Year A)
2 Corinthians 13.11-13; Matthew 28.16-20
St. Gregory’s, Long Beach

Today is unlike any other Sunday in the Church calendar. Every Sunday focuses primarily on the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. Today is the only Sunday of the year that is not specifically dedicated to Christ per se, but rather is dedicated to a doctrine of the Church – the Trinity. The Trinity, that mysterious concept that boggles the minds of any who try to spend more than a few seconds thinking about it. The Trinity – the understanding that we worship one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God, three-in-one, three persons comprising one God. God, one-in-three, God manifest in three “persons” – really an unfortunate misnomer, but that is the term theologians use.

We have no problem dealing with God the Father, creator of all that is, the one who holds all creation in his hands, the one who watches over us. We have no problem dealing with God the Son, Jesus Christ, God incarnate; God who became flesh to demonstrate God’s love for us by dying for our sins; who through his humanity, we can more readily relate to God. We have no problem dealing with God the Holy Spirit, who is always with us, surrounding us with his love, guiding and inspiring us.

Where the difficulty comes in is that each of these “persons” – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – is fully God, yet each represents a particular aspect of who and what God is, of different ways of viewing God. Three-in-one. One-in-three. How can three persons be one God and not three gods? How can one God be three distinct persons?

As John Wesley once said, “Bring me a worm that can comprehend a man, and then I will show you a man that can comprehend the Trinity.” Give our limited human perspective, it just isn’t doable. Perhaps a little more helpful, contemporary theologian Frederick Buechner notes, “the Trinity is a way of saying something about us and the way we experience God” (Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking). So rather than focus on incomplete images of the Trinity as being like water or a clover or any other metaphor we have all heard numerous times, maybe we need to recognize that the Trinity is a complete mystery of faith, and instead focus on how we actually experience the Trinity in our lives.

Several years ago I read an article that had a passing statement that the Eastern, or Orthodox, Church seeks to understand the doctrine of the Trinity through the experience of the Church, which it understands to be an icon of the Trinity. This really resonated with me. The Eastern understanding defines this in very discrete parts, with each person of the Trinity reflecting one aspect of the Church.

It is in the Church where we seek to discern the meaning of the Trinity, not in an intellectual way but in an experiential way. We come to church to be in the presence of the Holy, longing for an experience of the Holy. We come to church expecting an experience of the Triune God. While we can, and hopefully do, experience God in other areas of our lives, in places other than the Church, it is in the Church that we have the most focused, the most intentional, experiences of the Trinity.

The first and most obvious way that we experience the Trinity in church is through our worship. Acts of worship and praise that are primarily directed to the Father, but always incorporating and emphasizing the interrelationship of the Father with the Son and the Holy Spirit. Our worship begins with the words, “Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We move on to the Gloria with its expression of praise to each of the persons of the Trinity. We offer prayers in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, proclaiming them one God. We profess our faith in the words of the Nicene Creed, outlining the ancient Church’s understanding of the persons of the Trinity. We confess our sins and receive forgiveness from the Father, through Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit. And we make Eucharist, where through the grace of God, the power of the Holy Spirit changes simple bread and wine into the Body of Christ. And we end our worship with a blessing in the name of God Almighty, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” In so doing, we are sent out in the name of the Trinity, to proclaim and live what we have experienced.

Church as an icon for the Trinity does not end with the worship service. Like the Trinity itself, the Eastern image of the Church as an icon has three parts, worship merely being the first. It is in our worship as the Body of Christ where we experience the purpose and interrelationship of the persons of the Trinity. Our worship is one of offering thanks and praise to God the Father. For it is the Father who gave his only Son for our salvation, who continues to express divine love through the Holy Spirit.

The second part of the Eastern understanding of the Church reflecting the Trinity is in our care and support of one another as a parish community – just as Jesus is the embodiment of God’s love for us, most vividly represented by Jesus’ love for his disciples. A key characteristic of the Trinity is the mutual love between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. So, too, do we receive the outpouring and benefit of that divine love through the presence of the Trinity in the life of the Church and in our own lives. God sent Jesus to live among us as a sign of his love for us, as a means of caring for us. And following his death, resurrection, and ascension, the Holy Spirit was sent to be in our midst, continuing the love and care for us in an ongoing way.

In our life as church, we are similarly called to love and care for one another. This model of love is revealed to us particularly in the model of God the Son, Jesus Christ. This manifests itself in the many ways in which we love and care for those in our faith community – what we call our parish family. The sense of profound fellowship we experience when we come together as a family. The acts of care we demonstrate for our own – checking up on the well-being of our members; visiting, calling, or writing those who are not able to be with us; providing assistance to those who are in need; providing companionship – all expressed out of genuine love and concern. In these ways we express the mutual love that is inherent within the Trinity, and modeled for us by the Son.

The third part of the Eastern understanding of the Church reflecting the Trinity is through the ways we carry God’s love into the world, symbolizing the Holy Spirit. Last week we heard about how the Holy Spirit was sent to continue Christ’s presence in the world. How the Holy Spirit came to energize and enliven the disciples to move beyond their small number, beyond the Jewish community, and spread the Good News of what God is doing to all people.

We, too, are sent out into the world to proclaim that Good News in word and action. We are all called to respond by boldly going forth from our place of worship, from the nurture of our community of faith, into the world. We are called to spread the message of God’s love, revealed in Christ, manifest in the Holy Spirit, to all in need. To spread God’s love for humanity to the whole world, to all people. To care for the widows and orphans, the prisoners, the sick, the hungry, the homeless, the marginalized, the lonely, those who have lost hope.

When we look at this model of the Church as reflecting the Trinity, there is one theme that arises again and again. It is the experience of relationship. As Paul sums up the Trinity in his second letter to the Corinthians, “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” Grace – the abundance – of Christ revealing and demonstrating the unbounded love of God, poured out on us through the gift of the Holy Spirit, whereby we are in communion with the Triune God. The entire work of the Trinity is about love. The love between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The love shared within the Trinity. That love that is shared with us. God the Father’s love for us in creating all that is, just for us. His love for us in sending his Son to demonstrate that love in a face-to-face, flesh-to-flesh, way. To provide for our salvation. To give us eternal life with him. His love for us in sending the Holy Spirit as an ongoing demonstration of love.

Our response to the Trinity and the love given to us, is to continually express that love. For it is in this way that we come to experience the Trinity. Through our worship, whereby we praise our Triune God. Through our love and care for each other. Through our love and care for the world. To understand the Trinity, there is no need to look to any other images. For we have it right here, in our own experience of St. Gregory’s and each other.

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