TWO EPIPHANIES Trinity Sunday, 2013
In my senior year in high school, I was blessed to have as my English teacher a legendarily tough and aristocratic lady named Betty Rodgers. She was one of those teachers who demanded, and got, from her students more than her students thought they were able to give.
In the fall of that year, Mrs. Rodgers assigned us to write a long research paper. I can’t remember how it happened, but I ended up writing my paper on the Greek philosopher Aristotle and his “Metaphysics.” I was a seventeen year old who, at the time, was first in the grip of the idea he might become a priest, so Aristotle’s ruminations upon the nature of God were quite fascinating to me. I had a ball researching and writing the thing. What I learned is just how many of our notions about God come from Aristotle, and from his teacher Plato. In ways large and small, these two philosophers set the frames of reference that would influence the formation of Christian theology for 2000 years.
I always fondly remember that, my first foray into theology, when the church calendar rolls around to Trinity Sunday. We have no other day like this one. Almost every other Sunday of the year, we celebrate an event: Easter, the resurrection. On a few Sundays, we celebrate other events, as we did last week to celebrate the day of Pentecost. The church calendar is full of days when we celebrate other events in Jesus’ life, or when we celebrate persons, saints major and minor. But on this one day of the year we celebrate neither an event nor a person. On Trinity Sunday, we celebrate an idea, a doctrine, and a strange one at that, a theological philosophical construct. One God in three persons, co-equal, co-eternal, neither dividing the substance of the unity, nor confusing the substance of the trinity. One God in three, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Safe to say, nothing else we Christians proclaim is more perplexing to the other religious folks in the world, and safe to say nothing else is more perplexing to most good Christian people than is this doctrine that tries to describe the innermost workings of the Divine. In a sense, it is pure pretension, an attempt to capture and explain what is beyond explanation: the ultimate nature of God. But, it is also at the heart of what we believe, the source of what we do.
And so, every year when Trinity Sunday rolls around, as a preacher I feel the need to try in eight minutes or less to engage in a task in which I must absolutely fail: to offer you a succinct synopsis of this doctrine; to make it understandable and user-friendly.
That research paper I wrote as a 17 year old was the first of two great epiphanies for me, the two great epiphanies that have bracketed my own life with the doctrine of Trinity. Aristotle taught me about the overwhelming and beautiful transcendence of god. God, the prime mover of the universe, pure form, pure actuality, pure mind, the infinite incomprehensible source out of which all creation burst forth and the center towards which all of creation is oriented. The picture Aristotle painted was so beautiful, so powerful, that I just fell in love with it.
But there was a problem. The God Aristotle describes is so transcendent, that any notion of human beings relating to God is absurd. God is infinitely remote from us, Aristotle taught, beyond any capacity we might have to approach or communicate. Aristotle and Plato would scorn our notion of having a personal relationship with God. At best, all we humans can do is contemplate God, and occasionally catch a brilliant fleeting glimpse of God’s beauty.
Ten years later, in 1987, on a beach beside the Red Sea in Egypt, came my second epiphany. I was with a group en route to Mount Sinai, and we stopped for lunch at this beautiful spot. As we sat and ate lunch, three Bedouin Arab boys suddenly appeared and stripped naked for a swim. A little while later, an Arab man arrived, a strikingly dignified man. We learned later he was the tribal sheikh of the region. When the boys spied this man, they leapt out of the water and ran to him, all shouting “ebbe,” “ebbe.” It was an electrifying moment for me, because I realized what they were saying. I was hearing in the gleeful voices of three little boys the Arabic form of the very word Jesus and St. Paul used to describe our relationship with God, both of whom addressed God as “Abba.” Ebbe. Daddy. Papa.
In that epiphany on a beach in Egypt, I finally got what Paul and Jesus were trying to teach us. I experienced what we call the immanence of God, the closeness and intimacy of God.
God’s infinite transcendence and God’s intimate immanence. These two ideas I struggled to reconcile as a young man, and quite frankly still struggle to reconcile, were the two ideas that our Christian ancestors also struggled to hold together. On the one hand, those first Christians worshipped a God of infinite majesty and awe. But on the other hand, those same men and women had eaten and slept and traveled with Jesus, a flesh and blood human being like themselves, but a man who was somehow connected to God in a deep and organic way. And then, when Jesus was gone, the earliest Christians experienced a sense of Jesus’ continuing presence, a power, a force within themselves, and they gave this the name of Holy Spirit.
For the better part of 400 years, the earliest Christians struggled to hold these realities together, and the gifts they gave us, the gifts we recite every Sunday, are our creeds: the Apostle’s Creed of baptism, the Nicene Creed of the Eucharist, and if I’m really boring you, check out the Athanasian Creed on page 864 of the Prayer book. The creeds attempt to do the impossible, to describe in succinct form our experience of God as both transcendent and immanent, as infinite, vast and incomprehensible, and as intimate as our breathing, as intimate as a friend or lover.
Some modern folks find these creeds a bit challenging. You may find them challenging. You may have to force your “I believe” through crossed fingers sometimes. I hope you don’t find it appalling that I have to cross my fingers sometimes. If you don’t find the creeds challenging sometimes, it might be that you haven’t thought too deeply about them.
Our bishop tells a story on himself that I find charming and helpful. When he was a teenager attending St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire, he also wrestled with the doctrine of the Trinity. He read the Athanasian Creed and wondered if his doubts put his soul in jeopardy. So, one day he went to the school chaplain, a kindly old Episcopal priest, and poured out his doubts and uncertainties. “I have no trouble believing in God,” teenage Mark Hollingsworth said. “I have no trouble believing in Jesus as a historical figure. But Jesus as a personal friend, and the Holy Spirit, I just don’t get those.” And that wise old chaplain smiled and said, “Yes, Mark, isn’t the doctrine of the Trinity just wonderful.”
What that old chaplain was saying is that the doctrine of the Trinity has something for everyone. You can pin your belief on God, or Jesus, or the Holy Spirit. You can pin your beliefs on God’s transcendence, or God’s immanence. And the doctrine of the Trinity promises you that in pinning your belief on one, you gain all three. Bishop Hollingsworth will tell you that, as he has grown and matured, his beliefs have migrated through all three persons in the Trinity. Here God, there Jesus, now the Holy Spirit. All different ways of experiencing God, all one.
One God in three persons, unity in trinity, God, Abba, Son, and Holy Spirit. The real point of this doctrine of the Trinity is not to test the rightness and purity of your beliefs. The doctrine of the Trinity as put forth in the creeds is not meant to be a complete description of everything we can know about God. What the doctrine of the Trinity is, I think, is an invitation. An invitation from the infinitely transcendent God who breathed from nothing all that is, and the intimately immanent God who has borne your frailties and who intercedes for you with sighs to deep for words. An invitation into a conversation, a getting-to-know you, a love affair that will take your entire life, indeed, will continue past your life. An eternal dance with one love and three partners.