By The Rev. Charles Hoffacker
Today’s reading from Exodus and John’s Gospel may leave us strangely unsatisfied, particularly if we expect that the scriptures for Trinity Sunday should, well, tell us something about the Trinity.
First, we have that conversation, or rather confrontation, between Moses and the God who meets him in a bush that burns yet is not consumed. Moses answers the call of God, and what does he get for his trouble?
Pulled away from his flock, he is told to come no closer, to keep a respectful distance from the blazing bush. He is told as well to remove his sandals from his feet, out of respect for the holy ground on which he stands. Then God identifies himself as the God of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The passage ends with barefoot Moses keeping his distance and hiding his face. He is as afraid to look at God as you and I would be to stare for ten minutes straight at the sun.
The reading from John’s Gospel is hardly better. Nicodemus, a big name among religious leaders, sneaks off to talk with Jesus, a young rabble rouser in from the country. They seem to be talking on two different levels and never make contact. Nicodemus is nearing the end of a successful career; he has his will written up. Jesus makes demands about another birth. Nicodemus knows enough about babies to realize that birth happens when it happens; it lies beyond our control. Requiring a birth from above, a birth late in life, is more than this scholar can handle.
Both Moses and Nicodemus are left in a state of discomfort as a result of these encounters. As such, they are appropriate coaches for us when we dare consider the reason for today’s festival: that the eternal mystery has been revealed to us as one God in Trinity of persons. If we are not left uncomfortable about this, then we are not paying attention.
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The problem is not merely a verbal one. We do not resolve our Trinitarian discomfort by, say, sorting into neater categories allusions to the Trinity in the New Testament, or turning the assertions of the Athanasian Creed into a schematic diagram. Nor is the problem merely intellectual. We do not resolve it by laboring to understand what early Christian writers may have meant by speaking of divine persons or divine being. Our discomfort runs deeper than any of this. The Trinity is an offense against our pride.
The human mind and heart are gifted at constructing their own versions of deity. We take ourselves as we exist in our sinfulness, set the enlargement function to infinity, and project onto the innocent heavens a grandiose reproduction of ourselves. What we have is humanity magnified, a god dead rather than alive, an idol created by our imagination. For the deity produced by such a process, relationships are option, perhaps even impossible. Dressing such an idol in the garments of love fails to ring true. [See M. L. Smith, Benson of Cowley (Oxford University Press, 1980), p. 32.] With such a notion of God as this, it should be no wonder that many morally sensitive people resort to atheism.
What Christianity announces—not simply to our minds, but as a model for life—is that the one and only God is inevitably social. Before there is any question of relating to creation, God is from all eternity social, communal, because the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are in necessary relationship with one another.
Indeed, what distinguishes them is simply their relationships, as their names suggest. After all, the Father is father of the Son. The Son is son of the Father. The Spirit is spirit, in different respects, of both the Father and the Son. Each can be distinguished, but never separated, from the others. They participate completely in the same reality, the same being, which is why they are undeniably and entirely one.
The life of the holy Trinity is, then, a social life. But it is a society different from any that you and I have experienced, because it is free from all sin, all self-assertion, all self-condemnation. The Trinity has been compared to an eternal circle dance undertaken by the three partners. If that image helps you, then imagine the partners, not simply moving with complete grace, but also respectfully bowing one to another, none of them more or less than the others. See it as a dance of perfect courtesy.
Over against this, you and I have encountered, since the day we were born, human societies scarred by selfishness, self-condemnation, and sin. Sometimes this damage is personal, sometimes it is systemic. One of its worst results is the assumption we may live with that a social order is inevitably like this. We live in a moral and spiritual madhouse, and assume it to be normal.
So the revelation of the Trinity, as one God in three persons, sharing a social life of radical equality and perfect courtesy, the revelation to us of this eternal Being of glorious majesty and perfect love, leaves us embarrassed, shocked, even uncomprehending. Because our human language is both finite and tainted, we can barely begin to stutter about this divine life, even when it shines from scripture’s page, even when we claim it in hymn and creed and sacrament. The Trinity revealed to us is an offense against our pride.
[God’s “eternal Being of glorious majesty and perfect love” is mentioned in the collect for the feast of St. Basil the Great (June 14) in Lesser Feasts and Fasts 2006 (Church Publishing Incorporated, 2006), p. 287. Basil contributed to the development of the Church’s doctrine of the Holy Trinity.]
For we find in the only God a sharing of life, a mutuality, an emptying of the entire divine self, so that from the Father the equal Son is begotten, and from the Father through the Son the equal Spirit proceeds. The one begotten is begotten always; the one who proceeds always. None of the three claim anything for self exclusively. Again, the distinctiveness of each is found only in relationship with the others.
Over against this, our myriad forms of human arrogance, our selfishness, theft, and condemnation of others, and even our diffidence and self-hatred appear as they truly are–not only anti-humanitarian offenses, but theological affronts, so many forms of blasphemous thought and word and action.
The Trinity is an offense against our pride. It is also the cure for our pride, the way by which we enter into right relationship—with God, one another, ourselves, and all creation.
The unselfishness of God appears in the perfect community of the three divine persons. That is wonder enough. But the divine unselfishness extends further. The three persons not only share existence with one another, they go an infinite step beyond and share existence with creation. With us human beings, another infinite step is taken. For we are created in the image and likeness of the Trinity, created so that we, though dependent creatures, may share, not simply in existence, but in divine life itself.
The inner life of the Trinity is known to us to some degree precisely because we know something of the outer action of the Trinity in creating and maintaining the world, and in sending the Son and the Spirit to contribute in distinct ways to our salvation and the redemption of the world.
The self-emptying which is forever characteristic of the divine life begins a new chapter in time when the Incarnation occurs, and the Word of God becomes human in Jesus. This self-emptying begins yet another fresh chapter in time when the Spirit comes to reside in the first disciples and their successors.
All this effort is to save us. The Trinity becomes at once an offense against our pride and the cure for our pride. Stuck in our selfishness, we are lifted by God to live the divine life, to live as distinct persons united in complete community, a dance of perfect courtesy.
In prayer and worship, fellowship and service, are you sometimes left in a state of discomfort because Christian faith is faith in the Trinity?
If you are, then rejoice! You may well be recognizing that the Trinity offends our pride, and that the Trinity is the cure for our pride.
The theologian Vladimir Lossky rightly asserts that “The dogma of the Trinity is a cross for human ways of thought” and that “If we reject the Trinity as the sole ground of all reality and all thought, we are committed to a road that leads nowhere. . . .”
[Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (James Clarke, 1957), p. 66.]
The other side of this is that belief in the Trinity as a cross for human ways of thought leads us to the resurrection of mind and imagination, and acceptance of the Trinity commits us to the road that leads to our true home, to that glorious kingdom where we will be animated by God’s own life. We know that kingdom in part already; by faith we await its complete manifestation.
Copyright for this sermon 2009, The Rev. Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission. Fr. Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and the author of “A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals,” (Cowley Publications).