Archive for June, 2011

Holy Trinity, One God

Every Trinity Sunday, we sing an old favorite hymn: ‘Holy, holy, holy! Merciful and mighty, God in three Persons, blessed Trinity.” We don’t think too much about the words; we just love the hymn, because most of us have sung that hymn since we were children. Yet if we were to think about the words, we would probably have to stop singing and start thinking. Just what does that mean—God in three Persons? The Holy Trinity is a complete mystery to people. In fact, the doctrine of the Trinity—one God, three Persons—is one of the deepest mysteries of the Christian faith. How do you describe God? Or perhaps the question is: Can you describe God? Or is it much more important to experience the Holy One than to try to describe or understand God?

Barbara Brown Taylor is a well-known preacher and author. In her sermon “Three Hands Clapping,” she quotes one of her colleagues who says “when human beings try to describe God, we are like a bunch of oysters trying to describe a ballerina. We simply do not have the equipment necessary to understand something so utterly beyond us but that has never stopped us from trying.”[1] So we try to understand the un-understandable. The mystery of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And we can’t.

But that’s okay, because we don’t understand the miracle of birth, or the miracle of a sky full of stars on a clear summer’s night, or the miracle of the waves that crash in endless, ancient rhythm against the shore.

There are many things we don’t—and cannot—understand as human beings. We just have to experience them with open hearts. As one writer has noted, “Mystery can be known only by the spiritual heart.”

Throughout the centuries, theologians, musicians and artists have tried to capture at least the essence of the mystery of the Holy Trinity. In the 15th century, in orthodox Moscow, the artist Andrei Rublev wrote a beautiful icon. This icon—which is on the front cover of your bulletin today—is based on the story in Genesis 18, about the three angels who visited Abraham and Sarah and promised the birth of Isaac. Many of our early Christian theologians read events in the Hebrew scriptures through the lens of Christological events and symbols. So early Christian theologians saw these three angels who visited Abraham as representative of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

What do we see in this beautiful icon of three angels?  “The three divine persons are seated at a table. In the slight inclination of their heads towards each other and in the gestures of their hands, a deeper unity of the three is suggested. A chalice on the table symbolizes the sacrifice of the Son on Golgotha for the redemption of the world.”[2]  “In the front is an opening space, a welcoming space, a reminder of the divine hospitality.”[3] As we reflect on this icon, then, it invites us in.

The table itself does not seem to be round, yet as we see the position of the heads and body language of the three angels, we sense a never-ending circle. We may see the angels as “quiet, gentle, anxious, sorrowful. . .meditative, contemplative, intimate.”[4]  The angels’ faces are virtually identical. Their body postures are not, but in the way they lean in towards each other, you sense that they are having an eternal and loving conversation at a small table. They are a community—ever loving, ever giving, ever listening to each other.

This icon is a good reminder to you and me about the mystery of divine community and it gives us an example to follow. One person alone can be self-centered. Two people who love can get so absorbed in each other that they neglect others. Three people, however, present the possibilities of welcome. Inclusion. Diversity. Relationship within community.

Here is where the intellectual, theological and abstract doctrine of the Holy Trinity connects with the reality of our lives. It would be easy to sit here this morning and ask “So what?” about the Holy Trinity. I’m about to lose my job. I’m struggling with health issues. I’m worried about my elderly parents.

I’m fighting with my spouse all the time. I’m depressed and wondering if there is a God, never mind three of them. Who cares? I just want to know that “God somehow knows who [I] am, where [I am], what I am doing, and what [I] need.”[5]

Here is the real truth for us this morning: It is in community, and out of community, that God knows who we are, where we are, what we are doing and what we need. It is not I but we. The angels in Rublev’s icon remind us that we are not alone in life. We are not solitary Christians—in fact, there is no such thing, because God made us to live in community. With God and with each other. We must be a welcoming, inclusive and diverse community. When you can’t walk, we will come along beside you and offer you an arm. When you can’t sing through your tears, we will sing for you. When you are at the bottom and can’t even pray, we wrap you in a prayer shawl and pray for you. When you are questioning your faith and can’t even say the Creed or the Lord’s Prayer out loud, the community says or prays it for you and around you. Over you, behind you, before you. That is what community is like. That is what community is for. Where you or I are lacking something, it is your beloved community—not just of family, but your community of faith—that fills in the gaps. This is holy. This is mystery. This is merciful and mighty. This is trinity. May it ever be so. World without end. Amen.

© The Rev. Sheila N. McJilton

Rublev icon accessed through Google images

Holy Trinity picture accessed at www.peacefulmotherhood.com through Google.

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, quoting Robert Farrar Capon, “Three Hands Clapping,” in Home By Another Way, Boston: Cowley Publications, 1999), 152-153.

[2] Jurgen Moltmann, “The Triune God: Rich in Relationship,” in The Living Pulpit, 2005.

[3] Richard Bower, “Hospitality Unlimited,” in The Witness, 2005.

[5] Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 3, David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 44.


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