Trinity Sunday – 5/22/16
O God, you withdraw from our sight
that you may be known by our love.
Help us to enter the cloud where you are hidden
and surrender all certainty
to the darkness of faith in Jesus Christ.
In many churches today people are thinking about the Trinity – God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And that means that today people are going to say many weird things. It’s hard to talk about God. It’s hard to get our minds around this thing about God being three and one at the same time. But we keep trying.
I’m sure many of us here have stumbled upon an image or two, helpfully offered up to try and get this Trinity concept into our heads. The Trinity is like an apple: seeds, fruit, and skin. The Trinity is a like a candy corn: you know, with the three different colors. Or like an egg: a shell, a yolk, and whites. Three in one shampoo; a mother, daughter, and grandmother; water, ice, and steam; a three leafed clover.
There are so many examples and so many ways to get the Trinity wrong. Because every time we start talking about it, every time we try to consolidate the mystery down to a metaphor we end of falling into one heresy or another.
Modalism. Adoptionism. Arianism. Sabbelianism. The heresies of the church fall onto one side or another. They either emphasize the oneness of God at the expense of three separate persons, or they create a hierarchy out of God, elevating one person over the others. There are a lot of ways that trying to talk about God can get us into trouble.
I have to admit, I always feel cautious when talking about heresy. After all, Anabaptists have been called heretics since our inception. It’s a word that’s often used to scare people, to designate who is in and who is out. The British theologian Rowan Williams has helped me appreciate what the church intended to say when it talked about heretics. Heresy wasn’t just about keeping out opinions the church didn’t like. It was also the way the church denounced doctrines that cleared up mystery too quickly.
That’s the problem with saying the Trinity is like candy corn or a clover. It’s too easy. It’s too neat. Heresy gets out all the kinks, gives your mind something to hold on to. Heresies turn God into a cosmic Santa Claus or a genie whom we can manipulate with our good deeds. God is stranger and wilder than that. If you understand it, it is not God.
What I think is behind all this piling up of heresies around the Trinity is that we’re a people who easily fall into idolatry. We like to have a God we can wrap our minds around. We like a God we can control, a God we can move from place to place, to pick up from over here to be placed on our side. Since the beginning of time that’s what human have wanted. We’ve wanted a God that will do what we want, when we want, no questions asked. Heresies remind us not to get too comfortable with the gods of our own making.
The Russian Orthodox church avoids idolatry by prohibiting icons of God the Father. The exception is the icon of the visitation of the three angels to Sarah and Abraham at Mamre, in Genesis 18. Here the Orthodox church sees in this story an image of the Trinity. God appears quickly, without fanfare, in a flash, three who are one, and then the strangers who are the godhead disappear again. They’re off silently, into the night, the sound of laughter still in the air.
There’s something strange and wonderful about this. Here in the Old Testament, in the middle of a story, the Trinity shows up. God makes a way into the story. God get into the narrative of the life of Sarah and Abraham. God story can’t be told without their story. God’s identity woven into their identity.
I have a copy of Andrei Rublev’s icon depicting this scene. I keep it around to remind me that God shows up in human lives, that God finds and surprises us, like a guest, like a friend, when we least except it. In Genesis 18 we find Abraham, resigned to his infertility by Sarah, intent to find another way around the problem of inheritance, greeted unexpectedly. There’s no lead up, no foreshadowing. The Lord appeared, we read. While the narrator informs us, the reader, that this is God, Abraham instead sees three men. People enter Abraham’s life, eat at his table. Abraham winds his life into their life. He greets them, runs to bring these strangers what he has, to bring them a little bread.
And God welcomes this. God welcomes the hospitality of the little bread. God, the three in one, whole and without need – this God receives. God takes the gifts of meat and milk.
But there is more surprise here, more richness. They say that Sarah will have a baby. Sarah, in her old age, will bear a son. Abundance is met with abundance. God, present in bodies, in stomachs that eat, mouths that laugh, wombs that gestate, hands that touch. Is anything too wonderful for God?
In Rublev’s icon the three persons of the godhead sit round Sarah and Abraham’s table. If you look closely you’ll see that they have identical faces, but two turn towards the third. They turn our attention towards the Father. A tree behind the middle person reveals that this is Jesus Christ, the root of Jesse. The third, it seems, is making a gesture of blessing, inviting us to the table, inviting us to sit and eat beside God, to take of the abundant surprise, the laughter-inducing surprise of God’s love.
I love Rublev’s icon for this depiction of the Holy Spirit, inviting us into God’s life, inviting us to weave ourselves into God’s life. We are invited to eat at that table, to know God by sharing God’s life.
I’ve let my imagination for the Trinity be shaped by stories, stories where we are invited into the gift of God’s life. One of those stories is about three of my friends.
Two months ago my friend Ann started to feel pain in her foot. It wasn’t uncommon. A car had hit her several years ago. The resulting injuries had left her open to a variety of debilitating infections. But when the pain continued, climbing up her leg she knew it was time to go to the emergency room. It was there she got the news. This kind of infection couldn’t be cured. The surgeon would need to amputate her leg, just below the knee.
Ann was frightened. We were all frightened. There was barely time to grieve before the surgery.
Ann is a woman of great faith. And one way she deepens that faith is by coming to church each morning for prayer. Cullen, my friend and colleague, started this practice last year. Each day at 7:30 in the morning a little band gathers in the sanctuary to pray. Sometimes the woman who works at the bank across the street stops in, and a few times a month we are joined by the guys who call our church property their home.
But Alberto comes almost every morning. We met him last year when he came to the church looking to see if we had any work for him to do. Alberto’s only language is Spanish, so most of us get by with our pathetic high school language skills. Alberto is patient with us.
Sometimes morning prayer is small, just Alberto, Ann, and Cullen, a little trinity in themselves, hands held together as they close in the Lord’s Prayer, Alberto in Spanish and Ann and Cullen reciting the words in English.
When Alberto heard from Cullen what had happened to Ann, why she wasn’t at morning prayer, he was frantic. “Hospital.” He told Cullen. “Hoy.” Today we’re going to the hospital. We have to see her. Cullen did his best to communicate bus routes and room numbers, not quite sure the information he was giving was accurate or communicated correctly.
Cullen showed up on time, hurrying from one meeting towards the hospital elevator, not fully expecting that Alberto would have the time or energy to navigate an hour of buses or the vast Duke Hospital system. Cullen pushed the button for the sixth floor and as the door were about to close a hand stopped them. As the doors widened again there stood Alberto. “Muy rapido,” he scolded Cullen as they rode the elevator to Ann’s room.
The three of them sat together. As Ann shared her insights into what God was teaching her about pain and disability, Alberto nodded gently, affirming the sound of Ann’s voice. They stayed for an hour. Alberto brought Ann a Spanish version of the Bible. Towards the end they took hands, as they had so many mornings, and prayed the prayer Jesus taught us, in Spanish and in English.
And God is like this, too. One body but different, speaking a common language of prayer but in different tongues. God is like this, bearing gifts in God’s self, gifts of presence and prayer. God is a body that is broken but also whole, a body made of strong parts and weak parts, bearing scars, all bearing together. God is like this, always returning to one, always returning us to oneness. God is like this, a relation of love, a being that cannot be without all it’s parts, a shared life bound up in love.
We don’t get this from metaphor, or from charts or graphs. We know God in our lives, in the times where we are drawn into the love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We encounter the Trinity when we are drawn into the lives of others, when we are surprised by the life of another, surprised by God’s abundance, surprised to see our lives reflected back in a community like this one, a community bound to God’s life, woven in to one another.
This is why heresy is so destructive, and has been so devastating to the church in the course of our history. God is mysterious, ever opening us to new possibilities, new surprises, new laughter. And people are like that, too. God is a relationship of constant unveiling, just as we are constantly opening ourselves up to friendship, to being surprised by the stranger who finds her way to our door. We can’t clear up the mystery of one another. When we do, we’re committing the heresy of certainty, certain that this person is too different, too strange, too dissimilar to be mine. The Trinity welcomes us into the strangeness of one another, letting the other be strange and still be ours.
What a mystery. What a mysterious, wonderful gift.
 Isaiah 55:8-9