The Rev. Brandon Ashcraft preached at the Celebration of Holy Eucharist on the First Sunday after Pentecost: Trinity Sunday.
Today, we celebrate one of the most important feasts of the church year – Trinity Sunday. If you did not know that until you got to church today (or until you tuned into the livestream), you’re certainly not alone. Trinity Sunday is not anticipated the same way as, say, Christmas or Easter. Unlike most major feasts that commemorate an event in Jesus’ life, today’s feast commemorates a doctrine. There are no memorable passages from the Bible to narrate the story of Trinity Sunday. Nothing like the tongues of fire from last week’s story of Pentecost. In fact, the word “Trinity” never once appears anywhere in the Bible. Our understanding that God exists eternally as one God in three distinct persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit was not formalized until a gathering more than 300 years after the time of Jesus.
This same gathering gave us what we now call the Nicene Creed. And because we say it each week, most of us are well versed in language to talk about the Trinity. The words roll off our tongue almost effortlessly. Yet these words are chocked full of concepts that are notoriously hard to comprehend. Have you ever tried to explain to someone what it means that the Son is eternally begotten of the Father? Or defined precisely how the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son?” We could spend weeks in a Sunday Forum exploring these concepts. But today we’re not here to wrap our minds around the idea of the Trinity, but to lift our hearts in praise of the God that is Trinity. Because God is not an idea we master, but a reality that we encounter.
This doctrine of the Trinity may have taken three hundred years to formulate, but it did not originate with that fourth century council of bishops. It originated with an encounter in first century Palestine. Our ancestors in the faith had a life-changing encounter with Jesus. For them, being in Jesus’ presence was somehow like being with God. Jesus seemed to make visible the invisible God they had always known and worshipped. The more they continued to reflect on their experience of Jesus, the more convinced they became that Jesus had not just been like God, he was God. He was, to use the language of the Letter to the Hebrews, “the exact imprint of God’s very being.” And, remarkably, this imprint of God’s very being had done the most un-Godlike thing imaginable – he had willingly submitted to human rage and violence to suffer and die as a victim. He responded to hate, not with retribution, but with surpassing love. And in his apparent defeat, he somehow emerged the victor. And a movement quickly formed in his wake – a movement of people willing to leave behind all their possessions and be shunned by friends and family to follow his radical ways. And long after Jesus was gone, the Spirit of God continued to dwell in the Church, and they knew this Spirit to be God as truly as they had known Jesus to be God.
So over time, the church, in her wisdom, gave us language to describe this experience: one God in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, a “co-eternal trinity in unity.” Living as we do in a world that prizes intellect, the pressure to “understand” or “make sense” of the Trinity can be hard to resist. We can become convinced that, to believe in something like the Trinity, we must first solve the mind-boggling Trinitarian math – the math that says: 1+1+1 =3 and also 1. But perfect comprehension does not have to precede belief. We can begin with the willingness or desire to believe, trusting that it will give way to comprehension. It’s what St. Anselm of Canterbury called, “faith seeking understanding.” Love of God and a desire to know God brings us to greater knowledge of God. Just consider that when Mary Magdalene & Peter & John arrived at the empty tomb on Easter morning, they did not – in that moment – comprehend everything that had happened. But the Scriptures tell us that they “saw and believed.” Or we can look to Nicodemus, the Pharisee from today’s Gospel. He was so wary of Jesus; he would only meet him under the cover of night when no one could see. But his mere desire to have an encounter with this Galilean rabbi ultimately led to an experience of conversion.
Our liturgy – this embodied ritual we’re enacting right now – it nurtures and grows the faith that seeks understanding. And today’s liturgy has been carefully curated to invite us more deeply into the mystery of the Trinity with special prayers and hymns– hymns that, thanks be to God, we can now finally sing together! Even Karel’s Prelude and Postlude – the Bach Prelude & Fugue in E-flat major – is filled with structure and symbolism that has been identified as Trinitarian. Consider, too our [opening/closing] hymn “Holy, holy, holy!” – this great hymn based on the song of the seraphs in today’s reading from Isaiah. This ancient hymn of praise, with its three-fold cries of “holy.” Hear [again] the words of this hymn:
Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!
Early in the morning our song shall rise to thee:
Holy, holy, holy! Merciful and mighty,
God in three Persons, blesséd Trinity.
After singing this hymn for 40 years, I learned only this week that even the notes to the words “Holy, holy, holy!” are ascending major thirds, in a melodic nod to the Trinity. I shared this discovery with Kelsey Ferguson, the Director of our youth choir. And she explained that when these young singers gather to rehearse, they raise their hands excitedly every time they spot a “Trinity moment” in a hymn. Just picture it – if you will – this image of a room full of young children of God delighting at encounters with the Trinity. Is there a more perfect response to glimpses of divine than joy and delight?
As we turn our attention to the Eucharist in just a short while from now, Jessie will lead us in praying the Eucharistic Prayer – a prayer deeply imbued with Trinitarian language. She will give thanks to God the Father, the “creator of the universe and giver of life” who sent “the eternal Word, made mortal flesh in Jesus.” She will then beseech the Holy Spirit to transform our simple gifts of Bread and Wine into the very Body and Blood of Jesus. And then as we step forward one by one, we will encounter Jesus himself – the very imprint of God’s being – as we take his crucified, broken body into our hands and become one with him in the sacrament. It is an encounter with the mystery of the Triune God so tangible we can touch it and taste it, yet so widely beyond our comprehension we cannot begin to understand it. That’s why we call it a mystery. [One priest I know had this to say about mysteries: “A mystery is not something crazy you have to believe even though you can’t experience it. A mystery is something you can experience even though it is crazy and impossible to believe.” In the name of the joyful, incomprehensive mystery that is the holy and undivided Trinity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Amen.