Thursday, June 30, 2011

Sunday Sermon - First Sunday after Pentecost: Trinity Sunday, Year A (06/19/11)

June 19, 2011 – First Sunday after Pentecost: Trinity Sunday, Year A
Genesis 1:1-2:4a; Canticle 2; 2 Corinthians 13:11-13; Matthew 28:16-20

© 2011 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon is available here:

Before we moved to Montgomery, Elizabeth and I lived in Alexandria, Virginia, where she worked as a nurse while I finished seminary. Two of my favorite things about our time there are the Washington Post, which we took every day, and the fact that we did not have cable television. Until that year, I had always been a casual reader of the newspaper—content, instead, to get most of my news and entertainment through the medium of television. With only a handful of channels to choose from, however, I quickly learned just how informative and entertaining a newspaper can be.

I pretty much read every single page of that paper—including the lifestyles section and the classified ads. I did the Sudoku puzzles, the crossword, and the jumble—unless Elizabeth got to them first. I cherished the Post, taking it with me wherever I went just in case I had a spare minute to read in depth one of the articles I had only skimmed first thing that morning. Like a much-loved pet, I carried around each day’s edition, tucked under my arm or placed in my satchel the way some Hollywood starlets carry around their miniature puppies in their oversized purses.

Still to this day, I have a hard time containing my love of the paper. And, unfortunately for those around me, it frequently spills over into their lives. If I’m reading and come across something that I find interesting, I’ll attempt to share it with anyone who is within earshot. “May I read you this article?” I’ll ask. Elizabeth has learned just to say “yes” even if she’s not interested, and I’ve learned to ignore the exasperated tone with which she usually agrees to my request. Usually, I go on to read the article, which, of course, would be a lot easier for her to follow if I just let her read it herself, but that doesn’t stop me…unless the article in question is a comic strip.

Have you ever tried to read someone a comic? It just doesn’t work. It’s impossible to paint with words alone the artist’s work, which involves both text and image. In order to really appreciate a comic strip, you need to see it yourself. Back in Virginia, it only took a few weeks of my trying and failing to share with Elizabeth some of my favorite comics from the paper before she flatly refused to let me continue. “Will you please just let me read it myself?” she asked. She was right, of course. Some things need to be experienced in order to really be understood.

Today is Trinity Sunday—the first Sunday after Pentecost, the day when the Church, having finished its liturgical path through the life of Christ and having welcomed the gift of the Holy Spirit, stops to celebrate the Blessed Trinity. God in three persons yet one in nature and one in will. I’ll suggest to you today that the Holy Trinity is something that, like a comic strip, needs to be experienced rather than described. How many sermons on the Trinity have you been subjected to? How many times have you heard a priest try to explain it in a Sunday school class? The other day, I heard Bishop Parsley try to sum up the mystery of God in three persons with a clever little insight that may have helped clear things up a little bit but only at the expense of orthodoxy.

Perhaps we should take our cue from scripture, which says so very little about the Trinity. You may have noticed that the lessons chosen for Trinity Sunday do little more than mention Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That’s because, back when the New Testament was written, the Church really didn’t even know that there was a Trinity. Thus, there is no passage in the bible that attempts to explain it. Yet, as time has passed, we have gained an experience of God that suggests that God is more than just a transcendent, unknowable, and static deity. Instead, as we look back on the life of Christ and consider the Church’s continual encounter with the Holy Spirit, we discover that our experience suggests that God is a God of relationship—a God who reaches out to us just as God reaches within himself in the relational life of the Trinity.

In the final few verses of Matthew’s gospel account, the resurrected Jesus gives his followers the Great Commission—his last act before ascending into heaven: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” We use those same words when we baptize an infant here at St. John’s, and, when we invoke the three persons of the Trinity, we’re doing more than simply repeating a “magic formula” given to us by Jesus. We are saying words that reflect our experience of God.

In baptism, we are accepting on a child’s behalf God’s invitation to enter into the life of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—the three persons of God eternally related to one another in love. Another way of saying that is this: because God is a God of relationship—three persons eternally bound and unified through love—it is possible even for us to take part in that loving relationship as we are united to Christ through our baptism. But taking part in God’s love is the kind of thing to which words cannot do justice. It is only by experiencing our own loving relationship with God that are we permitted a glimpse into who God really is.

But our experience of that love isn’t just limited to the moment of Baptism. We welcome people into our fellowship through that rite of initiation, but then what we do as Christians is to continue to celebrate our relatedness both to God and to each other. There is no such thing as a solitary Christian. Even that word “fellowship” implies that what we are together is inspired by the internal workings of the Trinity.

Although the early church didn’t know how to put a label on it, they still participated in the divine life of the Trinity. That’s reflected in the way Paul concluded his letters: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion [or fellowship] of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” It is only because God is Father, Son, and Spirit—three persons eternally related in love—that we, the Church, are held together in that same love. And, even though words may not be able to describe it, if you’ve ever found your true home in the Church, you’ve experienced a little bit of how the love that holds the persons of the Trinity together also ties us together.

When in this pulpit, Jim Walter often said that one thing or another was a mystery. And, until recently, I resented that. To describe something as a mystery seemed to me like theological escapism. But, as I look at our belief that the one God is a Trinity of persons in Unity of substance, I must acknowledge the fact that that belief is pure mystery. It can never be fully known. It defies all description. Yet the Trinity is something we can and do experience. The fact that our God is in a loving relationship with us—something we know through our experience of that relationship—requires that God is in loving relationship with God’s self. That might not be something that I can describe, but it is something that we can all experience. Amen.

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