On the calendar of scripture readings known as the Lectionary, today is Trinity Sunday. That’s an ancient icon/image of the Trinity as you might see it in any Orthodox church building. Three equal individuals who look the same, together, one God.
Listen to the ways God the Creator, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit function together in these readings:
John 16:12-15. [Jesus said,] ‘I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.
Romans 5:1-5. [the Apostle Paul writes to the Romans, saying…] Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
One God, three functions, three persons.
So, we have God the Creator – and considering the complexity of creation and the vastness of the universe, you can use the words of Psalm 8 to say, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?”
We think of Jesus, God in human flesh, God becoming a person, becoming one of us, crucified and risen, standing there with his disciples, and with Thomas we say, “My Lord and my God!”
And then we hear the story of the Spirit coming to those first believers with the flames of fire over their heads, and their lives changing forever, from the inside out, giving them the supernatural power to be a lot like Jesus. As the first four books of the New Testament are called the gospels (good news) of Jesus Christ, I’ve heard the Book of Acts called the gospel (good news) of the Holy Spirit. This is God at work in us.
The idea of the Trinity might seem simple to you, or incomprehensible. The Big Mystery. It might be that the Trinity is easy to experience and impossible to explain.
For about a year, I had the privilege of having coffee about every other week with the head of the graduate physics department at a well-known Ivy-League university. A world class expert in quantum mechanics and nano-physics. A brilliant person who had miraculously survived a very rare form of cancer and felt that there are unseen forces at work around us and in us. To that point in his life, he hadn’t given much thought to spirituality. He could have been asking, “Why Jesus?” Instead, his question became, “Why not Jesus? Why not God the Creator? Why not Holy Spirit?” Faith was opening the door to a whole new world that needed exploring.
Scripture helps us know that the Holy Spirit completes the connection between us, and the God of the universe through Jesus. Our faith in Jesus flips the switch. Our sin, the barrier between us, is removed by Jesus; it dies with him on the cross. But he lives, bringing us together with God when we trust him as our Lord. The Holy Spirit is the spiritual energy of God surging through us when the faith connection is made.
Is it making your head hurt yet? I’ve sometimes thought that a Trinity Sunday sermon is best preached outside, in a place where you can be with other believers, feeling/hearing the wind blow, feeling the sunshine, hear the birds and with hands held, praying with the presence of Jesus infusing everybody. Maybe this is best done at sunset on a rooftop or a mountain top.
UCC minister/writer Tony Robinson (with some paraphrasing by me): A wise person once said to me, “Most churches tend to be churches of one person of the Trinity or another.” Some churches, in other words, are all about God, Father or Creator, while others are all over Jesus, Christ and Redeemer. And still others seem to know nothing but the Holy Spirit, Holy Ghost power and gifts of the Spirit.
In my experience there’s a lot of truth in that. We get comfortable with one person of the Trinity, one way of thinking about or knowing God, and kind of overlook the others, with whom we may – for whatever reason – be less comfortable.
But the great gift of the Trinity can be to push us out of our comfort zones, out of the ways we limit God.
So if your church is real comfortable with God, Parent and Creator, the growing edge might be Jesus, who makes God down-to-earth, specific and in-your-face, personal, who moves us beyond God as “sacred blur” (in the words of one friend).
Or if your church just loves Jesus and honks for him every time, it might be good to remember that it didn’t all end at Calvary, that the Spirit is alive and at work here and now, teaching us new things.
And if you’re all up in the Spirit, digging the power and ecstasy, remember it’s not about how spiritual or spirited we are, for the Spirit teaches us to be Christ to our neighbors here and now, no matter who they are. You might want to think about who Jesus healed and ate dinner with. Who needs thaThe Trinity is a little gift of the church intended, among other things, to keep our heads and hearts spinning and our faith living. Given half a chance, it will remind us that whenever we think we’ve got God figured out, we don’t. (based on Stillspeaking Devotional for May 25, 2013; http://www.ucc.org/feed-your-spirit/daily-devotional/)
You might want to think for a moment about which part(s) of the Trinity don’t come as easily to you as the other(s). It might be a good exercise to focus on each person of the Trinity as you pray, to get a fuller experience of the awesomeness, the personal love, and the intimacy of God in your life.
The word “Trinity” is never used in the Bible. It’s a concept. It plays a small part in helping us understand and experience God. This God who needs to flow through us to make a difference in the lives of the people we live with – in our houses and on the rest of the planet. We each, in our own way, need to say yes to this God, to surrender to this God who is reaching out to us and needs us to be Christ to each other. The God of the universe wants to change the world through you. If you’ve been struggling with the concept of the incomprehensible Trinity, lay it down, and just be a child in the embrace of a loving Father. Most of the time, we make it too hard. We systematize God to accommodate our small minds. We make this… religion. Just open yourself to God and let it flow.
Three Holy Men.1 [A story that was originally told by the Russian author Tolstoy] In the days of the Tzars, a bishop was visiting town churches along the shore of a great Russian sea. As he sailed along, he could see a small island off in the distance, and overheard one of the sailors talking about the three holy men who lived on the island. The sailor was saying, “I have seen them with my own eyes! I had heard about them for years, but never saw them until my boat was grounded on the island in a storm.”
The bishop asked, “What are they like? What did you see?”
“They are all very old. Maybe over one hundred years. One is small and hunched over. The second is tall and strong. The third is thin and has a long beard as white as the moon.”
“Are they alone on the island?”
“No. I saw sick people. Deformed people. Blind people. The priests from the towns along the shore take them out to the island and the three holy men take care of them.
“Did you talk with the three holy men?”
“Not really. They do almost everything in silence. I understand that they spend most of their days in silence, taking care of the sick.”
The bishop had heard enough. He decided he must see these holy men himself. He went to the bridge of the ship and spoke to the captain. “I want to land on that island. I know you can’t get me close, so I will pay someone to row me ashore. I want to talk with the three holy men.”
The captain was not cooperative. “Your grace, I have heard that they are not as holy as they are stupid. People who have met them say they cannot even utter an intelligent sentence.”
The bishop insisted and the captain made the arrangements. As the ship came toward the island, the bishop could clearly see the three holy men sitting on a rock, holding hands. They looked just as the sailor described them, but dressed in rags.
When he came ashore, the bishop said, “I have heard that you are here devoting your lives to prayer and the healing of others. I have come to teach you whatever I can.”
The old men smiled. After looking at each other for a moment, the one with the long white beard spoke and said, “We know how to serve each other. We know how to take care of the sick. But we don’t know how to serve God.”
The bishop asked, “How do you pray?”
“We pray like this: `You are three; three are we. Have mercy on us.'”
Holding hands and looking toward the sky, the three men said together, `You are three; three are we. Have mercy on us.'”
The bishop said, “I can teach you a better way. The Scriptures command us to pray like this, `Our Father, Who art in heaven…”
And the three men began to repeat what the bishop said: “Our Father…” The bishop taught them word by word and phrase by phrase, until they could say the whole prayer by themselves. It took all day. They stumbled over the simplest words time after time.
As the sun went down, the bishop stepped back in the rowboat and headed for the ship. The three men bowed low as he moved away from shore, holding hands, repeating the Lord’s Prayer over and over.
It was dark when the bishop climbed back on deck. Most of the other travelers were sleeping. But the bishop couldn’t sleep. He sat alone in the stern as the ship weighed anchor.
As he sat, he saw a bright white light in the distance. Maybe it was a bird, or a boat with a white sail. He watched as it grew larger and moved toward the ship. He stood up to yell at the captain, but others on board had seen the light too, and the captain was already standing on the bridge with a telescope to his eye. Everyone was standing at the rail pointing in the direction of the light.
The captain shouted, “It’s the three holy men, running after us over the sea as if it were dry land!”
It was true. Together they ran across the water, holding hands and motioning for the ship to stop. Before anyone could drop the anchor, they were at the side of the ship, calling for the bishop. The crew and passengers were silent in amazement.
The one with the white beard spoke slowly: “We have forgotten the prayer, O Bishop. We were repeating it until one of us forgot a word, and before we knew it, the whole prayer fell apart. Please teach us again.”
The bishop crossed himself and leaned over the rail. “Holy men, it is you who should teach us to pray. Whatever your words, God hears you.” Then he dropped to his knees.
The three holy men turned and headed back to the island. As they walked, a bright, white light shone on the face of the water.
Who are we, Lord, that you would come to us and love us the way you do? God, you said, “Let there be light” and there was light. We thank you for sending us Jesus – we heard him say that he is the light of the world. God, we believe in him; he is our light. Now we open ourselves to you and ask that you fill us with your Spirit so that we can be light to others. We know that we need to be your light, a city on a hill. Help us love the way you love so that we can make a difference in your world. Amen.
1 adapted from Stories for Telling by William R. White (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1986), who adapted the story from Tolstoy.