Having now moved through Eastertide and Pentecost, and just as we launch into the season called Ordinary Time, we have this day called Trinity Sunday. Trinity Sunday lands pretty much right in the middle of the liturgical calendar, midway between the first Sunday of Advent in late November, and the last Sunday before Advent begins again. It is something of a hinge on which the calendar turns; a significant pause before we move into the day-to-day, week-to-week of the long season of Ordinary Time. Yet Trinity Sunday doesn’t mark a chapter in the story of Jesus nor celebrate some event in his life or in the life of the young church, but instead in this pause it calls us to contemplate a doctrine; a way of approaching the mystery of God.
- To listen to the sermon press play:
I like how N.T. Wright sums it up:
Trinity Sunday celebrates not a new truth, something else beyond Pentecost, but rather what you see when the excitement and drama of Pentecost has made its mark and you pause to reflect on it all. Or, if you prefer, Trinity Sunday is where you find yourself when, having been swept off your feet by the mighty rushing wind, you get up, dust yourself down, and survey your new surroundings. (Twelve Months of Sundays, Year B)
And here is where we are. As a people who are heirs to the radical monotheism of Judaism, we affirm that “the LORD our God, the LORD is one;” (Deut 6:4) the creator and source of all things in the heavens and on the earth. Yet we’ve born witness as Peter looked to Jesus and said, “You are the Messiah,” (Mark 8:29), and then later as Thomas faced the resurrected Christ and cried out, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28). What’s more, we’ve listened to the teachings of Jesus about the coming of the Spirit of truth—the comforter, advocate, guide—and we’ve told that strange story about winds of God being breathed into the disciples on that Pentecost morning, forming them into the sort of people Jesus knew they were all along; bold, full of life, and radically open to God’s new thing.
One God, yes, but revealed and present in these three different ways. How to hold all of these truths together? Some of you will recall the times when on Trinity Sunday I invited a juggler to join us in worship, to offer a somewhat unusual and unlikely icon of the Triune God. You watch as these three balls are set in motion, and suddenly you’re watching a single movement. There are three, certainly, but it is the steady movement of the three-as-one that you really see. It is dynamic, a dance, an interweaving, and it only works when it is in motion. If you try to freeze it or if the juggler tries to hold on to one of those balls, even for a moment, it all falls apart.
Thinking—or preaching—about the Trinity is a bit like that. There is a point where trying to pin it all down with precise language and rational categories is like trying to freeze the juggler’s craft in mid-air. The dynamic movement is the thing, both for juggling and for attempting to speak of God. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, together as One; creating, redeeming, and sustaining the whole of creation in an ongoing dance; that is our proclamation and confession this night.
Yet for all of the playfulness of these images, there remains the raw Holiness of the divine. In Isaiah’s strange vision of seeing and feeling and even smelling the holiness of the Lord—of hearing the angelic song, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts”—he feels himself devastated. “Woe is me!” he cries. “I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.” Then one of the seraphs flew over to him, touched his mouth with a hot coal and said to him, “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Just like that; no guilt, no remnant of sin or unworthiness. And now when Isaiah hears the voice of the Lord asking, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” without hesitation he finds himself answering, “Here am I; send me!”
I wonder, did the eyes of that seraph sparkle with delight and laughter at the audacity of forgiveness and grace? And if in his vision Isaiah had been able to see more of God than just “the hem of the Lord’s robe that filled the temple”, would he have seen laughter in God’s eyes as well? I wouldn’t be at all surprised, for the mercy and forgiveness of this gracious God are the grandest of jokes, told to us at the very moment we admit that on our own we are sunk. But we are not on our own.
Which brings me to offer a few words on the baptisms we are about to celebrate. The words with which we’ll begin are very strong ones indeed, taken more or less directly from the practice of the ancient church. I will begin by asking the candidates to make a three-fold renunciation of Satan, evil, and sin—of all that distorts us and keeps us from being what we were created to be. I will then ask them to make a three-fold affirmation of Jesus Christ as their gracious and loving Saviour and Lord; hardly a laughing matter. As the liturgy progresses, together we’ll say the Apostles’ Creed, the 4th century proclamation of the basic Trinitarian and baptismal faith, which is then followed by a series of five other commitments or promises. Here’s the one that always makes me smile:
Will you persevere in resisting evil and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
I will, with God’s help.
Notice the wording: it is not if you sin, but rather whenever you fall into sin. This comes well after the three-fold renunciations and affirmations, and yet the question speaks altogether realistically in terms of whenever. It is going to happen, so don’t kid yourself. But with God’s help, get back up on your feet, dust yourself off, turn around, and, like the prodigal son, put yourself back on the road home. Because in a life that is full of the whenever, there is a prodigally gracious God always at the ready to set a feast to mark your return.
One of the candidates, Matthew, is speaking these words of his own volition. He’s got enough life under his belt to know all about the whenevers, and he’s decided that it is time to publically anchor himself as a member of the Body of Christ. Matthew, you know some of the people here, and will get to know others as this path unfolds before you. Know that we are with you, and that there is a place here for you, in all of the complexities and whenevers of your life.
And here’s the other piece of hilarity in these baptisms. Matthew may be saying these words for himself, yet neither Jack nor Benjamin can yet speak any words at all. In their cases it is parents and godparents who will speak those words on their behalf, while the grandparents and other friends stand proudly by in support and loving solidarity. The day will come when Jack and Benjamin will both need to make some decisions on their own, but in the meantime their lives are being located in a very particular way. Sacramentally they are being located as members of the Body of Christ. Not junior members or honorary members, but in the strange economy that is the people of God, members with as much place and as much claim as any one of us.
Benjamin, you don’t know this yet, but your grandpa happens to be a bishop. Actually, he’s your bishop… but don’t let him pull rank on you. Because the greatest joke of all is that in the eyes of Jesus things like rank and position and hierarchy have been tipped on their heads. In fact, in the eyes of Jesus your grandpa has a thing or two to learn from you. Same goes for you, Jack. Your young life will be a sort of parable to your mom and to your grandparents, as they contend with the Jesus who said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt 18:3-4)
And just a heads up to the both of you as well. Looking at you now, so tiny and vulnerable, it is hard to imagine the whenevers of sin that you’ll someday confront. But make no mistake… they will come. As is true for Matthew, I trust that you will come to know that we are with you, and that there is a place here for you, in all of the complexities and whenevers of life.