Those who preach sometimes have to strike a delicate balance between paying attention to the eternal gospel message that needs to be proclaimed in season and out of season, and at least not ignoring significant public events that are likely to be on the minds of their listeners. We are still, of course, in the midst of a global pandemic that has upended and devastated communities of faith and people of faith. And now, as if that weren’t enough, circumstances have shined a light on the societal cancer of systemic racism, demanding focused attention and fundamental change that will be very uncomfortable for a great many people. Today is Trinity Sunday, and I’m going to talk about Trinity Sunday, and I’m not going to make a pretense of cleverly linking Trinity Sunday with either the coronavirus or the aftermath of the homicide of George Floyd. I’m not under-estimating the massive importance of those things. I’m giving due regard to the mystery of the Holy and Undivided Trinity, the significance of which will endure long after we’ve moved on to the next set of crises in our world.
So, as I mentioned, today is Trinity Sunday. It’s something of an anniversary for me, because it was on Trinity Sunday 1979, 41 years ago, that I delivered my first official, public, Sunday sermon. Those of you who are familiar with my biography will realize that 1979 was about a decade before I put on a backward collar and was legitimately authorized to preach. Indeed, my first Sunday sermon was as a layperson.
It all started one weekday afternoon in early May or late April of that year. At the time, I wore the hat of music director at St Timothy’s Church in Salem, Oregon. I was sitting down with the rector in his office, as was our custom every few weeks, to pick hymns and otherwise plan the upcoming Sunday liturgies. My rector—my boss, in that context—just casually mentioned—half in jest, perhaps; I really don’t know to this day whether he was serious—he mentioned that he didn’t think he would give a sermon on Trinity Sunday. After all, what can one say in the face of so great and wondrous a mystery as the Holy Trinity?
Well, as an amateur theologian and a strict constructionist of Prayer Book rubrics—which I kind of still am, for whatever it’s worth—I objected. After all, how can one simply say nothing at all in the face of so great and wondrous a mystery as the Holy Trinity? “If you’re not going to preach, I will!,” I said—half in jest, perhaps; I really don’t know to this day whether I was serious.
I’m kind of fuzzy on just what happened next. But I do know that, come Trinity Sunday, I found myself in the pulpit of St Timothy’s Church! And, I have to say, I did a masterful job. I examined the theological implications of the doctrine of the Trinity with subtlety and refinement. I read from my own journal, and shared my own inner struggle in my relationship with the God who is one-in-three and three-in-one. I quoted from well-known hymns and from the writings of the saints and doctors of the church.
When I stepped down from the pulpit, and made my way back to the choir to lead the singing of the Nicene Creed, there was a holy hush over the congregation. “That went pretty well”, I thought to myself. “Maybe I should consider doing it professionally.”
My sense of accomplishment was short-lived, however, for as I was directing the choir during Creed, I glanced at my watch, and did a double-take. To my horror, I saw that it was 10:55, about the time that communion should be winding down, and we were only at the Creed! Most Episcopalians are only too happy to have theological mysteries explained to them, but not if it means listening to a 45 minute sermon at a Sunday Eucharist!
I assure you that, today, I do not intend to be either as lengthy, or, probably, as profound, as I was on this day 41 years ago. So let me just cut right to the heart of the matter. It has often been said that Trinity Sunday is the only festival of the church year that celebrates a doctrine, rather than an event or a person. Don’t you believe it! Trinity Sunday is not about celebrating a doctrine. In a way, I wish it were.
I’m personally quite fond of doctrine in general and the doctrine of the Trinity in particular. I enjoy trying to wrap my mind around it, and I believe it is absolutely essential to the well-being of the Church and to a right relationship with God. To my dying breath, I will struggle to confess and uphold the doctrine of the Holy and Undivided Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—as it is proclaimed in the scriptures, creeds, and liturgies of the historic church. So passionately do I feel, and so resolutely am I convinced of the correctness of the traditional doctrine. But I do not for one instant fool myself that either my passion or the correctness of my belief will deliver me from the power of sin and death and make me worthy to stand in the presence of the Triune God! Only the Triune God himself can do that. And it is this God, not the doctrine of him, whom we celebrate on Trinity Sunday.
The Old and New Testaments contain any number of commands pertaining to our relationship with God. We are told, among other things, to love him, obey him, serve and follow him, trust and put our faith in him, worship and adore him. But nowhere, as far as I can tell, are we commanded to understand God.
Does that come as a relief to any of you? It certainly does to me! Most of the time, I enjoy trying to understand God, but I’m awfully glad my salvation doesn’t depend on how well I do so, because I’m often not very successful! Among the varied gifts of the Holy Spirit is the inclination and ability to penetrate, to a point, the mystery of God’s identity, and to articulate that mystery in fresh and compelling ways. Those who have this gift should indeed exercise it for the benefit of the rest of us. We can all enjoy God more as a result.
But we will never solve the mystery, and, in the end, our job is to simply rest in the joy of his love for us and in what he has done to reconcile us to him. Trinity Sunday is not about a doctrine. Trinity Sunday is about the Triune God. Doctrines are for understanding. The Holy and Undivided Trinity is for worshiping and adoring and loving.
Praise God from whom all blessings flow,
Praise him, all creatures here below,
Praise him above, ye heavenly hosts,
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost