Two days ago was Trinity Sunday, a Sunday I always dread. I found a sermon from two years ago that explains. Enjoy. Or be, as I am, confused by the Trinity.
TRINITY SUNDAY 2019
This is the Sunday that has, over the years, caused me to give thanks for Assistants, Seminarians, Deacons, retired priests in the parish and even talented lay preachers ...anyone to preach on Trinity Sunday besides me!
Today is the Feast of the Trinity—the only Holy Day on the Episcopal Calendar that celebrates a ‘doctrine’. The Trinity is a ‘doctrine’ of the church, which means two things: the Church “made it up” and we are meant to ‘believe it’ without question!
But let me give you an example of the verbal gymnastics necessary to explain the doctrine of the Trinity. Listen
The Trinity is a Christian doctrine stating that God is one Being who exists simultaneously and eternally as a mutual indwelling of three persons: the Father, the Son (incarnate as Jesus Christ) and the Holy Spirit. Since the 4th century in both Eastern and Western Christianity, the doctrine of the Trinity has been stated as “Three persons in one God”, all three of whom, as distinct and co-eternal persons, are of one indivisible and Divine essence, a simple being. The doctrine also teaches that the Son himself has two distinct natures, one fully divine and the other fully human, united in a hypostatic union….Each of these divine persons is said to be eternal, each almighty, none greater or less than another, each God, and yet together being but one God.
Okay, there will be a pop quiz before communion about what that means!
There have been, over the two millennium of the church, many attempts to explain the Trinity in a way that a normal human being might begin to understand the doctrine. Most of those attempts have been to replace the doctrine with metaphors. Like this:
*St. Patrick used the clover—with three leaves connected to one stem as a symbol of the Trinity;
*a equilateral triangle with three equal sides and three equal angles has often been a metaphor for the Trinity;
*flour, water and yeast made into bread has been a powerful image of how three distinct substances can be brought together into one;
*I’ve often said that Bern, my wife, experiences me in one distinct way, as her husband; Josh and Mimi, my children, experience me as their father and my friends experience me as a friend though I am one person—another way to try to make the Trinity sensible.
But, you see, the Trinity only makes sense in metaphor and images. As a ‘doctrine’ it fails miserably and escapes our understanding.
Eldridge Cleaver, one of the Black Panthers from the 60’s, wrote a book from prison called Soul on Ice. In his book, he tells how going to the Roman Catholic confirmation class would get him out of solitary confinement for an hour a week, so he signed up. He even enjoyed the conversation and theological interchange until the day the priest asked, “Can anyone explain the ‘mystery’ of the Holy Trinity?”
Eldridge was about to raise his hand and say the Trinity was akin to ‘three-in-one oil’ when the priest said, “Of course you can’t explain it—that’s why it’s a mystery.” Cleaver never went back to another class.
He was going to suggest that a metaphor might give some insight into the ‘mystery’ but was told that wasn’t valid.
I believe it is only ‘metaphor’ and ‘simile’ and ‘poetry’ that can give life to the moribund doctrine. Doctrine is dead—metaphor lives.
Perhaps the greatest living religious observer of our time is a woman named Karen Armstrong. She agrees with me—makes me lucky, huh? Karen Armstrong believes that doctrine must be seen as poetry if it is to live. Here's her poem about the Trinity.
“When I am alone, afraid, depressed
Unwilling, unable to face the world,
I need a parent to soothe my pain,
To calm my fears and tell me
Everything will be alright
I can be brave.
When I am brave, ready to fight the fight,
Ready to face the world and make things right,
I need a strong brother to walk with me
And give me strength and make me free.
When I am free, a friend I need
To be with me.”
That explains it about as well as possible. Amen