Text of a sermon on the Holy Trinity delivered among the Benedictine Community of St. Joseph while on spring retreat, Trinity Sunday of 2016. I am honored to be an oblate member of this fine community.
When asked to preach today, my first thought was “Oh good, it’s Trinity Sunday!” My second thought was, “Oh no, it’s Trinity Sunday!” One must either be very brave or very foolish to preach today. I leave it to you to decide in which category I belong.
There is a story told of an Irishman who grew up in his native land but who later moved to the United States. He had been baptized as an infant but was not active in the church. Later in life, while living in the US, he decided to get serious about what he believed. He approached a local priest and asked to be confirmed. The priest agreed to meet with him and began by asking him a few questions to determine how well he understood the faith. The Irishman had a very heavy brogue and it was difficult for the priest to understand him when he spoke. Several times he asked the man, “What is the Holy Trinity?” Several times the man explained his understanding of the Trinity, but the frustrated priest was unable to comprehend. The cleric banged on his desk and screamed, “I don’t understand you.” To this the gentle Irishman replied, “Ah, you’re not supposed to … ’tis a mystery, isn’t it?”
Indeed, the Trinity is a mystery. It is among the most unique teachings of Christian theology. The vast majority of the world’s Christians profess that God is a Trinity of persons—there being only a small handful of Christians who reject the notion. There is amazing consensus about this in nearly all of Christendom. In the words of the Athanasian Creed, dating to the fifth or sixth century, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are each uncreated, incomprehensible, and eternal … “and yet there are not three eternals, but one eternal.”
No doctrine is more central to Christian faith than that of the Trinity. And yet the word “Trinity” never appears in the Bible. The truth of the Trinity is never really explained within the pages of sacred scripture. The parts for the doctrine can all be found in scripture … but not the doctrine itself. The Father is in scripture. The Son is in scripture. The Holy Spirit is in scripture. But never is their relationship spelled out with any exactitude. There are hints, of course, as when Jesus says in John’s gospel that he and the Father are one. But what does that mean? My wife Patsy and I are one, too, but that expression could mean any number of things.
It’s much like the difference between having a Harley-Davidson motorcycle in your driveway or having all the parts of a Harley-Davidson. One of these will provide you a splendid ride. The other? No so much—at least not until you’ve done a great deal of mechanical work. With this metaphor you can see the conundrum faced by the early Christian leaders who argued over the nature of God and the relationship between Father, Son, and Spirit. They had to wrestle with it. They had to do the hard work of reflection and interpretation … just as you and I must struggle with our own experience of church. This struggle does not invalidate Trinitarian doctrine, nor does it invalidate the church today. Far from it. This human struggle to make meaning is what validates religion and increases its significance as an authentic part of human life.
Let me propose that to get a glimpse of the meaning of the Trinity one need not go any further than to look at the Rule of St. Benedict. The very essence of the Trinity can be described by the three principal values of our community: stability, obedience, and conversion of life. The Trinity, you see, is the perfect icon of communion: three co-equal, co-eternal persons in everlasting community. What can we learn about the Trinity when seen through the lens of stability, obedience, and conversion of life?
First, stability. It is the commitment to remain in relationship, in communion. The persons of the Trinity are eternally in perfect relationship. Where there is one, there are three. Each is distinct, but never separate. Look at the worship aid for today. You will find on it a diagram known as the Shield of the Trinity. No matter which direction you read it, you will encounter the truth of Trinitarian stability. In their distinctness, each person of the Trinity remains in relationship with the other: the Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Spirit, the Spirit is not the Father. Yet each is God. Separated from one another they would not be be God, at least as far as the Christian understanding of God is concerned. The same is true with us. We have promised to remain a community, each present to the other. To separate ourselves from one another or from our local eucharistic communities would be to separate ourselves from a vital communion with the divine. I don’t mean to suggest that non-churchgoers do not experience God. But they surely can’t experience God’s divine community without being part of the communion where that community is celebrated and embraced.
Second, obedience. This may seem an odd characteristic to predicate of the Trinity, but if we look closely at the meaning of the word it becomes clear. We tend to think of obedience as a form of surrender or mindlessly doing what one is told, but the root of the word in Latin suggests that obedience is about listening. We cannot learn without listening. We cannot determine how to be faithful without listening. St. Benedict enshrines this understanding in the Rule by insisting that even the youngest in the community has a voice that must be heard. All members are called to be attentive to one another, to listen to and respect one another. In other words, each is called to foster what is necessary in human relationships in order to maintain stability, balance … and therefore, harmony. Each of us is called to be open to the other. This is perfect obedience. The inner life of the Trinity can be compared to this as each person of the godhead remains in the most perfect, harmonious relationship, always open to the other.
Finally, there is conversion of life. Admittedly, this idea, at first, strikes oddly against the ear. But go back again to Latin. What we translate as “conversion of life” is actually conversatio morum. It is difficult to translate it in any simple way. We might express it something like “living faithfully in the manner to which we were called.”
What could be more perfect a life of relationship than that of the inner life that marks the Trinity? It is the nature of God to be faithful. When Moses inquired of God who it was who was sending him, the simple reply was “I AM is sending you.” In other words, “I AM God … I AM faithful … simply because I AM. Do you get it, Moses? I AM all these things because I AM.”
In the end, I suggest that what we should value most is that we recognize in the Trinity that God is a community of persons in perfect relationship. It is perfect because it cannot be anything other than what it is. God cannot be anything other than what God is. Three are forever One. One is forever Three.
We are challenged by this fact to seek, insofar as we are able, to imitate this divine communion in our own shared life together. Our Benedictine values, whether we are in solemn vows or under oblate promises, are drawn from the life of the Trinity. We are called to live those values of community—of communion—and to be an example to the wider church, both the Episcopal Church and the Church Universal, the Church Catholic.
Remember: the distinctions between Father, Son, and Spirit—these distinctions do not divide the Trinity. There is no separate life within the Trinity. Yet distinction is the bedrock without which Trinitarian unity is impossible. Think about this paradox: unity is predicated upon distinction. The same is true with each of us and with the distinctions we bring to our community and to the church. As we look around us in the world and in the church there are often situations that disturb us. It has always been this way. Never in the history of Christianity has everyone agreed on everything. The conflicts by which the doctrine of the Trinity came to be are evidence of this. Do not be deflated in the face of such differences and the conflict that many are drawn into over our differences. Do not allow yourself to be scandalized, to be tripped up.
Take courage from the Day of Judgment. When we stand before the Throne of God, I doubt seriously that God will be angry if we didn’t quite get a perfect grasp on the minute details of Trinitarian theology. What will be more important to God, I believe, is whether or not we were faithful to the maintenance of communion with our fellow Christians despite our differences. That, in the end, is the greatest wisdom we can draw from the example of the inner life of the Most Holy Trinity.