a sermon on the holy trinity

First Sunday after Pentecost | The Holy Trinity
Texts: Genesis 1:1–2:4a | Psalm 8 | 2 Corinthians 13:11-13 | Matthew 28:16-20

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Trinity is a poem uttered free verse as cosmic love gift
sending sound waves through earth to hurl speech
into the ionosphere stirring radio waves to hum
Trinity is a synchronistic dream we and God have
nightly about the interface of human and divine
the matrix of connections between holy and common
Trinity is a syncopated counterpoint of melody lines
referencing each other and making music as sonorous
as whales and pulsars and seismic waves all held in tension
then someone inscribed the free utterance in indelible ink
and someone analyzed the shared dream with Freudian precision
and someone forced the messy melodies smooth in straight time
behold: just when they think they finished the job and
brush the dust of such work off their hands and rest
Trinity dances out the door and finds willing partners to twirl
– Rev. Michael Coffey

That was a poem entitled Trinity is a poem written by ELCA pastor Michael Coffey. The nature of God is something not best expressed with permanent marker, with scientific formula or perfect accuracy. The nature of God  is something captured more clearly with a poem, a dream, a song, an invitation to dance…

This week Pastor Erik and I have been talking a lot about the subjunctive mood in Spanish grammar, which is a certain way to use verbs to express doubt and uncertainty, hopes and dreams. This all began when I had the song Despacito stuck in my head all day, and decided to use it as a learning opportunity since Erik has been working on his Spanish. Regardless of whatever else one could say about this song… the song uses a lot of verbs in the subjunctive. That is because the artist is singing about longing, about his wishes and desire, about love and attraction which can’t simply be expressed objectively as facts. Most songs use subjunctive for that matter, since humans tend to use songs as a way to say things that can’t quite fully be captured in typical speech.

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Love is one of those things that is best expressed through poetry, songs, dance… Think about what it would be like, actually, to express romantic love using only facts or observations. Imagine speaking ever-so-tenderly to your partner: I notice that when I’m near you my pupils dilate and my heart beats faster than normal. The sound of your voice makes my brain release adrenaline, which is making the muscles of my stomach contract and give me nausea…

Or imagine expressing the love between a parent and child by cooing softly: From the moment you were born, my brain released a powerful cocktail of hormones and chemicals that create a phenomenon called ‘bonding’ which means I would likely protect you regardless of the risk of bodily harm to me…

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This is sort of the scientific story about love – which is super fascinating and important – but doesn’t fully capture what love is. Think about what is communicated in an elaborate proposal, for example… or in a furious salsa routine, or a handmade gift, or a bedtime story… or in the countless other ways we have learned to show love to one another.

In this vast landscape of human relationship, three little words, “I love you,” act as shorthand for a much deeper, much more complex relationship.

And the nature of God is another one of those things that can’t quite be captured in facts and formulas. The Trinitarian formula, “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” is shorthand for the mystery of God’s nature, for the interwoven relationship between these three persons of the one God.

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This is not to say that thinking deeply and logically about doctrine – like the doctrine of the Trinity – is not important. Certainly, the centuries of Christian philosophers and theologians who developed the doctrine of the Trinity as we know it today would affirm that they didn’t spend hours and volumes and lifetimes agreeing on the details of the Trinitarian relationship just so that we could say flippantly today, “The specifics don’t matter, let’s live in the mystery!”

The doctrine of the Trinity was not trivial or unimportant to people in the early church. There was a time when what you believed about the Trinity was one of the more relevant things about you. Where today you might ask someone, “What do you think about the state budget crisis?” or “Who did you vote for in the presidential election?” centuries ago, Christians were walking up to each other on the street and asking, “Do you believe that Jesus Christ is of one essence with God the Father?”

Centuries were spent working out what we mean by “one God in three persons” – not because God needs us to understand every detail about God, or because people were obsessed with “getting it right,” but because God’s nature was so precious to the early church that it was worth discerning and wrestling with it, together in community. Simple answers were not enough. The community wrestled and had ecumenical councils, and argued, and excommunicated some people, and had some more councils, until we finally ended up with a few statements of faith – like the Nicene Creed that we’ll say later in today’s liturgy – statements that help us hold disparities and ambiguities, complexities and paradoxes about God that enrich (and appropriately confuse) our understanding of who God is.

Is it really like one God, with three parts, like a clover? Nice image, but no.
It is kinda like one person that does three jobs? Not quite.
Is it like there’s one God at the beginning, with two versions that come later? Nope.

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God is three persons and God is One God. God is the Parent of all creation, the one who made me and all creatures and who provides for all our needs. Jesus Christ is truly God and truly human, child of God and of Mary, the human mother, who redeems us by the cross. The Holy Spirit is God who moves among us now: calling us, enlightening us, making us holy. There is one God, but there are these three persons.

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Formulas and shorthands that help us understand who God is are important. But stories can capture what formulas can’t… Like the story about Creation that we heard in worship today. The Genesis creation story is very different from the Enûma Eliš – the Babylonian creation myth that the people of Israel would have heard during their time in Babylonian captivity (around the same time when the Genesis creation story was written). In the Enûma Eliš, the gods are ever grasping for more power, the earth is created in a violent battle, the land and sky fashioned out of the halved corpse of the defeated party.

The Genesis creation story captures a different image of God. The God who created the heavens and the earth is not just one god among many. God doesn’t fight for power over. God doesn’t create out of violence. God exists before everything; God is one. God is parent and creator of all that is. God is word, speaking light out of nothing. God is breath, felt but not seen, moving over primordial chaos. We are created in God’s image and given to be part of creation and care for it. God rests, and makes us for rest too.

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And better than formulas or even stories, the holy mystery of who God is, Holy One, Holy community, is best captured in lives. Jesus says, “As you go, disciple all nations!” This means, “Invite them to do this thing that I’ve been doing with you.”

Part of that means baptizing them – they are children of God. They belong to God, and you belong to each other. And part of that means doing what I’ve taught you – doing this Jesus way of life together. This is the great commission and the root of all our service.

This Sunday comes after the seasons of Easter, where we’re remembering the new life promised by the gospel, and before the season after Pentecost, in which we’ll be talking about discipleship and the teaching of Jesus. Today, grounded in the holy mystery of the Trinity, this is the invitation to us:

As you go, invite others along.

Lives lives rooted in baptism,

doing this Jesus way of life,

inviting others to join the dance.

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