Sunday, June 03, 2007

The Trinity: The Perfect Relationship of Love

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
June 3, 2007
Year C: The First Sunday after Pentecost (Trinity Sunday)

Isaiah 6:1-8
Revelation 4:1-11
John 16:5-15
Psalm 29

The Trinity: The Perfect Relationship of Love

I remember on Trinity Sunday last year I visited a suburban church that had a rector and a newly ordained assistant. When it came time for the sermon the rector said that often veteran priests avoid the tough job of preaching on the Trinity by giving the task to their assistants. But, he said that since “He wasn’t that kind of guy” he would preach the sermon and not pass it off to his assistant. I remember thinking, “Oh, come on, don’t cop out - make the assistant do it – let’s hear what someone newly ordained has to say about the Trinity.”

Well, here we are a year later with another piece of evidence that God has a sense of humor. Since it looks like no veteran priest is going to step in and take over for me, it falls on me, one day after ordination, to preach on Trinity Sunday. It’s a difficult assignment because, like any mystery, the Trinity – our belief in one God in three Persons – is beyond our understanding. I’m afraid that using our brains to somehow figure out the inner life of God is not going to get us very far.

Of course the great mysteriousness of the Trinity hasn’t stopped theologians and church leaders from arguing over the meaning of the Trinity and how these three divine Persons – Father, Son, Holy Spirit - interact among themselves and interact with us. The Nicene Creed that we say each week was an attempt to get Christians on the same page about what the early church had come to believe about this one God in three Persons. The creed is helpful, maybe, but it certainly doesn’t explain the profound mystery of the Trinity.

So, what to make of the Trinity? There’s an old story of the great Church Father, St. Augustine, one day walking along the beach contemplating the Trinity. Up ahead he saw a little boy digging a hole in the sand. The boy then ran out into the waves, scooped up a bucket of water, and ran back to pour it into the hole. He did this a few times until finally Augustine approached him and asked, “Boy, what are you doing?” “See that ocean out there?” the boy asked. “I’m going to pour that ocean into this hole.” “That’s impossible,” said Augustine. “You cannot fit the ocean in that tiny hole.” The boy looked up at him and replied, “And neither can you, Augustine, fit the Trinity in that tiny little brain.” The story goes on to say that the boy then disappeared, as apparently he was an angel.

But, just because we will never understand how one God can be in three Persons doesn’t mean that we should stop wrestling with and reflecting on the Trinity. Just the opposite! After all, even though we know we’ll never understand it, what could be more important than reflecting on the nature of God? Preparing for this sermon, this past week I’ve prayed and thought a lot about the Trinity. And preparing for ordination, I’ve reflected a lot on the church. And I have three points that I want to share with you this morning: First, the Trinity is a relationship – it is the perfect relationship of love.

If we really reflect on the Trinity we realize that God in Three Persons is a perfect, loving relationship. God is love, but God is not just love. After all, what is love without an other, or others? Not much at all. No, God is not just love – God is not just love sort of floating around out there. The Trinity tells us that God’s very essence is a perfect relationship of love. This is who God really is – a perfect relationship of love. The relationship is perfect so as Jesus says in today’s gospel, “All that the Father has is mine.” There is no division among Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Some of the early Christian theologians described the relationship among Father, Son and Holy Spirit as an eternal dance of love. In class my Church History professor actually acted out the dance with two of my classmates – which made us laugh but also helped me to remember this powerful image of Father, Son and Holy Spirit dancing away for eternity.

My second point is that the amazingly Good News for us is that in Jesus Christ and with the guidance of the Holy Spirit we are invited to participate in God’s eternal relationship of love. In Jesus Christ and with the guidance of the Holy Spirit we are invited to participate in God’s eternal loving dance.

The whole sweep of Scripture tells the story of God reaching out to men and women – trying over and over to build a relationship with us. From the tragic image of God searching the garden for Adam and Eve who are hiding in shame to God becoming human in Jesus, over and over God has invited us into relationship.

How we respond to that invitation is the big question of our lives. I probably don’t need to tell you that often we get ourselves into trouble when we try to fill our need for relationship with God by desiring lesser things. How often do we try to fill our need for God’s love by turning to material things? If I just have …. then I’ll be happy. Never seems to work, does it?

Instead, we are invited to open our hearts and allow God to build a relationship with us. And hopefully we respond to God’s invitation by building loving relationships with one another. It seems to me that relationships of love are what the Trinity is all about and loving relationships are what we as Christians should be about.

Third point. Somebody asked me a while back – “What’s the church for? What’s the point?” The question was so fundamental that it threw me off a little. But the truth is the church is about relationships. At its best, the church is a place where we can open our hearts and allow God to build a relationship with us. And, at its best, the church is also a place where we can deepen our relationships with one another.

In this season after Pentecost, as I begin my ordained ministry and as St. Paul’s begins this important interim period, I think it’s crucial for all of us to reflect on what the church is for – to provide a place where our relationships with God and with our sisters and brothers may be nourished and supported. The church must be a place where all of us can accept God’s invitation to be part God’s eternal, perfect loving relationship.

Today’s lesson from Isaiah offers powerful images not only of Isaiah’s call but also, I believe, of our life together in the church. First, we have this grand image of God on a throne and the angels singing their hymn of praise: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”

“Holy, holy, holy” – these words are so familiar to us from the Eucharist. But what do they really mean? What does it mean to say God is holy? In ancient Israel holiness meant something set aside from the ordinary and connected to the divine. For us, I believe the same is true. We need to rediscover the holiness of the church. This place cannot be like any other place. This isn’t a social club or a meeting hall. This must be a place of prayer. This must be a place where we come to worship the loving, dancing God who is calling us into relationship. The church must be a holy place.

Next, we have Isaiah’s recognition that he is unworthy of this relationship with God. Isaiah says, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among people of unclean lips.”

And what happens next? Isaiah is purified; Isaiah is forgiven by an angel. If the church is really going to a place where our relationships with God and one another can grow, then the church must be a place of forgiveness. Often we need forgiveness from God. I don’t know how many of you know this, but Episcopal priests can hear confessions and offer absolution. I don’t think too many people take advantage of that – which is too bad. But, if you’re not comfortable facing a priest, in our services we almost always have a confession of sin – and if we’ve made a sincere confession – God forgives us. God forgives us every time. And, of course, sometimes we need forgiveness from one another. The church must be a place where we can ask one another for forgiveness and it must be a place where we offer forgiveness to one another.

Finally, in my favorite part of this passage, God asks “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And Isaiah answers, “Here am I; send me!” Like Isaiah, we in the church are invited to serve God. God is still asking. “Whom shall I send?” And hopefully like Isaiah we will respond generously, “Here am I; send me.” All of us in the church are called to offer loving service to God by offering loving service to one another. I’m so happy that St. Paul’s has begun collecting food for those in need – it’s a wonderful start to answering God’s call.

Like St. Augustine on the beach, we will never understand the Trinity. But as we reflect on one God in three Persons we realize that God is a perfect relationship of love. The Good News of Scripture - the Good News of Jesus Christ - is that all of us are invited to be in a relationship with God. And, at its best, the church is the place where we can accept God’s invitation and our relationship with God can grow.

In these days after Pentecost, here at St. Paul’s let’s be like the Prophet Isaiah and accept God’s invitation. Let’s be part of the perfect relationship of love that is the Trinity - one God in three Persons.