Sermon for Trinity, Sunday, May 30 2021, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Isaiah 6:1-8; Psalm 29; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17
There are not very many Sundays in the calendar dedicated to abstract theological concepts, but this is one of them—this is the Sunday dedicated to that most abstract of them all, the doctrine of the Trinity. Every now and then, people try to be spectacular by noting that the doctrine of the Trinity isn’t in scripture, and it’s quite true that it isn’t, not in anything like a developed way.
There’s a kind of raw material there, which the very early church was wrestling with and trying to figure out, but the fully realized doctrine of the Trinity doesn’t emerge until later, and didn’t become a clearly settled church doctrine until the fourth century. And what emerged in the end, out of a monotheistic Jewish matrix which had experienced the presence of Jesus in such a way that they could only see him as one who was to be worshipped as we worship God, and the presence of the Spirit as a continuation of that divine life in all of our own lives and in the ongoing life of all creation, is wonderfully paradoxical—there is one God, and only one God, and we maintain that we are a strictly monotheistic faith. But within the being of that one God, there are three persons, wholly united in such a way that they are one at the same time that they are distinctively three. And that this essential threeness is also an open configuration, that it is also an invitation to us.
I think it is a good thing that right here at the centre of our faith lies something we simply cannot contain in human language. Here are two irreconcilable statements. We believe them both. We believe them both because God is so much greater than our minds can contain, that we can only express the wonder and sheer weirdness of God by speaking in contradiction and paradox. There’s an untameability about the Trinity, a refusal to accommodate to our desire for a neatly packaged God, a demand that we live in a certain degree of constant confusion, which is honest to the nature of the divine.
The Greek word which early theologians came up with to describe how we can imagine the three persons of the Trinity relating to each other is perichoresis. And it is actually a beautiful word. It comes from a word meaning “around” and a word meaning “make room for” or “contain”—the three persons mutually contain and are contained within and around each other, mutually make space for each other within the divine nature. It’s a false etymology to derive this from choreos, the dance, but it’s kind of a useful false etymology. The three persons may be imagined as dancing into and out of each other almost, responding and deferring and instantly adapting as dancers do, inhabiting space and each other in movement, and not just as a pair—something human minds can maybe almost begin to comprehend—but as three, a greater space, a complex shape, a formation which is entirely mutually contained and yet open—open to us, inviting us, as children by adoption, into that dynamic relationship.
And we, as beings made in the image and likeness of God, we are intrinsically relational. We are only made through our relationships with each other and with God, we are inseparably part of one another, and we are created to be in relationship with God. It is essential to us, if we are to be really ourselves, to become participants in that constant movement of relationship which is the life of God. So how we relate to each other is a spiritual issue. Our loves and our likings, our families, our friendships, our working relationships, and perhaps most of all our relationships with those who trouble us, inconvenience us, harm us, these are profoundly spiritual issues. Social justice is a spiritual issue, because it is about the nature of our relations with each other, and our nature as beings in relationship.
That is a part of what makes the mass graves at the former Kamloops Residential School such an indictment—and something about which the church cannot pretend to be surprised, for mass graves are a fact which the Indigenous community has always known, about which survivors and elders have testified—it is the clear and evident betrayal of one of the shared understandings of Christian theology and Indigenous tradition—that we are all relations. That we are all one. That in actively or passively killing those children, we were once again murdering the three-personed God.
But God yearns for us still, for our repentance and our redemption. All of creation waits for the fulfilment of its being and its promise, and we are called towards that fulfilment, like the terrified prophet with his burnt lips. Here am I. Send me. It is a different sending for each of us; those who have been privileged by this system are called to a work of reconciliation which includes sacrifice, silence, listening. Remembering that the story of those mass graves was being told for a very long time before we heard it, and that it was not the church which searched for them. If we are to enter the mutually sustaining life of the Trinity, we must know this first; as those who have been murdered and oppressed can know themselves to be loved by God and upheld in their resistance.
We enter the life of the Trinity sometimes by hard pathways, by slowly forming ourselves into creatures who want, out of our own deep nature, what God wants, creatures who desire goodness and life and the redemption of all creation, the creation which waits and groans and longs for change. The creation suffering now for the sake of the affluent, so endangered, so much in need of human beings turning from being economic actors to being, truly, children of God.
This is what we are called to—to the life of relationship, the life of mutually containing each other and making room for each other, shaping the movements of our lives around each other in love and compassion so far as we can—and allowing this participation in the life of God, in the life of the Trinity, to slowly and sometimes painfully heal our confused desires, make our desires healthy and true and whole. To bring our desires, bit by bit, in all the little ways of our lives and longings, towards the great desire of Earth, the Christ who was crucified by power and rose again like grass, the Christ who reconciles all things. That all creation may rise.