The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:16-20, NRSV
Esoteric Trinity, Preacher’s Graveyard
Episcopal priest and former seminary dean Gary Hall calls Trinity Sunday, “the preacher’s graveyard,” and says he used to tell graduating student that, when they got ordained, “they should avoid this Sunday like the plague.” That is fantastic advice for those in a position to follow it. However, having plugged away as an intern, an associate and now a guest preacher, I have to take the preaching assignments I’m given. So in all humility, I add my two cents on the topic. This is a perilous matter, since through the centuries people have actually lost careers, property, even their lives because of perceived heresy about the notoriously abstract and esoteric idea of the Trinity.
I’m sure I have nothing to worry about; my views are pretty orthodox. And more to the point, I’m not sure how many theological pitchfork-wielders have found their ways to this blog. But before I explain everything you need to know about the Trinity, I want to take you back six years ago (Trinity times two, if you’re counting) to a moment I’ll never forget when I was an intern at Church of the Ascension in Sierra Madre.
About a week after I started, a 16-year-old member of the congregation I’ll call Ryan collapsed suddenly at home and fell into a coma. The rector at that church, Fr. Michael Bamberger, had visited the hospital every single day since Ryan fell into the coma, so I was surprised when on Sunday morning, he insisted on trying to squeeze a few minutes in between services to go see Ryan yet again. (The family had told him they hoped he was going to come out of his coma that morning.) He grabbed me after the first service and we drove to the hospital, and I was thinking, “This makes no sense. We only have time to be there for like 5 minutes, he might not even be conscious yet, and why’s he dragging me along anyway, what have I got to do with it?”
When we arrived and stood in the doorway of the ICU, Ryan was indeed awake. He looked up and saw Fr. Michael standing there, and both instantly began weeping. I didn’t know either of them at this point, but I could see how meaningful it was for them to lay eyes on each other at that precise moment in time. It was clear to me that there was more going on than just their relationship. This one priest represented the whole congregation Ryan had grown up being part of. Everyone who had encouraged him, joked with him, worshiped alongside him, were present in that room in that sacred moment when it became clear that he was going to survive and live the life ahead of him. I felt like I was on holy ground, and I was grateful to have been dragged there, and for the lesson Fr. Michael had taught me.
The Trinity at Work
That whole experience was the furthest thing from an abstract concept, it was real and potent, and it was the Trinity at work. Here is all you need to know about the Trinity: the God we worship exists only in relationship, in the eternal communion of three persons, Father, Son and Spirit. This means that we cannot be Christians alone, because if you do not experience life lived in relationship with your community, you can never really know Jesus. You may follow his teachings, you may be a wonderful person, but you will not be Christian, or at least not a Trinitarian one. By the way, that would be heresy. It might not cost you your job or your life, but it will cost you the experience of being fully human.
That moment in the hospital room was a Trinitarian experience, and if you could have been in that room, you would be able to explain what’s important about the Trinity to anyone without using any fancy theology. In fact, you did not need to be in the room. If you’ve ever cried with a brother over his sorrows or rejoiced with a sister over her good news, you’ve had a Trinitarian experience, an experience of being in a holy community with yourself, God and one of God’s beloved children.
God as Father
On the secular calendar, this is a good time of year to reflect on the first person of the Trinity, God the Father, since yesterday was Father’s Day. But in some churches, including the first parish where I was a member, the “Trinitarian formula” Jesus uses (Father, Son and Holy Spirit), is never used due to its masculine language, which some interpret as being anti-woman.
I absolutely affirm of the feminine qualities of God, and sometimes address God as both Father and Mother. But it’s a mistake to throw out the language of God as Father altogether, because there’s a particular kind of love and blessing you experience when someone you call “Father,” drops everything to rush to the hospital to see you with his own eyes and know you’re okay. And I hope you’ve had experiences like that with either your own father or with father figures in your life or in your church to feel the resonance of that image of God as your Father.
Jesus’ Type of Authority: Power + Vulnerability
The above reading for Trinity Sunday comprises the very last words of Matthew’s Gospel, with Jesus saying that all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him. That isn’t really what we want to hear because we don’t want to think of Jesus as an authority figure. We want the buddy Jesus, the Jesus that is just like us, only much nicer. That’s certainly an aspect of who Jesus is, but if we leave out the concept of authority figure, we miss a lot of potential in our relationship with God.
Every year when Christmas rolls around, even the most cynical people, people who wouldn’t be caught dead in church any other time, come because it does something to their hearts to hear the story of the baby Jesus in the manger. They remember that God, the ultimate authority figure, the creator of the entire universe, became one of us, and indeed one of us as a baby, at our most weak and vulnerable. And it did something to my heart to see a “father” rush out to see a beloved member of his congregation because he had the authority to bring the love and concern of that whole congregation into the room with him.
Authority Is Not Only Male
By no means does that type of authority belong only to men. When I was in college, all my money from scholarships, work study and loans ran out at once, and it looked like my only option would be to drop out of school altogether. But I had a teacher who hired me herself on the spot, guaranteeing me enough work every week to live on and stay in school. She also mentored and encouraged me, and was a mother to me at a time in my life when I needed it. She was an authority figure, and she used her authority to help me when it would have been a lot easier for her to just let me get by on my own. And that is a big part of what it means to be a father or a mother to others is to use our authority to reach out a hand and help someone else. The language that we use specifically in church of family–Sister, Brother Father, Mother–reminds us that we have a relationship that goes much deeper than just being members of an organization or club together.
Almost all of us will be in a position of authority over someone else at some point in our lives, whether it’s the authority of a parent over a child, a teacher over a student, or a supervisor over an employee. Being in a position of authority is a gift from God and in return for being entrusted with that authority, we are required to exercise it in the same way that God would. By lifting up the weak, the lowly, the powerless, stretching out a hand to help someone, going out of your way to be a sign of the loving presence of your community.
That kind of life-giving and affirming authority is the same through which God created the heavens and the earth and all that is. On that authority, the authority that is wielded by the Father and ruler of all the universe, we can trust that when His Son says to us he will be with us always, even to the end of the age, there is nothing abstract or esoteric about that promise. It is simply and authoritatively true.
Based on sermon preached at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, Los Angeles, June 11, 2017