Last year I preached on Trinity Sunday at my parish, St. Thomas’, Washington, DC. The text of it is below, but you can also listen to it online.
Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Trinity
Believe it or not, but Trinity Sunday can be one of the trickier Sundays to preach on. It’s sometimes joked that this is the Sunday that’s often given to seminarians. Some sort of hazing, I’m sure. Personally, I love it. The Trinity is such a fundamental part of the Christian faith and of my own personal understanding of God, that I get excited learning about it and talking about it.
I know what you’re thinking, and you’re right, I am nuts. You’re also right that it’s not an easy thing to grasp. Three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But one God. On the surface, it doesn’t seem to make sense. Now some people might try to prove how this is so or explain how they all relate. If they can do that well, great. I’m not going to try. What I’m going to ask you right now is for the time being just to say yes to it and go from there while I talk with you about why it’s important.
First let me assure you this is not a math lesson: One plus one plus one equals . . . one. It’s also not a lesson in analogies. They can sometimes be helpful illustrations, but that can also get a little tricky. For those who follow my, um, occasional posts of Facebook, you might remember that I regularly share this video called “Patrick’s Bad Analogies” on St. Patrick’s Day and Trinity Sunday. I suggest looking it up on YouTube.
So again, this isn’t a lesson on math or analogies. Instead, it’s a grammar lesson. (And they’re not stampeding to the exit. Good.) What do I meant be that? As you might remember from school, grammar is essentially the set of rules by which a language works. You’ve got parts of speech, the ways words come together to form sentences, the way thoughts are expressed. While we’re sometimes aware of them, most of time those rules are just internalized. We don’t even think about them even though they shape both how we express our thoughts but also how we understand the world. That’s sort of how the Trinity is. We don’t go around every day thinking, “So how exactly do the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit relate; and does the Holy Spirit proceed from the Father alone or from the Father and the Son?” No, it’s fundamental because this is how God reveals Godself to the world and participates in it. Father, the Source of All Being. The Son, Jesus Christ, fully God yet also fully human, God with “skin in the game” as Wayne once said several years ago in a sermon. The Holy Spirit, God’s abiding presence within and among us. All of them, One God. It’s important because it gets down to the very basics of how God relates to us and how we relate to God. My Christian faith depends on how I relate to a God who is Three-in-One and One-in-Three. At heart it’s a faith that’s firmly Trinitarian.
Now it’s not a faith that’s just me and God. God Him/Herself isn’t just a lone individual or even just a closed-in duo but rather a Trinity, a community, fundamentally relational, even overflowing with creative love. Likewise, as Christians we don’t exist alone but in a community of fellow disciples, of fellow children of God through Christ. A church whose faith is firmly trinitarian and, I believe, at its fullest is firmly sacramental.
Now just to remind you, what is a sacrament? According to the catechism towards the end of the Prayer Book, “The sacraments are outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace. . . .The two great sacraments given by Christ to his Church are Holy Baptism and the Holy Eucharist.” Just as God’s divinity was present in the flesh in Jesus Christ, so we believe that God’s grace is present in and communicated to us through the physical elements of water and of bread and wine. Baptism and Eucharist are the two primary sacraments that make the Church, that unite us with Christ’s Body, and enliven us by the Spirit.
Now let’s start with Baptism. Now I’m sure most everyone here knows what a baptism looks like, especially those of us who were here on Pentecost last Sunday or at the Easter Vigil. Pouring water over the person’s head in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. But what really is the Sacrament of Baptism? Well, take out one of the red Prayer Books and turn to the Thanksgiving Over Water on page 306. This probably does a better a job explaining Baptism than I ever could and really gets to the trinitarian heart of it:
We thank you, Almighty God, for the gift of water. Over it the Holy Spirit moved in the beginning of creation. Through it you led the children of Israel out of their bondage in Egypt into the land of promise. In it your Son Jesus received the baptism of John and was anointed by the Holy Spirit as the Messiah, the Christ, to lead us, through his death and resurrection, from the bondage of sin into everlasting life. We thank you, Father, for the water of Baptism. In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit. Therefore in joyful obedience to your Son, we bring into his fellowship those who come to him in faith, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Now sanctify this water, we pray you, by the power of your Holy Spirit, that those who here are cleansed from sin and born again may continue for ever in the risen life of Jesus Christ our Savior. To him, to you, and to the Holy Spirit, be all honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.
Then after the water is poured in the name of the Father and the Son and Holy Spirit, the newly baptized is anointed with chrism and the sign of the cross. “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever. Amen.”
The Baptism of the Christ #2, by Daniel Bonnell
So in Baptism, not only are we washed of our sins, but we are united in Christ’s death and resurrection, brought to new life by the Holy Spirit and anointed “to bring good news to the poor. . . to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” We are brought into the trinitarian household of God, fully initiated by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body the Church.
Now speaking of Christ’s Body, let’s turn to the other great sacrament, Eucharist. Don’t worry, I won’t read an entire Eucharistic Prayer. However, what do we find in the Eucharistic Prayer, the Great Thanksgiving for the work of God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – in the salvation of the world? Well, since you already have your Prayer Books out, feel free to turn to Eucharistic Prayer A on page 361 and following pages. As with a lot of current and historic eucharistic prayers, there’s a basic trinitarian structure. The prayer is addressed to God the Father, usually beginning with a thanksgiving for our creation and the sending of Jesus Christ the Son for our redemption. It then moves to the remembrance of Christ’s words at the Last Supper that the bread is his Body and the wine is his Blood, that as we celebrate this feast in remembrance of him, he will truly present with us.
We later come to an invocation of the Holy Spirit to sanctify the gifts to be the Body and Blood of Christ and to sanctify us as well. Looking at Prayer A, we find, “Sanctify them by your Holy Spirit to be for your people the Body and Blood of your Son, the holy food and drink of new and unending life in him. Sanctify us also that we may faithfully receive this holy Sacrament, and serve you in unity, constancy, and peace; and at the last day bring us with all your saints into the joy of your eternal kingdom.”
In addition, as one of the prayers from Enriching Our Worship says it, “By your Holy Spirit may they be for us the Body and Blood of our Savior Jesus Christ. Grant that we who share these gifts may be filled with the Holy Spirit and live as Christ’s Body in the world.” Likewise, in another EOW prayer, “Pour out your Spirit upon these gifts that they may be the Body and Blood of Christ. Breathe your Spirit over the whole earth and make us your new creation, the Body of Christ given for the world you have made.”
The prayer then concludes in words of praise to the Father through Jesus Christ his Son in the unity of the Holy Spirit. To this we then give our assent in the great Amen, literally “So be it.” Just like when we give our assent when we reply “Amen” when we receive communion. As St. Augustine preached, “If you, therefore, are Christ’s body and members, it is your own mystery that is placed on the Lord’s table! It is your own mystery that you are receiving! You are saying ‘Amen’ to what you are: your response is a personal signature, affirming your faith. When you hear ‘The body of Christ,’ you reply ‘Amen.’ . . . Be what you see; receive what you are.”
In Baptism we are joined to Christ’s Body in his death and resurrection and sealed by the anointing of the Holy Spirit. In the Eucharist we are fed by the sacramental mystery of Christ’s Body and Blood. Through the consecrated bread and wine, joined to Word and Holy Spirit, we are made present to his death and resurrection and united with his sacrifice of love and work of reconciliation, being made one Body to be sent out in mission “rejoicing in the power of the Spirit.” As we are washed in Baptism, it’s revealed that we’re no longer the kind of persons we were, alone, isolated. We are persons joined to one another through Christ in the Holy Spirit. My personhood is bound up with everyone else’s. As we are fed in the Eucharist, that personhood is nourished and strengthened through the presence of Christ and the fire of the Spirit.
Virgin Mary and Child, from the Comnenus Mosaic, Hagia Sophia
This is why the Trinity is important. This is why it is the basic grammar that gives structure and content to our faith. We do not worship some self-contained distant God off somewhere. We worship a God intimately involved with us, whose very being is relational. A God who created and continues to create, who chooses to love us as our Father, as our Mother, who will never abandon us and always calls us by name. A God who is so fully involved so as to take on our humanity, to have “skin in the game,” being fully human while still being fully divine. A God whose mystery is ever unfolding within and among us, filling us with life and kindling a fire within us that burns away the walls that divide us from each other and from God. St. Irenaeus in the 2nd century wrote that the Son and Holy Spirit are the hands of the Father. Well, by those hands we are pulled into a motherly embrace and welcomed into the divine household. That is why I love the Trinity. That is why I get so excited talking about and want to share that good news.
Now I wish to leave you with a prayer for Trinity Sunday that I found in a translation of the Roman Missal, albeit one that was rejected but is still quite wonderful:
The Lord be with you.
And also with you.
Let us pray.
your name is veiled in mystery,
yet we dare to call you Father;
your Son was begotten before all ages,
yet is born among us in time;
your Holy Spirit fills the whole creation,
yet is poured forth now into our hearts.
Because you have made us and loved us
and called us by name,
draw us more deeply into your divine life,
that we may glorify you rightly through your Son,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
God for ever and ever. Amen.