Sermon Trinity Sunday, 2019 - A Spiritual Innovation
Today Trinity Church celebrates its “patronal” festival – Trinity Sunday. I put a little asterisk by that word because technically we don’t have a “patron,” a person, like a St. Ellzabeth’s Church or a St. Francis Church would have. Instead, our “patron” is a theological doctrine. That’s not so uncommon, for not every church takes a person as its patron. For example, Church of the Ascension, Church of the Resurrection, Church of the Heavenly Rest, etc., all function just fine on a concept, not a person. I believe we were given the name “Trinity” by our founder, Henry Barclay, whose grandfather and namesake was the second rectory of Trinity, Wall Street, and then as a young man, Henry sat on the Vestry of that esteemed parish. In 1825, Henry and his wife, Catherine, left New York City, settling in Saugerties where he immediately began to make his mark. Damming the creek, building a bridge, and establishing an iron and a paper mill. The couple held worship services in their home (Morning Prayer because no priest was available) until a sufficient number of people were gathered and committed to petitioning the Diocese of New York to be admitted as a parish. Henry secured a grant from Trinity of a thousand dollars to build our building – a sum that wouldn’t even cover our annual heating bill today. We opened our doors for public worship for the first time on June 7, 1831, 188 years ago.
With that brief background I’d now like to turn our attention to the name itself, “Trinity” and explore what that is all about. Since we use the word often enough around here, I think it’s kind of nice to have some idea of what we are talking about and who we are. The doctrine of the Trinity states that God exists as one, yet in three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The three persons, although different in nature, are nevertheless, coequal and coeternal. Now if you are saying to yourself, “That doesn’t make any sense,” you’d be right. The Trinity is a mystery and cannot be reconciled or understood by simple logic. God is three and God is one, at the same time.
So where did this all come from, and why was it necessary? It seems kind of complicated and confusing. Why couldn’t we just have “God” and be done with it? That seemed to work okay for the Jewish people for a couple thousand years. Well, here’s what I think happened. But I have to warn you, in order to understand this we need to use our imaginations and think like first century Jews, living in Palestine, who knew Jesus.
After Jesus died, many of his followers testified that they experienced Jesus in bodily form, having been raised from the dead by God. Not only was this truly remarkable and unique (it had never happened before), but it also wasn’t supposed to happen, according to Jewish belief at the time. In the first century, Jews believed that when people died, their bodies “went to sleep” underground, and would awaken when the trumpet sounded on the last day to be judged. The risen Christ went against this belief, and disrupted the established and widely held understanding. So, his followers concluded that God was doing a “new thing” here, and they began to reflect on the person, Jesus, whom they had known and followed. Who was he? What did his life mean to them and their faith? Very early on they came to the conclusion that Jesus was divine. In the ancient world this wasn’t much of a stretch. The line between human and divine was pretty fluid, because it all had to do with “power.” For example, the Greek god Prometheus was demoted and thrown out of Mt. Olympus because he had shared the divine secret of producing fire with human beings. Now humans had the power of creating and controlling fire, which had formerly belonged solely to the gods. In like manner, powerful humans could be seen as divine, which is what we find with Caesar Augustus. Archeologists have found Roman coins minted during his reign with a side view of his head and an imprint that reads “Son of a God.” So it could go both ways. Jesus’ followers remembered the power he commanded by healing the blind and lame, feeding thousands, and casting out demons. It was a short step for his Jewish, first century followers to declare Jesus divine.
But those Jewish followers were also staunchly monotheistic. So, you can probably see the problem here. The Lord God is the only God, you shall have no other Gods but Him. So, if Yahweh is the only God, but Jesus is seen as divine, how’s that going to work? As devoted Jews they couldn’t just abandon Yahweh. But as followers of Christ who now believe Jesus to be divine, they had to figure out a way to keep one God but declare both to be divine. Enter the doctrine of the Trinity. God the Father and God the Son: they are of the same substance but two persons. They share in everything, (Everything that the Father has is mine. John 16:14) but are known to us humans in different ways. They are co-equal, which means one is not over the other. And they are co-eternal, which means one did not exist before the other. In other words, one did not create or give birth to the other.
It seems the problem is solved….until we get to the power thing. Remember, in the ancient world gods had all the power? So how does power work between this dual person God: Father and Son? On earth, fathers have power over their sons. But in this case, with a monotheistic system, both Father and Son would need to have the same power, if they are to be truly co-equal. Enter the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is the power that is shared between the two divine persons. It travels back and forth between them, and they both possess it, equally.
So when the story of Jesus is written, the gospel writers take an ordinary human being, just like you and me, but they tell how the Holy Spirit entered that plain ordinary human body, causing God to be incarnated on earth. Remember in Mark’s gospel, Jesus comes up from the Jordan River at his baptism and the Spirit flutters down to him in the form of a dove? The ordinary became extraordinary in that moment.
So now we have the three elements of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We know the nature of God as Christians understand the term “divinity”, but frankly it seems pretty static. There is it. What’s supposed to happen next? How does “trinity” help anyone out? To me, what’s remarkable about the doctrine of the Trinity is that it represents a spiritual innovation. At the time it was formulated everyone believed that gods had all the power, and certain gods controlled the power in certain areas. For example, Neptune controlled the sea. Mars determined who won and who lost on the battlefield. Cupid shot tiny arrows to pierce one’s heart, making humans fall in love. But with the Trinity, an ordinary human being shared power with a heavenly and divine being. Suddenly, humans could access power which had formerly been the exclusive domain of gods. Jesus was human in every way as we are, yet, did not sin. The Holy Spirit filling him completely kept him from succumbing to the temptations that all humans face. That had never happened before in the drama between heaven and earth, between gods and humanity.
And even more innovative, and in the ancient world no doubt more shocking, was the belief that the same Holy Spirit was available to everyone through baptism. We wouldn’t all become gods, we wouldn’t be of the same substance as the Father, but we could all feel the power of the divine spirit within us as guide and motivator. That was truly a spiritual innovation, as it changed the strict demarcation of power between gods and humans. “Greater things than what I do, you will do,” Jesus said to his disciples, “when the Spirit comes upon you.” It is the spirit that carries the power. “Let us go forth into the world, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit,” we say sometimes as a dismissal from our worship. That’s what’s going on in the Trinity. It represents not only the relationship between Father and Son, but between God and us. The Christian faith is all about the power of the Spirit. It can operate, it could operate, it might operate in people like you and like me, because it won’t operate on its own. It requires a human vessel to be effective. That’s where we come in. The doctrine of the Trinity is absolutely worthless on its own. It only makes sense when coupled with human agents like us. And then, what power it carries. Francis of Assisi, Teresa of Calcutta, Oscar of El Salvador, they all carried the power of the Spirit and look what they accomplished in partnership with it. But they aren’t the only ones who carry the Spirit. People we don’t know of, whose names we’ve never heard, also do remarkable things like care for elderly neighbors, or volunteer to teaching literacy to adults, or stand up for honesty in their work even when they know it will cost them a promotion, and on and on and on. The Spirit is an equal opportunity possessor. It does not limit itself to the famous saints, or to bishops, or clergy, or wardens, or church employees. The Spirit is ours.
And that’s what we celebrate today on Trinity Sunday, and what we claim as people of Trinity Church. A spiritual innovation that opens the way for us to share in holy work with a loving, compassionate, and just God. To that we have to say “Alleluia.”