Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31; Psalm 8; John 16:12-15
This Thursday marks the 10th anniversary of my ordination to the transitional diaconate—when I was first given the honorific of “The Reverend,” and passed a very important milestone in my vocation. Now, make no mistake, I was in the Church business a lot longer than that—I started study at The General Theological Seminary in New York City in 2006; before that I worked for four years as the full-time Director of Communications at a large Episcopal church in Indianapolis; before that I was a church choir director and youth group leader; and, in fact, I first felt a call to ordained ministry at the age of 12.
But still, anniversaries are important, and today I am remembering that amazing day at Christ Church Cathedral in Indianapolis, and the sheer joy I felt when Bishop Cate Waynick put her hands on my head and made me a deacon. This is my life’s work, even though I did many other things before I got to it. I remain profoundly grateful to you for calling me as your rector, and allowing me to be your pastor. I am profoundly blessed to be able to live out this identity; to live out my dream, and, I believe, God’s dream for me.
I don’t know if you watched the Tony Awards, which happened last Sunday, but as you might guess, I certainly did. One of the things I loved most about living in New York City was the opportunity to see a lot of Broadway shows. But I loved the theater long before I moved to New York, and I have watched that telecast for years, even though I saw very few nominated shows before 2006.
One of the most memorable moments at Sunday’s awards was the acceptance speech of Ali Stroker, who won a Tony as best featured actress in a musical for playing Ado Annie in the current revival of Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! Stroker’s award was especially notable because she is the first performer using a wheelchair to win a Tony. She said, “This award is for every kid who is watching tonight who has a disability, who has a limitation or a challenge, who has been waiting to see themselves represented in this arena—you are.”
That idea—the power of seeing oneself represented where you have never seen yourself before—was driven home in an interview with Stroker on the Today Show this past Wednesday. After she was interviewed, they introduced her to six year-old Henry, whose mother shared on social media a video of him watching Stroker’s acceptance speech. Henry is in a wheelchair too—and when he heard her speech Henry exclaimed, “That’s me!” His mom noted that Stroker’s win exploded Henry’s vision; for the first time he realized that anything is possible. She said, “I tell him all the time, limits are for credit cards, not for people.”[i]
Of course, Stroker is quick to note that she is not just her chair—the chair is what allows her to be mobile. It is a tool that gives her the opportunity to fulfill her dreams. It is not her identity.
But identity is the topic for today. This is Trinity Sunday, that day each year (always on the Sunday following the Day of Pentecost) when we focus on the identity of God as three in one. And, of course, this Trinitarian approach to God’s identity—that our one God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is unique to Christianity. That is, our identity as Christians is tightly linked to this way of identifying God.
Before I go any further, let me say something about language. It is our tradition to refer to the persons of the Trinity using masculine monikers. And it’s not lost on me that we are talking about all this on Father’s Day.
While I’ve never heard anyone question Jesus’ gender (at least in his humanity), there is something inherently limiting in naming that one particular person of God “Father.” Dr. Timothy Tennent, President of Asbury Theological Seminary, explains that the scriptural declaration of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit refer to God’s character and nature, and not to biology. He says, “The point is to demonstrate, among other things, the personal and relational nature of God, the intimate relationships within the Trinity, and the divine foundation of family which is designed to reflect the Trinity.”[ii] Of course, that last phrase is where things get sticky. You see, Asbury is a very conservative United Methodist Seminary, and Dr. Tennent makes it clear that he as a traditionalist—not just this reference to the “divine foundation of family,” but also his insistence throughout the article I am quoting on referring to God with masculine pronouns. He unintentionally makes clear the stumbling block of language; when we cling to these traditional forms of language, we often put up walls that may prevent others from finding their identity in God.
I know how much we Episcopalians love language. And most of us have a deep understanding of God that does not include gender; we can say these traditional words and translate in our heads. But some people are not in the same place. I find myself very torn on this issue; I think that the most common substitute names for the Trinity (like Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, or Love, Lover, and Beloved) don’t ever quite get it right; so I usually employ the traditional words. But I always wonder if I am alienating any of you as I do so. If so, I apologize, and would very much like to have further conversation with you about the topic of gender-inclusive language for God.
Anyway, back to the theological concept of Trinity. Interestingly, this key piece of Christian doctrine is not explicitly set forth in scripture. We do have clues to it throughout the Bible. For example, today’s gospel reading from John illuminates some of the interworking of the three persons of God, when Jesus says of the Spirit, “He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you,” and then says, “All that the Father has is mine.” But it took hundreds of years of debate by early theologians to work out the theological understanding that, ever since, Christians have worked to grasp: That there are three persons of God, all sharing one substance.
I struggled this week even to identify what exactly we find confusing. I think that’s what is so hard about preaching about the Trinity: When faced with this question, we’re not sure what questions we are asking.
So I did some googling, and came across an academic paper from Professor A.P. Martinich of the University of Texas—written in 1978. He says, “…discussions [of the Trinity] mislocate the source of the problem, which is that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are somehow identical and yet not identical.”[iii] He goes on to show how this is simply not possible; pages of mathematical looking arguments that indicate that if x is identical with y and y is identical with z, then x must be identical with z.
He goes on to say that we may “be tempted to irrationality and claim…that God’s power is not limited by anything, not even the bounds of logical possibility,”[iv] and proceeds to make arguments trying to make the concept of Trinity logical. It was all lost on me.
Further googling led me to a journal article by Professor Daniel Molto of the University of York, published in 2017 (fresh theology!). He jumps into a discussion of how we thread our way between various heresies that arise when one tries to unravel the Trinity, and then goes on to discuss a theory of Relative Identity—using mathematical arguments similar to Martinich. Again, I got lost.
But never fear—the Internet is a seemingly endless well of source material. I next ran across an article by Travis Coblentz entitled, “The Trinity as a Response to our Identity Crisis,” on the website tacticalfaith.com. (Don’t you love that name?) He begins by explaining why identity is important: “Identity gives place, purpose, and meaning. It tells you where you belong in the world, what you should do, and why what you do matters.”[v] He explains the basics of Trinitarian theology, and then talks about what we can derive about our identity from looking at God’s. He says that we see that not even God is alone; God is in relationship with Godself in the three persons of God, co-equal to each other, and so we are called to relationship with one another as equals.
This idea really appeals to me. The Trinity models for us right relationship. Each person of the Trinity has a specific role, and each respects the work of the other. The theological term for this interworking of the Trinity is Perichoresis – one theologian has said, “Such is the fellowship in the Godhead that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit not only embrace each other, but they also enter into each other, permeate each other, and dwell in each other. One in being, they are also always one in the intimacy of their friendship.” Often perichoresis is compared to a dance where the dancers are in perfect sync with each other, working together as one beautiful unit.
Of course, the trick is figuring out how we put this model of perichoresis into action in our lives. Brother Geoffrey Tristram of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, the order of Episcopal monks headquartered in Boston, points to the way that the brothers follow this model, and how it is imbedded in the rule of life that the monks vow to follow. He says:
Our Rule guides us: ‘We are given to one another by Christ,’ we read, ‘and he calls us to accept one another as we are….’ When we understand every member as being called by Christ and formed by Christ, we can begin to relish those personal differences that might otherwise snag us as we struggle to work and live together. As the Rule puts it, ‘Mutual acceptance and love call us to value our differences of background, temperament, gifts, personality and style. Only when we recognize them as sources of vitality are we able to let go of competitiveness and jealousy.’ As we abide in Christ, we begin to see those who are different from us through the eyes of love. And we recognize what others are contributing to the whole of the group, even (or perhaps especially!) if they have different gifts from us, because we know that we are part of a body with them, made richer by their presence alongside us.[vi]
The Trinity indeed shows us how to appreciate our various gifts, and how to respectfully and joyfully relate to one another, especially in our differences. But there’s even more to gain. A couple of years ago I quoted to you one of my priest friends who was also struggling with the Trinity. She said this: perhaps “The Father is the one God we, in our limited ability to comprehend God, most readily perceive in the whole of creation; the Son is the one God we meet in one another; the Spirit is the one God we discover within ourselves.”[vii] In a similar way, I would like to suggest that the Trinity might also be the vehicle through which we see ourselves reflected in the created world: In the Father we see ourselves as part of the wonder of the whole creation; in the Son we see ourselves as part of human community; and in the Holy Spirit we see into our inner landscape—we identify with the true self within us.
The Trinity is a confusing concept, but perhaps we are just working at it a little too hard. This way of understanding God need not be a puzzle; it can help us locate ourselves in this immense universe, helping us see ourselves more fully. My friends, I invite you to open your eyes and your hearts to the mystery and the fullness of the Trinity. To dare to see yourself reflected in the three persons of God. To model your relationships after the beautiful dance of the Trinity. To know that, because you are made in the image of God, you have no limits. And to proclaim to the world, like little Henry, “That’s me!” Amen.
[i] https://www.today.com/video/broadway-star-ali-stroker-reacts-to-her-history-making-tony-win-61765189541, accessed 6/13/2019.
[ii] Tennent, Timothy. “Trinitarian Language and Gender.” https://timothytennent.com/2017/06/06/trinitarian-language-and-gender/, accessed 6/14/2019.
[iii] Martinich, A. P. “Identity and Trinity.” The Journal of Religion 58, no. 2 (1978): 169-81. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1201874, accessed 6/14/2019.
[v] Coblentz, Wm. Travis. “The Trinity as a Response to our Identity Crisis.” https://www.tacticalfaith.com/trinity-response-identity-crisis/, accessed 6/14/2019.\
[vi] Tristram, Br. Geoffrey. “Perichoresis and Our Life Together: A Dance of Mutual Love.” https://www.ssje.org/2015/06/15/perichoresis-and-our-life-together-a-dance-of-mutual-love/, accessed 6/15/2019.
[vii] The Rev. Canon K. Jeanne Person on Facebook, accessed 5/25/2013.