The Rev. Dr. Austin Leininger
Sermon of Trinity Sunday
11 June 2017
2 Corinthians 13:11-13
Over the past few years I have become more and more aware of and profoundly moved by the ancient and yet continual thread in our Christian tradition that has focused on God’s inherent relationality in the Trinity as a model for understanding our own relational nature as human people.
Four fourth century Eastern theologians known collectively as the Cappadocians were friends and siblings who are part of the ancient and mystical spirituality of the desert theologians. The oldest, Macrina, deeply influenced her family by her insightfully reflective faith and monastic spirituality. Her younger brother, Basil, who would become the renowned bishop, Basil the Great, next younger brother, Gregory, who would become bishop of Nyssa, and their friend, Gregory Nazianzus who would become archbishop of Constantinople profoundly shaped the early church’s understanding and articulation of the relational unity of God in the Trinitarian formulation of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that was ultimately canonized in the Nicene Creed in 381.
Today, as we celebrate the 1636th anniversary of the doctrine of the Trinity in Christian tradition, I’m grateful to my friend and teacher Jay Johnson for his recent book, Peculiar Faith, in which he drew attention to the Cappadocians’ mystical grasp of this concept that has been a source of mystery, conversation, and faith for millennia; and which, until I read his book, I had no knowledge of!
As Dr. Johnson described the Cappadocians’ contribution, “Rather than supposing that divine oneness resides in a substance, they argued that such unity emerges only from relation. To speak of a person at all in that ancient worldview is to speak of relationships, or the relational dynamics that actually constitute who a person is. Apart from relations, persons cease to be persons at all, and this, the Cappadocians supposed, must apply equally to whatever Christians mean by ‘God.’ More simply but no less profoundly, divine substance is relation.”
We can see this relationality, what another ancient Eastern theologian, John of Damascus, called “fluid dynamism that never sits still” at work in this morning’s reading of the creation story, in which God, from the very beginning, entered into transforming relationship with the “formless void.” God’s wind, or more correctly to the poetry of the text, God’s pneuma, ruach, or breath swept over the formless void of the waters of chaos, interacting with formlessness to bring out of it a relational creation born of breath, dialogue, and the wisdom of intimate care. Carefully laying each element of our ecosystem into place that would support higher life, the story demonstrates God in the dance of creation, intent on breathing God’s own breath into a world that would be an expression of God’s own love, care, and intimate devotion.
In terms that we can understand by our own experience of thinking, breathing, and speaking, Genesis describes to us the incomprehensible mystery of God bringing all matter and life into being. But even more poetically, it describes an intimate relationship from the beginning of time, between Creator made known in dynamic creative relationship of thought to breath to word, and Creation, manifested in the divine expression of that relational intimacy in the creative act, which we might best describe as love.
For us, as Christians, Christ is the manifestation of this intimate love between creator and creation as our triune God sought to know us as one of us. Enfleshed, humbled in love for us, Christ draws us into the divine dance, inviting us into relationship as instruments of bringing God’s desire alive in the world around us. As we celebrated in the story of Pentecost last week, we are suffused with God’s intimate relationality through the gift of the Holy Spirit. God dwelling within us as God’s own breath of life doubly enlivens us for the task of bringing God’s kingdom to life around us.
Paul speaks to our collective task as well as to our intimate connection to one another in his brief words from today’s epistle, exhorting the church in Corinth to unity, peace, and love. The kiss of peace serves as a reminder of the intimate passing between us, among us, and within us of the breath of the Spirit. And Paul’s familiar Trinitarian benediction further reminds us of the intimate connection within our incarnational call to action in continuing in Christ’s grace-filled ministry to spread the love of God to all with whom we share God’s breath of life, which is all of this creation still caught up in God’s divine dance.
I particularly appreciate the connection Paul alludes to in this reading between God’s relationality and our relationships with one another. When I was a teenager, a clergy friend described the trinity in terms of our relationship with our parents, and it has stuck with me for over twenty-five years! In so many ways our ever evolving and deepening relationship with God mirrors this most primary and fundamental relationship in our lives—the evolving relationship we share with our parents or those whom we look up to as in a parental relationship from infancy to adulthood. Our first stage of relationship with our parent-figures is one of total dependence. We rely on them to teach us the rules of life that will keep us safe and enable us to function in the world, we rely on their unconditional love to guide us and lovingly discipline us as we rebel and seek to understand ourselves and our place in the world. Our second major stage of relationship with our parent or parents happens somewhere between our late teens and our thirties—what we typically define as young adults in the Church today. In this stage, we finally recognize our parents as human, in the best cases as beloved teachers and friends who walk with us along our developing journey, as companions, and as providers of wisdom that we can actually appreciate. In our third stage of development, our parents are no longer a constant presence in our lives. They may have died, or we may simply not live close enough to see them or speak with them regularly. During this stage, our parent figures become an inspiration to us. Their wisdom has become a part of us, and we feel their presence constantly with us, even though we don’t see them.
In our relationship with God, we similarly experience God sometimes in terms of total dependence, sometimes in terms of companion and friend, and sometimes in terms of inspiration—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
It is an interesting experience coming back to this metaphor from my teens as a parent. As the father of three beautiful and amazing children, I find yet another layer to my understanding of God through this beautiful metaphor. I am certainly still in the first stage of my relationship with my children, our oldest, Marie, being ten, but even in this first stage of our developing relationship I have already had to completely reevaluate my understanding of this metaphor applied to the divine. At this stage of total dependence, which I previously saw as a more one sided relationship of God as parent, caring, guiding, and lovingly disciplining our faith as we grow into maturity in our faith, I now see the incredible mutuality that is involved in this stage of development with my children—the unabashed trust, the unconditional love, the gratifying comfort of knowing that with me, my children feel safe and loved, the wholehearted hugs, smiles, and laughs—this may be a stage of absolute dependence, but it is anything but one-sided as I come to understand a bit more of Christ’s raising up the faith of children as a model to aspire to in its openness, trust, authenticity, and grace. Being a parent is an exercise in being loved in much the same way God loves us, just as we learn to give the same kind of love in return. It is an exercise in cultivating some of those most important relational gifts of the spirit that allow us to open ourselves up to another being—to love them unconditionally, fearlessly, and heedless of the consequences, even knowing that (if we’ve done our job as parents) they will grow up confident, self assured, and ready to go out into the world without us. Yet, again, I can take hope in this same metaphor as I look forward to the next stages in the development of my relationship with my children—each now offering a much more complex, deep, vibrant, and living relationship reflected back on our relationship with God.
Of course, there are other metaphors, but essentially, the Trinity speaks to us of God as relational—whether in relationship with us as the humans God created as an outpouring of the inexhaustible abundance of God’s love, or as God in relationship with God’s own self. But whatever the metaphor that finds resonance within your own heart, when we strive to get to know God better, by contemplating the divine nature of the Trinity, by exploring the depths of our faith and seeking to define what we believe, by discovering where God reaches out to us and where we honestly sometimes just don’t have a clue, we embark on a spiritual journey that was started countless generations before us, and will continue on, countless generations after us. Ultimately, the Trinity is whatever, in your own encounters with God, reaches out to inform your heart and soul of what and who God is—in relationship, in essence, in states of being. It is a concept as concrete as the most common phases of matter in physics—liquid, solid and gas; as familiar as our own minds, bodies, and souls, as intimate as the relationship between us and our parents and our children, and yet as elusive as the ultimate reality of one God simultaneously existing in dynamic relational fluidity. It is a mystery that can best be approached by experiencing God and understanding with our hearts and souls something that cannot be attained by the simple application of logic. It is the gift of God meeting us where we are, revealing God’s self to us in as many ways and by as many means as we can comprehend, such that we can finally reach out and embrace God in return.
Christ’s words in today’s gospel recall for us the most common invocation of the Trinity—that done in blessing, and particularly in baptism. “Go forth,” he tells his eleven remaining disciples as his final words to them, “to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Beyond the invocation of the Trinity in blessing, what Christ is telling his disciples is specifically to go out and live the good news of their experiences of God.
Our call today is no different from the disciples call twenty centuries ago. It is the same as the call that brought the councils of the church together in unity to define their faith for the world. It is a call that draws us eventually away from our parents out into the world, and as parents, draws us into intimate relationship with our children. Just as the disciples were sent out by Christ in what we have come to call the Great Commendation, we too are called to live our lives as a testament to having come into the presence of the divine.
This Trinity Sunday, we are called as a Church to reflect on God’s relational nature as it mirrors to us the ways in which we are to live our own lives together in relational unity. We are called to remember the variety of ways in which God has been revealed to us, to embrace and treasure the ongoing relationship we are developing with God, and to go out rejoicing in God’s love, grace, and communion with all of creation.
Whether as Fathers, mothers, children, mentors, or seekers, may God give us the courage to live our lives as a testament to that intimate, divine, relational love.