Holy Trinity C: What exactly is an Elephant?

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Sermon

Please pray with me:

Teach us your wisdom, O Lord,
that we may live wisely, not foolishly.
Open our minds to understand our place in the world,
that we may be proper stewards and caretakers
of this beautiful earth.
May your love and wisdom flow through us,
into this world of hatred and mistrust,
that we may sow the seeds of peace.
Illumine our hearts to the path of truth, Holy Spirit,
that we may celebrate the ways that lead to life. Amen.

Today is the first Sunday after Pentecost: Holy Trinity Sunday.  A day where many pastors attempt to describe the Holy Trinity to the people gathered to worship and hear the word of God.

No matter which religion is talking, it seems that there is significance to being able to describe one’s head of the community.  Especially when talking to other people who are not familiar with the inner workings of said religion.  And by ‘head of the community,’ I don’t mean the pastor, or the most vocal and change-creating, leader-type, person.

I mean God.

When we talk about Christianity, it becomes very important to be able to talk about God.  After all, we aren’t just a gathering of people who come together for nothing, right?  And to be able to talk about God, one has to be able to say that they know God, right?

I don’t know if we can say that we truly know God.  But it seems that if you look at the early existence of the church and the communities of faithful at that time, and continue to look through history until today, we have been trying to express our knowledge of God that whole time.  The very reason we have the creeds is because people came together as councils to decide together how Christians can best talk about God.

The Apostle’s Creed is a simple statement of belief; its original creation is commonly attributed to the Apostles, as inspired by the Holy Spirit.  The version we know and use with regularity now has changed and developed over time, but was first recorded in a letter to the Pope from a council in Milan: a gathering of Christians who wished to collectively create the means to profess the essence of the Christian system of belief.

Then there was a council of Nicaea in 325, and an additional council in Constantinople in 381, which brought us the Nicene Creed: created to assert the significance of difference between God, the Father, and Jesus Christ.  That is to say that this creed was developed to speak about the relationship between God, the Father and Jesus; that Jesus is divine and separate from God the Father.  This creed goes a little more in-depth about our beliefs about God.

It seems that we have become fairly clear about our understanding about God the Father and God the Son, but in each of these creeds we only devote a little time to God the Holy Spirit.

So, there was yet another gathering of Christians who created a third creed.  The big one: The Athanasian Creed.  This creed was created to address the equality of the three persons of God: Father, Son, AND Holy Spirit. It’s long, and we don’t recite it often, and it usually only gets talked about on Holy Trinity Sunday – which is today.

I could continue with this history lesson, but I feel like the only thing I would accomplish is convincing you, and myself, that it is yet another inadequate series of words that seeks to know God through our limited human capacities and speak about God using the same faculties.

And trust me when I say that it doesn’t help that the Athanasian creed is the only creed that also asserts what will happen to those who don’t believe.  The creeds are not, and should never be, about being right. The creeds are attempts to help us know God better – the creeds are about love and about experiencing God in life.

So, how does a person preach that without coming back to trying to describe the Trinity using an object like an egg or an apple or a hug?

A colleague of mine posted this on Facebook for other clergy types to have a look at while discussing how best to talk to people about the Trinity and about God in our lives.

She said that John Henry Newman preached the following on a Trinity Sunday: “[T]oday we celebrate not an act of God’s mercy towards us, but, forgetting ourselves, and looking only upon God, we reverently and awfully, yet joyfully, extol the wonders, not of God’s works, but of God’s own Nature. We lift up heart and eyes towards God, and speak of what God is in God’s self. We dare to speak of God’s everlasting and infinite Essence; we directly contemplate a mystery, the deep unfathomable mystery of the Trinity in Unity.”

Our God is one God, and exist as a community, a relationship, if you will, of three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have equal commonality.  And they also have unique qualities that make them distinct from one another.

Sounds a lot like a community of faithful, doesn’t it?

Sometimes the things that we believe about God are easy to understand, clear, and to the point.  Most of the time, however, when we begin to unpack and try to know God, we discover that there is a vast depth and breadth that, even were we to have eons, we couldn’t come close to knowing it all.

There is a story of a group of blind people “looking” at an elephant in a zoo, determined to know what an elephant is.  Each person can only see what they can touch, and so an argument ensues about what an elephant is. Each part of the elephant in one person’s hand has a quality different from the other.  I think the lesson of the story is what the blind people fail to grasp – the elephant is significantly larger than each individual, and collectively they describe the entirety of the beast.

In trying to understand God, I find the Trinity to be a beautiful reminder that God is vastly more than any one person can understand.  Truly, vastly more than the councils of Nicaea, Milan, Constantinople, or even the Apostles could fathom.

The Holy Trinity is a beautiful reminder that God holds the diversity of all creation together.

And it is in that diversity that we get a much better picture of God.  It is in sharing our stories of how God moves and breathes into our lives that we grow a collective vision.  We have developed multiple ways to describe the Trinity, and each of them useful to understanding how our fellow sisters and brothers relate to God and to the people around them.  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.  Birther, Nurser, and Companion.  God, beyond us, Christ, beside us, and Holy Spirit, within us.  All images that share and grow faith within each of us as we come together to worship and listen for the word of God among us.

So, rather than tell you how you can best describe the Holy Trinity in the span of this sermon, I would like to invite you to spend some time this summer thinking about the nature of church: a celebration of all that God was, is, and will be.  Take some time to think about how YOU understand how God moves and breathes in and around you.  Think about how you can talk about that experience with others as a way of knowing God and sharing God with the world.  Think about how hearing other experiences from those around you will help you to have a deeper understanding of who God, Three-in-One, is.

Today is a happy day of celebrating the mystery of One God, Three persons.  The Holy Trinity ever point us to relationship and the intent of community.

Let us pray,
Holy Trinity,
you have created all that is around us;
you sent your Word to bring us truth;
and your Spirit to make us holy.
Through them we come to know the mystery of your life.
Help us to worship you, one God in three Persons,
by proclaiming and living our faith in you.  Amen.


Sermon Inspirations

  1. Scott E. Hoezee. “True Confessions: The Athanasian Creed.” Reformed Worship. http://www.reformedworship.org/article/march-2011/true-confessions-athanasian-creed
  2. Karoline Lewis. “Trinity Talk.” Dear Working Preacher – Preach this Week.  http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4648
  3. Bosco Peters. “Trinity.”  Liturgy – Prayer Reflections.  http://www.liturgy.co.nz/reflection/606a.html

Today’s image is entitled “The True Trinity in True Unity” by Hildegard of Bingen.  You can find the image here, and more information about the artist here.  The image is public domain.

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