Trinity Sunday – RCLB
By Fr. Michael Cover
“For God so loved the world, that He gave his only-begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.” ~John 3:16
Greetings in the name of the Holy and Undivided Trinity!
Sometimes, to speak the truth is simple. “There is One God.” “You shall not steal.” These are statements that many people, past and present, Jew or Greek, Muslim or Unitarian, can agree on— statements which you might say, are relatively uncontroversial.
But sometimes, the truth is not simple. Sometimes, apparent simplicities on the surface, give way to complexities deep down. Sometimes, in trying to answer a seemingly simple question like, “Tell me about the God who saved you,” our words fail us; and what we want to say to those who don’t yet know our God requires a longer and more detailed story.
It is for just this reason that the Church each year dedicates a special feast to the mystery of God as Trinity. The Trinity has a reputation for being one of the most complicated and inscrutable doctrines of the church, and this week Episcopalian Facebook feeds were populated with memes bemoaning the difficulty of forthcoming sermons. One that caught my eye ran: “the Trinity is a mystery; you’re not supposed to understand it!” And true enough: if the Trinity is only evidence that God transcends our understanding, or a technical problem in the theological engine-room that shouldn’t trouble the average “user,” it is perhaps a doctrine better reserved for the universities, not for the pulpit.
But the Church’s claim this morning is that the Trinity matters to everyone; that it is more than a theological puzzle to be solved. The Trinity is the God we worship, as Isaiah beheld him in the thrice-holy vision. Better yet, the God who saves us from sin and eternal death is the Trinity. And again: we were not saved by a God who is not Trinity. How then shall we tell this story in a way that makes it relatable?
In 1993, a 5-year-old girl from Las Vegas, Nevada, named Chentyl Peterson was diagnosed with potentially fatal T-Cell lymphoma. Unless a bone marrow donor could be found, Chentyl would die. Thankfully, a match was found in a man named Terry Farrel, a “robust father of two” and firefighter from Long Island, New York. Terry gave his marrow to a little girl across the country, whom he had never met. The transfer was a success, and Chentyl was cured. She learned to ride a bike, went to school, played with her friends, and had a normal childhood. Eventually, her mother told her the story of what Terry had done for her; and one summer morning, wearing her favorite princess dress, Chentyl got to meet Terry. Not a dry eye in the room, when Chentyl walked determinedly with a child’s intuition over to her “nice man” and gave him a long, long hug, amid the flashing of cameras and news reels. Chentyl hoped that Terry would always be in her life. But that was not to be so. You see, Terry was a fire fighter from Long Island. And on the 11th of September in 2001, when two airplanes flew into the World Trade Center, Terry was unsurprisingly among the New York firefighters who responded to the call. That’s just the kind of man that Terry was. Terry gave his life that day trying to save others. At his funeral, Chentyl would reflect: “I want the world to know who Terry was.”
When someone has personally meant something to us, we want to tell others about them. How then shall we tell the story of the Trinity and let the world know the nature of the God who saved us? There is perhaps no better starting place than John 3:16, a verse that most children memorize in Sunday School: “For God so loved the world, that He gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.”
The mystery of the Trinity, the mystery of our own salvation from the fire, collapse, and wreckage of life, boils down to this one basic fact: that God is not and never was alone. He is a Father; he has a Son; and out of love for us, He sent that Son to save us. There never “was a time when He was not”, this Son of God; but just as God is Father from all eternity; so also, of necessity, his Son is from all eternity—otherwise, he would not always be the Father.
Because we believe this—that God is from all eternity Father and Son—we Christians, we Trinitarians, can say something about God that neither Jews nor Muslims nor Unitarians can say: that God had no need of us. Stay with me here for a moment. If God is one, and only one, then God curiously might need creation for a number of reasons—not least, in order to love and to be loved in return. The Trinitarian, by contrast, says that God was always relation, was always love, in the eternal love between the Father and Son.
Uniquely then, when the Trinitarian tells the story of her own creation, she must say: “I do not know why God created me; I only know that it was not because he needed to, or because his nature required it. Love he had, and that in abundance. No, he created me in total freedom; because, it seems, he delighted that someone like me should exist. Because he wanted me to share in something that He already had: love in relation to other persons.
Likewise, if the Trinitarian is asked “why” God has saved her, she must again reply: “I am not certain. God certainly did not need to save me, nor did I deserve it. All that I can say is that He willed to save me, out of love; but that love and that will remain a mystery to me.”
The mystery of our salvation, in other words, is something like the mystery of the character of Terry Farrell. Why was it that Terry Farrel placed his name on the national bone-marrow registry, such that he was able to save the life of Chentyl Peterson, although he had children of his own? Why was it, that as a husband and father of two, Terry Farrell risked and ultimately laid down his life trying to save complete strangers from the collapse at the world trade center. The only satisfactory answer to these questions is: Terry chose to. It’s just the kind of thing that he would do. It’s possible that the precise reasons for his giving his marrow and running into that collapsing building on September 11 were unknown to Terry himself. But the Trinitarian Christian will immediately recognize in his actions the image of the Triune God who loved us; the God who so loved the world, that he became flesh, became “bone of our bone” to love us; and when that life became imperiled, gave his life in place of ours.
This is what it means to say that God is Trinity. Even more amazingly, this idea of self-sacrificial love does not seem to be something that God came up with after-the-fact, as a last ditch effort when his plan for us had failed. It was, the Church tells us, in his nature—it’s just the kind of thing the Triune God would do.
One of my favorite images of the Trinity is the famous icon by Andrei Rublev. It depicts the story told in Genesis 18 of the three angels visiting Abraham and Sarah beside the Oaks of Mamre. While the elderly couple is busy preparing a meal for their guests, the three divine Persons sit facing one another around a table or an altar. A calf or lamb lies slaughtered at the center in a bowl—a symbol of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. Each person of the Trinity looks toward the other, rapt in a conversation before the dawn of time. Tracing the shape between their figures, one finds a chalice—a symbol of the eternal communion that they share; and of their life that will be poured out for many. We cannot hear what they are saying. But I would like to imagine the conversation ran something like this:
The Father says to the Son and the Spirit: “Let us make a human being in our own image.” To which, the Spirit says in reply: “if we do, we know that they will fall.” “That is true,” replies the Son, “but I will become a human being and pitch my tent among them; when they fall ill, I will die in their stead; all who believe in me will have eternal life with us; and I will restore the image they have lost, so that others may see it and believe.” Then the Father looks at his beloved Son and replies: “That’s very good. I am well pleased.”
Friends, this is the story of the Triune God who saves us: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is Him we see in the face of Terry Farrell. Let us pray that through our life of faith, others may behold Him too.