The Rev. Canon Dr. William J. Danaher, Jr
June 11, 2017: Trinity Sunday
(This sermon has been transcribed from live video. Please click here to watch a video of this service.)
Late this past week, I had one of those moments in which I was reminded why God put me on this earth. God put me on this earth for reasons that I’ve never fully understood or maybe fully reconciled myself to, God has called me to be a priest. And to be a priest, is to be with people in the midst of some deep change in their lives, in the midst of tragedies, and joys.
This week I was with a family that had lost their son at 16 years old. The family was from away, and so I met them as soon as they got off the plane. And I walked through them the entire day, as they were going through all of the motions you do when someone passes away, up to the point of seeing their son at the funeral home. And in the midst of going through all of that, I drew upon the deepest resources I have in the Christian faith.
It seemed right to me to draw upon a Jewish practice that the disciples followed when Jesus himself died, and was crucified, and was laid in the tomb. I pulled out the oil that I had with me, and I anointed him on his forehead, “In the name of Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” And then I invited each member of the family to come, and dip their finger in that holy oil, and anoint their son, and their brother, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
This seemed right to me because I wanted to bear witness to a powerful truth. And to make that statement, and to bear witness to that powerful truth, I had to lean in to the words we read today in the Gospel of Matthew that Jesus tells his disciples, “To go into the world, and to baptize in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and Lo, I am with you always even to the end of the age.” And so I had to walk this week into the deep presence of God. And I had to walk with the confidence that God was present with me. And that I was God’s presence in that moment. I had to walk into the fullness of the Trinity in the fullness of what we proclaim.
I realized yet again, and there’s no time, you could always learn this again, and again, and again, that when we are standing with God, we are standing and affirming our commitment to life. And we are turning away from the power of sin and death. And we are proclaiming life and truth and peace through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. That is what it means to be a Christian to bear witness. That is what it means for us to proclaim the Trinity today.
Today is Trinity Sunday. And for too long people have seen this as an opportunity for an exercise in Christian esotericism, and speculative theology. Too long have Christians tried to describe the doctrine of the Trinity as if they could answer the question of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. But to proclaim the Trinity is to make a fundamental statement about who God is in Jesus Christ. And who we are together empowered by God the Holy Spirit. And it is to make a decision to walk with God, and to affirm all that God is for us, and for this world. It is a life and death decision.
And we see that in our readings for today because you know in the gospel of Matthew, there is that moment, that moment in the text when many people walk by it. They just move past it where you hear that of the 11 disciples, that some doubted when Jesus came upon them, and when they worshipped him, and when Jesus commissioned them. Some doubted. And that is to remind us that you and I have a choice of whether or not to stand for life, or to stand with death. You and I have the choice to make each day in our lives. And to stand with life means that we can face death knowing that Christ has defeated death. And that the power of God in this world, is stronger than the power of anything that opposes it.
And we see this also in our reading from 1 Corinthians, which ends this wonderful letter in which Paul is trying to admonish a congregation that struggles with conflicts over money, and sex, and power. You all probably can’t relate to that. And Paul finishes his letter, having written it in many forms over the years with the final blessing, “Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. The love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”
For Paul to affirm the doctrine of the Trinity means that the people of Corinth, and the church in Corinth would step into that unity, and community that is God. For the doctrine of the Trinity is that God is both one and three. There is a deep relationality in God that has been revealed to us through Jesus. A relationality that is completely personal. And wonder of wonders, you and I through our belief, through our words, through our lives, through our actions, through our hearts, you and I have been invited into the love of God. And the Spirit of God dwells in us. That is what it means to be a Christian. That is what it means to affirm God as a Trinity of persons.
And here again, the people of God have a choice to make in 1 Corinthians. “Finally, brothers and sisters,” he says, “Put things in order. Listen to my appeal. Agree with one another. Live in peace, and the God of love and peace will be with you. Choose again,” Paul says. “Whether you stand with life, or you stand with death. Whether you accept the life and love that God is offering you, or whether you will resist it, you can’t thwart it and that love and life will always be victorious. But you can rebel against it. So what will your choice be?,” Paul asks.
And for those of us who live in a human church, for those of us who live human lives, when we are affected by very powerful forces in our world, and when we experience conflicts all around us, within and without, you and I have the choice. Do we lean into God? Or do we turn away?
And finally, even in our incredible long passage from Genesis of the first creation narrative, you can find a clear message of the Trinity. The earliest interpreters of this passage saw in that wonderful turn of phrase, “Let us make humankind in our image.” The early Jewish commentators believe that that was an invocation, and a reminder to people that God was operating and speaking to a divine counsel before God created the world. This was the Jewish interpretation of that passage.
And early Christians, who proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior when they read these scriptures as their own, saw in that, a deeper counsel, not merely between divine beings, but between one God who was yet three persons. And they saw in that passage from Genesis, an image of the Trinity, and a promise of the Trinity, and the fact that God speaks creation into existence. And so there you had an iteration of the Word, who would then become the Word made flesh. That is Jesus. And the Spirit of God is found in those wonderful moments in which the wind rushes over the waters, and hovers over creation filling it with breath.
And in the second creation narrative, just after this in the scriptures, we see that wonderful promise of the Spirit when God takes humankind, and forms Adam from the clay and breathes the breath of life into the figures. And here again, you have a choice, implicit in those words of scripture. Because both Jews and Christians believed that the seventh day, the Sabbath, God was at rest. And there was a sense in which God is already at rest. God’s creation is already in the midst of unfolding. God is at rest. God is at peace.
The world you and I live in, the world that God has so courageously, and vulnerably entered into as His Son and Spirit, this world is full of restlessness. This world is full of conflicts. This world is part and parcel of all of the things of history, which will wind themselves down. But it is God who sits already into rest. And you and I are invited to enter that rest prayerfully, and gloriously by the lives we live. We can find our rest in God, or we can still be restless. The choice is yours and mine.
So when we say that God is Trinity, we are not dealing with something that is mysterious. Though it is a mystery. We’re not dealing with something that is far away from our concerns because it concerns the here and now, and how you and I relate to one another, and to God and to this world. When we say that God is Trinity, we are aligning ourselves with God’s purposes and God’s will. And we are asking God to fill us. That is what is at stake. That is what is at stake today.
And I don’t want this to crowd out this wonderful celebration known as Kirkin’ O’ the Tartan. Because truly that is an incredible celebration today. But it is interesting to note that even here you can find embedded in that festival, the mark of the Trinity. Kirkin’ O’ the Tartan began either in 1941, or 1943, we don’t entirely know for sure, in New York Presbyterian Church by a Minister called Peter Marshall. He wanted to create this festival that could somehow communicate a very different vision of the world than was being advanced at that time by the area, and ideology of Nazi Germany.
And so where that area and ideology placed a people, and a folk at the height of creation, Peter Marshall articulated a vision of ethnicity that was subordinate to God. So that when the clansmen come in, and surrender their tartans for the blessing of the church, and when that sword is placed on that altar, that is meant to signify a different understanding of what it means to be a people.
We will not be complete by somehow creating a world in which the folk rule, a people rule. We will become reconciled only by placing God above our people. And when we place God above who we are, and all of who God has created us to be, we treat the gifts of ethnicity, and our heritage, and our deepest resources as the gifts that they are. As ways to reveal to us what it means to be fully human.
I offer you two images today. The first is the well-known triquetra. And I don’t have that for you because you see it everywhere when you look at any kind of Scottish thing. It’s that triangle that’s swirling. You see it on Scottish writings. You see it in the art in architecture, and you sometimes see it on tattoos that people wear. A lot of tattoos, in fact, seemed to have gone that direction. Not that I have made a major study of the area.
And what that symbol is meant to provide for us is this vision of God as love. That God is to be found, not in one position, but into the relation that exists between them. And so you and I, the wonder of wonders, you and I have been invited to enter that relationship of love. And the questions is whether we want to enter it.
The second image I have for you today is actually the one remaining extent image of the Trinity that is to be found in Scotland. This is the Trinity Altarpiece, and it’s currently at the National Gallery of Scotland, but it’s also, I think, it was part of a college chapel in Edinburgh, originally. And in it, you have this vision of God as Trinity, and then you have these other figures from Scottish history. And let me see if I could walk you through it, so you can see just how profound the message of this panel painting is.
On the far left, you have Jesus, and the Holy Spirit and God. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit depicted in a very classical pose with a wounded Christ being held by a loving Father, and a Holy Spirit flying out. Almost dangerously, as if you would want to shield your arms and your eyes. One of the early depictions of this whole painting was the bird. And I think it may be have been for the Holy Spirit coming right at you. But there’s a profound statement in this. And that in many other images that paint these figures in this way, this one has God the Father looking exactly like God the Son. And that is to convey to us the point that Jesus is the image, the perfect image of the Father. And the Holy Spirit is flying out to gather the world to God’s self.
And over to the right of that wonderful image on the left, you have the Dean of the Cathedral where this painting was placed. And he’s at prayer, and he is surrounded without knowing it, by two angels praying with him. And again, you have another Trinity that is echoed here, and the reminder that whenever we walk, we never are alone when we walk with God.
And over to the right, you have Edward III praying at his prayer desk, being overlooked by St. Andrew with a cross and his son, Edward IV watching on. And finally to the right, you have Margaret of Scotland, who is originally from Denmark. Queen Margaret, and you have St. Michael, the Archangel watching over her. Now all of these depictions are a promise of God’s presence in a world that is uncertain, in a world in which there was violence, and death, and decay.
I don’t know how the cleric ended his life, whether it was good, or ill, but we do know, history knows how Edward III, and Edward IV ended their lives. Edward III died in battle with forces that had aligned with his son, Edward IV. And Edward IV himself died in battle as the last king, the last monarch to be slain in battle because he insisted on leading his troops from the front. And Margaret, Margaret was poisoned in Stirling Castle. Margaret was 30 years old when she died. Edward III was 36. Edward IV was 40. All of them suffered, and yet all of them found, or are found in this painting as participating in a larger love in life.
And the final message of this painting, which conveys a meaning which I think is incredibly profound, can be found in this. The Spirit leaves, and is going out. And there are three persons to be found in each panel except for this on the left. And that I think is because it’s naming one more third person in the painting. You see you have Margaret, and you have Michael the Archangel, and you have the viewer. You are the third person in this portrait.
What will you bring to the worship of God today? In what ways can you say yes to the force of life in you? In what ways can you stand for Christ, and stand against the powers of sin and death? In what ways can you be a light in presence of God here and always? These are the questions we ask today. May God give us the grace to answer them.