Benediction Online

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Trinity Sunday: Glimpses of the Elephant
preached by the Rev. Donna Ross on May 18, 2008

This is Trinity Sunday – the one Sunday of the year when the main topic is a church doctrine, rather than a story from the Gospel. Trinity Sunday is well known to clergy as the day when the seminarian, or the youngest priest, may be asked to give the sermon so the pastor and the congregation can see if the preacher manages to escape heresy. (Perhaps, as the most recent priest on St. Ben’s staff, that role has been given to me today!)

We know from history that people in the early church sometimes came to blows over their understandings of the Trinity, and that many were expelled from the church – and worse – because their understanding was deemed heretical. We also know that a lot of books have been written over the years, attempting to tell what Christians mean by the Trinity. So many times Christians have tried to define the Trinity – but how can we really fully explain a mystery?

Our Scripture lessons today try to describe the mystery by telling stories. Genesis tells the story of God working in creation, and pronouncing it all good. The Psalmist describes the beauty of the night sky, reminding us of the times we’ve stood outside at night under the stars, wondering at the vastness of the universe is and how small we are, and wondering again – in all this immensity – that we exist at all, and that God cares for us. The Gospel tells a story of Jesus after his resurrection, meeting his disciples in Galilee and telling them to go forth into the world, teaching everyone they meet about the Good News of Jesus, and baptizing people in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

There it is again – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. How can we explain – how are we to understand – what the church means by this ancient and holy baptismal formula?

My husband Rob says that when we begin talking about the Trinity, we are like the blind men and the elephant. This is an old story from India, which became famous in the 19th century through a poem written by John Godfrey Saxe. Saxe’s poem begins

It was six men of Indostan to learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant (though all of them were blind),
That each by observation might satisfy his mind.

At the end of a long and very funny poem, the blind men conclude that the elephant is like a wall – or like a snake, or a spear, or a tree, or a fan, or a rope, depending upon whether they have touched the elephant’s side, tusk, leg, ear or tail. The men have a heated debate that is never resolved. In one version of the story, whole religions are built up on each man’s partial understanding: there’s a religion of the tree, a religion of the fan, a religion of the wall.

The poem concludes,

And so these men of Hindustan disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right and all were in the wrong.

So oft in theologic wars, the disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant not one of them has seen!

Of course, the story reminds us that reality may be viewed differently depending upon our perspective. And perspective, of course, depends on our own experience.

So what is our perspective? That is what each of us needs to decide for ourselves, thinking for ourselves, reflecting on our own spiritual experiences. Fortunately, in this day and age, and certainly in most Episcopal Churches, you are free to wonder about God and try to describe the mystery for yourself, without fear that you will be cast out of the church – and without fear that God will reject you if you get it wrong!

Here’s my own reflection on the mystery of the Holy Trinity. My thinking begins with a verse from the lesson I haven’t mentioned yet – St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. At the end of his letter, he bids them farewell and he writes, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.”

The grace of Jesus Christ – the Greek word Paul uses is charis: free gift. Paul and the first Christians remembered the man Jesus as a gift from God. Jesus’ gift was given to all who heard his teaching, received his healing, or knew his presence.

Is there someone in your own life that you have recognized as a gift? It could be a friend, a spouse, a newborn child placed in your arms... Have you ever met someone who felt like a gift, not only to you, but to the world? In my own life, that gift of grace came through Desmond Tutu, who spoke at my seminary. Afterwards we stood in his presence and were able to shake his hand - a moment I’ll never forget. That’s a little taste, I think, of how the disciples must have experienced Jesus. And that’s how I experience the man Jesus, when I read the gospels.

The love of God – the Greek is agape: showing love by action. "God is love," says the first letter of John. "Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another." Love is the deepest characteristic of God, our Father and Mother. Love is the defining characteristic of the authentic Christian community. The Christian God – the God preached and experienced in Episcopal churches – is not a God of judgment, a God of rejection, but a God of welcoming love. The Christian God embraces us all, just as the father embraced the prodigal son in Jesus’ parable.

Have you ever experienced the presence of love? It could be the love of a friend, a spouse, a child. But there is also the experience of Love beyond love, the Love that does not die, the Love that holds you fast forever. In my own life, that love has been experienced in churches where people, in spite of their hurts, forgive each other. That is the Love that cannot be killed ... that is the Love that lives at the center of the universe.

The communion of the Holy Spirit – the Greek is koinonia: binding together. As the old hymn tells us, “Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love. The fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above.” The Spirit of Jesus Christ binds us together in community.

Is there a time in your own life when you have known koinonia, the presence of the Spirit binding people together? In my own life, the awareness of the Spirit’s presence rises when I am singing in community. For me, music is an almost sacramental symbol of the Spirit of Christ; music brings us together and focuses on a common goal: to return God’s love to God, to love God’s world in his name.

Love is the badge by which Christ’s disciples may be recognized; love is the sign that they are God’s children. Love is the mark of the Church – and failure to love is a denial of the very nature of the church. Love comes to us as gift in Jesus the Christ; love lives among us in the community of God’s Spirit, the Holy Spirit; love binds us together through the embracing of a welcoming God.

If you have ever known the grace of Jesus Christ; if you have ever felt the love of God; if you have ever experienced the communion of the Holy Spirit – then you have walked around the elephant, and you have touched the mystery of God.


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