As most of us know by now, it was not a given that I would end up in the church—on my way to being a priest no less. I wasn’t raised in the church; I’m not carrying on a family tradition or schlepping into adulthood a childhood habit. And if I wanted community and belonging, I could just as easily have joined a book club or a bowling team, or just spend Sunday morning hanging out with a good crew of friends. The Church does a lot of great things for the world, but I could have saved time by joining any number of community service organizations if that was what I was really after. I ended up here because I read the Bible; I read about a man on a cross suffering for the sins of the world. I read this man saying to me “If you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you will have life in you.” It became clear to me that this man offered to me something the world could never offer me. I could have all the friends, all the comfort, all the money and education, all the opportunities for good works the world could offer, but it would never be enough until I had the grace Jesus offered. And I went to the place where Jesus said that grace could be found—the Church that he founded. This church, the Church of the Good Shepherd, in fact. This congregation of people, this meeting in this room today, is God’s gift of salvation to me, to us, and to the world.
This mystery, that we must put all our trust, all our faith in knowing one person is inexplicable. No Jew would say that about Moses. Muslims forbid depictions of Muhammad precisely because you shouldn’t do that. Buddhists say “If you meet Buddha on the road, kill the Buddha,” because the important thing isn’t the teacher, but what he teaches. But for Christians, Jesus doesn’t show us the way. Jesus IS the way. Prophets point us to God. Jesus points to his own heart and says “I am life and resurrection. If you believe in me, you will never die. If you die, you will be alive because of me.” We Christians think the truest life, the only way to obtain the one pearl of great price is to give up everything for the sake of this man, with nothing left over for anything else. We have to really burn our boats behind us to follow him.
This is the mystery of the Trinity. The Trinity is not a mere dry doctrine that we can ignore so long as we are moral. There are plenty of petty-fogging lines of doctrine that, while important in their own right, aren’t central enough to get their own festival. We Episcopalians set aside a Sunday every year, Trinity Sunday, to affirm this point of belief that holds our faith and life together. We don’t set aside this Sunday just because we love abstraction and obscurity. Though I went to seminary, I really like abstraction and obscurity! We do this because without the Trinity, everything we do here falls apart into vague moral aphorisms and quaint ceremonies. The Trinity is our assertion that Christianity works, is true, and is important. The Trinity is the mystery that Jesus saves us, and in saving us he brings us into the eternal life of God.
However, it must be noted that while the word “Trinity” is an affirmation of the Christian life, it does not actually explain what God is. Non-Christians who look confused when the word Trinity is dropped as an explanation are perfectly right to look confused. How our One God can be three persons is a mystery. Though to call it a mystery is not to say that there is nothing to be said about God. The great gift of Jesus is that this God, who is so far beyond our understanding, has entered into our lives and offers a new community where God the Holy Spirit dwells.
Though this Trinity is a mystery, there have been attempts to explain it through analogy. These analogies shouldn’t be taken too far of course, but they can get us thinking in the right direction. I will offer just one of these analogies to you today, which comes from St. Thomas Aquinas—the analogy of love, because it shows what this great doctrine means for how we live our lives.
We start with one of the greatest affirmations of the Bible. God is love. God, Our Father, loves the world so much, that he pours himself out to us in Jesus. “Pour out” is exactly the word St. Paul uses to describe God’s love for us. The Greek word is kenosis. To pour out, or empty out. This kenosis is so complete, that we have in Jesus the whole of God’s self. In Jesus, God not only wholly lives, but lives wholly for us. This is God the Son, the second person of the Trinity.
God the Son lives for us by becoming one of us. As a human being, he pours himself out to God the Father not only to save us, but because that is what it means to be most truly human. To be human is to be made by God and to have joy and gratitude for that gift of life. This joy and gratitude, this kenosis between the Father and the Son, is love itself. It’s God, the Holy Spirit. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, rejoicing in unity through all eternity. God gives this Spirit to the Church, and when we truly love each other and live in Christian fellowship, we know God is in our midst.
I offer three points of reflection on this analogy today. One, God is love, but love is not necessarily God. The emphasis is on God, not on love, otherwise “Love” really does become an obscure abstraction. This love is very specific and concrete! We know what the truest sort of love is by knowing God. Which is why we take time from preaching about love to preach about what sort of God we have on Trinity Sunday. We do it to remind us why we love and how we love.
Two, this love is “Kenosis” Emptying. The Christian account of love is to love God so total that we “empty ourselves.” We offer all that we are in joy to the One who made us. And when we’ve done that, there is nothing left but to love our neighbors as ourselves, because there is nothing left to distinguish between me and my neighbor. There is no self-interest left in kenosis. If Jesus is true, if he saves us all through his faithfulness, we are all the same before God.
Finally, the Trinity is why the Christian life begins with accepting the grace of Jesus. We live because God is in our lives, and in Jesus God lives in us. No account of human existence that doesn’t acknowledge that grace is entirely compatible with the Christian faith. This doesn’t mean only the Church can be saved—Jesus lives in the Church, but he lives in the Church for the whole world. When we gather in the Church, when we celebrate the Eucharist today, we point our hearts and point the whole world to the saving presence of Jesus who offers his very self as food to sustain us. The Trinity is God for us, who invites us into this eternity in which God gives himself, and rejoices forever in this self giving. Amen.