Sermon for Trinity Sunday 2017
If you have ever had the chance to see the night sky from a mountain top, or from the desert, or from an open plain it can truly be a spectacular thing. On my first trip to the Holy Land, I recall being on a bus travelling across the desert in Jordan and marveling at how amazing the stars and moon appeared. Everything just seemed so much bigger and clearer without the interference of city lights. I remember one of the lady’s on the bus marveling at how huge the moon seemed coming up over the horizon and how much closer it seemed. Her husband, who was something of a jokester, didn’t miss a beat. He said to her: “well, you know, we are a lot farther East.” For a moment his wife nodded in agreement and said: “oh yeah.” But then gradually you could see her expression change as she got more perplexed and exclaimed: “wait a minute, that doesn’t make sense!” To which the bus erupted with laughter.
For a moment it seemed logical that if you travelled in the direction of the horizon, anything rising just above it would be closer. It seems logical, until you remember that the earth is round and no matter how far East you go, the moon isn’t actually going to be any closer. It was a humorous reminder that our perception of the universe is always limited and frequently distorted by being simple humans riding around on this little ball we call earth. We certainly can’t see it all, nor can our minds grasp all of its mysteries. What can make perfect sense in one moment, can in the next seem foolish when we make a new discovery or remember a forgotten fact.
I think we understand that when it comes to the cosmos, a bit of humility is required. We must remember that the universe is infinite and we are merely human. There will always be more to it that we can possibly imagine.
Space has always been a part of my imagination. Like many people my age I grew up with both Star Wars and Star Trek (although I am a much bigger fan of Star Wars) so the fantasy of space travel and exploration has always been present in my life. I also grew up in a part of Florida known as the Space Coast. My hometown isn’t very far from Cape Canaveral and NASA, so I got to witness the American space program up close. From my backyard I could watch the Space Shuttle launch and be reminded that space travel was not just fantasy for television and film, but something that was real and truly possible. Sadly, I could also witness that it involved taking great risks, and that human errors and sometimes arrogance, could have catastrophic consequences.
I went to Christa McAuliffe Elementary School, which was named after America’s first teacher in space that was tragically killed in the Challenger accident. It was a constant reminder as a child that, although travelling in space may be possible, we humans are not the masters of the universe that we sometimes fantasize about being. We can scarcely leave the confines of our own little planet, much less explore galaxies far, far away. Perhaps someday we will, but even then, we will never, as finite beings, be able to fully comprehend, know or understand a universe, which is infinite. We can explore, we can appreciate, but we will never truly know its infinite majesty. As a kid I could lay outside and watch for meteors, but no matter how spectacular the night sky was or how much I could see, still I was only getting the tiniest glimpse of the cosmos; that which was visible from where I was standing on my little corner of the earth. But you know, the fact that I couldn’t completely understand or comprehend the cosmos has never kept me from appreciating the beauty of the night sky. The infinite size of the universe does not prevent us from exploring it, or even identifying truths about it; what it does do is remind us that we will always be creatures within it, and not masters over it. I think that most people understand that when we are talking about the universe, so why is it so hard to comprehend infinity when we are talking about God?
Today is Trinity Sunday, a day when we remember not a moment in the life of Christ, but our very understanding of God as we know him in Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Holy Trinity is a doctrine, which points to the primary ways in which we as the church have experienced God in our world and in our lives. Many find the Trinity to be a difficult doctrine and they feel compelled to reject it and the church which teaches it, because they cannot fully comprehend what it is trying to say, or the God which it is trying to illuminate. They treat it like a mathematical formula, something which must be understood in order to be useful or appreciated. Others within the church may accept it, but then ignore it, declaring it to be a mystery and never bothering to appreciate the true power that it has or the beautiful image of God that it paints.
I believe the doctrine of the Trinity is a gift to us, given by God. It is God revealing his majesty to us. To ignore it, would be akin to living our lives with our eyes always pointed down, never appreciating the beauty of the blue sky or experiencing the wonder of a falling star or a full moon. It is something that should inspire us; it should excite our imagination; and it should command our attention and respect, always reminding us of how finite and small we humans are. To think that we can ever fully understand or comprehend the Trinity would be like looking at one star and imagining that we have seen the universe. The Trinity is something that we should stand before in awe and wonder. It can challenge us; it can guide us. We may imagine the wonders that it conceals (as yet unseen by us) that may someday be revealed, but we must never fool ourselves into thinking that we will ever have mastery over it. This is after all, God we are talking about. We are talking about the force that created the universe: the sun, the moon and all the stars in existence. If we can conceive of a universe of infinite majesty, we dare not imagine God to be any smaller.
It is true that humans have had other ideas about God and other concepts of God, but I think they have all (on some level) failed by either making God too much like us or by making God too distant and abstract. The true power and gift of the doctrine of the Trinity is not that it clearly defines who or what God is; it is that it keeps us from defining God too narrowly. The doctrine of the Trinity keeps us from making God too small; it keeps us from making an idol that is easily understood or manipulated. With the Trinity there can be no my God or your God. There can be no God of this country or that country, nor can there be a God of this world or another world. With the Trinity there can be only one God of all creation. But, with the Trinity that God cannot be a merely distant and abstract force, but is a God that lives in intimate relationship with its creation, whose image can be seen reflected in his creation; not just existing beyond time, but acting within time as well, and doing so because of this bizarre force we call love. With the Trinity we can identify this God acting within his creation, but we cannot limit this God to his creation. With the Holy Trinity you cannot have a God that is small, distant, or disconnected.
Can I comprehend that? No, but I can worship it.
And that, after all, should be how we approach God: not in comprehension, but in adoration. We must use our brains in our worship of God, but we should never reduce God to that which seems reasonable or understandable. God is always bigger.
The writer and Christian apologist GK Chesterton once wrote:
“Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite… the poet only desires exaltation and expansion, a world to stretch himself in. The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.”
You can drive yourself crazy if your approach to the Trinity is merely to comprehend it. The doctrine of the Trinity has more poetry to it than logic. It isn’t easily understandable, but then when is love ever easily understandable? That is ultimately what this doctrine of the Trinity is all about: it is how we feeble humans have been able to identify the creator of the “Lights in the dome of the sky”: as a God that lives in relationship and love.
So think of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity as a telescope, or if you will, a spaceship: it is there to get your head into the heavens, not to get the heavens into your head.