May 26, 2013
Donna G. Joy
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31, Psalm 8; Romans 5:1-5; John 16:12-15
We heard this morning that Paul has said in his letter to the Romans that we are to“…boast in our suffering, knowing that suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.”
Well, many of us might argue that sometimes suffering produces endurance and character, but sometimes – maybe even often times - not. Suffering is not something to romanticize and we must never allow this passage to encourage us to do so. Suffering does not make people more beautiful and rarely more noble. If you are one of the people who has lost your home, or loved ones as a result of the tornado that recently devastated a suburb south of Oklahoma City, or if you are sitting in this place of worship today, with anxiety and desperation about any number of things, it will likely seem unreasonable to be asked to boast in that suffering, and offensive to say, “Aren’t you lucky to be developing such endurance and such character?” So, the question is will those who suffer today find endurance, character and hope as this passage suggests? Well, I don t know, but it is more likely to be found in those who do not suffer in isolation; for those who do not suffer alone.
It is clear to me that Paul has neither glorified suffering nor trivialized it. He neither highly recommends it, nor pretends that it is easy. He is writing to a Christian community that is experiencing profound suffering, and is offering a teaching that is to help them not only get through it, but to rise above it. He is, in effect, saying that endurance and character is found in God, and it is there and only there, where we discover hope.
Chapter five in Paul’s letter to the Romans is a key chapter where Trinitarian language is clearly recognized and seen as critical in the face of suffering. Here we see the three persons of the Godhead/Trinity united by love, and extending that love to / in / with each of us so whatever suffering we may endure in this life, we are never alone. Through Jesus we are reconnected inextricably with God, and through the Holy Spirit we are sustained and empowered. Here we see that we are offered peace with God through Jesus, whose love has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. With this gift working in and through us we share in the glory of God come hell or high water – that is, no matter what terrible things we may endure.
It seems the effort of the first Christians to describe their experience of God in spite of or perhaps in the midst of suffering, led them to Trinitarian language.
Scripture never uses the word Trinity yet it has been at the heart of Christian doctrine since the Council of Nicaea in the 4th century. Differing interpretations have created serious debates throughout the centuries ever since and still today it remains the most debated teaching in the church, and the hardest to understand. Augustine remarked, “… anyone who tries to understand the Trinity is in danger of losing her mind.” It is my firm conviction that these debates are a result of viewing the image of the Holy Trinity in ways that are literal, when in fact it is highly/deeply nuanced.
You have heard me say that Trinity Sunday, for me, is one of the most difficult Sundays on which to preach. I struggle with it because whenever I have attempted to use various illustrations to define how we might envision the Trinity, I feel as though I have somehow minimized the enormity of its power and mystery. And when we really think about it this is inevitable, because who the Trinity is tends to be so rich with possibilities, a truth infinitely beyond our ability to comprehend, a love so embracing and empowering, we do better – in the words of Marva Dawn - to esteem than to explain. So now, after too many years of attempting to explain and illustrate, I have reached a place where I am more likely to adore the Trinity instead of analyze.
Years ago after working on a project with the National Church, one of my co-workers presented me with a gift. He had been raised in the Russian Orthodox Church and central to his family’s spiritual devotions was an icon of the Holy Trinity by Andrei Rublev, and it was a copy of this icon that was his gift to me. Now, years later, after having spent much time reflecting on this icon, I recognize it as an image that has allowed me to enter more deeply into the mystery of divine life that is found in the Trinity. Certainly, much more so than all my doctrinal and illustrative sermons and studies.
I shared Rublev’s icon with you three years ago on Trinity Sunday, and as some of you have asked that I share it with you again, I decided that the time to do this is now. Looking at and reflecting upon this powerful depiction of the Trinity is like entering into a whole new place, and I’ll say right up front that one of my primary tour guides who has walked me through this magnificent new place is Henri Nouwen in his book, “Behold the Beauty of the Lord: Praying with Icons”.
First and perhaps foremost, this icon is an expression of God’s House of Love. Three separate figures, yet bound together in an inexplicable and deeply moving way. We all know what it is to experience the day to day fears and anxieties associated with everyday life, I suspect most of us know the experience of feeling lost, but in this icon we are able to discover our true home, which is God’s House of Love. No matter what we may experience we can trust that this House of Love is always there in which to dwell and be loved and embraced.
Andrei Rublev painted this icon not only to share the fruits of his own meditation on the mystery of the Holy Trinity but also to offer his fellow monks a way to keep their hearts centered in God while living in the midst of political unrest. They were suffering, and it was hard, but this icon was a reminder that they were not alone. They were, instead, in community/communion with God’s Household of Love and it is in this place where they would find hope. And, indeed, the more we look at this holy image through the eyes of faith, the more we may come to realize that it is painted not as a decoration for a convent church, not as a helpful explanation of a difficult doctrine, but as a holy place in which to enter and stay and discover hope. As we place ourselves in front of the icon in prayer, we come to experience a gentle invitation to participate in the intimate conversation that is taking place among the three divine beings and to join them around the table. So, from this holy House of Love, the mystery of God is revealed. It is a visual expression from left to right, of the Trinity: the Father/Mother/Parent; the Son/Child; the Holy Spirit.
I urge you now to look at the image of God the Father/Mother/Parent (the image on the far left). First, he/she is wearing a golden blue robe representing divinity, covered with a multitude of colours in a kind of fabric that changes with the light, that seems transparent, that cannot be described or confined in words. This speaks of the fact that no one has seen this Heavenly Parent, but the vision of this Divine Being and his/her far reaching love fills the universe.
The Heavenly Parent looks forward, raising his/her hand in blessing to the Son. It is impossible to tell whether he/she looks up at the Son or down to the chalice on the table, but his gesture expresses a movement towards the Son. This makes me think of those times in the Gospel stories when we heard the Heavenly Parent say, “This is my Son. Listen to Him.”
Over the head of the Heavenly Parent is his/her house. This house is our one true home. This house is the beginning and the ending of our lives. Its roof is golden. Its door is always open for the traveler; to enter, or to take leave. It has a tower and its window is always open so that the Father can continually keep an eye on the roads for a glimpse of any one of us returning home after having lost our way. This is a heavenly Parent whose Presence and Love is expansive and limitless and who is blessing his/her Son to become a sacrifice for us. I don’t know about you, but it is difficult for me to comprehend such a quality of love.
Now move your eyes over to the figure in the middle: the figure of Jesus. Jesus has the deepest colours: a thick heavy robe that is reddish brown, that is, the colour of earth into which he was born and on which he lived and walked and taught and loved and healed and prayed and died.
He also wears a fabric that is the colour blue, reminding us that in his person he unites heaven and earth; in his person there is no separation between heaven and earth. And over his right shoulder there is a band of gold, indicating that his divinity suffuses and transfigures his earthly being.
Above the son there is a tree; a reminder of the tree on which Jesus died; that is, the tree of death which becomes the tree of eternal life. The tree in this picture is one that is growing. Because of the sacrifice of Jesus on this tree, the tree of death has been transformed into a tree of life for each of us. Jesus’ eyes are focused in the general direction of the Father/Mother. A reminder, that Jesus’ whole life was focused on the will of the Heavenly Parent.
The Son also rests two fingers on the table, laying onto it His divine and His human nature. Some say he points to a cup of wine, others see in that cup a portion of slaughtered lamb; either way, it represents his sacrifice on our behalf.
Now move your eyes over to the figure on the far right: that of the Spirit. This person of the Trinity is wearing a robe that is the colour of a clear blue sky, wrapped over with a robe of a fragile green. So the Spirit of creation moves in sky and water, breathes in heaven and earth.
All living things owe their freshness to this touch. This same Spirit breathes within each of us – empowers us to partner with this Trinitarian God.
Behind this figure is a mountain. Mountains are places where people often encountered God; places where heaven and earth seem to touch. (Remember for instance, the story of the transfiguration.) So, here in this picture we see the movement of life: beginning with the Father/Mother/Heavenly Parent who sends the Son; and the Son who sends the Spirit.
The table or altar is situated at the centre of the picture. It is at once the place of Abraham’s hospitality to the angels, and God’s place of hospitality to us. And that ambiguity lies at the heart of communion, at the heart of worship. As soon as we open a sacred place for God to enter, for God to be welcomed and adored, it becomes God’s place. It is we who are welcomed; it is we who must ‘take off our shoes’ because of the holiness of the ground.
Contained in the centre of the circle, a sign of death. (Once again, some say a portion of lamb; others say a cup of wine.) But whichever it may be it speaks of the Son of God’s sacrifice made for us. It speaks of the holy meal brought to the table. It all points to this space, this mystery: within it, everything about God is summed up and expressed, God’s power, glory, love. And it is expressed in such a way that we can reach it because the space at this table is on our side.
We are invited to join the group at the table and be together with them. We are invited to complete the circle, to join the group, to complete the movements of God in the world by our own presence and response.
Below the altar a rectangle marks the holy place where the relics of the martyrs were kept in a church. And, it invites us to come into the depth and intimacy of all that is represented here. It invites us to enter into this, our one true home.
This is a powerful imagine of the Trinity; a way of entering into relationship with the Trinity rather than studying its complicated and controversial doctrine. The powerful, ever present love of the Father/Mother/Heavenly Parent; the self sacrificing love of Jesus, and the enduring/empowering presence of the Spirit. One God; three separate and distinct persons. Living in community with one another, each complimenting one another’s gifts. Early mystic Hilary of Poitier said of God, “Though God is one God is not solitary.” And all this love extends out to each of us – there is a place for each and every one of us at the table. Here in this icon we see a loving, expansive, self sacrificing, inclusive, ever watchful, communitarian God whose Spirit empowers us to endure all the suffering of this life. And it is in this Household of God’s Love where we are empowered to endure the pain and suffering of this life. It is in this Household of God’s Love where we find hope.
We function best when we live in full communion with the Trinity and one another. The Trinity is the wellspring of a new humanity and we are reminded that this ‘Household’ at St. Peter’s is an extension of God’s Trinitarian Household of Love. And, as the Godhead – Heavenly Parent; Son; Holy Spirit - live in creative harmony with one another, we are called to live and love in this same way.
This is the gift that gives us endurance and character and hope. Indeed, suffering exists, and at times it is really, really hard. But enduring those challenging times, discovering character and hope in the midst of them, is made possible through joining with each other at the table together with this Trinitarian Household of Love: That is, our one true home where the door is always open , where we discover God’s expansive, limitless love, and where each person of the Trinity is inextricably joined and inviting us to complete the circle.
Two weeks ago we were reminded of Jesus’ prayer in which he prays that in the midst of all their trials his disciples may all be ‘one’. Trinity Sunday, in a way, completes that prayer. In the midst of all humanity’s trials Jesus calls us to find endurance, character and hope in our oneness with each other, rooted in communion with this Household of Love. In the words of Henri Nouwen, “We need the Trinity as a way to realize God’s increasing desire for intimacy. At first God was the God for us, our protector and our shield. Then when Jesus came, God became the God with us, our companion and friend. Finally, when Jesus sent his Spirit, God was revealed to us as the God within us, our very breath and heartbeat.”
Indeed, let that Trinitarian expansive expression of love bathe us and move us ever closer into the heart and household of God.