I’ ll let you in on a little secret: every time I preach or face a daunting or difficult situation I visualize the Trinity in prayer. I ask for God’ s protection on my left side and for Jesus to gird my right and for the Holy Spirit to wrap us together from head to toe in a protective red ribbon. Isn’ t that a beautiful image? And you know I don’ t visualize God as Michelangelo’ s ancient white-headed old man or Jesus as a bearded Middle-Eastern looking carpenter. They are simply Beings with a capital B two powerful, protective spirits who bind me in love.
When we processed into the sanctuary this morning we sang that astonishing giant of a hymn St. Patrick’ s Breastplate. The breastplate in the title refers to an ancient probably pre-Christian tradition of invoking supernatural help in times of trouble. But in the hymn, that ancient human response to vulnerability has been gloriously baptized. It begins with an invocation of the Trinity: I bind unto myself today the strong name of the Trinity – and then proceeds, through several verses, to invoke the reality of the whole extended community of creation: the angels and archangels, the saints and patriarchs, even the rocks and the sea. The climax of the hymn is an appeal to the biblical truth that all things hold together in Christ, without whom nothing was made. Then the hymn returns to the opening invocation:
I bind unto myself the name,
The strong name of the Trinity,
By invocation of the same,
The three in one, and One in Three,
Of whom all nature has creation;
Eternal Father, Spirit, Word,
Praise to the Lord of my salvation
Salvation is of Christ the Lord.
Two related convictions pervade the great hymn. The first is an exuberant belief in the reality of the Trinity, The Three in One, the One in Three. The second, inseparable from the first, is a sense of the Triune God’ s astonishing intimacy. God is God through a relationship of love. The father pours out the divine life to the Son, the Son speaks and embodies this life, and Spirit brings both together as an eternal gift of love to us. Creator, Son and Spirit are bonded as three gifts of love in one, a three-dimensional love story.
This is a love story that began at creation, out of nothing. In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, Let there be light; and there was light (Gen. 1:1-2). Throughout the Bible, creation is not so much a process that God began and occasionally intervenes in, but an ongoing relationship between God and all of the cosmos. And to say that light is created on the first day is to say that light is at the heart of life. It is the beginning of creation in the sense that it is the essence or center from which all life proceeds. At the heart of all that has life is the light of God. And the Trinity is nothing if it isn’ t light, light within light–just as a candle flame looks beautiful in the light of morning. Creator, Son and Spirit are the singular lights within the great general light of our existence. You may want to think of it as poetry within language, perhaps wisdom within experience, or marriage within friendship and love.* This is not to pretend that there are not also terrible darknesses deep within us and in the whole of creation. Rather it is to say that the light is deeper still and that it emanates from the love God.
Where are you and I in this dynamic flow of love? The first and great commandment tells us we are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, and with all our soul and with all our mind. We are to love God, and we are to love one another in God. God created us for communion with one another, and the highest expression of our love of God is how we dwell in the circles of care that make up our lives. The players in our three-dimensional love story are you, me and God. We are nothing without one another. We would not have developed into persons without others smiling us into smiling back, and talking us into talking, and loving us into loving. I experience this daily with my boys. Their little persons blossom each and every day with my tender coaxing. I say yes and Quincy says no.
Perhaps scripture from 1 John chapter 4 can better explain: Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’ s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit? (7-13).
But in our world, to act in love is more difficult, at times almost impossible. The life of love has been bitterly interrupted and broken down. Yet the mystery of the Trinity is the deepest response Christianity can make to the problems of suffering and evil in our world. The miracle of God’ s grace is that God has chosen not to be God without us. The whole cosmos comes into being within the mutual loving of the divine Three so that neither the glory nor the trauma of our world is remote from God.
I want to leave you with a story of Trinitarian love. I have a friend who at the age of 16 fell deeply in love with his high school sweetheart. She, too, fell deeply in love with him. Marriage was truly their means of living out the commandment to love God. They raised four fine children together in a marriage that lasted 56 years, until she died. My friend told me that they were so much of one being that he could be upstairs shaving and humming a tune and his wife would be downstairs washing dishes and humming the very same tune. They were extensions of each others, minds and souls. The light within this woman did not extinguish with her death; his love for her only deepened.
My friend was quite content as a widower. He gave back to God his most cherished gift and was happy to live in the memory of her love. But the Spirit was not finished with this 80 year-old man. Love has walked back into his life. He hasn’ t asked for it, hasn’t been waiting for it. But God is mysterious, and abundantly, gratuitously generous. My friend describes his blooming relationship with a widow his age as a dream–a dream in which he is suffused with an extravagant feeling that he had thought was forever gone from in life. The feeling, he says, is three things in one: It has power, it has newness, and yet it also has an ancient familiarity. In his new love, he has rediscovered his old capacity to have and hold that love.
Here is a man who in the coda of his life has been reminded of what he had lost – that the greatest love a person can experience on this earth echoes the structure of the Trinity. That is, two people in love, with that love sustained and elevated by a third presence – the presence of God.
The Lord our Creator, the Lord our Son, and the Lord our Spirit, is more constant and far more extravagant than we can ever comprehend. The Trinity is not really about what we know in our heads. Even though it is a fact. It is more about what we know in our hearts – a reality, a feeling, a crazy love that some-ehow binds us together as one.
*(Notion is from Marilynne Robinson’ s book, Gilead, pg. 119).