The liturgical calendar calls this Sunday "Trinity Sunday" -- a day set aside to "celebrate" the unique triune character of our God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is that very weighty subject that everyone wants to understand, but no one can explain.
Should we really say, "Celebrate" or should we say, “stumble over?” The complex theological doctrine of the Trinity has always managed to leave scholars somewhat frustrated and the faithful somewhat confused. Trying adequately to express the mystery of a God who is Three-in-One and One-in-Three tends to leave us tongue-tied. It is the first Sunday after Pentecost, and the feast day devoted to a central doctrine of the Christian faith. I want to remind all of you, Christians and others among you, that “doctrine” is an essential expression of a believer’s faith. It is very easy to think of the Christian faith as a lovely story about Jesus, or as a historical phenomenon involving God, or a series of ethical or social precepts, or even as an aesthetic and cultural experience. All of this is part true and part of the whole truth, but none of it can or must be used to avoid the fact that there is content, form, and substance to the Christian faith, a content that does not descend upon our assent for its validity, and without which our “assent”, whatever that may be, means very little. I think one of the important reasons for talking about the Trinity today is to help you think about the Christian faith as having a content that forces you not simply to act, which is easy, nor to feel, which is even easier, but to think. To open your minds and use your imaginations and wrestle with the implications of what you find as you think about the nature of God, as you imagine for yourselves the largest possible canvas; or the big picture. Symbols for the Trinity include a circle inscribed within an equilateral triangle. Actually, during the first eight centuries of Christian art, the image of the triangle for the Trinity was not widespread -- although on one of the gravestones in the catacombs there is a triangle in which the monogram of the name of Christ was placed.
The three persons were often represented in art, but they were shown separately. The first time they seem to have been placed together was in the fourth century, and that representation consisted of "the Hand, the Lamb and the Dove".
Some of the best attempts, however, have come exactly when we seem to be grasping at straws. Many of us have grown up gratefully with St. Patrick's cloverleaf image of the Trinity -- three leaves making up one clover leaf. Most find that to be the easiest to understand and accept, but it too falls far short. Here is another attempt at understanding the Trinity.
Remember as child playing with mercury when you were in grade school? Mercury is an unusual metal because it remains in liquid form at room temperature. This makes it both highly useful and potentially quite dangerous.
In elementary school there was a period of time when some of us started bringing small pill bottles to school with a few drops of liquid mercury swimming around in the bottom. During the duller parts of class, we would empty the contents of our bottles into the little craters on the desks that were designed to hold pencils. While the teacher droned on, we amused ourselves by taking the points of our pencils and dividing the large, single mercury bead into dozens of tiny little balls that shimmered and skittered on the desktop. Most amazing of all was that simply by rolling the small drops back to touch each other, they were all reabsorbed back to re-create the one large, silver ball.
The liquid mercury existed both as those separate beads and as that unified mass. When considered as one, it was seamless and whole, perfectly round and stable. But it also existed as those separate identities, themselves completely independent and with their own character.
Might this give us some hint into the workings of the triune God? God is whole, fully formed and diamond-perfect; not some piecemeal work that is stuck together with divine duct tape. And to think that duct-tape is every American’s answer to everything that is “broken”. Sorry, won’t work here. But as a Trinitarian reality -- Father, Son and Holy Spirit -- the divine is also known in seamless separateness. Not lopped-off parts that look incomplete, but individual beads of divinity that shimmer with their own purpose and power. Yet the whole is recalled at a touch, the three wholly part of the one. For many of us, however, words will always fail to capture the truth of the Trinity. But, do we miss the big picture, as it were?
Jesus counseled Nicodemus that if he really wanted to experience the kingdom of God, he himself would have to undergo a change of community and identity. He would need to be born again -- both "from above" and "anew." As a resident of this kingdom of God -- as a re-created individual, Nicodemus was told he would be introduced to the wind of the Spirit and the sacrifice of the Son. Faced with all these fresh categories of divine activity, little wonder poor Nicodemus could only stammer, "How can these things be?" Of course, in the modern age, we have the Sacrament of Baptism to be “born again” as it were, but that is for a different sermon. "How can this be?" is the great question throughout history when one is faced with the mystery of the Trinity -- Three-in-One and One-in-Three.
If one were to read chapter 4 from the Book of the Revelation according to St. John, one can add a bit of imagination to the understanding. It does not state a dad-blasted thing about the Trinity. In fact it may simply add to the confusion. (Read Revelation 4) We are taken by St. John the Divine on a guided tour of the spiritual imagination. We are given insight into a visionary’s vision. The glimpse through the open door into the wonders of heaven allows us with St. John to leave the level of debate and argument and enter the realm of the imagination, where wondrous and strange things point to the wonder of all things. In this part of the Book of Revelation, the text is an invitation to expand consciousness of our minds, to push beyond our petty realities, and to see this things that were, that are, and that are to be. John invites us to a new form of seeing, and like the novice guided to see a painting once thought familiar, by a discerning guiding critic, one begins to see new and different and wonderful things. It is very much like a little girl in Sunday school. She was busy drawing with all of her crayons and all of her might when her teacher asked her what she was drawing. “I am drawing a picture of God,” she said. Her teacher replied, “But, my dear, nobody knows what God looks like.” To which the little girl replied without stopping her strokes. “They will when I am finished.” I believe that just settles it! Such is the purpose and confidence of St. John, to draw us a picture of God that we will recognize when he is finished. Don't waste your efforts trying to make sense of all that wonderful symbolism, trying to figure out what the twenty-four thrones mean, the seven flaming torches, the sea of Crystal, and all that. Look at the passage and see the great white throne in the middle, and the peals of thunder, and the lightning. If it sounds awfully familiar to you, it's probably because your vision now comes up with the vision of the Wizard of Oz. I hate to disappoint all of you, but God is even bigger than that and he does not live in the Emerald City either! In reading the Book of Revelation, especially chapters such as this, one must not be distracted by the details, so much as looking at the big picture. Keep inside the object of all this frantic activity and exquisite detail. What is the center of it all? The One who sits on the throne, who lives forever and ever. All this energy and imagination is directed to the worship of One who was, and is, and is to be; who rules, that is, who sits upon the throne and who lives forever. It is to the One who sits upon the throne that these glorious creatures full of wings and eyes sing without pausing for breath. The picture of God is of One who is the Creator, and by whose will all things that are, are. We have caught a glimpse through the open door into heaven, and we have seen a God who is worthy to be worshiped because he is the good creature of us all, who himself will last forever, for he is forever. That is the big picture; the biggest picture possible. When we think about God, some may be impressed by the majesty and glory, some by the raw and awesome power, or the thunder and the lightning; for others it may be the goodness and benevolence that impresses. But God is all of this and more! Such a big picture of God nearly defies imagination, but it is only imagination that will allow us to grow and be able to see something of that picture. We must remember that the object of Christian theology is not to reduce incomprehensibilities to our small size but rather to make us grow up in some small degree to the capacity of the subject. St. John gives us his wonderful vision, seen as through a crack into heaven, and the Church has described that same vision in its efforts to describe God in the doctrine of the Trinity - that which was, that which is, and that which is to be. Creation is time past. Redemption is time present. The ultimate justice of God is time future. The Trinity is the attempt of the Church to paint that big picture of God and to understand it in ways that extend and expand the ordinary consciousness. The Church baptizes her faithful in the name of the Trinity; she blesses the living and the dead in the undivided name of the Trinity; and the signing of the cross is Trinitarian in form and in expression. Why does the Church cling to the Trinity in the face of the claims of the modern need for tidy and useful thoughts? Why does the Church cling to the Trinity when it is so hard to understand? The Church is bound to the Trinity because it works to explain the unexplainable and it helps to draw for us the big picture, it satisfies our need to engage and stretch and stimulate our imagination, it enlivens our worship, it stimulates our debate, and he gives us cause to wait out the impatient adversities of this fallen and falling world. The Trinity is the expression of our ultimate optimism in the face of our provisional pessimism. The Trinity allows us to imagine, experience, anticipate, and celebrate the wholeness and unity of God, and the only appropriate response to all of that is to worship him with those who fall down before him saying, “Thou art worthy, O Lord our God, to receive glory and honor and power, because thou didst create all things; by thy will they were created and have there being.” Such is to experience the fullness, the wholeness, the unity of God; the one who was, and is, and is to be; the big picture. No definition can help us understand the Trinity. Only our imagination looking at the big picture will help us to simply accept in faith a God who is bigger than our imaginations can hold! God Love You + + The Most Rev. Robert Winzens Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church San Diego, Ca.
If we want transformation, we must risk chaos much like that of a butterfly. The word “risk” makes some people feel uncomfortable, but for us risk is simply another word for “faith”. Remember your first science project? Often, one of the first science projects children undertake is to watch a plain little caterpillar spin a cocoon about itself until it is completely shrouded within a chrysalis. The wonder of transformation is made real to the children when, days later, an entirely different creature -- a beautiful butterfly -- emerges from the apparently lifeless shell.
As children, we immediately focus on the delicate creature that emerges so mysteriously from the cocoon. With the actual process inside the cocoon unseen, there is a lot of mystery about the cocoon. A creepy, crawly caterpillar is magically transformed into a radiant, soaring butterfly. Sounds wonderful, doesn't it? However, for the caterpillar, there was nothing "wonderful" about it.
A caterpillar doesn't just grow into a butterfly. A caterpillar must undergo molting and metamorphosis -- the dramatic silence of the larva in which the insect's metamorphosis is entirely rearranged. How ironic that in today's English language, that word "cocoon" has come to mean exactly the opposite of what it means to a caterpillar. Modern English defines a cocoon as a safe place or state of being. When someone is shielding themselves from different aspects or beliefs in life, we say they are in a cocoon. However, a cocoon isn't safe. A cocoon is where a caterpillar risks it all -- where it enters total chaos, where it undergoes total rebuilding, where it dies to one way of life and is born to a new way of living. A cocoon is where a caterpillar allows itself to disintegrate into a blob of gelatinous liquid without structure or identity so that it can emerge with sharpened sensory perceptions and breathtaking beauty.
Only in taking the risk of entering that inert larva can the caterpillar go from dormancy to potency, from ugliness to beauty. This is the reason why the butterfly is an authentic symbol of resurrection! Not because it's cute. But because it risks dying to be born to new life.
On Pentecost morning, the miracle of the Holy Spirit was not that of multilinguistic languages spoken by everyone and understood by everyone ( although that is certainly a miracle, just not the one of greatest importance). The miracle of Pentecost was and is this: Pentecost power proclaims a fundamental transformation. The presence of Christ's Spirit burst out of accepted, established parameters. Holiness became accessible to all, even the fearful disciples, and was preached forth to all who would listen. Human attempts to keep the Holy Spirit contained in one holy language or one holy place failed. Christ's sacrifice split open the chrysalis and sent the Holy Spirit soaring out into the world.
Who gave the church of Christ a safety-first, risk-free commission? Who authorized the church of Christ to be a church of wimps? Why are we looking to God more for day care than for dare care?
There is no such thing as a risk-free life. Nothing is safe. According to the insurance industry's publication Risk Watch, "'Safety' is a word of primitive simplicity that has lost its utility in the face, of expanded technology, but of growing knowledge about the sometimes malignant complexities of nature." "Safety first" was not the motto of Jesus, nor St. Paul, nor of John Wesley. Safety first is fatal to holiness.
Cocoons are self-contained packets of risk. If that frumpy, dumpy little caterpillar didn't take the ultimate risk of re-creation, something which can be experienced only in the cocoon, he would never be able to break out as a butterfly. The way to the safety of a transformed life is found in risk.
Too many of us are lured only by "the safety of the chair," instead of being enticed by "the challenge of the dare." The danger is in the chair; the safety is in the dare. Even the U.S. Supreme Court declared in 1980, "Safe does not mean risk-free."
A 6-year-old gets nervous about taking that first step onto a moving escalator. He hesitates, halts, hovers on the edge, reluctant to step off that edge. It entices him for sure, but that first step is difficult. But once you take it, the movement of the escalator carries you along effortlessly. When he plays stop and go at that first step, there is the greatest danger. We all topple over him, or he panics and bolts forward, dragging others with him. He is safer taking the risk of getting onto something beyond his control than he is holding back. The hardest part is that first step of faith; but from then on, it's easy. You cannot NOT be a risk-taker.
You probably didn't think about it, but you took considerable risks getting here to church this morning. Risks such as: -- One in 18,585 people will die in a car accident today.
-- A one in two million chance of dying by falling out of bed.
-- A one in 350,000 chance of being electrocuted by your alarm clock.
-- While brushing your teeth, you flirted with the 20 percent chance that your local water supply has infectious bacteria in it.
-- Men endured a one in 7,000 chance of a serious shaving injury.
-- Men and women endured the danger of a one in 2,600 chance of being zippered, snapped or buttoned into some sort of injury.
-- If you avoided the stairs, you still took a one in six million risk of an elevator injury.
-- A one in 11,000 risk of dying in your car while traveling, as either a passenger or a driver.
-- A risk of one in 145 of your car's being stolen still waits for you.
I could not begin to determine where they come up with these statistics; however they help with my analogy today. The danger today lies with safety; the benefits lie with risk and speed. We must give up the church's "safety-first," risk-free approach to ministry and mission. We need to embrace a more entrepreneurial, risk-taking, failure-embracing strategy. Can we support the more imaginative and energetic self-starters in our midst?
Social systems are not unlike biological systems; they work not so much by trial and error, but by trial and success. The disciples risked ridicule and retribution by proclaiming the gospel message out to that crowd in words they could all easily understand. They took a chance and believed that the authority and power of the Holy Spirit would work through their words. It was a profound risk. But that moment of proclamation brought into being the church as the new creation of God. The followers had the Holy Spirit descend upon them in the form of tongues of fire and they all spoke languages they never knew before, all the while others understood them as never before.
There is no safety in safety; there is only safety in the risk and dare of a life of faith. Faith is but another word for "risk."
God is the biggest risk-taker of them all. Albert Einstein could not come to terms with his own theories because he said that God couldn't have built this kind of risk into the universe. God couldn't have created a universe with this kind of indeterminacy and unpredictability and chaos. "God does not throw dice," Einstein said.
Well, Einstein was wrong. And late in life he came to see how wrong he was. God does take chances. God created you and me with the right of refusal, called free will. God built risk into the very heart of the universe: at an atomic level, at a cosmic level. God is big enough and bold enough to put the very being of Himself at risk by creating you and me. God gave us free will and risked us choosing to not follow Him.
That doesn't mean that God is endangered by our right of refusal. But it does mean that God suffers because of our right of refusal. God created a cosmos where the creation can participate in God's own creativity.
That also means that, while you and I don't get safety, we do get joy and delight and the experience of the divine. We get the privilege of participating in the creativity of God, because of the Holy Spirit working through us. Take that risk today and ask God to help that case of unbelief or lackluster belief and wait to see what the Holy Spirit will do for you as he did some 2,000 + years ago!
God Love You + + The Most Rev. Robert Winzens Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church San Diego, Ca.
How does one explain the Ascension of Jesus Christ? Nikita Khrushchev once ridiculed Christianity by remarking humorously that his cosmonauts, on their journeys around the Earth, had never reported seeing Jesus passing by. His remark may well cause some unease in the most thoughtful modern Christians. What is left of our proclamation of the Ascension of Christ if we refuse to take literally the archaic cosmological picture against which Jesus is described as moving from an Earth down here to heaven up there? In fact, popular cosmological pictures, archaic or modern, have less to do with displaying scientific data about the universe than with bringing out assumptions about the nature of life within it. Atheists are very quick to make light of Christian beliefs. Atheists are very quick to make light of any belief in any intelligent design deity. I find it so sad that some of these people do not realize what they are refusing to understand. There are too many miracles in this world to be that close minded. In the accounts of the Ascension of Christ we hear from the Acts of the Apostles employ bits and pieces of a cosmological picture which views these matters in a very different way. We should not assume that the authors of our New Testament writings were necessarily unaware that the Earth was round or that heaven and earth were not so simply up there and down here as they seem to suggest. Nonetheless, it was a picture which would have been familiar to any reader of Jewish apocalyptic writing, the book of Daniel for instance, or a passage from the prophet Ezekiel. In the picture that is read from many of these writings, the universe is certainly awesome. But we are far from aliens in it. It is the work of God, God's glorious throne room. It is run according to God's mysterious purposes, which must finally control the destiny of all of us. If we are alone and afraid within it, that is because his purposes are different from ours. We want to live for ourselves, to promote our own concerns even when they clash with those of God or our neighbors. We want to run as much as we can of the universe on our own terms, however impossible that may be. Sometimes I wonder if this is not why atheists don't want to believe in God; because they will not be able to feel in control. God is in control, however. Jesus was God incarnate. God came down to be man with us. God could not get our attention the way he wanted our attention, so he came down to be with us; to live like us except for sin. Some questioned why would God do this. Someone questioned why would God need to do this. We are not only not privy to those answers, but neither are we meant to understand the design of God. We are called simply to believe in faith that God does exist; that God is working in the world. God is working in the world as he sees fit in his own mysterious way. That doesn't mean that he does not exist. It simply means he is in control and will not just exist as we think he should. Our impure thoughts cannot possibly fathom his pure thoughts. Man did not evolve from plants to what we are now, as some scientists would have us believe. Is there some evolution involved in the creation process God used? Most assuredly there is - just not as a scientist is able to explain. God came as man; a man named Jesus. This man Jesus came that we might have life. He came to catch our attention, and that he did. He came and he ministered to our psyche, our souls, and our bodies. He was condemned, just as some today condemn him, and he was tortured and put on a cross to die. And died he did, all because he was trying to bring hope to his people. But, his dying did not stop his plan; it assured it. Three days later we see Jesus again. This time in a bit more glorious form. Then he stays with his apostles both male and female and all his followers. He stays that they may believe. He stays that they may have the proof that their doubts need. Then he ascends into heaven. It is against the background provided by this picture that our readings set the suffering and death of Jesus at our hands, and his being raised again to life with God. The picture is in the background, and actually only the useful bits and pieces of it remain. Jesus, dead and risen, is in the foreground for all to see. What the disciples have been witnessing these last weeks is the actual, visible event of God's reaching out to reconcile the whole creation, to save it from the confusion it has brought on itself, to bring it back together in the new life of Jesus Christ. There is no question anymore about the mysterious purposes of the one who sits on the heavenly throne. They are clear now. If the death we tried to use to stop them will not work, no power can do so. No disbelief; no physical harm; nothing. This feast, then, has to do not with speculations about the universe we do not know, but with God's involvement with the human life we know only too well. With the conflict of human wills, personal, social, national, seemingly even cosmic, this threatened to overwhelm it. It has to do with that, and with our confidence in the ultimate triumph of the new human life which God is bringing into existence in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Just a few short weeks back, we were entertaining the idea that the world was going to end as we know it. The preacher stated that he had mathematically figured it out when God was going to end the world. Not only did Jesus say that only the Father in heaven knows when this will take place; but today we read in the Acts of the Apostles that the believers gathered together and asked Jesus: “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” And Jesus again tells them that it is not for them to know the time or the season that the Father in heaven has established by virtue of his authority. Jesus says these things and is taken up in a cloud. We cannot help noticing how the disciples are portrayed in the accounts of the ascension we have heard. As is often the case in the Gospels, they are unaware of the real purposes of God unfolding before them. Despite all they have witnessed these last weeks, they still ask the risen Christ will you at this time restore dominion to Israel. They want to know that now that he has been restored miraculously to the human scene, if he will not finally get down to doing what the Messiah is expected to do, for instance redressing the balances between Israel and the nations. The disciples have little notion of the scope of God's plans for human reconciliation, or of the role of Christ in their being brought to fulfillment. They have to be prodded back to Jerusalem to await the gift of the Holy Spirit which will make them bearers of a message they do not yet understand. We Christians are, unfortunately, more likely to see ourselves Mirrored in the disciples as portrayed here than in the disciples as we will encounter them again in the accounts of Pentecost next Sunday. Despite the gift of the Holy Spirit at our baptism, we secretly tend to think that the death and resurrection of Christ has something to do with the success of our side in the conflict of human wills which still dominates our lives, personal, social, national, most of the time. We must, on this Ascension Sunday, as well as any other day, pray for the renewal of the Holy Spirit to enable us to see more, far more, absolutely more than that in the work of reconciliation to which we have been called as members of the body of the risen Christ in the world. Christ ascended into heaven to once again become God. Christ ascended into heaven to become God so that we may know him in faith and trust in him with our lives. But, of course, Jesus was already God and did not really need to “become God”, but our feeble brains and faith needed to feel or sense the sensation. Yes, God could've probably found a far easier way to get our attention. However he chose this way. As Jesus once told his disciples, when we see Jesus we've seen the Father. When we have seen the Father we have seen God. Jesus-God ascended is with us always. God love You + + The Most Rev. Robert Winzens Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church San Diego, Ca.