Sometime in the 90’s, when I lived in Maryland, my family and I spent some time in Smoky Mountain national Park. One morning my daughter Anneke and I set out to hike to one of the summits. But as we climbed, the path was shrouded in semi-darkness because of the low cloud cover. The trail led upward, but seemed to wander one way and then another. We could not see very far into the woods on either side, and since it was early in the season we had to contend with a lot of difficult muddy stretches. Of course I can remember Anneke asking if we were ever going to get to the end of the trail!
Then, just as some little rays of sunlight began to appear through the mist, the path began to flatten out and we emerged onto a rolling plateau that looked out onto the valley below. We walked toward the edge as the sun’s heat began to work its wonders. A morning breeze began to blow and the clouds evaporated until, at last, we could see everything. It was a stunning view, but perhaps even more stunning because of how open and clear every-thing seemed after our treacherous and difficult trek through the woods.
This morning, in my own words, I want to share with you a portion of a sermon by the British theologian, N. T. Wright. On a book tour a few years ago, he debated Marcus Borg at Trinity Cathedral in Portland. But I was attracted to this story not because I heard him, but because in it Bishop Wright suggests that the struggle to know God as Trinity is very much like the journey I just described.
Even though Israel had the map of scriptures and the guide book of the law to direct them, much of the time the people of God were climbing in semi-darkness. Sometimes they followed the law, sometimes they didn’t. They had the light of prophecy, and sometimes they could see where they were going, and other times they couldn’t. At the darkest moment of their journey their fate seemed to hang between heaven and earth as the Messiah was rejected by his own people and killed by the pagan Roman occupiers. But as his followers discovered, there was a way across this impasse. It was the path that led onwards and upwards to the Resurrection.
Finally, as they reached the summit, the patches of sunlight broke through the clouds and the morning breeze stirred: the fire and the wind of the Spirit lifted the mist, and at last they could see clearly. And as they looked about them the words that came to their lips to describe their experience quickly took on a three-fold pattern of breathtaking wonder. They spoke, of course, of that wind and fire as a manifestation of the Spirit. They spoke, of course, of the one whose death and new life had been the crucial step in the climb. And naturally, they spoke of the Holy One who had called them to the journey, the One who had provided the map and the light, and who now showed them the full glory of the view from the top of the mountain.
Like all illustrations you cannot press this one too far. But the point is that Trinity Sunday doesn’t give us a different doctrine that some theologians in the Eastern Church dreamed up in the third or fourth centuries. Trinity Sunday doesn’t tell us a story very different from the ones we’ve been telling and hearing in the great events of Advent and Christmas, of Holy week and Easter, of the ascension and Pentecost. Trinity Sunday is the moment when the mist rises and we can see the view from the summit in all its glory and, in particular, can see the way by which we’ve come. Trinity Sunday is the time to stand back in awe and wonder and gratitude and make some sense of what has happened and what has been revealed.
For some of you this imagery may seem to be backwards. Because many find the Christian explanation of the Trinity is itself like walking into a thick fog or over the edge of an intellectual cliff, rather than being a moment of vision and clear revelation. It’s true that the language sometimes used to approach the doctrine of the trinity has been difficult and even forbidding; as though the theologians, celebrating their arrival at the summit, were somehow intent on showing how cleverly they could describe what was for them a treacherous journey. But it’s also true that if the view we’re talking about is the view of the living and glorious creator of heaven and earth, then we shouldn’t expect it to be anything other than dazzling and mind-boggling.
Speaking of God in these three mysterious ways (“Abba/Father, Son and Holy Spirit”), and yet affirming that they were not three Gods but one, came naturally to the lips of the astonished climbers (those early Christians) as they looked around and tried to give expression to what it was that they were seeing, what it was that they were experiencing.
But if you take home anything from this sermon for Trinity Sunday, I hope it will be that the doctrine of the Trinity only makes sense if you see it as an “interactive” doctrine. If you treat it simply as a TV program or a U-Tube video, you’re bound to find it mighty peculiar. It’s much more like a web site where by the click of a mouse you can become engaged with many levels of what you are watching. The Trinity is designed to catch you up into the life and love of God; quite simply to invite you to join in what some Eastern Orthodox writers call the sacred dance of God. To refuse the invitation is like staying forever on the sidelines refusing to dance, watching the screen and not realizing that you’re meant to be part of the picture.
Do I need to remind you that the invitation to the Eucharist is part and parcel of that invitation to join in the inner life of the triune God? Our Eucharistic worship is one of those points where the doctrine of the Trinity becomes interactive. As Tom Wright puts it, “where we find ourselves caught up and challenged and changed, glimpsing God’s glory, sensing the breath of God’s spirit, and above all being called to meet and know and love Jesus himself.”
To respond to that invitation takes faith and courage. Paul insists that the road that moves us from the love of God to the glory of God is one that takes us through the cross. It is a road marked by suffering, patience and hope. But to refuse the invitation, to stay at the foot of the mountain, to hear the name of Jesus but never to know him face to face—that is to refuse the chance to be truly human, the chance of glory, the chance to have real life—eternal life!
On this Trinity Sunday I challenge you to take that chance with both hands: be dazzled again by the glory and love of God; sense again the warm breath and power of God’s Holy Spirit; and learn to recognize and follow the human face of God in Jesus. I can guarantee it’s a great journey!