Today is Trinity Sunday, the day in the church year when we celebrate the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, the three Persons of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, a concept which is, truth be told, not exactly biblical. Now before you declare me a heretic, let me clarify. The doctrine of the Trinity is not EXPLICITLY biblical (and the operative word here is explicitly); that is, you will not find the word “trinity” in the scriptures, no matter how hard you look. However, there are references to the three persons throughout the New Testament, from where we draw the Trinitarian formula. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have been associated in such New Testament passages as the Great Commission found in Matthew 28: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”. Likewise, in the apostolic benediction of 2 Corinthians 13, we read: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” as well as the illusions in our readings this morning. Therefore, in the New Testament we find the basis for the doctrine of the Trinity, even if the term is not used.
So, before we look at our readings for this morning, I’d like to give you a brief (very brief) background on how we came to acknowledge God in Trinitarian terms. The doctrine of the Trinity was not an initial confession of the church; rather, it developed gradually over several centuries and through many controversies. At first, as the church grew and spread among the many cultures in the Middle East and beyond, there was a need to reconcile the requirements of Hebrew monotheism with the cultural concept of polytheism, in which the Gentiles seemed to understand the Son and Spirit as subordinate beings. Debate and division ensued as the young church tried to come to terms with a way to describe the distinctness of the three persons, while maintaining their equality. Different doctrines were advanced, accepted by some, rejected by others. It seems that for all the work of so many brilliant minds, there was, and still is, no perfect and accepted understanding of the Trinity. It was not until the 4th century that the distinctness of the three and their unity were brought together in a single orthodox doctrine of one essence and three persons, in a form that it has substantially maintained ever since, and which we glimpse when we recite the Nicene Creed.
At the same time, trinity is also be used as a secular term, which can be defined as a triad or a group of three people or things. As we look at today’s readings, I’d like to explore the allusions to the biblical Trinity in the context of the trinity of the Christian life: the call, the commission and the change.
We begin with the Old Testament reading; the account of the prophet Isaiah’s call. While there is no allusion in this reading to the either the Son or Spirit, it does include the thrice-repeated cry of “Holy” as shouted by the Seraphim, flying about YHWH in the temple in Jerusalem, which is why we include the reading on this Trinity Sunday. Perhaps the reason for its inclusion has to do more with the call of the prophet and that prophet’s willingness to answer that call, at least as the text is usually interpreted. In the experience of Isaiah, we see how he was called, commissioned and changed as he accepted the summons to become God’s prophet.
Isaiah’s call to ministry was extremely dramatic, to say the least. He is a young man, worshipping in the temple in Jerusalem, during a very critical time in Judah’s history. Set in a historical context, King Uzziah, the long-time monarch, had finally died, likely after suffering from leprosy for some years, sending the nation into political uncertainty and turmoil.
During the time of worship, Isaiah is presented with a fabulous vision, where he actually sees “the Lord”. Not only that, but he feels the foundations of the temple shaking with the sound of those shouting, and “the house filled with smoke” It’s a scene that’s worthy of Cecil B. DeMille spectacle: the vast YHWH enrobed and filling the temple, a host of six-winged creatures flying and shouting, the entire temple rocking with their sound, while smoke adds its eerie haze to the frame.
Isaiah’s response to this unconventional experience was to express his complete unworthiness as well as his conviction that he as well as the people of Israel, especially those worshippers in the temple, are pathetically inadequate in the face of their God. It seems this genuine experience of God leads Isaiah not first to praise and gratitude, but rather to fear and horror. While most of us will never experience worship in quite this same way, I have to wonder how often our experience of God leads us to worship and praise like this: to be filled with this sense of astonishment and awe and frankly, heartfelt humility.
Then, not only is Isaiah humbled in the presence of God, declaring himself a man of unclean lips, but then God send a seraph – one of those mysterious multi-winged creatures to deal with those lips. As one commentator says, “This act is not one of comfort or consolation; it is nothing less than a burning coal on the mouth! The seraph, using a pair of tongs, grabs a live coal from the altar fires, and touches Isaiah’s lips with it. He then announces in delicious understatement, “Look! This has touched your lips (no kidding!); your sin has left and your guilt is covered”. With these words the seraph announces that it is the will of YHWH is to forgive sin in order to prepare the prophet for service of God. Now Isaiah is ready to hear the call of his God. “Then I heard the voice of the Lord, ‘Whom shall I send; who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here I am. Send me.'”
Isiah is called and commissioned. But he is also a changed man. While we don’t know much about his background and intended path before his call, it likely wasn’t that of a prophet. But once he comes face-to-face with God, he has admitted his inherent sinful nature, and been dramatically cleansed by God. While devout faithfulness to God may have been a personal characteristic, he now turns his whole life in to service to God by taking on the prophetic role, as evidenced by his writings. We know he has accepted the commission by the work he goes on to do, telling the people of God’s judgement (which as you can imagine, was not eagerly embraced by the people). For Isaiah’s call is not for sweet preaching of comfort and joy, but rather for harsh demands for a people lost and far from the ways of their God, however much they think they are in the will of that God. Isaiah’s only hope, and our only hope too, is that from the tiny smoldering stump of a blasted tree may come the “holy seed” of the future with God. There are times for comfort, but Isaiah’s time was not one of those. Rather, YHWH has called him to witness to the struggle to understand and join the community that searches to live out the rule of God.
Generations later, as John recounts in his gospel, a Pharisee named Nicodemus heard the call of God. Unlike the dramatic vision of Isaiah, I would suspect that his call was more a subtle tugging at his heart and mind, as he had likely seen and heard Jesus in the temple in Jerusalem. But given his status as a respected Pharisee, his response to the call was to seek Jesus out by night, when there was less chance of being seen by his associates. His mind was filled with questions, which he presented to Jesus in their somewhat private meeting. And following his encounter with Jesus, we know that he became a disciple, with the implication that he was commissioned by God- or even the Spirit- to follow Jesus, even if it was a bit subversively. We hear of him again in John’s gospel as he speaks up for Jesus in the presence of his peers. We meet him a final time, after the crucifixion, where he meets up with Joseph of Arimathea, identified as a secret disciple of Jesus, to prepare the body for burial. We know he was a changed man following the initial encounter with Jesus, evidenced by his willingness to visibly defend Jesus and to publicly assist in his burial.
In the same manner, we can look at the experience of the Apostle Paul, who as a devout Pharisee, spent an excessive amount of time and energy persecuting the early Christians for their deviant beliefs. He received his call in a rather dramatic fashion as did Isaiah; in this case, being knocked off his horse on the road to Damascus, struck blind and given a talking-to by Jesus, sent to stay in Damascus, where he was met by Ananias, and commissioned to preach the gospel to the gentiles. And Paul was indeed changed; as evidenced by the persecution and hardship he endured in his advocacy for the Good News of Jesus Christ.
One commentator relates the experience of Charles Colson as one called, commissioned and changed. You may remember he worked as a Special Counsel to United States President Richard Nixon between 1969 and 1973. He became known as the president’s “Hatchet Man” for his willingness to do his dirty work for him. Colson also was the first member of Nixon’s cabinet to be imprisoned for Watergate-related crimes.
In 1973, however, the Holy Spirit transformed Mr. Colson into a Christian. The forgiven former “Hatchet Man” heard and faithfully responded to God’s call to work on God’s behalf with and for prisoners. His Prison Fellowship Ministry arguably did more to raise Christians’ (as well as others’) awareness of the need for more humane treatment of people who are incarcerated.
Reflecting on his conversion, Colson later wrote: “I left [the Raytheon Company’s president, Tom Phillips’] house that night [of my conversion] shaken by the words he had read from C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity about pride. It felt as if Lewis were writing about me, former Marine captain, Special Counsel to the President of the United States, now in the midst of the Watergate scandal. I had an overwhelming sense that I was unclean.
“After talking to Tom, I found that when I got to the automobile to drive away, I couldn’t. I was crying too hard – and I was not one to ever cry. I spent an hour calling out to God. I did not even know the right words. I simply knew that I wanted Him. And I knew for certain that the God who created the universe heard my cry.
“From the next morning to this day, I have never looked back. I can honestly say that the worst day of the last 35 years has been better than the best days of the 41 years that preceded it. That’s a pretty bold statement, given my time in prison, three major surgeries, and two kids with cancer at the same time, but it is absolutely true.
“That’s because, for the last 35 years – whether in pain, suffering, joy, or jubilation, it makes no difference – I have known there was a purpose. I have known that I belong to Christ and that I am here on earth to advance His Kingdom.”
We too have been called by Christ; into faith and service, which we marked by our baptism into the family of God. If that has not been your experience, then somehow, the spirit of God has at least called you here. But once called, we are commissioned to go out and be witnesses to God’s saving grace in the world. And if our call and commission has not changed us dramatically, our commission by the Spirit is shaping us into being the people that God intends for us to be, while doing God’s work in the world.
Meanwhile, we are launching ourselves on the grand Ordinary Time journey. These Sundays after Pentecost carry the story of the church at work in the world, the church guided by the Spirit and infused with the presence of Christ. We don’t make this journey alone but surrounded by God in all the ways we experience that loving presence. Trinity Sunday is an acknowledgement of the mysterious and wondrous God we worship. Thanks be to God. Amen.