It is amazing the difference one pronoun can make. Last Sunday after our service one of you came to me with a question. We were using the Nicene Creed last week. (We will be using the Apostle’s Creed now until the end of November.) In that version of the Nicene Creed when we confessed to “… believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, we continued with these words, “He is worshiped and glorified. He has spoken through the prophets.” The question was, “Why does the Holy Spirit have to be a “he.” You might argue that the first person of the trinity, God the father, is a “he” because fathers are “he’s.” And the second person of the trinity, Jesus Christ, was male. But the third person? The Holy Spirit. Maybe we could change it to “She is worship and glorified. She has spoken through the prophets.”
I did a bit of research and found that, when we printed the worship folders we use for that setting, we imported the older way of saying the creed. The newer way, the way it is in our current hymnals, simply eliminates “he” and substituted “who.” “We believe in the Holy Spirit … who is worshiped and glorified … who has spoken through the prophets.”
I told the person asking the question that saying “she is worshiped and glorified” would certainly wake people up and make them think. And, I guess, that is one of the jobs of a preacher on Trinity Sunday – to help people think about how they think about God and to ask, “What does all this mean for daily living, anyway?”
Today, Trinity Sunday, is the only Sunday in our church year named after a theological concept. And so, it would seem as if the sermon should be theological and conceptual. But, as one person has said, trying to dissect this great mystery of our faith is like pulling all the petals off a flower in order to analyze it, and ending up having destroyed the flower. So, the trick is to lift up this Sunday as a precious and beautiful gift without pulling the petals off.
What’s the message for us in all of this anyway? What’s the significance? Here’s my take: The concept of the Holy Trinity – confessing that God is three-in-one, coming to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – is, indeed, a human construct. But all that means is that we all agree that we have experienced God in three identifiable ways – as one who creates, one who redeems, and one who dwells upon and dwells within each and every one of us, sanctifying us with spirit, growing us in grace. But the significance in this diversity of holy experience is just that – diversity. Christianity may be a monotheistic religion, but it is not a monochromatic one. One person has said it this way, “God, for Christians, is diversity encapsulated within a unity.”
One of the ways to expand our thinking about the Holy Trinity is to realize that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is not just about a relationship between God and individual human beings. Yes, each of us – individually – is created by God, redeemed by Jesus, and made holy by the Spirit. But these are also the ways God comes to all of us as community. The world has a father, a creator. This means all the plants and animals, streams, forests, lakes, rivers, and seas. And so for us to confess God as our Father means that we have a brotherhood and a sisterhood with the environment and it calls us into community with others who breathe the same air, drink the same water, and are subject to the same effects of climate change.
To be redeemed by the son isn’t only about your own personal come-to-Jesus moment. God sent his son to redeem his wayward children – of which all of us are apart. And, again, this puts us in community. Worldwide community. Global community. If Jesus died for the world, then Jesus died for the world! All of us stand under the shadow of the cross – rich ones, poor ones, black ones, white ones, this side of the border, that side of the border. It’s not us and them. It’s US!
And, as we heard last week, when the Holy Spirit came, it came to peoples of every tongue and every nation. The Bible just lists out the ones that are hard to pronounce by way of making it hard for lay readers on Pentecost Sunday. We can’t speak of the Holy Spirit without speaking of diversity.
Oh, there have been various ways to try to describe the Holy Trinity. The early church father, Tertullian used the metaphor of a plant for the Trinity. The Father is the deep root, the Son is the shoot that breaks forth into the world, and the Spirit is the force which spreads beauty and fragrance on the earth. Augustine described the three persons of the Trinity as the Lover, the Beloved, and the love which exists between them. St. Patrick explained the Trinity to the Celts by using a shamrock, three individual leaves, yet one plant.
Maybe you are most familiar with the symbol we see in stained glass windows, altar paraments, and the pastor’s vestments: the three interlocking circles. That’s my favorite because it is relational. The father shares essence with the son who shares essence with the spirit who shares essence with the father. There is separateness, there is overlap, and in the center of it all the three persons come together in what we use the term “God” to describe.
I like the interlocking circles because they also represent our own relationship to one another. Each of us has a personal identity. But our identities overlap with others who, in turn, overlap with others. We are a community, interdependent on one another. What hurts one of us can hurt others who overlap with us. What helps one of us can help others who overlap with us. You don’t necessarily choose your community in the same way you don’t choose your parents or brothers or sisters. Yet, we are bound together. Interlocked. Interdependent. You’ve heard me tell the story about the two men in the rear of a sinking boat. One says to the other, “I sure am glad that hole is not in our end of the boat.”
I also think that the interlocking circles may be a good metaphor for what us religious people call “care of the earth” and scientists call “ecology.” Here’s what I mean: Let’s say that one circle represents human beings. Another circle represents plants. Another circle represents animals. These are three separate and individual entities. Yet, they overlap and are dependent one one another. What is bad for one may be bad for the others. What is healthy for one may be healthy for the others.
For instance, when the humans put too much carbon into the environment the earth warms up. When the earth warms up, certain plant species may begin to disappear. This has happened and is continuing. When plant species disappear due to climate change, this may lead to the subsequent loss of various animal species. Insects which depend on interactions with specific plant partners are particularly threatened. It is estimated that one third of the food that we consume each day relies on pollination mainly by bees. When bees die they can no longer pollinate our crops. Bats also pollinate. (And they keep the mosquitoes away from your patio.)
The entire planet is interlocking spheres of being. And it all intersects with the one who created it, sustains it, redeems it, and sanctifies it. I’m not sure I have ever before written a sermon which connects the Holy Trinity to global warming. But there it is.
So, in response to the one who asked me the question last week: Yes, we believe in the Holy Spirit. She is worshiped and glorified. She has spoken through the prophets. Just as we have new ways of thinking of the Holy Spirit, we have new ways of thinking about the Holy Trinity.
Text: Romans 5:1-5, John 16:12-15