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Trinity, 06/07/2009

Sermon on Genesis 1:1-5; John 1:1-5, by David Hoster

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. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day [Genesis 1:1-5 NRSV].

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. [John 1:1-5 NRSV]

Karen Armstrong distinguished recently between Christianity as a belief system and Christianity that focuses on the way we act toward others.  In a time such as ours when doctrinal conflict is in the air, it's easy to fall into the error of thinking that the most important thing about Christians is what they believe.  Jesus, however, was much more concerned with the compassionate way we should treat each other.

I say all that as preamble to Trinity Sunday which we celebrate today, the only feast day in the church year dedicated to a doctrine.  The Trinity is often considered to be one of the irreducible beliefs of the Christian system.  By way of corrective, I want to talk about the Trinity less as a doctrine demanding belief than as a basis for how we understand ourselves as human beings and how we engage one another and the rest of creation.

Let's begin with the wonderful account Creation from Genesis which we tend to picture as the domain of God the Father.  Jesus and Holy Spirit won't make the scene for another four thousand years if you believe the fundamentalists, or fourteen billion if you believe the cosmologists.  That's God the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth up there stirring the pot in the beginning.

But not so fast.  At least one major Christian tradition puts Jesus right there in the beginning, and even Jewish tradition joins us in locating the Spirit of God at Creation as well.  If Christianity turned the Trinity into a doctrine in the 4th century, we were only codifying something that had always been there and had woven itself into the warp and woof of the universe.

God is the creator, of course, but it is the Spirit of God that blasts across deep chaos at the pregnant instant before creation began.  "The earth was a formless void," Genesis says.  Deep chaos, the very stuff of disorder, nothingness, meaninglessness that scares you and me to death.   Darkness covered this oceanic deep, "while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters."

A wind from God?  The wind that blew the doors and windows off their hinges on the day of Pentecost is the Spirit of God, God's very breath.  It is the Spirit of God that plunges into the chaos of existence and makes things happen.  The Spirit is God in motion.

o back up a step with me.  God almighty is alien and unknowable, unnamable in ancient Israel.  We call God holy because the word holy means everything that we and the secular world are not.  God cannot be contained within our world yet God stands behind the very existence of our world from the beginning. 

It is the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of all that the world is not, that gets into the world, infuses it with something that it does not inherently possess, and makes it something.  "Once we were no people," the singer of Israel said of the chaotic bad old days in Egypt, "but now we are a people," made so by the powerful movement of the Holy Spirit driving back the waters of the Red Sea.

Still, the picture isn't complete because wind and water, Spirit and chaos, are both equally wild.  We haven't done anything but describe a hurricane.  In ancient Israel, God was just as frightening as chaos.  God warned Moses not even to let animals stray near Mount Sinai for fear that his wild power would blast them to ashes.    So with only two persons of the Trinity, the world is still a place not fit for man nor beast.

John's Gospel completes the picture when the evangelist says, "In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God."  The wild wind of God's breath isn't just God blowing as hard as possible, cheeks all puffed out and face bright red.  The wind of God's Spirit is the speech of God.  Words.  The Spirit infuses dead things with life, but the Word of creation becomes incarnate in the world, takes on matter and energy, flesh and mind and is the very shape of a thought in the mind of God. 

The words of creation:  light, sky, ocean, land, sea creatures, vegetation, animals and finally human beings, the image of God.  Lying at the root of all those words is the single Word, Jesus, whose Gospel of love tells us that when the world is perfect as it is in the mind of God then all things, though separate as they must be in the world, are nevertheless ultimately one as they are in the mind of God.

So we have a world made from sheer chaos that is shaped and infused with a God who must nevertheless stand apart from it.  Whoever said the Trinity was easy to understand?  Don't question it, just go with it.  We stand on the edge of a mystery, but what does it mean for us?

It means that we, you and I, have an awful lot of chaos in us.  Our fear of death and our hatred of disorder is rooted in a deep awareness that we are but dust and that our own bodies are 98 per cent water, the stuff of primordial chaos.  We think only Jesus walked on water, but we-mostly water-walk on water every minute, every second of every day.  We are a single heart-stopping step from the edge of a cliff and the crashing surf below.  Maybe that's why we find apocalyptic movies so morbidly fascinating.

Yet somewhere down in our deepest parts we know that chaos is not who we really are.  We don't like it when nature makes a mess of things, when other people mess with us, or when we ourselves mess up, because we know that we are more than the messes we make.  We yearn for the image of something much more holy than the mess that our lives are.  There's something about Jesus, the Word of Creation that points true north on the compass within every living human being.

Yes, the messes can overwhelm us.  We can grow depressed, slovenly, bitter, defeated, hopeless, fatalistic, resentful or retaliatory.  We can lose touch with our true shape, spoken as a word of God when God named each of us one by one in creation.  Such descent into disorder hurts many people, makes them angry, makes them hateful because at their center they know better.  It just plain hurts that the world is not perfect and is not God.

The doctrine of the Trinity, mysterious and intellectually turgid as it might be, tells us that all our pain need not be the final word.  We also know that we have a vitality that we cannot explain as creatures of mere dust and water.  The wind of God that speaks the words that made us is also the vital energy that fills us up with irresistible life and pushes us toward the shape of things in the mind of God.  When they got out of bed on the morning of Pentecost, the disciples were still a mess-hopeless, depressed, fearful, unmotivated-but when the Holy Spirit blew into them they were suddenly the people that God imagined:  people in love with the world, afraid of nothing, shouting out truth from beyond the world because they knew that no power of chaos within the world could ultimately bring them down.  They had been no people, but now they were people.

You may think that all of these things are very far from your experience, but what I want you to understand is that they are all completely present in every thought you have, every feeling you experience, every choice you make for good or ill, every stand you take or fail to take, every conclusion you reach, rightly or wrongly, about the world around you and your place in it. 

In all those moments, you may well experience a dispiriting negativity trying to suck you back down into the waters of the deep from which God drew you in the beginning, but we all know that such a descent into chaos is not what we were made for.  The shape within us that will not be distorted and the compass that points true north straight into a higher dimension tell us that we were made for more than surrender to the dark angels of our nature.  Sometimes the life-giving wind of divine inspiration blows hard and we know exactly who we are.  Other times we have to pray and wait for vitality to return with the awareness that we are children of God. 

The good news-and it is very good news indeed-is that it is not a battle between equals.  The Trinity has all the bases covered:    Someplace to go (God the Father).  A way to get there (God the Son).  Energy for the journey (God the Holy Spirit).  In all those choices and feelings and conclusions and stands in the moments of life when our existence intersects with God-that is to say, every moment-God is more than present and ready to create us for the future. 

As we slide into chaos, we can let our fatalism and depression cause us to surrender.  Or we can recognize that it was at the moment of greatest chaos that the spirit of God hovered over the deep and God began to speak the Word of creation.  Listen for your name being spoken in the wind that gathers force at your back.  You may be utterly weary, but never mind.  It is not your own energy that will carry you.  God's vitality becomes your vitality as you become God's.

The most fundamental act in our existence is the act of creation.  When we embrace God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we get to do exactly that.  Create. 

It's an out of this world experience.

The Rev. David Hoster
Rector, St. George’s Episcopal Church, Austin, Texas, USA

E-Mail: david.w.hoster@gmail.com