Harrowing Of Hell
June 4, 2023

Trinity Sunday

Susan Pitchford, Lay Preacher

This sermon has three parts. It’s Trinity Sunday—so, three parts, one sermon. And one part has three parts in it. But don’t worry, it’s not all that complicated. Because why would a sermon on the Trinity be complicated?

So I’m going to say three things about the Trinity—three answers to the question we’ve been asking since Holy Week: “Who is this God we worship?” It’s a pretty fundamental question! Let me start, though, with a disclaimer: there’s nothing we can say about God that is really adequate, no way to “capture” or do justice to who God is.

And that’s the first point: Our God is mystery. When my stepdaughter was attending Holy Names, she had a religious education course and they were covering the Trinity. So she’s doing her homework one day, with her dad in the room and I’m in the next room overhearing their conversation as she’s trying to make sense of what she’s been taught. “So God is three—and God is one—at the same time. Okay…do we believe that?”

My husband, who’s sort of agnostic but open-minded, and doesn’t want to get in the way of her faith, goes “Um…ah…” And the darling child says “So that’s a no, right?” And I’m in the next room thinking “No! Wait! We do believe that!” But my version of being a stepmom didn’t include jumping in and taking over heavy conversations. I did eventually find a moment to say, “Look: God is infinite, and we are finite. If you could get your head around God, if God were something we could fully understand, what kind of God would that be? God would be less than us, not greater.”

The scriptures tell us as much: When Job demands explanations from God for the existence of evil, God doesn’t give Job the answer. What God does say is, “Where were you, Mr. Smartypants, when I created the heavens and the earth?” Isaiah is told, “[A]s the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:9) And a particular favorite of mine, from Ecclesiastes (5:2): “God is in heaven, and you upon earth; therefore let your words be few.”

The doctrine of the Trinity kind of reminds me of a Zen koan. A koan is a story or a saying that presents some kind of puzzle or paradox, which the Zen master gives to the student to meditate on. But there’s no way it can be resolved by the intellect. The whole point is to exhaust all the analytical approaches the student might use to “solve” the koan, so that eventually they’ll find their way to a response that goes deeper, beyond just reasoning. When the student has made this leap, then they’re moving in the direction of a higher awareness, a greater truth. A koan invites a response, not an “answer” or a “solution.” To try to “solve” it misses the point.

Similarly, there is no “solution” to the puzzle of Trinity: three who are also one. When Moses asks God’s name, he is told: “I am who I am.” (You can picture the divine shrug.) That’s what we get; that’s all. It’s tempting to reach for the perfect metaphor, or generate huge amounts of text to try to pin it down—but it won’t be pinned. It refuses to be pinned.

However…a name for God that we’re given much later reveals more: Emmanuel: “God with us.” Not “God understood by us,” not “God we can capture and domesticate,” but God with us. We may not fully understand God, but this we know from the Incarnation: though we don’t totally understand this mysterious God, we know that this God is with us. The whole story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection tells us that God is with us. “Always,” as Jesus said, “to the end of the age.”

This is something beautiful about our faith: at the very center of it, at its very heart, there is mystery. And there always will be: even if we get a dozen degrees in theology, even if we spend every moment for the rest of our lives meditating on it, it will remain a mystery. So rather than trying to grasp hold of it, or pin it down, or explain it, we should take the advice of that other Saint Paul (McCartney), and… “Let It Be.”

The second thing I want to say about the Trinity is very familiar to us: Our God is loving community. “God is love,” the scriptures tell us, and “love” implies both a lover and a beloved. In fact, it was St. Augustine of Hippo who famously described the Creator as lover, the Son as beloved, and the Spirit as the love exchanged between the two: Lover, Beloved, and Love. So God is three, yes, but with a constant mutual desire between the Persons, an attraction toward union, toward oneness, so powerful that it is perfectly fulfilled. And they are one.

And the Good News is that, in Christ, God has extended a hand and pulled us into that circle of love—because God’s attraction is to us as well. That’s why we were created! Attraction is one of the most fundamental and powerful forces in the universe, whether you’re talking about gravity or sexuality, creatures are drawn toward each other. Because the Origin of it all is love. And though we know God is a mystery, it’s a mystery that in some way desires to be known to us. As a wise person said: “God is transcendent, not aloof.”

Well, “love”…whatever. We know we’re supposed to love God and our neighbor, that these are really important, and Jesus did answer the “who is my neighbor?” question by saying “Everyone you most want it not to be.” Okay, fine. But what does that love look like? This is where the three-part subset comes in.

In his book Prophetic Reflections, the famous and controversial scholar Cornel West had a reflection on love that has powerfully informed my own understanding. So this is not West’s exact idea, but it’s based on his work. And I’m going to go through it fairly quickly.

First, love is not an emotion, not affection for the other. Instead, it’s a process, and it begins with a serious commitment to the idea of imago dei: that every human is made in the image of God. There is no person, however inscrutable, messed-up, or even wicked, who lacks that of the Divine. And we are commanded to honor that—always, in everyone. So that’s the first step.

You’d think the second step would be to jump in to help them if they’re struggling. But that’s a common mistake, because it skips over a crucial middle piece, which West calls analysis. Think about someone you know you love. If they experience some kind of loss—a spouse, a friend, a job, a dream—what do you do? Won’t you sit with them and listen while they talk about what happened? Isn’t that way better than rushing in with a sloppy joe casserole because you’ve forgotten your friend is a vegan?

We don’t know what people need until we hear them. But when we’ve heard them, and they tell us how we can help, then we get to step three which is action. “Love” that never gets to action is sterile; “faith without works is dead.”

So this is the process of love, and it can be summed up as “taking the other person seriously.” Really seriously: by honoring the divinity within them; by hearing them out, not gaslighting or dismissing them, not saying they’re oversensitive or overreacting. And finally, by loving action that comes out of what we’ve heard and seen.

So who is our God? Our God is mystery, which we’re invited to meet with awe. Our God is loving community, into whose love we are immersed in baptism, and we’re invited to practice living immersed in it all our lives.

Finally, our God, Hebrews tells us (12:29), is “a consuming fire.” There’s a wonderful story from the desert fathers, in which Abba Lot goes to his elder Abba Joseph and says, “Abba, as far as I can I pray my little office, I fast a bit, I read the psalms. I mostly live in peace, and I try to purify my thoughts. Tell me, what else can I do?”

And Abba Joseph gets up, stretches his hands toward heaven, and his fingers turn into burning lamps and he says, “Well, why not become fire?”

Our God is fire: is passion, energy, active and attractive, and we are created as sparks off that fire, made to be alight with that same flame. Now, temperaments differ, and some people are more passionate while others are more placid by nature. But placid people have their passions too. And has there ever been a saint who wasn’t passionately in love with God?

What do we do with that? Well, we pay attention! Pay attention to what stirs your passion, and find God in it—then bring the gift you find there to others. Maybe it’s music, maybe it’s art, or sports, or working with children, or writing poems, or making sandwiches for homeless people.

But somewhere, out of the mystery of the God in whose image we’re made, out of the circle of loving community that draws us in to share that divine communion, out of the flame of passionate energy that set the disciples’ hair on fire at Pentecost—out of that will come your very own call and ministry.

Whatever your age, whatever your physical condition, whatever your finances, whatever your past…our Triune God is drawn irresistibly to you, and draws you into the circle of Their divine love. So jump on in! I promise: you will not regret it.