Math, The Trinity, and Communion
A sermon given by the Rev. Canon Frank Logue
at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Douglas, Georgia on Trinity Sunday—May 26, 2013
Math, The Trinity and Communion
You’re going to need to trust me a little this morning, that if I start this sermon in a way that seems to have nothing to do with anything, that before we come to the end not too many minutes from now that loose threads of the sermon will weave together in a way that is worthwhile.
I want to begin with nature, specifically spirals in nature (hold up a pineapple). I once saw a professor explain a pattern in spirals in a lecture by beginning with a pineapple. He counted the spirals on the face of the pineapple in one direction and found 8 of them. Counting the other direction, there were 13. Then he counted the spiral pattern in the unfolding of the center of a daisy and found 13 spirals in one direction and 21 in the other. The professor moved on to coneflowers and sunflowers and then back to a pine cone.
In the process he showed an overlapping series of numbers in the spirals in the sequence 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89. These numbers are part of the 13th century mathematician Leonardo de Pisa’s famed Fibonacci sequence of numbers. Any two numbers in the line add to make the next number in the line.
The amazing thing to me was not that a mathematician had come up with a string of numbers, but that these numbers occur with startling frequency in nature. It’s like Pythagoras who was so enamored of numbers, he taught that numbers were ultimate reality. But in doing so, he then found patterns all over nature that could be shown mathematically.
This same process led to the doctrine of The Trinity. The word Trinity never appears in the Bible. Yet, in passages like our reading from John’s Gospel, there were places where Jesus spoke of the gift of the Holy Spirit even as he spoke of his own oneness with the Father. Even in the Old Testament, we find passages like the three visitors who came to Abram at the Oaks of Mamre, there were three of them, yet they are described as the Lord, Yahweh.
All through the Bible there was both the idea of one God and the description of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. So moving from these passages to pure thought, the early church writer Tertullian coined the word Trinity. He also coined “Person” and “Substance” to describe what his mind saw when he contemplated the scriptures about the three in one God. This isn’t too surprising. Tertullian loved to create new Latin words. He made up 509 nouns, 284 adjectives and 161 verbs. Some were not used by other writers, but many of his new words lived on, especially Trinity, Person and Substance. Tertullian said that there is a Trinity—a threeness—with three separate persons of a single substance.
I want to test this theory about pure thought and reality. The early Christians looked to the God revealed in scripture, moved to the realm of pure thought and created, with a nudge or two from that undivided Triune God, the doctrine of The Trinity. Then moving back from that newly formed word, they looked anew at the scripture and discovered how well it all fit.
Reading the Bible anew, they now knew that God was in communion with God’s own self before the creation. God is a relationship among father, Son and Holy Spirit and then God creates all that is for relationship. If we humans preferred to be alone and came together only rarely to procreate and then separate as some animals do, the theory would fall short at this point. But we love to get together. We are in many ways, in fact, the beings in communion we were created to be. We are made for that connectedness we seek.
Jesus would put it this way: Love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. This is that for which we were created, love upward toward God and outward toward humankind. That web of relationships is very interconnected. When we come to love God more, we get that heart for other people God has and so love of God draws us to other people. And loving other people fully means seeing them as God sees them and so loving people can also draw us to God. It is the communion for which we were created. Loving others draws us toward God and loving God draws us toward other people, even people who have hurt us.
Then if you take this understanding of being created for relationship—relationship with God and with other people—then the world makes more sense. No matter what you are going through, you are not alone. You have God present within you and beyond you, and desiring you to live into that communion.
In case this seems theoretical, it is this understanding of The Trinity that allows us to even speak of God at all after tornadoes rip through an elementary school or after relationships get frayed and torn closer to home. If God was distant and merely stood as judge over creation, then when tragedy strikes we would have yet more proof that God is a big meanie hell-bent on nothing but pain and suffering, condemnation and judgment. Yes, judgement is real, but in Christ our Triune God holds out the possibility of redemption through faith in Jesus and ammendment of life.
I want to move further from theory into the reality of the tragedies of the chances and changes of this life. A professor of theology at my seminary found himself in a very dark place. His daughter died unexpectedly. One day while playing alone, she accidentally hung herself. Clearly not a suicide, it was very unfortunate accident. He was not going to speak at his daughter’s funeral. But he did decide to take to the pulpit to share from the midst of his pain and loss. Still very much in grief for his daughter, he nonetheless told those gathered, “I have been to the bottom and found it firm.”
“I have been to the bottom and found it firm.” When his daughter died, the theologian had cried out to God. And in his dark despair, God comforted him and his family, giving them the strength to bear the seemingly unbearable. He was not left alone. God was there grieving with the theologian and his family in their loss. His loss was real and very painful and God’s presence was just as real and comforting. This is where the seemingly theoretical idea of The Trinity meets the pain we feel.
When he said that he had been to the bottom, he meant it in a way I hope I never have to experience it. I’ve gone through some things and am going through some things now which are very trying. But I have to agree with the professor’s experience, in finding God’s presence and some sense of God’s peace that is beyond understanding even there in the pit of Hell.
What Paul offers us in our reading from Romans is a quick move from suffering to hope, “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”
God’s love has been poured into our hearts and we are never alone in our sorrow, though for example, when a loved one dies we may feel as abandoned as Jesus on the cross. God’s view of life and death is quite different from our own as God will be present to you whether you live or die. It is this view that Paul holds up. Paul did not have to fear execution for his Christian faith as he knew that whether he lived or died, God would not abandon him and so he could find hope even in suffering.
The one God we know and worship as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is God of both the living and the dead. God of those seemingly forgotten souls in storm ravaged Oklahoma. God of the firefighters, stockbrokers, secretaries and policemen whose earthly bodies were all but obliterated on September 11, 2001. God when tragedy strikes you, or when you feel like part of you has died due to the death of a loved one, the end of a marriage or a diagnosis you don’t know how to face. In all we face, God is present in our suffering and loss and then beyond. This is why the doctrine of the Trinity matters so deeply in times of suffering, pain and loss.
You were created, to be in healthy, loving, generative relationship with God and all creation. We don’t get to choose who we are in communion with for is being drawn into the very life of God, we are in communion with all those in whom God is in relationship. And it is in this sometimes tangled and torn web of relationships that we find salvation and the potential for the redemption of all creation.
This does not mean that sin and judgment are not real and that repentance and amendment of life are not part of being in relationship with God. Instead we find that in all the ways we fall short of the glory of God that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit do not abandon us, but remain with us and hold out the hope of redemption.
Karl Barth, a Swiss theologian is one pastor who knew the pain humanity could inflict as he was part of the confessing church that stood up to Nazi power and refused to pledge allegiance to Hitler. He wrote, “Redemption occurs in the midst of upheaval and amid the chaos of unredeemed humanity.” Perhaps we should be able to experience God when all is well and have that be enough, but it is for few of us, and so it is in upheaval and chaos that we discover the presence of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit who has not abandoned us and in this find in a peace beyond pain and loss and even death.
Like the predictable and beautiful spirals in the pineapple (showing the pattern once more on the pineapple), the nautilus and elsewhere in nature, we find that our Triune God has told us that communion is at the heart of creation and so when we go to the bottom, we find it firm, for in all the chances and changes of this life, we find that God never leaves us comfortless, but God comes to us. Relationships with God and each other. Communion. These are concepts woven into the very fabric of nature. And it is for this relationship we were created and out of this relationship that we find the strength to face the challenges of this life with hope and the power to offer love and forgiveness to others.