breathing new life into old words

preaching a sermon, referencing Psalm 8, Romans 5.1-5, John 16.12-15, and Proverbs 8.1-4, 22-31,  preached with the people of Trinity Episcopal Church, Washington, DC, on Trinity Sunday, May 22, 2016

Since the 10th century in western Christendom (which is to say, from Rome and toward the west as opposed to Constantinople or now Istanbul and toward the east), the Sunday following the Day of Pentecost is Trinity Sunday. The only day of the church year devoted to a doctrine, an articulation of belief. Concerning the Trinity, the nature of God. The God who is transcendent, above, beyond us, as the psalmist sings of the Lord, our Governor, whose Name is exalted, immanent, with us in Jesus through whom Paul declares, “we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand…hav(ing) peace with God,” and within us through the Spirit who John describes as source and speaker of truth and, according to Proverbs, the wisdom of creation.

Adoration of the Trinity (1511), Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Trinity, the word, not found in the Bible, was first used in the third century by the African Carthaginian scholar Tertullian.[1] In the fourth century, the belief “in one God, one Lord, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit” was codified in the Nicene Creed; which, honesty compels the confession, was the product of a political process at the Council of Nicaea, involving majority vote. Therefore, some beliefs about God, Jesus, and Spirit were not included! Nevertheless, the doctrine of the Trinity helps us comprehend and communicate the nature of God.

But how?

How does the doctrine of the Trinity, by necessity using human language, help us grasp the exalted majesty, the ineffable mystery of God?

Even more, how can our words, which, as symbols, point beyond themselves, help us to conceptualize and convey with any adequacy and clarity the reality of the wonder that is God’s nature? To wit, hear again the words of this morning’s Collect: “Almighty and everlasting God, you have given to us your servants grace, by the confession of a true faith, to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity, and in the power of your divine Majesty to worship the Unity…” This is the sort of prayer that I, after having recited it, feel compelled to exclaim: “What?”

Still more, how can a nearly 1700-year old doctrine help us post-modernists who, in every aspect of our lives, are schooled and shaped by scientific inquiry and analysis, Enlightenment rationalism, astrophysics, cybernetics, quantum mechanics; all expanding our horizons of understanding, all exploding ancient, traditional categories of meaning?

It seems to me that we have some choices. We can ignore the Trinity as nonsense, unworthy of consideration. We can consider it an archaism and consign it to the proverbial dustbin of the dim past. Or, as true of all present-time wrestling with history’s inheritance, we can strive to breathe new life into old words, re-envisioning the Trinity so it becomes anew what we profess as the heart of our belief and confess as the truth of our hearts.

To do this, I heed the counsel of the 20th century French philosopher and Jesuit priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin,[2] who believed we are not human beings in search of spiritual experience, but spiritual beings, created by God who is Spirit,[3] immersed in human experience. So, I bid that we contemplate what the doctrine of the Trinity says about God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and about us.

Each of us has a religious impulse. Surely, we have heard or, from time to time, may have said of ourselves, “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” When folk say that, I think they mean that they seek spiritual enlightenment, spiritual growth, or spiritual depth, but not via institutional religion. Fair enough. Nevertheless, I believe, again, that each of us, by virtue of being alive, is embarked on a religious quest. For the word “religion” is derived from the Latin, religare, meaning “to bind” (which, by the way, produces the word “ligament”, which ties our bones together). We all need to formulate principles to hold things together. We all desire to make sense of this seemingly often random experience called “existence”. And this need, this desire, at its core, is religious.

Why do we need, desire to do this? Because we were conceived without our choice or control, born within boundless time and fathomless space, and brought into the grand continuum of history, with much coming before us, and, given our mortality, much coming after us. Perforce we must believe in something greater than we.

Speaking always, only for myself, I choose not something, but rather Someone: God. To paraphrase Voltaire, if God didn’t exist, I’d have to invent God[4] or some idea to express my unerring sense of the enormity of existence and my gratitude, with the psalmist, for how fearfully and wonderfully we are made.[5]

Now, once ushered into life in this world, we were launched on that universal existential quest for identity, each of us asking repeatedly, in one way or another: Who am I? Given my family of origin, later, my life’s vocation, and daily profession as a Christian, I chose and choose to follow Jesus. For I behold in him and his love, especially for the least, the last, the lost, his courageous commitment to his cause unto death, his redemptive resurrection, the incarnation of a righteous life that fulfills God’s intention from the dawn of creation.

But how do we follow him? How can we embody his love so that our lives, our words and our deeds, answer our question of identity? For Jesus embodies an unconditional love that humbles us. For we, even in our deepest desires to love others, if we are honest, must confess that our preferences, our affections and disaffections, our likes and dislikes, verily, our prejudices get in our way.

As for me, I’m intolerant of intolerance. If there is one thing I cannot understand it is our human incapacity to comprehend another, divergent point of view and, thus, our inability to accept the reality of those who are different. Yet, in this admission, I reveal my bias that with no subtle irony rejects those I deem biased!

So, how is it possible for us to reconcile our unrighteousness (I just shared one aspect of mine and I know y’all [that’s the Southern influence!] got some!) with the righteousness of Jesus who welcomes us without condition, to paraphrase the hymn, “just as we are without one plea”?

With gratitude, giving thanks for our creation by God as spirits enfleshed in human experience. That spirit, given the One by faith we follow is the Spirit of Jesus. His Spirit, who, greater than our preferences and prejudices, speaks to our conscience; challenging and confronting us, correcting and converting us. His Spirit, as Paul counsels us, who pours God’s love into our hearts,[6] empowering us to fulfill the hope of our hearts to do, to be love.

There is an ancient story told of a rabbi, who, in the manner of Jesus, taught whilst walking down the road, his disciples figuratively and literally following him. He asked, “How do you know when darkness hath given way to light?” The first disciple answered, “Rabbi, you know that darkness gives way to light when you can look in the distance and see a tree and know whether it is a fig tree or an olive tree.” The rabbi answered, “No”, and continued walking. After a while, he stopped, asking again, “How do you know when darkness hath given way to light?” The second disciple, secretly delighted that his brother disciple had failed in his attempt to answer correctly, and now pleased with his opportunity to prove his acumen, responded, “Rabbi, you know that darkness gives way to light when you can look in the distance and see an animal and know whether it is a sheep or a goat.” The rabbi answered, “No”, and continued walking. After a long while, he stopped and said, “You know when darkness hath given way to light when in the distance you see any man, woman, or child and there behold one whom God hath sent to you for you to love. Until you can do that, even at high noon, you dwell in darkness.”

By the presence and power of God and Jesus through the Holy Spirit, let us love. For that is how we breathe new life into old words!


Illustration: Adoration of the Trinity (1511), Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

The oil on panel painting (for it originally was affixed over an altar in a chapel) depicts the Trinity; God the Father wearing an imperial crown and a wide gilt cloak, lined in green and supported by angels, and holding a crucifix with a still-alive Jesus, above, the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove in a cloud of light surrounded by cherubim.

A host of heavenly saints are gathered, led by John the Baptist, cloaked in brown and green on the right, and the Virgin Mary, adorned in blue, on the left.

Below them, earthly multitudes of religious, led by the pope (on the left), secular authorities, led by the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire (on the right), and the mass of humanity (in the middle).

On the lower right, a self-portrait of Dürer holding a banner with the signature and date inscription: ALBERTUS DURER NORICUS FACIEBAT ANNO A VIRIGINIS PARTU 1511


[1] Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus (anglicized as Tertullian), 160-225

[2] French philosopher and Jesuit priest, paleontologist and geologist (May 1, 1881-April 10, 1955). The quote, a paraphrase taken from The Phenomenon of Man (Le Phénomène Humain, 1955).

[3] “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4.24)

[4] Voltaire, nom de plume of the French Enlightenment philosopher François-Marie Arouet (1694-1778). The quote, taken from “An Epistle to the author of The Three Imposters”, a poem in which Voltaire defends the idea of God’s existence as necessary for the maintenance of social order.

[5] Psalm 139.14

[6] Romans 5.5

2 thoughts on “breathing new life into old words

  1. I love Trinity Sunday but as you say it sure can be difficult to grasp the mystery of God. One thing I learned from this sermon is that I clearly need to recognize more effectively how to know when darkness gives way to light so I can see Everyone as someone I’m supposed to love. In addition, I truly appreciate the concept of love breathing new life into old words! Thank you for your sermon.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Loretta. Truth be told, the story of the rabbi and his disciples, which I and others have used many times before (for now I cannot remember when I first heard it) was not the written conclusion of this sermon…nor was the idea/notion that our doing and being love through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit breathed new life into the old words (of the doctrine of Trinity, in other words, restoring the Trinity doctrine as an active profession of what we believe and a renewed confession of the truth of our hearts). Both came to me in the moment. The story at both services. In addition, the closing line, at the second service. Even more, as I reflect now, as the Spirit in Hebrew “ruach” and in Greek “pneuma”, both meaning “wind” or “breath”, it makes grand sense to me that we, empowered by that Spirit, in our living unconditionally, verily, literally do breathe new life into old words.


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