A Sermon by Pastor Chico Martin

The first time I preached on the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, there was a retired minister in church; he came up to me afterwards, and said, “You know, most people don’t understand the Trinity.”  His comment was no doubt true, but I find it curious that should there be so much difficulty with the doctrine at the heart of our belief; I also acknowledge the difficulty of speaking plainly about the Trinity in ways that are neither confusing nor simplistic.

Today we begin with the incident of the shamrock; when St. Patrick first arrived in Ireland,   as a 5th century missionary, the natives were a lawless folk. Patrick, it is said, entered into a contest with the magicians of the land, and his preaching of the Gospel won out, because the men were especially impressed “by the killing of the living and the resuscitation of the dead.” Patrick made many converts, including some members of the King’s household. King Laoghaire had two daughters, and when they asked about the Trinity, Patrick used a shamrock to explain its mystery, “showing how a single plant with three leaves is like the one Triune God with three separate and distinct Persons.”[i]

“Good St. Patrick travelled far, to teach God’s Holy Word

And when he came to Erin’s sod, a wondrous thing occurred

He plucked a shamrock from the earth and held it in His hand

To symbolize the Trinity that all might understand

The first leaf for the Father

And the second for the Son

The third leaf for the Holy Spirit

All three of them in one.”

Patrick’s instruction was a great aid in the conversion of the king’s two daughters, and we can imagine Patrick’s shock at hearing the modern abridgment of his illustration, the Irish one-liner, “God bless the Holy Trinity.” And therein lies the challenge, does it not?  In Patrick’s shamrock we see either the three or the one but not both at the same time.

Let me suggest we make one abstract distinction, for our consideration: God’s being as communion as distinct from our being in communion.  The first we know from knowledge, the second from experience; the trick will be to bridge the gap between them.

Jesus, himself the second Person of the Trinity, has taught us God is One, and throughout the first half of the liturgical year, we hear on many occasions about the one God who acts in history as three distinct persons.  This suggests that the oneness of God is entirely different from anything else we experience in our world.   If, then, we are in communion with God, how do we negotiate the distance between our experience of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and the otherness of God’s being as communion? Our answers shouldn’t overlook what we glean from our experience; we have a sense, a memory of being in communion with God, even as we struggle to articulate how our experience of God and our knowledge of God can jive.

Each of us will recall differently our experiences of God.  Maybe we were out walking in the woods, or sitting in a dimly lit pew in a church, or listening to a brilliantly illuminated piece of music, when we were transported, as if by an encompassing and loving power.  We could probably all sit around a table and share memories of moments when we experienced something like a sense of being moved outside ourselves.  If so, we will have identified a common experience of being present in two places at once:  where we are standing or sitting, and where we have been taken.  The point being, in such exquisite moments, it is possible to see both an entire leaf of clover and each of its three parts, the 3 in 1, at the same time.

You might remember the story of the Pope and the Rabbi.   Several centuries ago, the Pope decreed that all the Jews had to convert to Catholicism or leave Italy. There was a huge outcry from the Jewish community, so the Pope offered a deal: he’d have a religious debate with the leader of the Jewish community. If the Jews won, they could stay in Italy; if the Pope won, they’d have to convert or leave.

The Jewish people met and picked an aged and wise rabbi to represent them in the debate. However, as the rabbi spoke no Italian, and the Pope spoke no Yiddish, they agreed that it would be a ‘silent’ debate.

On the chosen day the Pope and rabbi sat opposite each other. The Pope raised his hand and showed three fingers. The rabbi looked back and raised one finger. Next, the Pope waved his finger around his head. The rabbi pointed to the ground where he sat. The Pope brought out a communion wafer and a chalice of wine. The rabbi pulled out an apple. With that, the Pope stood up and declared himself beaten and said that the rabbi was too clever. The Jews could stay in Italy.

Later the cardinals met with the Pope and asked him what had happened. The Pope said, ‘First I held up three fingers to represent the Trinity. He responded by holding up a single finger to remind me there is still only one God common to both our beliefs. Then, I waved my finger around my head to show him that God was all around us. The rabbi responded by pointing to the ground to show that God was also right here with us. I pulled out the wine and wafer to show that God absolves us of all our sins, and the rabbi pulled out an apple to remind me of the original sin. He bested me at every move and I could not continue.’

Meanwhile, the Jewish community gathered to ask the rabbi how he’d won. ‘I haven’t a clue,’ said the rabbi. ‘First, he told me that we had three days to get out of Italy, so I gave him the finger. Then he tells me that the whole country would be cleared of Jews and I told him that we were staying right here.

‘And then what?’ asked a woman. ‘Who knows?’ said the rabbi. ‘He took out his lunch so I took out mine.’

Simply put, this is the deal:  God loves us, no ifs, ands, or buts about it.  “In the Trinitarian dogma God is one, good, true, and beautiful because he is essentially Love, and Love supposes the one, the other, and their unity”.[ii]  The grandeur of this love, however, eludes us:  The love that defines God’s very being is incomprehensible.  So going back to our question, “how do we negotiate the distance between our experience of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and the otherness of oneness?”  let us ask a clarifying question:  Can God love himself?  Or put another way, can God bless himself?

The notion, quite frankly, is absurd.  We call a person who is in love with himself narcissistic. Is God vain? Absolutely no!  Have we existed forever, as the objects of his love?  Again, absolutely no!  Before we were created, then, how did God love others?  This is what one hymn says:

“When heaven and earth were yet unmade,

And time was yet unknown,

Thou in thy bliss and majesty

Didst live and love alone.”[iii]

Expounding on this stanza, we might say, for the uncreated God, Love always – forever – eternally – supposes the one, the other, and their unity, that is, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Here nothing is confusing:  if God is love, there must be a relationship between a lover and a beloved.  In any one loving relationship, there needs to be these three.

We have all had lovers.  We know what it means to experience and describe love as the one, the other, and their unity.  We’ve been there, and we are there.  We love each other, and we love God, or we wouldn’t be gathered as his church.  We are created to love God and to love each other.  Our lives are a turn from love toward love.  And when our experiences of intimacy and exchange are spaced out, we turn to knowledge, so that we can continue to commune with God.  Knowledge is an end in itself, an expression of beauty, and also a means:  a means for the spiritual practices of devotion and adoration, by which we experience love.

We are, as it turns out, always negotiating the distance between our experience of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and the otherness of oneness, because we are both lover and beloved. This is true for our human love, which we express in marriage, in our families, and for our neighbors as ourselves, and it is true also of our love for God.

Love is not an abstraction. When we are in communion with God, we are intimate with God as communion; 100% no-holds barred sharing: completely naked, exposed, vulnerable.  Intimacy with God, like intimacy with other people, facilitates exchange; we exchange our thoughts for his assurance, his peace for our worry, his knowledge for our ignorance, and our darkness for his light: “Oh what a glory that will be.” In love, we are the lover, pleading for intimacy.  In love, we are the beloved, exchanging our will for love’s will.  In love, we experience the reverie that make us one in communion.  Let us praise God, 3 in 1, and rejoice!  Amen.


[i] Thurston, H. J., ed., Butler’s Lives of the Saints, Vol. 1, 615, says “Tirechan has preserved the story of the conversion of Ethne and Fedelm, the two daughters of King Laoghaire, though the incident of the shamrock, used as an illustration of the Trinity in their instruction, is an accretion of much later date.” Tirechan is a compiler who is mentioned in Thurston’s Bibliography:

[ii] Hans Urs von Balthasar; see Dominic Robinson,  Understanding the “Imago Dei”: The Thought of Barth, Von Balthasar and Moltmann

[iii] Frederick William Faber, in Pfatteicher, Journey into the Heart of God, 289

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