Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the LORD saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God. Exodus 3:1-6 i
You likely know the old saying, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” We have before us today an icon depicting God, the Holy Trinity, whose description is beyond words. This icon was actually written by our own brother Eldridge Pendleton. Iconographers “write” icons – they don’t “paint” icons – they “write” icons because icons tell a story. This particular icon is in the school of Andrei Rublev, the great 15th century Russian iconographer. ii
Some of you may come from a tradition where icons – these windows to God – were very much a part of your religious formation. For some of us, icons may offer new and welcoming ways to gaze on God and God’s company. For others of us, icons may seem to skirt the Old Testament prohibition against creating of “graven images.” You’ll recall in the 10 Commandments, “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.”iii If we read the Scriptures backwards, that is, to take our experience of Jesus, the Christ, and then look backwards, we have a new reading of the old. There’s this “iconic” phrase in the Letter to the Colossians: “He is the image of the invisible God.”iv The actual Greek is, “He is the icon of the invisible God.” Jesus puts a face, a body, a name, a heart to the “invisible God.” Jesus, the icon of God. Here is this beautiful icon before us we see the God as a Trinity, three persons in a circle of adoring love.v
The description or doctrine of God as a “Trinity of Persons” is not explicitly found in the Scriptures. We can infer a doctrine of the Trinity based on the biblical writings, but how you organize those thoughts, make sense of them, justify their relative importance is a matter of incredibly diverse opinion. It’s not unlike the old story of lining five people up on a street corner, asking them to watch an event, then listening to them as describe in their own words what happened and why. So the story goes, you’ll get five different accounts from the five different people.
If we were to look back two thousand or so years and take the long view on Christianity, we (obviously) get a great diversity of opinion on what has happened, and what is happening, with God known to be the Creator: the envisioning, bespeaking, demanding, unwavering, untouchable, faceless, nameless God whom Jesus comes to call abba, “papa.” God, the Father. Yet, Jesus says he is “at one with” this God. (“If you’ve seen me you’ve seen the Father,” he says.) This is Jesus, the surprising, sometimes disappointing, long-awaited Messiah who is created in the very image of the God whose image was not to be created: Jesus the innocent, afflicted, salving, saving, all-so-human incarnation of this One God. Jesus, the Son, embodies God with us, God Emmanuel. And then he leaves us. At least he leaves the earth in bodily form. In his leaving, he promises not to leave us “comfortless.” He says we shall experience more of what we’ve seen in him through God the Spirit, who will come to us. This is God the Spirit, whom we experience as unifying, sustaining, empowering, reminding, interrupting Spirit who comes on Pentecost, and who keeps coming to us day by day: Prince of Peace, Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Holy One, Lamb of God, Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Root of David, Lord God Almighty, Word of Life, Author and Finisher of our Faith, Advocate, The Way, Dayspring, the burning bush, the Lord of All, Son of God, Shepherd and Bishop of Souls, The Truth, The Savior, Chief Cornerstone, King of Kings, Righteous Judge, Light of the World, Morning Star, Sun of Righteousness, Chief Shepherd, Resurrection and the Life, Horn of Salvation, Governor of our souls, the Comforter. All of these experiences of God are summed up in the doctrine of God as a Trinity of Persons, which is the church’s trying to make sense of our ongoing experience of God with us, past and present and future.
In a few moments we will be invited to recite the Nicene Creed. This creed is a fourth-century attempt to faithfully summarize the early church’s very diverse opinions about God as a Trinity of Persons. Like with most creedal statements, the Nicene Creed begins with the verb to believe: “We believe….” The word “creed” comes from the Latin, credo, which means literally, “I give my heart.” Etymologically speaking, a creed is more language of the heart than it is language of the head. Diana Eck of Harvard Divinity School says that “the word believe is a problematic one today, in part because it has gradually changed its meaning from being the language of certainty so deep that I could give my heart to it, to the language of uncertainty so shallow that only the “credulous” would rely on it. She says, “Faith… is not about propositions, but about commitment. It does not mean that I, intellectually, subscribe to the following statements, but that I give my heart to this reality… [Even our word] believe …comes to us from the Old English belove, making clear that this too is meant to be heart language. To say ‘[we] believe in one God, holy and undivided trinity,’ is not to subscribe to any uncertain proposition. It is a confession of commitment, of love.”vi We believe, we belove God whom we believe loves us, loves you.
I return to this beautiful icon of the Trinity we have before us today. Icons are typically written in reverse perspective. We, who gaze on the icon, are drawn into the icon. The invitation with this icon is to see our own place at the table. There are the three persons… and then, a space for the fourth. You are the fourth guest at this table of fellowship. God gives us all an invitation to the table, to share in the life of God. For some of us, that invitation may be wonderful and immediate, like someone who loves us saying to us, “Welcome home.” For others of us, we may find some resistance within ourselves. The resistance may have to do with a sense of our “worthiness” to receive God welcome, to know God’s love. You might think you’ve got too much stuff in your past, too many screw-ups in life, too much brokenness, too much inconsistency for God to love you. But God knows better, and God knows you better. God really does love you. And God’s love for you is not ultimately because of you. God’s love for you is because of God. God loves whom God creates. And if there’s any question about your “worthiness” in God’s eye, not to worry. Jesus covers for you. Jesus puts in the good word for you, intercedes for you, saves you. You actually are the apple of God’s eye.vii And God adores you. Accept God’s invitation to be loved by God, and forever.
We as Christians believe, belove one God: the God of Gods who was in the beginning, the alpha; the God of all eternity, the omega, and in the mean time – sometimes in the toughest of times; the God who meets us along the Way, “the way, and the truth, and the life,” to use the language of Jesus. This God, our God, whom the Church reverences as the holy and undivided Trinity. Blessed be God, for ever and for ever.
i There’s an ancient story of Rabbi Joshua ben Qarehah’s being asked, “Why, of all things, did God choose the humble thornbush as the place from which to speak with Moses?” The rabbi replied: “If God had chosen a carob tree or a mulberry bush, you would have asked me the same question. Yet it is impossible to let you go away empty-handed. That is why I am telling you that God chose the humble thornbush to teach you that there is no place on earth bereft of the Divine Presence, not even a thornbush.”
ii Andrei Rublev wrote “The Holy Trinity” ca.1410-20, and is displayed at the Tretiakov Gallery, Moscow. The work was created for the abbot of the Trinity Monastery, Nikon of Radonezh, a disciple of the famous Sergius, one of the leaders of the monastic revival in the 14th-century Russia.
iii Quoted from Exodus 20:4 “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.”
iv Quoted from Colossians 1:15 “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” See also Colossians 3:10.
v Iconographers have drawn on the picture of the hospitality of Abraham, who was visited by three wanderers (Genesis 18:1-18) both to respect the Old Testament prohibition of creating images and to depict how God, the Trinity, prefigured into ancient history. Here we see remembrances of the tree at Mamre, enlarged into a house of God, the calf served to the angelic visitors, now offered in a Eucharistic cup.
vi Encountering God; A Spiritual Journey from Bozeman to Barnaras by Diana L. Eck (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993), pp. 95-96.
vii Psalm 17:8.
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