God’s Excellence

A Sermon for the 1st Sunday after Pentecost:  Trinity Sunday

 Year A – 15 June 2014

 John Edward Miller, Rector


Psalm 8                                             BCP, p. 592
Domine, Dominus noster

O LORD our Governor, *
how exalted is your Name in all the world!

Out of the mouths of infants and children *
your majesty is praised above the heavens.

You have set up a stronghold against your adversaries, *
to quell the enemy and the avenger. 

When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, *
the moon and the stars you have set in their courses, 

What is man that you should be mindful of him? *
the son of man that you should seek him out?

You have made him but little lower than the angels; *
you adorn him with glory and honor; 

You give him mastery over the works of your hands; *
you put all things under his feet: 

All sheep and oxen, *
even the wild beasts of the field,

The birds of the air, the fish of the sea, *
and whatsoever walks in the paths of the sea

O LORD our Governor, *
how exalted is your Name in all the world.

The 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: Keep us steadfast in this faith and worship, and bring us at last to see you in your one and eternal glory, O Father; who with the Son and the Holy Spirit live and reign, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


 In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Once in a liturgical year, on the Sunday following Pentecost, the Church challenges us to focus on God’s identity. Today is the day – Trinity Sunday, when we think about God’s nature, and how we have come to know it. The identity of God, and ours as well, is tied to the teaching that God is triune – three persons in one divine nature. St. Augustine once quipped that if you deny the Trinity you will lose your soul; if you try to explain the Trinity you will lose your mind. Another theologian, Robert Farrar Capon, compared our attempts to describe the triune God to a bunch of oysters trying to describe a ballerina.[1] Barbara Brown Taylor thinks of the Trinity as a Zen koan, a logical conundrum. She considers it a mindbender that is impossible to explain, but one that pushes the mind to think outside of the box to find the truth to which it points.

In that spirit Taylor once entitled a sermon for Trinity Sunday, “Three Hands Clapping.” In her koan-like homily she offered this rationale for dealing with the triune God:

We would probably be better off if we left the whole subject alone, but if you’ve ever lain on your back looking up at a summer night’s sky full of stars then you know how hard that is to do. You lie there thinking unthinkable things such as what is out there, exactly, where it all stops, and what is beyond that. You lie there wondering who made it and why and where an infinitesimal speck of dust like yourself comes in. After a while you either starting making up some answers or else you go inside where it is safe and turn on the television.[2]

 Without saying it Taylor was painting her word picture of the starry night as an homage to Psalm 8. There the psalmist (who may well have been the shepherd-king David himself) gazes up at the same sky and attributes both the canopy of stars and his earthly home to the workings of God the Creator. Looking at the stellar lightshow, the poet is so awed that he can hardly contain himself. “O LORD our Governor,” he exclaims, “How exalted is your Name in all the world!” In an older translation, the psalmist’s expression of praise is “how excellent” rather than “exalted.” That may seem to be a difference of semantics, but the word “excellent” better describes the idea of surpassing, or transcending, which is right on point when it comes to speaking of God. Like Capon’s bunch of oysters we find it impossible to come close to the reality of God on our own. God always excels us; God always surpasses our understanding.

The only way we know anything about God’s identity is due to God’s willingness to reveal himself to us. No one could have “made up” the doctrine of the Trinity; it exceeds our limited grasp of the nature of things. It has taken a history of God’s acts of kindness for us to know something that rich and complex about the reality of God. The psalmist knew the limits of his perception; in his starlight reverie, he felt very small and insignificant as he gazed at that stellar grandeur. But he also knew that God had made him in his image, equipping him with eyes to see and ears to hear what God is like. In gratitude the psalmist wrote:

When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, *
the moon and the stars you have set in their courses,

 What is man that you should be mindful of him? *
the son of man that you should seek him out? 

You have made him but little lower than the angels; *
you adorn him with glory and honor . . .

 The truth is that the God who creates us is mindful of us; God does seek us out, revealing his identity to us. The history of Israel is replete with signs and wonders through which God calls his people into relationship with him. The biblical epic of Law and covenant, of prophets’ words and priestly tradition, records the faith of a people to whom God revealed his purposes for them. We Christians inherited that faith, extending the story of God’s salvation through witness to Jesus the Messiah. Islam, which is also an Abrahamic faith tradition, affirms much of what both Jews and Christians regard as sacred revelation, especially the incomparable oneness of the God revealed by prophets, including Moses and Jesus. Muslims see Mohammed as the last, or seal, of the prophets, correcting or reinterpreting what they believe has gone awry in Judaism and Christianity.   

But the question for us on Trinity Sunday is what distinguishes us from the other children of Abraham, the Jewish and the Muslim believers in the oneness of God? This is not a trick question; it goes to the essence of who we are as a people of faith. The first article of our creed proclaims: “We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.”[3] That great affirmation is basic to us as Christians. But it is also basic to Jews, who at morning and evening prayers, say, Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God! The Lord is one!”.”[4] Likewise, faithful Muslims intone many times daily, the creedal claim “There is no god but God.”[5] The belief in the oneness of God is something we share, and something we all stake our life on.

Our common creed is that God is our Creator, the single source of all life and all things in the cosmos. And yet, even though we agree that the Creator is one God, we Christians are not identical twins to either our Jewish or Muslim brothers and sisters. While our Abrahamic siblings base their monotheism on simple arithmetic unity, we look at God’s oneness and see depth. That is to say, in a nonphysical sense we Christians have come to regard the Being of God as “three-dimensional” rather than a single point of oneness. For us there is more to be said about God than that the one God, the Maker of heaven and earth, has called us to be his people, and has given us the Law and the prophets to govern our covenant relationship. So what is it that makes us unique among the other children of Abraham?

The obvious answer is Jesus, and that is in fact the truth. However, we need to be precise when we make that claim. Both Jews and Muslims recognize Jesus – as a teacher and prophet, and as a Middle-Eastern blood relative. We concur with those descriptions. But from the beginning the disciples of Jesus sensed something more about him – something that went beyond the roles of prophet, moral example, gifted teacher and healer, and peripatetic preacher. The followers of Jesus were attracted to him as to no other human in their experience. His charisma excelled everything they dreamed a rabbi, a prophet, or a messiah would have. Although some were disappointed by his pacifism with respect to the Roman Empire, and others offended by his willingness to mix with undesirables and outcastes, as well as his by his unwillingness to live by the letter of the law, Jesus excelled his detractors’ complaints. His legacy lives; his influence abides. Even death on a cross could not snuff out his life and his impact upon the world. Jesus was the “more” that spelled out the extent to which God so loved the world.   

The way Jesus lived, the way he died, and the way he triumphed over death disclosed a depth dimension to every part of the biblical perception of God and the world. It led Peter to confess, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,”[6] and it persuaded the Paul to declare, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself,”[7] and “in him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.”[8] These are bold affirmations; they reflect thinking that surpasses any simple explanation of who Jesus is for those who trust in him. The emerging Christian consciousness of the importance of Jesus would grasp that he was the key to understanding the depth of God’s Being. In due time, he would be seen as God’s only Son, “of one substance with the Father.”[9]

Thus the story and teachings of Jesus are disclosures of God. They comprise and inform the message of the New Testament. But in one section of Matthew’s Gospel, the “sermon on the mount,”[10] we get a comprehensive look at the depth dimension that Jesus gave to God’s loving purposes for humankind. We call that message “gospel,” because it is a “God-message” to all of us.

In the sermon, Jesus taught that there is a spirit of the Law that surpasses and fulfills the letter of the Law. For example, he said, if the Law forbids us to commit murder, that is the letter, the flat dimension of its intent. But Jesus added that hatred of one’s neighbor is evidence of that the same sin infects our heart too. Moreover, the spirit of the Law commends compassion, transforming the prohibition against murder into a reverence and respect for all life.

In like manner, he taught that God’s perfection is expressed in love that does not discriminate, because God does not play favorites. His love for us is as impartial as sunshine and rainfall.

Jesus also reminded his hearers that the Law says love one’s neighbor and hate one’s enemy. That’s not enough, he said. He taught that the spirit of the Law excels that simplistic formula.  He urged his followers to love their enemy and to pray for their persecutors.

He counseled the showing of mercy to everyone, endless forgiveness, and the sheathing of one’s sword, saying that those who live by it will die by it. And in his willingness to go to the cross without protest, he showed us a power that excels all other forms of force. It is the power of compassion rather than coercion. And in so doing he revealed that the love of God is stronger than death.

These teachings are good news because they are from God – the one who creates us, and who in Christ is revealed as our Redeemer. For us Jesus clarifies the depth of God’s identity. He brings into focus the many disclosures of God that we have received in Scripture and tradition. His life of love is God’s final Word to us about himself, and about the purpose of our life. He was the living truth that nothing surpasses love. But that truth is not confined to the past. It goes forward, continuing to beckon us toward the way, the truth and life of Christ. The gift of the Holy Spirit is God’s way of empowering and informing us for our journey into that excellent depth of love. Pentecost fulfilled what Jesus promised, namely that God would provide a counselor to lead us into the future as a witness to Christ. We rejoice in the Spirit as God’s “third dimension” – the energy that informs our understanding of the depth of God’s identity, inspires our Christian life, and edifies our ability to share the reality of God’s love.

Today is not only Trinity. It is Father’s Day, and I think the coincidence of these two themes for this Sunday is significant. The sonship of Jesus was a direct result of his Father’s love, and his life as one of us opened a portal on the depth of God’s love to all of God’s sons and daughters. The Spirit of that redemptive love has given birth to others who have made it known and accessible to us.

My father was one of those saints. He was paralyzed and placed on life support at age 27, removed from the world as we know it. My father was completely dependent on love – not only for survival with the care of my mother, but also for meaning of life in his remaining thirty-five years. Sustained by the power of love, Dad raised two sons to manhood, equipping us for our life without ever being able to shake our hand, to hold us in a strong embrace, to teach us how to play sports, or to wield a hammer, or drive a car. In fact he was on a short tether to his respirator. Consequently he could talk me through my Eagle Scout requirements, but never attend the ceremony, to show me how to be a husband, but could not attend my wedding, to counsel me about a host of moral and spiritual topics, but never able to attend a church service or hear me do what I am now doing – preaching the gospel message.    

Dad was powerless in a strictly control-centered view of power. His was the power of persuasion, of mercy, of wisdom, compassion, faithfulness, hope and transforming love. In short, he showed me Jesus-power, and I’m a better and stronger person because I trusted and received the gift of his influence. Dad showed me that there is a strength that is deeper than might, a strength that overcomes and excels weakness. He was reticent and modest about himself, but his life of grace, courage, and love spoke volumes about the God who created, redeemed, and sustained him.

In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, may we all come to know and embody the excellence of that love divine. Amen.           

[1] Robert Farrar Capon’s analogy was cited in the sermon, “Three Hands Clapping,” by Barbara Brown Taylor in her collection, Home by Another Way,.

[2] Barbara Brown Taylor, in Home by Another Way (Lantham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1999).

[3] The Nicene Creed, Rite II, The Book of Common Prayer, 1979, p. 358.

[4] Deuteronomy 6:4.

[5] The Shahada of Islam.

[6] Matthew 16:16.

[7] II Corinthians 5:19.

[8] Colossians 1:19.

[9] From the second article of the Nicene Creed.

[10] Q.v. Matthew 4-6.