I read of a Sunday School class that was studying the Apostles Creed in order to more fully understand God and the Trinity. Each member of the class was given a section of the creed to learn by heart, then Sunday by Sunday they would take turns reciting the creed, each student repeating his or her part. And so, one Sunday morning, the class began. The first child stood up and said “I believe in god the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth” and continued. The second child stood up and said “I believe in Jesus Christ, his only son, our Lord” and so on. Then . . . silence. One girl spoke up and said, “I’m sorry teacher, but the boy who believes in the Holy Spirit is absent today.”
I could stand here and begin my sermon with definitions and explanations of the hypostatic union of the Trinity or an evaluation of pneumatology or some such grand theological and doctrinal study that we learn in seminary. But, as interesting that might be to me, it truly does not have much discernible application in our daily lives.
Instead, I’d like to do something a little different this morning. I would like to take us on a journey of art history. In the Russian Orthodox Church, namely in the 14th and 15th centuries, there were icon masters who wrote — or painted — the first icons. These icons “hovered between two worlds, putting into colors and shapes what cannot be grasped by the intellect. They rendered the invisible visible.” One such icon master was Andrei Rublev. One of his icons is what you have in your bulletin. It is called The Trinity or The Hospitality of Abraham. In it are pictured three figures at a table. However, with all icons, if we want to more fully appreciate its voice or the invisible, we should study what is visible.
It is said that Rublev was inspired to create this icon from his reading of Genesis 18:1-8 that says “The LORD appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground. He said, ‘If I have found favor in your eyes, my Lord, do not pass your servant by. Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree. Let me get you something to eat so you can be refreshed and then go on your way.’ ” Another part of the story tells that the three individuals were angels. However, what I want to focus on is that Abraham looked up and saw three men and called them “LORD.” Singular. Three as one.
Let us look to the image on the front of your bulletin and move from left to right. On the left is a figure clothed in fine gold, although it is uncertain whether he is looking to the two figures who join him at the table or to the cup resting at the center of the table. This figure, the only one sitting upright, God the Father, raises his hand slightly to the figure on his left. Above his head in the background is a house, a house of many mansions. The doors to the house stand open, perhaps in anticipation of the returning prodigal son. In the center is a figure clothed in majestic purple and blue. His gaze fixed on the figure on the left, on God the Father. His hand, resting on the table, has two fingers that point to the third figure at the right of the icon. Above this middle figure is a tree, the Tree of Mamre that stood outside Abraham’s tent, but this tree is also the tree upon which our Savior Christ died. This middle figure is God the Son. The figure on the right, God the Holy Spirit, his gaze also focused upon God the Father, is clothed in both green and blue. Above this figure is a rock, difficult to see in the faded icon, which also bows in recognition of authority and glory to God the Father. This rock is a place of privilege in which to encounter the Almighty. In the middle of the table is a cup, a chalice, spaced perfectly amidst the three figures. This chalice contains the sacrifice that Abraham would have made to his angelic guests, and yet it also contains the sacrificial blood of our own Savior Jesus Christ. Metropolitan Filarete said in 1816, “The cup, a point of convergence between the three, contains the mystery of love of the Father who crucifies, the love of the Son who is crucified, and the love of the Holy Spirit who triumphs with the force of the cross.” As we see the obvious cup that sits on the table, the three figures themselves make the outline of a cup as well. The mouth of the cup outlined by the three figures with the stem of the chalice outlined by their closer-set knees. Additionally, God the Son sits within the outline of this cup. On the table beneath these figures is a small rectangle. This rectangle would be, for the artist Andrei Rublev, a place in which the relics of the martyrs would have been placed, a space of honor and testament of faith to those who had gone before. That space testifies to the truth and grace offered to us through the figures who sit at the table.
We are in an age of hyper-focused attention, extreme specialization, selfies taken with precision-perfected filters. This laser-focused attention on self fails us in that we lose awareness of the whole. We engage in violence to the complete because we sacrifice the whole for self. Instead, today on Trinity Sunday we are to step away for a moment and observe the whole. As Henri Nouwen said of this Rublev icon, “…we place ourselves in front of the icon in prayer, [and] we come to experience a gentle invitation to participate in the intimate conversation that is taking place among the three divine angels and to join them around the table. The movement from the Father toward the Son and the movement of both Son and Spirit toward the Father become a movement in which the one who prays is lifted up and held secure.”
Look to the image for a moment more. Look to the faces of the figures. Drawn in reverse perspective, the profiles of the figures are not exact. Instead, the faces are turned slightly outward…toward us as we gaze upon them. As we sit with the intimacy of this exchange, Nouwen reflected that during a hard period of his life in which he found verbal prayer grievous, his mental and emotional fatigue had made him the easy victim of feelings of despair and fear. He found that a long and quiet presence to this icon became the beginning his his healing. As he sat for long hours in front of Rublev’s Trinity, he noticed how gradually his gaze became a prayer. This silent prayer slowly made his inner restlessness melt away and lifted him up into the circle of love, a circle that could not be broken by the power of the world. Even as he moved away from the icon and because involved in the many tasks of everyday life, he felt as if he did not have to leave the holy place he had found in the icon. He knew that the house of love he had entered had no boundaries and embraced everyone who desires to dwell there.
While I dare not describe the Trinity, it is most certainly not beyond our participation. We are not excluded from communion within it. The relationship of the Trinity is open to all. It stands ready to receive us and have us enter. Drink deeply and be filled with the love and mercy of God Almighty.
In the words of the poet George Herbert, let us pray:
Lord, who hast form’d me out of mud
And hast redeem’d me through thy bloud,
And sanctifi’d me to do good;
Purge all my sinus done heretofore:
For I confesse my heavy score,
And I will strive to sinne no more.
Enrich my heart, mouth, hands in me,
With faith, with hope, with charity;
That I may rune, rise, rest with thee.