Trinity Sunday 2020

One of the jobs of historians is sifting through stories, sorting fact from fiction. It is an important job, because we want to know the truth. However, some of our stories are products of creative imaginations, and not of objective reality. A good example are some of the stories that have grown up around St. Patrick, the fifth-century Romano-British Christian missionary and bishop in Ireland. Patrick was never formally canonized by the church, so from an historic point of view, he isn’t really a saint, but nonetheless he has become a saint in the minds of many people. He is known as the patron saint of Ireland. And there are many legends that have grown up around him.

One is the legend of the snakes. The story goes that Patrick was in the midst of a 40-day fast upon a hill when he was attacked by a snake. He responded by banishing all snakes from Ireland and chased them all into the sea. Thus Ireland has no snakes. It is a fun story and one that gets told a lot. However, there is absolutely no evidence that there had every been any snakes in Ireland. In fact there are no reptiles on the Island. The climate wasn’t favorable for them to be there. It is the Ice Age, not Patrick, that is responsible for a snakiness Ireland.

Another story told about Patrick, however, may be fully or at least partially true. Patrick was born around the year 400 in Scotland. He was considered a romanized Briton and was named Magonus Saccatus Patricius. His grandfather had been a priest and his father a deacon. At the age of 16 he was abducted and taken into Irish slavery. He was taken to the northeast of the country and employed as a sheepherder, a role he served for six years. During those years he discovered a life of solitude and prayer and later became a priest and missionary. The story that is often told is that he used a Shamrock as a way of explaining the Holy Trinity to converts. There is no way to absolutely confirm or deny the story, but it seems very plausible. There are several different plants that have been called shamrock, but they share in common a three-leaf pattern.

The stem of the shamrock is a singular plant. The three leaves at the top do not make it three separate plants, it remains one even though there are three plants. It makes a good teaching tool to illustrate the Christian theological doctrine of one God expressed in three forms: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Even if the teaching illustration did not originate with Patrick, it is a good teaching tool and a story that can help people to understand a very complex theological concept.

Complex theologies and challenging intellectual games are not the essence of faith. The Gospel of Matthew reports that when his disciples asked him “who is the greatest,” Jesus responded by calling a child and putting it among the disciples and saying, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3) The Gospel presents it as a lesson in humility, but there is something very true about the ways in which our complex thinking and our tendency to make ideas and concepts challenging become barriers to simple faith.

Throughout my ministry I have often discovered that young children, people with cognitive disabilities, and elders suffering from memory loss, do not have any less faith simply because they don’t engage in wordplay. A large vocabulary of technical terms is not required to express faith. Sometimes all of the words and concepts get in the way of faith. From my perspective the concept of the trinity is a bit like that. If you simply say, “There is one God,” and then continue to say, “The creator is God,” “Jesus is God,” and “The Holy Spirit is God,” it is enough. You don’t have to worry about people somehow becoming pagans simply because there are three different ways of talking about God. If you embrace the radical monotheism of the Judeo-Christian tradition, there is only one God and there can be only one God. Therefore experiences with Jesus or with the Holy Spirit are all about the same (and only) God.

Often, however, we tend to over-think our ideas. We delight in wordplay and vocabulary and discovering new ways to talk about ideas that are important to us. I enjoy academic pursuits. I love to read and study and discuss and develop complex ideas and thoughts. But all of those complex thoughts don’t add up to faith. I live my faith in many arenas. I think about God, to be sure. But I also pray. I also listen. I also look for the presence of the holy in the midst of the lives of the people I serve. Thinking enables me to know about God. Serving others allows me to witness God in the world.

So today, Trinity Sunday, seems like a great day to practice the Rite of Confirmation with the four students who have been studying in preparation for the moment of confirming their baptisms and moving into an adult relationship with God and the church. They can give you a plausible explanation of the concept of the Holy Trinity. They will publicly state their beliefs in their statements of faith as well as their confirmation vows. The church, however, will be transformed more by their lives than by their ideas. Living their faith in places outside the church is far more important than getting the words right while they are inside the building.

Years from now, when we tell the stories of these days, I hope that we will remember more than ideas and concepts. I hope we will look back and tell the stories of lives of faith invested in serving others in the name of Jesus.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!