On Wolves, MLK, and the Trinity: Revealing the Image of God in Nature

This past Sunday was Trinity Sunday. In his first sermon as a newly ordained priest, ECN editor Nathan Empsall said that the Trinity shows us that all of nature, including humanity, is created in the image of God: The image of interconnection.

A version of this sermon was delivered at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, Nathan’s sponsoring parish in the Diocese of Spokane.

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May I speak with God, who is Creator, Word, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

I start every sermon I give with that same short prayer, but I think it’s an especially appropriate invocation this week, because today is Trinity Sunday.

Let’s be honest: Defined by words like begatting, proceeding, co-substantive, and obscure Greek terms like “homoousion,” the Trinity is an abstract concept, somewhat hard to understand. How can something be three persons, yet still just one? How can the Word and Spirit have been created, yet always have existed?

The Trinity is esoteric stuff, and it’s not what’s on our minds when we cry out to God in the pains and joys of daily life. We’re certainly thinking about God in those moments, but not necessarily the weirder details.

The Trinity isn’t even necessarily Scriptural. Nowhere does the Bible explicitly tell us that God is three persons in one. It’s a reasonable way of interpreting what the Bible does say – probably even the best way – but it’s still an interpretation.

And yet, for all that, I do still think the Trinity matters. For two big reasons, I still care about the Trinity. This morning, instead of talking about what the Trinity is, I’d like to talk about why this abstract fourth-century theology actually does still matter to us as Christians today.

First, the nature of the Trinity shows us the nature of creation.

Genesis tells us that we are created in the image of God. When we look at both the Trinity and at environmental science, we start to see how this is true. The Trinity is an interconnection between three persons, in one. Likewise, the whole earth is interconnected, and all of humanity is interconnected—with one another, with the earth, and even with the Trinity itself.

When we see these interconnected designs at every level, we can see that yes, humans and even the earth itself really are created in the image of God, the image of an interconnected Trinity.

Three persons in one. It’s said that when St. Patrick introduced Christianity to the Irish in the fifth century, he used a shamrock, or a three-leaf clover, to explain the idea. Different leaves, yet the same clover. Interconnected.

We could go into more detail about those interconnections – how the Father begats the Son; how the Spirit proceeds from the Creator; how the begatting and proceeding are constant actions rather than single moments, with no beginning and no end – but personally, I think the interconnected three-leaf clover is far more descriptive than the technical details could ever be.

What’s really cool about using the shamrock to show this three-in-one relationship is the reason St. Patrick chose the clover in the first place: The Irish Celts cared deeply about God’s earth, and the shamrock represents that earth. Here we have a piece of the earth showing us the interconnected nature of God – while the earth itself also has an interconnected nature.

Scientifically, the earth is defined by the countless ways that the geosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere, cryosphere, and biosphere are all locked together, just like the Olympic rings. Water weathers rocks and dead plants decompose. The rocks and decomposed plants combine into soil, which feeds nutrients to living plants, which exchange oxygen and CO2 with the air. Meanwhile, deer feed off those plants, and predators keep the deer population in check, which means that the plants don’t all get eaten, letting the soil erode away.

This absolutely blows my mind: Want healthier soils or stable riverbanks? Bring back wolves! Environmental managers have seen entire river ecosystems recover just by reintroducing endangered predators. Such interconnection of seemingly unrelated things isn’t just science; it’s the design that God used to create the world.

And because of this deep planetary interconnection, everything we do on one side of the earth impacts everyone on the other side of the earth. A perfectly sensible interconnected design for God to give the earth, since it’s God’s own nature as the Trinity.

And just as the Trinity and the earth come together in the interconnected design of the shamrock, they also come together in today’s reading from Proverbs: Wisdom, or the Holy Spirit, is present in the creation of the mountains and the hills; there when God establishes the heavens and the edges of the sea, “rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.”

Delighting in the human race. That makes sense, for interconnection is not only the design that the Trinity shares with the earth, but with humanity as well. As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Likewise, womanist author Karen Baker-Fletcher writes, “Jesus not only sustains us but teaches us to feel anew the interconnectedness of life. Feeling such interconnectedness moves people out of prisons of individualism to relearn compassion, to know experientially and to understand… that when one suffers all suffer, that when one rejoices all rejoice. It moves believers to act for justice.”

We are all connected together – and also all connected with the Trinity. God became incarnate when the second person of the Trinity, the Word or Son, took on human form in Jesus Christ. Jesus was both fully God and fully human, binding humanity together with the Godhead. When we participate in life with Jesus Christ, reveling in Christ’s grace and love, we participate in the life of the interconnected Trinity.

We also participate in the life of the Trinity when we take action to care for creation, whether the environment or one another, for the whole of creation shares the interconnected image of God.

The second reason I believe it is good to care about the Trinity is because when we spend time with the concept of the Trinity, we spend time with God. When we discuss the Trinity, we discuss the identity of God.

To be clear, God is so much bigger than we are, truly infinite, which means that we will never be able to understand the totality of God. Jesus said it in today’s Gospel: We are currently incapable of bearing everything He could say to us.

These complicated topics that explain the Trinity: Begatting, proceeding, co-substantial – they cannot be explained in a single sermon. They can’t even really be explained in a single course on ancient theology (he says as a recent student in one such course).

And that’s okay. The point is not to understand the topics after we’ve studied them; it’s just to study them in the first place. As the saying goes: The journey often matters more than the destination.

We don’t need to understand God, we just need to be in relationship with God, growing closer and closer still to our creator as we rejoice in the gifts of love and grace. The way we build that relationship, like any relationship, is by spending time with our partner – with God.

And that means spending time with the Trinity, even if we don’t understand it. Yes, the fact that it is so abstract and complicated means studying it can be hard work – hard work that may or may not lead to more knowledge, but does draw us in closer to God. With that kind of reward, the hard work is always worth it.

In my seminary course on ancient theology, I wrote the following at the very end of my final exam: “Debating the number of Christ’s natures and wills, rather than more obviously immediate daily concerns, can feel like we’re arguing about whether the color gray is spelled “g r e y” or “g r a y.” That’s a silly thing to argue about for very long. But we find that spending time with the question of the color’s spelling can lead us to discuss the color itself, and as a result, we know every shade of the color gray intimately well, along with its adjacent brown and black, and even the whole color wheel. We’ve learned some of the principles for creating tasteful color schemes, about the history of different English and American spellings, and about what that tells us of history itself.”

“We find the question of the spelling of gray still unresolved and just as obnoxious as ever, yet we also find ourselves wiser, calmer, and more colorful as a result of the conversation. And so it is with exploring the Trinity. Reflecting on God’s persons, subjects, and natures causes us to spend time not just with the concept of the Trinity but with the Trinity itself, drawing ever closer to God.”

How, specifically, do we spend that time with God outside of Sunday morning? How do we embark on these complicated reflections, and let them form who we are at our very core?

Begin with prayer. If you don’t have time to pray, then do you work prayerfully, and dedicate every busy moment to God. That’s prayer too.

Read books, and if you’re too busy for books, then articles. And not just about the Trinity, but about the interconnected world the Trinity calls us to care for. Read about social justice and environmental justice, so we that can we better love God’s children, interconnected with us and made in the Trinity’s interconnected image.

Learn Scripture and theology. Join or organize a Bible study. If you want to go deeper, consider joining EFM, if available in your parish or area.

At a minimum, read Scripture at home every day, even if just for five minutes. Thomas Cranmer, author of the original Book of Common Prayer, wrote that we don’t just read Scripture to learn about God; we read Scripture to learn about ourselves—to learn who we are and discover how we are to live.

Who we are, of course, is children of a Triune God created, along with our whole planet, in the interconnected image of that Triune God. And how we are to live is in pursuit of justice, for one another and for the earth we depend on as the interconnected creation of an interconnected God.

The Trinity will always be a mystery to us. And that’s a beautiful thing, because we can study and revel in the mystery, always joyously diving in, always finding something new to guide our actions, and something new to love.

Amen.

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