Grace Presbyterian Church
June 11, 2017, Trinity A
Trinity Sunday is a field of landmines.
As one of the few special Sundays on the liturgical calendar that takes a doctrine as its subject rather than an event in the church’s tradition, it can easily seduce a preacher into a futile attempt into explaining said doctrine. Not only is such sermon unlikely to be very successful at engaging hearers, but it also puts the preacher at risk for any of a multitude of errors that have, at some time in the church’s history, been denounced as heresies.
I’m not kidding.
If you saw my Facebook page this week or the church’s page this weekend, you might have noticed an odd little animated example of these pitfalls attached to the Trinity. In the cartoon St. Patrick attempts to explain the Trinity to a pair of supposedly simple Irish cousins through (at their request) a series of metaphors, only for those “simple” Irish country folk to shoot Patrick down with the name for the heresy expressed in the metaphor. Water appearing in three different forms – liquid, ice, vapor? Denounced as “modalism,” which was named as heresy at the council of Constantinople way back when. The three-leaf clover? A violation of the teaching that the three persons of the Trinity are of one substance, and are not distinct “parts” of God. This goes on until Patrick finally rants:
All right, fine! The Trinity is a mystery that cannot be comprehended by human reason, but is understood only through faith, and is best confessed in the words of the Athanasian Creed, which states that we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in unity, neither confusing the persons nor dividing the substance; that we are compelled by the Christian truth to confess that each distinct person is God and Lord, and that the deity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is one, equal in glory, co-equal in majesty!
To which those “simple” cousins respond, more or less, “well, why didn’t you say so?”
So no metaphors here. Accidental or not, I don’t need any heresies to deal with right now. Preaching is hard enough as it is.
But if it’s all that difficult, then what’s the possible benefit of having a whole Sunday devoted to this mysterious and seemingly inexplicable concept? Why have a Trinity Sunday at all if all it does is get preachers in trouble?
I think there are a few reasons.
I doubt this is a primary reason, but one of the great benefits of the doctrine of Trinity to the development of a real, humble, mindful spirituality is precisely that it is so incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to explain or to comprehend.
Humanity has this terrible, destructive habit of taking very scant scriptural evidence – say, the two passages read today, both of which more or less take Trinity as given without bothering to explain – and turning (or trying to turn) them into hardened dogmas to be used for judgment rather than instruction for the purpose of edification. Even a couple of days ago, when I was supposedly on vacation, I ended up in a conversation in which I ended up being asked “so who am I supposed to say wrote it,” referring to part of the Bible, to which I could only respond “you’re supposed to say you don’t know.”
Do we really think we will win the world to discipleship by logic and factual argument, or by having an airtight system in which no one can poke holes? No, that really isn’t how it works. The sooner we give up the idea that we’ve got God pegged the better. Really, what kind of God would an easily explainable God be?
Following on this, another possible value of the Trinity as a subject to consider is perhaps in its suggestion of community and togetherness even in the very nature of God. God is One, even as God is Three – Father, Son, Spirit in a relational sense and in the formula we usually speak in many churches, but we might also describe the Trinity as Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, emphasizing ways that humanity has experienced God working in God’s world from creation to the redeeming act of the cross to the ongoing sustaining presence recognized in the form of a mighty wind and tongues as of fire at Pentecost. It’s possible we would be well served to widen our vocabulary for speaking of the Persons of the Trinity, rather than being tied down to a single exclusive formula that fails to teach us and bring us into a deeper experience of God as One and God as Three, an experience that might lead us to reconsider our own experience as community, as the body of Christ, as the recipients of the fruits of the Spirit, so that we understand ourselves much more as “we” and get less hung up on the “me”.
This last also points to something that is most useful about these scriptures offered for Trinity in the lectionary. As noted before, both the passages from Matthew and 2 Corinthians more or less seem to assume a three-in-one God even as they also put forth God as still one even as three, so to speak. Matthew’s record of Jesus’s parting words to his disciples places the now-familiar Trinitarian formula – “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” in the context of Jesus’s charge to the disciples to go – “go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them… .” While there’s a certain moment of pause when we, recognizing Jesus as Son of God, note that he’s evoking himself in this formula the way Matthew describes it, we don’t really think about it too much; it has simply become so commonplace that it is part of the sonic furniture of worship, so to speak, only examined more closely on an occasion like today.
Paul’s closing salutation, on the other hand, is born of a much more difficult situation. 2 Corinthians is a hard letter, written to a church that had brought great stress and humiliation upon Paul, and the letter consists a great deal of Paul letting them have it theologically. Nonetheless, as the letter comes to a close Paul chooses to use this salutation to remind them of what they have in common, the experience of God that binds them together to one another and also to the God they worship in common.
While we don’t want to get hung up on trying to make this into Trinitarian dogma – “grace must come only from Christ, love only from God, and what does communion even mean?” – we do want to take note of how such an evocative greeting points us again to how we are bound together in God. We are bound together with all the saints in the grace that brings us before God, the love that builds us up in God, and the communion or fellowship we share with one another in God. Paul points the Corinthians (and us) to the fact that while we have experienced God in these differing ways, they are all experiences of God. Three in one, one in three.
Maybe that’s the point here. To speak of this inexplicable mystery of a three-in-one, one-in-three God is perhaps to force ourselves to be sensitive to how we have experienced God. The unspeakable grace and mercy of a Savior who suffered so in redeeming us and restoring us to God; the unspeakable love of a Creator God whose providence is truly limitless; the unspeakable sustaining power of the Spirit that perhaps we don’t recognize until the end of a day we were absolutely convinced we would never get through, only to discover that somehow, we did.
No analogies here, no set answers, no easy formulas. Today a preacher can only step away from the pulpit with mystery still fully in place, challenging you – challenging us – to be utterly confident in precisely what we can’t explain, in unending love and undying mercy and unexpected support that we can know as being from God even if we could never write a doctoral dissertation to prove we have conquered it.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, the Creator and the Redeemer and the Sustainer, Three in One, One in Three, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #1, Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty; #25, O Lord, Our God, How Excellent; #11, Source and Sovereign, Rock and Cloud; #432, How Clear Is Our Vocation, Lord