Sermon for Trinity Sunday, Year A, "God in Community, Holy in One," 2 Corinthians 13:1-13, Matthew 28:16-20
2 Corinthians 13:1-3, Matthew 28:16-20
God in Community, Holy in One
I was torn between directions for my sermon when I picked our hymns for today. They mostly focus on our text from Matthew and the Great Commission and what it means, but I’ll have to save those thoughts for another sermon, because I just couldn’t stop thinking about the Trinity on this Trinity Sunday, and what I might say about this most unique aspect of Christianity. Our scripture texts are chosen in the lectionary because they both use a Trinitarian formula - “Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” naming the three persons of the Trinity. Last week, as we celebrated Pentecost Sunday, I mentioned that I find the Holy Spirit to be a little weird. Well: the Trinity? Definitely also weird. And it’s not just me who thinks so. Our conception of God as a Trinity - Father, Son, Holy Spirit, Creator, Sustainer, Redeemer, Parent/Child/Spirit, however we phrase it, our Christian understanding of God as Three Persons/One God: Well, of all of the many things that set religious traditions apart from each other, we can find common ground in so many ways. But the Trinity? It’s rather unique. Most Christians understand ourselves to be monotheistic - in other words, believing in one and only one God. But from the outside, people from other religious traditions hear this idea of the Trinity - that Jesus is also Divine, God in the flesh, that the Holy Spirit is also God - and declare that you can’t be Trinitarian - believing in a three-in-one kind of God, and still be monotheists, believing in one God without quite so many layers, or personalities, or complications.
And indeed - there are lots of reasons for those who are not Christian to be confused by the Trinity, because, honestly, we Christians are confused by the Trinity, sometimes without even realizing it. First: The word Trinity? It never appears anywhere in the Bible. The Bible says a lot of things about the nature of God, about who God is and gives us ideas about how to describe God from titles to descriptions of God’s character. And we learn a lot from the scriptures about Jesus and his relationship to God, and as we discussed last week, we get a lot of descriptions of the Spirit and what the Spirit does, and the sense that the Spirit is of God, is in Christ, is sent by God, by Jesus, to be with us. And yet, despite all this, nowhere does the Bible say: Hey, God is a Trinity, a Three-in-One deal.
So where do we get the notion of Trinity from? It’s an extrapolation. In other words, it’s a conclusion we reach by taking all the witness of the scriptures and trying to figure out what they’re telling us about God. Even though the word “Trinity” isn’t there, the early church leaders came to understand “Trinity” as the best way to describe God and the relationship between God who creates, who is the divine parent of Jesus and humanity, and Jesus who is the Christ, God-with-us, God in the flesh, and God’s Holy Spirit, sent through the ages to fill the hearts of God’s servants. It wasn’t exactly a simple and smooth process, though, coming to understand God as Trinity through the witness of the scriptures …
I remember that during my church history class in seminary we spent a lot of time talking about what can loosely be called the Trinitarian controversies - a variety of arguments about exactly what the Trinity is. Church leaders debated these fiercely contested questions at church councils, and there were strong “parties” that supported certain views. One party, for example, thought that any concept of Trinity would need to show that Jesus, the Son, was not comparable to God the father. But another group wanted to insist, with a very specific Greek word configuration, that God the father and God the son were “like according to substance,” even though this is never clearly stated in the scriptures anywhere. Even still, this same group who wanted to emphasize the divinity of Jesus also wanted to make it clear that only the Christ person of the Trinity was incarnate, enfleshed. God the Father does not suffer death on the cross, only Jesus the Christ, even though the Christ is one person of the Trinity. Another debate was over whether Christ was “begotten” or “made” – created by God, or existing with God in the beginning in a way different from the creation of human beings. Another debate questioned whether or not the fully human person of Jesus Christ was part of the Trinity, or just the divine Son. And they questioned what to do with that strange Holy Spirit thing, perhaps like we do today. They wanted to know if the Holy Spirit came from God the Father directly, or from the Father and the Son together.
All these details they eventually hammered out, though not always - not usually actually - in a friendly way, not always without labeling each other as heretics and running anyone who disagreed out of the church. Today, though, most of us, if trying to describe the Trinity? We’re (unintentionally) heretics too. All of the metaphors we have for describing the Trinity? For example, any Children’s Sermons you might have seen trying to teach kids about the Trinity that talk about the petals of a clover, or about how steam and water and ice are all forms of the same thing, or about how a person can be a parent and child and an aunt and a sister all at the same time while still being the same person - basically every one of those explanations is a form of modalism - our one God shows up in three different modes - a heresy rejected by the early church. I think fondly of one woman from my last appointment in Gouverneur - I shared with a Bible study group our tendency towards being heretics about the Trinity - and she was always trying to come up with an example that would be theologically correct according to our ancient predecessors. And every time, I’d have to tell her: Nope, that’s still modalism! We worship one God, three person. God is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. But the Father is not the Son or the Spirit. The Son is not the Spirit. But The Father is God. The Son is God, the Spirit is God. And they are three-in-one, One God. Simple? Not exactly. So, most of us are unintentional heretics. The Trinity is a central doctrine of Christianity, but most of us can only explain what it means in ways that have been, technically, deemed theologically incorrect. And if, then, most of us can’t even rightly say what the Trinity is, does the Trinity matter?
Of course, I think it does. Here’s why. I think the Trinity - and the history of debates, sometimes painful debates about the Trinity - help us wrestle with whether our notion of God is limited or expansive. We may not be participants in the church councils of the early church. But I think we do often engage in the same behavior as those folks did – we’d really like to get a fix on God if we can. We’re always trying to define God, define our faith, define a set of rules for our life with God. It’s a reasonable urge – we want to know our Creator better, we want to know who this Being is who gives us life and who we gather to worship. We want to know who this God is that makes us and shapes us and calls us to do all of these things that are so difficult and challenging and frustrating. We want to know better who it is who gives us love and grace and calls us children, as we call this Being a divine parent. It’s good and natural to want to know this God with whom we’re in relationship. But sometimes we cross a line, where we go from wanting to know God better out of a desire for relationship, to wanting to know God so that we can contain and control God. After all, if we can control God, perhaps we can limit God’s control on us, and not feel so obligated to follow all of those pesky commands about loving our neighbors and enemies, about giving away all of our stuff, about following wherever we’re led.
But instead of seeing the Trinity as a way to contain God, I think the Trinity is meant to help us understand how expansive our God is, how beyond the scope of our human limitations. I remember when I was a young child, my dearest friend, Krissy, who of course also went to church with me, was working on a project. She was searching through the Bible, looking for all of the different names of God, making a list. Of course, these days, we could quickly grab that information online. But she was doing it by hand, marveling at so many different ways God is named, described, so many ways God is revealed to us. The Trinity helps us understand a God who is expansive and dynamic, who contains relationship right within God’s own self, even as God calls us towards deeper relationships with God and with one another and with all of creation. God models in God’s very own being how God wants us to live with one another. I especially love the description used by Rev. Thom Shuman, whose liturgies I have often used. He calls the Trinity “God in Community, Holy in One.” I really love that.
Our God is not only our Creator, but also one who is willing to come and be with us in human form, to take on all that it means to be a human on earth. And God is not only one who does those things, but also one who is willing to dwell within us, to live in our hearts, and so guide our lives right from within the very core of our beings. This is a God who will seek us out for relationships in any way possible, so desirous is God of being a part of who we are, and having us be part of who God is. Our God is persistent, asking again and again, to be let into our lives. Our God is creative, meeting us where we’re least expecting to find God. And our God is pervasive, permeating every part of our existence. That’s the Trinity, even if it’s not a very defined definition. Indeed, it seems some of the very best things in the world are the ones we are least able to put into clear words, concise definitions. For all of the writings we have, movies and poems and books and classes that talk about love, for example, it’s very hard to “define” love. But that doesn’t reduce love’s power or potency, or our desire to give and receive love in our lives. Love seems to be something you have to simply experience to know. Perhaps it is the same with this God who is God in Community and Holy in One. Hard to define, but worth all the conversation. Easier to experience God – the best way we can go about knowing God.
I’ll probably never be able to describe the Trinity perfectly without being a little bit of a heretic modalist. But what’s better is that I can be in relationship with the Trinity, and learn to be in relationship with others because of this expansive God who knows me and seeks relationship with me and with you. God who creates us and parents us so well. God who lives among us and walks beside us. God who dwells within us, as close as our breath. God in Community, and Holy in One. Let’s give thanks for this mysterious God who defies our definitions, who exceeds our expectations, and who loves us without limits. Amen.