Here is my sermon from Sunday on the trinity. The text was 2 Corinthians 13:11-13:
Jesus said to his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”
And his disciples answered, "Some say John the Baptist; some Elijah; others Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.”
And Jesus answered and said, “But who do you say that I am?
Peter answered and said, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God, the Logos, existing in the Father as His rationality and then, by an act of His will, being generated, in consideration of the various functions by which God is related to his creation, but only on the fact that Scripture speaks of a Father, and a Son, and a Holy Spirit, each member of the Trinity being coequal with every other member, and each acting inseparably with and interpenetrating every other member, with only an economic subordination within God, but causing no division which would make the substance no longer simple."
And Jesus looked at Peter and said, "What?"
Today we tackle the subject that most clergy never want to talk about, the trinity. Even though the trinity is at the heart of the faith, it is a topic that most of us don’t want to have to talk about because we don’t know what to say about it. Jonathan Swift, best known for writing Gulliver’s Travels, but who was also an Anglican priest, in his writing on the Trinity, which was quoted by John Wesley, said that anyone who endeavors to explain the trinity, has utterly lost their way; they have, above all other persons hurt the cause which they intend to promote. Of course as all good preachers do he then spent fifteen single spaced pages trying to explain it. One of my favorite lines about today’s passage from 2 Corinthians comes from New Testament scholar David Skinner who said “Many preachers will focus sermons solely on this text so as to [it] to launch a doctrinal sermon on Trinitarian theology. I beg you not to do that.” But this morning I am going to disregard Dr. Skinner’s otherwise very wise advice.
The trinity is one of those things that is central to the faith but is hard to describe and about which there is a lot of confusion. This week in the run-up to the super bowl, Jason Pierre-Paul, who plays for the New York Giants said, about Tom Brady, “He is not God. He might be Jesus, but he’s not God.” Now I am not going to comment on whether Tom Brady’s is divine or not, but what I can say is that the player does not understand the trinity, because what the trinity says is that Jesus is in fact God. One of the reasons the trinity was formulated was to explain the divinity of Christ. I am going to try and make it as easy to understand as possible, but it’s not and so I expect that at the end some of you will probably want to say, “that was great John, but I still don’t understand,” and my response to you will be to go home and pray about it, and then when you come to understand the trinity please come explain it to me.
Dr. Jerry Grey, a professor at St. Paul School of Theology, a United Methodist seminary says that the trinity is the “way for Christians to explain the uniqueness of their revelation of God.” After Jesus’ death and resurrection the disciples came to believe that they had encountered God in the person of Christ. As Jews three times a day they were reciting the Shema, which comes from Deuteronomy 6:4, and says “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.” So if there is only one God, how could Jesus be a part of God? They had to find a way to explain this paradox. So what they began to do was to look to scripture, always a good place to start, and what they found was that God in the Hebrew scriptures was already described in two different ways, because there was a transcendent God, that is the God who creates who is out there in the universe, but there was also an imminent God, that is a God who was involved in our lives.
In addition, they saw mentions of the Spirit as a personification of God. In one of readings we heard in preparation for Christmas, Isaiah says “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” in the first creation account from Genesis, which you will find in your scripture insert today, we are told that the “wind of God swept over the waters” which is also sometimes translated as Spirit, and then we are also told that when God made mankind that God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…” What does that mean, let us make mankind in our image? Early Christians saw in scripture this idea that while there is only one God, that there are multiple ways in which God is present to us, and so they came to a new understanding of God’s oneness and that even the Hebrew Scriptures understood this idea of multiplicity within the one.
Now what would have been best, and what would have also saved the church centuries of arguing, was if Jesus had simply laid out for us how the trinity worked, but unfortunately he didn’t, nor did the writers of the New Testament. While the parts of the trinity are mentioned throughout, there are only two passages that have a sort of Trinitarian formulation. The first is the passage we heard from 2 Corinthians today, and the second is the great commission given in Matthew in which we are told to go and make disciples of all the nations and baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. But this does not say how the trinity works, how the three are one, or how the three parts relate to each other.
So the early church had to figure out how to explain the fact that we could worship just one God, and yet have multiple parts of that God. One of the earliest formulations of the trinity is called modalism, and it says that God existed in the beginning as the creator, then God came as the Christ, then after the resurrection that God became the Spirit. So there is just one God known through different modes, but only one mode exists at a time. That worked for some people, and you can still hear this discussed as a way to explain the trinity, but modalism doesn’t really explain things when compared against scripture. For example, at Jesus’ baptism we are told that after Jesus came out of the water that a voice from heaven, said “this is my Son” and the Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, also descended onto Jesus. So if God is only in one mode, how could all three seem to be present at the same time. In addition, Jesus prays to the Father, but if Jesus is the Father, just in a different mode, then how would that work? Modalism was rejected because while it was clear that God was known in three different forms, they were different from each other, and they all existed at the same time, it wasn’t simply that God transitioned from one into another.
So then the question became how could this be, how could God be three and yet one. How do we deal with the presence of Christ, understanding him as divine, the presence of the Holy Spirit, also as a manifestation of God, and also the understand God the Father, and have them all be one? This really is the great mystery. To condense 300 years of arguments into one sentence, everything came to a conclusion, for the most part, at the Council of Nicea in 325 which created the Nicene Creed, which we read this morning. This creed states that God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one, and yet three, that they are all preexistent with the creation, that all are of the same substance, and that all three are equal, one is not more important than another.
Now I know that this is still very confusing, so let me give two illustrations to try and describe it. The first is this diagram which I first saw in a stained glass window in a Catholic church and it certainly gave me some grounding to begin to understand. What you see is that what is called the Godhead is at the center. Then you have the persons of the trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit on the outside. When we hear the word person we think of a body, that we are persons, but that is not how the word was originally understood. Instead, a better understanding is that of a persona. In Greek theater, an actor would put on a mask and that would be their persona, of how they were known and seen by the world. So Christ is one persona of God, while still remaining God and not dividing the completeness of God. But, notice that the Son is God, but the Son is not the Father. This is often where people get confused about the trinity, is in trying to make all the persons of the trinity related or doing the same things. They are all God, but each part of the trinity is also unique.
One other way is to try and understand through analogy, and maybe one of the best is the molecule H2O, which is of course water. Water has three distinct and separate forms. While we can conceptualize as an abstract the idea of two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen, we only experience it in its forms. There is the liquid form which has its own unique characteristics and properties. But if you take water below 32̊ F, then it freezes. It becomes something else and you can’t do the things you can when it is in liquid form. It’s almost like it’s something else entirely, and yet it is still just the compound h2o. But then if you take it and put it above 212̊ F, then it becomes steam, and once again it is something totally different from either liquid or a solid, and yet it’s still just h2o. Three different forms in one molecule. It is three in one. Now is that the perfect analogy? No because if you take it far enough it begins to fall apart. But really that is true of the nature of all language we use to express about God. God is ultimately ineffable, that is God’s nature cannot be fully comprehended or understood. God is beyond all nature, all words all understanding.
Even though St. Augustine once said “If you can fully grasp it, it’s not God,” a story is told about him that he was desperate to understand the nature of God and of the trinity. One day as he was walking along the sea shore and reflecting on this, he saw a little child on the shore. The child made a hole in the sand, ran to the sea with a little cup, filled her cup, came and poured it into the hole she had made in the sand. Back and forth she went to the sea, filled her cup and came and poured it into the hole. Augustine went up to her and said, “My child, what are doing?” and she replied, “I am trying to empty the sea into this hole.” “How do you think,” Augustine asked her, “that you can empty this immense sea into this tiny hole and with this tiny cup?” To which she replied, “And you, how do you suppose that with this your small head you can comprehend the immensity of God?” and with that the child disappeared.
Ultimately the trinity is a mystery, because it seeks to convey the nature of God which is ultimately impossible to do. The doctrine of the trinity is concerned about explaining the nature of salvation and the complex human experience of redemption in Christ. What the trinity helps us to understand, as much as we possibly can, is that God is not solitary, because God is relational. God is relational in God’s self, and God is relational with us. God is one, and yet God is three and each part is fully and completely God in a way that does not exclude or divide but invites and relates.
In a few moments when we partake of communion, we will again proclaim words from Isaiah and say “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord, God of power and might…” we will remember, in the words of Catherine LaCugna, that the trinity marks the “pattern of redemption; everything comes from God [the Father], is made known and redeemed through Jesus Christ, and is consummated by the power of the Holy Spirit.” God is the one through who we live and move and have our being, and that God is one and that one is three, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.