Monday, May 23, 2016

The Trinity

Here is my sermon from Trinity Sunday. The text was John 16:12-15:

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, "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?"

A little Trinitarian humor for today when we look at the idea of the trinity, and we do so for several different reasons. The first is that today is Trinity Sunday, and so it seems appropriate for that reason alone.  The second is that I have had some people ask me to explain the trinity, and so rather than explaining it to a few, I can explain it to all of you at the same time, and I won’t tell you who asked for their protection, and the third is that as our faith development team has been working they have been talking about how a knowledge of Christianity and it’s beliefs, or knowledge about Methodism, is no longer a given and so what do people who are new to the faith or to Methodism need to know. So I thought that we should put together on our website a series of sort of doctrinal sermons, things that we believe either as Christians or as Methodists, that tell people about who we are and what we believe.  And if we are to do that, the Trinity has to be a key part of that because the trinity is at the heart of Christianity. It is not something we can believe in or not depending on our opinion; it is the orthodox position of the church. It is the basis upon how we decide if people are Christian or not, is their belief in the trinity. Indeed the entire reason why the eastern side of the church is called the Orthodox Church, whether they are Greek, Russian, Arminian, or whatever, is because they separated from the western church as it reinterpreted the structure of the trinity.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

So let’s start with the first and most fundamental idea.  And that is that even though I am going to try and explain the trinity to you this morning, I am not going to be successful, because ultimately it is a mystery.  John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, said that it is “vanity, if not presumption, to think of comprehending” the trinity.  One of his favorite writings on the subject came from Jonathan Swift, perhaps best known for writing Gulliver’s Travels, but Swift was also an Anglican priest and he 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. So if you leave here today still not understanding it, or perhaps even more confused, then I have accomplished my task.

Now that the preliminaries are out of the way, the second thing we should say, and this always upsets people so don’t get so upset that you miss what immediately follows this statement, and that is that our formulation of the trinity is not found in scripture. We might see it there because we have 1500 years of interpretation as the lens through which we are reading passages, but it’s not there. But the follow-up point, which is critical, is that the pieces of the trinity are there. So, of course we hear in Matthew that we are to baptize in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and in the passage we heard from John today we have the Spirit coming, and Jesus and the Father all connected, but that is not really an explanation of the trinity or of the relationship between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  So we could say that scripture provides us with the language of the trinity, but not the formulation of the trinity.

The one possible exception to this comes from 1 John 5:7-8, which in the King James version reads, “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.” Now that would seem to solve many of the arguments that arose about the trinity, and how they relate to each other.  But, the problem is, that was a creation added into manuscripts much later in the tradition in order to provide scriptural witness that God was three and God was one. It is not found in our best and oldest manuscripts. In fact, in the 16th century when Erasmus was putting together what was then the first authoritative Greek manuscript of the New Testament he left this passage out, which got him in a lot of trouble, and so he told his superiors that if they could produce a Greek manuscript that had this passage in it then he would include it in the next version. The story goes then that a new manuscript with this passage included was then promptly created. If you are to read most modern translations, and certainly all of the best, this passage is not included, although there is a footnote giving mention of its part in the tradition.

To be honest it would have been a lot better if we had had some passage like this included in scripture, or something that was even more specific about the nature of the trinity, because it would have removed centuries of arguments. Now as a church historian it would have made history a little less interesting, although the church probably would have found something else about which to argue.  But the problem the early church had was that as devout Jews, they woke up every morning and prayed the Shema, which they say 3 times a day, from Deuteronomy 6:4, and says “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.” Now if God is one, and as part of their unique expression and understanding of Jesus they were worshipping and praising Jesus were they committing idolatry or worshipping a second God? After all, there were plenty of Roman gods who were sons of other Gods, but they were their own separate people, so what did that mean when they said that Jesus was the son of God or God? Where they in fact worshipping a second God? Or worse, were they practicing tri-theism and worshipping three different, distinct gods. That was certainly the claim that was being made about them by other Jews.

So they went back to scripture and began to formulate a new way of understanding God that not only took into consideration the person of Jesus but also the Holy Spirit.  One of the first is that they saw even back in the creation story that the Spirit of God was moving across the waters, and that the prophets talked about the Spirit of the Lord being upon them. So they saw that God was clearly manifesting God’s self in different ways.  When God creates man and women, they text says “let us create them in our image,” and when Isaiah sees an image of God, the seraphim cry out, “Holy, holy holy.” And of the two main words used for God in Hebrew, Elohim, which is translated into English as God, is a plural word, not singular. And so they saw in scripture this understanding of multiples ways of God’s being in the world, of a plurality in God’s self, and so in this they saw the Father, Son and Holy Spirit they had come to understand as being God. Are you with me so far?

Now they had to figure out what this looked like and how it worked. One of the ideas, later deemed to be a heresy, is known as modalism, which says that there is one God, but three modes in which God is expressed in the world. That idea makes a lot of sense, and certainly easier to explain about how we understand God in these three parts, but while saying that God is still only one. The problem they encountered, however, was that it didn’t match up with their experience or with the tradition. So for example, at the baptism, Jesus comes up out of the water and the Spirit, in a form like a dove, there’s that metaphor thing again trying to explain God, comes down on him while simultaneously a voice from the heavens says “This is my son in whom I am well pleased.”  That would mean that God was being expressed in all three modes at the same time. In addition, Jesus prayed to the father, but if Jesus was just another expression of the Father, did that mean that Jesus was praying to himself? Inquiring minds want to know. So modalism was eventually rejected, and as I said deemed a heresy, although in my research there are still churches preaching modalism, and the church said that 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 to then quickly summarize three hundred or so years of theological arguments, the church came to formalize the idea that God was three separate “persons”, but they were all part of one entity, that is they were three in one and one, that they are all preexistent with the creation, they all are of the same substance, and that all three are equal, one is not more important than another, that is the Son and the Holy Spirit are not subordinate to the Father. This idea was encapsulated in the Nicene Creed, which you can find at the back of the hymnal, or look it up online, and I would encourage you to read it because I think it is church committee writing at its absolute finest.  This became the orthodox position of the church.

Now, did that end all the arguments? Of course not.  As is always true in the church, we like to fight about things, and so there continued to be tweaks to the understanding of the trinity, including the one that led to the split between the eastern and western church and new Trinitarian creedal statements would continue to be written.  One of those creedal statements was the Athansian Creed, which is the creedal statement Wesley preferred over the Nicene Creed, and I’m going to read a small portion of it because it can give us a visual for seeking to try and understand the trinity.  A portion of it says: We worship one God in trinity, and trinity in unity… for there is one person of the Father, and other of the Son and another of the Holy Spirit all in one: … Such as the Father is, such is the Son and such is the Holy Spirit… The father uncomprehensible, the son uncomprehensible, the Holy Spirit uncomprehensible. The father eternal, the son eternal, the Holy Spirit eternal, and yet there are not three eternals, but one eternal. So the Father is God; the Son is God; and the Holy Ghost is God. And yet they are not three Gods; but one God…. So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Ghost, not three Holy Ghosts. And in this Trinity none is before, or after another; none is greater, or less than another. But the whole three Persons are coeternal, and coequal. So that in all things, as aforesaid; the Unity in Trinity, and the Trinity in Unity, is to be worshipped. He therefore that will be saved, let him thus think of the Trinity.”

It is this creedal statement which gave rise what has been known as the shield of the trinity, which is a visualization of the trinity, and it was this, which I saw in a stained glass window in a catholic church that helped me understand the unity and the parts. 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. 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, and yet one in three. Now is that the perfect analogy? No because all analogies, like all metaphors, break down if you push it far enough. But that’s the nature of all language we try and use it to express something that is inexpressible.

St. Augustine told a story about a time when he was desperate to understand the nature of God and the trinity.  He says that he was walking along the sea shore and reflecting on this, he saw a little child. 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.  That led him to conclude that “if you can fully grasp it, it is not God.”  Or as Wesley said “Should anyone propose to exhaustively decipher the triune mystery, discount the pretended explanation. We can know that God is triune, but not how or why.”

So if you take nothing out of this other than the thought that you hope I never talk about the trinity again, here is what I think the trinity teaches us, and that is that God is ultimately unknowable, and if we think we have God all figured out and we know exactly who God is and what God thinks and what God wants us to do, then we need to think of the trinity and realize we don’t really know anything.  NT Wright says “The doctrine of the Trinity, properly understood, is as much a way of saying ‘we don’t know’ as of saying ‘we do know.’ To say that the true God is three and one is to recognize that… of course we shouldn’t expect [God] to fit neatly into our little categories.  If he did, he wouldn’t be God at all, merely a god...  The Trinity is not something that the clever theologian comes up with as a result of hours spent in the theological laboratory, after which he or she can return to announce that they’ve got God worked out now… On the contrary… The doctrine of the Trinity affirms the rightness, the propriety, of speaking intelligently that the true God must always transcend our grasp of him, even our most intelligent grasp of him.”

Ultimately the trinity is a mystery, but what it 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, to God’ self and to us. 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. I pray it will be so my brothers and sisters. Amen.

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