Sunday, May 22, 2016

What's the Trinity good for?

A Sermon preached on May 22nd, Trinity Sunday, at St. Augustine’s, Wiesbaden
Proverbs 8: 1 – 4, 22 – 31, Romans 5: 1 – 5, John 16: 12 – 15

Today is Trinity Sunday, one of the Church’s principal feast days, celebrating the doctrine of the Trinity, that God is three Persons God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. According to some sources, this festival, or at least this date for such a festival, was originally instituted by St. Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, who is of course most famous for having been murdered in his cathedral. Ordained ministry has always been risky! From Canterbury, the new feast day spread throughout the Western Church, but not to the East. Our Orthodox brothers and sisters actually celebrate Pentecost as the feast of the Trinity. Which also makes sense as – at least in Luke’s Gospel – it is first great act of the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity.

I have heard or read some sermons and articles that comment on it being strange or unique to have a Sunday dedicated to a doctrine, well no it isn’t. A doctrine is a particular belief that defines the parameters of a religion, in our case Christianity. The word just means correct belief. The Resurrection is a doctrine, which we celebrate at Easter. The Incarnation is a doctrine, which we celebrate at Christmas. There is a doctrine of Creation, and we now have an ecumenical Day of Creation in September. Of course, there are doctrines without a specific day, like the doctrine of Christ’s nature – that he is fully human and fully divine - or the doctrine of salvation or the doctrine of the divine inspiration of Scripture, but they are a part of every church service. 

Today however we focus on the doctrine of the Trinity, which is at the same time the doctrine we share with our Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters that there is only one God, and that God is One. That might seem like a contradiction or a paradox, one and three? Well it is a apradox, but – to use a quote I found recently: “From Arianism onwards, heresy always arises from the refusal of paradox.” It is the same in politics. Those who offer simple answers to complex problems – build a wall, blame the stranger, leave the EU – tend to the extremes.  

But back to the Trinity. The extract from the Book of Proverbs about the figure of wisdom, a divine or semi divine female figure, shows us that while of course Judaism does not recognize the concept of the Trinity, the Hebrew Scriptures still contain descriptions of other divine figures participating in and rejoicing in God’s work: “When he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.” (Proverbs 8:30-31) I think the 99 names and attributes of God in Islam send a similar message. 

But still the Trinity is uniquely Christian. We believe in one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit or as you will also sometimes hear, in God the Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier, because this is how God revealed godself, how the first Christians experienced God, how we still experience God today. First we know God as the creator of everything, including us, as the one who sustains Creation, and as the one who wants us to share in the care of creation. 

For those who experienced him, who shared in his ministry, who witnessed his deeds of power, his death and resurrection, Jesus had to be more than just a simple human being. We call him “Son” because that was his own way of defining his relationship with God. Again and again Jesus talked about the unity between him and the Father, “Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me,” (John 14) or this week “All that the Father has is mine.” (John 16:15)

Last Sunday I spoke in depth about how we experience the Holy Spirit and about what the Spirit empowers us to do. Unusually for him, Paul summarizes this both succinctly, and beautifully in his Letter to the Romans in the phrase,God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Romans 5:5) 

The Trinity is however more than just a way of describing how humans experience God. The concept, the doctrine also tells us something about God’s essence or being. As we are made in God's image, and therefore in the image of the Trinitarian God, the doctrine therefore tells us something about who we are or who we should become. What might that be? For Saint Augustine, of Hippo not Canterbury, love best illustrates the nature of the Trinity. In his dissertation on the Trinity, Augustine writes:
“Now when I, who am asking about this, love anything, there are three things present: I myself, what I love, and love itself. For I cannot love love unless I love a lover; for there is no love where nothing is loved. So there are three things: the lover, the (be-)loved and the love.”[1]
This is still only an analogy, but it is a good and true one. God’s nature is relational and personal as expressed in the divine community of love that is the Trinity. We cannot say that God is love if God is alone. Instead, love resides both in God’s nature as a personal being and in the relationship of the Father, the lover, to the Son, the beloved, by love, the Holy Spirit. And gloriously this love overflows into God’s love for us and for all of God’s Creation. God’s love is the very reason for our creation. Through love God reaches out to us and calls us back into relationship through the redeeming work of Jesus Christ, and by the transformational work of the Holy Spirit.

As image-bearers of God, we cannot reflect that image solely in our own persons or by ourselves. We bear the image of God as Trinity only when we are in community and relationship with one another, and through the act of love. We bear the image of God as Trinity only when we reach out to draw others into community, and away from loneliness, isolation, and self-destruction, when we share the Good News, and when we share in and relieve their suffering. 

It is good to have a day designated to celebrate the Doctrine of the Trinity, which is not just about who God is, but about who God wants us to be. As Paul writes to the Romans, through our faith in Jesus Christ we have been reconciled with God, and share in the glory of the Trinitarian God. Through the Holy Spirit God’s love, which is God’s very being, is poured into our hearts. Today is not about understanding the Trinity intellectually, logically, or analytically. That is not what the doctrine is for. Instead, we are called to understand the Trinity by living in the light of its implications both in our Christian community and by reaching out to serve the greater community outside our doors.

[1] St. Augustine, “On the Trinity”

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