Sermon, May 22, 2016 – Trinity Sunday, Year C
Let us pray.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our redeemer.
A few months ago a small controversy erupted in the world of American Christianity. The question of the day was “do Christians, Jews and Muslims worship the same God?” Some said “yes, of course. Christianity developed from Judaism, and Islam claims its lineage from the Judeo-Christian tradition. Christianity, Judaism and Islam all worship the God mentioned in Genesis.” Others said “no, of course not. The God of Christianity is uniquely revealed in the Bible, including the New Testament. God is revealed as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Followers of Judaism reject the true God when they reject Jesus Christ. And the followers of Islam have strayed completely from the true God.”
As I considered the various responses to this question, it struck me that the answer depends how you look at the question. It is sort of like asking do we all believe in St. Nick when Christmas season approaches. Some will describe Santa Claus – the fat guy in a red suit who lives in the North Pole and flies around on Christmas Eve in a sleigh bringing presents to children. Others, especially the Dutch, will point to Sinter Klaas who dresses like a bishop, rides a white horse and carries a book telling who has been good or bad throughout the year. Still others will point to the historical St. Nicholas, a fourth century bishop who lived in what is now Turkey and who is known for his secret gift-giving. The point is that on the one hand, all of these individuals can be traced to the same source – that of the original St. Nicholas, but on the other hand, these are no longer the same characters.
I ended up siding with those who would say that Christians, Jews and Muslims do not worship the same God. The differences in our concept of who God is are just too great. The Christian God described in the Old and New Testaments is not the same as Islam’s Allah and the Jewish concept of God is no longer complete. There are many differences, but one of the most key and significant differences is the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. Today is Trinity Sunday and we’ll spend some time thinking about what the Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity means.
The first thing to note is that the doctrine of the Trinity is not explicitly stated in the Bible. It is, however, clearly implied and it soon became something that the early Church realized was imperative to the Faith. If the Trinity per se is not stated in the Bible, how was it determined to be a core part of the faith by the early Church? The very concept would have been unthinkable to a Jewish believer. When I was thinking about this question, a maxim that appears often in Sherlock Holmes stories and films for drawing conclusions from implicit clues came to my mind. Sherlock would say “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” The early Christians knew that there was only one God. This had been taught repeatedly in both the Old Testament and by Jesus.
They knew that there could only be one God. And yet, they also knew that Jesus referred to God as his Father, stated that he and his father were one. They knew that Jesus was not born of just human parentage but instead came down from heaven and he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit. They knew that the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father and the Son and came upon them at Pentecost. They knew that Jesus had told them to baptize “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” They knew that God was three persons in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. They knew that there was one God, in three persons, and so the doctrine of the Trinity was developed. The Trinity was the only possible explanation for the facts and so they knew this doctrine was absolutely essential.
Before we consider why the doctrine of the Trinity is so important for what it tells us about the nature of God, let’s think about some of the more common misunderstandings that have arisen over time. As you might guess, the doctrine of the Trinity is really far beyond our full comprehension level. We will never be able to fully understand it. It is also a doctrine, as I mentioned that is not explicitly mentioned in the Bible, yet one that is very important. Because of all of these factors, the Church had great difficulty in pinning down the doctrine of the Trinity and there were many heresies that came about when people got the Trinity wrong.
The two most basic problems, which tend to form the basis of the Trinitarian heresies, are focusing primarily on the unity of God at the expense of the idea of three separate persons, and focusing on the three persons of the Trinity at the expense of God’s oneness. What do I mean by this? Let’s consider the first problem – that of focusing on God’s oneness at the expense of the three persons of the Trinity. This tends to be our biggest problem with the Trinity in today’s church. We can sometimes stray into this territory when we try to make Trinitarian references by referring to roles instead of persons. In some churches, for example, the priest does not want to say “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” but instead says “Creator, Sustainer and Redeemer.” Doing so de-emphasizes the personhood of the three Persons of the Trinity. Instead, we are told some of the job duties of God, but don’t sense that God is three distinct persons – the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
The other problem is focusing on the three persons of the Trinity instead of God’s oneness. We can stray into this error when we overemphasize one of the three persons of God, over and against the others. Perhaps an overly exuberant charismatic may only focus on the Holy Spirit and the gifts of the Holy Spirit without recognizing the Father’s work in creating the world and giving us commandments to follow, and Jesus’ death and resurrection. The problem here is that we pick and choose which persons of the Trinity that we resonate with and overlook the fact that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are all part of the one God.
Why does any of this matter? It matters because the doctrine of the Trinity tells us an enormous amount about the character of God. I want us to do a little thought experiment. Imagine that you are God. You can have access to the most wonderful house, the nicest car, you need merely snap your fingers and your favorite food will appear beside you. The only thing that you cannot have is another person. You would be entirely alone and by yourself for eternity. Think about this. What would it say about you? If you were eternally alone, what would that say about your essential character?
And now imagine a slightly difference circumstance. Imagine again that you are God just as I described above, but this time you will be spending eternity with two others. Look around you right now and see the two people sitting nearest you. These two would be always present with you for all eternity. You would always be looking out for them, and they would always be looking out for you. Think about this new situation. What would this say about your essential character?
Pastor Tim Keller writes “But what if there is a God? Does love fare any better? It depends on who you think God is. If God is unipersonal (Tim Keller means here just one person – so like our first example), then until God created other beings there was no love, since love is something that one person has for another. This means that a unipersonal God was power, sovereignty, and greatness from all eternity, but not love. Love then is not the essence of God, nor is it at the heart of the universe. Power is primary.” Tim Keller is right on here. Without the uniquely Christian doctrine of the Trinity, God is not love, but power.
Tim Keller continues. “However, if God is triune, then loving relationships in community are the ‘great fountain…at the center of reality.’…God really has love at his essence….[Love]is the purpose of God because he is essentially, eternally, interpersonal love.” If we err on the doctrine of the Trinity and emphasize Gods’ unity only, then we are essentially proclaiming that the essence of God is power instead of love. A God whose essence is power is very different than a God whose essence is love.
Tim Keller also tells us that “[e]ach of the divine persons centers upon the others. None demands that the other revolve around him. Each voluntarily circles the other two, pouring love, delight, and adoration into them. Each person of the Trinity loves, adores, defers to, and rejoices in the others. That creates a dynamic, pulsating dance of joy and love.” If we focus on the individual persons of the Trinity, we lose this focus that God is a dynamic, pulsating dance of joy and love.
The Christian doctrine of the Trinity defines God in a way that is fundamentally different then God as understood in either Judaism or Islam. The Christian God is a God whose essential, defining characteristic is not power, but love. And this can only be so in a Triune God. And so, even though it can be very difficult for us to grasp the concept of the Trinity, it is an extremely important doctrine for us. Because it tells us that our God is a God of love and relationships. When we are told in the Bible that God created us to be his sons and daughters, to be in an eternal relationship with him, we know that this is indeed exactly who our God is.
And God made us in his own image. Genesis chapter one says “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” God created us to also have love, relationship and community at the core of our being, both with him and with each other. We are called to love God and love each other. When asked to summarize the Law, Jesus said “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” This is our call, and it is rooted in the doctrine of the Trinity, which we celebrate today. And so, as we go about our lives, let us always remember that our core and God’s core is love, relationship and community – both with God and with each other. This is what we celebrate today on Trinity Sunday.
Let us pray.
Almighty and eternal God, you have revealed yourself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and live and reign in the perfect unity of love: hold us firm in this faith, that we may know you in all your ways and evermore rejoice in your eternal glory, who are three Persons yet one God, for ever. Amen.