Why the Trinity?

Sermon – June 16, 2019,  Trinity Sunday, Year C

John 16:12-15

Let us pray.

I speak to you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Did you catch my change in opening prayer?  There is a reason why I used the Trinitarian formula instead of the familiar words from Psalm 19 about the words of my mouth and mediations of our heart.  Today is Trinity Sunday, the Sunday that the Church has set aside to reflect upon the doctrine of the Trinity.

Trinity Sunday is an interesting Sunday to preach on in a lectionary based church since the Trinity is never directly spoken of in the Bible.  It is certainly implied but it is the Church that has drawn on all the implications found in Scripture to develop and proclaim the Trinity as an essential doctrine of the Christian faith.  We see this in both the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed, which we recite throughout the year.  Both of these creeds are broken into a very similar structure of three parts corresponding to the Trinity.  Listen to the first line from each part in the Nicene Creed:  “We believe in one God, the Father; the Almighty”; “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God”; and “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life.”

The doctrine of the Trinity is the central organizing feature of both the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds, the foundational creeds of the Christian church.  It is a very important doctrine for the Church but one that is extraordinarily difficult to grasp.  Barbara showed me a Facebook post from a priest friend of hers showing notes of how one might explain the Trinity in a sermon, and then listed beside each way of describing it, how that way of describing the Trinity was actually heretical.  It is very difficult for us to understand the Trinity, and all too often, when we try to explain it, we end up misstating it.  Indeed, there are more Trinitarian heresies in the history of the church than you’d care to know about.  I think that at some point we really need to admit that, as humans, we just don’t have the capacity to fully understand the Trinity.  There are certain things we can state about it, and there are certain implications it has for the nature of God and our faith, but we will never be able to fully comprehend it.

Our passage from the Gospel of John doesn’t speak of the Trinity per se, but it does speak of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and this is why the lectionary includes it for today.  What I want to consider today is what this passage says about the relationship between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, because, in the end, I think it is this relationship that makes the Trinity such an important doctrine for our faith.

The speaker in our passage is Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  Jesus says of the Holy Spirit “But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth.  He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come.  He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you.”  The Holy Spirit is clearly a different person than Jesus, but note that the Spirit will not just speak on His own.  No, the Holy Spirit will point to Jesus and share what He has received from Jesus.  The Holy Spirit will point to and glorify the Son.

Speaking of God the Father, Jesus then says “All that belongs to the Father is mine.”  God the Father has given everything to the Son in terms of power and knowledge.  That which is the Father’s is also the Son’s.  And Jesus then refers back to the Holy Spirit saying “That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you.”  The Holy Spirit will receive from the Son what the Son received from the Father.

This passage teaches us that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit share the divine attributes, knowledge and power.  They share collectively their divinity, and yet they are separate Persons.  They each play their own role, but they share a deep and divine unity of purpose.  And the role of each of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit is to glorify the other two.  They do not seek glory or honor for themselves but give of themselves for the glory and purpose of the others.  This describes a relationship of self-giving love.

Think about what this means.  The very foundation of God is love.  The doctrine of the Trinity necessarily implies that the basis of God is love.  Author and pastor Tim Keller gets to the heart of this in his chapter on the Trinity in his book The Reason for God.  He points out that if there is no God, than each of us is the product of blind, impersonal forces, and that while we might feel something we call love, it is only due to a biochemical reaction in our brains.  He then asks “But what if there is a God?  Does love fare any better?  It depends on who you think God is.  If God is unipersonal, 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 has 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.  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.”

Tim Keller is right on here.  Without the uniquely Christian doctrine of the Trinity, God is not love, but power.  If we err on the doctrine of the Trinity, 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.

This is the first key consequence of the doctrine of the Trinity.  God is love.  Quite literally.  This isn’t just a sentimental statement without meaning.  Rather it is a statement on the very central nature of God.  It is part of God’s essential character to love.

Another key consequence of the doctrine of the Trinity is that of community.  Again, let us listen to Tim Keller from his book The Reason for God.  He writes that 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.”  In the Eastern tradition of the Church, the image of a circle is used to illustrate the idea of perichoresis, the Greek term for the circular dance of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.  The Trinity is a community in which each divine person is in constant relationship with the other two.

This truth about God applies also to us.  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.  This message runs contrary to the dominant philosophy of individualist liberalism that has been foundational to Western culture for the past four hundred years.

Retired Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy made a very famous statement in a 1992 court decision when he wrote “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”  Whether they agree with it or not, many commentators regard this as being one of the most defining statements of western cultural philosophy today.  This statement means that each one of us individually defines our own concept of existence, meaning, the universe and human life.  However, we can have no meaningful community unless we have a common understanding of these things.  This defining statement of western culture is one that undermines meaningful community.

We see the signs of the unraveling of true community all around us today as the forces of technology provide the tools and temptations to draw us further into self-absorption.  In one recent poll on the subject of loneliness, it was found that half of all Americans report sometimes or always feeling alone.  Only half of all Americans have meaningful in-person social interactions on a daily basis.  And, significantly, it is the youngest generation that reports being the loneliest generation.

I was reading a book review in the Washington Post newspaper on a book I had read that discussed the West’s foundational philosophy of individualism.  The reviewer commented that as individualism “has progressed, it has done so by ever more efficiently liberating each individual from “particular places, relationships, memberships, and even identities — unless they have been chosen, are worn lightly, and can be revised or abandoned at will.” In the process, it has scoured anything that could hold stable meaning and connection from our modern landscape — culture has been disintegrated, family bonds devalued, connections to the past cut off, an understanding of the common good all but disappeared.  And in the end, we’ve all been left terribly alone.”

This is one of the reasons why so many have abandoned the Church.  Christianity does not let us define for ourselves our own concept of existence, meaning, the universe and human life.  It does not allow us to cast aside our relationships with our brothers and sisters in Christ, our membership in the body of Christ, or our identity as children of God.  Our cultural drive for individual autonomy is directly contrary to God’s call for community and relationship.

The doctrine of the Trinity teaches us that God’s essential character is love and his defining characteristic is relationship and community.  In stark contrast to our culture’s individualism, Tim Keller points out that in the Trinity, each person of the Godhead “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.”  We have been made in God’s image.  A foundational part of the creation story is the creation of man and woman to be in relationship with each other.  But our call to be in relationship goes beyond the marriage relationship.  We are called to be in relationship with each other and the whole body of Christ.

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul writes “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.  Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.  There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism;  one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”  And in his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul says “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.”

We are called to be in relationship with both God and each other.  This is an essential part of who we are as humans, just as it is an essential part of who God is.  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 evermore dwell in your love and in the community of the Body of your Son.  May we know you in all your ways and evermore rejoice in your eternal glory, who are three Persons yet one God, now and for ever. Amen.

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