This sermon was preached by the Rev. Nancy A.G. Vogele on Sunday, June 11, 2017, Trinity Sunday. Readings: Matthew 28:16-20, Genesis 1:1-2:4a
Today is Trinity Sunday. Last week, the church celebrated Pentecost – the coming of the Holy Spirit. At Easter, we celebrated the resurrection of Jesus. At Christmas, we celebrated his birth. These latter three are all events. Today is quite unique because, today, we celebrate a doctrine: God as three persons but one substance. This is not a simple concept. I am reminded of Jesus’ words to his disciples during their last night together before his death. He said to them, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” Or in another version, “I have much more to say to you but, right now, it would be more than you could understand” (John 16:12).
And, yet, today is Trinity Sunday, and I have to try.
Here’s what the Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology says about the doctrine of the Trinity:
“The doctrine of the Trinity is primarily a Christological doctrine and its most widely accepted form is a product mainly of the fourth century A.D. It was the Christological concerns of the early Christian centuries which persistently motivated and which finally fashioned most of classical Trinitarian doctrine, and in modern times the declared purpose of that doctrine still is to point to the presence and action of God in this world in Jesus the Christ (economic Trinity). Although Trinitarian doctrine as we know it was prefigured in some authors before the fourth century and underwent some minor developments since then, its basic form owes more to the controversial needs of that century and to the religious imagery accepted by Christians and non-Christians alike at that time than to any other influence either before or since” (p. 581).
And that was just the first paragraph!
And as obtuse as that sounded and even though the doctrine was developed 1700 years ago in response to that time’s needs, using that time’s language and imagery, here we are. All that not withstanding, I do think that this doctrine, at its best, is to simply help us understand and therefore know God more fully and more personally… and, by consequence, ourselves in relation to God and one another more fully.
So let me go back to this dense paragraph and grab out of it one phrase that I found helpful. And it is this: “the declared purpose of that doctrine [meaning the doctrine of the Trinity]…is to point to the presence and action of God in this world.”
So let me ask you this? How do you picture God’s presence and action in this world? What image or thought comes to mind?…
Whatever image or thought or feeling, the point is that what DID come to mind is most likely based on your experience of God.
Our first reading tells us of God’s presence and action in this world as Creator of the heavens and earth and all that dwells therein. When we sit outside on a beautiful day like today or yesterday, listening to the birds, feeling the warmth of the sun, noticing that the grass needs to be cut because it has grown so much just in the last few days, we experience God as Creator.
We read of people like Julian of Norwich who, in the midst of prayer, experienced God in such an incredible way that – while they wrote down their visions (and you can read them) – you can tell that no words could possibly describe what they experienced. This Creator, this glorious, magnificent God is whom classical Christianity and many throughout the Hebrew scriptures call God, the Father – the first person of the Trinity. Jesus, himself, called God “Father.”
And when people met Jesus and followed him about, listening to his teachings and witnessing his many miracles of healing, they felt God present. They felt that Jesus, in a very special way, was showing them who God was and what God was like – not so much by talking about God but by embodying God in his very being. So much so that shortly before his death, Jesus could say to his disciple Philip, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father…Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me” (John 14:9, 11). And when Jesus appeared to his disciples after his resurrection, Thomas cried out, “My Lord and my God.” God, the Son – the second person of the Trinity. At Jesus’ baptism and again at his transfiguration, God’s voice cried out, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am pleased.”
At the end of Jesus’ life, he promised his followers that even though he was going away, they would very much still experience God’s presence through “the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, [who] will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you…When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth” (John 14:26, 16:13). Sometimes, if we have to write a paper or sermon, we “get a great idea” or suddenly figure something out after much struggle. We feel inspired – which means to have the spirit in you – we feel like we’ve been give something, like we’ve been helped along. Or in the midst of difficulties, we sometimes sense a Presence, a Comfort, a Power working in us, for us. God continues to be present, now; continues to breathe new life into seemingly dead situations….or to stir things up! God the Holy Spirit – the third person of the Trinity.
Three persons of the Trinity, one God. We don’t experience three gods; we experience one God in three distinct ways.
Some use analogies to try to explain the Trinity – like H2O: it can be found as water or ice or steam. Each is very different, but, in essence, all are the same. Others liken the Trinity to a three-leaf clover. While these analogies are suggestive, they never satisfied me because they don’t take into account the paradox inherent in the one and the three when it comes to God.
I liken the Trinity to the two theories for light. There is the particle theory and the wave theory. No matter how hard physicists try, neither theory, by itself, explains this phenomenon completely. And both theories together seem to make scientific discourse look like a patchwork quilt. Nonetheless, both theories must be accepted in order to talk most fully and most accurately about light.
The same is true about God. That God is One reveals something very important about who God is. That God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit reveals something else that is equally important. Only both together begin to say more fully who God is.
When you get right down to it, the doctrine of the Trinity, for me, is not about figuring God out but about doing the best we can to describe or sense this indescribable God at work in our lives and in our world.
Given our finite existence and the limitations of language, we will never completely explain or understand God. The Apostle Paul wrote, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully know” (I Cor. 13:12).
All the names and descriptions found in Scripture merely try to get us a little closer, try to help us know a little more fully who this God is, but, like Julian of Norwich, we are trying to articulate something that is really indescribable and, so, all words necessarily fall short.. But words are what we have and so we do our best.
In classical, even formulaic, language: the Father sent the Son and then, in the Son’s Name, sent the Holy Spirit. God continually sending himself – God continually reaching out to be in relationship with this world and with all that dwells within it… to create the world, to redeem it, to continue to inspire and sustain it. In short, to love it. And to invite us to participate in this very reaching out in love – to be God’s hands and feet in this world.
Jesus said to his followers, “As the Father sent me, so I send you.” Participate in this trinitarian – or better, divine – life by allowing yourselves to be sent into the world, proclaiming to it your experience and, therefore, your truth about this God.
At the end of our service, Sally, as the Assisting Minister, will say, “Go in peace. The Spirit sends us forth to serve.” Our response, “Thanks be to God.” is our affirmation that we will, indeed, go forth to serve; and, by consequence, allow the Spirit to work in and through us – to be open to experiencing God in our lives, in order that others, too, might experience God in their lives through us and through what we do.
May it be so. Amen.