I read a blog post this week by some professor of preaching somewhere advising us to steer clear of the Trinity in our sermons this week. We live in a “post-doctrinal age,” quoth the article. Trinity?! Doctrines!?! Too complicated! Too boring!
This sermon is my answer to THAT load of poo.
This Sunday is special for two reasons. One, it is Trinity Sunday, when we celebrate our God who is Father, Son, and Spirit; and two, today we bid farewell to one of our beloved member-couples, John and Liz, who are returning to England. I hope Liz and John will forgive me if I preach about the Trinity, and not about them.
Today is called Trinity Sunday – which is completely absurd, because of course every Sunday is Trinity Sunday. It’s like having a God Sunday. (Um, I thought they were all God Sundays?) Of course, every Sunday we worship Father, Son, and Spirit. And yet today we set aside one day in the Christian calendar to reflect on what it means that we have a triune God, who is three in one. Today we don’t just think about the Father, Son, and Spirit, which we do often, but really ask: why is the Trinity really the heart of our faith? What does it mean that we are a Trinitarian people?
The Trinity is what makes us Christians. The Trinity sets us apart from the other monotheistic, Abrahamic faiths (Judaism and Islam), who set the one-ness and indivisibility of God at the very heart of their theology. The Shema Yisrael, which forms the cornerstone of the morning and evening prayer for Jews, starts with the words: “Hear, O Israel: the LORD is our God, the LORD is one” (a verse from Deuteronomy which we also affirm, although in a very different way). Likewise the central Islamic creed, the Shahada, begins with an affirmation of the oneness of God: “There is no God but Allah.” In Islam the doctrine of the one-ness of God has a special name in Arabic, Tawhid, and Muslim theologians have spent as much time contemplating the indivisible oneness of Allah as Christian theologians have spent wrestling with the three-ness in one-ness of God.
The Trinity defines our Christian faith. But it is also a profound and holy mystery – a mystery probably better lived in and experienced than dissected and analyzed with really big words. Unfortunately, church talk about the Trinity is usually so shrouded in horribly technical theological language that it scares off ordinary people – (people like me, I mean!) – from thinking too long or too hard about it. And that is tragic, because then we might miss how relevant and how exciting the Trinity is for the life of the Church.
So this morning I won’t try to define or explain any particular doctrine of the Trinity. But since the Trinity is a mystery to be lived in, we can think about how our lives change by worshipping a triune God. And we can share in the excitement about what the Trinity means for the Church; what it means that we worship a dynamic, interpersonal, God-in-relationship. Surely the social Trinity not only defines how we think of God… it also changes how we love God, and love one another.
After all, we were made in the image of God. “Come,” says God to herself in Genesis, “let us make man and woman in our image.” We were made in the image of the God who exists in everlasting communion and relationship.
All abstract thinking about “substances” and “natures” aside: what does that mean for us?
First, we were made to love perfectly. We exist not only for love, but for perfect love.
That we human beings were made for love seems obvious enough. We spend our lives looking for the relationships that will make us feel secure, cared for, respected, and loved. Especially when we move to a new place we may feel more keenly than ever how much we need love and fellowship.
On the flip side, it is excruciatingly painful when our relationships go bad. Damaged relationships inflict some of the worst pain that this life has to offer. Of course, being out of work, unable to pay the rent, sick or in trouble: these are terrible too. But at least in my own personal experience, is often the broken relationships and the loss of loved ones in my life that produce the most hurt and pain.
Why is that? Why do we need to belong to a community? Why do we have this craving for friendships and loving partnerships, to create families, and to worship in community? Surely this is because we were made in the image of a relational God. We are people who are built for community because we bear the image of a God who is community. It is engrained in our very nature to belong to one another in the same way that the three persons of the one God belong to one another. We were made to bear the image of perfect love.
The passage we read this morning in John, chapter 16 shows us what this perfect love looks like. God the Father, the Spirit, and the Son have a relationship built on mutual giving and open-handed sharing. What is the Father’s, is the Son’s, and is given to the Spirit; all that the Father has belongs to the Son, and the Spirit in turn shares in this communion of the Father and the Son. In fact, there is so much mine and his and ours and yours in this passage, so much back and forth between the three persons of the Trinity, that it’s unclear where one ends and the other begins. They inter-are: they share their very being.
The heart of this passage is sharing. Obviously this is not just the sharing of things or information between the Father, Son, and Spirit. What we see in the Trinity is a sharing of persons. The persons of the Trinity have their very being in relationship with one another, and they give themselves to each other.
This passage reveals to us the pattern of love that we were made for: love that is characterized by sharing and inter-being. Of course sharing our possessions and the things we have is all well and good, but the Gospel also calls us to share who we are with one another. We don’t just share the things we have, but we share who we are.
We do that, I think, by striving to see one another and respect one another with the eyes of the Trinity, and by affirming one another both as individual persons, and as members of the community.
What strikes me the most about this passage from John is the way that the three persons of the Trinity listen to one another. Perhaps you’ve never thought about the persons of the Trinity listening to one another before, or of God listening to herself before, but it is clear from this passage, and others in the Bible, that they do. Think of God creating the world; Christ’s baptism, where the Father affirms Christ the Son as the Spirit descends on him, or even the way Christ calls out to the Father at the hour of his death. The Father, Son, and Spirit listen to one another. And this spiritual listening is somehow essential to the way they share their being with one another.
I wonder we could learn something here. First, from this passage we see that what the Father shares with the Spirit is made known to us as well through the Son. God’s generous revelation in Christ and through the gift of the Holy Spirit means that the Trinity shares with us. But this requires of us that we learn the art of holy listening to the Spirit and Christ the Word. Are we listening to the Spirit? Is there space and time and silence enough in our lives and in our spiritualties for listening?
And second: could it be that the primary way we share ourselves with one another is by listening to each other? Perhaps it is by keeping the ears of our hearts open to one another and to the Spirit that we best participate in the perfect, sharing, listening love of God.
The second thing we learn from the social Trinity is that we were made to love forever.
We all hate goodbyes, whether temporary, like this morning; or permanent. I think goodbyes feel so fundamentally wrong to us because they are not what we were made for. Saying goodbye is an inescapable part of human life, and yet I don’t think that “temporary love” was something God really planned for. In fact, I am not sure that the words “temporary” and “love” can even be put together; the one excludes the other. Real love, God’s love, is forever.
When we look at the Trinity, we see a love that lasts for an eternity, a love that had no beginning and shall have no end. And that is what we were made for: to love in perpetuity. As the climax of 1 Corinthians, ch. 13 reminds us: Love never ceases.
The best news for us this morning is that, as we saw in the All Age story, God has embraced humanity and drawn us, the Church, into the life of the Trinity. In the spiritual life of the Christian church, we participate in the life of the Trinity. By our creation in the Father and our baptism in Christ, we are welcomed into Trinitarian life in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, all of whom welcome us home. And by the gift of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, we receive the breath of God herself among us.
To me, this is the most profound mystery of the Trinity: that through the love of Christ and the touch of the Holy Spirit, God has embraced humanity and invited us to participate in the perfect, forever love of God. God has reached out and drawn us in, right into the heart of the Trinity, right into the center of God’s everlasting love, where God’s many hands and arms embrace us.
The Trinity has chosen to share with us the mysterious, holy, blessed life of God. As we are drawn into the life and the ministry of the Christian church, we are drawn into a spiritual communion that is the divine life itself. Joining in the life of the Church is participating not only in the communion of persons with persons, but also, in a mysterious and almost unfathomable way, participating in the communion of God with God with God. Endless and perfect.
Our reading this morning from the book of Romans reminds us, “we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.” (There is that wonderful word “sharing” again!) And what is this glory that we hope to share in, if not the perfect and eternal relationship of God? We were made to share in the everlasting communion of Father, Son, and Spirit, and it says right there in Romans that this hope does not disappoint, because the one who promised is faithful.
We can “boast in hope” this morning precisely because we love and serve a Trinitarian God. We are filled with the hope that our love is being made as pure and clear and strong as the love of the Father, Son, and Spirit. And we are filled with the hope of loving each other and God forever, long after temporary or permanent goodbyes seem to have separated us. This is the hope promised us in Romans and sealed in our hearts with the Holy Spirit: the hope of being rooted and established in the love that lasts forever.