Trinity Sunday (Year A)
11 June 2017 // A Sermon by Fr. Sammy Wood
2 Corinthians 13.(5-10)11-14
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Some days more than others, it can be truly humbling to be a preacher. It certainly is for me. I say “some days more than others” — When I was a seminarian my confessor was a priest at a little church in the Mississippi delta. She asked me, just offhand one day, whether I’d like to preach for her the next week, to get some experience, you know. I said “Sure!” and didn’t realize until in the car on the way home that she’d played me. Turns out it’s an old rector’s trick to ask the seminarian to preach on Trinity Sunday. And here’s why, according to another priest friend who asked this question:
“How does a preacher take an apparently contradictory and paradoxical doctrine,
that has caused more controversy than any other in the church’s history,
state and explain it in a concise way,
give some vivid and creative analogies and examples,
make it accessible to people of all ages,
and make it about then minutes long?”
And then he added the kicker:
“How does a preacher do all that without understanding the subject matter with anything approaching comprehension?”
How, indeed? Clergy and laity, those with theological training and without, all of us struggle with the doctrine, when we think much about it at all. One God in three persons. Some folks want to ditch that altogether, like the bishop in the ‘60s who called it “excess baggage.” For my part, I want to make the case that, far from jettisoning the doctrine of the Trinity, we should lead with it, move it front and center in our thoughts about God and about our own common life. And let me suggest three reasons why: (1) The drama of the doctrine; (2) the direction of the doctrine; and (3) the dance of the doctrine.
First — The drama of the doctrine
The Trinity, the central doctrine of Christian theology, says “the one God exists in three Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” The church hammered that definition out at her earliest councils in the first five centuries, and it’s what we confess this morning that we believe — it is human reason’s greatest foray in to the very being of God, but it always comes up short precisely because of its object — of what it tries to describe. Listen to this from Bishop N. T. Wright:
A great many arguments about God — God’s existence, God’s nature, God’s actions in the world — run the risk of being like pointing a flashlight toward the sky to see if the sun is shining . . . . The difficulty is that speaking of God in anything like the Christian sense is like staring into the sun. It’s dazzling . . . . [O]ur lines of inquiry, our probing and questioning, may perhaps lead us in the direction where God might be found, but they cannot break through and claim to have grasped God all by themselves. [N]o human argument could ever, as it were, get God in a corner, pin him down, and force him to submit to human inspection.
The infinite God can’t be grasped with finite human reason. We simply cannot pin God down, and all attempts to do so — however noble and brilliant and beautiful, however close they may come to an actual description of the inner life of God — they come up short.
And that’s point one — it’s why this doctrine is so compelling! Who would ever make up something like this if it wasn’t true? The Trinity didn’t fall from the minds of theologians or philosophers dreaming up a notion of God; if it did, it would be more rational, easier somehow to understand. And Dorothy Sayers says that is the exciting, unexpected “drama” of the doctrine. She says it’s:
not beautiful phrases, nor comforting sentiments, nor vague aspirations to loving-kindness and uplift, nor the promise of something nice after death — but the terrifying assertion that the same God who made the world lived in the world and passed through the grave and gate of death. Show that to the heathen, and they may not believe it; but at least they may realize that here is something that a man might be glad to believe.
That’s drama. Point (2): The Direction of the doctrine —
C. S. Lewis says the doctrine of the Trinity is like a map — Use it to get your bearings, but don’t confuse it with the reality it describes. Lewis says:
If a man has once looked at the Atlantic from the beach, and then goes and looks at a map of the Atlantic, he will be turning from something real to something less real: turning from real waves to a bit of colored paper. But here comes the point. The map is admittedly only colored paper, but [remember this:] If you want to go anywhere, the map is absolutely necessary.
We get direction from the doctrine — it does tell us something real about what’s going on inside the life of God. It’s not exhaustive, but it’s true. It gives us direction.
But think it all the way through: If the doctrine is true, then we do have real, direct insight into the reality of God if we come at it the other way ‘round. There is another way to peer into the essence of God without depending completely on our reason.
You see, in one breath N. T. Wright says “no human argument could ever pin God down,” but in the very next sentence he says: “It is part of the Christian story that there was a moment when God was indeed pinned down, subjected not just to human inspection but to trial, torture, imprisonment, and death.”
The doctrine of the Trinity says Jesus of Nazareth was God himself, and he came into the world not just to be pinned down but to be nailed down, affixed to a cross to atone for human sins. There’s something about God that just is what we see when we look at the rood. God just is self-sacrifice for the beloved. God just is “my life for yours,” not “your life for mine.” God just is faithfulness and forgiveness, he just is justice and mercy, he just is love that will never let us go, love that is nailed down so we can be free.
One last point: The Trinity tells us something true but beyond comprehension about the inner life of God, that’s the drama of the doctrine; the Trinity is like a map, that’s the direction of the doctrine; and lastly (3) the Dance of the Doctrine —
If you leave here today understanding more about the essence of God, God’s own life, but you don’t leave here thinking about your life, then this sermon is a failure. I didn’t do my job. Because Trinity Sunday isn’t just about God’s inner life; it’s about your life and my life and our life together.
Catherine LaCugna wrote a book back in the 1970s that I read while I was at Virginia Seminary, and I’m not sure I can adequately describe the impact it had on me. So I’m stealing this last point from her. She wrote this:
The life of God is not something that belongs to God alone. Trinitarian life is also our life. [T]here is one life of the triune God, a life in which we graciously have been included as partners. Followers of Christ are made sharers in the very life of God, partakers of divinity as they are transformed an perfected by the Spirit of God . . . . The doctrine of the Trinity is not ultimately a teaching about “God” but a teaching about God’s life with us and our life with each other.
And the word she uses to describe this life is perichoresis — it means something like mutual interdependence, a picture of objects that don’t remain static but orbit around and circle each other. Or to use a more elegant word — it means “to dance.”
So here’s your takeaway: If God is a Trinity of persons, and “the whole purpose for which we exist is to be  taken into the life of God,” then our lives must be a dance. When the world says freedom is each individual self exerting its independence and autonomy, the church says real life isn’t self-focused, it’s other-focused. Tom Keller says the dance is “[w]hen we delight and serve someone else, we enter into a dynamic orbit around him or her, we center on the interests and desires of the other” — that’s where true joys are to be found. Trinitarian life just is mutually self-giving love; it just is coffee hour (hard as that is for an introvert to say); trinitarian life just is opening your homes to share your hearths and share your hearts with your neighbors; trinitarian life just is provision for the poor, it’s coloring on the floor with a child, sitting by a hospital bed, honoring the dignity of every human being made in the image of our Triune God.
Welcome to the triune life. It is the life of God, and we’re destined to share that life as well. Come to the dance.
In the Name of the Triune God — Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.
Go Deeper // Sources
- The question posed by my priest friend is from Rev. Doug Bernhardt, “Embracing the Three Persons of the Trinity,” a sermon delivered at Christ Church of Hamilton & Wenham on 15 June 2003 <http://christchurchhw.org/Resources/Sernons/index.html> (last visited May 2005).
- Bishop James Albert Pike suggested the Trinity was “excess baggage.” Pike, James Albert, <http://www.episcopalchurch.org/library/glossary/pike-james-albert> (last visited 9 June 2017). Karl Rahner, the RC theologian, once said we could “dispense with the doctrine . . . as false and the major part of religious literature could well remain virtually unchanged.” Catherine LaCugna, God For Us: The Trinity and Christian Life (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1973): 6 (quoting Karl Rahner, The Trinity (New York: Herder & Herder, 1970): 11)).
- N. T. Wright, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2006): 56-57.
- Dorothy L. Sayers, Creed or Chaos (Manchester, N.H.: Sophia Institute Press, 1995): 25.
- C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Collier, 1984): 199-120.
- Catherine Mowry LaCugna, God For us: The Trinity and Christian Life (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1992): 228.
- Timothy Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Dutton, 2008): 214-15.