Sermon for St Mark’s on Trinity Sunday, 2017
Notoriously Difficult to Understand?
Not long ago I was discussing the preaching schedule with Marilyn Roth, and said I was looking forward to preaching on Trinity Sunday. There was an interested if quizzical look on her face as she said, “You are the only priest I know who looks forward to preaching on Trinity Sunday.” Conventional wisdom is that preaching God as three in one is an assignment best avoided. I remember an announcement in a California newspaper, back in the day when sermon topics appeared in the newspaper, that went something like, “Next Sunday is Trinity Sunday, a doctrine notoriously difficult to understand. The Rector will preach an appropriate sermon.”
So let’s take Trinity head on. It is important for Christian thinking. First of all, the Doctrine of the Trinity teaches one thing and one thing only – that there is One God. So at your next gathering with friends over a glass of wine, if someone asks you what Trinity means, that is a sufficient answer. If the wine has been enjoyable, though, a friend may pursue, “So what is the three in one stuff about?” Let’s have a look at the process of discovering God.
The ancients saw God in the earth and its spectacular events. In the time of Abraham, there were myriad gods – weather gods, fertility gods, warrior gods, gods in the sun and moon, fickle gods and trickster gods, and gods who mated with humans. And were that not enough, each culture had its own gods. Jupiter was the supreme God of the Romans, and the supreme God of the Greeks was Zeus. You know about the gods of the Egyptians invested in Pharaoh, and a god honored by an upstart rabble of slaves called Hebrews, and of the contest of the ten plagues. So different gods were honored in a variety of cultures. After that contest with Pharaoh, though, something changed. These Hebrews, who once believed their god was a god among many, came to see that their god was more powerful than mighty Egypt. They came to believe that their god was the first and mighty god among the host of gods. The God of Israel was God of gods.
The changing was not over though. Through ensuing generations and through more contests, the Hebrew people came to understand that it was not enough to say that their god was the chief, but in fact, their god was the only god. The gods of the other nations? They were idols. (I Chronicles 16.26; Psalm 96.5) The Hebrews became truly monotheistic for the first time, an identity we share with Islam and Judaism today. So there is significant Biblical evidence of an evolving awareness of God – we call it revelation.
Then, among the people of God, prophets, priests and teachers, there appeared one who was unlike all others. I am speaking of Jesus. He was a real person, living in Palestine in the first century. At first he was seen as a promising young Son of Israel. But as he matured, the people saw strong teaching and controversy, and called him prophet. They saw extraordinary things which could not be unless God was with him, and they named him miracle worker. In his later years he took on the corruption of the religious and political establishment, and they named him criminal and had him executed. But God was not finished, and Jesus was raised from the dead, and continued to live released in the world. Then we named him Son of God, and saw him to be the purest and clearest revelation of the heart of God ever and since. What about the God of the creation whom Jesus called “Papa”, Father? Over time the holy people came to believe God was both Father and Son. Real change. Yet, after Jesus returned to the Father, extraordinary things continued to happen. Pentecost, miracles, the strength of martyrs and prophets even in our day, empowered by what they named “Spirit”, the Spirit of God, Spirit of the Living Christ, Holy Spirit. Spirit was more than the Father and more than the Son, yet the same energy as both, and the power of Spirit still influences and guides Christians in our faith.
In order to tell the whole truth of our continuing revelation of the Divine, then, we name God the Father, God the Son, God the Spirit – creator, redeemer and sanctifier. Three gods? No, just one.
Your friends may be sure they have you now, but don’t lose heart. We are enlightened people, they say. We are logical. We speak science, the language of either-or. So which is it – one or three? Ah, but science is not the only language. Life is as much “both-and” as it is “either-or”. “Both-and” is the song of spirit. Which is it, they say? One or three? The answer is “Yes”.
How can this be? Let’s try it on. I am Roy Green. You know me as Priest, and Priest I am. I am also Father, and though you met Nancy, you do not know my children. Only my children know me as Father. I am priest; I am father. These are not the same, but there are not two Roy Greens. Moreover, I am an amateur photographer. You have not traveled with me on a shoot, so that part of me is invisible to you. You can see evidence of my craft on the walls of my office, but you have not experienced my life as a photographer. Priest, Father, photographer – distinct, all authentic, yet there is only one Roy Green. The doctrine of the Trinity is about one thing only. There is one God.
One more example. Here is an apple, and only one apple. Yet there is skin of the apple, and flesh of the apple and seed of the apple. The skin, flesh and seed uniquely apple – not an orange skin, and the flesh, though you cannot see it, is surely apple and not pomegranate. And the seed? It is not flesh. It is not skin, but it is authentic apple because it produces only apple. Skin and flesh go away, but there is power in the seed. So this apple is three, yet it is one. Creator, redeemer, sanctifier – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – the doctrine of the Trinity is about one thing only. There is one God.
Convinced? Ah well. Trinity is one name for God. Father, Son and Spirit also are names for God. If these confuse you, remember that “Love” is also a Biblical name for God, and though we don’t understand love fully, we can nevertheless live in love and walk in love as God loves us. Trinity Sunday, a good thing. And God, one God, the God fully revealed in Jesus continues among us today in Spirit. So good people, continuing the wisdom of William Sloane Coffin:
“May God give you grace never to sell yourself short, grace to risk something big for something good, and grace to remember that the world is now far too dangerous for anything but truth, and far too small for anything but love.” Amen.
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.