June 7, 2009
This morning we are observing Trinity Sunday. To be honest, I wasn’t all that gung ho about Trinity Sunday in the beginning. But the worship team saw it on the calendar and thought it looked like a great idea. Probably because they knew I would be preaching today and they would be off the hook. At that worship meeting, I got the vague and unsettling sense that they expected me to stand up and explain the Trinity.
I read this week that if you talk about the Trinity for more than a few minutes, you will slip into heresy. So my options on this Trinity Sunday seem to be preaching an incredibly short sermon, or being a heretic. Keep an eye on your watch if you want to know which one I choose.
To begin with the obvious, there are three parts of the Trinity. Traditionally these have been named Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Or Holy Ghost if you need it to rhyme with “heavenly host.” In this congregation, we often refer to them as Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.
These parts of the Trinity are distinct from each other. You may have seen the medieval paintings of the old guy, the young guy, and a dove. The Trinity. But if we worship the Trinity as three distinct deities, that is polytheism. Which we all know is heresy.
So the Trinity is not really three different gods. God the Creator, God Incarnate as Christ, and God the Spirit, are one and the same God. Therefore we could say, for example, that God the Creator was born of the virgin Mary—which makes her the mother of God. This is called modalism. And trust me, this is heresy too.
God the Creator was not born of a virgin. God the Creator exists eternally and has created all that was, all that is, and all that will be. So God embodied in Jesus and God as Holy Spirit must come from the Creator God and serve the ultimate will of the Creator. This heresy is known as subordinationsim.
As you can see, the Trinity is quite complex and hard to understand. I’ve had the Trinity explained to me as being like an egg. You have the shell, the albumen, and the yolk. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. One thing, yet three. I don’t know if this is technically heresy, but it certainly doesn’t feel orthodox to think about the Trinity in terms of something that comes out of a chicken’s backside.
So how many heresies is that? And how long have I been preaching?
OK. Here is the non-heretical teaching of the Church about the Trinity. The orthodox teaching is that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three persons of one substance. We can thank the churchmen who gathered in Nicea in 325 for this clarification. We can learn it and recite it: three persons of one substance. But these terms don’t really help me understand the Trinity.
There is a story about the great theologian, Augustine of Hippo. One day after he had been writing about the Trinity for awhile, he decided to take a break and go walk along the beach. He came across a boy who had a bucket. He would fill up the bucket, run up the hill, and dump the water into the sand. He did this over and over until finally Augustine stopped the boy and asked, “What are you doing?”. The boy said, “I am draining the sea into the sand.” Augustine pointed out the futility of the task, and the boy replied, “Yes, but I will drain the sea before you understand the Trinity.”
Folks, I hate to tell you that if Augustine couldn’t figure it out, we’re not going to figure it out either.
The Three are one. The One is three. It doesn’t make any sense. And yet today, Christians around the world are gathered together to celebrate and contemplate and sing praises to the Trinity.
Being Mennonites, we do not observe the full liturgical calendar. It is interesting to note that Trinity Sunday is the only Sunday on the calendar that is based on a doctrine of the Church. It is not an event like Christmas or Easter or Pentecost. It is not in honor of a particular saint, as are so many liturgical days in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions. On this Sunday, and this Sunday alone, we celebrate a doctrine of the church.
I don’t know about you, but I’m not very big on doctrine. And this particular doctrine causes all kinds of problems. First, because it is utterly incomprehensible. Second, because it is never mentioned per se in the scriptures. Those seven verses that Tara and Matthias read are the only places in scripture where the three “persons” of the Trinity are mentioned together. The term “Trinity” is never used and certainly there is nothing like a doctrine of the Trinity presented in the Bible.
One can get a sense that we are grasping at straws here. It’s almost enough to send me running to the Unitarians. They gave up on the Trinity idea a long time ago. They even re-wrote the last verse of Holy, Holy, Holy so it doesn’t include that reference to “God in three persons, blessed Trinity.”
But Mennonites are not Unitarians, we are Trinitarians. We sing the last verse of Holy, Holy, Holy. We pray to the Trinity. We baptize in the name of the One Holy God, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, Amen.
It is not clear. It is not easy. It is not comfortable. But relating to God as Trinity is a profound experience for me, an experience that gets me as close to the Truth of God as I dare to go.
The point of the Trinity is not to separate out and define the parts. Trinitarian theology merely opens up to us one way—the primary way—that Christians have worked to understand the vastness of God.
Yes. God is the Almighty Creator who spoke the world into being.
Yes. God is incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth who fully embodied the extent of divine love for the world.
Yes. God is present with us today as Holy Spirit who guides and comforts and enlivens us.
It is important that we understand the breadth of the activity and personality of God. The doctrine of the Trinity should keep us from narrowing our vision of who God is and what God does; and this should broaden our understanding about who God loves, and what the work of God looks like in the world.
And, I think the doctrine of the Trinity is significant for Christians even beyond this. Because though God is Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer—all Three—we also proclaim with our Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters that the Lord our God is One whom we are to love with all of our heart and soul and mind and strength.
Worshiping a God who is Three in One is at the heart of the Christian church.
I don’t often show off with fancy Greek words. But some of them are worth learning. And there is one you need to know if we are going to continue in our heresy by discussing the Trinity for more than a few minutes. This particular Greek term was introduced by the Cappodocian monks in the fourth century. It describes the relationship between the three persons of the Trinity. The term is: perichoresis.
Perichoresis. It’s listed in your bulletin as the sermon title. It’s not much of a title, but I wanted you be able to see the word.
Creator, Christ, and Spirit relate by means of perichoresis. Like a lot of Greek words, this one is somewhat difficult to explain. There is no English word to use as a direct translation. It suggests the mutual indwelling of the three parts of the Holy Trinity. The idea is that all three parts are equal and their identities are based in each other.
But perichoresis is not a static concept. It has the same root as choreography. There is both inward and outward movement involved in the Divine Trinitarian relationship. Theologian Molly Marshall calls it “the dance that characterizes Divine life.”
To think of the Trinity in terms of perichoresis means that relationship is at the heart of the identity of God. Relationships are not just something that God forms with creation as God sees fit, but relationship is who God is.
Let me say that again. Relationships are not just something that God forms with creation as God sees fit, but relationship is who God is.
And if God is relationship, that means that we, too, are drawn into the Divine choreography. And our neighbors are drawn in. And all those who love us. And all those who hate us. And the stars. And the soil. And the squirrels that jump from tree to tree and eat from our bird feeders.
The perichoresis of the Trinity means that our God exists in and for relationship. And we, my friends, are made in God’s image. Made to be connected to the people and the world around us.
To worship the Holy One as Trinity means, in the words of Ghanan theologian Mercy Amba Oduyoye, “that we should stand not for monarchies and hierarchies, but rather for participation.”
Finally, the Trinity is not a doctrine to be argued and recited. It is not even a concept to be understood. It is a mystery into which we are invited. A dance for all to join.