|Andrei Rublev's Holy Trinity, ca. 1410|
Yesterday on one of those occasional coincidences of Trinity Sunday and Father's Day, I had the opportunity to preach in a Baptist church. For what it's worth, here's how I approached it:
The Trinity: A Practical Doctrine for Fathers—and Anyone Else in a Relationship with Anybody (and That Includes Everyone)
(Gen. 1:1-2:4a; 2 Cor. 13:11-13; Matt. 28:16-20)
Today is a special day, and doubly so. It’s Fathers Day, but it’s also Trinity Sunday in the Christian year. Since the Middle Ages, Christians in the West have celebrated the first Sunday after Pentecost as Trinity Sunday. It’s a day to think about and worship the God we know and experience as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, three persons, yet one God. Our Scripture readings for Trinity Sunday help us do that.
The Old Testament reading is from Genesis, chapter 1, verses 26 and 27:
Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.
The Epistle reading is 2 Corinthians 13, verses 11-13:
Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell. Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.
The Gospel reading is Matthew 28: 16-20:
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God.
If you were to look up “Trinity” in the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, you’d find this definition: “The central dogma of Christian theology, namely, that the One God exists in Three Persons and One Substance.” If you were to go to a typical Baptist church hoping to learn more about the doctrine of the Trinity, you might have to keep going for quite a while. I have a Baptist theologian friend who thinks that most Baptists are really unitarians who just haven’t gotten around to denying the doctrine of the Trinity yet. Now a unitarian is someone who believes that God is one but not really three. My friend says that only partly tongue-in-cheek. He means that while we may give lip service to the notion that the one God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the doctrine of the Trinity makes so little difference for some of us and some of our churches that it could vanish in the middle of the night and we’d never notice that the doctrine of the Trinity went missing.
Why is it that we seem to give so little attention to the doctrine that sets the Christian doctrine of God apart from all other understandings of who God is? Maybe it’s because it’s not exactly the easiest thing to understand. The doctrine of the Trinity may be as much a mystery to us as it was to the little girl who thought that when the congregation was singing the hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy,” they were singing “God in three purses, blessed Trinity!” But the Trinity will always be a mystery, always beyond human comprehension. I rather suspect that the real reason we don’t pay much attention to the doctrine of the Trinity is that is just doesn’t seem that practical, no matter how true we might believe it to be. When a loved one is suffering or we’re in a relationship that’s falling apart, we usually don’t find ourselves musing on the tension between the oneness of God and the threeness of God!
Is the Trinity a practical doctrine? Perhaps the first question for Baptists who describe ourselves as a “people of the Book” is whether the Trinity is a biblical doctrine. Is the Trinity a biblical doctrine? Yes and no. In one sense, no—the word “Trinity” appears nowhere in the Bible. None of the biblical writers explicitly teach a neatly formulated doctrine of the Trinity. But yes, the Trinity is a biblical doctrine in the sense that the biblical witness to God’s revelation of God’s self demands something like the doctrine of the Trinity if we’re to do justice to the main character in the biblical story.
The Old Testament writers could speak of the Spirit of God or the Word of God or the Wisdom of God, distinct from God yet one with God. In the Gospels, the Son is distinct from yet one with the Father. On the one hand, the Father sends the Son, knows the Son, loves the Son, while the Son prays to the Father and obeys the Father. On the other hand, in the words of the prologue to John’s Gospel, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Or in Jesus’ words in John 10:30: “I and the Father are one.”
Likewise the Holy Spirit is distinct from the Father and distinct from the Son, yet at the same time the Spirit is identified with God in some way. On the one hand, in John 14:16-17 Jesus prays to the Father to give the disciples another Advocate to be with them forever, who is the Spirit of truth. On the other hand, Paul can say in 2 Corinthians 3:17 that “the Lord is the Spirit.”
In many passages in the New Testament Father, Son, and Spirit are closely related in the work of salvation. For example, there’s the benediction from our Epistle reading that concludes 2 Corinthians: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” And then there’s the rather practical Great Commission in our Gospel lesson from Matthew, where Jesus charges his disciples to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Yes, the Trinity is a biblical doctrine in that it’s the best explanation we can give of the Bible’s witness to God’s revelation of God’s self as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
At our best Baptists are not only a biblical people—we also emphasize discipleship. We insist that the church must be a community of committed disciples, each of us personally committed to following Jesus together with each other in a way that makes a difference in the world. That means we regard the doctrines we teach not merely as true statements about God and God’s world—we teach doctrine in the church because the doctrines we believe help us practice the life of active discipleship. In other words, if we can’t conceive of a particular teaching of the faith as a practical doctrine, we may not give it much attention.
The church’s doctrine of the Trinity actually grew out of very practical concerns related to the worship of the early church. The earliest Christians were Jewish monotheists. They were believers in one God; they daily confessed “Yahweh is our God, Yahweh alone,” yet they came to worship the risen Christ as Lord. They started to wonder, “Are we right to do this? Are we right to worship the person of Jesus of Nazareth as God?” A good part of the early church answered “yes” to that question, and by the early 4th century they were teaching that the presence of God in Jesus Christ is nothing less than the fullness of divinity that belongs to God the Father. They used language reflected in a seldom-sung stanza of the Christmas hymn “O Come All Ye Faithful”:
True God of true God, Light from Light Eternal,
Lo, He shuns not the virgin’s womb;
Son of the Father, Begotten, not created.
O come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord.
For what it’s worth, that stanza hasn’t been included in the Baptist hymnals most of us are accustomed to using—with one exception: the Celebrating Grace hymnal from which we’ve been singing today has that stanza that comes straight out of the early fourth-century Nicene Creed. This Baptist theologian is glad for it.
Later in the 4th century the church started to ask the same question about the Spirit. In the doxology that was part of every worship service at that time, some churches sang “Glory be to the Father and to the Son in the Holy Spirit.” Other churches sang “Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit.” A controversy erupted over whether it was right to worship the Spirit directly as God. In the year 381, the Council of Constantinople reaffirmed the church’s faith in the divinity of the Son and added about the Spirit, “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father, who with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified.” From that time on the mainstream Christian understanding of God has been the Trinity—one God in three equally divine persons.
As the doctrine of the Trinity matured over the next three centuries, some Christian thinkers began to write about what they called the “mutual indwelling” of the persons of the Trinity. What they meant by “mutual indwelling” was that while each person has a distinct role to play in the work of redemption, all three persons share in what each person does. In the Gospel of John Jesus says more than once, “The Father is in me and I am in the Father.” In the same way the Father is in the Son and in the Spirit; the Son is in the Father and in the Spirit; the Spirit is in the Father and in the Son. That understanding is behind the classic Trinitarian symbol of three interlocking circles, each circle interlocked with the other two.
Incidentally, this classic Trinitarian symbol is what is supposed to have inspired the pretzel, at least according to one legend. The story goes that a 6th-century monk wanted to give the children he was teaching a visual illustration of how God could be one God in three persons. So one day he twisted long pieces of dough to form three intertwined circles, baked them, and gave them to the children when he taught them about the Trinity. Next time you eat a pretzel, have a close look at it. Think about it. Let it remind you of this central—and practical—Christian doctrine.
Beyond clarifying our worship of God, what’s practical about all this? The Trinity is a practical doctrine first because it helps us know how much God cares for us. In the English language we have a couple of words with different shades of meaning that we use to speak of our caring for a suffering person. If we empathize with a person, we identify intellectually with that person’s suffering but we don’t actually experience it. But if we sympathize with someone, we actually share that person’s suffering.
Yesterday we had a family gathering to celebrate the life of my father-in-law, who’s a lung cancer survivor. Since his diagnosis in December 2009, many times I’ve seen my wife forge instantaneous bonds with other people she meets whom she discovers also have parents who have been cancer patients. That’s because they don’t merely empathize with each other’s experiences; they’ve shared some of the same experiences of suffering, and that binds them together. God’s care for us is like that. It isn’t just empathy—it’s true sympathy, which literally means “suffering with.” God cares about us so much that God suffers with us. The doctrine of the Trinity helps us know that about God.
Think with me about what happens on the cross in the light of the doctrine of the Trinity. If all three persons are equally God and all three persons share in the work of each person, then the whole Trinity suffers in the suffering of the Son. On the cross all that God is personally takes on all the suffering and alienation and God-forsakeness and death that belong to human experience in a fallen world. What God does on the cross is what God does for each of us when we suffer. God cares about our suffering so much that God personally enters into it and shares it with us.
The Jewish Nobel Prize-winning writer Elie Wiesel wrote the book Night about his experiences as a teenager in the concentration camp at Auschwitz. This is his account of an unforgettable execution he witnessed there:
The SS hanged two Jewish men and a youth in front of the whole camp. The men died quickly, but the death throes of the youth lasted for half an hour. “Where is God? Where is he?” someone asked behind me. As the youth still hung in torment upon the noose after a long time, I heard the man call again, “Where is God now?” And I heard a voice in myself answer: “Where is he? He is here. He is hanging there on the gallows.”
It’s occurred to some Christians who have read Wiesel that that’s what precisely what the Trinity teaches us about how much God cares about us, whatever Wiesel himself may have meant. God is indeed hanging there on the gallows, in the suffering of that dying boy and in all our experiences of suffering. Whenever we’re hurt so deeply that we find ourselves crying out, “Where is God? Where is God now?”, the doctrine of the Trinity reminds us that in Christ and through the Spirit God is right here with us. The Trinity is a practical doctrine because it helps us know how much God cares for us.
The Trinity is a practical doctrine also because it helps us know what life’s all about. There’s a direct connection between who God is as Trinity and who God created us to be. The text we read from Genesis 1 tells us that God created us in God’s image. What does that mean? What is the image of God that makes people correspond to God in some way? The text doesn’t answer that question explicitly, but we may have a clue as to what the image of God means in verse 27: “in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” “Male and female”—persons in relationship to one another. The Trinity teaches us that God is relational. From eternity God is persons in relationship—Father, Son, and Spirit, loving each other long before there was a world for God to love. Human beings created in the image of God are relational beings. God has created us as persons in relationship, in relationship with God and in relationship with each other. That means that what life is all about is our relationship with God and our relationships with other people. What really matters in life is loving the God who creates, redeems, and sustains us, and loving the people around us. That’s what Jesus taught us when he summarized the whole Bible with two commands: “Love God” and “Love your neighbor.” The doctrine of the Trinity helps us remember that our lives ought to be as intertwined with one another’s lives as the three interlocking circles that symbolize the Trinity. (Remember that pretzel?) Just as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit mutually indwell one another’s lives, so we dwell in God’s life and God’s life dwells in us, and so we dwell in one another’s lives and they dwell in ours. We belong inseparably to each other, whether we realize it or not, and whether we like it or not.
The Trinity is a practical doctrine because it helps us know how much God cares for us—and therefore how we ought to care for one another. It’s a practical doctrine because it helps us know what life’s all about—our relationships, with God and with one another. Since this is a sermon on the Trinity, you knew there had to be 3 points, so here’s the third point: The Trinity is a practical doctrine because it helps us know what to do when we get relationships wrong.
On Father’s Day many of us who are fathers are thinking about our relationships with our children, and many of us are thinking about our own fathers. That’s joyful for some, and painful for some. If we’re honest with ourselves, all our parent-child relationships involve some mixture of joy and pain, in widely varying proportions. That’s because while our best relational selves reflect the image of the relational God, we’re also sinful, and the primary effect of sin is damaged relationship—broken relationships with God, and broken relationships with one another. The doctrine of the Trinity reminds us that as parents, children, and anyone else in any sort of relationship with anybody—and that includes every one of us—we’re created in the image of the God who is love, and in our relationships with each other we ought to embody the mutual love that is shared by Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and that the Triune God demonstrates toward us. But it therefore also reminds how far we often are from living out that sort of love toward each other, and it points us to our source of help for doing better.
The threefold benediction at the end of 2 Corinthians mentions “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion (or fellowship) of the Holy Spirit.” The way that works in Paul’s Greek, it’s not only the grace, love, and communion that characterizes the Triune God—it’s the grace, love, and communion that comes from the Triune God, the grace, love, and communion that the Triune God shares with us and makes available to share with others when God participates in our lives and our lives participate in God’s life. When we mess up in our relationships—and we all do—the good news is that it’s not up to us in and of ourselves. It’s up to God—and our openness to participating in who God is and what God does.
The letter to the Ephesians tells us about something the Triune God does about broken relationships that we can do, too, with the help of the gracious, loving, and communion-creating God. “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God.” That text from the end of Ephesians chapter 4 and the beginning of chapter 5 suggests that how we imagine God impacts the way we relate to others. If we see God as a harsh, unforgiving judge who shows no mercy to us, we’re probably going to act that way toward other people. Conversely if we see God as forgiving and merciful to us, we’re much more inclined to be forgiving and merciful to others, too.
Do you have a relationship that isn’t everything it ought to be? I’m guessing that’s true of everyone here; it’s certainly true of me. Let’s remember together who we are in relation to the Triune God: we have wronged God, yet God loves us with sacrificial, sympathetic love. We have wronged God, yet God graciously forgives us instead of holding our wrong over our heads. We have wronged God, yet God seeks communion with us and always works to reconcile us back into communion with God. That’s how we ought to relate to those in our relationships who wrong us (and everyone in relationship with us will at some point). It’s hard. Responding like God does is the hardest thing we’ll ever try to do, and that’s why we need the resources of the Triune God. They’re ours already; will we live like it? May God make it so, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.