Trinity Sunday Sermon
Tonight we mark Trinity Sunday, which stands as something of a bridge to move from Eastertide and Pentecost into the long season of Ordinary time. One of the things that distinguishes this day is the brevity of the readings. You’d barely had time to settle down into your pew to hear the reading from Romans, and suddenly I was inviting you to stand for the reading of the gospel. You stood and turned to face the reader, and then after all of four verses it is “The Word of the Lord,” and you’re once again settling into your pew. Five verses from Romans, four from John… look at the time. If the preacher isn’t too long-winded we’ll be out of here in really good time tonight…
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Quite frankly, the readings are brief because when it comes to selecting passages that speak in Trinitarian terms the options are really rather limited. The word “trinity” never once appears in the bible, and only very occasionally are the names “Father, Son and Spirit” included in the same passage. In fact, in the early 1900s there arose a movement in Pentecostalism known as “Oneness Pentecostalism” that set aside the doctrine of the Trinity altogether as being non-biblical and entirely an invention of the early 4th century Council of Nicaea.
Of course that only makes sense if you assume that once the last word was written in the bible, all discernment and revelation came to an abrupt halt. But that comes with a bit of an inner contradiction, because the question of which books should be included in the New Testament wasn’t actually settled until well into the 3rd century. And how was that settled? Through inspiration, certainly. Discernment; that’s a tidy word. Dispute. Contentious dispute. Argument and counter-argument. Yet after the dust had settled we had this collection—this canon of gospels and letters and writings—that has moved and shaped and nourished and challenged and inspired generation after generation after generation.
The same blending of inspiration, discernment, dispute and argumentation is there with the articulation of the doctrine of the Trinity. You see right from the moment Paul and the others first put pen to parchment, the followers of Jesus were faced with a challenge. From the beginning they stood with their Jewish forebears as a monotheistic faith; there is one God. “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” (Deut. 6:4) And yet as those who walked with Jesus had deepened in their knowledge and understanding of him, they had also recognized God in his face. “My Lord and my God!” the disciple Thomas had cried out when he met the resurrected Christ. (John 21:28) “[E]very tongue should confess,” Paul writes in his letter to the Philippians, “every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (2.11)
But they still needed to contend with one more reality, that of God’s continuing presence in them and with them through the presence of the Holy Spirit. How to hold these things together, these three experiences or understandings of the One God? Well, it took a good while to articulate what we now celebrate as the doctrine of the Trinity, classically given voice in the words of the 4th century Nicene Creed. Yet honestly, the creedal language of Jesus Christ as “begotten, not made, of one being with the Father,” and the Spirit as” the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father” can seem a bit obtuse. What are we saying here?
Let me take you into this evening’s reading from Paul for a few minutes; Paul, who lived long before the creeds were formulated, and who never had to sit in a seminary classroom and struggle to find the right words to satisfy a systematic theology professor.
“[S]ince we are justified by faith”—that’s Paul’s great theme, that we are set right with God not by what we do, but as sheer, raw gift—“since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand.” We are declared justified, in spite of all the unjustifiable “stuff” of our lives, and this is being set at peace with God through the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul sees a dynamic relationship between the Father and the Son, through which we are caught up and set at peace, given a home, blessed with grace. This sort of relational exchange happens or is eternally happening, and we are swept up by it, with mercy declared over our lives.
And yet Paul, the apostle of the audaciously wild grace of God—Paul, who can name himself the chief among sinners and also positively rhapsodize over God’s glorious folly that is the cross—Paul is ever so aware that none of this is some proverbial walk in the park. He knows that terrible things happen, and that suffering is very real. And so off he goes: we “boast in our sufferings” he writes, because “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope…” But be careful how you hear these words, for you might think Paul is saying that suffering is inflicted on us by God precisely to build character and hope. That’s not what he is expressing here, nor is he saying anything so clichéd as, “God only gives us as much as we can handle”; something sometimes assumed to be a biblical quote, but which is most definitely not. That’s just way too mechanistic and calculated, as a straight-line proposition.
One of the real privileges of my ministry as a priest in this community is that people tell me things. They let me in on what they’re struggling with, what their sufferings are, what is causing pain. I look out and I see dozens of those stories, written on the faces of people with whom I’ve shared those conversations. Somebody is working through the death of a parent, somebody is dealing with cancer or some chronic illness, somebody is living with brain injury, somebody is depressed, somebody struggles with fear and anxiety, somebody lives in agony over a marriage failure or estrangement from an adult child. None of these things are given them by God, as a way of teaching something or building character. But, Paul would want us to hear, even such sufferings are not to be given the final word, because they can produce endurance which can fold into character which produces hope. And how is that? “[Be]cause God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. You see? Paul has now added a third person to the dynamic relationship he’s recognized at work between the Father and the Son; a three-fold dynamic relationship that sweeps us up too, and sets us at peace, if only for a time.
Doesn’t mean it is easy, or that there is a quick fix zapping that will take away suffering and pain altogether. I recently returned to an extraordinary essay by Frederick Buechner called, “Adolescence and the Stewardship of Pain,” and I want to read just a few lines from it. Buechner himself has known deep personal pain, beginning as a boy when his father choose to end his own life and his mother refused to ever even talk about it. Yet in his writings and his teaching and preaching, he discovered a kind of call to be a good steward of that pain; to minister from it and through it. And so he writes,
To bury your pain is a way of surviving your pain and therefore by no means to be dismissed out of hand. It is a way which I venture to say has at one time or another served and continues to serve all of us well. But it is not a way of growing…
You see, that’s a big part of Paul’s point here in Romans; that facing your suffering, whatever it might be, can become a way of growing and moving and deepening. Again, not because God wants to grow you by hurting you, but because new life can be drawn out of what seems to be only a dead end. So Buechner continues,
If you manage to put behind you the painful things that happen to you as if they never really happened, or didn’t really matter all that much when they did, then the deepest and most human things you have in you to become are not apt to happen either.
But to move beyond the burial or denial or suppression of pain and suffering to an actual confrontation or even embrace of it is to see the possibility of moving, as Buechner puts it, “[to] the far side of the murmuring dark of anger and tears, to be reconciled and healed.”
Many of the early theologians and poets of the Christian tradition imaged the Trinity as a dance—the perichoresis or mutual indwelling of the three in one, constantly moving, swirling, inter-weaving and holding the creation itself in being. I believe that part of what Paul is implying is that our wounded selves have a place in that dance, and though it won’t necessarily happen this side of death, even the most broken and stumbling of us will find ourselves dancing. And suddenly the Trinity is not an obtuse doctrine that can be hard to get our heads around, but a present reality this surrounds us with hope and light and life.