Text: Matthew 28:16-20
In the liturgical calendar, the Sunday following Pentecost – that would be today - is celebrated as Trinity Sunday. Now, Trinity Sunday is different from Christmas or Easter or even Pentecost, days in which we celebrate a specific event, like Jesus’ birth or resurrection or the coming of the Holy Spirit. Trinity Sunday is set aside to reflect on a doctrine – a belief - of the church. Now just to say that phrase, “reflect on a doctrine of the church,” a person can almost feel the air go out of the room. It is possible to ruin a perfectly good worship service by talking about something like the Trinity. The British preacher Colin Morris once commented, “Any preacher with good sense will call in sick on Trinity Sunday.”
And Martin Luther stated his opinion on the matter: “To try to deny the Trinity endangers your salvation; to try to comprehend the Trinity endangers your sanity.”
Our scripture reading from Matthew is a very familiar one, known as the Great Commission. I memorized it as a child. “Go ye therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit...” This formula “in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” is about as close as the Bible gets to any kind of developed doctrine of the Trinity – and it’s not really that close.
Despite the difficulties and despite the fact that the Trinity is really not a central concern of the scriptures, we’re going to go ahead and think about the meaning of the Trinity this morning because since we come here and worship God week after week, since we offer prayers and raise our voices in praise to God each Sunday morning, as we have this morning, it is worth considering just who this God is. It is worth reflecting on the nature of the God whom we worship and serve.
Well, how about it? How about this Trinity thing? As I said, you really won’t find a doctrine of the Trinity in the Bible. Jesus didn’t talk about the Trinity. I know some would disagree, but for me, understanding the Trinity as a theological construct is not all that important in itself.
The Theology class has been reading and discussing Harvey Cox’s book, The Future of Faith, this semester. It is an interesting book. With the college class finished for the year, I was able to sit in on the class last week. Cox argues that the history of the Christian Church can be divided into three ages. For the first 300 or so years of the church, the focus was on living out the teachings of Jesus as a community. This was the “Age of Faith.” After the emperor Constantine made Christianity the official state religion, however, things changed. The focus more and more became conformity and right belief, and the very meaning of faith changed from a way of living to a set of fixed beliefs. The Church amassed power as an institution. This Cox called the “Age of the Church.”
Cox sees us as now in a transition period into what he calls the “Age of the Spirit,” with a focus not on creeds and conformity and right belief, but on community and lived faith – not so much on institutions, but on a living, vibrant spirituality.
Now, Cox’s take is part historical analysis and part deep hope, but if he is right – and I think he is on the right track – what are we doing observing Trinity Sunday? Why does this even matter?
Well, I am not encouraging rigidly defined doctrines that folks have to subscribe to in order to be considered a Christian. But as a church that likes to say that faith is a matter of both heart and mind and that you don’t have to check your brain at the door here, it is important for us to think and reflect on the nature of the God we worship.
Who is God? What is God like? Does God care for me? What is my place in relationship to God? We naturally have a need and desire to describe the Almighty.
In the book of Exodus, God spoke to Moses in the burning bush and told Moses that he was to lead the people out of Egypt. Moses said to God, “When I go and tell Pharaoh to let my people go, who should I say sent me?” God simply said, “I am who I am.” Not, “I am the eternal three-in-one Godhead,” but “I am who I am.”
When you get right down to it, God is a mystery, a reality that we cannot fully fathom or explain. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was interviewed in Christian Century. He said, “The doctrine of the Trinity is… not a tidy description; it’s just the “least worst” way we’ve found of talking about something very disturbing and inexhaustible. And I suppose that’s why I’ve been trying for many years to write a book on the Trinity.”
The story is told of an aging Jew crossing the street in front of a Roman Catholic Church who was knocked down by a hit-and-run driver. Half-conscious and lying in the street, a priest ran out of the church to administer last rites. “Do you believe in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit?” the priest asked. The old man cried, “I'm dying, and this guy is asking me riddles!”
To some, it certainly sounds like a riddle. The hymn we sang says, “God in three persons, blessed Trinity.” What does this mean?
Among other things, the word “persons” trips us up. The Greek word is persona, and it referred to masks that actors wore in Greek drama – they might play different parts, but it was the same actor.
The doctrine of the Trinity says something about the way we experience God. It says that the God who created us, the God who saves us, and the God who gives us power and strength each day is the same God. As Frederick Buechner puts it, “the mystery beyond us, the mystery among us, and the mystery within us are all the same mystery.”
A lot of things might be said about the Trinity, but what speaks to me most is that the doctrine of the Trinity says that at the heart of God’s being is relationship. Even God needs community, and within the heart of God is community.
To be created in God’s image means that we are created for community. Our own identity is found in relationships. I might describe myself as a husband, a father, a son, a brother, a friend, a pastor, a teacher, a learner. I am a follower of Jesus and a child of God. Each of these ways of defining myself, each of these parts of my identity has to do with relationships. I understand myself in relationship to others. God’s own self involves relationship, and created in God’s image, we are created for relationships, created for community.
Our reading from the Psalms is a familiar one: “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is thy name in all the earth.” It goes on to speak of the place of humanity in creation, saying “You have made them a little lower than God.” Translators of the King James Version, apparently feeling that his was too presumptuous, rendered this as “little lower than the angels,” but the literal Hebrew is more along the lines of “You have made them god-like.”
Part of being like God, part of being made in God’s image, is this need to be in community as God is in community. But the trend is not so good. Robert Putnam’s book, Bowling Alone, described the decline of social capital in America – compared to 50 years ago or even 20 years ago, he found that fewer American are involved in civic groups like Rotary or the Lions or Kiwanis, fewer young people are in Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, fewer are involved in PTA, fewer are actively involved in political parties, fewer participate in community organizations of all sorts, and people get together less with friends to play cards or share a meal. While there has been an overall increase in bowling, there has been a big decrease in bowling leagues, hence the title of the book – Bowling Alone. The one exception, the one area of growth, was “membership organizations” like AARP or the Sierra Club or the NRA, groups in which most members don’t actually know or relate to any other members of the organization.
Putnam found that this trend also holds true for churches: the number of active church members has decreased, and those who participate in congregations spend less time involved in church activities. Putnam wrote his book several years ago, but the trend has only increased. As I have mentioned before, the fastest growing group in our country in terms of religious affiliation is the “nones” - those with no religious affiliation at all.
The dramatic downturn in community participation in recent years has had an effect. There are fewer people to turn to for help in a crisis, fewer watchdogs to deter neighborhood crime, fewer visitors for hospital patients, fewer participants in community groups.
Putnam and other researchers have attributed such findings to things like the mobility of society, in which people move often and don’t establish deep friendships or community ties; to an increase in TV watching and video games and computer use, which keep people occupied without relating to others; and to the increasing number of people who work long hours, sometimes even 2 or 3 jobs, and simply don’t have the time to build meaningful relationships with others.
The problem is, we are not created for TV or the world wide web, or work without rest, or living in isolation. We are created for community – community with God and with others.
Johann Christoph Arnold related a Hasidic parable. A rabbi asked his students, “When is it at dawn that one can tell the light from the darkness?”
One student replied, “When I can tell a goat from a donkey.” “No,” answered the rabbi. Another said, “When I can tell a palm tree from a fig.” “No,” answered the rabbi again. “Well, then, what is the answer?” his students pressed him.
“Only when you look into the face of every man and every woman and see your brother and your sister,” said the rabbi. “Only then have you seen the light. All else is still darkness.”
In the end, God is a mystery. We cannot fully know God. And yet God has revealed God’s own self to us – as Creator, the maker of all that exists, the one who brought this beautiful world and this whole universe into being and gave the care of this world to us. God has been revealed to us in Jesus Christ, who showed us that God is a God of grace and love and justice and forgiveness and peace, a God who will go to any length to be reconciled with us. And we have experienced God as Spirit, a power ever present to us that strengthens and energizes and convicts and leads and sustains us in the here and now.
As an academic venture, I have to admit that the doctrine of the Trinity leaves me pretty cold. One of the questions in that class discussion last week was, “What are the gems of Christian faith we need to keep and what is the junk that you would discard?” I know that for some, the doctrine of the Trinity might not seem worth hanging onto. But in a more down-to-earth way, the Trinity is helpful for me as a way of thinking about God because it says that God is a mystery, that we experience God in different ways, and that God is about community. We worship a God who seeks us, who wants a relationship with us, and we come together as a community in relationship with one another and with God. When we are truly living this way, living in community, we look in the face of every man and woman, every boy and girl, and we see the face of a brother or sister.
We speak of God in various ways, all of which are attempts to describe a mystery greater than we are. We may describe God as Father, Friend, Rock, Protector, Judge, Help, Mother, Lord, Savior, Shield, Shade, the Ground of our being, and this is just a start. All of these various ways of thinking about God have to do with God’s relationship to us. One of the simplest descriptions of God we find is in I John, “God is love.” And we experience that love in community with one another.
For me, the doctrine of the Trinity is an attempt, however imperfect, to draw us closer to the truth that God is Love. Not a hypothesis, not a research project, not a theological puzzle, but Love.
How do we describe God? We can only use metaphors. Our understanding is limited and our language is limited, and so we can only say that God is like…
When we say that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, or that God is Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, we are trying to express something of what God is like. But any of the words we use to describe God are inadequate. Even all of these thoughts and words and ideas about God, all taken together, still fall far short of describing and understanding the fullness of God.
I have talked before about Brian Wren’s hymn that we sang this morning, “Bring Many Names.” But I think the last verse is especially powerful as we think about the nature of God: “Great living God, never fully known, joyful darkness far beyond our seeing, closer yet than breathing, everlasting home, hail and hosanna, great, living God.”
Our God is a great, living God. And while God is never fully known, God is closer than our breathing. That is relationship. At the heart of God is relationship, even within God there is community, and we are invited into relationship with God and with each other.
To be a community of faith means that we are a family, that we look into each face and see a brother or sister. And it means that the God whose very nature is community is here in our midst. Amen.