A Bit of a Long Note: The following is not a transcript from a sermon that I have preached, but one that I wrote nearly four years ago (so disclaimer: I wrote this a while ago) for Dr. Steve Harmon's Christian Theology I class at Gardner-Webb School of Divinity. The assignment was to create a service for Trinity Sunday including choosing music, any responsive readings, and writing the sermon.
Since today is Trinity Sunday, I figured I would share the sermon aspect (including the entire Order of Worship would make this an even longer read; though I will tell you that the music included "Come, Thou Almighty King," different stanzas of "Holy, Holy, Holy" sung in various styles after each sermon, the Doxology, and "God of Us" by Shaun Groves).
When writing this paper, I wanted to do something different to convey the three-in-one nature of the Trinity and quickly decided that the sermon would be in three parts spread throughout the service. I thought about preaching about one of the Persons in each part of the sermon yet made the decision that would compromise the idea of the Trinity's oneness. I ultimately settled on the three parts centering on the mystery of the Trinity, the work of the Trinity, and the Community of the Trinity.
I find myself sometimes watching my year and a half old son and being jealous. He absorbs the world with such joy and fascination. He is curious. He’ll take apart whatever object he can get his hands on. We have to hide our remotes. His curiosity is not easily deterred. If he can’t figure something out, it doesn’t provoke an existential crisis. When we do not get the answers to our questions in adulthood it can drive us up the wall. Not so for the child. The mysterious and fantastic are welcomed with tiny open arms. That’s why our bedtime stories are filled with talking animals, dragons, magical swords, and lions named Aslan. I don’t recall hearing the story of Pinocchio as a child and saying, “Wait a second, you’re expecting me to believe a fairy made this puppet come to life and then sent a talking cricket to help him out. What kind of idiot do you take me for?”
There is much concerning God around which we cannot wrap our minds: eternity, God’s omnipotence, the duck-billed platypus. The list could go on. I talk about the mysterious and fantastic today because the church calendar has brought our focus to the Trinity. And if you’re not able to deal with the mystery, then the Trinity is going to be a brutal concept to encounter. When one tries to explain the Trinity his or her head begins to hurt from the logical contortions necessary.
In some ways the Trinity does not make any sense whatsoever. If you ask a Christian if their faith is monotheistic, they will quickly answer in the affirmative. Yet at the same time, that same Christian will say that God is in three forms. They aren’t three Gods. They’re not three different modes of God. It’s one God yet there’s three distinct persons within that one. How can something be three but also be one? It is a mystery and it is something that is not going to be easily explained. It is impossible to make the Trinity into a concept that makes logical, concrete sense to our finite minds.
This is why it’s important to take our cues from our childlike selves, which is not to be confused with our childish selves. As children we learn that just because there are things in life that do not have a logical explanation that doesn’t make those things any less true. Take love for example. We can talk about what’s chemically happening when you feel love for another person or when you "fall in love," but it’s an entity that cannot be entirely dissected or explained. We might ask questions about love. Why am I falling in love? Why am I feeling these things? It’s okay to ask those questions. Probably a lot of relationships would be saved if more people asked questions like that.
In the end, not all of those questions have answers. Yet we are content with the mystery of love in part because we experience—as Huey Lewis and the News so astutely put it—the power of love. So for an individual to live with love is to learn to live with mystery. We don’t always understand it. Indeed if we waited for love to make total sense before giving ourselves over to it then we would never give ourselves over to it. Yet I think we can all agree that true love is something that is worth the mystery.
So I would suggest the same thing applies to the mystery of the Trinity. We can spend our entire lives trying to dissect it. We can wait for it all to make sense before we give ourselves to it, but that time is never going to come. Again, this is not to say that we shouldn’t ask questions. I am not saying that we shouldn’t think and probe about what the Trinity means. But there is a certain point that you have to accept there are some things that are going to be this unexplained mystery.
So as Christians we’re supposed to live with this mystery which means we have to do a better job in how we relate to the Trinity. In the same way that living with love it makes you believe more in love, living with the Trinity can also help us to believe in the Trinity more. Now as Christians, part of this means that we have to change this bad habit—that we have especially in evangelical Christianity—of mainly recognizing just the Father and the Son. Obviously we would say we recognize the Father, Son, and Spirit but our lives typically betray that statement. I find myself squeezing the Spirit out because the Spirit is the hardest person of the Trinity to wrap my head around. An important aspect of living with the Trinitarian mystery means living with all three parts of the Trinity and not just the parts with which we are the most comfortable. What does that look like with the Spirit? Honestly that’s something I’m still trying to figure out so I cannot provide any definitive answer with that.
This mystery can be found in all persons of the Trinity. In the passages that we’re reading today— one that we have already read and others that we are going to read later—we see mystery all over these writings. In Psalm 29, the psalmist talks about this epic majesty and power of God. We read that the voice of God breaks cedars and the Almighty makes countries frolic like farm animals. There is an oddness to those images. I have difficulty contending with them.
Later we will read the third chapter of John. In verse eight of that passage Jesus says to Nicodemus, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” The word for wind and Spirit are the same Greek word: pneuma. Thus Jesus is talking about the Spirit being this mysterious entity. One cannot be sure where the Spirit is coming from and where it is going.
Later we will read in Romans where Paul writes about how Christians must live their lives by the Spirit. That makes sense on the surface. Yet it still raises all sorts of questions. What is the Spirit? Is it our conscience? Is it a voice inside our heads that talks to us? It’s wrapped up in mystery. But let us not allow these deep mysteries of the universe scare us off. We can explore these questions, but we also must learn to be content when we cannot come up with all of the answers. In fact if our finite minds did figure out all of the answers, it would turn out that God is not really a god worthy of worship. Without mystery we would not have something like the awesome, surreal, majestic God that we read about in Isaiah 6:1-8:
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:
‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.’
The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: ‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’
Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.’ Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’
I mentioned my son Jim earlier. We are trying to teach him the names of the various people in our family. He calls me “Dada” and my wife “Mama.” He sometimes calls my parents the same names; likely because he hears me call them Dad and Mom each day. He calls my sister Shari “Shhhhhh” though he actually has gotten her full name out before. Jim just seems to prefer “Shhhhhh.” We have also been trying to teach Jim the name of Shari’s fiancé Robin. Jim has known Robin virtually his whole life and loves spending time with him.
Around the time that we were trying to teach Jim these new names, Robin decided that he was going to teach Jim how to give a high five. Robin would go up to Jim and hold his palm up. When Jim placed his hand against Robin’s hand, Robin would make an explosion sound to sort of indicate that contact had been made. It worked. Jim will give high fives to nearly everyone that holds their palm up to them and he will make his own little version of the explosion sound when he does it.
One evening, we were at my parents’ house and asking Jim who the various people are. Who is that? Mama. Who am I? Dada. Who is that? Shhhhhhhh. We pointed to Robin. Who is that? Explosion sound. We laughed and we now sometimes refer to Robin as Uncle Explosion Sound. But it got me to thinking about how what we do can come to so strongly identify who we are. In a way, our actions become our name.
In the same way that we sometimes identify the people in our lives by what they do, we can identify the persons of the Trinity by the work they do in our lives. By looking at the ways the Father, Son, and Spirit move in our lives, we can actually grow closer to God. So look around, how is the Father working in your life?
You are alive. You remain alive. You look around and see other people, birds and dogs flowers and trees, the sky and the sun, the moon and the stars. You go to the mountains and you see majestic peaks. You go to the ocean and witness the roaring waves. In Isaiah, we read about the entire earth being full of God’s glory. That implies that this world is full of things that are pointing to God. All of this and so much more speaks of God the Father, the Creator, the Sustainer.
In Jesus we have the opportunity for redemption. We have the chance to be made right with God. We looked at John 3, which contains one of the most famous verses in the entire Bible. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him, shall not perish, but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” That speaks to the redemption that was made possible in Jesus. That redemption is critical to our lives. God loved the created world so much that Jesus came here. He came so that we might continue to live. He came so that we might be at peace with God. Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, it is possible for us to have fellowship with God.
When we come into this relationship with God there is the guidance that we receive through life is the Spirit. The Spirit comforts us. Scripture tells us that the Spirit intercedes for us and prays for things that we don’t even realize that we need. In Romans, we will read about the fact that we need to live by the Spirit. We’re supposed to live by this guide that speaks to us as far as to what we should and should not do as we continue to follow God. In ways that we cannot even fully grasp, the Spirit steers us into living the kind of life that is holy and pleasing to God.
And so when we identify these ways in which the Father, the Son, and the Spirit work in our lives, it can strengthens our relationship with God. We become aware that God is always with us. It’s important to realize that all three persons are constantly working in our lives and that work is complementary. There is not a person that is more important than the other. The Three are all needed in our lives at all times. We need God the Father. We need God the Spirit. We need God the Son. They are co-equal.
In these passages, in other parts of Scripture, in the world, and in our lives we witness all the ways in which the Trinity is working. And so the things I would encourage us, myself included, to do is to examine our lives. Think about the ways in which God moves and works and flows in your life every single day. Do not just think about how God created us and the rest of this planet. Do not just think about the fact that Christ made it possible for us to be forgiven of our sins and come to God. Do not just the fact that the Spirit guides us. Be fully aware that all these beautiful, miraculous things are going on concurrently. See that we need every single aspect of Trinity. Though we cannot grasp the magnitude of the Trinity, we can become aware of the fullness the Trinity in each of our lives. When this happens, it can help up to grow closer to this amazing God.
Is there anything to learn from the Trinity? I mean it’s great if it’s just a theological concept, but what does it mean for our lives? I believe that one of the most striking facets of the Trinity is what it says about the importance of community. The Trinity indicates to us that from the very beginning God has been in community. Because all persons of the Trinity have been there from the very beginning that means that God has always been in this kind of community.
There’s a Greek term that’s been applied to the Trinity before that’s called perichoresis. And basically the idea of perichoresis is that the life of each of the persons flows through each of the others. So each person sustains the others. Each person has direct access to the consciousness of the others.
When we start talking about life energy flowing and access to consciousness, it can sound a good bit like science fiction. But the first time that I heard about perichoresis, it was explained to me in a far more organic and far more warm type of way. Part of that word--choresis--is from the same place that we get the word “choreography.” At first that seems a bit silly. No one really imagines God dancing. Yet one of my professors in college told a story that helped me to see that dance in a completely new light.
In my Basic Christian Theology class, Dr. Shelley told us about a time when he went to a wedding of a family friend. The ceremony took place at the home church of at least one of the betrothed pair: a Greek Orthodox congregation in downtown Greenville. He actually didn’t tell us anything about the wedding ceremony. Instead he talked about the reception. Wedding receptions are typically these incredibly joyous events and this particular one was no exception. The guests were dancing a Greek folk dance. They were moving through a circle, going from person to person. They would grab the hand of one person and then use their other hand to grab the next person’s hand. They rapidly moved in and out of another. In fact, the dance became so rapid that Dr. Shelley said the people began to blur. He couldn’t tell where one guest began and another guest ended. It was a beautifully appropriate image for a wedding in which two people and two families unite together.
That illustration is not a perfect snapshot of the Trinity. The people in that dance were still separate people and, again, we deal with that mind-bending three-in-one concept with the Trinity. However, I love that image of the wedding dance. I love the fact that when we move the Divine into that dance that it shows this warm celebration of the Father, the Son, the Spirit. They are moving in and around each other, taking one another by their anthropomorphic hands in this dance. There’s one last thing that Dr. Shelley mentioned as he used this Greek wedding dance to teach us about the Trinity. It was an incredible realization. He talked about how more and more people joined in that wedding dance. In the same way, the Trinity wants us to join in God’s divine dance.
So what can we learn from the Trinity? Why is it important? I think that a big reason it’s important is that community is important to God. It’s not just community where you just sort-of stumble upon these people once a week and you make small talk. The Trinity is an incredibly intimate community. The perichoresis of God’s community is so intimate, that the differences are virtually indistinguishable. It is one.
I believe that we should remember that close-knitted image as we look to the Trinity because we need to be in this kind of community. We need this community where we are working with one another and are sharing with one another. Augustine once compared the Trinity to love. He talked about how there was the lover, the one loved, and the love that united the two. It was three yet it was one. Love is what defines this community. We are called to love one another and to love those on the outside just as God loves us. As we dance with God and we dance with each other, we are inviting more and more people to come and take part in this community, this joyous occasion that’s transformed our lives.
The Trinity can be more than just this logic-defying concept that flies over our heads. When you get right down to thinking about the fact that from the very beginning God has been in community, it makes you realize how important community should be to each of us. How are we lifting each other up? How are we serving one another? How are we helping each other in our times of need? How can we be there for one another?