Scriptures (Read by different members of the congregation, beginning and ending with 1 John 4:7-8.):
Deut. 6:4; I John 4:7-8; John 1:1-5; Matt. 28:19; 2 Cor. 13:14; I Peter 1:2.
Trinity: The Heart of God is Love
At the heart of Christian faith is the Trinity, the Tri-unity of God, but preaching on the Trinity is one of the hardest tasks of any preacher. It is a mystery, not in the sense of a “Whodunit,” which one can solve by following the clues, but in the sense of a phenomenon that, the more you understand one or more aspects of it, the more you realize there are other aspects you don’t comprehend. So, today, I want you to hold onto one central concept if you remember nothing else: The Trinity is important because GOD IS LOVE. Love is relational. The word “Trinity” names the fact that God is already a community of giving and receiving love IN GOD’S SELF. Creation comes out of the overflow of that love; God does not just learn to love after God has become Creator. We’ll come back to this, but if nothing else makes sense about today’s sermon, please remember that “Trinity” is another way that Christians say God IS love.
How did this strange idea of Tri-unity in God come about? It doesn’t seem self-evident. My mother always complained about theology in general and the Trinity in particular as too complicated. She prided herself on having “simple faith” and wanted simple ideas about God to go along with it. Well, our faith may be simple in the sense of simple and pure trust in Jesus as our Lord and Savior—which is what I think my mom meant. But wanting a simple theology is like wanting simple astrophysics—it can only be as simple or complex as the reality we seek to describe. We don’t have to be needlessly complicated for complexity’s own sake or to make it seem as if we are smarter than we are, but when we think about God and the gospel we should expect that sometimes it will be hard thinking, headache material.
Let’s start by saying that neither the word “Trinity,” nor any developed teaching or doctrine about it is found in the Bible itself. It took the church centuries to work out a teaching on the Trinity—with many fierce debates—and theologians still work on it, today. But the Scriptures we read today, and others, started the thinking and debating process that produced the concepts we call the Trinity.
It began with the fact that all the earliest Christians were Jews. We read today from Deut. “Hear, O Israel, the LORD your God is One Lord.” Jews call this “the Shema,” from the Hebrew word for “Hear.” It is the heart of Jewish faith—There is only one God, the Deliverer from slavery in Egypt who embraces Israel in covenant at Mount Sinai and whom the covenant people come to see is also the Creator of the entire universe. Israel’s constant temptations were the temptations of empire: to renounce the liberated Jubilee life God has shown them in the covenant to return to patterns of oppression and slavery like they had known in Egypt, and to abandon faith and loyalty in God for the many gods of empire. The Exile from the Land cures the latter problem. From the time of Israel’s return from Babylon and the other nations where they were scattered to the Land of Promise, several centuries before Jesus, they fiercely guarded against idolatry. (Oppression was a harder habit to break.)
So, what would make Jews, like the disciples and the earliest Christians, begin the process that would lead to our teaching about the Trinity? Some have claimed it was a mistake. That it resulted from the early split between synagogue and church and Christianity becoming a mostly Gentile religion. Had the Church stayed largely Jewish, they claim, no pagan, Greek philosophical ideas would have infected us with a semi-return to polytheism, the belief in many gods. Count me among those who disagree. The earliest Christians KNEW that God is ONE, but they also experienced Easter and Pentecost. They encountered God in Jesus and in the Spirit that Jesus had promised God would send. Jesus typically referred to God as “Father,” and taught his disciples to pray that way, too. (We’ll address feminine images for God later. For now, because we have enough on our plate, let’s stick with the traditional, admittedly patriarchal, language of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”) Before long, Christians, mostly Jews, were using words for the risen Christ that were usually reserved for God. They even began to pray to Jesus and to the Spirit, although the usual New Testament and early Christian pattern was to pray TO the Father, in the NAME of Christ, and by the POWER of the Spirit.
Experiencing God in Jesus and in the Spirit got the ball rolling toward Trinitarian faith. Christians remained monotheists, believers in one God, but, unlike the other Abrahamic faiths, Judaism and Islam, we are not SIMPLY monotheists. Count me among those who believe that Jews, Muslims, and Christians all worship the same God, the true and living God. But we understand God differently. For different reasons, Jews and Muslims both believe that Christians have compromised our monotheism in holding to the Trinity. We are tempted to minimize our differences in interfaith dialogue—and to build bridges of understanding, we SHOULD start with our common ground—One God, the God of Abraham and Sarah, of Isaac and Ishmael, of Jacob, of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam—and of Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, priest of Midian, whose monotheistic faith bears many similarities to Islam. But, not even for the sake of solidarity with our Jewish and Muslim sisters and brothers can we downplay the differences—in Jesus’ life, teaching, death, and resurrection, we have met again the One God of Liberation and Covenant. And in the promised Spirit, named in Scripture as both the Spirit of God and the Spirit of Jesus, we live, move, and have our very being IN God. Christian life is life in the Spirit. Christian life and worship is INEVITABLY Trinitarian in shape. The way the doctrine worked out was shaped by Greek philosophy because that is the culture in which the debates took place. Doubtless the terms and shape of our faith would look different today if the early Church had first flourished in India or China. (Much of it did flourish in Africa, but parts of Africa already influenced by Greek and Roman culture.) But I am convinced that, regardless, SOMETHING LIKE the Trinitarian teaching would have developed because of Easter and Pentecost.
Now, as I said, the details took centuries of debates to work out—and the arguments have never ended. We won’t go into them all here. To even cover the basics would take a long sermon SERIES on the Trinity. Today, I will just mention a few key points, some ancient, and some very contemporary.
1) The “persons” of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are equal. It’s not that the Father is REALLY God and Christ and the Spirit are secondary. Already in Col. 1:19, Paul states that in Christ, “ALL the FULLNESS of God was pleased to dwell.”
2) It’s not that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are “masks” for God or roles that God plays. The church rejected this teaching as “modalism.” But many Christians are unknowingly Modalists. But this ends up with either denying the Incarnation—that God was fully in the human Jesus of Nazareth, or it ends with believing that the baby Jesus is guiding the stars and planets from his crib! Jesus wasn’t talking to himself when he prayed. Jesus doesn’t turn into the Spirit after death and resurrection. One form of Pentecostalism, the United Pentecostals, embrace this modalism, believing that “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” are merely “titles” for Jesus and baptizing only into Jesus’ name and not in the Trinitarian formula of Matt. 28:19 which we heard read. They have a kind of “Unitarianism of the 2nd Person.” No, each of the 3 persons is fully God.
3) We also see that our congregation’s doxology [which uses “Creator, Christ, and Holy Ghost”], while fine as a doxology, does not say everything that needs to be said. No song can do that, nor sermon, nor book. But our doxology, BY ITSELF, can give the impression that only the Father is Creator, that only Jesus is Redeemer, and only the Spirit is Sustainer. Look at your bulletin cover. See the symbol there [see picture at bottom] and how the 3 points also connect and intersect? That very ancient Trinitarian symbol points to something called by the Greek word “perichoresis.” You don’t need to remember the word, but what it means, is that each person of the Trinity participates in the life and actions of the other. Remember our Scripture from the Gospel of John—in which the Word, Christ, is not only affirmed to be God, but is creating, too—without Whom nothing was made that is made. In Genesis 1, the Spirit hovers over the chaos waters as God begins to create. Likewise, Jesus Christ the Son is not the only agent in salvation. GOD was in Christ, reconciling the world to God’s Self. And the sustaining and empowering and sanctifying work of the Spirit is also the work of Father and Son. Each participates fully in the work we primarily identify with another “Person” of the Tri-une God.
4) There is much, MUCH, more that could be said, but let me finish our reflections today with the question of how the Trinity relates to feminine images for God. My prayer life reflects my theology—among other things, no doubt. As a young Christian, I primarily addressed God in prayer as “Papa,” believing that this was the Southern cultural equivalent of Jesus’ “Abba.” When I began to realize the importance of the Trinity, I adopted the early Christian pattern, especially in public prayer, of praying to the Father, in the Name of Jesus the Son, and in the Power of the Spirit. Then, as a seminary student, I encountered the feminist critique of all-masculine God-language. Now, let it be said that it is NOT true that the ancient Christian theologians who formulated Trinitarian doctrine believed that God was literally male. Some modern TV preachers may believe that, but Athanasius, and Augustine, and the Cappadocians, specifically and repeatedly affirm that both male and female humans are made in the image and likeness of God, just as Genesis 1 says. But it is true that the constant use over centuries of Father, Son, and Spirit language, while ignoring feminine imagery for God in the Bible gives the impression that, to say the least, men are more in the image of God than women are. This false belief has fed sexist patterns of male supremacy in home, church, and society. So, I came to my teacher, Dr. Molly Marshall, and I asked her, “Is it possible to be a thorough Trinitarian and still embrace the feminist critique of all-masculine God language? Can one be a Trinitarian feminist?” She got that twinkle in her eye that we students came to associate with her sharp sense of humor, “Oh, yes, Mr. White,” she said (I was still single, then), “But you will forever after be condemned to using very complex sentences.” So it has proved.
God is not male. We are free to call God “Mother,” as well as “Father.” We can refer to God as “She.” In ancient Christian art, the Spirit was often depicted as feminine. The Wisdom tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures, what we Christians often call the “Old Testament,” depicts the Wisdom of God as feminine (see Prov. 8)—and it is that Wisdom tradition that is the background for John’s calling Christ “the Word.”
Now some disagree on both sides. Some theologians, like Donald Bloesch and David Jenson, while acknowledging feminine imagery for God in Scripture insist that “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” are the way the New Testament teaches us to NAME God. So, we can’t call God “Mother” they say. I disagree. If that were so, the New Testament writers and other early Christians would have used ONLY “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” language for God and never any other images, but this is not the case. On the other side, feminist theologian Sallie McFague thinks the Trinity is a category mistake that comes when metaphors become hardened into idols. She wants to replace the metaphors of “Father, Son, and Spirit,” with “Mother, Lover, and Friend.” I have no trouble using any of her terms for God, but not as replacements. Two feminist theologians have worked hard to reaffirm the tradition while still incorporating the feminist critique of all-masculine God language. If you’re up for some DEEP reading, I highly recommend Catherine LaCugna’s God For Us: The Trinity and the Christian Life and Elizabeth A. Johnson’s, She Who Is: Feminist Theology and the Mystery of God.
We do have to insist that Jesus of Nazareth was biologically male. That is the scandal of particularity. He was also Jewish and spoke Aramaic. Incarnation is in the particular. But the pre-existent Word is also Wisdom and the risen Christ, though usually referred to as Son, can also be given feminine imagery. If humans, both male and female, are made in GOD’s image, then ALL of God, each member of the Trinity, embraces both feminine and masculine aspects—however difficult that is to say in a baptismal formula or doxology.
We have barely scratched the surface and our time is up. We end where we began. Trinity is another way of saying “God is LOVE.” “One God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” “Mother, Child, and Holy Spirit,” a community of love in God’s Self and pouring out that love in Creation, in Sustaining and empowering the universe, and in salvation, liberation, redemption. In the words of Catherine LaCugna, Trinity means that God is GOD FOR US. Amen.
This Sunday, like so many around the world, I will be preaching on the Christian doctrine of the Trinity–the Tri-Unity of God. After, I’ll post that sermon here. For now, I thought I would list a few excellent theological works on The Trinity.
For beginners in theology:
Alister McGrath, Understanding the Trinity (Zondervan, 1990).
Roger E. Olsen and Christopher A. Hall, The Trinity. (Guides to Theology Series). (Eerdmans, 2002).
Modern works on the Trinity:
Leonardo Boff, Trinity and Society. Trans. from Portuguese by Paul Burns. (Reprint Wipf & Stock, 2005).
Elizabeth A. Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Discourse. 10th Anniversary Edition (Crossroads Publishing, 2002).
Catherine Mowry LaCugna, God For Us: The Trinity and the Christian Life. (HarperOne, 1993).
Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom (Fortress, 1993).
Karl Rahner, The Trinity (Milestones in Catholic Theology).
There are many others, but these should keep you busy for awhile.