Sermon June 11: It Takes Three

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Faith United Methodist Church

June 11, 2017

Trinity Sunday

Rev. Kristabeth Atwood

Scripture:  2 Corinthians 13:11-13, Matthew 28:16-20

Prayer for Illumination:

By your power and authority, God, may your servant love become our way of life.  May your grace and forgiveness inspire us to hope for the future.  May we become the living embodiment of your good news in all that we say and do.  Amen.

Sermon: It Takes Three

 The Trinity and I have been having an argument this week.  It’s not going so well on my side, but I guess that’s not surprising since it’s three against one.  Okay. That’s my attempt at a joke on Trinity Sunday.  I’m not offended if you didn’t laugh.

But seriously, today is the day we get to talk about the Trinity.  To try to explain the mystery of the Trinity.  To remember that we worship a God who is both one and three, three in one.  Folks have come up with many technical analogies to describe the Trinity.  There’s the shell, white and yoke that make up one egg.  There’s the skin, flesh and seeds that make up one apple.  Water has three states – liquid, ice, and vapor – but remains water.  The shamrock has three leaves but is still one plant.

The image I have on the projector shows one technical attempt to explain the Trinity.  As you can see the “is nots” are in the blue circle along the outside.  The son is not the father.  The father is not the spirit.  The spirit is not the son.  Yet the green paths that lead to God say “is.”  The Father is God.  The Son is God.  The Spirit is God.  The three persons of the Trinity are separate AND they are all God.

Others experience the Trinity more through art and relationship.  The artist who created this icon depicts the three persons of the Trinity as literal persons sitting together in relationship.  A friend I spoke to this week said he has experienced the Trinity most profoundly in observing the relationship between his three children.  The book (and the movie) The Shack portrays each person of the Trinity as a character.  The father as an African American woman.  The son as a Middle Eastern man.  And the Spirit as an Asian woman.  These characters share a dynamic relationship as they shepherd the book’s protagonist, Mack, through the lessons he must learn.

But the real question about the Trinity is, so what?  The doctrine of the Trinity itself isn’t even in the Bible.  It took centuries of theological wrangling, and a succession of ecumenical councils, to finally articulate what we now accept as the orthodox understanding of the Trinity.  There’s another joke about the Trinity (one that I didn’t write, so I promise it will be better):

Walking with his disciples one day, Jesus said, “Whom do men say that I am?”  His disciples answered, “Some say you are John the Baptist returned from the dead; others say Elijah, or other of the old prophets.”

But Jesus questioned again, “But whom do you say that I am?”

Peter answered, “Thou art the Logos, existing in the Father as His rationality and then, by an act of His will, being generated, in consideration of the various functions by which God is related to his creation, but only on the fact that Scripture speaks of a Father, and a Son, and a Holy Spirit, each member of the Trinity being coequal with every other member, and each acting inseparably with every other member, with only an economic subordination within God, but causing no division which would make the substance no longer simple.”

And Jesus answering, said, “What?”

Of course, we know that Peter answered, “The Messiah, the Son of God.”  I like this joke because it points out how we ~ as humans ~ tend to over complicate even the simplest of things.  As Leonardo Boff puts it in his book Trinity and Society, “To say that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit is revelation; to say that God is ‘one substance and three Persons’ is theology, a human endeavor to fit the revelation of God within the limitations of reason.”  At the end of the Gospel of Matthew Jesus tells his disciples and, ultimately us, to, “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 that, in its simplest form, is what we are to do.

In my argument with the Trinity this week I pulled out my dusty copy of The Christian Theology Reader from seminary.  Desperate times call for desperate measures.  In it I found much debate about hypostatic union, waded through Augustine’s discussion of the Trinity as “love,” (written in the early 400s) which sounds beautiful, but helped cure my insomnia from the night before.  And then I stumbled upon Thomas a Kempis’ writing from the 1400s on the limits of Trinitarian speculation:

What good does it do if you dispute loftily about the Trinity, but lack humility and therefore displease the Trinity? It is not lofty words that make you righteous or holy or dear to God, but a virtuous life. I would much rather experience contrition that be able to give a definition of it.  If you knew the whole of the Bible by heart, along with all the definitions of the philosophers, what good would this be without grace and love? Naturally, everyone wants knowledge. But what use is that knowledge without the fear of God? A humble peasant who serves God is much more pleasing to him than an arrogant academic who neglects his own soul. If I were to possess all the knowledge in the world, and yet lacked love, what good would this be in the sight of God…

This tells me that while searching for ever clearer understandings of the Trinity is not a bad thing, the ultimate thing is to live it.  That we believe in a God who exists in relationship means we are to be a people of relationship, community.  We are to live in communion with each other and with God.  That we believe in a God who seeks us out in different forms ~ Father, Son and Holy Spirit ~ means we are to seek out others in order to share love, compassion, grace and mercy.   And, in God’s infinite wisdom God knows that it takes three to get the message across.  “Go therefore and make disciples in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

So maybe the most important thing isn’t that we understand how our three-in-one shower soap is like the Trinity – shampoo, conditioner and body wash in one!  Maybe we don’t have to compare the Trinity to a Twix – chocolate, caramel and cookie in one candy bar.  Maybe we just have to live allowing the Trinity to inform our lives.  I would much rather experience the mystery Trinity in my heart than be able to explain away the mystery.  On this Trinity Sunday let us allow the mystery to persist and live in loving relationship with each other, with our world and with God.  Amen.