Trinity Sunday, Year B, 2012

Listen to the sermon here.

The Trinity is like a clover.  It has three parts, but is one thing.

No, no, no.

The Trinity is like an apple.  It has skin, meat and the core, but is one apple.

That’s not quite right.

The Trinity is like water.  Water can exist as a gas, liquid or solid, just like the Trinity exists as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit!

Well, that doesn’t quite do it, either, does it?

For as long as there have been preachers and Sunday School teachers, we have been trying to find a way to express the idea of the Trinity—that we believe in one God, who exists in three forms.  It took early Christians 325 years after Jesus’ death to hammer out exactly how they wanted to express this idea.  325 years!  In the meantime you had tons of arguments about which member of the Trinity existed first, and whether one member generated the other, and whether Jesus was really God or whether he was a human who was turned into God.

It was about this point in theology class where our brains began churning at a dangerously high rate of speed.  Words like homoousia and co-eternal and consubstantial were tossed around the room as if they would clear up this tricky business once and for all.

So, before we veer off into dangerous territory, let’s take a deep breath and a step backward, and look at what the apostle Paul has to say about the Trinity.

First of all, Paul is not familiar with the term Trinity.  If we asked Paul what he thought about the Trinity, he would just stare at us blankly.

However, if we asked Paul about the relationship between Jesus and the Father, or Jesus and the Spirit, he’d have quite a bit to say! At the risk of being completely reductionist, when Paul describes the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Paul sounds like he is describing a family.  Not any family you and I know.  This family doesn’t squabble over who gets to sit in the front seat of the car or who gets the last drumstick of fried chicken.

In his letter to the Philippians, when Paul describes the relationship between the Father and Jesus, he uses a liturgical hymn popular in his time.  Part of it says:


Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus

who, though he was in the form of God,

did not regard equality with God

as something to be exploited,

. . . .


Therefore God also highly exalted him

and gave him the name

that is above every name,

so that at the name of Jesus

every knee should bend

For Paul, the members of the Trinity are a family who are always lifting each other up. In this hymn from Philippians, Jesus is humbling himself before God and God is exalting Jesus. Their relationship is wholly mutual.

In the Gospels, Jesus always listens for what his Father would like him to do and shows perfect obedience, even when obedience leads to death.  Jesus feels so close to the Father he refers to him as Abba.  Abba could be translated as Papa, a term of endearment.  Their relationship was a tender one.

The Holy Spirit empowers the church to tell the world about Jesus, to ensure that the Father and the Son will be worshiped across this globe.

One imagines the members of the Trinity in a holy dance, never jockeying for position or striving to be best, but exhibiting perfect love and respect.

That pretty much sounds like your family, right?

The Trinity is not a family we can recognize.  We can kind of wrap our minds around the Father-Son dynamic, but I’m not sure where the Holy Spirit would fit into our limited understanding!  Is the Holy Spirit mom?  A really interesting cousin from California?  Ultimately the metaphor of the family is only slightly more helpful that the metaphor of a clover or apple.

But!  But in our passage from Romans today, Paul tells his readers,

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ– if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

Paul claims that the Holy Spirit gives us a spirit of adoption—that we become God’s children through Christ.

Paul is claiming that this family of the Trinity, this family marked by perfect love and humility and generosity wants to include US in the family.

Paul is claiming that Christ, who came to earth and DIED for his Father, is willing to have us share in his inheritance.


Does the Trinity really think this is a good idea? Humans are terrible at being in families.  We argue over whose turn it is to visit our father in the nursing home.  We complain if we don’t get the same amount of ice cream as our sister.  We scream bloody murder if our brother hits the button on the elevator before we do.  We destroy families over inheritances.   Why would God want to adopt us???

I have about a half dozen close friends who have adopted children and two themes I have seen in each family are these.  First:  The parents long for their children years before they are adopted.  The parents do not know who will be their child, but they love that child and long to include them in the life of their family.  I bunked with my friend Maggi at a retreat a dozen years ago, just when she had begun proceedings for adopting her first daughter from China.  As we drifted off to sleep, we talked about this daughter, who might not even have been born yet, and Maggi’s voice was filled with love as she said her name.  Caroline.  Her name would be Caroline.

Caroline and Maggi celebrate a decade together this weekend, and have welcomed another sister, Betsy in the intervening years.  Even before Maggi saw a picture of her daughters, they were real to her in her heart.

Second:  Once that child is adopted, she becomes wholly and completely of that family. That child belongs to that family.  Through and through.  Forever.

My friend Alex, who has adopted three beautiful children, once said to me, “Sarah, I sometimes wonder what it would have been like to carry these children in my body, but even if I had given birth to children, I would want it to be to these children.”  My friend Alex loves her children.  Completely.  No other children could take their places.

And maybe the experience of adoptive parents gives us a little glimpse into the mind of the Trinity.  Maybe the Trinity was so overflowing with love, it decided to share that love. Maybe the Trinity even longed for us. Maybe the Trinity wouldn’t trade us for any other children. The Trinity claims us for its family.  We belong to the Trinity, through and through.  Forever.

Children are not adopted because they understand their parents, or because they are good or smart or talented.  Children are adopted because a family’s love and longing overflows its boundaries and can’t help but to love more.  The Trinity adopts us because of who the Trinity is, not because of who we are.  And the Spirit invites us to join Jesus in calling the Father, Abba.  This adoption is not a formality. The Father wants us to love him, to feel protected by him, to call him pet names.

Not only does the Father offer us intimacy, but offers us intimacy at great cost to himself.  The Trinity is willing to threaten its very existence, to lose part of itself, so that we might be included in the family.  Christ is willing to die so that we might live with the Trinity forever.  What family does that?  What family sacrifices one of its own members for children who don’t even deserve to be part of the family?

In the end, the Trinity is not like a clover, or an apple, or water.  Water cannot love.  Apples cannot long.  Clovers cannot embrace.  But the Trinity is not quite like a family, either. No family could go to the lengths and depths of love and sacrifice that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit go through for us.  No brother would lose his life for unworthy siblings and then welcome them into the family with open arms.

And yet, this mysterious, complicated Trinity does.  This mysterious family breaks itself open and welcomes you inside into perfect love.  You.  You.  You.  Welcome home.  This is your family.



Trinity Sunday, Year C, 2007

I spent last week at Virginia Seminary, at an annual residency as part of the First Three Years Program.  This residency is a time to reflect on our ministries with our seminary classmates, hear each others’ stories and learn.  Coincidentally, the theme of this year’s program was storytelling-I don’t think Chuck secretly influenced them, but who knows!

The first story we read was called The Expert on God, by John L’Heureux.  It begins like this,

From the start, faith had been a problem for him, and his recent ordination had changed almost nothing.  His doubts were simply more appropriate to the priesthood now.  That was the only difference.

As a child of ten, he was saying his evening prayers when it suddenly struck him that Catholics believed in three gods, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost.  He blushed and covered his face.  What if the kids at school found out?  They were Protestants and therefore wrong, but at least they had only one God.  Instantly it came to him that there were three Persons in one God.  It was a mystery.  He was very embarrassed but very relieved, and he actually looked around to see if anyone had heard his thoughts, and for the rest of his life it remained for him a moment of great shame.

This beautiful short story begins with a young boy’s meditation on the Trinity.  For him, this contemplation is a shameful experience because initially he thinks non-doctrinal thoughts about the Trinity.

The doctrine of the Trinity has caused a lot of problems for many years.  We in the church like to get our I’s dotted and our T’s crossed.  We don’t like to leave room for error, so we describe abstract theological concepts until we’re blue in the face.  Many churches won’t let you join them until you sign off on their interpretation of doctrine.  The doctrine about the Trinity is tricky, because it is really important to us as Christians that we only worship one God.  But, scripture tells us Jesus was not only God’s son, but was fully God himself.  Scripture also tells us about the Holy Spirit, who pre-existed with the Son and the Father. 

Theologians have been trying to wrap their brains around this for a long time.  The Bible never expressly lays down a theology of the Trinity, so it has been up to the church to develop one.  The Councils of Nicea and Constantinople in 325 and 381, respectively, dealt with the question and developed the creeds we read today.  The consensus was that there was one God, one Divine essence, and the Father, Son and Holy Spirit were all made of that essence.  Theologians fought over the words essence, subsistence, substance-words you and I might think mean the same thing!  As I was preparing for this sermon, I was reading some of John Calvin’s work on the Trinity and at one point he starts making fun of other theologians’ descriptions of the trinity.  He calls Augustine’s explanation on the Trinity, “extravagant.”   Those doctrine wars can get downright nasty!

The little boy in our short story grows up and becomes a priest, but continues to have deep doubts about faith.  He has these doubts in a very systematic way and takes turn doubting the Trinity, the virgin birth, the divinity of Christ, in order, and never more than one at a time.  He gets so caught up in doctrine that he isolates himself socially and has no personal friends.  His doubts become his life.

As I mentioned before, nowhere in Scripture does the Bible lay out the doctrine of the Trinity for us.  Nowhere does Jesus sit his disciples down and start lecturing about the Divine essence of God and how Jesus is a subsistence of that divine essence.  No, when Jesus talks about the Father or about the Spirit, Jesus talks about relationship.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus describes his close relationship with his father-how Jesus bases every decision on following his Father.  The Father feels pain when Jesus is killed on the cross. Jesus also describes how the Holy Spirit will glorify Jesus and speak truth about him.  Jesus describes how the Father sends forth that Holy Spirit.

All three persons of the Trinity are caught up in this beautiful relationship in which they bring honor to one another, love one another and stay completely attuned to one another.  Theologians call this the immanent Trinity-Think of an image of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in some kind of holy dance “up in heaven,” dwelling in glorious realms on high.

In the last few decades, theologians like Catherine LaCugna have been developing the idea of the economic trinity. Though the idea of the immanent trinity is beautiful, they believe the image of the members of the trinity in deep relationship with each other is incomplete.  The economic trinity is not a trinity that is interested in the stock market.  Here the word economic refers to the idea of exchange, in the sense of how the Trinity interacts with its creation, particularly human beings. 

After all, if there is anything about which the Bible is explicit, it is the members’ of the Trinity relationship with human beings.  God the father creates us and loves us, Jesus offers us grace, the Holy Spirit guides us.  In effect, the members of the trinity are opening their arms and inviting us to participate in the dance of their relationship.

The priest in our short story gets invited into this relationship in a very intense way.  He is driving home after church on an icy Christmas Eve, when he has decides to give up his faith, which for him, is deeply doctrine based.  As soon as he’s made this decision, he notices a car accident.  He pulls over and enters one of the cars, and encounters a dying teenage boy.  Even after renouncing his faith, he pulls his anointing oil out of his pocket and says the last rites.  He holds the boy for a  long time and the story ends when the priest is able to tell the boy.  “I love you.  I love you.  I love you.” 

Though we first think the priest giving up his faith is tragic, soon we realize that in giving up his faith-which was incredibly rule and doctrine bound, he is able to open himself up to true faith in God-relationship.  He is able to be an open vessel that communicates God’s love to a dying boy. 

While this short story is a grim one, it reflects what can happen when we let go of doctrine and open ourselves to relationship with God. 

All of us will doubt elements of our faith at some point or another.  Even I, occasionally, will have a moment in the middle of the Eucharist in which I think to myself.  “Well, this is a strange ritual we have here.”  The important part of faith is not believing all the right things at the right time, but to be in relationship-in relationship to God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit and in relationship with each other.

There are different kinds of knowing.  In German they are distinguished by the terms “wissen” and “kennen“.  Wissen refers to the knowing of facts-You can “know” John Calvin was born in 1509, or that the Trinity is one essence, but three persons, or that the person of Christ dwells in the Eucharist.  Kennen refer to the knowledge of another person, or something more intimate.  Kennen has connotations of time spent together, face to face.  Kennen invokes the image of something familiar and loved.  We may “know” all about the Trinity, but that does not mean we know the Trinity. 

Spiritual maturity comes with knowing not just the facts, not just the doctrine, but knowing the persons of the Trinity.  We come to know them through study, but also through prayer and reflection.  We nudge open the doors of our hearts and take the risk of letting the Father, Son and Holy spirit in our hearts.  Doctrine is the bowl in which the relationship is help, but the relationship is what is really important.

Today, we celebrate the baptism of little Madison-as she begins her own relationship with the Trinity when we baptize her in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, we also celebrate our own relationship with the Trinity.  Thanks be to God.