We gather this morning on the day of the church year dedicated to the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. This is the day that we more intentionally proclaim that our God is three distinct persons of one substance: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And while I have tried to put on a confident face as I stand here in the pulpit, I have to admit that I’m a little bit hesitant. In the history of the Christian tradition, as ministers, teachers, and theologians have preached, taught, and written about the Trinity, not a small number have been excommunicated or burned at the stake for preaching heresy about the Trinity.
In my preparations over this past week, I read one minister who said that the only proven way of not preaching a heresy on Trinity Sunday is to stand up, recite the Athanasian Creed, and immediately sit back down. Say anything more, and I’m much more likely to preach a theology that once caused someone to get burned at the stake. And yet, for better or for worse, I feel some deeper compulsion to say something today, to wrestle with our texts and to find a way to translate the meaning of the Trinity into our world now.
Because, after all, the passage that Pastor Cathy and Lisa read tells us that we have been created in the image of God. While there’s a debate as to whether the “let us make humankind in our image” is an early Hebrew perception of the Trinity or is a reference to something else entirely, our stream of the Christian tradition nevertheless confesses that the image of God is a triune image of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In a way, then, Trinity Sunday is just as anthropological as it is theological; what we profess here this morning can tell us just as much about what it means to be human as it can about the God that we seek to witness to and worship.
But to be sure that I didn’t end up saying something heretical, I told myself that my best option would be to more precisely know the doctrine so that I could avoid any heresies this morning. As one does when speaking of the Trinity, the first thing that I did was to read the Athanasian Creed. First used sometime in the Sixth Century, this creed was initially used to confront the heresy of Arianism, which teaches that Jesus Christ as the second person of the Trinity is somehow subordinated to God the Father. Some churches will recite this creed collectively on Trinity Sunday, but allow me just to read a portion of it for you this morning:
Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith. Which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled; without doubt he shall perish everlastingly. And the catholic faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the Persons; nor dividing the Essence. For there is one Person of the Father; another of the Son; and another of the Holy Ghost.…So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Ghost, not three Holy Ghosts. And in this Trinity none is before, or after another; none is greater, or less than another. But the whole three Persons are coeternal, and coequal. So that in all things, as aforesaid; the Unity in Trinity, and the Trinity in Unity, is to be worshipped. He therefore that will be saved, let him thus think of the Trinity.
While I hoped that this would be a creed that would clarify my own theological vision of orthodoxy, of those right beliefs of the Christian church, I instead found that it read much more like a skit from Monty Python. It seemed repetitive, bumbling, archaic, and unclear, and I knew that, to get to a pure understanding of the Trinity, I needed to go deeper.
My next step was to see some of the ways that the doctrine has been taught, especially through some of the metaphors that might hold the essence of the Trinity.
There’s a legend of Saint Patrick using a shamrock to explain the Trinity, explaining the one plant is God and the three cloves are the three different persons. It turns out that this is essentially the heresy of tritheism, as the three cloves are too distinct and aren’t bound together in the same unity as the three persons of the Trinity.
There’s the example of water, which can be ice, liquid, or gas yet is always the same substance, but this ended up being a reiteration of modalism, as a water molecule cannot be ice, liquid, and gas at the same time in the same way that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit at the same time.
There’s an image of three-in-one body wash, which is either tritheism or modalism. There’s a metaphor of an egg that ends up in tritheism, and the example of a man who is simultaneously father, son, and husband is another form of modalism. For those of you who are familiar with a new gadget called the fidget spinner, someone created a meme, a picture on Facebook, that talked about the Trinity as a fidget spinner. If you want to avoid heresy, don’t do that either, because that’s apparently partialism.
With all of these images falling short, I found myself still desiring to know the theology of the Trinity well enough to come up here and preach something that was engaging while still being orthodox. So I turned to my bookshelf and pulled out a few books of sermons, of historical theology, of systematic theology, and of course on Trinitarian theology. And I sat upstairs in the church office far too late on Thursday and Friday evenings parsing through those books, trying to piece together a more meticulous and rigorous understanding of the Trinity that was both meaningful and understandable, all while banging my head against the wall because of how irrational it all seemed.
I trudged my way through the difference between the Economic Trinity and the Immanent Trinity; through the fight between the Arians and the Cappadocians, between the nuances of Augustine’s and Thomas Aquinas’ interpretations. I learned more clearly what was meant by real and logical relations, and by intra-divine relationships. I even began to understand how, in some strange arithmetic, one plus one plus one is still equal to one.
Finally, I hit a point at about 11pm on Friday night when my vision became just a little bit clearer. I could understand why it was that this doctrine was so crucial to Christian theology, and I could actually follow the logic that undergirded it. For the first time in my life, I was able to think about the Trinity with something more than a shrug. I felt as though I could craft a sermon that could say something meaningful about this doctrine, and I shouted out into the empty office, “Oh! I get it!”
After this breakthrough, and after I briefly sketched what I thought I might say this morning, I closed my books and stepped out onto 86th Street to go grab a late dinner. And it was then, not when I was reading but rather when I walked out the door, that I had my most significant revelation of the night:
This new understanding did not change one single thing.
The guy selling fruit down the sidewalk would care about my ability to refute heresy only if it meant that I would buy a few quarts of strawberries while doing so. The lady asking for money on Third Avenue would only care about my view of the Economic Trinity if it had to do with the economics of her getting a meal that night. The barista does not care about my view of the ontological nature of God when I’m treating them as less than human. The assertion alone that the Father begets the Son, and that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and Son, does not change the countless discriminations and hatreds that we see on a daily basis in this city.
I’m not wanting to disparage the work of theology. We need to be asking these questions of our beliefs to make sure that they make sense and that they are relevant to us. I think that it’s important to have a systematic, coherent theology, to be able to speak metaphysically about God, to speak existentially about our own selves, and to speak structurally about the world in which we live. But, my friends, no matter how orthodox we may be, how thoroughly “Wesleyan” or Methodist we may be, or even how progressive or conservative we think our theologies are, our “right” beliefs do not make a single ounce of difference to us or to this world unless they compel us towards right, just, and loving actions.
In our Gospel lesson that Pastor Cathy just read, there’s a strange and pivotal phrase that’s easy to miss. This story comes in the immediate aftermath of the resurrection, and Jesus is planning to gather with his disciples for one final time before he is no longer with them in flesh. And as the disciples are walking towards that mountain where Jesus had directed them, they see him with his resurrected body; and while some worship the sight of this Christ, the author tells us that some still doubted.
In our very rational, scientific world, we might expect Jesus to solidify their belief. We might expect Jesus to let them place their fingers in the holes in his hands, to plunge their hands into the wound in his side, so that that can be convinced of what they had seen. We might expect him to walk through the scriptures to show them how everything fit together logically. And he does that in the gospel of Mark. But in our passage from Matthew today, the only thing that Jesus says to those doubters is: “Go.”
“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 teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”
Strangely, we don’t hear anything reassuring his doubting followers in this statement; he doesn’t attempt to put them on the path of “right” belief. Jesus even invokes what we have come to call the Trinitarian formula, “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” but he gives no explanation as to what that means metaphysically or theologically. No, Jesus sends the disciples to baptize and to teach others to do something, to obey what he has commanded.
There are different interpretations of what this nuance in the text means, but I think that one of the things that we should recognize is that Jesus had an idea of how the disciples would respond. It’s the same reason that John Wesley, in his quote that’s on the front of our bulletins from a sermon entitled “Catholic Spirit,” says that all of us thinking and believing alike is not possible.
It’s for this reason that I think a poll of everyone in this room would show that no two people in this room have the same beliefs. We all could probably go through the creeds of the Church and the doctrine of the United Methodist Church and point out those confessions that we personally think are misguided at best and dangerous at worst. If we’re speaking in strictly orthodox terms, it’s likely that you’re sitting within five feet of a heretic right now, and there’s probably someone who could point out a heresy that I have already espoused from this pulpit today.
And talking about what is orthodox or heretical is good. It is necessary. Discussing and questioning our beliefs is important to our faith, and we need to understand why the Christian church has said what is has said and why the United Methodist Church holds on to certain doctrines. We need to know and wrestle with those things that our ancestors decided were not part of the “one true faith,” because the reasons ideas have been labeled as heresy are valid and insightful . I think that it’s important to be able to say why it is that we are particularly Christian, particularly Methodist, and it’s certainly helpful to be able to articulate what that means. But if we are thinking that we are “right” just because we believe the correct, proper, or orthodox belief, we are misguided. If we are so focused on making sure that everyone believes the same that we do, we will be too busy to heed the call to “go.”
In the Gospel of Luke, a lawyer comes to Jesus and asks him, “What must I do to inherit eternal life? What must I do to be saved?” Jesus answers him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”, to which the lawyer replied, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And Jesus looks at that lawyer and said, “You have given the right answer. Do this, and you shall live.”
Believing in the right theology does not save us, nor does it save the world, even if it is closer to the truth. Knowing the right answer by itself does not bring forth new life. Our “right” beliefs as a community and as individuals do not change a single thing in this world unless they become embodied in a faith that actually lives those beliefs. “You have given the right answer,” Jesus says. “You know it. Now let that knowledge take hold of you; don’t just know or believe but be convicted by it. Do it, and you shall live.”
On Friday evening, I found myself with pages upon pages of underlined sentences, with ideas scratched in my notebook, and with a troubled conscience that kept asking, “So what?” This Trinity Sunday, I want to pose that same question: “So what?”
We may say that we believe in a Triune God. We may proclaim that we are completely orthodox, and we may affirm that our God is three persons with one substance, coeternal and coequal. Quite frankly, I think we should say these things, as I think that they are true. I think that they are core tenants of what it means to be Christian. At the very same time, however, I do not believe that these beliefs are merely for the sake of being able to say that we know God. No, I am convinced that we hold these beliefs because, as we reflect and embrace them, they begin to form us. They begin to speak to us about our own being.
And what does this mean on Trinity Sunday?
It means: “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.”
We have been created in the image of our creator that we may ourselves join in the work of creation. We have been created in the image of Christ the redeemer that we may ourselves join in the work redeeming. We have been created in the image of the Spirit, our sustainer, that we may join in the work of sustaining those weary souls and bodies around us.
We have been created in the image of this holy dance, of this Holy Trinity, that we may ourselves learn to join in relating, embracing, and dancing with one another and with God. We have been created in the image of the God who is love that we too may be love. We have been created in the image of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; the creator, redeemer, and sustainer, who is always with us, even to the end of the age.
May we find that grace continues to transform us more perfectly into that image, and may we find the courage to live into it.
Thanks be to God.