A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Trinity Sunday, June 15, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Matthew 28:16-20
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Two weeks ago, we heard from the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, one of Luke’s versions of what we now call “the ascension.” In his final appearance, the resurrected Christ charges his disciples to “be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”[1]

Today, we heard the final verses of the final chapter of Matthew’s gospel. This is Matthew’s version of the ascension, except that Jesus doesn’t float away into the heavens. In his final appearance, the resurrected Christ charges his disciples to “Go … 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.”[2]

This scripture reading is very rich with sermon possibilities. It has a line I love: “When they [the disciples] saw him [the resurrected Christ], they worshipped him; but some doubted.” Doubt is not an impediment to participation in the community nor in the mission. The passage raises issues of authority and power. It has an invitation to talk about baptism. It has the assurance of Christ’s presence with us always – even though Jesus isn’t with us the way he is depicted as being with the disciples in the resurrection stories in the gospel.

None of these is the topic of today’s sermon. Today is Trinity Sunday and I suspect that today’s gospel lesson was picked because of these words: “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” This is how the resurrected Christ tells the disciples to baptize new disciples.

Baptism practices were not uniform in the early church. You can find examples in Acts of people being baptized in the name of Jesus (not mentioning anyone else), but this Trinitarian formula has become the ecumenical standard for baptism. A little over 30 years ago, the World Council of Churches published a convergence of agreement,[3] that any baptism done “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” would be recognized by all Christian churches.

We know that, since the Gospel of Matthew was written in the 1st century, the concept of the Trinity existed in Christianity from at least that time. But what is the relationship between these three persons and how are they the same and how are they different? That was an issue of much debate in the early church. The Christian doctrine of the Trinity didn’t get nailed down and become officially official until the 4th century.

In fact, it was a group that denied the divinity of Jesus that caused the church to hold a council in Nicaea in 325 that produced the first version of the Nicene Creed: “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible. 

 And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father [the only-begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God], Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; 

By whom all things were made [both in heaven and on earth]; 

Who for us men, and for our salvation, came down and was incarnate and was made man; 

He suffered, and the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven; 

From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. 

 And in the Holy Ghost.”[4]

The bulk of the creed focuses on Jesus, on who Jesus was and is. This first draft came under attack and another Council was held in Constantinople in 381. The creed was rewritten and a lengthier paragraph about the Holy Spirit was added.[5]

Christianity has continued to discuss the doctrine of the Trinity. Other councils have been held through history. Now things are pretty settled. “The doctrine of the Trinity … defines God as three consubstantial persons, expressions, or hypostases: the Father, the Son (Jesus), and the Holy Spirit; ‘one God in three persons’. The three persons are distinct, yet are one ‘substance, essence or nature’.”[6]

And if that made your brain hurt, you’re not alone.

486px-Andrej_Rublëv_001The church has, over the centuries tried to explain how 1 + 1 + 1 can equal 1. The bulletin cover has a picture[7] of a 15th century Russian icon of the three angels who visited Abraham (Genesis 18:1-6), seen as a Hebrew Scriptures representation of the Trinity. Here, the persons of the Trinity are very distinct, a visual depiction of how trinitarianism can drift into tri-theism. The attempts at explanation have included the creation of the so-called “Shield of the Trinity,” a version[8] of which is printed on the inside back cover of the bulletin.

Shield-Trinity-Scutum-Fidei-English.svgA story is told[9] about St. Augustine. One day he took a break from writing about the Trinity to take a walk along the seashore. As he walked, he came across a child with a little pail, intently scooping up a pail-full of water out of the ocean, walking up the beach, and dumping it out into the sand. Then she went back to the water, scooped out another pail of water, and poured it on the sand. She kept doing this until Augustine interrupted her. “What are you doing child?”

“Why, I’m emptying the sea out into the sand.”

When Augustine pointed out the absurd impossibility of this task, the child replied, “Ah, but I will drain the sea before you understand the Trinity.”

One of the more famous explainers of the Trinity was St. Patrick. I’m not sure how many of these analogies[10] are his, some I’m sure.

  • The Trinity is like water, which you can find in three forms: liquid, solid (ice), and vapor (steam). Which, alas, is the heresy of modalism: that heresy that God isn’t three distinct persons, but that God reveals God’s self in three different forms.
  • The Trinity is like the sun. You have the star, the light, and the heat. Alas, this is the heresy Arianism: a heresy that the Son and the Holy Spirit are creations of the Father and not of one nature with the Father. The heat and light are not the star itself, but merely creations of the star.
  • The Trinity is like a three-leaf clover, one clover made up of three leaves. Alas, this is the heresy of partialism: the assertion that the different persons of the Godhead are not distinct persons but are different parts of the God, each composing one-third of the divine.
  • The Trinity is like how the same man can be a father, a son, and an employer – except that’s modalism again.
  • The Trinity is like three parts of an apple, skin, flesh, and core – except that’s partialism again.

Maybe you can see where I got the title for today’s sermon. The reality is that any attempt to explain the Trinity quickly falls into heresy.

If the early church had simply said, “We believe in one God who is made known to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” we might still have argued how Jesus could have been fully human and fully divine, but we wouldn’t have gotten lost in worries about the hypostatic union of the Godhead. The Trinity would simply be an expression of how God is experienced – except that’s the heresy of modalism.

So, call me a heretic. If we left it simple, it would be easier to get away from gender-specific language. We believe in one God who is known to us as Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Or we believe in one God, for us, with us, and within us.[11] People have tried to find new language to move away from the traditional male-dominant naming the persons of the Trinity – language that perpetuates male supremacy and privilege – but often what ends up happening is “Father” is simply replaced with “God,” and then we end up with God, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, which makes the Son and the Holy Spirit not God, and that ends up being tri-theistic.

One of the gifts I have received by being a pastor here in Fremont is the exposure I have had to Islam, and one of the tenants of Islam is the there is one God. The radical monotheism of Islam has challenged me to beware of a trinitarianism that drifts toward tri-theism.

Martin Luther supposedly said, “To try to deny the Trinity endangers your salvation, to try to comprehend the Trinity endangers your sanity.”[12] I agree with the second part of his statement; trying to comprehend the Trinity can drive you crazy. I’m not so sure about the first part (I told you this would be a heretical sermon). At this point on my spiritual journey, the doctrine of the Trinity really isn’t all that important to me, other than as a naming system for how I encounter God. That’s why I like Diana Butler Bass’ “God for us, God with us, God within us.”

And maybe that’s the real value of the doctrine of the Trinity to me now: it’s something that invites me to think about this God I worship, this God I pray to, this God I encounter in the world.

I know that on my spiritual journey, I have seasons where I connect more with one person of the Trinity than the others.[13] There are times when I have connected more with God as the Creator. There are times when I have connected more with God revealed in Jesus. There are times when I have connected more with God experienced as the Holy Spirit. And it doesn’t matter what season I’m in, the other persons of the Trinity call to me, inviting me to explore and expand my understanding and experience of God, pulling me out of whatever my spiritual comfort zone is in that season.

There is one other aspect of the Trinity that is calling me to reflection – and this is new for me – on the Trinity as an invitation to kin-dom community. The notion here is that if God is Trinity, God is community. “God is not just personal but interpersonal, not just unit but union.”[14] And if we are created in the image and likeness of God, then we are not just personal but interpersonal, not just unit but union. And the very way we are created is to be in union, based on the love of God, the co-equality of persons of the Trinity, the unity of purpose within God. Imagine the impact it would have on human community if we were to model it on the community of the Trinity – to base the community on the love of God, to treat each member of the community as equal, to have unity of purpose within the community.

Yes, I did spend some time this week contemplating the hypostatic unity of the Trinity (whoo-hoo!). But I agree with Anne Lamott.[15] Trying to understand the mystery of this idea really isn’t important – even if that makes you a heretic. What’s much more important is that this idea can invite us deeper into the love of God and the love of neighbor, and that’s something that is important.

[1] Acts 1:6, NRSV.

[2] Matthew 28:19-20, NRSV.

[3] See http://www.oikoumene.org/en/resources/documents/wcc-commissions/faith-and-order-commission/i-unity-the-church-and-its-mission/baptism-eucharist-and-ministry-faith-and-order-paper-no-111-the-lima-text to download the document, Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry.

[4] Early Church History – CH101, http://www.churchhistory101.com/century4-p8.php (14 June 2014).

[5] See http://carm.org/nicene-creed for the Constantinople version.

[6] “Trinity,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trinity (12 June 2014).

[7] See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Andrej_Rublëv_001.jpg.

[8] See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Shield-Trinity-Scutum-Fidei-English.svg.

[9] Adapted from a story shared in an email from sermons.com, dated 9 June 2014. The story is attributed to King Duncan, from his Collected Sermons. The original has the child as a boy. I changed this to a girl for pronoun clarity in the telling.

[10] These examples are gleaned from a humorous YouTube video posted by Lutheran Satire. You can see it at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KQLfgaUoQCw.

[11] Diana Butler Bass, tweet on 5 April 2014: “Based on a reflection by Henri Nouwen, thinking about the Trinity as God for us/God with us/God within us.”

[12] From the same email from sermons.com; no further source cited.

[13] I am indebted to the “Stillspeaking Daily Devotional” Tony Robinson wrote for 25 May 2013 for helping me concretize this reflection.

[14] Robert Campbell, “The Relational Trinity and the Human Community,” Pastor Bob’s Musings, http://tullyrobert.blogspot.com/2007/09/relational-trinity-and-human-community.html, posted 13 September 2007; quoting Kallistos Ware, “The Trinity: Heart of Our Life,” Reclaiming the Great Tradition: Evangelicals, Catholics, & Orthodox in Dialogue, Jams S. Cutsinger, ed., (Downers Grove, IL, Intervarsity Press: 1997), p. 136; accessed 14 June 2014.

[15]“I didn’t need to understand the hypostatic unity of the Trinity; I just needed to turn my life over to whoever came up with redwood trees.” Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, quoted on http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/trinity, accessed 10 June 2014. This quote was printed in the worship bulletin as a “Thought for Quiet Reflection.”