Those of you who read the “Mini”-tarian this week may remember that I called today, Holy Trinity Sunday, my least favorite Sunday on which to preach. Not because I don’t like the doctrine of the Trinity—I love the doctrine of the Trinity. It’s just that it’s really super hard to preach on the Trinity without accidentally committing heresy.
In fact, I composed this sermon with three separate tabs pulled up in my internet browser: one for this week’s scripture texts, another for the Athanasian Creed, another for a list of Trinitarian heresies.
One of these years, I would like to lead an adult forum where we play Heresy Bingo on Trinity Sunday. I’ll give you a bingo card with all the heresies on it, and then read you Trinitarian similes that are commonly used to help people understand what the theology of the Trinity is anyway.
It would go like this: “The Trinity is like an egg, which is made of up three parts: shell, yolk, and white.” And you would all put a chip on “partialism,” the heresy that says that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are components of one God. (Because, no! Our Triune God is Three In One, not three bits equaling one.)
And then I would say, “The Trinity is like ice, water, and vapor: one substance in three forms.” And you would all put a chip down on “modalism,” the heresy that states that God is not three persons, but one person revealed in three modes.
And then I would say, “The Trinity is like a king, prince, and grand vizier.” And you would all get to put down two chips, one on “tritheism,” which is the heresy saying that there’s actually three gods, and the other one “subordinationalism,” which states that the person of God exist in a hierarchy.
Does anyone have “Bingo” yet? Because I got confused like, two metaphors ago.
The problem with trying to describe God as Trinity is, well, that you’re trying to describe God, and God defies being put in tiny little boxes that we can understand. Perhaps my favorite line of the Athanasian Creed (which, by the way, is the third creed that we profess but seldom use in worship because it’s really long and also has some awkward damnatory clauses in it) comes when the creed is stating how important it is to neither confound the persons nor divide the substance of God: “Such as the Father is, such is the Son, such is the Holy Spirit,” it says. “The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, the Holy Spirit incomprehensible.”
Incomprehensible. Impossible to comprehend, to grasp, to get our minds around.
There are very few directions you can go, preaching-wise, when your topic for the day is fundamentally incomprehensible. What am I supposed to do, stand up here and tell you, “There’s just no hope for getting our heads around this whole Trinity paradox, my friends. Let’s have a nice hymnsing instead”? Does that sounds like preaching the good news to you?
Because…bear with me here for a moment…did anyone else feel something inside you breathe the tiniest sigh of relief when you heard that God is incomprehensible?
We spend so much of our lives trying to impose order on chaos, trying to understand one another, trying to make sense of a vastly complicated world. Churches in particular are guilty of being in many people’s minds places of rigidity and order. Things are to be done thus-and-so, and anyone who falls outside of the established framework isn’t particularly welcome. It’s rather liberating that at least once a year, we necessarily run up against something we have absolutely no hope of fitting into a comprehensible framework. God spends Trinity Sunday dancing on top of our neat little boxes and categories, and smiling.
(Technically, God is doing that all the other Sundays, too. It’s just that on the first Sunday after Pentecost, you really really can’t ignore it.)
Could there be good news, just a little bit, in the idea that God lets us play hooky from the exhausting work of understanding the divine? That God effortlessly sidesteps our grasping analogies, and simply is?
And isn’t it a little ridiculous, after all, to try and find an analogy, a turn of phrase, an image, that’s big enough to capture the mystery of who God is?
Can’t we all spend this time doing something a little more fun and a little less headache-inducing than playing Heresy Bingo?
Here’s another game. We’ll call it: Find the Gospel. Here’s how it works: we try to find the good news in the doctrine of the Trinity.
Let’s start with what we know.
Truth the First: the Trinity is from the beginning. In the words of the Athanasian Creed, God the Father is eternal and uncreated. God the Son is eternal and uncreated. And God the Spirit is…say it with me now…eternal and uncreated.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. In the beginning, Christ was there alongside the Creator, begotten, not made, of one being with the Father, and through him, all things were made. Through Jesus, all things were made. Through the one who would die to redeem us, we—and all things—came into being.
Wisdom was there, too, at the beginning, according to today’s first reading. She sings out:
8:25 Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth–
8:26 when he had not yet made earth and fields, or the world’s first bits of soil.
8:27 When he established the heavens, I was there, when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
8:28 when he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep,
8:29 when he assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress his command, when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
8:30 then I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always,
8:31 rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.
“Master worker” is a good translation of the Hebrew, but interestingly, an equally good translation is “playfellow.” “Then was I beside him, like a playfellow, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.”
I picture Wisdom playing in the dirt, making earth-creatures and laughing as they come to life.
There was God in the beginning, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and God made humankind, and delighted. God, Alpha and Omega, who knew in the very moment of creation that the painful work of redemption was to come, still formed adam and adamah, in God’s very own image, and breathed life into them, and delighted.
Oh, my brothers and sisters, how deeply we are loved.
Truth the Second: we were created in God’s own image. Which means that we, too, are created in the image of the Trinity.
Which means, down at the very marrow of us, down at the very breath and soul, we are created to be in relationship with one another.
That is one way of reading the Trinity: that God God’s-very-self is community. And so we, too are created in the image of community.
There is something deeply beautiful about that. We live in a culture that, at the moment, upholds self-sufficiency and rugged independence as the gold standard of self-actualization, and that leaches into spirituality like anything. People like to go look for God in the sunset rather than a church because the church is full of hypocrites and sinners. (The pastor-y joke that goes with that is: “The church isn’t full of sinners! There’s always room for more!”) People are difficult, and despite Jesus’ clear instructions and our very best intentions, we seldom get the whole “Love your neighbor as yourself” thing down pat.
But whenever we’re tempted to give up on the whole “communion of saints” deal as a bad job, God, in God’s very essence, gives us an image of interdependence and community.
Trinity in unity and Unity in trinity. That’s the image in which we are made.
Truth the third—and this one is simple: God loves you so much, so unconditionally, so fervently, that God is not content to be known to you in just one way.
God did not only create you, but must also redeem you from sin and death. God did not only redeem you, but must also sustain you, must also convict you and comfort you, but also inspire you and teach you and gather you here and invite you to see and hear and touch both God’s presence in bread and wine and water and word, and the image of God’s presence in your brothers and sisters.
God is not content to simply be known to you in the sunset. God must also reach out to you in the Son, the Christ who died for us on the cross. God must also reach into you as Spirit, nudging and noodling your life in a thousand ways. God must also reveal Godself to you in the ways in which you yourself are made and remade, over and over again, in relationship, as your heart leaps with love and breaks with grief and is turned from a heart of stone into one of flesh, a miracle of transubstantiation that can only, can only happen in community, in relationship, in the joy and the pain of being in the image of a Triune God.
This is the One in Three and Three in One: God who has loved you forever and will never let you go, never let you be, and never let you be alone. For better, and for worse, and for better and better again.