I preached on Trinity Sunday (June 12) at Prairie Presbyterian Church in Winnipeg, MB. Below is the text of my sermon on the lectionary texts: Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31; Psalm 8; Romans 5:1-5; John 16:12-15.
This morning is Trinity Sunday―a day that is in equal measures feared by preachers and perplexing to congregations. In fact, one of my colleagues, who did not know I was preaching this Sunday, said to me earlier this week, “I am so glad I’ve never had to preach on Trinity Sunday!” The challenge of Trinity Sunday does not always bring out the best in preachers. There are likely many preachers who, at this very moment, having entered into their pulpits, are attempting to explain the Trinity―how we can have three divine persons, yet only one God. Some of them will reach for the ever-popular analogies, like this one: the Trinity is like water, below zero degrees it exists as ice, between zero and one hundred it is a liquid, and above one hundred degrees it is steam. Or maybe others will try this one: the Trinity is like a family―in a family you may have a father, a mother, and a child, but they are still one family. There may even be an intrepid preacher somewhere this morning who employs the Forest Gump analogy: “God is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get.” The problem with using analogies like these is that they don’t work.1 The water analogy leads us into an ancient Christian heresy called modalism, while the family analogy reflects its exact opposite, the heresy of tritheism. And if the Forrest Gump analogy is true, well then, we are all in big trouble!
Although well-meaning, these attempts to explain the Trinity are fundamentally misguided. They seem to assume that the Trinity is a puzzle to be solved. But presuming the Trinity is a puzzle to be solved is a false premise that places human beings in the wrong posture before God. I’ll get to why thinking that the Trinity is a puzzle to be solved is a mistaken notion in a moment, but first I want us to think about how this idea places us in a dangerous spiritual position.
There is a wonderful scene in the movie Rudy that is helpful to us at this point. It occurs when the tenacious, but undersized and unathletic Rudy, who has all his life dreamed of playing football at the University of Notre Dame, has once again received another letter of rejection from the school. As he is praying in the chapel at his junior college, trying to make sense of this latest bad news, he is engaged by the college priest. As the conversation unfolds and Rudy shares with the priest his struggle to make sense of his predicament, the priest says to him, “In all my years of studying theology, there are two things I have learned for certain. There is a God, and I am not him!”
Puzzles are things to be solved. Through our superior knowledge and mastery over the subject, we put all of the pieces in their place and solve the puzzle. But creatures can never put the Creator in his place. The great fourth century Church Father St. Augustine had a wonderful way of framing the matter. He said, “Si comprehendis, non est Deus.” Translated into more colloquial terms: “If you can understand it, it ain’t God.” We can’t explain God. God is God. More recently, the Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson put it like this. He said, if your God doesn’t have the capacity to surprise you, you’re not dealing with the living God, but trading in idols.
So approaching the Trinity as a puzzle to be solved places us in the wrong spiritual posture before the living God. But not only that, the notion that the Trinity is puzzle to be solved is founded on a mistaken premise. The doctrine of the Trinity is not about numbers and calculations. No amount of mathematical tinkering is going to make three equal one! The noted pastor and author Eugene Peterson phrased it well when he wrote:
“A Trinitarian vision prevents the “one” God from being defined mathematically, the living God from being reduced to a lifeless number. Numbers are language at its most abstract and impersonal. Numbers are unsurpassed in dealing with anything impersonal—machines and planets and money markets—but virtually useless in dealing with persons, and less than useless as a language about God. So we don’t understand Trinity by working with numbers, puzzling over how one equals three or three equals one. Trinity has nothing to do with arithmetic. Trinity is the church’s way of learning to think and respond relationally to God as he reveals himself to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God is triply personal, emphatically personal, unrelentingly personal.”2
Far more dangerous than the misguided attempt to explain the Trinity is the tendency to denounce the Trinity entirely. While scholars of various stripes have dabbled in Unitarianism for the last 300 years or so and their tired clichés continue to be recirculated on Twitter and magazine covers, most Christians have resisted the urge to label themselves as Unitarians. However, the ground-breaking sociological work of Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton has revealed that the predominant operative theology in North American congregations today is functionally a form of Unitarianism. Close to twenty years ago, Smith and Lundquist conducted extensive surveys of the beliefs of teenagers who were regularly involved in their church youth groups.3 Presumably these teenagers of yesterday’s church are the leaders of today’s church, that is if they are still part of the church at all. Smith and Lundquist discovered that the predominant belief of these young people did not reflect the classical Christian trinitarian faith, but rather could be encapsulated by a phrase they coined called “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” or MTD for short. The term “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” reflects three of the main tenets of this theologically transmitted disease that has infected North American Christianity. It is moralistic because it believes that religion is about being good, nice, and fair to one another. It is therapeutic because it believes the primary goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself. Finally, it is deistic because it believes in a vague god who does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life, unless there is some sort of crisis to be resolved. In many ways, this is the perfect religion for a culture of consumers, as it allows people to pick and choose from the buffet of religious options on offer and fashion their own “choose your adventure” form of spirituality. However, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism and Unitarianism more generally is profoundly bad news for, as we shall see, it places our salvation in jeopardy and ultimately is nothing other than a trading in idols.
Our Scripture passages assigned to us by the lectionary this morning point us toward the unrelentingly personal God who has claimed us as His own. They call us to see that the affirmation of the Trinity is at the heart of the good news of the Gospel. Proverbs 8 takes us back to the very beginning where we encounter a God who freely creates—not out of any need, but solely out of the plenitude of his love. For the One who creates is not alone. Wisdom is at his right hand and through this wisdom the world was made. Our reading from Proverbs 8 concludes by telling us that God and his wisdom rejoiced in what they had made out of their mutual delight. In particular, taking great joy in the human race.
Psalm 8 continues in this vein, sounding forth the marvels of what God has made, and the dignity and glory of the human creature created in God’s image. While the central part of Psalm 8 is certainly a celebration of the human being, this celebration of the human being becomes distorted if we lose sight of the two verses that bookend the Psalm, which read, “Our Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” (vv. 1, 9). It is only in relation to God that human beings truly know who they are. Right near the very beginning of his most famous work, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, our Presbyterian forefather John Calvin sounded this note, when he wrote, “Without knowledge of God there is no knowledge of self.”4
As the story of Scripture unfolds we see that losing sight of this knowledge becomes the very plight of humanity. We want the dignity and glory of the middle verses of Psalm 8 without the Lord of verses 1 and 9. We each want to do life, as Sinatra crooned, “my way.” From a human point of view, the Bible can be read as humanity’s attempt to establish and secure their own identity apart from God. The theological word that is used to describe the attempt to secure an identity apart from God is sin. The Bible traces the sordid story of humanity’s refusal to allow God to be God. Humanity descends into a vicious spiral of idolatry and injustice. The two go hand in hand, for where God is not given his due, human beings created in his image will not be respected either.
I’ve spent a fair amount of time this past week editing the transcript of a round-table discussion I hosted a few months ago on the subject of medical assistance in dying or MAID, as our abbreviation-addicted culture likes to put it. It was a rich and lengthy conversation, featuring a hospital chaplain and a medical doctor from here in Winnipeg, alongside of a theologian from Ottawa. It has been quite the task to compress the original hour-plus conversation down to a manageable length for publication.5 One of the fascinating details that emerged during the conversation is that while we tend to think of MAID as a response to physical suffering, this is not the predominant reason given by those who actually apply for a medically assisted death. This may be partly attributable to the fact that our understanding of pain management is so sophisticated that very rarely today will someone die writhing in agony. Instead of unbearable pain, the primary reasons that people give for requesting MAID are the fear of losing autonomy and the decreased ability to engage in enjoyable activities. What does this say about our culture and the kinds of people that it is producing?
From a young age, we are taught that autonomy and self-possession are signs of maturity. Independence is elevated as one of our society’s cardinal virtues. We valorize the self-made man or woman. This denial of our dependence upon God and upon others is a denial of our creatureliness and lies at the root of our sinful plight. Being convinced that we are the authors of our own stories, we have no conception that “suffering could produce endurance, and endurance produce character, and character produce hope.” When the illusions of our self-sufficiency and autonomy begin to break down under the weight of illness and old age, we are thrown into an existential crisis. Confronted by the fear of losing control of our bodies, our time, and our lives, we are tempted to make one last grasp for autonomy by regaining some type of control over our lives by ending them. Here we see the wisdom of Proverbs chapter 8 enacted in real time. A few verses after our reading from Proverbs at the end of chapter 8 we read, “For whoever finds me [that is wisdom] finds life and obtains favor from the LORD; but those who miss me injure themselves; and all who hate me find death” (vv. 35-36).
Paul picks up on this logic at the beginning of his letter to the Romans where he depicts human beings imprisoned in darkness and ignorance as a result of their exchanging the glory of the Creator for that of the creature through seeking fulfilment through the things of this word. By the time we get to our reading in Romans 5, it’s quite clear that from a human point of view the gig is up. There is nothing we can do to right the ship of the human enterprise. However, human agency is not the only agency at work. There is an active divine agency. Here’s how Paul puts it in the verse immediately following our reading: “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom 5:6). When the image of God in human beings had been defaced and deformed, when the relationship between God and humanity had been irreparably ruptured, when we were dead in our sin and trespasses, God took action. He did what we could not and could never do for ourselves – restore peace between humanity and God. He did this through sending his Son to be the second Adam, the reconciled and restored human being. Through the faithfulness of God realized in the faithfulness of Christ, we have peace with God. The doctrine of the Trinity allows us to recognize that we have peace with God because the peacemaker is himself the very wisdom that was with God in the beginning that Proverbs 8 spoke about. From very early on Christians began reading Proverbs 8 alongside of John 1 and Colossians 1 in the recognition that in the crucified and risen Jesus they had encountered the deep logic or rationality of the universe, personally present with us, healing humanity from the inside. Listen to how Eugene Peterson translates some of the key verses from John chapter 1 in The Message. “The Word was first, the Word present to God, God present to the Word. The Word was God, in readiness for God from day one. Everything was created through him; nothing—not one thing!—came into being without him. What came into existence was Life, and the Life was Light to live by. The Life-Light blazed out of the darkness; the darkness couldn’t put it out. . . . The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood. We saw the glory with our own eyes, the one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like Son, Generous inside and out, true from start to finish” (John 1:1-5; 14).
There is a certain fittingness to the incarnation. The One by whom the worlds were made and the One who laid his head upon the straw of the manger are one and the same person―the Word of God. The doctrine of the Trinity then allows us to say that in Jesus we truly encounter Emmanuel—“God with us.”
The doctrine of the Trinity is also necessary if we are to affirm as both our readings from Romans and the Gospel of John affirm that what God has accomplished quite apart from us and without us in sending his Son, God now desires to work in us. The doctrine of the Trinity allows us to recognize that what happened then and there in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is not simply limited to the distant past but is a present and powerful reality now through the Holy Spirit. The very same Spirit that rested upon Jesus, empowering his ministry of healing the sick, opening the eyes of the blind, welcoming the least and the lost, and proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favour has been poured out upon the church. The very same love that has been shared for all eternity between the Father and the Son has been poured into our hearts through the Spirit―transforming our suffering into the character wrought by endurance that gives birth to hope. It is the Spirit of Pentecost that sweeps us up into the Messianic time created by the faithfulness of Jesus. It is the Holy Spirit that leads the church ever deeper into the truth that is Jesus: opening our eyes to see, our minds to comprehend, and our hearts to love.
Rather than thinking of the Trinity as a puzzle to be solved, it is better to think of it as a mystery to be inhabited. The doctrine of the Trinity is not so much then a set of ideas to be mastered, but rather a doctrine to be practiced. We inhabit the mystery whenever we call upon the Spirit as we baptize and break bread in Jesus’ name unto the glory of God the Father. We practice the doctrine of the Trinity whenever through the prompting of the Holy Spirit we call upon God as our Father, just as Jesus our brother taught us to pray. We are drawn into the eternal life of love which is the Trinity whenever the Spirit gives us strength to forgive in Jesus’ name, recognizing that even our enemies have been claimed by Christ as children of our heavenly Father. Even now we are traversing the borders of this mystery as we listen and have been listening with the expectation that the Holy Spirit will take my feeble and faltering words and through them speak his Living Word, Jesus Christ to us unto the glory of God the Father.
Our mothers and fathers in the Reformed tradition, lived and breathed this faith. It is beautifully encapsulated in the first question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism. The Heidelberg Catechism was an aid for teaching the faith that was written in Germany following the Protestant Reformation and over the years has become one of the most influential writings of the Reformed tradition. Some of you may have learned the Heidelberg Catechism when you were children. The first question asks:
“What is your only comfort in life and in death? The answer reads: That I am not my own,1 but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.”6
This is profoundly good news! The good news of God above us, God beside us, God within us: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.7
- For an entertaining takedown of Trinitarian analogies see St. Patrick’s Bad Analogies – Lutheran Satire. ↩
- Eugene H. Peterson, Practice Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing Up in Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 198. ↩
- Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging American Teenagers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. ↩
- John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2006 ), I.i.2. ↩
- The interview is scheduled to appear in an upcoming issue of Didaskalia on the theme of “Death and Resurrection.” ↩
- Heidelberg Catechism | Christian Reformed Church (crcna.org). ↩
- The sermon was followed by a responsive reading of Living Faith: A Statement of Christian Belief paragraphs 1.5 and 1.6: Living Faith (presbyterian.ca). ↩