Thoughts on the Holy Trinity: Um, Something Happened.

Written for the ELCA Southeastern Synod Assembly Gathering Worship + May 27, 2016

Readings: Holy Trinity Sunday – Psalm 8; Romans 5:1-5; John 16:12-15


We are Lutheran.

(No one told me I had to start my sermon by stating the theme for this year’s assembly, but I figured that since this is the gathering worship for a weekend with a theme, maybe that would be a good place to start.)

So: we are Lutheran. I’m sure many of you already recognize that phrase as one of the four emphases Bishop Eaton introduced to help the ELCA dig deeper into its identity and mission. The four phrases are: We are church. We are Lutheran. We are church together. We are church together for the sake of the world.

This weekend we are invited to think about deeper meanings of that simple phrase: “We are Lutheran.” And as I thought about that phrase in the context of the Southeastern Synod Assembly, I thought: being Lutheran in the South is a very different experience than being Lutheran in other parts of the country.

Some of you with sharp ears may be picking up on the accent I’m still trying to lose: I’m originally from Minnesota. And up there if you say to someone “I’m Lutheran,” you might get the response, “Oh, what church do you go to?” or even “ELCA? Or Missouri-Synod? Or Wisconsin?”

But here in the Southeast…not so much. Down here if we say “I’m Lutheran,” we might hear back: “What’s that?” or “Are y’all Christians?” or even “Um…do y’all worship Martin Luther King Jr.?” I really enjoy when I’m riding in the hospital elevator in my female body and clergy collar, and the other passenger looks me up and down warily before saying: “I didn’t know ladies could wear those” or “I have a friend who’s Catholic,” or just hands me a tract about how to properly read the Bible.

What most of our neighbors are trying to figure out about us Lutherans can probably be summed up in one of their most common questions: “Do you believe in Jesus?” And if we are feeling open and generous instead of snarky, we might hear Jesus’s ancient question to his disciples echoing down to us through our Baptist and Church of Christ and non-denominational brothers and sisters: “Who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:29; Matt. 16:15; Luke 9:20). “Who do you say that I am, Lutherans?”

There are many “correct” answers to that question. Today’s worship service is focused on the Holy Trinity, and that leads us to think about Jesus’s question — and the questions of our neighbors — in a particular way: as Lutherans we are trinitarians, people who emphasize the Holy Trinity in our worship and our understanding of God.

So who do we say Jesus is? Jesus Christ is the Son of God, one Person of the Trinity, which is one God. In the words of the good ol’ Athanasian Creed: “The Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit is all one: the glory equal, the majesty coeternal. Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Spirit. […] So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God. And yet they are not three Gods but one God.”

Is that a clear enough answer, Guy in the Elevator?

When this Holy Trinity service rolls around, and we preachers are forced to address that doctrine, it can be very tempting to try and make clearer sense of all those words I just said — to come up with a good “elevator speech.” God is One; God is three…in-One. God is three-in-one like water, which is one thing but can appear as ice and liquid and vapor…but not really because that’s really a version of the heresy of modalism, which doesn’t adequately maintain the distinctiveness of the three Persons of the Trinity. Ok, so, God is three-in-one like an apple has three parts — the skin, the fruit, the core — but is still just one apple…but not really because that’s really a version of the heresy of partialism, which just makes each Person of the Trinity one-third of a whole, which is not really the point of the Trinity. Ugh. We just can’t get it right.

I’ve come to think that all that struggle to explain the Trinity is getting the purpose of the doctrine of the Trinity backwards. The concept of the Trinity is not something to be explained. It’s purpose is to explain: to try and explain Christians’ experiences of God. And when we think of it that way…well, of course the Trinity doesn’t make any sense! How are we supposed to make sense of God?

That reminds me of a story I heard about an intro-level theology class at a college somewhere — a class on “the study of God.” On the first day the professor stood at the front of the class and said: “God. Now, whatever you imagined when I said that…you’re wrong.”

I don’t remember anything so dramatic from my religion classes. The closest I can get to that legendary theology class is the title of a lecture in one of my New Testament courses.[1] It’s a title that has stuck with me for years, a title I still use all the time to help me interpret the Bible or work through ideas about God or the Church. That title is: “Something Happened.”

That’s one of the most unspecific phrases possible. It could be the title of a lecture on chemical reactions or Stonehenge. But in this case, “Something Happened” pointed to the first disciples’ experience of Jesus. Something happened, something world-changing, through Jesus of Nazareth. Something happened, and it made those first Jewish Jesus-followers re-read the Hebrew scriptures in a new way; it made them give up the lives they’d been living to become wandering preachers, even to become martyrs. Historians, scientists, believers, doubters can argue about what exactly that “something” was — but we can’t deny that something happened to change so many lives so drastically.

Something happened. And that’s really the point of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, too: something happened. Something happened to change the way early Christians thought about God. Something happened, and talking about God as one, talking about the one true God…suddenly that language wasn’t big enough to capture their experiences of God.

 

Today’s gospel reading tells one version of “something happening.” Jesus was in the midst of saying goodbye to his disciples, right before he was arrested, tried, and executed. He told them about how his work and his message would continue even after he was gone. He said, “When the Spirit of Truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth…” and in that distinctive Gospel-of-John way, he talked about how the Spirit will declare what the Spirit hears, which is from the Father, but which is also from Jesus because everything the Father has is also Jesus’s, and Jesus and the Father are one…it gets all mystical.

I think the point of it all is the connection: No, Jesus will not be physically present in the way he had been. Yes, something new is coming. But that something is also the continuing work of Jesus, who is also the continuing work of the God of Israel. Something happened in Jesus Christ, and that something is new, but also totally connected with the Creator. Something happened after Jesus died and was raised — something we refer to as the Holy Spirit — and that Spirit is new, but also totally connected to Jesus and to the Creator. And somehow we cannot help but talk about these three experiences as three distinct Persons, and yet we have to admit that they are really all One.

The doctrine of the Holy Trinity reminds us that something happened — in fact, lots of different somethings happened — and we need to take in a wide, wide view of God’s mission.

Without the doctrine of the Trinity we might stick to a one-dimensional view of God, something like: God created the universe and all the natural systems that make it tick, then stepped back to watch it go. The Holy Trinity reminds us that Christians have experienced God not only in creation, but also in ways that break into our world more startlingly. The first disciples experienced God in the man Jesus Christ. We continue to experience God through the ongoing presence of Christ and the Holy Spirit, comforting us or messing up our lives, guiding us and challenging us.[2]

In the same way we might be drawn to focus only on God in Jesus Christ, forgetting that the saving work of Christ is also part of the creation and re-creation of the entire world. Or, we may be drawn to focus only on the Holy Spirit’s wild transformations of ourselves and the Church, perhaps forgetting that the Spirit is also part of the ancient work of the Father and the Son.

The oneness of God is bigger than the oneness we tend to imagine — and we need to be reminded of that, for the sake of God’s mission to our world and in our lives. If we are content to imagine a smaller God or a distant God, we risk seeing a smaller role for ourselves as disciples, but God calls us to be part of enormous, world-changing work.

This gets back to the story I told earlier in the sermon: the theology professor who reminded his students that whatever we imagine when we imagine God, it’s wrong. Well, maybe not wrong, but incomplete. Our images and imaginings of God can’t contain God. They’re not big enough.

The idea of the Holy Trinity keeps us from settling, from thinking we’ve got it figured out. It forces us to keep being — well, confused — but also awe-struck.  If the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is doing its job, it shouldn’t be making us ask mathematical questions like “How can three be one and one be three?” It should be making us ask questions like, “How is God breaking through my expectations?” and “Where is God happening now?”

Something happened. But just as importantly, something keeps happening. It breaks in to our everyday lives in acts of radical grace, in moments of heart-wrenching wonder, in the experience of peace that passes all understanding. And it calls us from our routines and our addictions and our selfishness and our wrongdoing; it calls us to new ways of living and being in the world — to be part of its holiness. This everlasting dance of unity and newness: this is what the Holy Trinity calls us to be a part of.

Let us pray. God of delight, your Wisdom sings your Word at the crossroads where humanity and divinity meet. Invite us into your joyful being where you know and are known in each beginning, in all sustenance, in every redemption, that we may manifest your unity in the diverse ministries you entrust to us, truly reflecting your triune majesty in the faith that acts, in the hope that does not disappoint, and in the love that endures. Amen.[3]


[1] Timothy H. Polk, Introduction to the New Testament, Hamline University, St Paul, MN, Fall 2009.

[2]  Mary W. Anderson, “So Explain it to Me,” Christian Century, May 20, 1998, http://christiancentury.org/article/2012-05/so-explain-it-me

[3] Trinity Sunday, Year C, May 22, 2016, Thematic Prayer, Revised Common Lectionary by the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/prayers.php?id=262

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