A sermon for Trinity Sunday by Nathan Nettleton
I’m sure it has happened before, but I don’t remember our church anniversary coinciding with Trinity Sunday before. Many preachers would probably be delighted to have such an excuse to avoid the expectation that they should say something meaningful about the doctrine of the Trinity. I could easily do that. Having the reading of the creation story come up on the church anniversary could invite a reflection on the God who creates this congregation and says “It is good.” But I am not going to jump that way. I am inclined to think that the coinciding of the two is a rather fruitful opportunity for a preacher, and although I have less time available than usual tonight, I want to try to say something of value about both, and the relationship between them.
It has become common to speak of the Trinity, sometimes rather dismissively, as a mystery. Now there is a technical sense in which it is correct to call it a mystery, but often it is not said in that technical sense at all, but just in the more common sense of it being something that is too mysterious to be understood or to even be expected to make any sense to anyone at all. It is thus seen as something we are expected to believe to be true, even though we have given up any hope of comprehending it, and preachers routinely avoid it because they’ve given up too. Mystery becomes just a more attractive word for unsolvable logical puzzle. But actually, that is not the way the New Testament writers use the word mystery. When the Apostle Paul speaks of the mystery of God, it is as something which was once hidden, but which has now been revealed or made known in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. The mysteries are things which have been made known to us, not things which are so baffling that we’d best not worry our pretty little heads about them.
The reading we heard from the gospel tonight (Matthew 28:16-20) gives a little snapshot of the impact of this revelation of the mystery of God in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. As we heard, at the close of the story after the crucifixion and resurrection, the disciples are now said to worship Jesus. Some still doubted, it says, but that only adds emphasis to the significance of what they were doing — worshipping Jesus as God. They knew the commandments — you shall worship the Lord your God and him only — and they knew what they were now doing. And here in this same passage we have the clearest naming of the Trinity in the whole Bible when Jesus commissions them to make disciples and baptise them “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
But what is it about the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus that unveils the mystery of God and reveals the nature of the Trinity to us? Well, without wishing to dodge back into the baffling mystery cop-out, there is a lot more to it than I can unpack in one short sermon. There is no reason though why I should not be able to give you a worthwhile taste.
In the death and resurrection of Jesus, we are witnessing the action of the Trinity, and the gospel descriptions indeed use trinitarian language. Jesus, the Son, is said to commend or give up his Spirit to the Father. Son, Spirit, Father. And once the death is described in those terms, there is no meaningful way to speak of the resurrection that doesn’t include the Father giving the Spirit back to the Son, for without the Spirit there is and can be no life. But what is revealed in this is by no means just the identities of the persons of the Trinity. Far more importantly it is the nature of the relationships of the Trinity within which we discover the nature of God. It reveals that God is not who we thought God was. And perhaps this is a danger when preachers begin to shy away from the Trinity and call it a baffling mystery. Perhaps we risk veiling again that which was unveiled and made known to us, and if we do that we begin to interpret the crucifixion in dangerous ways. We revert to thinking of the Father as a vengeful god who demands the blood of a violent punishment, even of an innocent victim, before he will turn away his anger. And if that were true of God, then we are justified in violently repressing those whose sins provoke God’s anger, because our actions can be seen as being sanctioned by God and reflecting God’s nature.
But on the cross, as Jesus gives up his Spirit to the Father, we see none of that. We catch sight of a relationship of tender intimacy, a relationship of grace, of love, of compassion. We see the suffering love of a grieving Father losing his son, and the gracious love of a merciful son forgiving even his own murderers, and the passionate love of a communing Spirit passing between the two and subsequently back to give life, even in death. We see a God who does not demand victims, but is willing to become one. We see a God who takes no satisfaction in any death, but grieves over every death. We see a God who is all love and mercy and intimate communion, and this is the revealing of the mystery, the making known of that which had been hidden.
Now, part of what is so significant about that, and this is where I begin to get to some sort of connection with our church anniversary, is that what it reveals to us about the triune nature of God is not so much about the nature of the three persons of the Trinity, but about the nature of the three relationships between them. The three are not one God so much in their identity as three individual persons, but in the three relationships that bind them together. It is in the relationships that are seen in that intimate moment of death on the cross, the relationship between a grieving Father and a suffering Son, between a dying Son and his offered up Spirit, and between a Creating Father and his sent forth life-giving Spirit. It is the nature of these three relationships rather than the nature of the individual persons that makes them the Trinity.
It is these relationships that we are called to reflect in our gathered life. You can hear this in the words we heard from the Apostle Paul (2 Corinthians 13: 11-13). “Brothers and sisters, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”
There is this emphasis on the nature of the Trinity when Paul is calling us to relate to one another in particular ways. To be the church of the triune God, it is not enough to simply aggregate a number of people in a church building and hold a worship service. The communion of the Holy Spirit that Paul calls for is not about the sum of the individuals, just as the Trinity is not just about the sum of the individual persons. It is about the relationships between them. In as much as the relationships between us reflect the grace and self-giving of the Trinity, then we are the church. This does not mean that we all need to be best buddies. This is a common misconception about churches. We are called to love one another and respect one another and treat one another with grace and mercy an respect. If we also happen to like each other, that’s a bonus. It is not the point. Remember that Jesus calls us to love even our enemies, so you can be sure that he is not saying that love is dependent on having warm fuzzy feelings towards one another. If you do like each other, loving each other is certainly easier, but you are called to love one another regardless. You are not called to pretend to be the Father, Son or Spirit, but together we are called to reflect the patterns of their relating in the ways we relate to one another. In as much as we do, thus we are truly the Church.
So as we stand here and come in a few minutes to renew our covenant and reform the Church for another year, that is the challenge. What constitutes the Father, Son and Spirit as God is the nature of the relationships between them, and what will constitute us as a genuine Church is the nature of the relationships between us and the way they mirror those of the Trinity. These things can be heard in our covenant. It begins by acknowledging that we are called together by the Father to be the body of Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. And the first two sections confirm that we a called into communion and called to offer ourselves to God and one another. We are called to be a Trinity shaped community, to live out the life of the Trinity in our shared life together. That quest has been underway here for 157 years, and it is to the continuance of that quest that we commit ourselves tonight.