Trinity Sunday 6.12.22
The Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is a central doctrine in the Christian church, Presbyterians included. I want you to notice the paraments that we have in our sanctuary this morning. Here are two symbols of the Trinity intertwined. One is a triangle, with the three points representing each person of the Trinity. And then there is what looks like three circles intertwined, again representing the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
What is the Trinity anyway? We do not find the term in the scriptures, but the doctrine is fed by scripture. We find in Jesus’ parting words to the disciples in Matthew the baptismal formula that Christians the world over have used for 2 millennia—”baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”. Very early Christians began to develop a doctrine of understanding God in three persons or in three forms. It did not take long for church leaders to disagree over the meaning of the Trinity, especially when it came to describing exactly how the three persons of God are connected. By the fourth century there were two strong divisions—one group insisting that Jesus was like God and one group insisting that Jesus was God. Some said Jesus and the Holy Spirit proceeded from God, meaning came after. Others said Three in One means they all were present for all time. All of these ideas impact what you believe about the humanity and the divinity of Christ—if Jesus is like God, then it seems more likely he was fully human. If Jesus is God, it seems he could not have been human but only divine. The bishops from various parts of the Roman empire had strong feelings about these issues.
Perhaps you remember Constantine the Great, the Roman emperor who ruled from 305 to 337 CE. The first emperor to convert to Christianity, he brought together 318 bishops in 324 CE to the city of Nicaea to hammer out these theological differences and seek unity within the church. They ended up with the Nicene Creed, which was later added to a bit because not everyone was happy with the first version. Centuries later, the church was split into the Eastern church and the Western church over whether or not the Holy Spirit proceeded directly from Jesus and the Father, or just from the Father. In other words, was this relationship within the Godhead a triangle where God is one point and creates the other two? Or was it more like a hierarchy, where God is a the top, and underneath God is Jesus, and underneath Jesus is the Holy Spirit?
It is important to realize that the Trinity is and has always been a mystery to Christian believers. We have tried and tried to find ways to explain this doctrine more concretely. One that is helpful for me is found in Martin Theilen’s book, What is the least I have to believe to be a Christian? He suggests one way to understand the Trinity is to see it as three different ways to experience God, just as each of us are experienced by others in our lives in different ways. For example, you all know me as Pastor Deborah—you call me when there is trouble or joy, you look to me for interpretation of Scripture in teaching or preaching, you experience me as a pastor to you. But my children know me as mom—they grew up receiving both my discipline and my love, and now as adults, continue to check in and seek guidance, and shower me with love and appreciation. No matter how old they get, I will never stop being their mom. And my husband knows me as Debbie—the name I grew up with and the name I used most often when I first met him—he calls me Debbie when he invites me on a date or when he is angry with me or needs my help with something—he does not experience me as mom or as pastor. But all of those things (and likely more) are me. I am one person, experienced in different ways by the different people in my life, depending on my relationship with each one.
So too, we experience God in different ways through the different persons of the Trinity. At various times in your life or even various times of the day, you may connect better with God as Father or Mother, or feel the presence of the Holy Spirit in an encounter with another person, or be surprised anew at the gift of life you have received from Jesus. Last week I shared with you one description of the persons of the Trinity offered by Dr. Wilda Gafney: God as Author, Jesus as Word and Spirit as Translator. On Pentecost Sunday, when those first disciples were empowered by the Spirit to speak in languages they had never known, we focused on the Spirit as Translator.
This morning I want to share another way to understand God as Three in One, using the names Creator (for the Father), Christ (for the Son) and Compassion (for the Spirit). This too comes from Dr. Gafney, who insists that men and boys have for far too long been the only ones to hear themselves and their pronouns identified with God, which automatically leaves out women, girls and non-binary persons, effectively making invisible all the children of God who are not male children. If we focus on God as Creator, Christ and Compassion, there is no need for exclusively masculine or feminine images. Look with me briefly at the three passages we heard this morning, each one with a reference to either Creator, Christ or Compassion.
Psalm 130 is just one example of many psalms extolling God as Creator, Creator of all. The psalmist waits and watches for the Creator, the Mother of Creation, as Gafney translates. How does he or she wait and watch? More than a watchman waits for the morning. And surely a night watchman is waiting for morning to come and his shift to be over just as much as the school staff is waiting for the last day of school and a chance for a break. He is watching for the Creator of All, the Mother of Creation in whom we hope, who is faithful love and abundant redemption, liberty, and freedom. Maybe you experience God as the Creator who made us all, who made this amazing place for us to live in and enjoy, who provides us with food and water to sustain us.
Paul encourages the Roman Christians to live in harmony with people of different spiritual backgrounds in accordance with Christ Jesus—following Jesus’ example, his pattern of treating others, his words and arms of welcome of all. It was Christ who gave his life, refusing to fight the charges against him by the angry mob. Paul’s sees the Christ and his life-giving actions as a path for non-Jews to see who God really is. In the passage we read together this morning, he pulls from Old Testament texts—from Psalms and Deuteronomy—pointing out that the Hebrew scriptures point to the day when non-Jews like us will praise God. Christ is the door through which all are welcome to experience God. Maybe you experience God through Christ the life-giver.
In the gospel of John, we again find Jesus talking with his disciples about what to expect after he is no longer with them. Jesus knows that grief will fill their hearts. He promises that the Advocate will come to them in their sorrow, bringing compassion and comfort just when they need it the most. And it is the Spirit who is Compassion who surrounds us in our times of struggle or grief. Compassion, caring, boosting, encouraging, loving. Those are some of the ways that we can experience the Spirit of God.
The Apostles’ Creed, which we will use later in our worship as our affirmation of faith, is a universally accepted statement of belief used by creedal churches like ours. It was finalized not by the original apostles, but by leaders in the church centuries after the Nicene Creed—by the ninth century CE. It follows a very familiar trinitarian formula, stating belief in God the Father Almighty, Jesus Christ his Son, and in the Holy Spirit. I wonder how this creed would sound if we replaced the traditional language with Creator, Christ and Compassion? You might try that sometime at home. Re-write it with the different names for the persons of the Trinity. How does it sound to you? Does it give you any new perspective or new experience of God when you use different language to describe the Three in One, the One in Three?