For many preachers, Trinity Sunday is affectionately known as “Heresy Sunday.” That’s because we preachers often attempt to take this opportunity to explain the Holy Trinity, with the result that we almost always end up affirming three gods instead of one, or affirming the unity of God by denying any distinctions between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Such “explanations” of the Trinity leave us with something other than a Christian understanding of God and maybe a headache as well.
Maybe that’s the reason why the English preacher Colin Morris once said that any preacher with good sense will call in sick on Trinity Sunday.
Since I’m clearly lacking that good sense, maybe I can get off to a decent start by citing the Protestant reformer Martin Luther who once said: “To try to deny the Trinity endangers your salvation; to try to comprehend the Trinity endangers your sanity.”
In my reflections this morning, I hope to neither endanger your salvation nor your sanity.
When we Christians speak of the Trinity we’re talking about a dogma and not just a doctrine.
The dogma/doctrine distinction may seem overly subtle and academic, but it’s a very important one. A doctrine is simply a teaching. All religions abound with teachings. Actually, all arenas of inquiry – whether in theology or in the natural or human sciences – have doctrines or teachings. These are things you have to know to be on the same page with others. It’s even true in sports. We could no more live without doctrines in religion or science than we could play football or baseball without rules for the game. Over time, some of these rules of the game may be changed or even discarded. That happens in religion just as it does in sports. But there are some teachings – some rules of the game – that are so essential we could no longer claim to be playing baseball or practicing the Christian faith if we lacked them.
In Christian theology, such teachings are called dogmas. A dogma is a doctrine that serves as a definitive rule of faith.
There’s room for disagreement when it comes to Christian teachings on the complex issues involving human sexuality, economic justice, abortion, or the use of violence in defense of justice. But dogmas are non-negotiable. Just as we can’t do science if we deny fundamental natural laws, and we can’t do ethics if we reject any distinctions between right and wrong, so the Church teaches that we can’t have a Christian understanding of God without the dogma of the Trinity.
This is an important reminder that there are boundaries and norms that define the Christian faith and that differentiate it from other possible faiths.
Now of course, there are many differences between rules that govern sports, laws that govern science, and dogmas that govern Christian faith. And one important difference is that a Christian dogma confronts us with a mystery that transcends human reason. To say that God is one Being in three Persons is not a scientific statement or bad math. Rather, it’s an expression of the mystery of God’s being. The dogma of the Trinity tells us that God cannot be fully grasped by reason alone. Left to our own devices, we cannot figure God out, much less manipulate God into doing our bidding. And so the dogma of the Trinity reminds us that no matter how well we may understand what the Christian faith and life are all about, we can never fully comprehend the reality we call God.
But the dogma of the Trinity doesn’t just underscore the limits of reason by pointing to the mystery of God. It’s also a practical teaching. If taken seriously, it has consequences not only for how we relate to God but also for how we should relate to each other.
For fundamental to the dogma of God as Trinity is the affirmation that God is not a solitary individual. Internal to God's very being is relationship. To speak of God as Trinity is to affirm that God is a community, a divine society whose unity does not violate or destroy the uniqueness of the constituent Persons. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are co-equal in power and majesty. No one of them lords it over the others. In God there is no above and below, no superior and inferior, no insiders and outsiders. In relation to each other, each Person of the Trinity lives in a free society of equals. And this freedom finds its perfect expression in self-giving, costly love. The kind of love we see most clearly in Jesus Christ nailed to a cross.
If we compare the Trinity to human history and experience, we see how far short we fall from the perfection of the triune God.How often have people formed societies that promise freedom and equality for all only to substitute a new tyranny for an old one?
And how many of us have experienced relationships in which power, control, and manipulation masquerade as love?
Or relationships in which we become so totally enmeshed with the other person that we no longer know who we really are?
Or relationships in which commitment is so fickle that everything ends when “someone better” comes along?These experience leave us hurt and longing for wholeness. The kind of wholeness that only God as Trinity can give us.
The relationships between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are not characterized by manipulation, domination, or coercion but by freedom and self-giving love. And while our society and our relationships often fall far short of the ideal, we are still called to emulate the freedom and love of the Trinity.
And so the dogma of the Trinity is an ethical mandate – a call to action. After all, we Christians believe that all persons are created in the image of the triune God. And made in God’s image, we are created to share the same communion of equality, the same mutual openness and self-giving love, that animates the shared life of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.Our participation in God’s triune nature starts in the Church, where we submit ourselves in love to the Lordship of Christ, seeking and serving Christ in each other, helping to carry each other’s burdens, and relinquishing claims to power and prestige.
And our participation in God’s triune life extends into the world, as we seek to create institutions and build relationships that respect the dignity of all persons, promoting freedom and equality by arming ourselves with nothing more or less than the love of Christ crucified.
That’s a risky way to live in a world that privileges the survival of the fittest.
But that’s the risk of love.
It’s the love that moves God the Father to create a world of infinite and unfolding beauty and complexity. It’s the love that moves God the Son to show us the way to unite the human and the divine by becoming human like us and then giving his life so that we may live. And it’s the love that moves God the Holy Spirit to draw us to the Father through the Son, empowering us to be Christ’s body, harbingers of the Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.
The dogma of the Trinity propels us into the mystery of God’s very being and out into the world to follow the example of Jesus. And so our worship of God as Trinity underscores a truth once expressed by Dorothy Sayers when she wrote: “The Christian faith is the most exciting drama that ever staggered the [human] imagination – and the dogma is the drama” [Dorothy Sayers, Creed or Chaos (1949)].