Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31
“Joy of heaven to earth come down”
Welcome to Trinity Sunday – the first Sunday after Pentecost each year. Trinity Sunday is unusual. Most of the special Sundays in the church year are about an event in time – Jesus being born (Christmas), the arrival of the wise men from the East (Epiphany), Jesus being baptized (Baptism of the Lord Sunday), Jesus being raised from the dead (Easter), the Holy Spirit being poured out on the church (Pentecost).
But this special Sunday is not about celebrating a particular event or moment in salvation history. Instead, it’s about a doctrine. It’s about one of the foundational beliefs of the Christian Church. It’s about Trinity – the teaching that God is three, traditionally expressed as Father, Son, and Spirit, but that God is still just one God.
Now apart from the fact that it’s very difficult to work out the math, it’s a difficult topic to preach about because the contours of the argument are extremely subtle. The greatest intellects in the world have had trouble with this one, so there’s not much chance of me explaining it this morning.
I am thinking about the many conversations I’ve had over the years about the Trinity, and I’m especially remembering one that took place at the Women’s Breakfast some years ago. About 20 women gathered for breakfast, conversation, and a little study. The women from McKercher Presbyterian Church had planned the Bible study, and chosen the topic of Trinity. We began with one of those children’s story-type metaphors for understanding the Trinity. God is like an apple. It has skin, flesh, and a core. God the Father is the core. Christ is the flesh. And the Spirit is the skin that surrounds everything…. or something like that.
We started with that, as a beginning point, but then we looked at scripture – the Creation in Genesis and the eternal Word made flesh in Jesus Christ at the beginning of John’s Gospel. We discussed and debated and reflected on the Spirit’s presence at the Creation – the same idea that we heard in today’s reading from Proverbs – and the thought that the Word – the Christ – did not just come into existence when Jesus was born, but the idea that God’s Word has existed from the beginning of time with God.
As we continued to explore these theological concepts together, the word “heresy” came up. Don’t worry, it wasn’t one of the women calling another a “heretic.” Rather, someone asked, “Is what I am saying considered a heresy?” And I hope that my response to her provided some assurance that asking questions is never heresy. Debating and discussing and exploring a variety of answers is never heresy.
The thing is, the Doctrine of the Trinity is not just complicated, but historically, it has also been abused. It has often been used to divide up the orthodox from the heretics, and people who have been unable to get their heads around it have even been kicked out of the church. I think it is an important teaching, but its importance is not in whether you believe it or not. Its importance is in what sort of God it is trying to describe. The issue that is at stake with the Trinity is not the math or finding the perfect metaphor or analogy to explain it. It is an issue of how God relates to us, and that is important. So that’s what we will try to pursue this morning.
The Doctrine of the Trinity is not taught in the Bible. There are things in the Bible that suggest that perhaps God might be understood as a Trinity, but there is nothing that attempts to explain it or that says it matters whether you or anybody else believes it. On Trinity Sunday, we don’t get texts about Trinity. We get texts about creation, about the Spirit, about the Word and Wisdom of God. We get texts that hint at Trinity, and we are invited to reflect on it.
But there was an important reason in the history of the Church why the idea of Trinity was developed and why it came to be seen as important. In essence what happened was that there were some people who were saying “God is like this, and you must view God like this,” and there was another group of people saying, “Well yes, but God is also like this, and we mustn’t lose that.” And the first group were saying, “No, you can’t have it both ways. Our view is right and yours is wrong.”
People like us who come to church to worship God get a lot of our images of God and our understanding of God from what we sing in church. So let’s think about what God is like, as described in our hymns:
Immortal, invisible, God only wise,
in light inaccessible hid from our eyes,
most blessed, most glorious, the ancient of days,
almighty, victorious, thy great name we praise.
Crown him the Lord of heaven, enthroned in worlds above;
crown him the King to whom is given the wondrous name of Love:
A city stands on high, his glory it displays,
and there the nations “Holy” cry in joyful hymns of praise.
O worship the king, all glorious above;
and gratefully sing his power and his love;
our shield and defender, the ancient of days,
surrounded with splendour, exalted with praise.
How is God described in those hymns? Mighty, powerful, exalted on high, far above all humans, more holy than anything we can imagine. Okay, now let’s try some alternative hymns. Have a listen to these ones…
Love divine, all loves excelling
joy of heaven to earth come down.
Fix in us your humble dwelling,
all your faithful mercies crown.
Jesus, you are all compassion,
boundless love that makes us whole;
visit us with your salvation,
enter every trembling soul.
I, the Lord of snow and rain,
I have borne my people’s pain.
I have wept for love of them.
They turn away.
Jesus loves me still today, walking with me on my way,
wanting as a friend to give light and love to all who live.
In these hymns, God has come to be with us, to join us in the world, to relate to us and care for us. God reaches out in Jesus Christ to be in relationship with us. These two quite different images of God have different implications for us and for how we see ourselves, especially how we see ourselves in relation to God.
Let’s visit the fourth century for a minute and check out the argument that led to the development of the Doctrine of the Trinity. The principle characters were two guys called Athanasius and Arius. On the surface, the debate was about whether or not Jesus was divine, whether or not Jesus was God. But the underlying question was about what is God like.
The church held to the belief that when we look at Jesus, we are looking at God. That Jesus is the complete self-revelation of the God of the universe. That Jesus is in fact God in human form. The Nicene creed expressed it by saying that Jesus was “God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not created, of one being with the Father.”
Arius disagreed with this. He rejected the idea that Jesus was God, and argued that Jesus should be understood as an exemplary human being. For Arius, God was so far above us humans that the idea of God taking on human expression was an outrage. God, by definition, said Arius, is self-contained, complete within himself, and not needing to communicate himself in any way. God is exalted, holy, pure, absolute, and glorious. For Arius, the idea of God lowering himself to become personally involved with his creatures was demeaning and blasphemous.
But others in the church would not buy Arius’ argument. Athanasius took issue with Arius’ position at its central point. Being self-contained, superior and distant is not the essential feature of divinity, he said. We humans, perhaps even more now than ever before, tend to worship independence before we’ll worship God, and we easily imagine that God relates to the world in the same way we relate to the world. We consider it the worst fate in the world to have to depend on someone else.
As teenagers, we couldn’t wait to be old enough to no longer be dependent on adults. And older adults often save for retirement so they won’t have to be dependent on their kids.
People are often afraid of marriage because they fear having someone really need them, someone who can’t keep their distance. And even worse is the thought that they might come to depend on someone else themselves. Distance is more comfortable.
People who work in the human services sometimes talk about professional distance. Don’t get too close to your clients or you’ll lose your objectivity. If you start caring too much, your judgment will be affected. Well, Athanasius argued that we make a serious mistake if we think that’s the way that God relates to us – professional, unconnected, and unaffected by us humans.
Athanasius argued that the essential defining feature of God was not utter independence, but self-giving – love that gives and gives and gives. And he argued that this self-giving occurs even within the Godhead – that between the Father and the Son and the Spirit there is total mutual self-giving.
And then this self-giving looks outwards and expresses itself in a totally unprofessional nearness to others, including us. God gets totally involved with us – loving, cherishing, nurturing, longing, craving our response and our giving in return. God is the Spirit who moves through us with every breath, who whispers into our ear, who prompts us and cajoles us towards god-likeness, expressed in self-giving and love.
Athanasius accused Arius of having a sterile god who doesn’t generate, doesn’t shine, doesn’t communicate, doesn’t reveal. A God who sits in isolated splendour, useless and irrelevant and passionless. The God made known in Jesus is dynamic, involved, always busy relating, cherishing, shining, revealing, expressing, giving. A God who can know joy and pain, a God who longs for us to return the love we are shown, a God who hurts when we fail to respond and who grieves when we are in pain.
Needless to say, Athanasius won the debate, and the Doctrine of the Trinity was adopted. But it is amazing how many Arians you still meet! There is no shortage of church people around who would espouse the Trinity as a doctrine, but teach an Arian image of God – high, exalted, distant, and uninvolved.
The God I believe in is a triune God – a God who has reached out to be involved in our lives and in our world in Jesus Christ – a God whose Spirit moves among and within us, inspiring us to inter-dependence and self-giving love. God has created us in order that we and God might relate to one another – that we might live in communion and community with one another. God needs you, and will be unfulfilled until you respond to God’s love and begin to give in return as passionately as God gives to you.
That’s why church is so important. We need to recognize our inter-dependence. If God was utterly self-contained and professionally distant, then we could respond in an uninvolved and individual manner. But the God who is characterized by love and self-giving needs us to learn to love and give and be in community with one another. It is in community that we can discover God in the passions and conflicts and joys and giving of community life.
May the God who made us,
Christ who came to us,
and the Spirit who fills us
receive all our praise and glory,
and may we live in communion with the triune God
and with one another. Amen.