Preaching on Trinity Sunday is a real challenge, because it is so easy to fall into one of the many heresies surrounding the Trinity. (A heresy is simply a wrong teaching—a teaching that’s at odds with Church teachings.) Linda Myers shared some advice on Facebook for pastors as they prepare to preach on Trinity Sunday. It came from the Episcopal Church and the post said that the best way to avoid preaching a heresy about the Trinity is to ditch the sermon altogether and just show photos of cute little kittens instead. As much as I was tempted to follow the online advice, I thought better of it and decided to tackle the subject of the Trinity anyway.
The reason it’s so hard to preach about the Trinity is that no one has ever come up with a good way to explain how God can be three-in-one and one-in-three. We keep trying to come up with an analogy, but every one we come up with falls short. In fact, the more I thought about my sermon title, the more obvious its shortcomings became, so I won’t be referring to it much.
There’s a funny cartoon online that shows two ancient Irishmen talking with St. Patrick. As new converts to the faith, they ask him to explain the Trinity to them. They remind him that they are simple people with no fancy education or a vocabulary full of theological terms. So, St. Patrick starts out, “Well, the Trinity is like water, which can be a liquid, a vapor, or a solid. Or, it’s like a person who can be a spouse, or a parent, or an employee.”
The Irishmen jump in. “No, no, no, Patrick! That’s a heresy that suggests that God is not three distinct persons but that God merely reveals God’s self in three different ways, like putting on three different masks. It was condemned by the Church in the year 381!”
St. Patrick tries again. “OK, then, it’s like the sun where you have the star, and the heat and the light that come from the star.”
Rolling their eyes, the Irishmen explain to Patrick where he’s gone wrong this time. “That’s a heresy that says that Christ and the Holy Spirit aren’t the same as the Father but are simply creations of the Father, just like heat and light come from the star but aren’t the star itself.”
St. Patrick tries a third time. “The Trinity is like a three-leafed clover…” “No, no, no, Patrick! That’s a heresy that says that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are each parts of God—one-third of God—rather than three distinct persons of the one Godhead.”
St. Patrick loses it. “Fine!” he says. “The Trinity is a mystery which cannot be comprehended by human reasoning but is understood only through faith. We worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity, neither confusing the persons nor dividing the substance. We are compelled by the Christian truth to confess that each distinct person is God and Lord, and that the deity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is One, equal in glory, co-equal in majesty.”
“Well, why didn’t you just say so, Patrick?” the Irishmen reply.
It took the early Church Fathers about 400 years to hammer out the words of the Athanasian Creed that the St. Patrick of the video rattles off. And it’s not like that really helped Christians get at what it means to worship a Triune God. 1300 years later, John Wesley admitted that Christians don’t get it. In his list of ways in which Christians aren’t perfect, he included our inability to understand the Trinity. He said, “They cannot understand . . . how [as we read in 1 John] ‘there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and these three are one.’”
Thomas Jefferson produced his own version of the New Testament, taking out all of the miracles and anything else he deemed “contrary to reason.” Not surprisingly, he completely rejected the doctrine of the Trinity. Jefferson chalked the doctrine of the Trinity up to the craftiness, power, and profit of the priests. He said, “It is too late in the day for men of sincerity to pretend they believe. . . that three are one, and one is three; and yet that the one is not three, and the three are not one.”
All the “heretical” images about the Trinity, possibly including my own sermon title, grow out of our desire to understand who God is and how God works in our lives. But, as hard as it is for us to understand, the Trinity is more than just a subject for scholars to debate. It’s more than a dry theological idea that doesn’t have any bearing on our lives. The idea of the Trinity does more for us than describe what God is. Instead, it helps us to better understand what God does, in and for us and the world. It invites us to look into the very heart of God.
The doctrine of the Trinity isn’t explained in Scripture. In fact, the word “Trinity” doesn’t even appear anywhere in the Bible. It’s an understanding that the early Church fathers teased out of Scripture as they wrestled first with their questions about how to understand Jesus’ relationship with the Father, and how that could all fit into our foundational belief in one God. To do that, they looked to passages like the one we read today.
The passage from John’s Gospel is from what’s called the “Farewell Discourse,” when Jesus was speaking to the disciples on the night when he was betrayed. Jesus understands that the disciples won’t have enough time with him to fully absorb all they need to know to continue his mission. He knows that they will need continued guidance and support after he leaves them. And so, he promises them the Holy Spirit. His Spirit will not only help them through their sorrow and confusion, but the Spirit will also ensure that Jesus’ mission in the world will continue through the Church after his ascension.
Jesus had made it about as clear as he could that he and the Father are one. That oneness is a constant theme of John’s Gospel, and Jesus can’t get much clearer than when he says in Chapter 10, “The Father and I are one.”
In his words from our passage, he includes the Spirit in this relationship. The Spirit will speak what Jesus would have spoken to the disciples if he were still present in the flesh—the words that the Spirit hears, not so much what the Spirit overhears in an act of divine eaves-dropping, but what the Spirit knows and understands. The Spirit will glorify Jesus because, as Jesus says, the Spirit will have the same knowledge that is in Jesus and will continue to declare it to the disciples. Then Jesus reminds them that what belongs to the Father belongs to Jesus, and by extension to the Spirit.
So, that all gives us the basis for accepting that we worship one God in three persons. It gives us the Scriptural footing we need to accept something that’s beyond our comprehension. But I’m not sure it helps us understand why it should matter to us. What does the Trinity tell us about God that helps us in our daily walk?
I think that an icon painted by the Russian artist Andrei Rublev gives us some clues. Rublev lived and painted in the late 1300’s and early 1400’s. His icon of the Trinity was probably painted around the year 1410. Like all icons, this one is intended to serve as a kind of window we can look through to connect with God and to understand God better, and in this one we are invited to find our place in the life of the Triune God.
In Rublev’s icon, we see the three persons of God. We find the Father on the left, in shimmering clothing that reflects the divine glory. The Father is seated beneath a castle, which is the mansion where God has a place prepared for us.
On the right is the Holy Spirit, clothed in blue and green, the colors of the earth, to show that through the Spirit, God is present in and around all things. The Holy Spirit is seated beneath a mountain, which symbolizes the spiritual journey each believer must make, accompanied by the Spirit, through whom God’s love has been poured into our hearts.
In the center is the Son, clothed in the bright red that symbolizes his divinity and a cloak of blue, which symbolizes his humanity. Over his right shoulder is a band of gold to show that, as Isaiah prophesied, “the Government shall be upon his shoulders.” Above him is a tree—a symbol of the tree on which Jesus would be crucified.
The Father and Son are in conversation with each other, as Jesus was so often in prayer. Although it appears that the Son and the Spirit are bowing towards the Father, it is a posture of love, not fear. The three are distinct persons, but they are drawn and placed in such a way that no one figure is more important than another. They are all the same size, and as you look at the painting, you’ll find that your eye isn’t drawn to focus on any one of the figures. The painting almost compels us to continually look from one figure to the other in a constantly moving circle. If our eyes are drawn to anything, it’s to the space in the midst of the figures—the space that they share and that their circle defines.
Notice, too, how the circle is not complete. There’s an open space. The traditional interpretation of this opening is that it represents the space we are invited to share. We are invited to take our place at the table of our Triune God.
But, imagine the painting with the table removed. Imagine a space there, enclosed by our Triune God. Imagine that the opening in the circle is the gate that we are invited to enter through, into that space filled with the marvelous love that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit share. This is the work of the Trinity—to create a space where we can experience the love of God in all its fullness, and to provide the means by which we can enter into that space.
And even more marvelous is how that opening is never closed, and the space is never filled. There’s always room for one more, or a dozen more, or thousands more. The God of the Trinity never stops welcoming others into the relationship, and as more believers enter the circle, the relationships multiply.
The best earthly fathers (and mothers) open their arms wide to all their own children. But they also welcome other children to their tables, and into their homes, and into their love. On this Father’s Day, I think of my own Dad (and Mom), who did this so well. Those children whom my Mom and Dad welcomed into their circle of love continued to stop by to see my parents, long after childhood friendships had faded. And the ones who stopped by the most were the ones who felt most rejected by the rest of the world. In their constant welcome, Mom and Dad mirrored the welcome we are offered within the embrace of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
We may often feel left out of human relationships. Family ties break down. Friendships dissolve. Workplaces and lunchrooms and volunteer groups and yes, even churches, can and do exclude people, sometimes on purpose and sometimes unintentionally. It always hurts the one who is excluded. But the good news is that there is always a place for every person within the divine relationship of the Trinity.
Just as we have found a place within the circle of God’s love, we are called to participate in the work of sharing it with others. We are called to embody that love and inclusion. We, too, must ensure that we leave space for others to enter into our embrace, so that in us, they might glimpse the encompassing love of God, revealed in all of creation, made visible in a human body, and abiding in us always.
And that, perhaps, is the most important thing we need to understand about the Trinity. We can simply accept the mystery of a Triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever—a mystery that is beyond our human comprehension and defies all our attempts to squeeze it into an easy-to-grasp analogy or sermon title. But the thing to know in our hearts is that the love that flows between the Three-In-One is not limited to the Trinity’s own circle. The circle has an opening for us, and for all people, to enter into the love that creates us, the love that redeems us, and the love that sustains us in our Christian journey. Until that day when we will see face-to-face what only appears dimly to us now, we can simply enjoy the love of our Triune God and invite others to join us in the circle. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young