Trinity, Mt Vernon—Revelation 4:1-11, Isaiah 6:1-8, Psalm 29, John 16: 5-15
It comes as no news flash, I’m sure, that there are people in the society around us who are skeptical about some of the claims that Christianity makes, about the beliefs that Christians share. In response to this, Christians have developed certain counter-arguments that attempt to refute those objections, and show how they are inconsistent or incoherent. This activity is known as apologetics. Books have been written about apologetics; you can take classes in it. Of all the challenges that a Christian apologist must face, by far the most daunting is the problem of pain, the problem of evil: How can a good God let such horrible things happen to innocent people?
But I would strongly suspect that the second most challenging issue in Christian apologetics is the theology of the Trinity. For Jews and Muslims—that is, for about a third of the world’s population—it’s sheer blasphemy. To them, it sounds like Christians worship three gods, rather than the one true and living God, the God of Abraham. And to those whose religious opinions are loosely formed by our loosely Christian culture, but who are not themselves actively practicing Christians, the notion of the Trinity seems like an arcane intellectual exercise, one that doesn’t have any relevance to the ordinary everyday lives of ordinary everyday people. Why does Christianity have to be so complicated, with the Son being “begotten” by the Father, though not in any way created by the Father, and the Holy Spirit “proceeding” from the Father—or is it the Father and the Son?—well, that depends on who you talk to(!), and the question has been one that for centuries has kept certain Christians from being able to share the Body and Blood of Christ at the same altar with certain other Christians. Can’t we just call the whole thing off? Certainly something as complex and sensitive as Trinitarian theology is not something God would insist we believe in, right?
That’s an excellent question, actually. So let’s pick it apart and see if we can find something that gets us excited, something that hits us where we live—or at least makes us thankful—on this Trinity Sunday. If we did not have the traditional orthodox articulation of God as “trinity of persons in unity of being,” if we dispensed with the habit of thinking of God as, in a sense, a “community,” “the godhead,” with the persons of the Trinity in harmonious balance with one another, what would be the downside risks? What would we lose?
What would happen, for instance, if we were to de-emphasize the person of God the Father, and turn our focus to God incarnate—that is, Jesus, a human being we can relate to—along with the Holy Spirit, whom we could understand as just another way of talking about the ongoing presence of Jesus in our midst? What we would get is an extremely inward-focused version of the faith that would take on the characteristics that we associate with a cult—strong ties between members that are not of the healthy sort, very clannish, turned inward, with very little concern for the surrounding world. This closeness would be based on a shared experience of an intense personal relationship with Jesus and an ecstatic experience of the power of the Holy Spirit. Something very dark is unleashed, though, when we give up a balanced Trinitarian theology that appreciates the first person of the Trinity, God the Father, and his sovereign redemptive purpose for the entire created order. It is such an appreciation for the Fatherhood of God that keeps us from turning inward and collapsing into irrelevance, and, instead, turns our attention outward to the world God made and the world God loves and the world God wants to redeem.
So, what happens, then, if we allow the second person of the Holy Trinity—God the Son—to slip through the cracks, and organize our worship of God and service to God only around the Father and the Holy Spirit? What would happen is that we would lose our connection with the means that God has chosen to redeem the world that he made and loves—namely, the life, death, resurrection, ascension, and glorification of Jesus the Messiah, the anointed one of God, God’s eternal Word forever made flesh. In short, we would lose our connection with the Paschal Mystery—“Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again” or “We remember his death, we proclaim his resurrection, we await his coming in glory.” There would be little motivation to celebrate the Eucharist, because we would have lost contact with the mystery that the Eucharist puts us in touch with. Our practice of Christian religion would be reduced to a line from a popular hymn, now deleted from our own hymnal: “Father-love is reigning o’er us, brother-love binds man to man.” We would come together on Sundays, more or less out of habit, to worship a generic God, and try to cooperate with what we perceive as the spirit of that God by attempting to solve the social ills of the world by the force of our own wills and the sweat of our own brows, taking such inspiration as we can from well-meant but theologically-misguided exhortations like “We must make God’s work truly our own.” Without Christ, without the second person of the Trinity, we would find ourselves failing at trying to serve a God who wants to save us but can’t quite figure out how to do so. The Church would be little more than a do-gooders club.
And what, then, if we hang on to the Father and the Son, but let loose of the Holy Spirit as excess baggage? After all, the Holy Spirit is the least well-understood person of the Godhead, and seems more of a cheerleader than anything else. If we have to “downsize” God to make Christianity more intelligible to those in the world around us, maybe giving God the Holy Spirit a layoff notice is the way to go. Well, what we would be left with, I’m afraid, is a version of Christian religion that very few of us would find appealing or get very excited about. It would be a very dry, very rigid form of Christian orthodoxy that may have all the right i’s dotted and all the right t’s crossed but is incapable of giving life because it doesn’t scratch where anybody actually itches. It looks great on paper but it doesn’t change any lives. Why? Because it doesn’t have the wind of the Holy Spirit to deliver its message to the right set of ears at the right moment. It doesn’t have the power of the Holy Spirit that can pierce through the defensive armor that people cover themselves with when they sense that God is getting too close. The Father wills to save, and the Son provides the means of salvation, but without the Holy Spirit to deliver the package, nobody gets saved. Instead, everybody just gets bored. There’s nothing less exciting or interesting than the practice of Christianity without the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.
So, knowing God as trinity of persons in unity of being is, I hope we can see from these brief reflections, critical to our experience of who God is and what God is up to and how God intends to accomplish his purposes. Yet, even though the theology of the Trinity informs our thinking about God, it is never an end in itself. Thinking correctly about God is important, but it doesn’t get us where we need to go. Rather, the doctrine of the Trinity is always configured toward the worship of the Trinity. Our celebration of Trinity Sunday is not about the doctrine of the Trinity—it’s about the Trinity. That may seem like a small distinction, but it’s not. It’s huge. Both Isaiah’s vision of heaven and John’s vision of heaven in Revelation are all about worship, both have the heavenly hosts singing “Holy, holy, holy…”. So there’s every reason under heaven for those same words to be crossing our lips as they will in a few minutes, even as we are here and now gathered as a microcosm of the worship of the heavenly hosts assembled around the throne of God the Father, with God the Son standing as a sacrificial lamb who has tasted and conquered death, and God the Holy Spirit energizing the hearts and lips of the faithful to offer hymns of unceasing praise. Only the worship of the triune God keeps us faithful, in a balanced way, to the truth of the triune God. Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: As it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.