Trinity, Mt Vernon–Matthew 28:16-20, II Corinthians 13:5-14
We have five churches in the Diocese of Springfield whose feast of title is today. So far on my watch as bishop, I’ve always been in a Trinity Church somewhere on Trinity Sunday. I haven’t actually asked, but I think it’s a safe bet that the priests who serve those churches are always glad to see me on Trinity Sunday, because today is the least popular occasion for anyone who regularly preaches to prepare and deliver a sermon. Trinity Sunday is a hard homiletical nut to crack.
Much of the time—rather foolishly, it might be argued—preachers try to teach doctrine, or sometimes engage in a slipshod form of amateur theology. They try to explain the Trinity by way of some sort of analogy—you know, electricity is light and heat and energy, or water can be liquid or solid or vapor. But this is dangerous, because the easiest way to say something wrong about the Trinity is to say anything at all about the Trinity. If you look at what’s called the Athanasian Creed, which can be found in the “historical documents” section in the back of the Prayer Book, for every positive assertion about the Trinity, there are several negative assertions—the Trinity is not XYZ. The Trinity is tricky homiletical territory because it’s tricky theological territory
Another approach a Trinity Sunday preacher can take is to leave theology aside and concentrate on doxology—that is, the Triune God is not to be understood, but praised, worshiped, and adored. I’ve done that myself on more than one occasion, and there’s an important truth there. It is more important that we worship God and obey God than that we understand God. But, when the incense has cleared away, this approach is kind of intellectually and spiritually unsatisfying. Surely a preacher can say something theological on Trinity Sunday.
Let me suggest that the doctrine of the Trinity is one of the strongest pieces of evidence that Christianity is a revealed religion, because, truly, nobody could have made this stuff up. It’s bonkers. Read the Athanasian Creed after you get home this afternoon, and you will go bonkers, I can almost guarantee you. So, if the doctrine of the Trinity is not just made up—because who would ever make up something so crazy?—perhaps it’s a good idea to ask: How did our ancestors in the faith ever arrive at this craziness we call Trinitarian theology?
There are, of course, seeds of Trinitarian doctrine in the documents of the New Testament. Two of these seeds, as you might imagine, pop up in today’s readings. We have what’s called the Great Commission, from Matthew 28, where Jesus tells his disciples to go and baptize all nations “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” And then we have the familiar formula knows as the Grace, from II Corinthians 13: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you always.” Now, like I said, these are just seeds. It’s tempting for us to read our fully developed theological notions of the Trinity back onto these passages, but that’s not really fair. However, in the II Corinthians passage, in the Grace, do pay attention to the order in which the material that strikes us as trinitarian occurs—it’s “the Lord Jesus Christ,” from which we can extrapolate God the Son; then simply “God,” from which we might extrapolate God the Father, and then straightforwardly, “the Holy Spirit.” Without trying to ascribe any intentionality to St Paul when he wrote this, it’s nonetheless interesting to note that this order—Son, Father, Spirit—this order replicates the sequence in which the Church actually experiences the reality and the life of God. That is, both originally—in the earliest days and years of Christianity—and then repeatedly throughout history, including us in our own time, we tend to be aware of Jesus first, then, through him, the Father, and only then understand that our knowledge of both the Son and the Father is brought to us courtesy of the Holy Spirit.
First, we meet Jesus through the witness of those who have known him risen from the dead. This is symbolized in our worship by the Liturgy of the Word, which we are in the midst of at this moment. When we come together for the Eucharist, we read from our collection of family stories, the way an extended family gathered for Thanksgiving or Christmas might look at old photo albums or slides or Super 8 movies or read some the love letters that Grandpa wrote to Grandma during World War II or from Vietnam. These family stories—which we call epistles and gospels and Old Testament readings—these family stories remind us who we are and that what we have in common is our mutual connection to Jesus.
Meeting Jesus through the witness of those who knew him risen from the dead is then sacramentalized as we proceed with the celebration of the Eucharist. And in celebrating the Eucharist, Jesus shows us the Father, which is what he is always prone to do; the Son’s default disposition is to show us the Father. It is to the Father that we offer our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving—ourselves, our souls and bodies, as both St Paul and the Book of Common Prayer put it—we offer our sacrifice to the Father always in union with the self-offering of the Son. And then, knowing the Father and the Son in eucharistic community, we find ourselves enveloped in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, and impelled by that fellowship into mission.
So, liturgically, it is in the Dismissal that we know the Triune God, because that is the nexus, the link, between our Holy Communion within these walls, communion with the risen Christ who is sent by the Father, and our communion with one another and with God beyond these walls, our communion in mission. It is the liturgy of the Eucharist that empowers what we do in the world, and it is our communion in the world, our communion in ministry and mission, that makes sense only in the light what we do in the Eucharist, and, at the same time, validates what we do in the Eucharist.
That’s a lot of pretty dense theology, I realize, so let’s unpack it a little bit:
Our worship of Almighty God is an end an itself and is complete in itself. It is not a means to some other end, some supposedly greater end, like “changing the world.” Yet, our offering of worship is incoherent, anemic, if the community that re-members the Body of Christ around the altar does not also re-member the Body of Christ in making disciples, in baptizing, and in demonstrating justice and love, as it were, “in the neighborhood.”
Our witness in word and deed in the world is intrinsically good. I mean, what’s not to like about justice, love, and proclaiming good news to the poor, recovery of sight to the blind, and release to the captive. But it is rootless and underpowered if it does not flow from the eucharistic presence of the Son making the Father known in the power of the Spirit.
If we are absent from the Table on the Lord’s Day, or AWOL from the world during the week, we miss out on this, and the Trinity makes no sense at all. It is in the context of mission—disciple-making, baptizing, justice-promoting, Paschal mystery-animated mission, it is in the context of the Church moving out of itself and into the neighborhood, that we know the Triune God. Only then will it occur to us that Trinity Sunday is something to celebrate.
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.