When I found out that I was preaching my final sermon for my congregation in Conroe, Texas on Trinity Sunday, I was glad, at first to have the occasion to speak about something other than the Trinity. (I am leaving to take a new position at Valparaiso University starting July 1.) I find this Sunday one of the most difficult on which to preach, and this is not to say that I usually shy away from difficult topics. Those of you who know me well know that I usually like to delve into the mysteries of God, to uncover truth where it can be found, to proclaim those truths even while I am still unraveling them. What is different about Trinity Sunday is that the mystery is so deep and the Christian community has been at work so long and we still seem hard pressed to talk about this. Yet we remain persistent, steadfast in our confession: Our God is one God in three persons, a blessed Trinity.
So I was, as I said, happy to have somewhere else to focus. Until I realized that there is no better place to end a ministry than where I began it in Baptism. As with most new Christians I was born into this community and ministry in the Trinitarian name, which has been the center of my life, one way or another ever since. It would be good to spend some time with my dear congregation in my last service getting back to the heart of things, the center of what makes us Christians. It will be good to remind everyone, myself included, what the "main thing" is that we do together, and to encourage my folks to keep the "Gospel" the main thing. If that means plunging into the mystery one more time, so be it.
Of course, the understanding of a Holy Trinity has been a stumbling block to those curious about the Christian faith for centuries. How can this be true? How can there be one God with three persons? And we, for our part, do not help. At times we seem to lift one person above the others. Some gravitate to the "Father" image, and so concentrate their attention there, invoking thoughts of a kindly old man, smiling upon us from the clouds. Others, to quote the old Gospel hymn, implore us, "Give me Jesus." Still others are impressed with the power of the Holy Spirit from Acts 2, and so encourage us to focus of our attention there. At these times we limit God to one person, or at the very least give the impression that God works in shifts. Still other times, we act as if the Trinity is not one God but three, acting in concert, but still three Gods. At all times, when the church has fallen to these temptations, accusations fly, councils are called, and great men and women both in history and today, come together to sort all of this out.
But if it has indeed been sorted out no one has sent me the memo. We keep asking questions because the answers do not satisfy our desire to know more deeply the truth of these difficult things. We want to know God intimately, and out of that deep longing, we find that God, as a Trinity, is elusive and hidden from full view. We get only small glimpses and are not satisfied. The Trinity remains a puzzle unsolved.
The "IS"ness of God
One of the difficulties in regard to this particular puzzle is that we are dealing with the who, the what, and the how God "is". We are talking about the very "being" of God, which the philosophers call "ontology" and other fancy terms. But for Christians the very context of this conversation, born out of our Jewish heritage, is full of danger. Our Jewish ancestors steadfastly resisted using language that described how God "is". They resisted making images of God. When they were describing God they used a variety of metaphors, in a sense declaring that they could talk about God being "like" something that they knew, but not that this description would come close to a full description of what God "is".
Perhaps this is because they knew something that either we do not know, or else we forget from time to time. We are human, and our ability to imagine ourselves, our world and God is limited to what we know. When I was a student, we had an assignment: "Prove or disprove the existence of God" in ten pages. One clever answer used less than a page, and got top marks for the effort. The student wrote to the effect that the assignment was not possible using the rules of logical proof. For in using the available conventional starting point, we would only be able to use the things that can be observed and verified by human senses within the known created world. All one could do, the argument supposed, in that instance is prove that something in the created world was God. In other words, you could prove that something was God that could not possibly be God. The second part of the argument suggested that in order for such a "proof" to be valid, a student would have to be objective, from the start, about that answer. A student would need not to care if there was or was not a "God". Since everyone has a stake in the answer, one way or another, it was reasoned that such a proof was impossible to attempt.
The point of the exercise was to get the students to think about who or what God is. The reality of the exercise, at least for the student in question, is that we cannot approach the answer through logical thought, through reason alone. Now this is not to say that reason and logic do not have their place in the realm of faith. It is just to say that they alone cannot do the job. The "IS"ness of God is just too different from our experience to be able to fathom. So the language of the Trinity in the Christian witness may serve mostly to humble us. It serves to remind us that God is indeed beyond our complete comprehension. All the language that we have about God must be metaphor. Most of the language in the bible is just that, with one notable exception: "God is love."
God's love unfolding
What we have in the Trinity, after all, is not a description of God's "IS"ness, so much as shorthand for the unfolding story of God's love. God knows that we cannot comprehend or even live to see the fulness of being that is God. Instead God acts within our history and within our experience. God's story goes beyond metaphor to a God who acts with us and for us in Jesus. It is a story of Jesus love and obedience to the one he called "Abba" using the Aramaic word for "Father" not to reinforce a male stereotype, but instead to use the intimate language of a loving child for his daddy. Jesus promises, as in our lesson for today, that he and his Abba will send forth the Spirit of truth, to guide us and teach us along the way. It is this story of Jesus, his Abba, and their Spirit that form the foundation of the Trinity that we worship today. Understood outside of the context of this loving God breaking into our existence we would have no Trinity at all. To paraphrase, God is as God does.
Outside of this, talk of a Trinity is nonsense. But in the context of God's loving action in the world, the Trinity describes a God with characteristics that go far beyond our knowledge and sight: a God who gives his life for his creation; a God who uses love, not force, to change that creation from within; a God whose Spirit moved through that creation from before the dawn of time, and moves through that creation now; a God that is not observing us from a distance, but is present and active in all of life; a God that does not exist only in the powerful and the beautiful things of this world, but also in the weak, the outcast, the ugly and the failed things. The Trinity is the story of an unexpected God, in relationship with us in unexpected places and unexpected ways.
Into the story... (or, keeping the "main thing" the main thing)
By invoking the story of the Trinity in our baptisms, we have in some sense then set our destiny with God's destiny, as understood in this story. Our biblical translations do us no favors when they record Jesus commanding the disciples to baptize "IN the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." A better rendering of the Greek might be "INTO the name..." We are initiated into the story that gives our lives meaning and purpose beyond ourselves. We are initiated into the story where we become instruments of God grace and love in the world. We are initiated into the story in which God is seen as present and active for us, a lost and broken humanity and we pledge to be present and active in the world in the same way.
This is finally what we celebrate on Trinity Sunday: not a centuries old doctrine, as important in the history of the Church as that doctrine is. Instead we celebrate the story of God's love in Jesus, which restores our broken humanity and our broken creation. We celebrate and we anticipate the continued presence of God's love in relationship, active in the world through the one whom we also can now call our "Abba". We experience faith, hope and new life through the renewing guidance of the Holy Spirit. God's story is now our story, the world's story. We celebrate that story, even as we struggle still to understand all of the wonderful things that it means. And in the celebration, we live out the Gospel itself, the dance and song of the Trinity itself. This celebration helps us to keep our focus on the "main thing" for the life of the church.