Trinity Sunday, Year B.
There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”John 3:1-17
Right now, there are probably two questions in your mind knowing that today is Trinity Sunday. One is certainly “Oh God, is he going to spend an hour talking about Aristotelian physics, Latin, Greek, and old white men bickering about minute details?” The second is most likely, “Why should I even care about the Trinity? All that doctrine does is divide and confuse people.”
As to the first question, I’m glad to see that you have an active prayer life, asking God for deliverance from a technical sermon; and no, I’m not going to go into every detail about the doctrine’s origins, nuances and arguments. I promise to keep this short, so I’m only going to go for 45 minutes.
“Why should I care?” That is the more important and more interesting problem to consider. As you are all probably aware, the doctrine of the Trinity seems to fly in the face of common logic, and even worse has been used to divide, marginalize, and persecute. Especially today when there are plenty of other things that divide us, we are not so much interested in things that will tear us apart, but rather things that will bring us together. Why should we care about the Trinity? Isn’t there enough bickering, arguing, and hatred in the world? Why celebrate a difficult and obscure doctrine that seems to bear little effect on people’s personal experience of God?
Let’s start with the easy part, why today? If you recall, last week was Pentecost Sunday, where we celebrated the coming of the Holy Spirit to the disciples in Jerusalem, commissioning them to proclaim the Gospel to the whole world. We celebrate the Trinity today because in the Church Year, now we have finally “met” all the members of the Trinity. God the Father is present throughout the cycle, Advent, Epiphany, Lent, and Easter are focused on Jesus, and Pentecost is where we “meet” the Holy Spirit. Now that we have encountered everyone, today we celebrate God as Trinity.
Now the next easy part, the doctrine itself. Now I know what you’re thinking, “wait, isn’t the doctrine really complicated?” No, in and of itself the doctrine of the Trinity only makes two claims: 1. There is only one God. 2. God is three persons that we call The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
The first claim we all know quite well, it’s the basic monotheism that we inherited from Judaism, and what we still share with all of the Abrahamic faiths. The second claim Christians derived from the New Testament. Even though “Trinity” as a word is nowhere to be seen in the New Testament, Jesus speaks of himself as God, refers to God as His Father in heaven, and the Spirit of God. So, if you remember that the doctrine of the Trinity is One God and Three Persons, congratulations, you know the true faith. The doctrine itself isn’t actually that hard, but when you start wondering how it all fits together, that’s when most people get into trouble, since the idea of three persons but one nature seems to contradict itself.
If there is only one God, and you claim three people are God, don’t you really worship three gods? or is it that God expresses Himself in three ways? How can something so confusing and seemingly self-contradictory be a central tenet of our faith?
It’s for evangelism. The Trinity is a central tenet of our faith because it is how we understand God, and how we are called to represent God to the whole world. Lately doctrines like the Trinity, Incarnation, and the creeds are less popular in the Church because they seem to divide, to push people away, to say who’s in, who’s out, who’s right and who’s wrong. Central tenets such as these are seen hardly as an evangelistic tool. Truth be told, as much as I would love to spend an hour going over the intricate history and logic of the Trinity, I can guarantee I wouldn’t win any hearts. Thankfully, that’s not the point, and not at all what you should be concerned about when seeking to understand the Trinity, or any complex theology for that matter. While we can get lost in fine details and complex arguments, the reason these doctrines and complicated theologies matter is because they help us make sense of our experience of God and provide us a foundation from which to share that experience with others.
The doctrine of the Trinity was developed with evangelism in mind. As Christianity spread into the Hellenistic world and encountered Greek philosophy and the predecessors to the scientific method, the apostles and all evangelists realized something very quickly; if the message is to get out at all, it has to make sense in both an experiential/emotional level, and an intellectual level. The Trinity was developed by combining the experience we have of God; God as the Father (particularly in the Old Testament), Jesus’ saving act, and the new commissioning from the Holy Spirit, with logical truths.
The logical truths that they had in mind mainly had to do with Jesus’ saving act. God has shown Himself to be deeply personal, talking with people, being interested in humanity, constantly seeking to save humanity. The ultimate display of God’s love and personal interest is becoming human in Jesus, living among us and dying for us. There were also questions about God’s attributes that needed to be answered. For God to be God, or at least a God worthy of worship, God has to be perfectly Good and perfectly Just. But Jesus’ dying and resurrecting created a legal problem in the minds of the potential converts. While it may be good that Jesus would be willing to die for the sake of humanity’s sin, how is it just? After all, if you rob a bank and your lawyer volunteers himself to go to jail on your behalf, it may be good of him to do, but would that really be justice? Sin, being a human creation, had to be delt with by a human, otherwise it would not be just. But what typical human could have the power or authority to defeat Sin? One who was both fully God and fully Human, one who had the complete human experience, yet was not corrupted by Sin: Jesus. This is a simplified version of the argument, but it goes something like this: Jesus must be fully human for salvation to be Just, and Jesus must be fully God in order to be effective in saving humanity. If Jesus isn’t fully God and fully Human, then we are not sure we are saved, an unacceptable position especially from an evangelistic standpoint.
But now we have a new problem: If Jesus is both fully God and fully Human, and we have experience of God as the Father and prime actor in the Old Testament, and God as the Holy Spirit who came to the disciples and the crowd on Pentecost, how are all these people God and we claim to worship only one god? The only way for there to be distinct persons, but one God, is for all the persons to be God, but at the same time not conflated together or lacking any essential attribute of God. This is how we got the doctrine of the Trinity, or at least one of the ways. It was a long process of discernment, developed out of experience of God and several logical approaches.
If you are still a little lost about this whole business that’s ok. Believe it or not I have tried to spare you all from as much technical jargon as possible. If you are interested to know the finer details of the doctrine I would be happy to point you to my own resources that I have made about this, and to resources made from people far smarter than me who can explain all the details of why the Trinity shows Christianity to not be self-contradictory. The heart of the matter, and why you should care about it at all, is the foundation that the doctrine of the Trinity gives us: that we know that Jesus has saved us.
People don’t like the Trinity because most folks either think they understand it completely, are totally right and everyone who thinks differently are wrong, or they don’t understand it, don’t even try and either give up on the whole idea of God or give the non-answer, “well you just have to take it on faith”. Neither of these positions are acceptable, they don’t represent the faith well and they divide people, which is not God’s intent. The Trinity teaches us that we still have much to learn about God, that God’s wonder is still beyond our total comprehension. But there is nothing wrong with that. One of the most common anxieties of Sunday school teachers is “what if I don’t know the answer to something? Or worse, what if I teach the wrong answer”. What God teaches us in the Trinity is that it’s ok to say “I don’t know”. You don’t have to know everything to be a good teacher or a good evangelist. The Trinity calls us to wrestle with complex questions such as “what is a person?” “what is a nature?” “How is it possible that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection saved us?” We may not have fully answered these questions, but we do have a foundation to work from. What the Trinity does for us is teach us what must be true about God for any of this to make sense at all. If we believe we are saved at all, it must be because Jesus is a member of the Trinity. It gives us a foundation to work from as we grow in our relationship with God. With prayer, revelation, and questions, we deepen our relationship with God and our neighbor. And even if we don’t understand everything, we can be confident in what matters most: That God so loved the world that He gave His only Son to save us.
I mentioned before that Trinity Sunday follows Pentecost because now we have finally met all the members of the Trinity. There is another reason. We call this time after Pentecost “Ordinary Time”, which is an easily misunderstood name. Being “ordinary”, it sounds like it’s the least important time of the church year. That couldn’t be more wrong. You see, the whole cycle of the church year builds to this “ordinary” season. Advent, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, all these are meant to teach and prepare us to go out into the world and share the Gospel. Trinity Sunday is the commissioning, now that you all understand the faith: That God so loved the world that He became incarnate to save it, and once saved, gave humanity His Spirit so we may share the good news. Now you are ready to go forth and proclaim the Gospel. This is the time to show God’s love is real, and through you, show that the world has been saved.