Not all churches who follow the lectionary observe Trinity Sunday. And I have to admit I have avoided this too. Today, however, I have decided to focus my sermon on it.
The word Trinity does not appear in the New Testament and there is no attempt by any biblical writer to try to define or describe the Trinitarian language that they utilize as in the passages we read today. Which makes sense, because how can you explain what is unexplainable. This is why so many churches avoid Trinity Sunday. Let me offer a caveat as we begin. God – the Divine, Ultimate Reality – is beyond language and beyond our limited, finite capacity to understand. So whenever we attempt to define God, we automatically limit God.
Trinitarian language is a way of talking about the God – the Divine Reality – that we have experienced through Jesus and the Spirit. When we start to literalize these images, as many Christians tend to do unfortunately, is when we start edging up to idolatry. Here’s the problem: When we literalize an image of God, any image, we then limit and confine God to that image. But God is so much more.
Why do you think Christians whose governing image of God is Father get so upset with other Christians who call God Mother? Why is that? Because they have allowed their image of God as Father to become literalized in their thinking. And so they actually start believing God is male. So if God is Father, then God cannot be Mother. Such thinking is actually idolatrous, because it confines God to an image.
When Israel concocted the golden calf as an image of their God and bowed before the image, the problem was not the image itself. What made that so idolatrous is that they turned their dynamic, ever-growing relationship with the God of all reality into a single, limited, finite image. They said, “Now, this is what our God is.” And whenever we limit God to a single image and say, “Now, this is what God is” we are guilty of doing the same thing. There are Christians who do that today with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Now listen sisters and brothers, this is important: All God language is symbolic language. Trinitarian language not excluded. Trinitarian language is the language of experience, it’s the language of encounter. For these early Christians this is the language they used to talk about their experience of a God who acts on our behalf to redeem, heal, and liberate us from our bondages. It’s not a precise language by any means; it’ not the language of science; it’s the language of spiritual experience. In other words, we employ this language to talk about the manner in which we Christians experience God. People of other religious traditions will use different language. But this is our language. This is our experience.
The image of God as “Father” is a frequently used image to speak of God, which is all quite natural, considering that Jesus often used this image. What we need to remember though, is that it is just an image.
Why this image? Clearly the fact that the world of Jesus was a gender segregated, patriarchal world has, no doubt, much to do with it. However, the Aramaic word Jesus used speaks of a loving, personal, caring Parent. It might have even been used to speak of a loving father or mother the way “mankind” was used to speak of humankind in general.
Is God literally a human father? Of course not. And while Jesus used this image frequently, he did not do so exclusively. Jesus also pictured God as a mother hen gathering her chicks. In his parables Jesus would sometimes balance male and female images. God is the shepherd who searches for the lost sheep; but God is also the woman who searches for the lost coin. The kingdom of God is like a man who plants a tiny mustard seed in his field; the kingdom of God is also like a woman who mixes up the leaven in the bread. These are all just images. Theologians Jurgen Moltmann and Leonardo Boff speak of the motherly Father and the fatherly Mother. Always remember sisters and brothers, all God language is symbolical language.
This motherly father or fatherly mother who is the source and creator of all that is, we have experienced through the man Jesus, through his life, teachings, works of mercy and justice, and through his death and resurrection. In the Trinitarian language of Paul’s benediction he is called “Lord Jesus Christ” bringing together the man Jesus with the risen Christ. It’s reflective of the language of Luke in Acts 2 where Peter says to the Jewish leaders and people gathered at Pentecost: “Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders and signs that God did through him among you . . . this man . . . God raised . . . and made him both Lord and Christ/Messiah.” The first Christians simply connected the pre-resurrection man with the post-resurrection titles – the Lord Jesus Christ. Again, it’s the language of experience. We have encountered God – the Ultimate Reality – in the man Jesus of Nazareth whom God raised up and appointed Lord and Christ.
Next Paul speaks of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is given other names in the NT. John’s Gospel while using the adjective “Holy” to describe the Spirit, also calls the Spirit the Spirit of truth or simply the Advocate (sometimes translated as Comforter or Counselor). In John 4 the writer says, “God is Spirit.” Spirit is another image for God. Paul calls the Spirit both the Spirit of God and the Spirit of Christ and sometimes uses these terms interchangeably in the same passage.
Again, this is the language of experience (I can’t say this is often enough). This is how we encounter God right now. We encounter God as Spirit or in Spirt. We encounter God as the living Christ, as the cosmic Christ, in the Spirit of Christ. The One who is beyond all of us is all also within us as Spirit. So, the great Mystery we call Father or Mother or simply God has made himself or herself known in the man Jesus of Nazareth whom God raised and made Lord and Christ. This God comes to us right now, today, this very moment as Holy Spirit, as Advocate and Comforter, as the living Christ. Now if you try to define or label or categorize or propositionalize what I just said then you are chasing a rabbit that will get you lost and may just lead you right up to the golden calf.
Now, what I think is significant in the Trinitarian language of Paul’s benediction in the text today are the ways the Trinitarian God is referenced, which captures the heart of our experience of God.
Paul wishes upon them and us the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. How do we know God as a God of grace? Well, there are a number of ways, but the most definitive way we Christians know God as a God of grace is through our encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ in the Gospels. The man Jesus we have come to love in our Gospels is a Jesus who speaks and acts in grace on every page, in almost every encounter, in every healing work, and in every work of mercy. Every time Jesus sits down to eat with tax collectors and sinners, Pharisees and prostitutes, Jesus becomes our living model and incarnation of divine grace.
As you are well aware I often begin my formal prayers with: “Our good and gracious God.” How do I know God is good and gracious? Because that has been my experience of God as I have encountered God through the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus is the lens through whom we Christians see God and experience God.
Next, Paul mentions the love of God. That should be no surprise since for Paul the very heart and essence of God is love. Love is at the core of who and what God is. In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians he argues for the superiority of love over all other virtues and realities: “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three [more Trinitarian language, but in this Trinity there is a clear superior]; and the greatest of these is love.” Again, sisters and brothers, this is the language of experience. The church that gave us the little epistle of first John says that wherever love is God is. Why? Because God is love. (If you want to read that argument read 1 John 4.)
I love the story about this rough, tough mountaineer who was known for his quick temper and his readiness to fight. He was very skilled with his hands and could do carpentry and mechanical work very well, but did not finish high school, though he eventually got his GED. Some think he was resentful that his circumstances were such that he was not able to pursue his education. (Of course, some of us have an education, but we can’t do didly, right?)
Well, it seemed like the tiniest spark could set him off. Then one day he accompanied his young nephew to a school function because his nephew’s parents had other obligations. He met his nephew’s teacher and at first sight just fell head-over-heels in love. It took him a long time to get up the nerve to even ask her out. How could such a woman so knowledgeable and sophisticated and articulate love the likes of him? But, you know, love is a mysterious and wondrous thing, and she returned his love. The day they were married at the reception a friend who had noticed that he never seemed to get angry anymore asked what why this was the case. His response was simply, “I don’t know. All I know is that I ain’t got nothin’ against nobody.”
How do you explain it? He encountered a deeper love that changed him. This is what we have encountered through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and as Paul says here, through the communion of the Holy Spirit. The love of God and the grace that the historical Jesus so beautifully incarnated, we experience right now through the Holy Spirit or we might say the living Christ. (The Holy Spirit and the living Christ are not two different realities, just two different ways of talking about the same reality.)
The word communion emphasizes relationship; it points to a deep spiritual and emotional connection. Paul in other places talks about the “fellowship of the Spirit.” Again, it’s the language of experience. We call the Divine Reality that we encounter in the heart and soul of our being Spirit or Holy Spirit. It’s just another way to talk about this great Mystery. We experience the One who is Beyond as Within through the communion of the Holy Spirit.
In my Sunday School class we are working through a book by Brother David Steindl-Rast on the Apostle’s Creed. He expounds on the symbolism of each phrase in the creed. He tells about a childhood game that he played once with a cousin. They had a staring contest. They were young children laying on a blanket on the lawn bored and resentful that they were still required to take an afternoon nap even though they felt so grown-up now. It started as a contest about who could look into the other’s eyes without turning away. Turn away and you lose. But then, says Bro. Steindl-Rast, it became more than a game. Maybe this was the result of seeing their own image mirrored in the other’s pupil. Who knows? But what happened after that cannot be put into words. He says, “We fell into each other’s eyes. Like children in a fairy tale who fall into a magic pool.” They were two and yet one. He says, “When our eyes began to water, we both closed them at the same time.” They tried to laugh it off, and yet he says, “We knew we had somehow glimpsed the real world . . . at that level of intense awareness, all is love.” Though at the time neither had the vocabulary or the understanding to describe it this way, but what they had really encountered was the communion of the Holy Spirit.
Trinitarian language is not the language of facts or history or science; it’s the language of spiritual experience. As we join together as the body of Christ to share the bread and the cup I hope and pray that all of us here might experience something of the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit. Amen.