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"Trinity" by Rev. Jillian Hankamer


Trinity

A sermon for Northminster Church

Preached by Rev. Jillian Hankamer

May 26, 2024

Matthew 28: 16-20 & 2 Corinthians 13: 11-13

 

            Let’s begin this morning by considering the challenges of conceptualizing something nebulous. Of attempting to put words and thought to an element of life that existed before our lifetimes. An easy example of this kind of effort is music theory. Music has existed since prehistoric people discovered hitting something makes a noise and the human voice produces many sounds. But it took until the 1700s and the genius of J.S. Bach for advances in musical tuning to appear in popular music.

 

We have evidence of human writing that’s thousands of years old and yet in the 1500s William Shakespeare invented over 400 words we still use today including bedroom, critical, and fashionable.[1] And though the best BBQ in the word is made in Texas by folks who understand the science behind smoking beef brisket “low and slow”, humans have been cooking meat over a fire for millions of years.

 

Whether it’s gravity, the existence of black holes, or the bond that forms between mothers and their newborns there exist things in our world for which the theory comes later. Happenings for which explanation - or in church language doctrine - are secondary. And this secondary conceptualization, this putting words to something that’s understood but not defined was the challenge of the Early Church in regard to the Trinity.

 

Today is Trinity Sunday as this is the first Sunday after Pentecost. On this day the Western church celebrates the doctrine of the Trinity, or as the hymn-writer said it, “God in three persons, blessed Trinity.” As with all church doctrine, the doctrine of the trinity developed as the church developed, coming into focus after Christianity moved from persecution to the state religion.

 

But what makes this concept so hard to codify is the absolute lack of the word “Trinity” in the biblical text. What is present are passages like this morning’s reading of The Great Commission in which Jesus instructs the soon-to-be apostles to baptize new believers “in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Paul offers a slightly different Trinitarian order in 2 Corinthians by putting Jesus first, but the motivation is the same: God exists in multiple ways to be present with us in all the ways we need Her.

 

The earliest Christ-followers were not overly concerned with doctrine, but rather patterned “their daily lives in prayer and fasting...service to others, and gathering for worship”[2]  But into these rhythms the community continued to baptize new followers using the Trinitarian formula Jesus outlines in Matthew, so over several centuries a formal concept of the Trinity developed.

 

Were this a seminary class we could spend days discussing the history of Trinitarian doctrine. It’s a long and complex development that you can read up on if you enjoy church history. But so you understand the basic context, allow me to give you this summary from 30,000 feet.

 

The doctrine of the Trinity came to a head in the 4th century CE because of a man named Arius of Alexandria. He was a church presbyter - an elder or minister of a local church - who came to understand that the Word of God/the Logos/Jesus, was not coeternal with God. Meaning Jesus came into being after God. This was in direct conflict with the understanding of Alexander, the Bishop of Alexandria and became one of the topics addressed by the First Eccumenical Council.

 

Held in Constantinople in 325 CE during the reign of Constantine, this gathering is also known as the First Council of Nicea and was an assembly of several hundred bishops. Because Arius wasn’t a bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia had to speak for him and his supporters. Eusbiesus’s presentation was so poorly received the bishops became “convinced that they had to reject Arianism in the clearest way possible.”[3] 

 

They did this by creating the earliest version of what we know as the Nicene Creed in which their main goal “was to reject any notion that the Son or Word...was...a being less divine than the Father.”[4] That’s why the creed includes language about “God of God, light of light true God of true God” and declares that Jesus is “begotten, not made.”

 

The bishops hoped the creed would end the Arian controversy, but disagreement continued. It wasn’t until the Council on Constantinople in 381 CE that the matter was settled with that  Council reaffirming Jesus as being of the same substance and status as God and the deciding “the same ought to be said about the Holy Spirit.”[5] Thus this was the moment a definitive Trinitarian doctrine was proclaimed by the church.[6]

 

But despite being church doctrine since the 300s, workable analogies of the Trinity are at a premium. And as the Rt. Rv. Frank Logue says so well, neither “Saint Patrick’s three petals forming a single shamrock”[7] nor “John Wesley’s example of three candles in a room, yet one light by which to read” [8]are quite right.

 

Rev. Logue goes on to say, “We could speak of other analogies for the Trinity, like H20 being steam, water, and ice. But whatever language we use, we know God is not two dudes and a bird. In fact, when we use any single image, like the shamrock, we are describing an early church heresy. Better is to use a number of images, knowing that while our words are helpful, they can’t clearly and precisely express the ineffable.”

 

Being unable to fully express the ineffable, the divine, this peaceful God who surpasses all understanding is why the early church moved from scripture to the formation of the doctrine of the Trinity and back again. It’s as though they painted in the details of God’s portrait and then stepped back. Taking in their work the Early church discovered how much the shape of the eye captured the Eternal’s kindness. How the smile in the corner of Her mouth held the truth of God’s marvelous sense of humor. And how the peace and calm of the picture was both comforting and belied the Creator’s desire and passion for justice to prevail.

As it was for our ancestors in the faith, our willingness to read the biblical text with Trinitarian eyes allows us to see that “God was in communion with God’s own self before creation. God is a relationship among Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and then God creates all that is for relationship.”[9] Therefore the foundational nature of the God we serve and strive to emulate is connectedness. Connectedness to God’s self and connectedness to all of us, Her creation, brought into being “out of love, for love.”[10]

 

This connectedness, this foundational nature of the Eternal means that our God is fundamentally trinitarian. Somehow Creator, Redeemer, and Advocate rolled into one. I can’t explain to you how this relationship works.  No one can! For as John Wesley once said, “Bring me a worm that can comprehend a man, and then I will show you a man that can comprehend the triune God!”

 

God is a mystery. But that unknowableness, that mystery is one of the reasons the Trinity matters and is the first part of this morning’s good news. As Rev. Logue points out,”...the Trinity is not a mystery in the sense of a puzzle we can’t solve; the Trinity is a mystery in that we see the truth of it, but there is more than we can fully comprehend.”

 

In the same way that “new occasions arise which reveal there was more to discover” with beloved spouses, friends, or children, there is always more to discover with God. New ways of being astonished by the depth of Her love and the wideness of Her grace. So though we don’t live with mystery well or patiently, the Trinity asks us to try. Asks us to have faith in something we can’t fully understand. Asks us to live in relationship with God and each other, for in those relationships we find the second part of today’s Good News.  

              

The Trinity is a tapestry, a relationship that “gives us a glimpse into the very heart of God.”[11] These three beings are interwoven in such a way as to form a communion. We have the opportunity to interact with that holy communion and create such interwoven relationships in our own lives through love. And really it’s a cyclical cycle that starts with loving God, allowing that relationship to power our love for people, seeing all those we encounter as the image of God, and so loving God more.

 

“This is the community for which we [are] created.”[12] This interwoven, interconnected tapestry of people and Spirit, Christ, and Creator not only asks us to love each other but be responsible to each other. Oh, how She loves us. Let us go and show that love to our world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


[2] Frank Louge, “The Pandemic and the Holy Trinity, Trinity Sunday (A), June 7, 2020,”  https://episcopalchurch.org/library/sermon/pandemic-and-holy-trinity-trinity-sunday-june-7-2020

[3] Justo L. Gonzales, “The Story of Christianity Volume 1: The Early Church and the Dawn of the Reformation,” pg. 165.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid, 188.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Logue, ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

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