a sermon for Trinity Sunday on Genesis 1:1-2:4a and Matthew 28:16-20
preached on June 19, 2011, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
Trinity Sunday is a day like none other in the church calendar. Most of our church holidays are built around important events described in the Bible – the birth of Jesus, the death of Jesus, the resurrection of Jesus, the coming of the Holy Spirit, to name a few – but Trinity Sunday is based on a doctrine, not an event. To make matters worse, the Bible says nothing explicit about this doctrine – we’ve simply constructed it over the centuries based on what the Bible tells us about God, but other than a few places like our reading from the gospel according to Matthew this morning, even the traditional naming and phrasing of the Trinity isn’t laid out for us in the Old or New Testaments. So Trinity Sunday is a pretty unusual day, one nearly universally disliked by ministers who are forced to figure out how to preach on this doctrine and most likely equally disliked by church members everywhere who must suffer through what often becomes a theology lecture instead of a sermon!
Nonetheless, we celebrate Trinity Sunday today, so what is there to celebrate?Are we supposed to celebrate the Greek philosophical world that created the strange dynamics that must always be kept in mind when talking about the Trinity, three in one and one in three, somehow united and yet somehow divided? Are we supposed to rejoice that God must be accurately described as having “persons” or “modes of being,” as my seminary professors insisted, not pieces of a pie or parts of a machine as I indicated on my theology exam on this subject? Are we to be happy that we worship a God whose very being is so complicated that more often than not we throw up our hands and give up trying when we must discuss the Trinity? Well, maybe those things aren’t the core of this celebration, but there is good reason to think about the Trinity today.
First of all, celebrating Trinity Sunday reminds us of how God’s incredible work in our midst takes so many different forms. We often reduce God’s work to the three core works of the Trinity – the creating work of the first person of the Trinity, often referred to as God the Father, the redeeming work of the Son, Jesus Christ, and the sustaining work of the Holy Spirit. Our first reading this morning lifts up that creating work in all its fullness and reminds us of how God makes all things and calls our world into being even now.
However, even with this incredible witness before us, God is working in ways beyond these simple descriptions we often use to describe the Trinity. We see God healing us from the illnesses that afflict us. We see God as we engage with one another in the human experience in this world each and every day. We see God calling us to greater faithfulness to God’s Word and God’s work in our world. And we see God transforming our world into something more than what we can achieve on our own, something that is far greater than we can even imagine. So the traditional images used in the Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – are then simply an opening to our understanding about God, a starting place for us to think about how God can be and already is at work in our world.
While this is a good place to start, God is moving and acting and working in countless other ways today, too. Trinity Sunday, then, is not just a time to think about the different ways that God is at work – it is also a good time for us to think about how we need to be a part of what God is doing to make all things new even now. This ancient doctrine, rooted in the needs of a particular philosophy, place, and time, can still speak to us in our world today.
In our world where individualism seems to reign and “me first” is the predominant attitude for so many, the doctrine of the Trinity invites us to think about the importance of action in community. In the Trinity, we see that our God is a God of and in community. In the Trinity, we see that any and all of God’s work is not done by just one person of the Trinity but by all three. In the Trinity, we are shown that each person of the Trinity is unique and different and yet united to the broader whole. In the Trinity, we are reminded that even within God’s own self, our world is best not when we are on our own but when we are at work together.
The Greek theologian John of Damascus first invited us to think about the Trinity as three people in a circle, sharing a dance. His concept is known as perichoresis, from the Greek meaning “dancing around,” because the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are like three dancers in a circle, holding hands and sharing the joy of the dance of life. The three persons are distinct yet one, for while they each have their own part, the dance is incomplete if we look at just one of the dancers. In this dancing Trinity, then, there is no hierarchy, no abuse of power, no ruler making decisions apart from the wisdom of the whole, but instead, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit share everything with one another in a community of equals as the dance goes on.
And so it is with God’s work with us. We see from the Trinity that God does not lord power and wisdom over us but instead invites us to participate in the joy of living in the new creation. In God’s own internal life, God shows us a new way of relating to one another that wipes away everything that would place one over another. In the Trinity, God invites us to set aside our tendency to be lone rangers and instead join in the wonder and joy of life in community in the church and beyond as we join in God’s transformation of the world. God’s work with us should then show us how to be with others, too, setting aside our preferences to be the one in charge, recognizing the important part that we play while letting others join in too, and celebrating the incredible gift of life in community as we share in the dance of life.
So I think Trinity Sunday is a day worth celebrating, even if it means we have to sort through a confusing and often misunderstood doctrine and suffer through a sermon built less on scripture and more on the theology of the church, for this strange doctrine shows us the possibilities of life in the way that God intends – and in the way that God lives in God’s own life together. In this wonderful and powerful and holy name of the Trinity, God calls us to live in new ways, to be faithful together as we join in the transformation of the world, and to set aside the things that distract us from this greater whole so that we too might be a part of the amazing and wonderful dance that shows us how to live.
So may our triune God give us the wisdom and strength to live in in the fullness and joy of community, not only on this Trinity Sunday but until that day when the new creation becomes real in all its fullness when we will see with our own eyes the holy dance of the triune God forever and ever. Amen.