(reprise of an earlier sermon)
Today we celebrate Trinity Sunday – heh, if you’re on the team changing paraments, you know this as our one last white Sunday before a long season of green. Today we celebrate the mystery of God, who is three-in-one and one-in-three: the Holy Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But before we dive in, I have a quick pop quiz! Heh, it’s only one question long – but I rarely get the right answer. Can anyone tell me: How many times does the word “trinity” actually appear in the bible?
It’s a trick question! The answer is actually zero. Despite how central the doctrine of the Trinity is to our faith, the word “trinity” never actually appears in the scriptures – not even once – which is kind of weird considering how much we use the language of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to talk about God. I mean, we even have whole congregations (and at least one seminary!) named for the Trinity!
So what gives? We already have an entire book full of words about God – why was it so important for the church to add this one other word?
The whole idea of trinity is basically the church’s best attempt to describe the indescribable nature of God. In the early church, there was a lot of intense disagreement among believers about how to make sense of the relationship between God the Father and Jesus Christ and the Advocate, the Spirit that Jesus sent. These discussions eventually produced a few key statements of faith that we have now come to know as our creeds – especially the Nicene Creed and the Apostles Creed that we read every Sunday. And if you look even at just how the Creed is printed in our bulletin, you’ll notice that it’s really just three statements of belief that reflect the Trinity: “I believe in God the Father Almighty…” “I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord…” and “I believe in the Holy Spirit…”
And of course, the early church didn’t just come up with these ideas out of nowhere. Even though the bible never explicitly describes God as Trinity, we encounter God again and again in the pages of scripture in these three ways: as Creator, as Christ, and also as Spirit. And this is what we see reflected in each one of our readings for this morning.
Our psalm for today, Psalm 8, is this lovely echo of the stories of creation in the first chapters of Genesis. Here we see the image of God as mighty creator – a sovereign whose name is majestic in all the earth. God the creator is glorious and powerful. Yet the Creator is not some distant, far-removed deity; instead, we have this beautiful, intimate imagery of the moon and the stars being the work of God’s fingers, of God’s hands shaping the world and everything in it – of a creation that has the Creator’s fingerprints all over it.
Our first reading comes from Proverbs, and even in the Old Testament, it begins to give us some sense of the Holy Spirit. When God’s hands were at work in the beginning, shaping mountains and hills, smoothing out fields, laying the foundations of the earth, the Creator was not alone. The Spirit of wisdom was there, advising, helping with the work, and rejoicing together in everything that was being created.
And in our readings from Romans and from the Gospel of John we encounter God the Redeemer, God as Christ. We meet Jesus as God made flesh, who came in love to teach us how to live and who, out of love, gave up his own life for us. Jesus justifies us by grace and leaves us with peace and gives us the hope of eternal life in his name.
These readings about Jesus sound a lot more like the language we’re used to when we think about the Trinity. And that makes total sense – because Jesus is the one who makes the Trinity most clear to us. Jesus is the one person of the Trinity that humankind has actually physically seen. And he is continually witnessing to the actions of the other two persons of the Trinity. Just in our readings for today, Jesus talks about the Spirit pouring love into the hearts of God’s people and guiding us toward truth – much like the Spirit of wisdom described in our first reading. And in our gospel reading from last week as well, Jesus speaks about God as Father – the loving Parent who gave us life – who continues to do works of creation and recreation through the hands of Christ.
This is how the persons of the Trinity are with each other; they work together and make space for each other and witness to each other, they build each other up. And they are deeply connected together by love. The fundamental nature of God is relationship. God is not some distant, solitary cosmic entity floating around in space alone. God is a divine community of love. One of the first things we know about God is that God is love – and for me, the Trinity is what makes that true. Love is not some distant, solitary thing that happens in isolation. Love exists where two or three (or more!) are gathered. And our God is three in one – and one in three – a divine congregation that the church has come to know as the Trinity.
Now, I realize that this can all sound like a lot of heady, abstract theological thinking that doesn’t really have anything to do with our actual lived faith. I mean, it’s hard to imagine the early church caring so much about the doctrine of the Trinity that different factions got all up in arms about it – sometimes literally! But our understanding of God as Trinity actually does matter – not only for how we understand God, but for how we understand ourselves.
We know that we are made in the image of God. And I’d guess that most of us think about that in an individual sense – we are each created with this capacity for loving, for creating, for extending forgiveness and grace – and this is true. But I think it’s even truer to the nature of the Trinity to realize that we, all together, all humanity, are created in the image of God – we are created in the image of a community of love.
That means that we were made for relationship. We are not meant to be solitary individuals, only looking out for ourselves or for the people who look and think like us, allowing our differences to divide us. We are an extension of the love of the Trinity – love that spirals out to enfold the entire cosmos. We were created to be together – with each other and with all our neighbors – in love. None of us can do this alone. We all need each other to be whole.
I was beautifully reminded of this last weekend at our synod assembly. We heard about the many ways that the work we do together as the Nebraska Synod touches people’s lives with love – especially through our serving arms like camp and campus ministry, Lutheran Family Services, Followers of Christ Prison Ministry, and many more. But my favorite moment of assembly was on the last day: before the final ballot for bishop, all the clergy in our little Fremont Area Cluster gathered around our colleague and friend, Pastor Scott Johnson – who was one of the final two candidates for bishop; we laid hands on him and on his wife Kristin, and as we prayed, I could feel the love among us almost as a physical presence. I heard a number of people comment that this was one of the best synod assemblies they’ve been to – specifically because of the sense of genuine love they felt among all those who were gathered.
In the same way, we as the ELCA live out the love of the Trinity on an even broader scale by the work that we do: quickly responding to disasters across the country and overseas, combating food insecurity through one of the largest hunger organizations in the world, and partnering with communities around the globe to fight disease and lift people out of poverty. We also strive – however imperfectly as we are able – to be a church that includes, rather than a church that excludes. This means that we strive to live as one body with people from many different walks of life, despite the things that would divide us – and it means we seek to work through the conflicts that arise with prayerful love instead of just walking away.
Here at St. John’s, some of the most powerful work we do is living out the love of the Trinity on a local scale: partnering with the schools by simply asking, “What do you need? How can we help?”; showing up at the food pantries to pack boxes and load groceries, praying in various ways for one another and for our community; even just the enthusiastic way I see this congregation welcome newcomers who walk through our door, eager to make them feel like they belong. All of this is the love of the Trinity, flowing through us.
At the end of the day, the Holy Trinity is a mystery that we may never fully understand. But we don’t need to fully understand to experience the love of the Trinity, or to reflect that love into the world. We just need to know that we have been formed and called to walk together in relationship, striving to be the divine community of love in whose image we were made.