One trouble with sermons is they don’t provide a very effective means of teaching; rather, they are much better at inspiring or generating questions and self-examination. The subject of the Trinity is one that really needs some instruction, so I will give this space over to some teaching to help the reader understand the proper place of the Trinity in Christianity. For a start, it might help to read one of my old sermons in “Trinity” under “Words of the Word” elsewhere on this website.
Almost from the beginning, a theological split developed in the new church, with the eastern faction, headquartered in Antioch (in present day Syria), set against the western faction. The issue was the nature of Jesus. Simply put, but recognising it was a bit more complicated than this, was that the easterners wanted to emphasise the humanness of Jesus, whereas the westerners viewed Jesus as fully divine.
The dispute reached a peak when a church leader, named Arius, declared that Jesus was not God at all, merely a celestial servant of the one true God. His bishop, Alexandria, disagreed. The specifics of their disagreement seem rather theologically primitive today, but the essence of the problem was how to worship Jesus and the Father, obviously different from one another, and yet still declare Christianity to be a monotheistic religion. Many people today still struggle with this problem, including Unitarians, Muslims, Jews AND many Christians.
There were bitter exchanges over several years, not only between the patriarchs of the two sides, but extending to the common church members. Finally, Emperor Constantine, sick of the bickering, brought the two sides together at the Council of Nicea in 325AD, and told them to sort out their difficulties or else.
The result was the Nicene Creed, and its main purpose was to express a belief that Jesus and the Holy Spirit were just as much God as the Father/Creator is. Arius’ point of view was eventually declared to be a heresy, and so we are left today with the idea of God as a trinity.
Dorothy Sayers wrote a generation ago that, to the average church-goer, the mystery of the Trinity means: “The Father is incomprehensible, the son is incomprehensible, and the whole thing is incomprehensible. It’s something put in by theologians to make it more difficult; nothing to do with daily life or ethics.”
A few years ago a distinguished preacher said that, if a preacher has any sense at all, he will call in sick on Trinity Sunday. British writer A.N.Wilson, after first telling us that he had been converted to Christianity, then told us that he had given it up for, among other reasons, the rather ridiculous idea of the Trinity.
I used to be among those who had little time for the Trinity, until I learned what it is. I now think it is one of the most important concepts in the church; however, this, in turn, has led to frustration, because in the church today, Trinity Sunday has become an empty shell; the life which shaped it having long since departed. It seems that the Doctrine of the Trinity has become a mere mathematical formula: 1+1+1=1, and clearly, as a formula, not only does it fail to inspire, it fails to make sense.
The doctrine was created, not to define God, but to describe, define and safe-guard an experience. Alas, in the process of time, the ‘experience’ seems to have been drained right out, and all we have left is the formula, as if this was what being a Christian is.
The Nicene Creed should not be view so much as a dogmatic formula that one must believe word for word, but rather something designed for use in liturgy as a celebration of the Christian experience of God. The choice of words it was very much a political exercise, chosen to include as much of both sides of the argument as possible As a result, there is a fair bit of ‘wiggle room’ in its interpretation. The creed is descriptive (of an experience), but it is not prescriptive, i.e. it is not something one has to ‘believe’ in order to be considered a Christian.
What is the experience that the doctrine of the Trinity tries to describe? In a word, relationship. G-O-D is experienced as, and in, relationship. The concept should not be so hard to fathom, for after all, do we not understand God as love? And love cannot be found outside of relationship. It is relationship.
To be clear, the Trinity is not defining God as three-persons (nouns) in relationship; God is the relationship. Even this is not quite what I want to say because we still end up with a noun (relationship). God is the relating (verb), the dancing/weaving together of all that is. At this point language fails me. Let’s just accept that the mystery we call G-O-D cannot be contained in any language, but can be known in the experience of relating to others, not only other people, but all of creation.
Relationship is the essence of who we are, too. In other words, we are brought into being by God/relationship. None of us formed in a vacuum; rather, we are the product of the myriad of relationships of which we have been a part. Without these relationships, we would not exist. Our physical structure serves to contain them, but without them it would not survive. Without relationship we would have no identity, even if some way was found to keep the body alive. You and I are each a mini-web of relationships, past and present, that define us, and furthermore, we exist within a web of relationships that make up the cosmos. Without relationship nothing would exist, for God is relationship.
So in summary, Trinity Sunday is simple; it’s about you and me and it’s about God and it’s about relationship. The Trinity is not a mathematical proposition. It’s not even a theological one. It is an affirmation that relationship makes life possible and the quality of relationship described as G-O-D makes life the very best it can be, and that is why we celebrate it.