Blessed Trinity
A sermon on John 16:12-15
Joe Cailles, pastor, Trinity United Methodist Church
June 16, 2019, Trinity Sunday
For a variety of reasons Trinity holds a great deal of importance for me. I’ve officially completed my third year here at this Trinity United Methodist and get to start my fourth year. I’m very pleased! Trinity United Methodist Church in New Albany, Indiana, is where I was baptized, and where I confirmed my faith. Trinity is a very common name for churches, by my count there are some 21 Trinity United Methodist Churches just in Virginia alone.
The popularity of the name Trinity for a church is all the more amazing considering the fairly divisive history the concept of Trinity has had for us Christians, particularly in the first 3 or 4 hundred years of the church. Our faith argued and fussed and fought over the “correct” understanding of the Trinity, for so long that it’s really amazing that Christians today can even say the word Trinity without immediately breaking out into a shouting match followed by a church schism. Calling a church Trinity should be like naming ourselves Hindenburg United Methodist church or Titanic Presbyterian or Aunt Edna’s Jalapeño Tunafish surprise church, all they bring about are nightmares, tears and heartbreak.
And yet, if our theological understanding of Trinity has been illusive and fractious, then I trust our experience of the Trinity unites us. Our experience of how the Father, Son and Holy Spirit reach out to us with love and mercy and grace, and how the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer unite as a divine community, will guide us in our lives and through our divisions.
One of the chief reasons we Christians past and present have wrestled so long with wrapping our minds around the three, yet one, one but three, is that scripture itself doesn’t teach us much about Trinity. We read in scripture a great deal about the God the Creator, and Jesus the Redeemer and the Holy Spirit who sustains us, but the three as a divine unity, not so much. The word Trinity itself isn’t in scripture at all What we do have are passages like our Gospel of John reading. Jesus is speaking to his disciples just before his crucifixion and resurrection. The disciples know he has a lot to say and little time left to say it. What Jesus does say is that later, after he has ascended, the Spirit of Truth will come — to guide the disciples and to teach them. Jesus also reminds his disciples that the Father and he are one. So that’s it. Jesus names Father, Son and Spirit, in the passage, and gives a very brief description of how the three act in us and relate to each other, but not much more. None of Paul’s letters are much different. Father, Son and Spirit are all named, but it’s more like saying a bike has a wheel, a seat and handles. We need more information to figure out how they fit together.
So as the early church is figuring out how to think about God, how to think and live theologically, they rely on their experiences, asking themselves how they are encountering this triune God, and how God is relating to them.
Huston Smith, a great scholar on world religions wrote that the first followers of Jesus were of course, Jewish folks who worshiped the one God, who called them out of their slavery and created them as a people to be a light and a blessing to the nations. As those first disciples watch and talk and listen and learn from Jesus, they are more and more convinced that Jesus is God. Here is the man Jesus, whom they see and know, and yet everything the first disciples see and hear about him, everything he does and says, this is somehow, someway God among us. And then later when Jesus has resurrected and ascended, the disciples still feel him, still know him to be in their presence, and it’s more than just a strong memory of Jesus. The first disciples were experiencing somehow, someway that Jesus was still present with them in Spirit if not in body and still teaching them and guiding them, living amongst them in a new way. And so as the experiences of the first disciples are written down in scripture: we get what we have: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, One God it’s all there but it is not at all a neat and tidy theological package.
And that’s why things got very complicated for the church in its first days. Because my experiences of the divine, may not be exactly like your experiences of the divine. And our experiences though somewhat different may be worlds apart from others experiences of the divine.
As the church struggled for centuries to think theologically, to define our understanding of who God is, things got messy. Different churches came to different conclusions, there were church trials and excommunications over the Trinity. Some churches said the Spirit comes from the Father and the Son. Other churches said that the Spirit precedes for the Father only. Some churches said God the Father existed prior to the God the Son, other churches said, nope, Father, Son and Spirit are all eternal.
Now if that sounds to us today as a pretty ridiculous thing to argue about, well, perhaps but at the time, this theology was a matter of life and death and power and who could have the final say about things for the church. In truth while there were legitimate theological differences within the early church, the deeper issues were who had the highest authority and who had the most influence. Who was going to have the most power? All of that gets mixed in with the theological debates.
When spouses argue about who’s turn it is to clean the dishes, who is supposed to get the milk and how much money are you spending on that, we know, those are often the superficial issues covering deeper disagreements.
The church more or less settled itself on the Trinity by the 4th century. The Nicene Creed like the older Apostles Creed affirms our united belief. I believe in God the Father, God the son Jesus, and God the Holy Spirit. So we Christians today don’t really argue, fuss and fight over the Trinity. We have our shorthand answers and metaphors to point in the direction of what we believe: The Trinity is like how a woman can be 1 person who is a pastor, a wife and a mother. The Trinity is like how an egg has a yolk, the yucky white stuff, and the shell. Three but 1 egg. one church legend says that Saint Patrick taught the Irish that God was like a 3-leaf shamrock, 3 and 1. None of those metaphors is a perfect understanding of the Trinity but they get the job done and help us agree on the basics.
We Christians most all agree as well that the Father, Son and Spirit have this divine community based on love. Scripture says God is love. Father, Son and Spirit are love, love for each other and love for us and for the creation. Out of love the Creator created the world. Out of love for us God the redeemer gave us law and prophets and salvation from sin and death. Out of love for us God the Sustainer keeps us alive and focused on our mission to be disciples of Jesus Christ.
When the first disciples followed Jesus and recognized God in him, they were responding to the divine love Jesus had for them and for those he met: the sinners and the scorned women and children and the sick. Jesus loves them and in the years that followed, the disciples felt the Sprit of Jesus help them to love the least, the last, the lost and the left behind. God is Trinity. We know that as best we can with our heads. God is love, that we experience with our hearts and with our souls. God is love, that we feel deep inside us.
So while we Christians today don’t really argue about the Trinity, we do still argue, fuss and fight about any number of things. Including the use of the word “Father” for God. Many Christians wonder if that’s too limiting to assign God gender. For those of us who have had horrible experience with our human fathers, does God the Father convey love and compassion? It does for many but not for all.
Months after our last United Methodist General Conference we’re still thinking through the divisions and disagreements around sexuality and marriage and ordination that have long festered in our denomination Many of us wonder if we can even be united anymore. And of course, we have disagreements about the usual things: money, church priorities, should the church potlucks have two serving lanes down both sides of the table or just one serving line on one side of the table? I hope that even as we disagree, we don’t lose what is best about us United Methodists: We worship together, we pray for the world, we are hungry and eager for ministries which help and heal and teach and care. And at our best we treat one another with love and kindness and respect. At our best we treat one another with love, kindness and respect even as we disagree with each other. And like most all disagreements, underneath these actually really important presenting issues there are deeper problems about power and authority and who gets the final word.
Now each one of us has opinions on everything under the sun. I do. You do. We all do. I am not wise enough to know how to resolve these issues to the satisfaction of every one of us. But this I do know, the first followers of Jesus looked at him and they saw God, they saw love and mercy offered to everyone Jesus met. The first disciples looked at what Jesus did and said, and they saw lives transformed, and enemies reconciled, and sinners forgiven, and it came about through love. And in the years and centuries that followed, we Christians have insisted that we are closer to God when we let God’s love drive our lives, We are closer to the people God created us to be when we let the divine Spirit fill us and flow out of us into the world around us. As we Christians search for unity, we need go no further than living in God’s love and treating one another in the most loving, welcoming, joy filled manner we can.
I’ve had arguments before with folks where I knew I could win the day if I just used more words and better logic and used a louder, stronger speaking voice. I’ve been in disagreements where I wanted to win more than I wanted the truth. That’s not operating out of a place of love. When I want to win more than I want to be loving and truthful then I’m not where Jesus would have me to be. I suspect I’m not the only one who does that.
Jesus says to us the Spirit of Truth will come among us, and as I submit myself to the loving spirit, then I know that i may not win my side of the argument, but I will be closer to the divine. Arguments, disagreements and divisions come and go in our world. They are big and theological and impact thousands and thousands of people. they are small and domestic and personal. Knowing that the God we follow is a loving community, feeling that divine love in our souls means that love and care and compassion for one another is the way for us to go. Letting the Blessed Trinity’s love shape us will make us a blessed Trinity United Methodist Church for each other and for the world. Thanks be to God.