Sermon for Trinity Sunday 2019

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

About six months ago a poll was conducted by Lifeway (the Southern Baptist Convention’s publishing company) ant the Reformed Christian discipleship Ligonier Ministries, of American Evangelical Christians’ views on a number of theological questions. The results were shocking to me. 71% of respondents agreed with the statement “Jesus is the first and greatest being created by God.” Perhaps some proportion of the respondents stopped reading the statement after “first and greatest” and didn’t realize that they were agreeing that Jesus was a creature rather than the preëxistent, second person of the Trinity. However, 59% also agreed with the statement “the Holy Spirit is a force, but is not a personal being.” The upshot is that roughly 2/3rds of American Evangelical Christians are either poorly catechized or knowingly heretical with regard to Trinitarian theology. I suspect it is the former, but it’s hard to know.

Now, lest you think I’m just ragging on Evangelicals, I suspect the numbers would probably be similar if Mainline Protestants or Roman Catholics were the subjects of the poll. Forgive me for complaining about this yet again, but our use of the Revised Common Lectionary (developed within the halls of American Mainline Protestantism’s former glory) has now hoisted upon us a very poor Old Testament choice for Trinity Sunday. I mean the lesson from Proverbs is beautiful, but I would have to spend this whole sermon exegeting it in gruesome detail to explain that it’s not anti-Trinitarian because it’s not about the Trinity to begin with. Again, I suspect this is more a function of poor catechesis than of willful heresy, but it’s troubling either way.

Today we celebrate this sadly little understood, but critically important dogmatic truth (dogmatic not in the commonly used sense meaning inflexible, but in the proper sense of having been defined by the Councils of the Church and enjoined on believers). Today we celebrate the mystery of the Trinity. It is a mystery (or μυστεριον) not in the “Scooby Doo” sense, where you get the answer by unveiling the masked antagonist at the end, but in the sense that it is ineffable, beyond our human capacity to fully grasp. This is not to say that one would be justified in answering a systematic theology final exam question asking you to define the Trinity by saying “it’s just a mystery.” You’d get an “F” for that answer. But it is nonetheless impossible to fully express without imperfect analogies, and in the final analysis, we claim it is a truth which is revealed rather than deduced, and thank God for that because it means we need not be great philosophers to affirm the faith handed down from the Apostles in the Scriptures and the Creeds.

I want to discuss why this doctrine itself matters, but first a story about why the fact it’s a mystery matters, too. Back in the early twentieth century, during the period of the British Raj in South Asia, a Hindu prince converted to Christianity, and this so angered his Father that he was made a Dalit, an untouchable or outcast according to the Indian caste system. A missionary later asked him why he would do such a thing, give up his wealth and position and social status in order to become a Christian, and he said “I’ve come to the belief that I cannot believe in immortal gods with mortal characteristics. I need an immortal God with immortal characteristics.” A colleague of mine once said “if you can figure out God, you may not want to worship him,” and this rings true, to me at least as somebody naturally disposed to feeling as if I have to have everything explained to my satisfaction.

So this is why mystery matters, but why does this mysterious doctrine itself matter. There are a number of reasons, of which I’ll limit myself to three.

First, this may be the most strident thing you’ve ever heard me say from this pulpit, so “trigger warning” as the youngsters say. Jesus Christ was not primarily a wisdom teacher or a moral prophet or a spiritual guru. It seems to me that Jesus Christ was one of three things: he was either a crazy person or he was an evil person or he was true God the Son of God, the preëxistent Word of God through whom all things came into being. If you believe as I believe that the Scriptures are reliable in reporting to us that Jesus of Nazareth went around ancient Palestine claiming to be the Son of God, then either he was telling the truth or he wasn’t. If he wasn’t he either had a mental illness of the sort that leads people to claim to be Napoleon or be made of glass or else he was a charlatan who happened to establish the most successful con job of all time. If however he was telling the truth–the conviction that he was telling the truth being that which I would stake my whole life on if God willed it–permits us to see all the other claims about him (his role as mediator between us and the Father, his status as the great moral example, his role in imparting wisdom and enlightenment during his earthly life and then after by his pouring out the Holy Spirit) are thus trustworthy and true.

Second, and perhaps only slightly less strident than the first claim, either the Holy Spirit is a person with whom we can have a relationship or we can never have confidence that our religious experience and motivation is anything more than our brain synapses being fired and dopamine being pumped through our system. This, I claim (and it is a bold claim), is born out empirically. There is a great irony present in Christian history in the last century-and-a-half or so, which is oft overlooked and which I believe somebody (not me) should use as the basis for a monograph. Those segments of the Christian movement (whether or not they be part of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church) which speak most often and sometimes even most-compellingly of the action of the Holy Spirit in fact have the lowest view of that same same Spirit’s ontological status.

What does that mean, in simple English and put more bluntly than is comfortable in our age of ecumenism and pluralism? Those movements which claim the necessity for salvation of the expression of certain charismatic gifts of the Holy Spirit are less likely to view that same Holy Spirit as God; about a tenth of Pentecostalists belong to denominations which are explicitly non-Trinitarian. New religious movements which place a high importance on continuing revelation (an act of the Holy Spirit) are almost universally non-Trinatarian- Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses being the most well-known of such sects.

Like I said, this is ironic and peculiar, and I don’t know exactly why this should be the case. I could speculate, and my speculation would go like this: if the Holy Spirit is not God, he can be manipulated, used as a tool for some agenda or to receive some spiritual benefit at the discretion of the adherent rather than by God’s will alone. I do not mean that this is done in malice, but rather by some subconscious impulse. If the Holy Spirit is merely some spiritual force, no problem. If the Holy Spirit is indeed God, though, then such act would fit the classical definition of superstition- to place oneself above God in order to manipulate him.

Now, I don’t want to reject outright the possibility that charismatic gifts and private revelation are possible through the action of the Holy Spirit in our midst. You all know my own piety is rather “high and dry”, but I don’t discount the possibility of genuine experiences of this sort. I do believe the discernment of a community and the larger church are necessary to determine what is of God and what is not in this regard. Paul implies as much in his lengthy discourse on spiritual gifts in his First Epistle to the Corinthians and John makes this requirement explicit in his First Epistle General. This concern for discernment does not seem to be shared by many in these non-Trinitarian movements.

Anyway, we can see based on plain old empirical evidence rather than some theological proof that recognizing the Holy Spirit as a co-equal person within the Godhead rather than some spectral force or demiurge, seems to stand as a bulwark against emotionalism and radicalism and their concomitant abuses.

Thirdly, and finally, and most importantly, we are reminded in this morning’s Epistle that salvation itself is Trinitarian in shape. Paul tells the Christians in Rome and us that Jesus Christ has justified (or δικαιωθέντες, literally “vindicated”) us, making peace on our behalf with God the Father and making his love take up residence in us through the Holy Spirit.

I went back and read my sermons from the last two years, and realized that there was a sort of inherent progression in my argument, quite by accident, which is hard to recognize when we have a full year between each time we’re called upon to consider the doctrine of the Trinity. A very quick summary then: two years ago I introduced you to the Greek term περιχώρησις which suggests the circumincession or interpenetration of the members of the Godhead, whereby the relationship of perfect love within the Godhead makes Father, Son, and Holy Spirit indistinguishable except insofar as we can recognize that relationship itself being definitive. This is what theologians call an immanent model of the Trinity, that is, one that attempts to define who God is in himself. Then last year I introduced you to the Greek term κένωσις, or “emptying out”, getting at the activity in which the God is eternally active, in the pouring out of himself in creation, the emptying out of his Grace in the sacrifice on Calvary, and the teeming down of the Holy Spirit upon the earth at Pentecost. This is what theologians call the Trinitarian Mission, that is, what God does for us and for the whole world.

This year, since it’s become a tradition, I’ll give you one more little Greek lesson. The word of the day today is οἰκονομία. It might sound familiar because it’s where we get the English word “economy.” It literally means something like “housework” which means “home economics” is a redundant phrase. It has, of course, come to mean handling or management, now narrowly defined as financial resources and their management. But in theological terms it means God’s divine management of our fallen world. The Economic Trinity, then, is how Salvation is wrought and how we are brought to participate in it, by means of the Trinitarian mission (as opposed to the Immanent Trinity I’ve already mentioned, which deals with how God coheres in himself). The Eastern Orthodox tend to draw a distinction here between theology and economy, which is a useful distinction, if a bit confusing considering how these two words ave evolved in common use in the West.

So all God does, he does with one will as his whole self, indivisible. With regard to theology proper, the only distinction, as affirmed by both the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds, is the Father’s status as Source of Divinity, the Son’s being eternally begotten from the Father, and the Holy Spirit’s proceeding from both. With regard to the economy of salvation, however, God is revealed to us as, we might say, “the ‘by whom’, the ‘through whom’, and the ‘in whom’.” The Father, our righteous judge; Jesus Christ our mediator and advocate; and the Spirit, our subsistence in holiness. With regard to substance, will, incomprehensibility, eternal existence, uncreated nature, there is no distinction. With regard to the Economy of Salvation, the distinction exists through what Augustine and Hilary of Poitiers and others called “appropriation.” That is to say that the whole of God saving us with his whole self can be understood in terms of the divine relationship described in our lesson from Romans, but at the fundamental level of Being, God has all within himself to delight himself, but has by the great immensity of that defining love, made us and called us to himself in terms we can start to get our heads and hearts around.

The point is this… We are not the ones saving ourselves. We cannot do that, and the belief that we can is idolatry of the highest order. We are not working toward perfecting ourselves or the world around us; trust in our own ability to do so is idolatry of the highest order. God has done this work and is doing this work and will do this work, because within the Godhead exists the relationship of perfect love which along can effect it. Not that he had to, but that he chose to, so great was that love. Because the “by whom” the “through whom” and the “in whom” is sovereign, and through that preëxistent relationship of unity in trinity and the pouring out of the same on humanity, we have been given a sort of grammar by which we can participate as recipients of Grace and even the capacity to serve as vessels, broken as we may be, of that Grace for the world, so long as we recognize it is not we ourselves but Christ, sharing the love of God, in the power of the Spirit who acts through us for the salvation of the world. In short, it’s not about us, it’s about the Lord God Almighty, who has within himself all that is needful, but for love’s sake has brought us in, made us inheritors of the Kingdom, and given us this brief time to come to know and love Him above all things in preparation for eternity.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.