Monday, 9 June 2014

What’s so important about the Trinity?: a sermon for Trinity Sunday

What’s so important about the Trinity?

For centuries, many mainstream Christian churches – in the West at least – have tried to rationalise and “explain away” the Christian belief in God-as-Trinity as if it was some sort of religious embarrassment.  For many Christians, who for years (ever since their own childhood) have heard children’s talks in worship on Trinity Sunday that minimise, limit or “explain away” the understanding of God-as-Trinity, they have developed an attitude of “We don’t really believe in the Trinity any more.  We’ve just kept the language”

There's been this widely-held notion that the affirmation of God-as-Trinity is something that only concerns the more conservative sort of Christians (and then, probably, only the more intellectually adept of the conservatives).  This situation has only changed fairly recently.

In recent decades, a growing number of mainstream Christians have rediscovered the Trinity and found it to be a source of real creativity, renewal, and dynamism for the life of the people of God.  Increasingly, the study of theology today includes a much greater emphasis on the understanding of God as being God-as-Trinity. 

In my own case, my initial theological education did not involve a great emphasis on the Trinity (except in studying ancient controversies about the Trinity in church history).  It was a period of study leave in 1988 at the Irish School of Ecumenics, almost nine years after I was ordained, when I discovered the possibilities of the understanding of God-as-Trinity as a basis both for ecumenism and for Christian involvement in the life of the wider world.

However, many people who were brought up in the era of explaining the Trinity away still ask “What’s so important about the Trinity?”

And so, I want to say that the Christian idea of God-as-Trinity is vitally important for three reasons:

1.       The Christian idea of God-as Trinity is vitally important because it shows us that relationships are vitally important for God.

2.       The Christian idea of God-as-Trinity is vitally important because it shows us that our Christian faith has continued to develop after the scriptures had been written – and still continues to develop.

3.       The Christian idea of God-as-Trinity is vitally important because it demonstrates for us the importance of our using our intellect and our creativity as part of our faith.

***

1.       The Christian idea of God-as Trinity is vitally important because it shows us that relationships are vitally important for God.

God does not exist in splendid isolation.  The Christian idea of God-as-Trinity tells us that God lives as a loving community of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: as Creator, Redeemer, and Giver of Life.  Further, the love of the Father, Son, and Spirit spills over into creative compassion for the world.  In fact, the Christian idea of God-as-Trinity tells us that the very existence of humanity and, indeed, the wider universe is because of the overflowing love of the Trinity requiring more and more recipients of the divine compassion.  Because God exists as Trinity, relationships are vitally important for God.  God does not exist in splendid isolation. 

As a result, God calls each of us to live in community with others.  Living in splendid isolation is not an option for those of us who worship God-as-Trinity.  This has implications for our ecumenical life, in which we are called to promote the unity of all Christians and, indeed, of all people of faith.  Just as the Father, Son, and Spirit belong together, so too do all people of faith belong together.

As well, God-as-Trinity calls us to an ethic of community and co-operation as we participate in the wider society.  We live in a time when current social, economic, and political fashions promote competition at the expense of co-operation and individuality at the expense of community.  Nevertheless, the model of God-as-Trinity points us as Christians to a social ethic of community and co-operation, even if it’s not fashionable among our society’s movers and shakers.

Of course, other faiths such as Judaism and Islam also have a strong faith that God is compassionate.  Both Judaism and Islam also have a strong commitment to an ethic of community, co-operation, and compassion.  In each case, they do so without a belief in God-as-Trinity.  For us as Christians, our belief in God-as-Trinity underscores dramatically our commitment to an ethic of community, co-operation, and compassion in the name of God whose deepest inner life is the loving relationship of the members of the Trinity.

The Christian idea of God-as Trinity is vitally important because it shows us that relationships are vitally important for God.

***

2.       The Christian idea of God-as-Trinity is vitally important because it shows us that our Christian faith has continued to develop after the scriptures had been written – and still continues to develop.

We don’t find the Trinity in the Bible.  It just isn’t there.  That’s why the lessons found in the lectionary for Trinity Sunday each year are really so indirect regarding the Trinity.

The Christian church defined its belief in God-as-Trinity at the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD.  That was almost three hundred years after the first Easter.  It was more than two hundred years after the last book of the New Testament was written.  It was more than one hundred years after the Christian church finally had a consensus about which books were part of the New Testament scriptures.

Still, something so central to Christian beliefs as the Trinity came along after the Bible was completed.  This is very important.  It tells us that the Christian faith kept developing after the time when the Bible was written.  The Christian faith is still developing today.  The Christian faith is not limited to the written scriptures.  As the hymn tells us:

The Lord has yet more light and truth
to break forth from the word ....

Because we celebrate God-as-Trinity, we are freed from a necessity to interpret the insights of the Bible in a strictly literal way, as if the cultural norms from the times when the Bible was completed must still determine our response to the religious issues confronting people of faith today.

The Christian idea of God-as-Trinity is vitally important because it shows us that our Christian faith has continued to develop after the scriptures had been written – and still continues to develop.

***

3.       The Christian idea of God-as-Trinity is vitally important because it demonstrates for us the importance of our using our intellect and our creativity as part of our faith.

The notion of God-as-Trinity didn’t just drop down from the skies.  It was the result of people arguing their beliefs and their opinions with one another, and using their intellect and their creativity to develop their ideas.

Today, there are people in some sections of the Christian faith who discourage the use of human intellect and human creativity in service to faith.  You just believe.  Faith is seen as conflict with human reason.  The nineteenth century writer Mark Twain described that sort of faith as “the ability to believe twenty impossible things before eating breakfast”.

That is not authentic faith.  Authentic faith works in partnership with human intellect and with human creativity.  It isn’t a denial of either.

The Christian idea of God-as-Trinity is vitally important because it demonstrates for us the importance of our using our intellect and our creativity as part of our faith.

***

What’s so important about the Trinity?

The Christian idea of God-as Trinity is vitally important because it shows us that relationships are vitally important for God.

The Christian idea of God-as-Trinity is vitally important because it shows us that our Christian faith has continued to develop after the scriptures had been written – and still continues to develop.

The Christian idea of God-as-Trinity is vitally important because it demonstrates for us the importance of our using our intellect and our creativity as part of our faith.

We don’t have to rationalise or “explain away” the Christian affirmation in God-as-Trinity.  We don't have to leave it to the more conservative sort of Christians only.  Instead, all Christians can celebrate it.

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