A sermon delivered by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, Nc., on June 19, 2011.
Genesis 1:1-4a; Matthew 28:16-20; 2 Corinthians 13:11-13
Preaching on the Christian doctrine of the Trinity has never been easy. In 1995 Pastor James Hazelwood of Brooklyn, New York reflects in a journal article about a sermon he preached on Trinity Sunday.
“A couple of years ago,” he writes, “I thought I did a rather fine job of explaining the Trinity. After worship, a woman in the congregation walked up to me and said, ‘Pastor, I’ve been listening to preachers talk about the Trinity for nearly 70 years now.’ Then, she paused and I thought she was going to add that I had finally made it clear to her. But she continued, ‘No pastor has ever been able to explain it to me. And you know what I think? I think that pastors don’t understand it, either.’”
Pastor Hazelwood may have felt like a failure that day, but he is in mighty good company. The founder of the Methodist denomination, John Wesley, preached a sermon on the Trinity in May of 1775. He concluded in his sermon that “all who have endeavored to explain (the Trinity) at all, have utterly lost their way…and have hurt the cause they intended to promote….I insist,” said Wesley,” upon no explication at all; not even on the best I ever saw.”
Yes, it seems only a fool would attempt to preach on the Trinity! Nevertheless, here I stand to play the fool because it is, after all, Trinity Sunday on the Christian calendar. And according to the great creeds and distinguished theologians of the Christian faith, the Trinity is the single most important doctrine of our tradition and it deserves our attention at least once a year!
What is a preacher to do?
Well, this preacher is going to admit from the get go that I am over my head—way over my head on this subject. Why is preaching about the Trinity—or the idea that God is three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—in one essence or reality so impossibly difficult?
For starters, the word “Trinity” never appears in the Bible. So there is no one defining text to turn to that would clarify the Trinity in black and white.
And then there are the many thorny theological problems with the term. Exactly how can God be three in one and one in three? Are God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit all essentially the same? Is one more important than the other? If they are equal, then why did Jesus pray to God? And why did Jesus claim that God had forsaken him on the cross?
And then there is the big elephant in the middle of the room called “monotheism.” One of the central tenets of Judaism that set it apart from every other polytheistic religion of its day was monotheism. Every day the ancient Jew was expected to recite the Shema spelled out in Deuteronomy 6 which began, “Hear O Israel; the Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your soul…etc” (vv.4-5).
In Jesus’ day Jews were scandalized by Jesus’ claim to be God because only God is God. And to this day orthodox Jews cannot accept the Trinity because the Lord is one, not three.
For that matter, a host of other religions part way with the Trinity. The basic creed that Muslims recite every day says, “There is no God but Allah.” The number one theological problem Muslims have with Christians is their Trinitarian understanding of God. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe Jesus was special but not equal to God. Rather, Jesus was God’s firstborn Son, subject to God in all things. And Jehovah’s Witnesses believe the Holy Spirit is a force, not a person. Mormons, on the other hand, believe not that God is three in one but three in three—three distinct gods, a belief called “tritheism.” On the other end of the spectrum are Unitarians who historically reject the Trinity in favor of the oneness of God, and typically insist on universal salvation.
But maybe the most challenging aspect of the doctrine of the Trinity is that like all terminology about God it does not do God justice, not even close. For example, we say God is our Father, in part because Jesus called God his Abba, his Father. But the word Father is not adequate for God because God is not a man…or a woman. God is both male and female, and yet transcends gender. In truth, we don’t have any adequate categories for God because God transcends everything we can conceptualize and say about God…including the Trinity.
As Augustine, that theological genius of the fourth century A.D. said after writing a treatise on the Trinity, “If you can understand it, it’s not God.” Or as Evelyn Underhill put it, “If the reality of God were small enough to be grasped, it would not be great enough to be adored.”
So, with all these challenges facing the Trinity, why do orthodox Christians insist on the truth of this doctrine? Because for all its difficulties, the doctrine of the Trinity makes better sense of our experience of God than any other model of God available.
The early church was born and nurtured in the cradle of Jewish monotheism. The first Christians were Jewish by birth, and they believed with all their hearts that there is but one God.
But somehow they couldn’t shake the feeling that simple monotheism didn’t tell the whole story. Those early Christians believed God was at the same time beyond them and among them. In fact, they believed God had visited this planet in the person of Jesus.
And then, when Jesus was no longer physically present, they sensed that God’s energy intensely active among them and within them was still through what they called the power of the Holy Spirit.
Early Christians wrestled with how best to express their multivaried experience of God without violating their bedrock belief in the oneness of God. Finally, around 200 A.D., an early church leader named Tertullian wrote for the first time in history the Latin words, tres personae, una Substantia—three persons, one Substance.
In other words, said Tertullian, God is one and only one substance. However, our experience of God is tri-dimensional. We experience God as God, as Jesus, and as the Holy Spirit. We experience these three not as three distinct gods but as three faces, or three personages of the same God.
We know this kind of multidimensionality is possible in our own experience. On this Father’s day, I can claim to be the father of Tim, Molly, and Kevin, the husband of Joani, the brother of Mark, the son of John. And oh yeah, I’m the pastor of First Baptist Church. If a mere human being like me can play multiple roles out of one body, why not Almighty God?
So our experience of God leads us to the Trinity. And besides, while the word “Trinity” is not mentioned in scripture, the evidence for it is everywhere. Even in the Old Testament!
Genesis 1 declares that God created the heavens and the earth. But Trinitarian Christians also point out that the Spirit of God who swept over the face of the waters was intimately involved in the process as well. And as you read on through the Genesis accounts of creation, you notice that God repeatedly refers to “us” and “our”, as in verses 26-27 where God says, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…so God created humankind in his image…male and female he created them.”
Trinitarians believe “us” and “our” refer to the three persons of the Trinity. And the Gospel of John only reinforces this belief when we read in John 1 that the “Word of God,” (Jesus) was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being (vv. 2-3).
Interestingly, the pagan religions of the ancient world taught that several gods created the world because they were lonely, or bored, or needed help to get work done. But Genesis portrays a God who is already enjoying the richest community of all time through the fellowship of God the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit.
If the Trinity was present from the moment of creation, it’s surprising the word “Trinity” doesn’t ever appear in the New Testament. But Christians are quick to note that the three persons of the Trinity do show up in more than one place in the New Testament.
And traditional Baptists, of all Christians, should be very familiar with one of those places. Most Baptists are schooled in the Great Commission from the nursery on. We have built an entire denomination around the notion that Jesus calls us to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them (by immersion, of course!) into our churches.
Meanwhile, we may be tempted to overlook the rather startling assertion Jesus made just before he issues the Great Commission that “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” That’s a rather arrogant statement to make unless Jesus, is in fact, co-equal with God. And notice that Jesus says we are to baptize new disciples “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” which is precisely what I do when I baptize people in our baptistery.
The Apostle Paul, an ardent, monotheistic Jew who would become one of Jesus’ disciples, mirrors the Trinitarian language of his Lord. As he concluded his second letter to the Corinthian Christians, he does so with a benediction that over the centuries has become standard fare in the body of Christ: “(May) the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”
Without ever using the word Jesus, the founder of Christianity and Paul, the first and greatest theologian of the Christian church, make it clear that the Trinity is the most satisfactory way we have to describe our experience of God.
This helps us understand why one of the earliest of the church creeds, or the Apostles Creed, is Trinitarian in nature. Now Baptists don’t discuss creeds a lot because historically we are non-creedal. We know firsthand how creeds can be abused to persecute or even execute those who don’t agree with every ruling of church authorities. And we are wise to be cautious about of creeds.
Even so, we should not be blind to the wisdom of the ancient creeds of the church that capture in remarkable fashion the essence of the Christian faith. And one of those ancient creeds is the Apostles Creed.
I personally do not agree with the tradition that says the twelve apostles of Jesus literally produced the twelve phrases of the Apostles Creed. But I am impressed that by as early as the second century A.D. the basic structure of this creed was coming together. And I am very impressed that one of the earliest summaries of our faith is so clearly Trinitarian in nature.
Notice that the Apostles Creed is made up of three short paragraphs, one for each “person” of the Trinity. First, it identifies the three persons as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Then it describes briefly the nature and impact of each person.
By the way, don’t let phrases that are hard to understand cause you to dismiss this creed. So, for example, the oldest versions of the Creed stipulate that Jesus “descended into hell.” This is a notoriously difficult phrase to interpret, and as a preaching student at Princeton Seminary I unfortunately had to write a sermon based on this phrase. Here’s the key takeaway from that phrase—Jesus loves you so much he went to hell and back for you!
And don’t let the phrase “holy catholic church” stir your Protestant dander. The phrase simply means “the church universal” and is a testimony to how the Holy Spirit is the one who not only calls us into community, but sustains our community in the face of our sinful selfishness.
Nobody fully understands the Apostles Creed because nobody fully understands our Trinitarian God. Even so I ask you today to reaffirm our Christian faith by reciting with me one of the earliest summaries of what we believe as Christians.
(Recite the Apostles Creed in unison).
God of all creation,
Pour out your blessing on all fathers
And those who provide fatherly care.
You have made them in your image
And given them children to love and care for in your name.
Bless them with a heat like your heart:
Discerning and thoughtful, bold and decisive,
Compassionate and loving.
As they model for their children the life
That is lived by faith and not by sight,
Grant them courage under pressure
And confidence in your power.
When troubles threaten to overwhelm them,
Grant them your divine peace.
When doubts give rise to anxiety,
Shore up their trust in your promises.
When joy fills their day,
Grant them a keen gratitude for your abundant supply of grace.
Season them with a lively sense of humor,
So that life may be made richer for us all.
In all circumstances preserve them as your own,
We ask in Jesus’ name.