The Trinity Incomprehensible

The audio for this sermon is available on the Christ Church website, or you can read it here.


In 1939, Dorothy Sayers, a novelist, playwright, poet, and Christian humanist, published a pamphlet entitled “Strong Meat.”  The odd title is based on the King James Version of Hebrews 5:14, in which the author admonishes his audience for being ready only for milk and not solid food.  “Strong meat,” the author writes, “is for the mature, for those whose faculties have been trained by practice to distinguish good from evil.”  In her pamphlet, Sayers offers a tongue in cheek version of the strong meat of the Christian faith.  It ends with a catechism-like set of questions and answers on the basics of Christian theology.  In response to the question, “What is the doctrine of the Trinity?” Sayers writes, “The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the whole thing incomprehensible.  Something put in by theologians to make it more difficult – nothing to do with daily life or ethics.”[1]

With that inauspicious beginning, we note that today the Church calendar turns to Trinity Sunday.  It is the only day on the Kalendar on which we remember a specific doctrine of the Church.  Note that Trinity Sunday isn’t a feast celebrating the Triune God.  No, that would be too easy.  Instead, today we are invited to reflect specifically upon the dense theological doctrine of the Trinity.  If my week had gone better, I would have happily preached a sermon on the doctrine of the Trinity in hopes of moving us from Sayers’ incisive understanding of the working definition of the Trinity that many of us hold, to a fuller understanding of how God can be one God, co-eternally Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: one Lord, in Trinity of Persons and in Unity of Being.[2]  Alas, there was other work to be done this week, and the seven books on Trinitarian theology on my book shelves remained un-opened.  Rather than doing the inevitable heretical dance of the unprepared preacher, I thought that perhaps we might celebrate the doctrine of the Trinity this morning by exploring what our lessons teach us about the role we are invited to play in the ongoing relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

For the most part, it seems like the lessons for today were selected simply because they explicitly mention all three persons of the Trinity.  While that might be the case, I am also of the belief that with God, there are no coincidences.  If we dig into these lessons and pay attention to how the references to the Trinity are used, there is a whole lot to learn.  Take, for example, the short lesson from Second Corinthians.  Things in the Church in Corinth were not going well when Paul wrote his letters.  There had been quite a bit of infighting among the Corinthian Christians, and by now there were a lot of hard feelings.  In his first letter, Paul addressed the issues head on, and yet, some of the problems continued.  Here in his second letter, which he called a “letter of tears,” Paul used some strong language to draw very clear lines in the sand about what it means to claim to follow Jesus as Lord.  Our lesson comes from the end of this difficult letter, and it strikes a surprisingly hopeful tone, given all that has passed.  “Agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.  Greet one another with a holy kiss.  All the saints greet you.  The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”

The tradition teaches us that the very nature of the Trinity is that of a perfect relationship of love.  It is out of the abundance of that love that creation happens.  There is so much love between and among the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, that creation is made just so God can have something else to love.  As such, we who follow Jesus and are filled with the Holy Spirit, are made to take our place in that ongoing out-pouring of love.  Agreeing with one another and living in peace is really difficult.  Anybody who has ever driven through Nashville at rush hour or gone grocery shopping on the Saturday before Easter can attest to that fact, but as beings created by God’s love, saved by Jesus, and sustained by the Spirit, the reality is that we have everything we need to live in love and peace with everyone around us.  Our very nature as Trinity-created-beings defaults to love.

This is made even more clear in our Gospel lesson for today.  After spending most of Easter season not dealing with resurrection stories, here in the Season after Pentecost, we’re back with the resurrected Jesus and his disciples.  Matthew’s famous “Great Commission” occurs several days after that first Easter Day, some seventy miles from Jerusalem.  The eleven have travelled to Galilee based on the word of the two Mary’s who were commanded by both an angel and the risen Jesus himself to tell the disciples to go to Galilee and meet him there.  Truth be told, one way or another, these men were headed back to Galilee.  Either Jesus would appear to them, as the women had promised, or they would pick up their fishing nets and return to the life they had once known.  As they slowly made their way up the mountain, I’d take the under on whether three of the disciples really believed Jesus would meet them there.  And yet, there he stood!  They worshiped even as they couldn’t believe their eyes, and Jesus began to speak.

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.  And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  God didn’t wait for the disciples to get their act together.  God didn’t require them to perfectly understand what was happening.  God didn’t even ask them to stop doubting.  Instead, the authority of Father, vested fully in the Son, was handed over to the confused disciples through the ongoing presence of the Holy Spirit.  Amid the doubt and the confusion; the joy and the worship; God invited the disciples to join in the love-filled work of the Trinity: creating disciples by sharing the grace of Jesus and teaching by word and example what love looks like.

In some ways, Dorothy Sayers’ definition of the Trinity was absolutely spot on.  The love of the Father is incomprehensible.  The grace of the Son is incomprehensible.  That the Triune God would invite us, in our mixture of doubt and worship, to share that love and grace with the world is incomprehensible, but that is, I think, precisely what the doctrine of the Trinity is all about.  It wasn’t made up by theologians to make things more difficult, but rather, our Trinitarian understanding of God as a loving relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is an attempt to explain how our broken humanity can even begin to receive the strength required to do the challenging work of loving our neighbor, loving our enemies, and praying for those who persecute us.  In the end, it is probably easier to understand the Trinity than it is to live into our calling as Trinitarian Christians.  It makes more sense that God is co-eternally three persons of one substance than it does to try to love the world in the way God loves you.   That kind of love is incomprehensible, but then again, so is the Trinity after which it is modeled.  None of this means that we should quit trying, however.  Instead, this Trinity Sunday, I commit, and I hope you will too, to developing a deeper understanding of the Trinity by living into it: loving the world like the Father does, sharing Christ’s grace with everyone I meet, and allowing the Holy Spirit to strengthen me to care for those in need.  It might seem to be an impossible task, but nothing is impossible with the God of incomprehensible love who is incomprehensibly Trinity of Persons in Unity of Being.  Amen.

[1] Sayers, Dorothy Strong Meat 1939, accessed 6/8/2017 http://gutenberg.ca/ebooks/sayers-strong/sayers-strong-00-h.html#ch02dogma

[2] A paraphrase of the Proper Preface for Trinity Sunday, BCP, 380.

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