A Sermon for Trinity Sunday (07/06/20): Trinity, Grammar and Punctuation

Trinity: Grammar and Puntuation
Matthew 28:16-20

Today is Trinity Sunday. The Sunday which is famous, or infamous, as the one which preachers, if they can, try to avoid preaching. That is because this Sunday’s theme has the reputation as the most difficult one to address. Trinity is the Christian doctrine about God. This is the way which the Church has concluded that it is right for us to speak about God. It is the idea that God is one God, but three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Each of those persons is equal with the others, but distinct from them, but always in unity with them. God is never less than three separate persons, identities. But God is never more than only one God. It is the kind of idea that is just plain difficult to get your head around. How can three be one? How can one be three, whilst never disrupting the unity of oneness? Ever since the Church concluded that this is the proper way for Christians  to think and speak about God, and it took quite a long time to arrive at that conclusion, Christians have been struggling to illustrate and explain just what that means. And often the explanations hardly reduce the problems. And some of the most attractive straightforward ones, in fact, have been condemned as heresy. That is they are false and misleading. For example: It could be said, and I think we often slip into this way of speaking, that the God we believe in is a God who presents himself to us in three different ways: as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Now that does have some appeal. It is straightforward and not that hard to understand. Pushed a little further we might be tempted to say: that God the Father is what we observe in the Old Testament, God the Son is the God we find in Jesus Christ in the Gospels, and God the Holy Spirit is what has been with us ever since, we observe a kind of chronological sequence. Problem solved. What was all the fuss about? The Trinity is not nearly as difficult as we thought. Except that is not quite what the doctrine of Trinity says. Indeed that is a quite specific heresy, it has a name, it is called Modalism. It is false because it fails to make the proper distinction between the three persons of the Trinity. And in that chronological form, it calls into question the equality and eternity of each of those persons: God was and is, always Father, always Son and always Holy Spirit.

There is no way out from under the burden of having to hold onto the idea that God
is both one and three at the same time. So we are left to illustrate what we mean. We have to try to find some analogy that helps us picture what Trinity might be like. But in the end I’m not sure that even the best of those help that much. There is the famous Rublev Icon (the image at the start of this sermon). It is a Russian painting from the 15th century. We see three people sitting around a table. It beautifully expresses the intimacy of the relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And as such, it helpfully presents us with the idea that God is relational. But looking at I’m left wondering: how is that one? What makes those three figures just one God. We are left with the problem we started with.
Or, most famously of all, St. Patrick’s illustration of the shamrock. That God as Trinity
is like a leaf of that plant, which is both three and one at the same time. Which, I have to say, to me looks like one leaf that has three parts, which is probably leading us back to Modalism. And as an illustration it has for ever been undermined for me, because whenever I hear it mentioned I can only think of a scene from “Nuns on the Run,” a film in which Robbie Coltrane and Eric Idle play petty criminals who are hiding out from gangsters disguised as nuns in a convent. At one point Idle, who has no background in the Church is compelled to explain the Trinity to a sixth form RE class. Coltrane, a Glaswegian Roman Catholic provides him with St. Patrick’s illustration. With a sharp intake of breath he says: “Ah that’s a bit of a [expletive deleted]. It’s as my old priest used to say. . .” Shortly afterwards Idle is faced with a room full of teenage girls is overcome with nerves and blurts out: “Remember, God is like a shamrock, small, green and in three parts!”

We could, of course, simply accept the Trinity as an idea, as a way of speaking. Without trying to understand or explain how that can be. And pass the difficulty of as the mystery of God. Which is what I guess most of us try to do most of the time. And leave the problem to us preachers on this Sunday. Except that as doctrine it is a major stumbling block in relationships between us and the other Abrahamic faiths: Judaism and Islam. Christianity, Judaism and Islam all worship the one God who was revealed to Abraham. The problem for Jews and Muslims is that the great revelation to Abraham is that there is only one true and living God and no other. The Trinity, to them, looks like we are worshipping three Gods. To them God is either one, or there are three gods. It is not possible in their thinking to be both. It would be helpful in our relationships with them, and in our efforts to explain our faith to others, if we didn’t have to offer God as something as mind-boggling as the Trinity.

And there is worse yet. We can turn, as we always should, to the Bible. And what we find is that it doesn’t help a great deal. The Bible possesses no worked out theology of the Trinity. We find all three persons all over the Bible. The Son is present in the Old Testament, in the Gospels obviously, and after the ascension promised in the future, in the New Testament. The Holy Spirit breathes through the whole Bible, at work in Prophets and Psalmist as much as in the Church after Pentecost. And God the Father stands behind the idea of God throughout the Bible, not least as the way in which Jesus himself speaks about God. But at no point does any book of the Bible sit us down and say: “look this is how it is, God is one God in three persons.” And then go on to give us an ideal explanation as to how that can be. The idea of the Trinity is a conclusion that Christians arrive at after reading and thinking about it for a long time. Beginning in the second century and finally settled after 50 years of bitter debate in the fourth century. They solved the problem of how the Bible and Christians speak of God. But their solution to the problem is itself the problem we are left with.

So we come to today. And the reading which is set. These are last five verses of Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus is with the remaining 11 of his 12 disciples, one last time.
When it comes to Trinity Sunday the creators of the lectionary have a problem. Where do they find passages in the Bible which refer to all three persons of the Trinity in a relatively short space? They are very few and far between. So the reason we read this passage is because the risen Jesus says in one breath:
Baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit
That is nearly unique in the Bible. One of only a very few locations where God is referred to in that explicitly trinitarian manner. Except, look at the passage it occurs in! This is the Great Commission. This is Christ’s charge to the Church to be the Church. This is his command to do what we must do, along with his promise to be with us always as we do it. As a preacher looking at this passage I just feel there are so many much more important things to be said about this passage than trying to discuss the obscurities of a complex doctrine like the Trinity.
And yet, there it is: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Present, visible even, in one of the most crucial passages of scripture for our life as Christians. The Trinity becomes a doctrine of the Church, because that threefold name is already embedded in the way Christ and Christians speak and think about God. The Trinity is necessary as a doctrine because it lies here at the root of the mission of the Church. This passage actually marks the beginning of the journey which leads to the realisation that this is how Christians must speak of God.

It might pass almost unnoticed  but something quite startling takes place when disciples meet Jesus on that mountain in Galilee:
When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted
No wonder some doubted because there is something quite astonishing here.
They worshipped him. . .
Up to now the disciples have followed Jesus, they have listened to Jesus, they have loved Jesus, they have obeyed Jesus. But up to now they have not worshipped Jesus. The haven’t because you can and should only worship God! How conscious they were at the time of what they were doing is difficult to say. Perhaps the ones who doubted were the ones who were most aware of what this means. Jesus is God! Already the disciples find that the God who was revealed to their ancestor Abraham is a God who is one, but who is at least two persons. Now of course we know “binitarianism” (or would that be a “duunity”?) one God/two persons is not really a thing. But our answer to those who question the authenticity of our monotheism is that find that the one true and living God is made fully present to us in Jesus Christ which is why the disciples and we worship him.
Of course putting this reading on Trinity Sunday pushes it out of sequence. In sequence this belongs more than a fortnight ago. This is Matthew’s story which parallels Luke’s account of the Ascension. It really belongs as the last reading in the season of Easter. Crucially in the narrative sequence of the New Testament as a whole this happens very shortly before Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit on the disciples and the Church. Looked at that way, it emerges how and why the Church does and must speak of God as Trinity.
There is of course so so much more that could and should and must be said about the Great Commission, which trying to use it on Trinity Sunday sort of pushes out of the way: There is the way in which this scene neatly contrasts with the scene from Jesus’ temptation. There the devil claimed to have authority over all the nations of the world – and promises that Jesus can rule if he bows down and worships the devil. But the devil has lost. Jesus’ whole life was a refusal of that offer. It was that refusal which required Jesus to endure rejection and crucifixion. But through that endurance he has triumphed. Here Jesus declares:
All authority in heaven and on earth have been given to me
And it is the disciples who bow down and worship him. He is the Son The one who commands them and us to make disciples of all nations. Which is that great commission:
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising 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.
We could spend a good deal of time, instead of wrestling with the Trinity, deciding how that commission is best translated: it should probably read something like: “Having gone, make disciples of all the gentiles, by baptising them. . . .” But there it is Father, Son and Holy Spirit embedded in the most fundamental thing we have to say about the Church. One of the very few things more or less all Christian denominations agree on is how we make the Church. It is by baptism, and a baptism which involves water and that trinitarian formula. We fulfil the most decisive commandment Jesus has given his followers by building the church as the place where “gentiles” learn how to obey what Jesus has taught us under that trinitarian idea about God.
And there is that promise that Jesus remains with us to the end of time. Another of those mistakes we might make is that Jesus is merely a historical moment. The point in time when God is present in history. And that it is Father and Spirit who stand outside of time. One of the assertions which the doctrine of the Trinity makes is that all three are equal with one another. And that includes equally eternal. Even in a passage that has so much else to say, the idea that God is one God in three person runs as the unavoidable undercurrent of everything that is being said

Frankly I think Trinity Sunday is a mistake. Focusing on the the Trinity is like reading a really wonderful story, but instead of thinking about the story, you end up thinking about the grammar and punctuation of how it was written. Perhaps that is what the Doctrine of the Trinity is: The grammar and punctuation of Christian speech. It is absolutely essential. It has to be implicit in everything we say. But it is not necessarily something something we want to draw attention to beyond knowing how to use it properly. Without grammar and punctuation nothing we could write would make any sense, it would be meaningless. Without the Trinity nothing we Christians could say about God would make any sense. The only God we know know is the God who is Father, the God who is Son and the God who is Holy Spirit, the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. The God who is always and only one God. That is the God who we trust and who we worship


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Trinity: Grammar and Punctuation by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

2 thoughts on “A Sermon for Trinity Sunday (07/06/20): Trinity, Grammar and Punctuation”

  1. It seems to me so sad that many thousands of believers (not least the Cathars in Mediaeval France, have been killed for the "heresies" around the Trinity. The word itself does not appear in the Bible, and honest and learned Christians have disagreed over its interpretation for two thousand years. I do not pretend to know what is the true nature of the Trinity. I take refuge in another commandment, "That ye love one another".

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