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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Trinity Sunday 05/26/2013

On Trinity Sunday, there’s a temptation to just quote Martin Luther who said, “The Trinity should be adored, not explained,” then say “Amen,” and move on to the next hymn.  You probably wouldn’t mind if I did that, but I’d feel like I hadn’t earned my keep this week so you’ll have to put up with me for awhile.

There are problems with the doctrine of the Trinity despite the fact that we start worship in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, at the end of the confession we’re forgiven using the same words, we sing to the Trinity, we confess faith in it with the Apostles or Nicene Creed, and so forth.  The words are familiar; they’re what we say and what we’ve always said, probably without thinking too much about it.  A big problem though, if you do think about it, is that it is much easier to misunderstand the Trinity than it is to understand it. 

It starts with all the three in one, one in three stuff, three persons but still only one God which right away gets confusing especially when you find out in seminary that the convenient ways you had of understanding it are all heretical in some fashion.  Ways of understanding, for example, like how H2O can exist as water, ice or steam or how someone can be a mother, a daughter and a sister while being just one person or St. Patrick’s shamrock with the three leaves but it’s still just one plant.  Those all kind of worked for me but what I found out was that they are all inadequate in some way but please don’t ask me why because I don’t remember, and to be honest, they still all kind of work for me. 

Actually though, the problems the Trinity presents aren’t so much with understanding the doctrine itself although it is pretty much incomprehensible.  The problem is still more with how the doctrine has been used because what has happened at least in some cases is that there has been a literalization of the symbolic.  The Trinity is a symbol; it’s a symbol that points to something else, that something else being God.  It’s not the greatest analogy, but you could compare it to the American flag.  The American flag is a symbol that points to something else.  In and of itself it’s just a piece of cloth with a particular pattern and colors on it.  As a symbol of the United States of America though, it becomes much more than just a piece of cloth not only in terms of what it represents but also in the emotional content it holds.

  The Doctrine of the Trinity is a little different than that; like I said, it’s not the greatest analogy because the doctrine is not a piece of cloth; it’s words and images but it’s still symbolic.  It’s words and images that point to God but they don’t explain God any more than the flag explains the United States.  The Trinity is not a collection of facts about God and that’s the problem.  When seen as a collection of facts it becomes a believe it or else deal maker or deal breaker.  For some, if you talk about God in anything other than Trinitarian terms, they think you’re a heretic.  For some, even if you say creator, redeemer and sanctifier instead of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, that’s unacceptable.  The words then just become a litmus test that really has nothing to do with God, they’re just code words that have to do with inclusion or exclusion.  The result of that is that instead of helping to engage the mystery which is God, the doctrine prevents such engagement.

Another misunderstanding regarding the Trinity is that it represents a pearl of wisdom whose discovery and acceptance is necessary for salvation.  Even some of the lessons for today can kind of take us in that direction.  In Proverbs there is a lot about Wisdom; the gospel passage from John talks about being guided into the truth.  Both of those terms, wisdom and truth, can make it sound like there is something we need to learn, something we need to know if we want to be followers of Christ.  From the earliest days of the church though, way before there was a doctrine of the Trinity, the idea that there was such a pearl of wisdom, whatever it might be, that was necessary for salvation was rejected; so we do want to be careful in how we read these texts today and not let them take us in that direction.

You see though that there are problems and with such problems surrounding the Trinity, one could ask “Why bother?  Do we really need it?  Does the Doctrine of the Trinity serve any purpose these days apart from being a litmus test regarding correct belief?”  The best answer I have for that is what I’ve said to you before, what I’ve said to students preparing for confirmation; the Doctrine of the Trinity and the creeds that come out of it provide us with a way to talk about God; it’s a starting point and it’s a good one. 

The Christian understanding of God is different and those who formulated the Doctrine of the Trinity tried to get at that difference as they reflected on their experience with God as well as the experience others had with God, particularly in light of Jesus.  The experience of Jesus as risen and thus more than just another prophet and teacher changed everything.  Jesus being raised opened up the question of God and invited reflection on the biblical witness concerning God and humanity. The result was the Doctrine of the Trinity which, as my theology professor back at seminary said, is the most important symbolic report of the Christian encounter with God, the encounter of millions of men, women and children through twenty centuries.  With that said though, it’s important to remember that we don’t worship the doctrine; we worship the God it points to.  It’s just like when we pledge allegiance to the flag; our allegiance isn’t to a piece of cloth, our allegiance is to what that piece of cloth stands for.

So what about the God we identify as Trinity?  How is our understanding of God different?  For me the question was what, if anything, do today’s lessons tell us about the nature of the Trinitarian God?  What is most unique about the Christian understanding of God is God’s relational character.  For Christians, God is never just aloof and distant, not just out there.  For our sake and for his sake, God is in relationship with us because, according to the Doctrine of the Trinity, God is by nature relational.  The image that the Orthodox church uses to show this is what’s on the cover of your bulletin.  It’s the icon of the Trinity showing three figures sitting around a table.  It sometimes is called the Old Testament Trinity as it represents the three angelic visitors that appeared to Abraham; the intent though is to show the relationship between the three figures, their mutuality and friendship, a relationship that is understood to be at the heart of the one God.

What’s important for us though is that this relationship is not just at the heart of God but it extends out to all of creation which includes us.  So in the reading from Proverbs today you have Wisdom present with the Creator, the Creator who is said to delight in the human race.  According to Trinitarian thought, the creator, by nature, is not the creator without that delight, without being for us.  With the Trinity it’s not and it can’t just be a cosmic creator aloof and beyond us, before whom we can only be in awe, even fear.  That fear and awe may be part of it, but the relationship, which includes delight, is central.

In the Psalm you get the same idea as the psalmist, in wonder asks, “What are mere mortals that you should be mindful of them, human beings that you should care for them?”  The answer might be God saying, “It’s just who I am and I can’t be who I’m supposed to be without the relationship with you.”  The same God that created the sun and moon and stars is for us and cares about us.  The Romans passage talks about suffering but in that suffering we’re not alone.  Because of what has been done for us in God becoming human in Jesus, we can have the sense of peace that Paul writes about.  The God described as Trinity, the God who is relational by nature, suffers with us. 

In the gospel then there is the image of Jesus’ relationship with his disciples being so important that it will continue after he is gone in the person of the Holy Spirit.  The conclusion these lessons bring you to is that however you come at this Trinitarian God, the relationship with us and for us is at the center of things because that’s who this God is and that is different.

In some ways then, every Sunday is Trinity Sunday because the God described in Trinitarian terms is always the God we’re talking about.  The Father, Son and Holy Spirit language is familiar and mostly we use it without thinking too much and that’s OK because as Luther said it is best to adore the Trinity rather than try to explain it.  But there is a Trinitarian difference in this God, this God who is always with us and for us.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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