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Sermon Archives

Trinity Sunday

Rev. Daniel Smith
Sun, Jun 15

Text: 2 Corinthians 13:11-13 & Matthew 28:16-20

Let’s begin today with the easy part of our passage from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. After exhorting the Corinthians to find order, to be in mutual relationship, to all get along and make peace, he tells them: “Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you. And the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.”

Greet one another with a holy kiss. Sounds kinda sweet, right, this idea of a holy kiss? I wonder if that expression to greet one another sounds familiar. In fact, Mark Destler just said a version of it to us a short while ago. “Greet one another with a sign of peace!” It so happens that that liturgical act – our greeting of peace – is rooted in just this passage from Paul’s letter. Know your sins and weakness, be reconciled, accept the peace of God that is yours, and then greet each other with a sign of peace. Sure, over the centuries, it’s become watered down to a handshake or a hug, but back in the day, especially as it became included as part of the early church’s liturgy, it was a smooch right on the ol’ smackers! This was no peck on the cheek, mind you. It was lips to lips! What’s more, since men and women worshipped separately, it was men kissing men on the lips, and women and kissing women. On the lips. Imagine that! Same sex holy kisses of peace were flying everywhere in the early church! Hard to believe but true, and don't you love it? We can only hope that the GLBT Pride worship service at Old South yesterday did something to restore the church’s sense of pride in such expressions. God knows we have a long way to go. Lest I miss the chance to say it though: Happy Pride to one and all!

So I said let’s start with the easy part of the passage: the holy kiss. Herein we can find some helpful instruction on what is and is not supposed to happen during the Greeting of Peace! It's supposed to be a sacred and holy moment. It’s not a time to catch up, to gab or gossip, to do church business, or to point out typos in the bulletin. It's a time to exchange peace in the name of Christ. This leads to the harder part of the passage, and to the harder part of this sermon. You see, what follows is the invocation of a threefold expression for God and one of the earliest biblical precursors to the idea of the Trinity. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, as part of the Divine Liturgy that they celebrate, the priest announces, "Let us love one another that with one accord we may confess--" and the people conclude the sentence, "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Trinity, one in essence and undivided." At that point the Kiss of Peace is exchanged by clergy at the altar, and in some churches among the laity as well. In the Eastern Orthodox Liturgy, the Kiss of Peace is evidence of the saying: "Let us love one another so that we may confess …the Trinity.”

The Trinity! Its an expression that may feel to some like a theological dinosaur. It doesn't get much air time these days, at least not in our denomination, though back in 1829 when First Church in Cambridge split from First Parish down the street, it was all the rage. After all, our Trinitarian ideas are part of what distinguishes us from Unitarians. The Trinity continues to be foundational to our faith tradition and to our baptismal rites. Just last week, and following our text from Matthew, we baptized five people in a renewed version of the ancient formula, we baptized them in the name of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, one God mother of us all. Besides all that, in addition to be Pride Weekend, and Father’s Day, it’s also Trinity Sunday. Talk about a full weekend! Since 1162, the large C Church has had a tradition of celebrating the Trinity either on Pentecost in the Eastern Church or on the Sunday after Pentecost in the West. Perhaps it’s fitting that Trinity Sunday and Father’s Day fall on the same day this year. Father’s Day is about celebrating our relationships with our dads. And divine father language aside, the Trinity invites us to see God as reflective of the love between parent and child. So, Happy Father’s Day! And Happy Trinity Sunday!

Let me say up front: the Trinity matters. It matters each time we find ourselves saying God is love! I’ll come back to that. It also matters each time someone asks us “Do you believe in God?” In fact, let me ask you all that question right now. Do you believe in God? When I’m asked this question, I sometimes answer right off the bat but more often than not, I pause, especially when talking with a stranger. I sometimes turn the question around ask what do you mean by God. I definitely don’t believe in a God that is some grandfatherly figure that lives upstairs in a beard and sandals. I don’t believe in a God that assures us of parking spaces or cancer cures, especially when we ask nicely and pray hard enough. I don’t believe in a God for whom Jews, Muslims, Buddhist, gays, lesbians, transgendered persons are an abomination. I could go on and on about what I don’t believe and I bet you could do so as well. The same could be said about the word “believe.” When asked if I believe in God, I sometimes ask “what do you mean by the word “believe”? Believe as in “does God exist”? Believe as in “I give my intellectual assent to some list of doctrines about who or what God is?” Or, “believe” as in the way we might believe in, and put our trust in, and give our hearts to someone. I think I still have Red Sox rally towel from a playoff game that just says “Believe!” Believe, as in I’m a fan of! Believe as in I give my heart to, which is another way to translate the Latin word “credo” from which our word “creed” derives. “Do you believe in God?” can mean many things. Sometimes the best way to answer the question is to say “it depends!”

Let me try that first question again, this time with a more specific phrasing. Can you give your heart to the Trinitarian God of our Christian faith tradition? That is, do you believe there is one God in three persons or one God in three different aspects, modes or dimensions? The classic formulation that most people know as the Trinity is “Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” Another version, one of many that theologians have suggested, is “Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer.” I know, I know. The more words we have for God the more “well, what do you mean by that” questions we have.

Whether you believe in the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit, or you prefer non-masculine or even non-gendered language for the Godhead, or whether you are still sorting out whether you believe in God, the good news is there is room for us all in this household, room for believers and questioners and seekers and searchers. No one is about to kick you out if you can’t explain how the Trinity works! After all, the fact is, the Trinity as such, that word, was not used in reference to God until about 180 years after the birth of Jesus. The formulation of “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” did not find its way into established doctrine or creeds for another 200 years after that. But, a threefold understanding of God is in the Bible, namely in the two New Testament passages we just heard. In Paul, “the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” In Matthew, Jesus exhorts us to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in “the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. “

So, what about this threefold, Trinitarian understanding of God? Why three in one? What does it have to do with us? As Methodist Church founder John Wesley once said, “Bring me a worm that can comprehend a man, and then I will show you a man that can comprehend the Triune God.” Indeed, attempts to respond to these questions can quickly lapse into esoteric and academic and definitely incomprehensible realms. Still, several have tried to talk about the Trinity in terms that are easier to understand. Some have claimed that the Trinity is what underscores the fact that God is a mystery – a divine mystery that is beyond us (the Creator), a human mystery among us (the Son), and divine and human mystery that is both within and between us (the Spirit). Others have pointed to a threefold God that is everywhere and always, was there and then, and that is here and now. Still others, including the early church fathers like Tertullian have used the language of metaphor. Our threefold God is like the sun, the ray and the light or like one tree, with root, trunk and branches. For others, God is like ice, liquid and steam, or like wax, wick and flame. One can marvel at the variety of ways humans have conjured to affirm the fundamental unity of the one God and the distinctive integrity of each of the three aspects.

There’s yet another idea of the Trinity, of which I happen to be a fan. It returns us to the most basic definition of the divine that I shared earlier. God is love! That’s a definition that I trust most of us can believe in, so much so that may rarely question just what it means. Seen in light of the Trinity, this understanding becomes especially rich! The notion that “God is love” envisions the divine not as some static unity, but as something dynamic and relational, and as something shared between three equal parties. Think about it! The Trinity affirms that community and mutual and co-equal relationship are at the very core of the divine being. God isn’t just love. God is an active and ongoing communion of love within Godself. God is mutual love held in a creative threefold tension among equals. God is right relationship! And not in some mere dualism. God is right relationship in community! As Martin Copenhaver has said: “Community is essential to our lives because it is an essential part of God. When God looked at the being God created and said “It is not good that man should be alone,” God knew what God was talking about. God would not want to be alone either. In the Trinity, God never has to be!”

Let me stop there. If your head is now all the more spinning with “what do you mean by that” questions, you are not alone! No doubt this sermon has conjured more questions than answers about what you do and don’t believe. That may not be a bad thing. Ultimately, and above all else, the Trinity is a mystery. As someone once joked:  “Why are there three persons in one God? Answer: God only knows. But any card game is better than solitaire for eternity.”

But, if we can imagine the Trinity as this relational and communal expression of God’s love, then, as the theologian Elizabeth Johnson points out [first quoting Catherine LaCugna],“‘the doctrine of the Trinity is ultimately a practical doctrine with radical consequences for Christian life.’ The logic of this assertion is clear. God lives as the mystery of love. Human beings are created in the image of God. Therefore, a life of integrity is impossible unless we also enter into the dynamic of love and communion with others.” So much more can be said of this love, in which we are part. For now, consider that here in this place, week after week, we too may be confessing the Trinity, if not in our words and hymns then by virtue of our actions and love for another and the world. Remember the Eastern Orthodox expression after the Kiss of Peace, “Let us love one another so that we may confess …the Trinity.” We not only affirm but we participate in the Trinity each time we engage in expressing our own relationships with one another. We even affirm the relational nature of our beings and that of God as many of us celebrate Father’s Day and give our dads a holy kiss or get one from our children! Even if Father’s Day and Father language for God is not your thing, and there are many legitimate reasons why this could be so, perhaps we can at least celebrate this day the vision of the Trinity which proclaims that our God and our lives are at the most basic of levels defined in loving relationship and in a loving community among equals. On this Trinity Sunday, may we all give our hearts to this vision, and believe all the more that God is love. Amen.

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