Sermon: Sunday, May 18, 2008: The Holy Trinity

Texts: Genesis 1:1-2:4a  ;  Psalm 8  ;  2 Corinthians 13:11-13  ;  Matthew 28:16-20


The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.

This morning we have a unique occurrence in the calendar of the Christian year, because this morning is the only Sunday dedicated to a doctrine. The Holy Trinity. There is no Sunday called Sacrificial Atonement Sunday (though we might argue that Good Friday tries to make up for that) or Justification by Grace through Faith Sunday (though, again, Reformation Sunday does its best). But today we dedicate to a doctrine – the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.

No, usually we have days dedicated to events, days like Ascension Sunday or to people, like Peter and Paul. And for the most part we hear stories about Jesus, not long theological discourses on Jesus as the second person of the Trinity, but stories about what Jesus did. Stories about teaching and healing, dying and rising. Stories make for better sermons than doctrines, which can feel more like lectures.

So I’ll tell you a quick story about a person who made the doctrine of the Holy Trinity come alive for me. Her name was Catherine Mawry LaCugna, and I never met her. She died in her mid-forties just over ten years ago of cancer. Catherine was a feminist Roman Catholic theologian who wrote this massive book about the Trinity called God For Us: The Trinity and Christian Life that was required reading for a course I took during my Lutheran year at the seminary in Philadelphia. This book, which could easily double as a door stop, went to great lengths to explore the history of the doctrine of the Trinity, and to say that discussions of the Holy Trinity shouldn’t spend all their time speculating about the interior life of the Trinity – speculating on how the Trinity manages to be three and one at the same time and all other sorts of theological gymnastics typically associated with the subject. Instead, she offered that discussion of the Holy Trinity should be focused, like our other Sundays, on stories about events and stories about what the Holy Trinity does.

She writes, “Theories about what God is apart from God’s self-communication in salvation history remain unverifiable and ultimately untheological.” Theories about what God is in God’s interior life are pretty much psychological speculation – us playing Freud to a God who is not content to lay on a couch for us. What is not speculation is “God’s self-communication in salvation history” – in other words, we can see what God has done and that should be our starting point for talking about who God is.

As your bulletin notes on its cover, the word “trinity” is not found in scriptures. Although the Hebrew scriptures refer to God’s word, God’s spirit and wisdom as a personification of God, there is no mention of a Trinity. Likewise, the New Testament hears Jesus referring to God as the Father; Jesus is called God’s Beloved, both the Son of God and Son of Man; and Jesus promises that God will send an Advocate, the spirit of truth – but the claim is not made in the New Testament scriptures that these three “persons” are one God.

Catharine LaCugna says that faithful Trinitarian theology must be practical and should address how our own sense of what it means to be a person is connected to our relationships with God and with one another, which she calls “Living God’s life with one another.” The idea that God is one God, and still three persons in community is helpful to us only so far as it helps us think about what it means for us to be human. That human life, created in the image of God, is not solitary – but communal.

You can tell that this concept is somewhat difficult by the number of words it takes to describe it. Isolation and individualism are so deeply ingrained in our culture that the notion that what it means to be human is to be in relationship to others seems very foreign. In the Bantu language spoken across the southern part of the continent of Africa there is one word that sums this all up very nicely. The word is ubuntu. Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu has described it this way,

“A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.”

The sense that we are part of a greater whole, and that the greater whole is wrapped up in God’s creation and God’s own life is at the heart of the scriptures we hear this morning.

In the first lesson we hear the whole, long story of the creation. It is a story rich with meaning. God crafts the fabric of the universe and everything in it and God calls it good. God assigns to humanity the task of stewardship of the earth and care for creation. And, particularly relevant to this morning’s discussion, we hear some interesting phrases. In the 26th verse of the first chapter our translation says, “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…” and then in verse 27 it continues, “so God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”

“Let us…” the passage begins. That’s an interesting little tidbit. Now, some would attribute that “us” to the royal “we” – that form of speech that indicates one person with enough power to speak for a whole nation. But then the passage goes on to say, “God created humankind in his image…male and female he created them.”

We could on and on here… oops, I’m sorry… I could go on and on here about the issue of gender and this delicious tidbit that reveals how God’s image evidently includes both male and female genders. In the interest of focus though I want to return to Catharine’s point that discussion of the Trinity needs to be practical, needs to focus on what God is doing in history.

Here we learn that God is creative, that God is creating the universe and everything in it, and that God is not done. In fact, the very first verse of the bible, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth,” has a couple of variant translations. The Hebrew can also be rendered, “in the beginning when God was creating” or “when God began to create.” God begins something, and then God opens up God’s interior life – a life already being lived in community – and invites humanity to be a part of God’s creative work in the world. God makes us, and then God asks something of us, that we exercise good care and stewardship of creation.

In both of the New Testament readings for this morning we get Trinitarian formulas, or pieces of text that theologians in the second and third centuries would use to construct the doctrine of the Trinity. In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians we get the text that is most often used as the greeting in our worship, “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” In Matthew’s account of Jesus’ final words to the disciples he says, “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…”

The spirituality of the New Testament reassures us that we are not only created by God, but that we are recreated in Christ Jesus – set free from the guilt of sin and the fear of death, that we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to live in that freedom. And, as with the Hebrew scriptures, our re-creation, our freedom, comes with the demand for care of that which God has created first. “Brothers an
d sisters,” says Paul, “put things in order, listen to my appeal, 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.” Jesus sends the disciples out. “Go make disciples,” he says. Being made in the image of God we are asked to do what God does, we are asked to open up our circle – as God already has – to include those who are not here.

Last month members of the church council and leaders of various committees spent a day in retreat with each other at the public library on Fullerton Ave. We’d been asked to read the book of Acts in advance of our time together, and we spent the day asking ourselves what it means to be leaders in God’s church. Our facilitator invited us to think of leadership as the practice of discerning what God is up to in the world, and then finding ways to get on board with what God is doing. I think this is a practice Catherine LaCugna would approve of – focusing on God’s saving work in the world in order to discover who we are and what we are called to be about as we live God’s life with one another.

As we considered how to do this, how to catch God’s vision and join God’s work, we focused on a set of principles: asking purposeful questions, working playfully, using participative processes, being productive and taking place (or context) seriously. We put those principles into practice as we worked together to craft a mission statement for the leadership of this congregation. Not a mission statement for the church, but for its leaders. Here’s what we came up with:

Claimed in promise, equip St. Luke’s for loving service.

Reading the gospel this morning, I was struck by how similar the mission statement for our leadership sounds to the Great Commission Jesus gives to the disciples. When we say “claimed in promise” we are talking about the whole sweeping story of God’s salvation history, from creation through baptism, history that we come to church to hear again and again, to feed us and give us strength for the journey. When we say “equip St. Luke’s for loving service” we are talking about the ways we open up the promises of God that we have heard and lived together here for the benefit of the whole world. We are talking about how our discipleship, rooted in our baptism, sends us out to invite others into the rich promises of God’s life in community.

Claimed in promise, equip St. Luke’s for loving service.

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.

Actions speak louder than words, the saying goes – and I’ve heard many of you use it around here. Actions are what we look at to understand the character of a person. The Holy Trinity is not so much a doctrine, though doctrine is how we arrived at this discussion. The Holy Trinity is a way of talking about God’s actions, God’s saving work in the world. The Holy Trinity is not, as we so often hear, a mystery – it is, instead, the life of God opened up to us and, through us, to the entire world. It is ubuntu. It is the promises of God made available to all people. It is life together.


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