May 22, 2016 – Trinity Sunday

Jill Duffield's lectionary reflections are sent to the Outlook's email list every Monday.
Jill Duffield’s lectionary reflections are sent to the Outlook’s email list every Monday.

Romans 5:1-5; John 16:12-15

Trinity Sunday is back and I know you have been counting the Sundays until it came around again on the liturgical calendar!

Talk of the Trinity throws some of us back to an introductory theology class and, if we aren’t careful, we will end up giving a lecture rather than preaching a sermon. We might be tempted to throw around words like “economic” or “immanent.” I know I have personally subjected congregations to a show of my academic prowess by using the word, “perichoresis” in a sermon. But in going down paths of abstraction and scholarly rhetoric, we may be missing the point of the Trinity entirely. In the preface of his wonderful book, “The Triune God: An Essay on Postliberal Theology,” William Placher writes: “If, however, as I believe, we can know God only as revealed in Christ through the Holy Spirit, then we start with three. What we know is that Jesus is God’s self-revelation, and only the Holy Spirit enables us to believe this.” In other words, the Trinity isn’t some esoteric doctrine – the Trinity is the God we know and the God who knows and loves us.

Trinity Sunday isn’t a day for expounding lofty doctrine, it is a day for heart-felt confession of the faith. It is a Sunday to celebrate the love that God goes to extraordinary lengths to make known to the world. Here are lines 157-161 from “The Trinity: God’s Love Overflowing”

According to the witness of scripture, God’s love comes to us in a threefold way: God loved the world and gave the Son for our salvation (Jn 3:16); Jesus Christ, God’s only Son our Lord, loved us and gave his life for us (Gal 2:20); the gift of God’s love in Christ has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit (2 Cor 1:22). The church’s confession and praise of the triune God is rooted in the threefold self-revelation of the one God who is our creator, redeemer, and our sanctifier.

Notice again, the Trinity isn’t about God being obtuse, it is about God revealing God’s self to the world. It most certainly holds up the mystery of God and our inability to know God fully, but also the God revealed to us: Father, Son and Holy Spirit tells us a great deal that is trustworthy and eternal about God’s character and actions.

Could we start there this Trinity Sunday? Start with what we know about God through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit? As Placher argues, how about we start with the three rather than each one? Start with Romans and John and then move to how Romans and John is a living Word in our lives and in the life of the world?

When we start there we have a lot to proclaim. What incredible knowledge we have been given. We have been given truth that glorifies Jesus Christ. We have been given all that is Jesus’ and all that is the Father’s. Sit with that reality for a few moments. Jesus says of the Holy Spirit in John’s Gospel, “He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” Imagine if we were daily conscious of that kind of knowledge being given to us?

But wait, there is more! Read Romans 5:1-5 again. Look at what we know about God and subsequently about the world and ourselves. What knowledge have we been given through the triune God? We know we are justified by faith. (New Testament scholar Beverly Gaventa prefers “rectified” rather than “justified.”) In other words, we have been put right with God through the faith we have been given by the Holy Spirit. This is not our own doing. Let’s be clear on that point. As Gaventa said in her second Sprunt lecture on Romans  at Union Presbyterian Seminary earlier this month, “Something happened to the whole cosmos, to reclaim, recreate humanity through the Christ event.” Through the faithfulness of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, we can trust that we are rectified. The triune God has revealed this to us.

What else has been revealed to us? Peace with God through Jesus Christ. Access to grace and hope – hope even when we suffer, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit given to us.

This is a Sunday not of “out there” concepts, but of as close-as-our-breath, written-on-our-hearts trust in the love and faithfulness of God even in the most trying of times.

Placher puts it thusly:

A kind of space lies within the triune God – a space potentially inclusive of the space of sinners and doubters – and yet this space is no desert but a spiritual garden of mutual love and glorification. In the incarnation, the three show that there is always within God a space large enough for the whole world, and even all its sin: The Word’s distance from the one he calls Father is so great that no one falls outside it, and the Spirit fills all that space with love.

When and where have you known that you were in that kind of space? When and where and how have you been a part of sharing that kind of space?

I think of a congregation that built a ramp into the choir loft after one of the long time altos became wheelchair-bound. I know of a little church that transformed a Sunday school classroom into a nursery – complete with a large mural depicting Jesus welcoming the children – before there were any families coming with babies or toddlers. I think with too much pride about a congregation I served that as soon as it hit the news that families from the Gulf Coast displaced from Hurricane Katrina were coming our way, fixed up the empty manse and told me, “Go sign us up for any family that needs a home.” I remember the small group of committed church men and women who formed a team to resettle a refugee family in our small city. We thought we would get a family from the Sudan, but the call came asking if we would instead welcome a mom and her two daughters from a completely different part of the world. The answer from our chair was quick and resolute: “We will welcome whoever God sends us.” I know of many churches that routinely open their doors to provide hospitality to the homeless and go out into the city streets to find those in need of safe space.

I have sat in my pastor’s office and been given the space to confess and be forgiven. I relish that space every Sunday in the sanctuary during corporate confession. Church folk have babysat my kids when they were small so that my husband and I could have space to stop and be together. In times of doubt, colleagues and friends have assured me God still had room for me. There have been times when I felt so unworthy and lost that I knew I could be nowhere other than outside the bounds of God’s grace, but miraculously someone invited me to Christ’s table and said, “There is a place here, prepared for you.”

When have you been in that space? When have you participated in creating it? That’s the space – the Trinitarian space, inclusive of sinners and doubters – where the love of Father, Son and Holy Spirit holds us fast, is poured out in our hearts and is as close as our own breath. Offer that kind of space on this Trinity Sunday.

This week:

  1. Take some time to read “The Trinity: God’s Love Overflowing.” There is also a thoughtful study guide.
  2. “The Trinity: God’s Love Overflowing” notes, “Trinitarian faith witnesses to the divine reality as living, active, dynamic, and relational.” How so? What would be lost if we didn’t think of God as Trinitarian?
  3. Sometimes in our preaching and teaching we should “first do no harm.” Placher notes there are some rules we should follow when talking about the Trinity: “Do not say anything that would imply there is more than one God. Do not say anything that would imply that the Son or the Spirit is less than the Father. Do not say anything that would imply that the Son’s prayers to the Father, or the distinction between the Son and the Spirit, are matters of appearance rather than reality. Affirm that the threefoldness of God’s self-revelations mirrors something threefold in how God truly is.” How difficult is it to apply these rules? Why?
  4. Think of various children’s sermons about the Trinity: one apple with skin, seeds and flesh – or the ever popular, water, ice and steam. What’s theologically wrong with these object lessons? What might be better? (I had a theology professor suggest we talk about the Trinity with children in terms of friendship. Do you have any thoughts about that?)
  5. How do you understand verses 3-5 in Romans 5? Have you experienced this trajectory from suffering to endurance to character to hope?
  6. If you want a good, concise review of the Doctrine of the Trinity take a look in “The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology” edited by Alan Richardson and John Bowden.