Sermon: Don’t mention the Trinity!

Sermon for Williamstown Uniting Church
Trinity Sunday, the 11th of June 2017

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

As I say on this Sunday every year: today is Trinity Sunday; be afraid, be very afraid. Ben Myers, who teaches theology at the United Theological College in Sydney, put together a series of tweets this week that he titled ‘How to combat Trinitarian heresies. Because heresy is meh’. Here are a few of the sixty-odd points that he tweeted.

Ben Myers 7

Ben Myers 6

Ben Myers 5

Ben Myers 4

Ben Myers 3Ben Myers 2

Ben Myers 1 (2)

 

Ben Myers 8

Incidentally, number 58 was not Ben’s ‘last tweet’, He kept going a bit longer, and if you’d like to read on, or read the whole series, check out the tweets of @faiththeology. I am going to take Ben’s advice and not try to explain the Trinity. I’m not going to use any analogies: any three-leaf clovers, or water, ice and steam, or apple skin, flesh and pips. Nothing like that.

Instead I’m going to try to simplify matters even further, beyond the way in which Ben simplified the doctrine of the Trinity into a series of statements 140 characters long: the doctrine of the Trinity is the way in which we say that the God of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament, and the God of the Greek Scriptures, the New Testament, is that same God. It is the way in which we say that the God who created everything is the same God revealed in Jesus. It is the way in which we say the Holy Spirit, who is within each of us and among us and who was there at the dawn of creation sweeping over the waters, and who inspired the disciples at Pentecost, is the same God revealed in Jesus and the God who created the cosmos. We need to say that, because otherwise the cross makes no sense and we have no way to proclaim Christ crucified.

I’ve mentioned before that one of my favourite twentieth-century theologians was the Anglican lay-woman Dorothy L. Sayers, who is most famous as a writer of mysteries starring Lord Peter Wimsey. Sayers found that once she started writing theological essays and plays she received letters from people who were astounded by what she said, and were sure that she was making it all up, because it was so different from what they understood Christianity to be. It’s the same reaction that I tend to get when I talk to people of ‘no religion’ and tell them that the church does not believe that they’re going to burn in Hell forever, because we do not worship a judgemental God. One of Sayers’ responses to this was a satire that she called a ‘short examination paper on the Christian religion’ and I enjoy it so much that I want to read parts of it to you. So, settle back, relax, and I’ll read.

Q.: What does the Church think of God the Father?

A.: He is omnipotent and holy. He created the world and imposed on man conditions impossible of fulfilment; He is angry if these are not carried out. He sometimes interferes by means of arbitrary judgments and miracles, distributed with a great deal of favouritism. He likes to be truckled to and is always ready to pounce on anybody who trips up over a difficulty in the Law, or is having a bit of fun. He is rather like a dictator, only larger and more arbitrary.

Q.: What does the Church think of God the Son?

A.: He is in some way to be identified with Jesus of Nazareth. It was not His fault that the world was made like this, and, unlike God the Father, He is friendly to man and did His best to reconcile man to God (see Atonement). He has a great deal of influence with God, and if you want anything done, it is best to apply to Him.

Q.: What does the Church think of God the Holy Ghost?

A.: I don’t know exactly, He was never seen or heard of till Whit-Sunday. [That’s Pentecost to us.] There is a sin against Him which damns you for ever, but nobody knows what it is.

Q.: What is the doctrine of the Trinity?

A.: “The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the whole thing incomprehensible.” It’s something put in by theologians to make it more difficult – it’s got nothing to do with daily life or ethics …

Q.: What is meant by the Atonement?

A.: God wanted to damn everybody, but His vindictive sadism was sated by the crucifixion of His own Son, who was quite innocent, and, therefore, a particularly attractive victim. He now only damns people who don’t follow Christ, or have never heard of Him.[1]

And that’s what happens if we forget or ignore or dismiss the Trinity. We have an angry, vindictive God who was determined to punish us for our sins but who was satisfied when His Son took the punishment on our behalf. It’s horrible; no wonder people turn away from Christianity if that’s what they think we’re saying with our emphasis on the cross and Christ crucified.

But that’s not what Christianity says. Yes, Jesus died as a blasphemer and a political rebel, abandoned and rejected by the God he knew as Father. So, how do we make sense of that if we believe God is love? Through the doctrine of the Trinity. God the Son, God Incarnate in Jesus, is God, so the suffering on the cross was God’s suffering; it was God who was abandoned and rejected. That means that whatever suffering humans experience, up to and including the suffering of the absence of God, God has experienced too, on the cross.[2] And that crucifixion was followed by the resurrection.

The cross can’t be understood without the Trinity.[3] Without the Trinity, the crucifixion looks like its description in Sayers’ parody: God’s vindictive cruelty satisfied by the execution of His innocent only Son. But if God is Trinity, the crucifixion looks completely different, and so does our relationship to God. Whenever we cry out to God, we are echoing the cry of the dying Christ, the Son of God. God isn’t just the one to whom we cry, but the one who cries with us.[4]

I will do my absolute best to never try to explain the Trinity to you. But I will quote Sayers on the doctrine of the Trinity. She called it: ‘the terrifying assertion that the same God who made the world lived in the world and passed through the grave and the gate of death’.[5] As Christians we can’t do without it.

When the early church faced heresies it responded to them with creeds. When some early Christians argued that both the Father and Son were not ‘true God’, the Council of Nicaea in 325 responded with the Nicene Creed. The creed was modified in 381 at the Council of Constantinople to clarify what the church believes about the Holy Spirit. We say the creeds together collectively, confessing what the entire holy catholic and apostolic church believes, even if on any particular day we ourselves are struggling with the Christian faith, or confused by it. Saying a creed together is an act of worship of the God to whom the creeds point, with all the limitations of their language. So, understanding all that, I invite you to stand as we say together the Nicene Creed.

 

[1] Dorothy L. Sayers, ‘The Dogma is the Drama’ in Creed or Chaos? (Manchester: Sophia Institute Press, 1995), pp. 21-2.

[2] Jurgen Moltmann, The Crucified God (London: SCM Press, 2001), p. 255.

[3] Ibid., p. 254.

[4] Ibid., p. 261.

[5] Dorothy L. Sayers, ‘The Dogma is the Drama’ p. 25.

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