Reflection: The Trinity (why it’s a very cool doctrine)

Reflection for Western Heights Uniting Church
Trinity Sunday, the 7th of June 2020

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

Today is Trinity Sunday. I want to begin this reflection be saying that there is no way of describing the Trinity that is not a heresy. Our human minds cannot understand, cannot encompass, and definitely cannot explain God. And the Trinity is one of those things about God that we are never going to comprehend. We believe in One God who is also Three, which is why over the centuries people have mocked Christians as worshipping multiple gods. It sounds as though we don’t know our own minds, or as though we’re trying to do some weird quantum mathematics.

It would be easy to just ignore the Trinity. We could instead focus on God the Creator, worship and appreciate the One who made the heavens, the sun, the moon and the stars. We could simply follow Jesus as an example of an outstanding human being, someone who lived out in full the potential we all have to be whole, without worrying about any claims of his divinity. As for the Holy Spirit; if you go to the video of images of the Trinity you will see a lot of birds.

So, why do we celebrate Trinity Sunday? Why do we insist in arguing that: ‘the Father is God; the Son is God; and the Holy Ghost is God. And yet they are not three Gods; but one God’ (Athanasian Creed). Why am I determined to talk about the Trinity, when there are so many other things I could be using this time to say? Why is the doctrine of the Trinity one of my favourite things about Christianity?

To begin with, the doctrine of the Trinity reminds us that God is in God’s very self a community of love. And since we are made in God’s image we too are made to exist in community – male and female God created them (Genesis 1:27). The doctrine of the Trinity also asserts that in the human person Jesus we see God, so when we see Jesus welcoming children and women and Gentiles and the poor we see God’s welcome for everyone the world considers lesser; and when Jesus tells us to love our enemies we know that that’s what God wants. The doctrine of the Trinity also illuminates how it is that the Holy Spirit, God within us and among us and around us, is the very same God who created the cosmos, and why in the Spirit Jesus is with us always, to the end of the age, despite ascending to heaven.

But the reason I want to focus on the Trinity today is because it’s the doctrine of the Trinity that makes sense of the cross, and explains why it is that we proclaim Christ crucified.

One of my favourite authors is Dorothy L. Sayers. She wrote in the first half of last century and she’s most famous as a writer of mysteries starring Lord Peter Wimsey. But she was also an extremely intelligent and committed Anglican laywoman who did her best to put the theology into language that people could understand. Once she started writing theological essays and plays, she found herself receiving 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. One of her 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 share it with you.

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 [Pentecost].

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 end up with 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. That is profoundly difficult to make sense of given that we believe in a God who is love. But the doctrine of the Trinity helps explain it. 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. And that crucifixion was followed by the resurrection, God’s profound no! to violence and execution.

The cross can’t be understood without the Trinity. Without the Trinity, the crucifixion looks like the description in Sayers’ parody: God’s vindictive cruelty satisfied by the execution of His innocent only Son. But since we know God as 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.[2]

There are, as I said, many reasons to celebrate the doctrine of the Trinity; the sense it makes of the crucifixion is just one. It’s a pity that we only explicitly ponder the Trinity once in a liturgical year. But every time Christians worship we accept what Dorothy L. Sayers called: ‘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’. The doctrine of the Trinity makes us who we are. That’s why we can’t do without it, no matter how complicated it might be mathematically. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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

[2] The best explanation of this I have found, a book that literally changed my life, is Jurgen Moltman, The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ As the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology (London: SCM Press, 1973).

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