Sermon preached for Trinity Sunday at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church.
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
About this time each year the lectionary plays a cruel trick on preachers by giving us Trinity Sunday. I get why we have it. The Trinity is the most foundational doctrine of Christianity, the one that sets us apart from even our closest cousins, Judaism and Islam. The Trinity is the answer to one of the most basic questions of the faith: whom do we worship? It’s more than earned its place on the liturgical calendar.
In a way, today marks the culmination of a journey we began back at the end of November, on the first Sunday of Advent. Over the last seven months, we’ve worked through God’s promises to save God’s people, through Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection, and, just last week, through the Spirit’s power descending on Pentecost. Trinity Sunday is here to remind us that this isn’t a three-act play, or a baton race with three kinds of god taking turns, but all one God, one God in three persons, one God working together to be with us to the end.
Problem is, I’m only about 200 words into this sermon, and I’ve pretty much run out of things to say about the Trinity that don’t run into heresy territory. If there’s one thing I learned from my theology courses at seminary, it’s that pretty much any way you can think of to describe the Trinity is probably heretical. Any image, any metaphor, even abstract doctrinal essays—they all flatten God into something God isn’t. Which makes preaching the Trinity endlessly frustrating.
When I was a teenager, I was a regular on our church’s yearly mission trips. With other church members, we’d spend a week in deep Appalachia. I can explain to you what we did—build ramps and paint walls and lay new floors and shingle roofs. It’s harder to explain what it was—a complicated interplay of good intentions and God’s love and deep despair and crushing generational poverty. Each day we’d debrief as a group, try and put into words what the day had meant to us, how God had changed us. On the last day of the week, though, our Associate Pastor always gave us the same challenge:
“You are going home,” she’d say. “And your family and friends are going to ask, “How was it?” And you are going to want to launch into everything you’ve done here, learned here, felt here. And they are going to listen for about 30 seconds, and then they’re going to want to tell you about their week. This is just how it is. So get your elevator pitch down—30 seconds or less, what do you want to tell others about this week?”
I remember being almost offended the first time I heard her say it. It seemed so cynical. But then I went home, and for the most part, she was absolutely right. Especially for someone like me, who has a tendency toward long stories that take a while to get to the point. So the next year I made a point of finding the one story, the one image that mattered, that I could go out and share with others, to show how God was at work in southwest Virginia. And people did listen.
I wonder if we get Trinity Sunday all wrong, treating it as the one day to explain in full the most important and mind-blowingly complicated doctrine in all of Christianity. I wonder instead if it might be more successful as an elevator pitch—what is the one thing I need you to know about God?
Our gospel reading this morning offers one of the few biblical glimpses into God the Trinity. To be honest, one of the other difficulties about Trinity Sunday is that the Bible has relatively little to say on the subject; the idea of the Trinity as we know it wasn’t developed for hundreds of years. And so we end up with little snippets like the four verses we read earlier, which don’t do anything to explain the Trinity, merely mention that’s its, well, a thing. A God thing.
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations,” Jesus says, “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
That’s it. That’s all we get here. If this were an elevator pitch, we’d still take most of the ride in silence.
But at the same time, these few words speak volumes.
To be baptized is to be claimed, to be immersed in something other than ourselves. To be baptized is to recognize that we belong to something greater, wilder, something as rushing and alive as a river stream.
We spend a lot of time and energy and effort trying to explain the Trinity, trying to capture it, squish it into a neat box that we can take out once a year after Pentecost. But God the Trinity is bigger and stranger than anything we can comprehend. We simply cannot fit God in our brains, no matter how we try. And I think that’s a good thing.
God does not fit into our lives, like a hobby. God can’t be scheduled or cordoned off. Instead, we fit into God’s life, life so much bigger and brighter and more loving than our own. God is not just the name we profess or the box we check but the ocean we swim in every day. In our baptism, we recognize that we don’t claim God; God claims us. We belong to God and in God.
I think this is why we can’t objectively describe God very well. It’s because we have the inside view. We see God from within.
I remember once finding a book of 3D images in a used bookstore. Whoever had donated it hadn’t left the 3D glasses in its front pocket, so I had no way of seeing the pictures in their full glory. But I could sort of squint and figure out the basics—a landscape, a rocket ship, a medieval joust. It made my head hurt before too long. But knew that if I could see the pictures, they’d be amazing.
Explaining the Trinity is like looking a 3D book without 3D glasses. We can sort of squint and see God, make out the outlines, know what God has done for us, know how it feels to live in God’s love. But we can’t ever see with perfect clarity, and it’ll give us a headache if we spend too long trying.
And again, I have a suspicion that this is a good thing. If we could see God fully, in perfect clarity, in all God’s glory, I’m not sure we could ever do anything else. And Jesus makes it clear that we have work to do.
This Trinitarian formula is part of the Great Commission—in my name go, make disciples, baptize, teach. We don’t have the luxury of spending forever riddling out the mysteries of God. We have to take what we can get—the knowledge that we are loved, claimed, and known—and go out into the world with it.
So here is my Trinity Sunday elevator pitch:
There is a God whose beauty and mystery is too great to understand, whose love gives us our every breath, and whose very being is the source of everything we hold dear.
And that God has chosen you to bear God’s name into the world.
That vast, mysterious, beautiful God has chosen you.