Trinity Sunday B — 11 June 2006
Trinity, Iowa City -- 8:45 a.m.
RCP: [Isa 6:1-8] Ps 29 Rom 8:12-17 John 3:1-17
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
Have I told you the story about the man who came to church just once a year? But not on Christmas or Easter — this man showed up faithfully every, but only on, Trinity Sunday. And the priest finally couldn’t stand it any longer, and asked him, “Why Trinity Sunday?” And he replied, “Because I enjoy listening to you get all tangled up trying to explain the Doctrine of the Holy Trinity!”
Well, I’m not going to try to explain the Doctrine of the Holy Trinity. At least not this year. (Maybe next year!)
I am, however, going to wander around in the general vicinity of the Doctrine of the Holy Trinity, and perhaps we will find a little enlightenment and a little inspiration. For one thing, I do want to dispel the notion that the Trinity is a concept that a bunch of crotchety old bishops thought up in the fourth century.
Digression: (Well, you knew I was going to digress sooner or later, so we may as well get it over with.) Part of the detritus from the recent fuss over The Da Vinci Code and the publication of the Coptic text of the Gospel of Judas has been the idea that what we have come to know as Christianity, including such things as the doctrine of the Trinity, the divinity of Jesus, and the canon of the New Testament, only emerged three hundred years after the ministry of Jesus. This is simply not so. Although it is true that early Christianity was a good bit more diverse than we may like to remember, and sometimes a good bit more bizarre, especially on the fringes, there really was a mainstream pretty much right from the beginning, even though it wasn’t completely homogeneous and not yet too precisely defined. But you see, we Anglicans, having rejected an infallible Pope and for the most part an infallible Bible (at least in the sense of a literally inerrant text), put all our chips on an infallible Early Church. This also turns out to be a bad bet. (If you’re looking for infallible authority, you’re in the wrong quadrant of the galaxy.) We believe and trust in God’s promise that God will see us through to the goal of our journey in the fulfillment of God’s Reign, but that doesn’t mean that we won’t wander off the road from time to time, and at any given moment we may well be in the ditch, and throughout our history our boots have always been a bit muddy. Being in denial about this is one of the reasons why the Church in the current generation is in such an uproar.
Although the word “Trinity” does not appear in the New Testament (the Latin trinitas is first used by Tertullian at the end of the second century — but bear in mind that Tertullian was the first Christian theologian to write in Latin), all of the raw data are there, in the experience of Christians as God’s people, saved by Jesus Christ, filled with the Holy Spirit. The development of the doctrine of the Trinity was simply (well, not simply, I guess!) the articulation, over the next four hundred years, of this fundamental experience as a systematic construct. The doctrine of the Trinity is a transcendental argument; that is, it is something to which we do not have direct access, but it represents the necessary conditions of the possibility of the truth of our experience and hope of salvation in Christ. If the doctrine of the Trinity is not true, then our whole Christian self-understanding falls apart. (One can, of course, believe that the Christian understanding of what God has done and pomised in Jesus of Nazareth is all a delusion, and then obviously the doctrine of the Trinity makes no difference. But those are the options.)
One of the pieces of New Testament raw data that goes into the doctrine of the Trinity is found in the Gospel today, in a verse well-known and rightly well-loved: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” The words “so loved the world” could take a lifetime of sermons to unpack, but today I suggest we think about the phrase, “gave his only Son.” What can it mean for God to “give his only Son” to reconcile us and bring us to eternal life? And what do we understand by God’s “only Son”? What may come to mind, and I think has come to the minds of some people, is a picture of a human father and his son, and dad says, “Son, I love those folks so much I’d like you to go die on the cross for them.” And some may say, “What a dad!” And others, more troubled, may say, “What kind of a dad…???” I hope we see that this is an indication that we don’t quite have this right yet. So maybe we need to go back again to what we are saying when we say that God “gave his only Son,” exactly what “Son” means in this context, and what this “Son’s” relationship is to God.
There’s a lot that could be said, and maybe should be said, about how we use the word “Son” of Jesus in relation to God, but there’s another service at 11:00 and we need to be out of here. But I think I’ve said before something I think is very important — it’s not my idea, I got it from John Austin Baker, Bishop of Salisbury, in a book I no longer have — given what it takes to keep us from perishing but bring us to eternal life, given that cost. God did not send somebody else instead.
And that’s a first step down the road that leads us in our understanding of God, and of God in Christ, to the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.
© 2006 William S. J. Moorhead