The Sound of Sound Doctrine
Isaiah 6:1-8John 3:1-17
What do we know about God? And perhaps more importantly, how does that knowledge shape us?
The Sunday after Pentecost in the liturgical calendar is marked as Trinity Sunday. It is a day set aside to talk about one of the core teachings of the Church: that God, whom we worship, is known as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
This idea of God as Trinity is an integral part of our worship. It's there in the repetitive call to worship; the three-fold refrain of "Holy, Holy, Holy"; the Doxology's "Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost"; the Gloria Patri's "Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost"; the three chimes that called us to worship; even the banners on the wall have echoes of Trinitarian imagery. It is an idea that is so central to what we believe and who we are. And so we set aside one Sunday a year to focus on this ancient teaching of the Christian Church.
The word itself, Trinity, means the unity of three. At the heart of the teaching sit these oddly contradictory equations: God is one. God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Father is God, but is neither the Son nor the Spirit. The Son is God, but is neither the Father nor the Spirit. The Spirit is God, but is neither the Father nor the Son.
Is it all clear now?
We could spend the rest of today talking through the finer points of this theological doctrine. And while I'm sure that sounds to most of you like an unbeatable way to spend the afternoon, there are those who have offered some short cuts: • The Trinity is like H2O, which can be steam, water, or ice. • The Trinity is like the three segments of one finger. • The Trinity is like a song sung in a round: it is one song with several parts, making perfect harmony. • The Trinity is like an apple; if you cut it in three pieces, it's still one apple. • The Trinity is like the sun, which is made up light, gas, and heat. • The Trinity is like a woman: she is a mother to one, a wife to another, and a daughter to yet another; but she is still one woman.
That might help a little. But again, with all of these, it's still an academic exercise. We're simply trying to get our mind around a theological concept. And even if the possibility of Trinity becomes clearer with the intervention of the sun or an apple, the questions with which we began still remain: What do we know about God? And how does that knowledge shape us?
The teachings of the ancient Church, the doctrines like Trinity, are at the center of the Christian faith. I am particularly mindful of such thoughts these days as 700 Presbyterian commissioners prepare to gather in Birmingham later this week for our denomination’s General Assembly. It is a potentially divisive time in our Church's history. And yet all of these commissioners, be they liberal or conservative, traditional or evangelical, all of them can agree to these core doctrines of the faith.
It is doctrines like the Trinity that shape our knowledge of God. But I must confess: I am less interested in sound doctrine for doctrine's sake. I am far more interested in how we respond to that doctrine. In other words, there is more to doctrine than the ability to divide the wheat from the chaff, to separate the sheep from the goats, to isolate the faithful from the heretics. What we know about God and what we proclaim about God should shape the way we respond as people of faith. And as may be fitting for this Trinity Sunday, I have three points to talk about how the doctrine of the Trinity might shape us.
First, the doctrine of the Trinity is a tool for us to help us understand Scripture.
As Christians, we believe and trust in the Word of God as given to us in Scripture. And this Word contains meaning for our lives. And yet, let’s be honest, Scripture is not always clear at first reading. These are texts that were written for audiences thousands of years ago. The imagery is strange; the language is odd.
Take the reading from Isaiah this morning, for example, the calling of the prophet, where he is face to face with God sitting on a throne in the heart of the Temple. The whole building is filled with the singing of seraphs, six-winged angelic creatures. There is much in the text to examine and unpack. We spent the better part of an hour last Thursday during our Bible study looking at the intricacies of these texts. Among the oddities is this little nugget: God says, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Who is this us? How did God move from "Whom shall I send" to "Who will go for us?" As Christians, we can look back and see that this is God in Trinity. God is singular (Whom shall I send?); yet in that singularity of God is plurality (Who will go for us?). And perhaps it is, in that same Isaiah passage, that this three-fold praise of "Holy, Holy, Holy" which the seraphs sing around the throne is also meant for that plurality of God's unity. Holy be God the Father, Holy be God the Son, Holy be God the Spirit.
In our lives as Christians, as individual Christians, as Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church, and as a denomination, it is this Scripture to which we must constantly return. As our commissioners meet in Birmingham, as they discuss the issues that continue to divide our Church – human sexuality, the violence of terrorism and war, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the stewardship of our denomination's resources – it is Scripture that necessarily acts as their guide. We need the wisdom of doctrines like the Trinity to help us understand how Scripture is calling and shaping us for the road ahead.
Second, the doctrine of the Trinity teaches us that Christian faith always contains a healthy dose of mystery.
In our text from the gospel, the Pharisee Nicodemus comes to visit Jesus. Perhaps he is there to test him; maybe he is actually, genuinely seeking further knowledge. And Jesus responds to Nicodemus with riddles and puns, turning the poor confused Pharisee's words back on himself. The story begins with Nicodemus naming Jesus as teacher, but ends with Jesus playfully calling Nicodemus teacher. Nicodemus speaks of entering the mother's womb, but Jesus is concerned with entering the kingdom of heaven. Jesus speaks in earthly terms of heavenly things. He uses words with two meanings, such as "wind" and "spirit"; "from above" and "again." There is confusion at work in the conversation, leaving Nicodemus (and perhaps us as well) more perplexed than when we first arrived. It is an unreasonable conversation.
The equations of the Trinity – God is one, God is three – are similarly unreasonable. They are, simply put, foolishness to a world of common sense. And in acknowledging that, we admit that our knowledge of God will always be limited by our desire to conform to reason.
As we sort out our lives as moral Christian beings in this confusing world, we need a healthy dose of mystery and humility. We can never fool ourselves into thinking that we've got it all figured out. Our common earthly sense, in the economy of heaven, ain’t worth a dime. And as our commissioners gather in Birmingham, we believe that they are seeking to discern God's will for the Church. But we can never be so idolatrous to think that we fully know the mind of God. Our judgments on the issues of the day (not only as the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) but also as Presbyterians trying to live out our lives as citizens and family members and friends and neighbors) our judgments on issues such as immigration and violence and economics and foreign policy and sexuality must always seek the face of God. If God is truly one, then there is no issue before us which God's wisdom cannot illuminate. And yet shaped by the knowledge of the ultimate mysteries of our faith, our judgments must always be tempered with the knowledge of our own brokenness. In other words, we do our best to be right, all the while fully confessing that we may very well be wrong.
Finally, the doctrine of the Trinity teaches us that the Christian faith is one of engagement.
In God's very nature, we see Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God's very essence rests on relationship and plurality and engagement. It is in God's character to create, to call prophets like Isaiah, to send Christ, the Son of Humanity, to redeem the world. There is no isolation in God's nature.
In our lives as Christians, we are called to that same engagement and sense of community. We are called to that relationship that we see in God's very nature. There are moments when our faith needs retreat and seclusion. Yet the core of our faith is as a community of faith, living our lives together. As our commissioners meet in Birmingham, they will make decisions that will please some and disappoint others. It is my hope that we would continue, as a denomination, to live in that tension of relationship rather than seeking the purity of isolation. It is far more difficult; yet, I believe, it is far more faithful to the Spirit of our Triune God.
It is tempting in the face of such challenges to wonder why the Church should bother with these issues at all, or to suggest that the best course of action is to remain neutral. Friends, the gospel calls us to many things. But it never calls us to neutrality. Instead, it calls us to engagement. As Christ teaches Nicodemus, God loves the world. And God sent the Son into the world to redeem it, not to condemn it.
My brothers and sisters, the sound doctrine of the Trinity is calling us today to be rooted in Scripture, to be comfortable with ultimately unknowable mysteries, and to be fully engaged in the midst of the confusion. For our sake, for the sake of our Church, and for the sake of our world, may it be so.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.