The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

THE TRIUNE GOD

Delivered 5/22/05
Text: II Corinthians 13:11-14
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

Some things are difficult to talk about. Love, for example. If someone asked you to define love and explain why you love someone, how would you go about it? If I had to explain my love for Christie? The dictionary defines love as "A deep, tender, ineffable feeling of affection and solicitude toward a person, such as that arising from kinship, recognition of attractive qualities, or a sense of underlying oneness."(1) I could not have put it better myself...or worse, for that matter. To be honest, no matter what I might say on the subject never could be adequate.

Here is another one: KISS. The dictionary says to kiss is "To touch or caress with the lips as an expression of affection, greeting, respect, or amorousness."(2) Yeah. But any definition is unsatisfactory. Words will never do a kiss justice.

Try one more. God. Hmm. Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, All-powerful, Ever-present, Judge, Just, Merciful, Love, and on and on and on. Nothing is enough. You and I both know that anything we might say would be inadequate.

What brings the subject to mind are the familiar words of the traditional Trinitarian benediction which we heard in the lesson, a text chosen because on the liturgical calendar today is designated Trinity Sunday. That deserves note if for no other reason than that this is the only Sunday in the long church year that is set aside to focus on a doctrine. Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, and so on all commemorate historic events, and we can understand that, but a doctrine? And a confusing doctrine at that! Plus, as you Bible scholars well know, the word Trinity never once occurs in the pages of scripture. Why the big deal?

I will tell you why. The doctrine of the Trinity is the uniquely Christian answer to the question with which we wrestled a moment ago - What can we say when we want to talk about our God? Yes, it can be confusing, but it is worth the struggle. As someone (I don't remember who) said years ago, "If you try to understand the Trinity, you may just lose your mind; but if you ignore the Trinity, you may just lose your soul."

Background here. The doctrine of the Trinity did not spring unannounced from some ancient theological conclave. Rather, it was almost forced upon us as Christians grappled with apparently contradictory convictions.

For starters, the church believed that there is only ONE GOD. With the patriarchs of old the affirmation was shouted out: "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is ONE."(3) The New Testament affirms, "There is no God but one."(4) We are freed from the superstition and fear of believing in all kinds of invisible powers and authorities. One God! Christians along with our Jewish ancestors are and always have been monotheists.

But then the church looked at Jesus. They saw him do God-like things. They heard him speak "as one with authority."(5) They heard Jesus forgive sins. In fact, the devout Jews of the day were incensed at his behavior and accused him of blasphemy because he had claimed to do what only God could do. The church heard more: "I and the Father are one."(6) "Whoever has seen me has seen the Father."(7) It soon became clear that, in a unique way, "In Christ we have to do with GOD...Christ is not just a man sent from God, or a prophet or an angel. When we meet this man (a REAL man!), we meet GOD - the LORD."(8) How can that be explained?

Add one more confusing element to the mix. The church knew the immensely powerful God who had created this world and everything in it; they knew Jesus whom they had come to worship as Immanuel - God with us. But they came to know God in one more way...as present with us as the indwelling power who sustains and undergirds and energizes us. God, the Holy Spirit. Wait a minute. The Bible acknowledges them all, and, in fact, in several places (such as our lesson), it mentions them together. Hmm.

So what do we have? Three Gods? A committee? No - we started off insisting there is only one. How about one big God and a couple of lesser ones? No, that means more than one again. How about one God who is revealed in three different ways - first as creator and law-giver, then as redeemer, and finally as sustainer? God would assume different roles or "modes" depending on what was needed at the moment. Sounds promising, but it leaves the dangerous possibility that someone might think of the good and loving God, the Son, coming to rescue poor you and me from the mean and angry God, the Father, who would like nothing better than to see us roast in the fires of Hell for all eternity. Not a good explanation.

So what then? The church did about all that it COULD do - it affirmed that, in a mysterious way, all three understandings of God ARE GOD. No way to separate any one part from another. One God who has three distinct ways of being God...in the traditional language, "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit." As one writer has it,

If we want to know what the Father wills and does, then we have to look at what the Son wills and does; for the Father and the Son are one God. If we want to recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit in us and among us, we have to look at what the Father and the Son are like; for the Holy Spirit IS the Spirit of the Father and the Son, and any "spirit" which contradicts or ignores God the Father in Christ cannot possibly be the HOLY SPIRIT.(9)

Are you getting the message? If we want to know God, we will only become truly acquainted by meeting God as Father AND as Son AND as Holy Spirit.

Someone has suggested that the doctrine of the Trinity is rather like Einstein's theory of relativity - it is easy to say but impossible to comprehend. To be painfully honest, we do not even know if that is all there is to God. The Trinity is what God has chosen to reveal: it is only a glimpse.(10) To describe the tip of the iceberg above the water is not to describe the entire iceberg. So we Christians affirm the Trinity, not as a complete explanation of God, but simply as a way of describing what we know so far.

Fortunately, the glimpse we have does offer us a great deal, and it helps answer the question about God with which we wrestled at the beginning of all this. The God we worship is the all-powerful maker of the universe. This same God is concerned not just with the whirling of the planets, but also with itsy-bitsy me and you, loving us so devotedly that scripture says even the hairs on our heads are numbered. And if we ever wondered about God's continued presence with us, think about that hair thing and realize that, for lots of us, that total keeps changing - God has to be here just to keep up <Grin>.

These are not new issues. The church has been wrestling with them since the beginning, and every culture and every generation continues with the process. Harold Bloom in his book The American Religion(11) says that American Christians have made only one distinctive contribution to this ongoing development of theology. Theology has always stated, says Bloom, that we have a need to be with God, that we ought to spend our lives on this earth getting to know God, obeying God, and living with God. American Christianity, says Bloom, has come up with the notion that God has an even greater desire to be with us. God is pleased with us, and, in fact, is just dying (literally - in the crucifixion) to pal around with us. Hmm.

I think Bloom is on to something. Years ago, (long before I went to seminary) I recall being in a Sunday School class and hearing the question raised by the teacher, What would you do if the Lord Jesus Christ walked in this room right now? One class member responded that he would go over to him, extend a hand and greet him as a long-lost dearly-beloved old friend. Several others agreed that they might do the same. Our minister, who happened to be in the class this particular day, was then asked what HE would do. He said, "I would fall on my knees and declare, "My Lord and my God."

Why the difference? Frankly, the pastor had a more carefully developed understanding of theology than the rest of the class (and why not - he had studied more). As a classical theologian might put it, he understood both IMMANENCE, God's nearness, and TRANSCENDENCE, God's distance and otherness. God is God, not our buddy.

Another thing this over-emphasis on God's nearness has done is encourage some questionable and even dangerous conclusions about knowing what God thinks and wills. A hundred and fifty years ago we had people in our nation declaring that human slavery was God's will. God had cursed some people and marked them by a different skin color. Not only that, the declaration was solemnly made that God wanted these slaves to be obedient to their masters. THIS WAS GOD'S PERFECT WILL, and those who said so were speaking on God's behalf!!! Does anyone really believe that now? People who claim to be privy to God's will have spoken out about all manner of things since then - the place of women in society, gays and lesbians, stem cell research, whether poor Terry Schiavo should be kept alive, etc. etc.

Some folks have taken it even further. They claim to know God's will so well that they even know God's politics. I suspect you heard about the Baptist church in North Carolina, where nine members, including three deacons, had their membership revoked because they were Democrats who supported John Kerry. According to the Charlotte News-Observer, the nine walked out of a church meeting when the pastor asked them to sign documents agreeing with his political views. When they left, members remaining voted to terminate the membership of those who had refused to sign. When word about it got out, a firestorm erupted, the pastor resigned, and half the members quit. God's will?

Are we really comfortable in saying that God wants us to support a particular partisan political agenda and if we do not, we are against the faith? A couple of weeks ago, in Louisville, Kentucky (ironically, the home of the Presbyterian Church [USA]), a nationally broadcast rally was hosted by representatives of the Religious Right in a large Baptist church. It was called "Justice Sunday - Stopping the Filibuster Against People of Faith," and called for the approval of President Bush's judicial nominees. Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council was quoted in the New York Times as saying Democrats "have targeted people for reasons of their faith or moral position."

Huh? President Bush, to his credit, repudiated that. He was asked at his recent press conference whether he thought filibusters against nominees were "an attack against people of faith."

He replied, "I think people are opposing my nominees because they don't like the judicial philosophy of the people I've nominated...I don't ascribe a person's opposing my nominations to an issue of faith." Good for him.

On this Trinity Sunday, this one day that we admit how really limited our knowledge of the God of all the Universe is, can we also admit that since there is no evidence that God is a member of one political party or another, and that no party can claim God for their own? Unquestionably, we can and should affirm the deep connections between some issues and our faith (care for the poor, for example). But we can and should be careful about claiming God's will for our own agenda.

We would do well to remember what Abraham Lincoln said in the midst of the War between the States: "In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be WRONG. God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time."(12) Indeed.

The message on this Trinity Sunday is simple: be careful about what you say about God. Saying more than you have a right to is, frankly, blasphemous. And you do not want to go there. Remember the Apostle Paul's words in the lesson: "Aim for perfection, listen to my appeal, be of one mind, live in peace...May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit - God in three persons - be with you all."

Amen!


1. American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition, (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1992)

2. ibid.

3. Deuteronomy 6:4

4. I Corinthians 8:4

5. Matthew 7:29, etc.

6. John 10:30

7. John 14:9

8. Shirley Guthrie, Christian Doctrine, (Richmond: CLC Press, 1968), p. 95

9. Guthrie, p. 104

10. James O'Quinn, PresbyNet, "SERMONSHOP 1996 06 02," Note #4, 5/26/96

11. The American religion : the emergence of the post-Christian nation, (New York : Riverhead Books, 2000)

12. Watson Pindell, Milestones to Immortality (Baltimore: Role Models, Inc., 1988), p. 94

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