Sermon for Trinity Sunday

Three Holies

Trinity Sunday; May 27, 2018

John 3:1-17

I used to get really annoyed with a colleague who used the word "triune" a lot. It's a perfectly good word; I just figured that most of the people listening to her didn't know what it meant. It describes God as three-and-one, as the word "Trinity" does. You've probably heard the word Trinity a lot more, but still not have a clear sense of why it matters to you (unless you're a fan of the Matrix movies and think Trinity is a really cool character).

The other day when I was doing my daily devotional reading I happened across something by Madeleine L'Engle, one of my favorite writers. She was describing how her Congregational Church started observing the seasons of the Church year – the liturgical seasons – and how much richness that added to their worship. She said that they didn't, though, pay much attention to Trinity Sunday, and that made her sad. As I've thought about today's sermon off and on for the last few weeks, I've struggled to put into words the thought that is important to me about the triune God, about the God who is Trinity.

And she wrote something that gave me the words; Madeleine wrote:

  The Trinity proclaims a unity that in this fragmented world we desperately need. We are mortals who are male and female, and we need to know each other, love each other. The world gets daily more perilous. Our cities spawn crime. Terrorists are around every corner. Random acts of violence increase…

  The Trinity was never meant to be comprehensible in the way that a mathematical formula is comprehensible. The writers of the Apostles' and the Nicene creeds affirmed that. Another thing we must remember about the Trinity is that it was always there, an icon of all three Persons, whole, undivided. The hardest Person of the Trinity to comprehend is Christ, because we must let go all our rational preconceptions and move into the mystery of love.[1]

That's what Jesus was talking about when he had his nighttime conversation with Nicodemus: the mystery of love. If we Christian people can worship and appreciate our God as triune, as Trinity, that will help us love. Yes, I mean that, as strange as it sounds. The triune God is traditionally called "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit." It is an imperfect way to describe the three, but it is still better than the alternatives; I regret that, because it reinforces masculine images of God and a certain patriarchal attitude. Still, we need relational words and alternatives usually fail to provide a sense of relationship. When we grasp that the essential quality of the relationship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is love and that mutual love marks the way the Three are distinct and yet are One, that will help us love: love the world and love one another. In his conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus says key things about the Three.

The key thing Jesus says about the Father is that the Father acts with love for the creation. "For God so loved the world," he says. The love of God is a profound, holy, muscular love. It is the love that swept through Egypt by night to set slaves free; it is a love that said to a chosen people "Thou shalt" and "Thou shalt not" so that people would be able to live in peace. It is a tough love, the love that shapes creation and keeps it alive: the reason the universe continues to exist is that God loves it.

The key thing Jesus says about the Son is that the Son is lifted up, that "whoever believes in him may have eternal life." The Son is lifted on the Cross, just as Moses lifted the bronze serpent. Here's that story: the people were being troubled by poisonous serpents, and were dying. So God told Moses to make a serpent of bronze and to lift it on a pole: anyone who looked at the image would live (Numbers 21:6-9). Yes, it's a weird story and it has more magic than medicine about it, but Jesus uses the story to describe the effect of his death on the Cross. All who look at the One lifted up on the Cross will live.

And the key thing Jesus says about the Holy Spirit is that the Spirit blows where it will and gives new birth from above. You and I do not control the Spirit any more than we control the wind, yet we know the effects of the Spirit's presence just as we see the effects of the wind. The wind can refresh on a hot day, can generate electricity, and can blow down buildings. The Spirit refreshes, generates energy, and can also destroy what must be destroyed. You and I do not control the Spirit, but the Spirit gives us life.

But there is one more key thing in all of this: the God who loves, the Son who redeems, and the Spirit who energizes are all related, all intertwined. God shows love by the giving of the Son and gives new birth by the Holy Spirit; the Son is the Word of God in the flesh and breathes the Holy Spirit; the Holy Spirit proclaims the Word of God and incarnates the Son. Here's your fancy word for the day: perichoresis. It's the name of the tune that we're going to sing at the end of the service this morning.[2] It is a word that means "circling together" or "making room for one another," suggesting a circle dance in which the dancers hold hands and are inseparable from one another. Think of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit endlessly dancing together.

Here is what I think Jesus was trying to get across to Nicodemus when they talked: it's a dance that we are invited to be part of. God makes space for us to join in the dance of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and God urges us to join hands and dance with one another, as well. Like the dance of the Trinity, our dance is a perichoresis: we make room for one another, join hands with one another. We are not Christians unless we are together, but we are not all alike. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one, and yet they are distinct from each other; so are we.

That's why Madeleine L'Engle thought it was so important for us Christians to observe Trinity Sunday: to get a sense of what it's like for us to be church together. We are distinct, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinct, but we are part of one another, as God is One. As the triune God is a dance of mutual love, so a congregation's life is a dance of mutual love.

I'll finish by coming back to the other wonder in all this: The Trinity's love is broad enough to invite us to the dance: not only to reflect the divine dance but to be part of it. The Three who are holy dance endlessly together, and open the circle wide to invite us to dance.

Robert A. Keefer

Presbyterian Church of the Master

Omaha, Nebraska


[1] Madeleine L'Engle, Glimpses of Grace (HarperSanFrancisco, 1998), p. 129.

[2] The tune PERICHORESIS by William P. Rowan (2000) is the tune for the hymn "The Play of the Godhead" by Mary Louise Bringle (2000), #9 in Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal (2013). 

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