(Genesis 1:1-2:4a; Psalm 8; 2 Corinthian 13:11-13; Matthew 28:16-20)
Every week, during our worship service, we sing the Doxology, and many churches also sing the Gloria Patri. These hymns refer to God as the Father; to God as the Son; and to God as the Holy Ghost. Every week, we praise and glorify the triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit.
Even though churches praise the Trinity every week in song, I had never been exposed to a full discussion and exploration of the Trinity until I took in divinity school a class entitled, “The Theological Basis of Structure and Power in Christian Ministry.” After examining the different ways that we human beings have structured our communities and organizations, we studied the Eastern Orthodox theology of the Trinity. As I read the required readings, listened to the professors, and participated in discussions, I had an “a-ha” moment. The Eastern Orthodox theology of the Trinity made complete sense to me. I said to myself, “Yes, this is the heart of the Christian religion.” I even came to believe that it was a description of reality and of the way life should be lived.
Although it is not celebrated in all churches, there is in the Revised Common Lectionary a worship day set aside to focus on the Doctrine of the Trinity. This day is called “Trinity Sunday.” It is the only worship day designed to celebrate a doctrine. Christmas, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter, and Pentecost all commemorate historic events, but Trinity Sunday commemorates a doctrine. You won’t find the doctrine of the Trinity in the Bible. Jesus never preached on the doctrine of the Trinity, and neither did his apostles. The doctrine of the Trinity was developed over the 400-500 years after Jesus’ ascension as his followers struggled with the revelation that Jesus was Immanuel, God with us, and that the Holy Spirit was the Spirit of God. So, if it isn’t in the Bible, and it was developed by Jesus’ followers over a long period of time, why is it important?
It’s important because it’s the uniquely Christian way to understand and talk about God. It’s important because the experience of Jesus’ first followers and the testimony of the Bible force Christians to wrestle with the divinity of Jesus and the Holy Spirit. And, as we shall see, it’s important because it reveals to us the nature of God and the nature of humans as those made in the image of God.
First, though, some history: As I said, the doctrine of the Trinity was developed over a long period of time by early Christians as they wrestled with apparently contradictory convictions.
The first conviction is that there is only one God. God had revealed to the patriarchs of the Old Testament that there was only one God, the God of Israel, their God. The first commandment of the ten commandments states that, “’I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me'” (Ex 20:2-3). Moses tells the people of Israel, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Dt 6:4-5). Jesus repeats Moses’ words when asked which commandment is the greatest. And in the first letter to the Corinthians, Paul affirms that “there is no God but one.” The early Christians and their Jewish ancestors were monotheists – they believed that there is one God, and only one God.
But then there was Jesus! His followers saw him do God-like things. They saw him heal people. They heard him speak “as one with authority” (Mt 7:29, etc.). They heard him forgive sins. They heard him say, “I and the Father are one” (Jn 10:30); “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (Jn 14:9); “I am in the Father and the Father is in me” (Jn 14:11). They witnessed the resurrection and the ascension. They came to believe that this Jesus was no ordinary man, but God incarnate. This was their second conviction.
Finally, there was the Holy Spirit. Jesus promised the Holy Spirit to his disciples, saying “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth . . .” (Jn 14:16-17). The disciples received the Holy Spirit when they were gathered together for Pentecost. They experienced the power of the Holy Spirit throughout their ministry. They understood the Holy Spirit to be the Spirit of God, sustaining them, inspiring them, and empowering them to do God’s work in the world. This was their third conviction.
After their experience of Jesus and the Holy Spirit, the followers of Jesus began to understand that – in some way – God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit were intimately connected. Paul expressed the seeds of this understanding in the closing to his second letter to the Corinthians, where he writes, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you” (2 Cor. 13:11-13). This is the earliest expression of what is called the “trinitarian formula.”
But this understanding didn’t come into its maturity until the fourth and fifth centuries after the birth of Jesus. It took time for the early Christians to put the contradictory pieces together. It was confusing! Were there actually three Gods? That couldn’t be, because we already know that there is only one God. What if God the Father is the most important God, and the Son and the Holy Spirit are lesser gods? No, there’s only one God. Well, what if the one God takes on different personalities at different times, kind of like someone with multiple personalities: the same God, but in different roles? But that would mean that while Jesus, God the Son, was on earth, God the Father wasn’t in heaven because he had morphed into God the Son and was on earth! That wouldn’t work! Jesus prayed to the Father while he was on earth, and the Spirit came to Jesus while he was on earth, so, clearly, they all exist at the same time.
Every way that they tried to understand the phenomenon of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit violated one of their convictions. The only answer was that the one God consisted of three persons simultaneously. God, the Creator, the one Jesus and we call Father; God the Redeemer, the one the Father calls Son and we call Jesus; and God the Sustainer, the one Jesus called the Spirit of Truth and we call the Holy Spirit. Each is unique, but each is also inextricably bound to the others in love. They are unity in diversity, bound by love.
We have a word to describe this kind of relationship. That word is “communion.” The dictionary definition of communion is, “An act or instance of sharing, as of thoughts or feelings.” The three persons of the Trinity exist together in communion, which means that they share completely with one another even while they remain uniquely themselves. This is what we mean when we say that God is love (1 Jn 4:8). One theologian put it this way: “Divine Love is a fearless vulnerability to the other, a readiness to receive all things as well as to give all things (1 Cor. 13). . . . [It is] a complete sharing, a mutual indwelling.” This describes the relationship of the three Persons of the Trinity.
The love that is within God is expressed in creation. God created the world and its inhabitants out of love. We’re created in the image of God, which means that we’re created to be in communion with God, with each other, and with all of creation. We’re each uniquely ourselves, but at the same time we’re inextricably bound to God, to each other, and to all of creation. This is why Jesus could say, “just as you did it to one of the least of these . . . you did it to me” (Mt 25:40). When you gave food to someone who was hungry, you gave me food. When you gave water to someone who was thirsty, you gave me water. When you welcomed the stranger, you welcomed me. And so on. This is the reality of our nature. When we deny that reality, we sin. When we don’t honor our interconnectedness, we sin. We become separated from God, one another, and the rest of creation and that is sin. As Paul the apostle said, “The wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23). When we don’t honor our interconnectedness, we either kill someone or something else, or we die ourselves. Even if we don’t die physically, we die spiritually. But when we honor our interconnectedness, God’s creation – both human and non-human – thrives.
This reality – that we are created to be in communion – can be dramatically illustrated. A now famous series of experiments was performed by psychologist Harry F. Harlow in the late 1950's. The experiments were designed to explore the importance – or non-importance – of the primary physical and emotional bond between an infant and its mother. Harlow performed the experiments with baby monkeys. The infant monkeys were separated from each other and put in individual cages. Each cage held two surrogate mothers: a wire mother and a cloth mother. In some of the cages the wire mothers had a bottle from which the infant monkeys could feed; in the other cages the cloth mothers had a bottle from which the infant monkeys could feed. Even though some of the cloth mothers couldn't feed the baby monkeys, all of the baby monkeys preferred the cloth mother over the wire mother, and came to treat their cloth mothers as real mothers. When a scary mechanical toy was put into each cage, each baby monkey ran to it's cloth mother – rather than its wire mother – for support and comfort, and the presence and availability of the cloth mother enabled the babies to bravely face the scary toy. The results of Harlow's experiments attested to the importance of bodily contact and comfort in forming the attachment of an infant to its mother.
In another experiment, four monkeys were put into cages without any surrogate mother. Although their physical needs for food and water were met, their emotional needs were not. This initial emotional deprivation proved to have long-term effects. These monkeys did not learn how to attach emotionally to other monkeys, nor did they learn normal social behavior. Those that became mothers themselves later on were either negligent or abusive.
Harlow's experiments illustrated the fact that monkeys are created to be in close physical and emotional relationships with other monkeys. Deprived of such relationships in infancy, monkeys are unable to be in healthy relationships with other monkeys. A colleague of Harlow's has said that the theme of his work is that, “You were not really a monkey unless you were raised in an interactive monkey environment.”
It turns out that Harlow was onto something essential when he set out to study the importance of primary relationships. A number of years ago, psychologists and psychiatrists discovered a phenomenon among orphans from Albania adopted into American families. Because of the wartime conditions of Albania, orphanages were understaffed. Orphans received food and clothing but – as with the four monkeys deprived of a surrogate mother in Harlow's experiments – they received little or no affection from their caretakers. As a result, they developed an emotional disorder, now known as attachment disorder. They had difficulty forming attachments with other people and feeling sympathy and empathy. They simply hadn’t learned how to do these things because they hadn’t had physical and emotional relationships with their caregivers when they were infants and toddlers. They had been denied the normal, human interaction between a caregiver and an infant, and they had suffered the consequences. If Harlow were to comment on the phenomenon of these orphans, he might say, “We are not really human unless we have been raised in an interactive human environment.” (Of course, any child can be at risk of attachment disorder if denied normal, human interaction with a caregiver; it just so happened that the phenomenon made itself known among Albanian war orphans, because war creates the circumstances in which it is difficult to care for children properly.)
We have to receive and give love in order to live. We have to be fearlessly vulnerable, ready to receive and ready to give. That’s the reality of our nature. We’re made in the image of God, and God is Love. The doctrine of the Trinity reveals this reality to us. That is why it is so important to talk about. When we know the nature of reality, we can honor it and thrive, growing in our love of God, each other, and all of creation.
That’s why I think the early Christians who struggled to make sense of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit were inspired. They were inspired by the Holy Spirit to put the pieces of God’s revelation together and discern the nature of reality – God’s reality and our reality. Let us recognize, understand, and honor that reality. Even more, let us live that reality. Let us be real people, real Christians, infused by the power of the Holy Spirit to live as God intended, smack dab in the middle of the messiness and the glory of interactive human community. For when we embrace that interconnected mess and glory, we are truly human and truly the church. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Sermon preached by the Rev. Amy Johnson at the Canton Community Baptist Church, Canton, CT, Sunday, June 11, 2017, Trinity Sunday.
“Communion.” In The American Heritage Dictionary, Second College Edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1991, 299.
 Dorothy and Gabriel Fackre. Christian Basics: A Primer for Pilgrims. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991, 143.