Craft of Preaching

Dear Working Preacher

Insights, ideas and inspiration related to the coming week's lectionary texts.

A Trinitarian Difference

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"Redwood," Image by David Sorich via Flickr, Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0


Trinity Sunday is a hard one to figure out. Any sermon that tries to explain the Trinity will likely end up as interesting as the proverbial watching paint dry. But we try, and try desperately, with various and sundry descriptions, illustrations, and props. Why? Do we really think that any of these efforts could possibly summarize what is already a human attempt to grasp the nature of God? This is our inclination, our instinct, however -- to domesticate wonder, to clarify awe, to tame transcendence.

So, taking a cue from Matthew might be the necessary perspective for how we preach on this Trinity Sunday. Note that the Trinity isn’t mentioned in a universal sense or evoked in some general, non-descript circumstance. Jesus does not define or describe the Trinity. Rather, Jesus articulates “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” for the sake of spreading the good news of God’s presence and imagining God’s kingdom here and now. Making disciples and baptizing does not require a formula or doctrine but only the needed words so as to witness to Emmanuel in the world. As such, “I am with you always” is a summary of the Trinity itself.

I think this might matter for how we preach a confession of the church that could easily be dismissed by most, not because they don’t care, but because we can’t seem to make it relevant. We might respond by insisting that not everything about faith can be relevant. That there are some things we just have to accept on faith. But that does not always work in a world that daily challenges our understanding of it; that daily makes less and less sense; that daily demands response in ways that make a difference.

The Trinity asserts God with us. The Trinity affirms God’s presence. The Trinity avows that no matter what and in whatever circumstances God will be there.

Paul knew this. Paul’s last proclamation for the Corinthians is simply the promise of God’s ongoing presence in and for the sake of the Corinthian community. “I didn’t need to understand the hypostatic unity of the Trinity; I just needed to turn my life over to whoever came up with redwood trees.” Anne Lamott’s quote might very well suffice as a paraphrase of Paul’s benedictory words.

This promise means a certain kind of behavior from us. What will we do, what will we say if we truly believe “I am with you always”? Making disciples and baptizing are not just apostolic acts or evangelical events. They are ways by which the Kingdom of Heaven happens, because happenstance is not how the Kingdom works. If we claim “I am with you always” as true, that should make a significant difference as to how we are in the world.

How will we be with each other if we believe God is here? How will we act toward each other if we believe God is with us? How will we speak about each other if we believe God is among us? And for that matter, with the Genesis and Psalm texts in mind, how will we care for God’s creation if we believe God is beside us in the garden? How will we tend to this earth that has been entrusted to us if we believe we can feel God’s tears as God watches our apathy for the earth?

We are living in a time when decisions and actions and speech demonstrate indifference to God’s presence, even a disbelief that God is in the midst of all that we do. Much more is at stake with the assertion of “I am with you always” than “What Would Jesus Do?” What we do is no mere imitation of Jesus’ actions, but comes with the recognition that Jesus’ actions were premised upon God’s presence and brought about God’s presence.

We might ask, therefore, what would our ministry look like, our lives look like, our way of being look like, our congregations look like if what we did and said began with, “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” A Trinitarian invocation might make us pause and question if what we are about to do is truly in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. The experience might be completely different if there is an expectation that the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit are actually in the room. Or, “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” might give us the strength, the power to risk, to take a chance on an action, knowing that God promises to be there.

If we were to grant that, “I am with you always” is a summary of the Trinity itself, then maybe the Trinity would not be an irrelevant belief of the church but the belief about God without which the church could not be the church.

Karoline

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