Craft of Preaching

Dear Working Preacher

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

Trinity Musings

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"iris." Image by Magalie L'Abbé via Flickr; licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.


"I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now” (John 16:12). Maybe this is the heart of the Trinity. A heart that knows that as much as we try, the Trinity will never be easy. A heart that knows that even our most earnest attempts can never fully explain the Trinity. A heart that knows how much we need to be reminded of our futility and frailty when it comes to even adequate expressions of who God is.

But we try to make the Trinity bearable, finding things that help us carry its weight or make it more understandable. We do this with a righteousness or rigidity when it comes to our creeds, insisting that any kind of change in their language would somehow upset the intricate balance between the three persons. We do this by overstepping our bounds when it comes to determining or describing the activity of each person of the Trinity. We do it by overwrought explanations of the doctrine of the Trinity. And we do it by simplifying the relationship that exists between the three persons.

Choosing texts to justify or support the Trinity is an odd endeavor, isn’t it? And so, like last week, here is my suggestion for preaching a Holy Trinity Sunday sermon: choose a text from those offered and listen for how it gives witness to the character of God that the concept of the Trinity tries to express -- emphasis on “tries.” As you all know, the Doctrine of the Holy Trinity is an attempt to understand how God works in the world. But I am not sure the people in our pews have the same knowledge. I worry sometimes that these doctrines we tout are thought to be the end-all of theology rather than what they truly are -- our best efforts to give words to our experiences of God in our lives and in the lives of others.

All of our doctrines are best efforts, at best. But I wonder how often we acknowledge this in our preaching and teaching. When it seems that everyone else has confidence in God’s doings in the world, our gut reaction is to match their certainty with our own assuredness. After all, it appears that not even the church can escape the lure of profitability. Not even the Gospel can avoid the numbers game. And those who seem to indicate guarantees, those churches that communicate a kind of “in” when it comes to knowledge about God, well, I suspect we pray daily for that kind of confidence. And yet, I think such boasting is much like our posts on Facebook, where most of life is easy and wonderful. We would do well to remember that having clarity of vision and a lucidity of mission is not the same as having God all figured out. Once faith is boiled down to quick and succinct answers, it ceases to be faith.

An easy litmus test for determining those who have replaced the living God with a systematic God is to listen to the language. It’s a slippery slope between theological hope and doctrinal certitude; from believing in God’s promises to absolute claims about what God is saying and what God wants; from awe and wonder to dogmatic determination.

So maybe this year, a sermon on Holy Trinity Sunday might be an invitation to mystery; an invitation to abide in the holy; an invitation to admit the truth of what is unknown and stop hiding behind false statements of sureness.

Which brings me back to the John passage for this Sunday. I find it more than interesting that the scriptural intimations chosen for this Holy Trinity Sunday come from the Farewell Discourse in the Fourth Gospel. These chapters are Jesus at his pastoral-care best -- and maybe, the tone of the sermon needs to be the same.

That is, a sermon on the Holy Trinity based on John 16:12-15 should be pastoral, not doctrinal; loving and not insisting; tender and not argumentative. The only way the disciples are going to be able to bear what is to come, to bear the rest of the words Jesus will speak, the rest of the words from then until now that others will speak on Jesus’ behalf, whether Jesus asked for it or not, all depend on the unexplainable presence and power of God known as parent and Creator, as the Word made flesh, and as life-giving, animating breath. A God who abides with us and in us. A God in whom we are invited to abide, to trust. A Trinitarian God because access to God’s grace means everything to God (Romans 5:2).

Karoline

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