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“A Sermon on the Doctrine of the Trinity”
“The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from, or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
That verse from today’s gospel lesson may not make any mention of the trinity, but it is, nonetheless, a good word for us to hear on Trinity Sunday; reminding us, now, as it did Nicodemus, then, that the mystery of God is as inexplicable and unmanageable as the wind, and can never be captured in any creed or defined by any doctrine, not even one as big and beloved as the trinity.
Most of the best scholarship we have indicates that the word “trinity” was given to the church by the second-century church father Tertullian, and reached its full development as a Christian doctrine at two fourth-century church councils; the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D., and the Council of Constantinople, in 381.
The issue which prompted Constantine to convene the council of Nicea was actually not trinitarianism, but binitarianism; the question of whether or not Jesus is co-equal to, and co-eternal with, God. Some of the bishops who gathered at the council of Nicea said, “Yes, Jesus is the same as God,” while others said, “No, Jesus is the Son of God, but not the same as God.” Appeals to the Bible were not particularly helpful, because, in the New Testament, there are around eighty verses which seem to say that Jesus is the same as God, and about one hundred and twenty which seem to say that Jesus is the Son of God, but not the same as God. So, everyone on both sides of the debate had plenty of Bible to back them up; these verses versus those verses. In the end, they took a vote, and the side which said that Jesus is the same as God prevailed, declaring those who believed otherwise to be heretics.
Nearly sixty years later, in 381, another church council was convened, this time at Constantinople, where the Holy Spirit was also officially declared to be co-equal to, and co-eternal with, God, which is what the council of Nicea had declared about Jesus in 325. And, with that, the doctrine of the trinity, as we now know it, was more or less settled; a doctrine which, needless to say, became very important for countless millions of Christians across the centuries, giving us some of our most beautiful symbols, inspired art and wonderful hymns.
But, beautiful and wonderful though the idea of the trinity is, long before Tertullian spoke it, and the bishops adopted it at Nicea and Constantinople, we already had our best picture of the relationship between God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit, in those familiar old words we read last Lord’s Day from the gospel of John, where Jesus said, “I came from the Father, and, now, I am returning to the Father. And, when I go, I will send the Spirit to you, and the Spirit will take what is mine and declare it to you;” the most important, and practical, truth about God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit: Jesus came as the human embodiment of God, the best look we’ve ever had at who God is and what God wants. Then, when Jesus’ time with us was over, the Holy Spirit picked up where Jesus left off, telling us more of what Jesus told us some of; Jesus, the temporary revelation of God to us, and the Holy Spirit, the permanent presence of God with us.
That’s the practical side of the trinity; the trinity in work clothes, a way of thinking about the trinity which actually makes a difference in the world. For example, the other day, I was working on this sermon about the trinity when it came time for me to stop, so I could keep an appointment I had to go visit a person in prison; the Holy Spirit, reminding me that Jesus, who was the embodiment of God in the world, once said that if we forget the prisoner it is as though we have forgotten Jesus; the Holy Spirit, one third of the trinity, calling to mind something which Jesus, another third of the trinity, revealed about God, the other third of the trinity.
It happens that way all the time to all of us. We may not think of it in specifically Trinitarian terms, but, day after day, all through the day, the Holy Spirit reminds us of what Jesus, the ultimate revelation of God, would do if Jesus was here, and, before we know it, we are out there in the world; in lunch rooms and locker rooms, classrooms and courtrooms, conference rooms and waiting rooms, sitting down with and standing up for the same people Jesus would be sitting down with and standing up for if Jesus himself was in Jackson; carrying casseroles and carrying signs, taking meals and taking stands, mailing cards and mailing checks.
And, when we obey those nudges and whispers of the Spirit and live our lives as Jesus would live his life if Jesus himself was in Jackson, then, in a way, Jesus himself is in Jackson. And not just Jesus, but God and the Holy Spirit, too; the whole entire trinity, all four of them, counting you.