Trinity A, June 15, 2014

June 16, 2014

This isn’t what I consider to be a good sermon, it’s a little too wordy or something, but I don’t get to preach when I get it just right. I preach on Sunday morning — ready or not.

Our Intermodal God
Matthew 28:16-20

28:16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Today is Trinity Sunday on the Liturgical Calendar. I’m sure that’s a day you all have circled on your calendars. Who doesn’t get excited about Trinity Sunday – besides me!

Being the relatively non-academic preacher that I am, I’ve never been an enthusiastic articulator of the theological concept of the Trinity. I’ve never done much wrestling with how we define who God is and how God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are related. Creedal formulas are about as interesting to me as obscure mathematical formulas, but I do have some interest in how things work, and I do have some curiosity about the way in which we interact with the various ways we name God.

And while I’m not equipped to contribute to the academic debate of how we define God, there’s some interesting history surrounding the earliest debate about our Trinitarian language. It was hammered out at the Council of Nicaea in 325CE under the supervision of Emperor Constantine, who called the bishops of the day together to establish a standard understanding of how God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit were all related. I don’t think Constantine had an opinion on how the formula should come out – he just wanted a clear policy.

The primary debate was between Arius and Athanasius – two men who each had significant followers and who had different opinions about the nature of Jesus. Arius was an advocate of the thought that there was a time when God was God alone. God later decided to enter the world in the unique form of Jesus, but according to Arius, Jesus wasn’t a coequal partner from the beginning. Arius had an image of God that was more along the lines of a monarch who made decisions about what needed to happen in what we might call a unilateral manner. Arius considered Jesus to be above us regular mortals, but not equal to God.

It’s surprising that Constantine didn’t operate as the decider in this debate and go with that model of reality. It seems like that would have been the preferred choice of an emperor, but he was willing for the theologians to make their arguments and to put it to the will of the body, and it turns out that the position of Athanasius was found to be the most acceptable.

Athanasius argued that Jesus had been coeternal with God – true God from true God, as you will find it stated in the Nicene Creed. Athanasius believed that God was best represented by a relationship and not a monarch. The power of God was not exhibited in acts of force, but through perpetual self-giving to the other. The primary debate between Arius and Athanasius concerned the relationship between Jesus and God, but of course the role and origin of the Holy Spirit was also at play, and it was equally believable to Athanasius that the Holy Spirit had been in the mix from the beginning as well.

Constantine wanted a clear policy on these issues, and the Athanasian formula carried the day. The Trinitarian language that has largely been accepted by the Roman Catholic church as well as most protestant churches came out of this 4th Century church council meeting, and we’ve been trying to figure out what it means ever since. Constantine was relatively kind to the losers of the debate. Arius and his primary followers weren’t executed. They were just exiled to a relatively remote island where they couldn’t rally much of a revolution.

I’m not unhappy that we have this Trinitarian language. I like to think of God as being represented as a relationship as opposed to a monarch, but of course for us to try to define the nature of God is not really within our pay-grade – so to speak. We aren’t equipped to understand what we’re talking about, but that doesn’t stop us from trying.

And with that bottom line established, I shall proceed to declare how I understand our multi-faceted God to interact with us. Other than the male bias that is so present in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit formula of God, I’m comfortable with the concept of a Triune God. As I say, I love to think of God as being represented by a mutually self-giving relationship. That not only makes sense to me, it’s instructive. It gives me a sense of how I am to be as well. I’m not to rule over whatever beings happen to fall under my authority. I am to do as God does – which is to live in a self-giving relationship with others.

Our scripture this morning is pretty instructive, and while it can come across as being a bit authoritarian – that’s far from what it is. I think the methods of going out and “making” disciples has been pretty heavy handed at times. Sometimes we disciples emphasize the wrong words, and there have been some pretty forceful ways of making disciples, but if we would make disciples in the manner that Jesus taught and exhibited there wouldn’t be anything heavy-handed about the way we go out in to the world to do this holy work.

Jesus wasn’t instructing his disciples to go out and impose their limited theological understanding upon the rest of the world, Jesus was trying to provide courage to his fledgling group of followers to do what looked impossible. What we think of as the Great Commission took place on an un-named mountain in a gentile region of the country, and the small group that Jesus addressed weren’t all convinced that the story was going anywhere. Honestly, this scene would be comical if it were to be portrayed in a film.

But Jesus wasn’t being foolish or funny. Jesus spoke of the powerful authority they had to go out and spread the good news of God’s enduring and ever-present love, but his presence was the only evidence of that authority. They were without numbers, conventional resources, or even a likely story. There wasn’t any real reason they were going to be able to convince anyone to believe what had happened and what it meant for the world. But at least some of them proceeded.

And it turns out that this message and this way of relating to one another was uncontainable. It wasn’t because they had all the resources they needed to get this message out that the Christian faith has endured and expanded the way it has. This story would have died if it had been up to this small group of men. They had not shown themselves to be exceptional leaders in any way, but they had been chosen to be the bearers of the good news of Jesus Christ, and God empowered them to deliver the message.

I don’t fully understand the doctrine of the Trinity, but what I do understand and believe is that God comes to us in different ways and God uses us in different ways. It’s sort of a simplistic analogy, but I found myself thinking about the way products are shipped around the world.

If you spend any time on an interstate highway you will notice that a lot of trucks carry containers with the word, intermodal, on them. And those trucks aren’t pulling traditional trailers that are attached to wheels. They are pulling trailers that have these intermodal containers attached to them. Containers that were packed in China or some other country across an ocean and carried by ship to a port where they were put on trains, trucks, or barges and carried to some other inland transportation hub where they would be transferred again until they arrived at their final destination.

Then we throw our obsolete electronics in those same containers and they make the same journey in reverse. These are called intermodal containers because they are designed to be transported by different modes of transportation. These intermodal containers have a uniform size and a standard method of connection to one another, to ship holds, to railroad cars, and to truck trailers. It’s an impressive system of moving items from one part of the world to another. What gets moved and how those products are extracted from workers and the land isn’t necessarily a pretty picture, but the transportation system itself represents some remarkable human ingenuity.

Intermodal transportation is an easy concept, and that’s how I suggest we think of the Trinity. What we have at the heart of our faith is a uniform package that comes to us in a variety of ways. What we call the Trinity is some divine ingenuity – it’s God’s intermodal means of communicating with us.

The uniform message is that we are all of sacred worth, and we can live our lives in a sacred manner. God loves all of us regardless of what we may profess to believe or not believe, but we don’t automatically live our lives in relationship with God. We have the opportunity to become more connected to the Kingdom of God, and that opportunity comes to us in different ways.

Life itself speaks to the creatively powerful nature of God, who willed our world in to existence, but we also need some instruction. We need to hear the teaching of Jesus Christ and to see his example. The church is the bearer of this message, and as Jesus told his original disciples, we all have work to go and to do. God needs people to share the good news about self-giving love. This is what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, and it’s the Holy Spirit that provides us with the knowledge and the courage to be Christ’s disciples.

Honestly, it’s hard to talk about the various ways the message of God is communicated without sounding esoteric, preacherly, or boring – which I consider to be the unholy trinity of preaching possibilities, but I love to think that there is this consistent life-giving message that God will find a way to deliver to each of us.

And what I mean when I say that we worship a Triune God is that we have a multi-faceted inter-modal uncontainable eternal and ever-present God. Trinitarian language doesn’t capture all that there is to say about the ways in which God comes to us, but it’s a good start.

And with that in mind, I actually do have hope that you will have an exciting Trinity Sunday!


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