I see what they did there. This Sunday is Trinity Sunday, and each of the three lessons seems to accent a different person of the Trinity. Isaiah 6:1-8 is all about the prophet’s encounter with the God of Israel. Romans 8:12-17 is Paul’s urging to live by the Spirit. John 3:1-17 is Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus, which underscores the importance of the Son as the means for salvation. Of course, that’s a heresy, but, too, so will most of the Trinity Sunday sermons that are preached this week.
There heresy isn’t choosing lessons that seem to focus on one person of the Trinity. The heresy is in me reading them as if the work of the persons is separate and distinct. We can talk about Father, Son, and Spirit, but we cannot assign different works to different persons. It’s a fundamental precept of our faith that all three are united in their work in the created order. You can’t divide it up. If you do, you end up with three gods instead of one. It works a little like this.
People enjoy saying that the Father created the world, the Son redeemed it, and the Spirit sanctifies it. In fact, preachers who want to sound egalitarian and hip replace the Trinitarian formula “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” with “Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier.” But that is like invoking the name of three separate gods. And, in case you forgot, we don’t have three separate gods.
We worship the one. As the collect prays this Sunday, somehow (with God’s help) we manage to believe in one God with three persons. God the Father creates. God the Son creates. God the Spirit creates. All three redeem. All three sanctify. The fancy Latin phrase for this doctrine is opera Trinitatis ad extra indivisa sunt, which means “The operation of the Trinity on the outside is indivisible.” If you want to be a Christian, you must believe in one God who eternally exists in three persons. And that means we need to take another look at the lessons.
Instead of thinking about each lesson as a distinct featurette on a different person of the Trinity, consider how God in three persons is at work in all three. That’s tough, of course, and I’ll start by saying I’m not really sure how to squeeze the Son and Spirit into the lesson from Isaiah. Other than my professors, no one has ever accused my theology of being creative (and they didn’t mean it as a compliment). Maybe one could say that “the hem of his robe” and the voice with which God speaks represent a Trinitarian identity. Again, I’m not sure. But the NT texts are easier, right?
Paul urges his readers in Rome to live by the Spirit. It is the Spirit that enables us to cry, “Abba! Father!” as a way of identifying God in the same way that his Son did. The Spirit is our guarantee that we are joint heirs with Christ as children of God—all three persons working together with the same purpose. Likewise, in Jesus’ exchange with Nicodemus, the invitation is to be reborn by water and Spirit. We enter God’s kingdom and enjoy the presence of the Father through our rebirth into the Spirit so that we may be lifted up just as the Son of Man is lifted up. Again, all three persons at work as an expression of the unified divine will.
So, dear preachers out there, don’t be heretics. And don’t preach three different sermons—one is enough. Pick a text and preach on it. Let the worship we do this day be our Trinitarian sermon. Sing St. Patrick’s Breastplate. Pray the collect. Use the tongue-twisting preface. Invoke the name of God as “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” But don’t try to analogize the mystery of the Holy Trinity. It always results in heresy. And don’t try to preach the fullness of Trinitarian doctrine in a sermon. There’s a reason it took the Church over 400 years to find ways of speaking coherently about the Trinity, and you can’t fit that into a sermon. We are Trinitarian in our worship and in our belief—both of which are built upon the acceptance of mystery. Don’t over say it. Let God say it instead.