Avril at Romsey

… and Lancefield and Riddells Creek and Mount Macedon

Sermon: Why bother about the Trinity?

Sermon for Riddells Creek and Mount Macedon

Trinity Sunday, the 19th of June 2011

Psalm 8
2 Corinthians 13:11-13
Matthew 28:16-20

Today is Trinity Sunday. Why do we bother? As we discussed during the Early Word, the Trinity is one of those things about God that we are just never going to completely understand. The One God who is Three – no wonder over the centuries people have mocked Christians as worshipping multiple gods. It sounds as though we don’t know our own minds, or as though we’re trying to do some weird quantum mathematics, far beyond the range of anyone who’s not a scientific genius.

It could be so much easier if we just ignored the Trinity. We could focus on God the Creator, worship and appreciate the One who made the heavens, the moon and the stars. If we did that, our faith would make sense to all those people who are vaguely theist, who aren’t sure that there’s a personal God who cares about them, but who look at the beauty of the creation and want to give thanks to someone. Lots of people say that they get the sense of something beyond themselves, something transcendent, in nature. It’s possibly the oldest form of worship. We could stick with that.

Or we could follow Jesus as an example of an outstanding human being, someone who lived out in full the potential we all have to be whole, without worrying about any claims of his divinity. Jesus would be a great teacher, like Confucius, who taught his followers how to be ‘gentlemen’, or Siddhatta Gotama, who became the Buddha, ‘the enlightened one’. Many people appreciate Jesus as a great teacher; they see the Sermon on the Mount as one of the most amazing, resonant, impressive speeches ever given, something like Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. They point out that Jesus’ command, ‘In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets,’[1] is a version of the ‘Golden Rule,’ which is found in almost every religion and in ancient philosophy. So, why insist that Jesus was in some way also God? That just complicates the matter.

As for the Holy Spirit – I’m just going to quote the apocryphal story about a Japanese man who said: ‘Honourable Father, very good; Honourable Son, very good; but Honourable Bird I do not understand at all.’[2]

So, why, today, are we celebrating Trinity Sunday? Why do we insist in arguing that: ‘the Father is God; the Son is God; and the Holy Ghost is God. And yet they are not three Gods; but one God.’ (That’s from the Athanasian Creed, which I think I’m right in saying is pretty much never used in Uniting Church worship.)

There are lots of reasons. One of my favourite reasons is because the doctrine of the Trinity reminds us that God is in God’s very self a community of love. And since we are made in God’s image we too are made to exist in community – male and female God created them. The doctrine of the Trinity also asserts that in Jesus we see God, so when we see Jesus welcoming children and women and Gentiles and the poor we see God’s welcome for everyone the world considers lesser; and when Jesus tells us to love our enemies we can be fairly certain that’s what God wants. The doctrine of the Trinity illuminates how it is that the Holy Spirit, God within us and among us and around us, is the very same God who created the cosmos and why in the Spirit Jesus is with us always.

But the thing I want to focus on today is that it’s the doctrine of the Trinity that makes sense of the cross, and explains why it is that we proclaim Christ crucified.

I’ve been reading a lot of the writing of Dorothy L. Sayers recently. She wrote in the first half of last century and she’s most famous as a writer of mysteries starring Lord Peter Wimsey. But she was also an extremely intelligent and committed Anglican laywoman who did her best to put the theology into language that people could understand. Once she started writing theological essays and plays she found herself receiving letters from people who were astounded by what she said, and were sure that she was making it all up, because it was so different from what they understood Christianity to be. One of her responses to this was a satire that she called a ‘short examination paper on the Christian religion’ and I enjoy it so much that I want to read parts of it to you. So, settle back, relax, and I’ll read.

Q.: What does the Church think of God the Father?

A.: He is omnipotent and holy. He created the world and imposed on man conditions impossible of fulfilment; He is angry if these are not carried out. He sometimes interferes by means of arbitrary judgments and miracles, distributed with a great deal of favouritism. He likes to be truckled to and is always ready to pounce on anybody who trips up over a difficulty in the Law, or is having a bit of fun. He is rather like a dictator, only larger and more arbitrary.

Q.: What does the Church think of God the Son?

A.: He is in some way to be identified with Jesus of Nazareth. It was not His fault that the world was made like this, and, unlike God the Father, He is friendly to man and did His best to reconcile man to God (see Atonement). He has a great deal of influence with God, and if you want anything done, it is best to apply to Him.

Q.: What does the Church think of God the Holy Ghost?

A.: I don’t know exactly, He was never seen or heard of till Whit-Sunday. [That’s Pentecost to us.] There is a sin against Him which damns you for ever, but nobody knows what it is …

Q.: What is meant by the Atonement?

A.: God wanted to damn everybody, but His vindictive sadism was sated by the crucifixion of His own Son, who was quite innocent, and, therefore, a particularly attractive victim. He now only damns people who don’t follow Christ, or have never heard of Him.[3]

And that’s what happens if we forget or ignore or dismiss the Trinity. We have an angry, vindictive God who was determined to punish us for our sins but who was satisfied when His Son took the punishment on our behalf. It’s horrible; no wonder people turn away from Christianity if that’s what they think we’re saying with our emphasis on the cross and Christ crucified.

But that’s not what Christianity says. Yes, Jesus died as a blasphemer and a political rebel, abandoned and rejected by the God he knew as Father. So, how do we make sense of that if we believe God is love? Through the doctrine of the Trinity. God the Son, God Incarnate in Jesus, is God, so the suffering on the cross was God’s suffering; it was God who was abandoned and rejected. That means that whatever suffering humans experience, up to and including the suffering of the absence of God, God has experienced too, on the cross.[4]

The cross can’t be understood without the Trinity.[5] Without the Trinity, the crucifixion looks like its description in Sayers’ parody: God’s vindictive cruelty satisfied by the execution of His innocent only Son. But since we know that God is triune, the crucifixion looks completely different, and so does our relationship to God. Whenever we cry out to God, we are echoing the cry of the dying Christ, the Son of God. God isn’t just the one to whom we cry, but the one who cries with us.[6]

There are, as I said, many reasons to celebrate the doctrine of the Trinity; the sense it makes of the crucifixion is just one. It’s a pity that we only explicitly ponder the Trinity once in a liturgical year. But every time Christians worship we accept what Dorothy L. Sayers called: ‘the terrifying assertion that the same God who made the world lived in the world and passed through the grave and the gate of death’.[7] The doctrine of the Trinity makes us who we are. That’s why we can’t do without it, no matter how complicated it might be mathematically.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


[1] Matthew 7:12.

[2] Dorothy L. Sayers, The Mind of the Maker (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1987), p. 123.

[3] Dorothy L. Sayers, ‘The Dogma is the Drama’ in Creed or Chaos? (Manchester: Sophia Institute Press, 1995), pp. 21-2.

[4] Jurgen Moltmann, The Crucified God (London: SCM Press, 2001), p. 255.

[5] Ibid., p. 254.

[6] Ibid., p. 261.

[7] Dorothy L. Sayers, ‘The Dogma is the Drama’ p. 25.

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June 20, 2011 - Posted by | Ministry | ,

4 Comments »

  1. I love that your sermon has footnotes and references, Avril. I also greatly appreciate what you’ve done in your sermon to highlight the significance of Trinitarian theology. I think part two of this sermon could more fully explore how a Trinitarian understanding of God re-shapes not just atonement but also incarnation and eschatology. I should probably write a sermon like that, too, so thanks for the inspiration!

    Comment by James Douglas | June 21, 2011 | Reply

    • I think part two of this sermon could more fully explore how a Trinitarian understanding of God re-shapes not just atonement but also incarnation and eschatology

      Oh, absolutely. I just didn’t think I could take more of their time on this particular Sunday. But we’re having a Christmas in July service, and I’ll talk more about the Trinity then while celebrating the Incarnation.

      Glad you like the footnotes. You can take the student out of the university …

      Comment by avrilhj | June 21, 2011 | Reply

  2. I enjoyed hearing this sermon (twice!) and it repays reading. Thanks, Avril. I’ll be getting a copy of Dorothy Sayers’ book.

    Comment by PaulW | June 21, 2011 | Reply

  3. I find your comments refreshing.

    Comment by Janet Gratton | July 26, 2011 | Reply


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