“The fine preacher George Buttrick was once on an airplane scribbling out sermon notes on a legal pad. The man next to him asked what he was doing and so Buttrick said, “I’m working on next Sunday’s sermon–I’m a preacher.” “Oh yeah,” the man replied, “religion! I like to keep my religion simple–I don’t like complicated doctrines. ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ The Golden Rule–that’s my religion!” “I see,” Rev. Buttrick replied, “and what is it that you do.” “Well, I teach in the science department at the university. I’m an astronomer.” “Ah yes, astronomy,” Buttrick shot back. “Well, I don’t like to get very technical about such things. ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are.’ That’s my astronomy–why would anyone ever need more than that!?””1
I sympathize with both parties in that little story, and by my third year in seminary, reading 900 page books on whatever complicated theological we were learning that week, my heart was with the astronomer. But the fact remains that theology, the study of God, is a big part of the fundamental work of the Church. Bad theology begets bad worship, bad pastoral care, and broken people. Good theology begets just the opposite.
Why am I talking about this? Because it is once again Trinity Sunday, perhaps the most theologically challenging Sunday of the year. The doctrine of the Trinity is difficult to grasp, and always was, because an infinite and all-powerful God is just difficult to grasp with our finite and less-powerful minds. Faith and belief can be hard, even when you stare God in the face. St. Matthew just told us that the eleven disciples were on a hill, Jesus Himself shows up, and most of them worshiped Him, but hey, some doubted.
“We are not told what exactly was doubted. What did the doubters doubt? Their own eyes? Possibly. Did they doubt the continuity between the Jesus they once knew and whoever this was before them now some days after the death of their former Master? Possibly. Or did they doubt even more fundamental things? Did they believe this was their old friend Jesus all right but then wondered if he had really died after all? Did they believe this was Jesus but thought they were seeing a ghost, a vision, an apparition of Jesus from the other side but not a newly alive, flesh-and-blood person?
It is difficult to say. But whatever the precise nature of the doubt, we cannot escape the striking fact that on the very day when the most famous commission of all time was given to the then-budding Church—and on a day when the Triune formula for the divine identity was given as unambiguous an expression as anywhere in the entire New Testament—right then and there on that very day, there was doubt. There was uncertainty and a hint of skepticism.”2
Thankfully, the act of having faith and the act of being absolutely sure all the time are not the same act. I think that’s what goads us into the work of theology, the need to take the relationship we have with the living God and make it better on our end, to know Him more fully, so that we can love Him for who He really is.
Fr. Haynes reminded us this week that our great statement of theological doctrine, the Nicene Creed, “makes three primary assertions: “I believe in one God: the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth; . . . I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son our Lord; . . . I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord, and giver of life.”
“The doctrine of the Holy Trinity is at the heart of our faith: God, who is One, is three distinct persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Father is God, the Holy Spirit is God, the Son is God; but Father, Son and Spirit are all distinct. Not merely a theological abstraction, this is the reality that lies behind, beneath and above all things. Affirming this faith helps to keep us from believing only in an eternal creator, or only in a dying god-man, or only in a spiritual intelligence that pervades all things. God is all these things:…an eternal community of divine love.”3
Can Trinity Sunday seem a bit academic, the doctrine remote? Sure, if we let it be that way. But what it really is is the full revelation of God’s very nature to us, His beloved sons and daughters, so that we too can be caught up in that community of divine love. Thanks be to God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost!
1Scott Hoezee, This Week http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/trinity-sunday-a/
3Fr. J. Connor Haynes, from the St. Mary’s Newsletter, June 8, 2017