There are a lot of things I can explain, if asked. I can explain why the word for ‘father’ in the majority of Indo-European languages is something like pater and starts with a ‘p’ but in the Germanic languages like English, German, and Dutch, the word starts with an ‘f.’

About This Sermon

Rev. Mark Schaefer
Cheltenham United Methodist Church
June 7, 2020
Genesis 1:1–2:4a; Matthew 28:16–24

I can explain how the Interstate Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution is a mechanism for federal regulation of matters that would otherwise be state matters.

I can explain how it was that the District of Columbia wound up getting disenfranchised without any voting representation in the Congress. I can explain the various possible remedies to that disenfranchisement. I can even explain why this has been such a tough problem to solve.

I can even explain how a telephone works—something I once had to do when I was trying, in vain, to explain to my 85-year-old boss in 1996 what the internet was.

But ask me to explain the Trinity? Well, that’s a whole different story.

The Trinity is one of the least understood doctrines in Christianity. Usually by Christians themselves. Just going by the way the doctrine is understood in the popular culture, it’s poorly understood, if understood at all. Often, Christians are presented as believing in a committee of gods. Or there’s God, and then there’s Jesus, who is somehow also God, and then there is the Spirit, which is also God but also a dove or something?

And then, once people look into it, they find that they’re actually even more confused. Questions start to arise about the terms and descriptions of the Trinity: do words like “Father” mean that God is male? (No, but that’s a whole different sermon.)  And then there are questions that arise about the nature of these “persons” within God’s being.

The Shield of the Trinity

One common illustration, now on your screens, is of something called the Shield of the Trinity, in which the persons of the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit— are connected by lines to a central circle identified as “God” with the words “Is” while these same persons are connected with lines to each other with words that read “is not.” That is, The Father is God, the Son is God, and the Spirit is God, but the Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Spirit, and the Spirit is not the Father.  Now, any of you knows that this violates the transitive property of mathematics. If A=D, B=D, and C=D, then by God, A should equal B, B should equal C, and C should equal A!

But it doesn’t. When I would teach this to undergraduate students I would always say, “If you don’t understand it, don’t worry. There are people next door at the seminary who’ve been studying it for their whole lives and they don’t understand it either.”


So, where did this idea come from, then? How did Christianity get saddled with such a strange and paradoxical conception of God?

As always, the answer is Jesus. Now, I don’t mean to say that Jesus taught about the Trinity or that the doctrine of the Trinity was Jesus’ idea. It wasn’t. But the impetus for developing Trinitarian theology comes from the experience of Christ that the early church had.

See, the disciples had known that to encounter Jesus was somehow to have encountered God. They weren’t sure how that worked out. Was Jesus God’s special agent? A prophet but with a little more power than usual? Was he simply God’s messiah? Or did he have a relationship with God that was even more intimate, like that of a father to a son? 

And so as part of this reflection, they began ascribing titles to Jesus like Son of God, Word of God, and also titles like Lord and Savior that generally had been reserved only for God alone. By the beginning of the fourth century, there were some who wondered whether this had all gotten a little out of hand. Was Jesus the same as God? Or was he something different?

In a theological controversy that I won’t take the time here to explain, the issue was resolved, more or less, with the adoption of the Nicene Creed that stated that the Son of God was “true God from true God, begotten, not made; of one substance with the Father.” This, you may not be surprised to note, did not resolve the question of the nature of Christ. 

Questions persisted: if Christ was divine and human did he have two separate natures dwelling in one body? Did the divine and human blend together? Did he have a divine mind and a human mind? How do we understand the nature of Christ as Divine while affirming his humanity? How do we affirm his essential oneness with God while also affirming that he’s, you know, not exactly the same as the Father?

Strange as it may seem, the Trinity is the answer to this question. It is an effort to affirm that sameness and that distinction at the same time.


Undoubtedly, the Christian formulas that had been in use from the earliest days, such as the one found in Matthew’s gospel “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” were instrumental in shaping Christian theology in this way. 

Now, there had long been a certain “threeness” that could be seen in Jewish faith—three had long been seen as a divine number. From the “holy, holy, holy” of Isaiah to the three men who come to visit Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, there’s always been a sense that three is a holy number. 

And when you look, you start to see that threeness in interesting places. 

In the first chapter of Genesis, we read this in the first creation account:

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.

Genesis 1:1–3

The earth is a formless void and all that exists is an infinite watery abyss. Over the face of this abyss sweeps a wind from God. In the Hebrew, the word for this wind is רוה ruacha word that means “wind,” “breath,” and “spirit.” The next thing that happens is that God speaks, יהי אור y’hi ôr “Let there be light!” And there is light. So here we have in this very brief scene God, the Spirit of God, and the Word of God. In fact, the Word of God, is propelled along by the Spirit of God, in the same way that our words are carried on our breath. 

Is this the Trinity? Maybe. It may not surprise you to learn that our Jewish brothers and sisters have a somewhat different read on this text, and that reading should be respected and honored.

But even if we read this passage in a Trinitarian lens, it’s a particular kind of Trinity we’re looking at. It’s what theologians call the Economic Trinity. The economic trinity is the work of the three persons of God. It’s the way in which we encounter the persons of God. (By the way, if at any time you get lost or confused, don’t worry—that means you’re doing it right.)

Now, while theologians will insist that you cannot separate out the work of the persons of the Trinity from one another, that is, you cannot say that it is the Father who is the Creator, the Son who is the Redeemer, and the Spirit who is the Sustainer, the reality is that most Christians tend to do that. Probably because the experience of the individual persons tends to be focused in those three particular ways. This experience is not altogether different from the ancient doctrine of Appropriation which attributes “certain names, qualities, or operations to one of the Persons of the Trinity, not, however, to the exclusion of the others, but in preference to the others.”

But even this is a reflection on our experience of God. 


And that’s where what is called the Immanent Trinity comes in. Whereas the Economic Trinity seeks to describe the work of God. The Immanent Trinity (sometimes called the Theological Trinity) seeks to describe what God actually is

I am going to give you, to the best of my ability the description of God articulated by the Immanent Trinity. Okay, here goes. God is… Father, Son, and Spirit.

That’s as far as we get. Oh, there are some claims we make in the creeds about the Son being “begotten” of the Father and the Spirit “proceeding” from the Father, but when it comes right down to understanding how the persons of the Trinity relate to one another within God’s own being, we have no idea. 

A. The Community of Love within God

But there remains a powerful idea here even if we fail to understand it fully. For what we come to understand is that at the heart of God’s being is community.

St. Augustine understood this to be a reflection of love, and that love itself was triune, consisting of three: “the lover, the beloved, and the love.” God is love, Augustine affirmed. And the love that God is is the love found in relationship. The love found in community.

The love of God is the love of the Father for the Son, the Son for the Spirit, the Spirit for the Father. However we understand the Oneness of God, we understand the Threeness as being grounded in this mutuality of love. Indeed, there are some theologians who argue that the statement that “God is love” only makes sense in a Trinitarian context. God didn’t become love once the world was made and there was something to love. God is eternally love and that is because love is at the heart of God’s own being: love in the relationships and the community of the persons of the Trinity.

We don’t have to understand how all that works out to understand the power that is found in this understanding.

B. The Death Within God

And we see this nowhere more clearly than in the powerful understanding of the death of Jesus. Because this understanding of the nature of God makes Jesus’ death a God-event, not just a human event. As I’ve mentioned in an earlier sermon, prominent theologian Jürgen Moltmann argues that when Jesus died upon the cross, it was not only the death of the human Jesus, but the death of the Divine Son, the Word of God which had become flesh in Jesus. That is, God experienced a death within God’s own being.

Holy Trinity by Giovanni Battista Caccini and Pietro Bernini By Yair Haklai – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

That’s why the illustration that is found on our bulletin and our worship slides today is such a powerful one for me. It is sculpture of the Holy Trinity by Giovanni Battista Caccini and Pietro Bernini, depicting God, somewhat stereotypically as an old white bearded man, the Spirit as a dove, and the Son as the Crucified Christ. It is a reenactment of the Pietà on the divine level. The Father and the Spirit cradling the dead Son, just the way that Michelangelo’s work shows Mary cradling the dead body of her son.

It means that the death of Christ is taken into God’s own being. That God is not unaffected by the death of the Son. There is a wound in the heart of God. 

The corollary of this theology is that on Easter Sunday not only is the human Jesus raised from the dead but so is the divine Son, the Word of God, raised to new life. But if the experience of the Resurrected Word is anything like the experience of the Resurrected Jesus, the wounds are still visible.

C .As Model for the Church

So, let me now ask a question that has been asked by congregations over the course of many, many sermons in Christian history and rarely asked by the preacher of those same sermons: so what?

Is not all this speculation about the nature of the Trinity just another instance of theologians arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin? What does all this have to do with anything we have to worry about on a daily basis?

It has everything to do with it. 

The recognition that God’s essential nature is that of a powerful unity within the community of the persons of the Trinity has everything to do with us.  For we are called to reclaim the Imago Dei, the image of God. We are even called to engage in the Imitatio Dei and Imitatio Christi, the imitation of God and the imitation of Christ. It turns out that those are not simply things we do as individuals but as communities. As a church. And the model of community found at the heart of the Trinity is the model for us. 

This is a powerful model for us as a church.

For if we seek to model our community of faith on the Community within God’s own being then we can never be removed from the experience of unjust death. 

If God takes the pain of an unjust death at the hands of a violent and oppressive state into God’s own being than how can we do otherwise? 

It should not be possible for the Church of Christ to be dispassionate about the death of George Floyd. Or Breonna Taylor. Or Ahmaud Arbery. Or of any of the very many of our black brothers and sisters who have died unjustly. To us, it should be as if those deaths happened within our very being, as the death of the Son did within the very being of God.

Those deaths, and the deaths of so many, the pain of those injustices should be borne within our very being. For if we claim to embody the love of God, then that love must be known in relationship. In community. We cannot claim to love our black and brown brothers and sisters if we do not simultaneously take black and brown sorrow and suffering into our very being, as God takes the sorrows of Christ into God’s own being.

Further, it should not be possible for the church of Christ to rest until resurrection has been accomplished: the resurrection of hope, the resurrection of justice, the elimination of racism, of violence, of oppression. Beyond mere sentiment and commemoration, beyond the memorialization and lament—real change, real action to give new life where life had been taken. To give new hope where despair had reigned.

For if we, through the Trinity, understand the experiences of Jesus as at the heart of the experiences of God, then we cannot do otherwise. In our community of faith, we take into ourselves the suffering, the pain, the loss, in order to transform it with the love, hope, and grace of the Gospel. 

This reminds us so powerfully that God is not aloof from our sorrows; indeed God has taken them into God’s own being. 

We, as the community that would proclaim the Triune God to the world cannot do otherwise.


The Trinity began as a way to understand the special relationship that Jesus had with God. A way to understand how it was that God was working in Jesus of Nazareth. How it was that when we encountered Jesus we felt as if we had encountered God.

At the end of the day, the Trinity is a mystery to us. Unlike Indo-European phonology, constitutional law, federalism, or telephony it cannot easily and neatly be explained.

But it can nevertheless place a call upon us.

For the creating power of the Father, who created us all equal and in the image of God calls us to testify to this truth with power. 

The redeeming Son whose death at the hands of an unjust system demonstrated the staggering depths God was willing to go to be in solidarity with us calls us to declare our solidarity with all the oppressed. 

The Spirit who gave life to all living things, who spoke through the prophets in their calls for justice, for equity, and for righteousness, who impelled Jesus along on his ministry and empowered the church to witness, calls us to speak in the Spirit to the current age. To translate the Gospel again and again into the heart of a world at need.

The Community of God calls us to construct a community that reflects this awesome mystery at the heart of God: a community defined by love in relationship, a community in which no one is other, in which we bear one another’s sufferings as our own, in which no death goes by unremarked, unlamented, unredeemed with the hope of resurrection. 

The Community of God is the community that is not unaffected by death but that works to restore life, for ourselves and for our world. Because it is a community defined first and foremost a community of love in relationship.

This is the work we are called to. This is the work that Jesus has sent us out into the world to do, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

The Texts

Genesis 1:1–2:4a NRSV • In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day. 

And God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day. 

And God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. Then God said, “Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.” And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the third day. 

And God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth.” And it was so. God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day. 

And God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.” So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good. God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day. 

And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.” And it was so. God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good. 

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

 So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. 

Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation. 

These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created.

Matthew 28:16–20 NRSV • Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

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