A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
Living the Mystery
May 19, 2016
The Sunday after Pentecost is always designated “Trinity Sunday” in the lectionary, inviting us to reflect at least once each year on the mystery of God’s identity as revealed to us in Holy Scripture. The Christian church wrestled with this mystery mightily for centuries before establishing a fragile Trinitarian orthodoxy reflected in the Nicene Creed. Ever since it was “settled,” the doctrine of the Trinity has continued to be contested, and many who do affirm its general framework flesh it out in significantly different ways.
One way we have responded to the depth of this mystery is simply to ignore it. Whether implicitly or explicitly, we make it expendable simply by avoiding the challenge of engaging it. One of the benefits of following the lectionary is that it keeps us from dodging this mystery simply because it is difficult to grasp.
I had been serving as pastor in a congregation for nearly a year when Trinity Sunday rolled around. I dutifully took a stab at preaching this great mystery, after which one of the dearest saints and most astute theologians in the congregation remarked to me, “I have been here all my life, and this is the first sermon I have ever heard on the Trinity! Thank you so, so much for tackling this monumentally difficult, yet critically important topic!” I tried not to look too pleased with myself as I thanked her, not least because I had the good sense to follow the lectionary in my preaching, something my predecessors there had apparently avoided.
The following year when Trinity Sunday rolled around again, I preached again on the Trinity. After church, this same lovely saint of God came to me with great gratitude once more, pouring out her thanks by saying, “I have been here all my life, and this is the first sermon I have ever heard on the Trinity.…” I learned something important that day about not taking myself too seriously as a preacher!
The unity-in-diversity of the Trinity is beyond the grasp of our reason. All we can do is try to interpret the Scriptures as honestly as we can. There is no perfect formula or image that unlocks the mystery fully. So we struggle to understand some of its components, at least, even if the totality of how they fit together is impossible fully to ascertain.
One such component is the unity of the Father and the Son. “The Father and I are one,” Jesus tells his critics. (John 10:30) Later he unpacks this more fully with his disciples, finally praying for them, “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” (John 17:11)
The unity of Father and Son is a core component of the doctrine of the Trinity. We understand it far less fully than we’d like, but its force hits us squarely where we live when Jesus prays that our relationships with each other might be like his relationship to the Father.
They are united by being always with each other. (John 16:32) Whatever else the doctrine of the Trinity may mean, or whatever our understanding of the nature of the church may be, Jesus prays that we will always be together. Separation from one another, for any reason, runs contrary to how Jesus calls us to reflect the divine image.
The Father and the Son are united by being always within each other. (John 17:21) They are united in heart, not merely outwardly. Their inner bond is essential to their identity. So it is for us – our bond to one another is essential to our identity as Christians. The Westminster Confession attributes this bond to the work of the Holy Spirit, who binds us inseparably to each other by binding all of us to Christ. (Book of Confessions 6.054)
Finally, the Father and the Son are always pointing the way to each other. The Father leads us to the Son (John 6:44), and the Son leads us to the Father (John 14:6). Similarly, we who follow Jesus are called to lift up one another, regarding each other as better than ourselves, and seeking each other’s interests before our own. (Philippians 2:3-4)
The full mystery of the Trinity may be forever elusive as an abstract doctrine. Yet even though we comprehend it only dimly, it can make a profound difference for us when we commit to relating to one another in spirit and in action like Jesus related to his Father. This is what he prayed for. May his will be done among us, in us, and through us, to the glory of God!
Living the mystery with you,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
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