June 7, 2020 – Doctrine matters in the age of Trump

Click here to watch sermon on YouTube Richmond Presbyterian Church YouTube Channel.

Genesis 1:1-27; Matthew 28:16-20
(06-07-20) Trinity Sunday

by Rev. Victor Kim

It’s Trinity Sunday, perhaps the least favorite Sunday of the church calendar for `preachers’. I mean it’s hard enough to preach on things we think we understand but preaching on the mystery of the Trinity, that God is one, but that God is also three in one, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, all equally God, one in substance but three in function, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, well no wonder we preachers have a hard time with Trinity Sunday. 

In fact, the word Trinity is nowhere to be found in the Bible.  But the concept of Trinity is found in many places in the scriptures.  From the very beginning, in our reading from Genesis, as God creates the universe, it is clear that God is more than just one.  On the sixth day of creation, God creates humanity with the phrase; Let us make humankind in our image.  Let us… in our image.  God is referred to in the plural.  And in our second reading from the last chapter of Matthew’s gospel, in what has become known as the Great Commission, we hear Jesus himself saying, Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Again, the plurality of God.

Passages such as the ones we’ve heard this morning, and others, have led the church to formulate what’s known as the Doctrine of the Trinity.  Preaching doctrine for most preachers isn’t our favorite thing and for most members of a congregation listening to sermons on doctrine is like having your teeth pulled.  For example, one way of unpacking the doctrine of the Trinity is to say that there is exactly one God.  The Father is God.  The Son is God.  The Holy Spirit is God.  The Father is not the Son.  The Son is not the Holy Spirit.  The Father is not the Holy Spirit.  Or we could say, there is exactly one God.  But there are three really distinct Persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  And each of the Persons is God.  What the Trinity is not is three individuals who together make one God, or three Gods joined together, or three properties of God.

By now you may have begun to lose interest, which precisely why we preachers don’t much like preaching on doctrine.  But doctrine matters and doctrine matters especially in times like these.  Of course, doctrine matters all the time, if it didn’t, we wouldn’t bother having them, but it takes on a particular importance at particular times.  And today, in the age of Trump, doctrine matters a great deal. 

What do I mean?  You’ve all seen the picture.  It’s the picture of President Trump standing in front of St. John’s Church in Washington D.C. holding a Bible high in his hand.  If you didn’t know anything else you might say what a swell guy the President must be, standing there with a Bible in front of a church.  He must be such a faithful man, devout, God-fearing, holding that Bible way up in the air so that everyone can see how important it must be to him!  But, of course, we know the whole story, we know the context and we know that Trump had just walked over to the church from the White House after clearing the path of protesters with tear gas and riot police.  We know the story, the story of George Floyd, the black man who was killed by a police officer in Minneapolis, who put his knee on Floyd’s neck and held it there for what seemed to be an eternity while Floyd pleaded that he couldn’t breathe.  We know the protests that have exploded across the US and all over the world, including here in Canada, as people have marched to demand changes to systems that oppress and actions that kill.  And we know that President Trump in a bid to claim almost a divine right to rule, tried to present himself as one who had a divine sanction to use authority, to, in his words, dominate those protesters with overwhelming force. 

Standing there, using the church which had been partially vandalized by some of those who were part of the protests as a backdrop, holding aloft that Bible, a book I am convinced he is not in the least familiar with, Trump wanted to project a narrative that the God of the Bible would support his actions in keeping order by any means necessary.  There’s a portion of the public who will cheer his actions, who will agree with the kind of image of God Trump is trying to project.  But there are also so many others, many who know nothing of the Christian faith, who will be so turned off by the depiction of a God who would happily suppress protest, who would be so demanding of order that any difference of opinion or belief would be met with force and violence, that they would never consider giving that faith or that God a chance in their lives.

This is where doctrine matters.  This is where Christians who know better have to speak, have to stand up and speak truth to power, have to say that the God who President Trump is trying to portray in that photo op is nothing like the God who, if he actually opened the Bible and read it, he would find within its sacred pages.  Doctrine matters always and it matters particularly in the age of Trump.  The doctrine of the Trinity isn’t just some esoteric, mysterious and impenetrable concept; rather, it has immense relevance for our context, for how we engage with others, especially in times of turmoil and conflict. 

The first chapter of Genesis tells the story of the why of creation.  Creation exists because God desired it.  Genesis isn’t interested in telling us how God created as much as why.  God creates so that creation may be good.  After each day of creation God saw that what God had created was good.  And on the sixth day of creation, God said, let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness… so God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them.  And after God created humankind, God saw that everything he had made was very good.  Did you hear that?  We are created in God’s image, in the image of a God who is referred to in the plural.  So, we are created male and female, not just one, but two, not single, but plural.  Like God, who is one, but also three, like our creator who is in a divine relationship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, so, we are also created in that image, in relationships, for one another.  And that is a very good thing according to God! The doctrine of the Trinity matters because it tells us important things about human relationships.  We are made in God’s image.  God is a community of persons in a mutual loving relationship.  Therefore, the essence of humanity is to be found in human relationships with others, with God and with God’s creation.  For human beings to live truly in the image of God, these relationships must be mutual, generous and just.  These relationships must acknowledge and value difference as well as sameness.  These relationships must accept as well as give.[1]  Catherine LaCugna says that the doctrine of the Trinity helps us to answer the question, “How are we to live and relate to others so as to be most Godlike?”  Her suggestion is that the Trinity teaches a theology of relationship, which explores the mysteries of love, relationship, personhood and community within the framework of God’s self-revelation in the person of Christ and the activity of the Spirit.  And the best relationships within the understanding of this doctrine are those of equality and mutuality. 

If you open the Bible instead of just holding it as a prop, if you really try to understand something about the creator God who has come to us in Jesus Christ as redeemer and who is still present among us as the sustaining Holy Spirit, you would come to acknowledge that the God of mutual, generous and just relationships could never be called upon to justify the domination of other creations of God, who are also created in the image of God.  Trinity speaks of unity over uniformity, diversity over division, love over fear and hate, service and sacrifice over domination, conversation over forced conversion. 

In an age where pictures carry so much weight, where people will believe almost anything if you package and present it in the right way, we Christians who read the Bible and not just hold it, we disciples who actually go to church and not just stand in front of one, we have to know our stuff, our beliefs, our doctrine, so that we can speak out when people abuse our faith, when charlatans try to claim an authority which is neither theirs to claim or what they claim it is. 

When Jesus tells his disciples to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything he command them, he’s reminding them that as the Father has loved him, so he has loved us, and that we then, are to love one another as he has loved us.  That’s what Jesus commands us to do, that’s why Trinity matters. It won’t be easy, but that’s the command.  It won’t be easy because human beings aren’t an easy lot.  There’s a portion in the reading from Matthew’s gospel this morning that sticks out for me, it’s that part where it says that when the disciples saw the risen Christ, they worshiped him, but some doubted.  Some doubted?  Are you kidding me?  What do you mean some doubted?  How do you doubt when the risen one is standing in front of you?  How do you doubt when the one who was crucified before your very eyes, laid in the tomb for three days, then who appeared risen and resurrected, whom walls and locked doors could not hold back, stands in your midst?  How do you doubt?  But some did!  That’s the complex and confounding nature of humanity, yes, created in God’s image, but also endowed with freedom to doubt, to fall, to turn away.  And it’s this broken humanity, broken by division, broken by racism, broken by pride and ego, broken by violence and hatred, broken by our doubts and fears, it’s in the midst of this humanity that the doctrine of Trinity teaches us that we are created for each other, for loving relationships that seek to reflect the generosity, mutuality and justice of the God in whose image we are made.  Doctrine matters always and especially at times like these. 

We need to stand with those who are marginalized, to speak for those who have no voice, to advocate for those whose humanity and dignity has too long been suppressed, to work for justice in reshaping the institutions and policies that cater most to the powerful and connected, to seek abundance of life for all people, not only some, even the ones we disagree with, even the ones who are disagreeable. To be a people of the Great Commission, a people who will teach others what Jesus commanded, is to model those loving relationships, that servant heart and that radical hospitality that is in the Trinitarian God who loves us and has created us to love in the way we have been loved. 

And there is no better symbol of that love than what this table before us this morning represents.  This is the table of our Lord Jesus Christ, God the Son, who with God the Father, who sent him in love and God the Spirit, who is present in the gift of the bread and the cup, gave of himself, sacrificed his very life for our sake, not to dominate but to deliver, not with force but with forgiveness, not in fear and hatred but in tenderness and with grace so that we would know his love for us and that we would then love others as we have been so loved. 

The table is ready; it’s ready for you, for us. So come, in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, One God, Blessed Trinity, World without End.  Amen.

Written by Rev. Victor Kim.
Preached on June 7, 2020 at Richmond Presbyterian Church without members in attendance due to COVID-19 Crisis then posted online.

[1] bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity/beliefs/trinity