Trinity C Sermon (1998)

Trinity Sunday
Texts: John 16:12-15;
Prov 8; Romans 5:1-5


When you think of a “love triangle,” what do you think of? Your favorite soap opera? The latest office gossip? Maybe you’re a romance novel fan, and “love triangles” abound there. I think of one of my favorite TV shows, “The Practice,” where Lindsay and Helen, two of the female lawyers, are in a strange, on-again-off-again love triangle with the Bobby, the star of the show. It’s been building this year and will probably get messy next season.

Whatever it is you think of when you think of a “love triangle,” I’ll bet it isn’t the Trinity. But that’s exactly what the Trinity is, a love triangle. Obviously, the Triune God is not like those love triangles we were thinking of a minute ago, because God’s love isn’t quite like ours. Or perhaps it would be more truthful to say that our love is not like God’s. It’s supposed to be like God’s. We are created in God’s image to participate in that Holy Love Triangle of the Trinity, but because freedom comes with love, we have freely chosen to image the love of other people instead of imaging God’s love. So we get mixed up in these unholy, human love triangles instead. The love triangles we are familiar with — on TV, in our books, and then in our everyday lives — those messy love triangles come about because we don’t turn our lives over to God’s Holy Love Triangle.

Perhaps it would be good to step back just a moment and ask: why is it that I’m talking about the Trinity in terms of love triangles in the first place? Have you ever thought about the Trinity in those terms? Has the Trinity ever made any sense to you in any terms? Yet we proclaim it every year on the first Sunday after Pentecost. The Sunday right after we celebrate the church’s birthday, we celebrate the Trinity. When the church has sought to confess the nature and essence of its faith in God, it has generally always started with the Trinity. In the Confession of Faith for our own Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, for example, it begins simply with: “This church confesses the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Numero Uno in our confession of faith!

Yet is there any other aspect of our faith which baffles us more than the Trinity?! When it comes to the Trinity, we start to talk in terms of logical puzzles that frankly don’t seem very logical, like One-in-three and Three-in-one. We grope for rough analogies, like an apple, which has the skin, the fruit, and the core, three parts in one.

But all such things fall short of the Trinity, I think, because the Trinity is about personal relationships — relationships which are defined by Love. When St. John sums up God in one word, he simply says that God is Love. And we know about that love through the special relationship that Jesus the Son had with his heavenly Father, a relationship which he then extends to us through the Holy Spirit.

That’s why I think it helpful to think of love triangles when we think of the Trinity. The Trinity is about personal relationships of love, a Holy Love Triangle, in fact. We can begin to better understand the Trinity, I think, not through logical puzzles or apples, but through or own love relationships — even though they fall into messiness and pain — even though our love relationships flat out go wrong.

What’s most important about the Trinity, in fact, is that God means to help our love relationships go right. The Trinity is all about helping us to love! Have you ever thought of it that way? Yes, the Trinity is God’s Holy Love Triangle calling us to know and be a part of God’s kind of love. That when our lives through faith are open to and centered on the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, then we learn how to love, too. Isn’t that amazing!? Every year millions of books are sold on the topic of love. I have one here from my shelf: do you remember How to Get the Love You Want? Sold millions. And people pay billions of dollars to therapists and self-help gurus, craving to learn how to fix their love relationships. But even though these things can help to some extent, I think they still basically all come under the heading of that country and western song, “Looking for love in all the wrong places.” Yes, you and I have been looking for love in all the wrong places, because the right place is the most unexpected place of all. The right place is in that crazy God we mysteriously call the Trinity. We could boil the central confession of our Christian faith down to this: the Trinity is the right place to look for love.

Having made that bold confession, the temptation might be to follow-up like one of those self-help gurus and lay out loving Trinity-style in ten easy steps. I could write a book on it and make millions. But it’s not quite that easy, of course. And, luckily, it’s not my responsibility, anyway, to have to do that. Loving Trinity-style is already laid out for us here in this book [holding up a Bible]. It’s laid out in the love stories here in this book between God and God’s people. It’s laid out especially in that gospel love story between Jesus the Son and his Father, a story which has the power to sweep us off our feet with gusts of the Holy Spirit.

We read from this book each week so that we might look for love in the right places. This morning is another example of tapping into the divine love story. Our gospel lesson gives us another small piece of Jesus’ loving words of farewell to his disciples, on that night before the supreme act of divine love on the cross. Jesus tells his disciples that the Spirit of Truth will come to them. They don’t need self-help gurus; Jesus can’t simply give them ten easy steps on how to love. The disciples will need the Spirit of Truth to show them how something as ugly and as terrible as the cross is actually the glory of God. God’s glory is summed up in John’s gospel through that verse we know so well: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (Jn 3:16)

And in that loving goodbye speech, Jesus also said:

“On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.” (Jn 14:20-21)

Here’s another key to knowing God’s love: that oneness of heart and desire and will, that oneness of love. We are drawn into a Holy Love Triangle to actually share in the same love that God has for us and for the world, a love so strong that God sent his only Son into the world to die for us. And that brings us to one other snippet from Jesus’ farewell address:

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (Jn 15:12-13)

Jesus’ love is a glorious love from God that will even take on suffering and death in love for one’s friends. And it is a love so powerful that it can draw us into it, too. We can begin to love each other just as Jesus loved us.

Which is why St. Paul says that we can even boast in our sufferings. He’s not talking about any and all suffering, mind you, but the suffering that comes from loving in this broken world with the kind of love that Christ has for us. We can boast in those instances because we know that Christ’s love is truly in us and will win the day, even as God’s love won the day with Jesus, raising him from the dead. What is the bottom line for St. Paul of enduring such suffering? “Because,” says St. Paul, God’s love has been poured into hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

This alerts us to the biggest difference between our unholy love triangles and God’s Holy Love Triangle: our love triangles cause and increase suffering, God’s Love Triangle relieves and finally rescues us from suffering. Why do our human love triangles cause and increase suffering? Because, on our own, we cannot love with one heart and one will and one desire, as Jesus loved us with the Father. We may try our best to love with one heart, but sooner or later we fail. And that brings us into conflict and heartache and suffering. Eventually, it leads us to even try to be one heart with others by casting out someone whom we deem worthy of our hate, just as we tried to cast Jesus out on the cross. But with Jesus we have God’s Holy Love Triangle coming into this world to forgive us and to invite us to begin loving with that one haert of God. And when we love with God, in the love of that Holy Love Triangle, it begins to heal all our unholy human love triangles.

So now, what will you think of from now on, when you think of the Trinity? A hopelessly mysterious puzzle? Or God’s Holy Love Triangle? Might you even think of an old country and western song, “Looking for love in all the wrong places?” I hope you will especially think of Trinity, God’s holy love triangle, the next time you’re looking for love in all the right places. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, June 6-7, 1998

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