10 Ways to Preach the Trinity Sunday Sermon

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There is a standard joke about a church rector making up the calendar for preaching. He decides to preach all the easy Bible passages. Pentecost? It’s a piece of cake! The Transfiguration? Child’s play. Christ the King Sunday? Not a problem. But then he looks at the Bible readings for the Feast of the Holy Trinity, breathes heavily for a few minutes, and mutters, “This Holy Trinity sermon? Father, Son, and Holy Cow, I’m in trouble!”

Of course, this joke is a made-up, apocryphal joke that should never have seen the light of day. Still, it does introduce the idea of the preacher getting ready to preach one of the most challenging but essential topics of the church year: the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. I’ve previously shared a few quotes on the Trinity to salt and pepper your sermon, but below are ten ways to approach the sermon itself.

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1. The Trinity in the Bible

Ok, so most preachers know that the word “Trinity” is not in the Bible. Yet the Trinity is all over the Bible! Consider the beginning, where God the Father, with his hovering Spirit, creates by his Son the Word (Genesis 1). Or consider the end, where the Spirit calls us to the throne of the Father and his Son the Lamb (Revelation 22).

In the gospels, Jesus not only speaks to the Father and of the Holy Spirit; we even see the Father and the Holy Spirit in the dramatic beginning of Jesus’ ministry, at his baptism in the Jordan. As I wrote in my book “The First 24:

Jesus saw the Holy Spirit descend on him in the form of a dove. And then he heard the voice of his Father in heaven speak to the masses and affirm him as the Son. They were all there in one place—the three members of the Holy Trinity: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit…

And when Jesus commissions his disciples, he sends them to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them. How? In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28). Why? So that they might be fully immersed in the love of the Trinitarian God.

2. Unpack the Nicene Creed

The historic key to defining the Holy Trinity is hiding in plain sight for Anglicans. The Nicene Creed is the theological framework that holds and preserves the Church’s teaching of the Holy Trinity. It affirms God’s oneness while showing the distinctive roles of its three persons.

It preserves the teaching that Jesus was begotten of the Father. God didn’t make him. He is of the same essence as the Father; they are eternally inseparable. Further, the Holy Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father and the Son. (On the phrase “and the Son,” read up on the Filioque Clause or go to page 768 of the 2019 Book of Common Prayer. This is way above my pay grade.)

The Nicene Creed holds all these truths to be self-evident from a close reading of the Bible. These points about the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit go together. They are a matched set if you will. They are co-equal, co-eternal, consubstantial, and inseparable. But the three persons are also distinct and unique.

Do you see what the Creed is? It is a device that holds the components of the Trinity together in an interconnected state of continuous fellowship, each having individual agency and activity. The three persons are all there. They are all defined. Their relationship is explained. Their roles are defined. Their relationship is defined. And week by week, Christians around the world remind themselves of this.

You may want to add one more thing. The Nicene Creed is a theological treatise. It is not a prayer, even though we often say “Amen” at its end. It is a carefully constructed explanation of, well, a theological construct. This is why the text of the Nicene Creed should never be spoken from memory. Its text should always be before us as we read, recite, speak, hear, and read it.

3. Celebrate the Right Doctrine

Preaching on doctrine and theological constructs is difficult. But necessary. I usually reserved the pulpit for expository preaching, but plenty of times, more depth was needed to develop a point of doctrine or church dogma. Go for it. It is a dereliction of duty to avoid it.

Why? Because incorrect doctrine is injurious to the human soul. It doesn’t comfort, effect change, protect, or guide people into the good life. Wrong-headed theology produces wrong-thinking people. For example, we can imagine that bad thinking about the fatherhood of God or the sufficiency of the Cross would lead to grief and sorrow for our people. It happens all the time.

To paraphrase Lord Acton: Bad theology corrupts; absolutely bad theology corrupts absolutely. The Trinity is good theology, which illuminates everything and will bless your people in many areas of life.

4. Heresy Hurts

One way to prove the value of the Trinity is to show its terribly flawed competitors. I am speaking about the heresies. There are many of them. They are strewn across the first centuries of the Christian Church as people tried to explain what the Bible had revealed.

It would be amazing to tell the story and the logic behind Docetism, Arianism, or Gnosticism. And then show why these heresies don’t work; they don’t get the job done. They either change the nature of Jesus such that he cannot save us (or won’t), or they change the nature of our humanity such that we do not need to be saved. Every heresy has a logical rationale—they might make sense on paper but always fall short of the goal. They don’t lead to salvation.

In this vein, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest a great book on this subject by our own Anglican bishop, the Right Rev. Fitzsimmons Allison. The Cruelty of Heresy will help you understand what heresies are, how fast they rushed into the church’s teaching, and the frequency with which the church has had to correct them (like always). Highly recommended!

5. Don’t Explain It; Describe It

Forget trying to explain the Trinity. This is not the time to trot out tired analogies like the three stages of water, the three parts of an egg, an apple, or even the proverbial shamrock. This is not the time for a children’s sermon. Instead, describe what the Trinity does.

Here is a helpful metaphor: The Trinity is gravity, a force we cannot see or touch, much less explain. We know it is there because we can see its effects. It keeps us on the ground and makes objects fall. We cannot explain it (well, most of us can’t), but we cannot live without it. And, to return to the previous point, we could harm ourselves greatly if we deny or ignore it.

Just like gravity, the Trinity is an essential part of our reality. None of us have gravity. It has us. But without gravity, we would have nothing. Without the Trinity, we would not be able to have a relationship with God. The fact that the Trinity is in a full-time, always-on relationship with itself means that the Trinity is capable of a relationship with us. It is not the Borg, whose sole purpose is to assimilate us. The Trinitarian God wants us to know as fully as we are known.

6. Glory in Mystery

The Trinity is a mystery. But even when we cannot understand something, we can still glory in it. We can still delight in the mystery of a mother’s love for her children, of a soldier’s sacrifice of his life, of the instincts of the animal kingdom. These mysteries add great joy, interest, and wonder to our lives.

This is the point at the end of Proverbs. There, we read one of the most wonderful collections of head-scratchers that should mystify us. Agar, son of Jakuh (love that name), ends one  of his aphorisms with a glorious, politically incorrect observation:

“There are three things that are too amazing for me,
and four that I do not understand:
the way of an eagle in the sky,
the way of a snake on a rock,
the way of a ship on the high seas,
and the way of a man with a young woman.”
(Proverbs 30:10-11)

These four things are all observable truths in the world but also mysteries.

In this sense, a sermon about the Trinity should encourage people to stop trying to overthink or understand everything. Instead, see the goodness of embracing even things we cannot understand. There will be many more happy marriages if couples stop trying to fully understand each other and instead behold the mystery of the other. And we will grow in our relationship with God when we glory in the mysterious Trinity.

7. Choices Have Consequences

A sermon on Trinity Sunday can challenge people to decide what they believe about the Trinity and provide an opportunity for them to decide. That day! Trinity Sunday. Let me explain:

There are three choices we have regarding our belief in the doctrine of the Trinity:

We can accept the doctrine of the Trinity. This means we understand God is a personal God and, as Father, Son, or Holy Spirit, he is involved in our lives. It means that the God who made me, the God who saved me, and the God who stays with me are all the same God! The preacher/poet Fredrick Buechner said it this way: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit mean that the mystery beyond us, the mystery among us, and the mystery within us are all the same mystery.

We can ignore the doctrine of the Trinity. This means we will willfully miss out on the challenge, the struggle, and the wonder of human faith. And, frankly, we are more likely to misinterpret biblical and Christian teaching.

We can deny the doctrine of the Trinity. This means that we actively and comprehensively reject the God of the Bible. In favor of what? We must remember the clever aphorism attributed to Chesterton: “When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing. They then become capable of believing in anything.”

Help your people see that each of us is the author of a choose-your-own-ending story. We have the power—the agency, we say today—to select whether to accept the mystery of the Holy Trinity, ignore it, or deny it. Choices have consequences. Which will they choose?

8. Teach Us To Pray

It should be said here that most Christians don’t have amnesia as much as they have anemia. They pray weak prayers, mentioning only one person of the Trinity. I do not mean that God will not hear them. But how often have we heard someone ‘winging it’ in a prayer that does not delight in the central truth of our Trinitarian God?

The best Christian prayers reference all three members of the Holy Trinity. Do you not believe me? Take the time to read over the Collects in the Book of Common Prayer. They are the collected prayers and intentions of the church. They are not better prayers than yours or mine. I am not saying that. But I am saying that many people thought about how best to address God, and they mentioned all three members of the Holy Trinity. This is mostly true. It is not always true.

The right understanding of the Trinity will turbo-charge our prayer life. We will understand that God is not distant or detached, but as close as a Father, a Father’s Son, and as intimate as breath.

9. The Trinity in Comparative Religion

When properly explained, the Trinity is the one doctrine that every non-Christian in the room will find objectionable. Be sure they do!

Judaism has severe objections to the idea of a Three-Person God. The Shema from Deuteronomy 6:4 seems to them to exclude the Trinity: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One!” (not three) although, of course, it does not. Muslims add a further objection. Not only do they believe in the absolute unity of God, but they would also never, ever refer to God as Father. Of the 99 names Muslims have for God, not one is “Father.” Why? Because the word “Father” implies a sense of progeny.

Less strident would be the Hindus. They believe in many gods—many more than three. Any other religion with conscientious objectors would take issue with the divine being identifiable. The beliefs of the Buddhists or the Sikhs emphasize devotion to a formless, transcendent being with or without a name.

In other words, on Trinity Sunday, the Christian preacher has the right and responsibility to be explicit, controversial, and even objectionable. Not rude. Not disagreeable. If ever there was a Sunday when someone should walk out of your sermon, it should be the Holy Trinity Sunday.

10. Use the Heart Language of John Donne

The Trinity invites the use of ‘heart language’ to convey intimacy with God. It allows and promotes a deep, personal, passionate, enduring relationship with God. Our own Anglican priest/poet, John Donne, felt this way about God. Who else but a Trinitarian God would engender this passionate, sensual, intimate, deeply moving relationship as described in his Holy Sonnet?

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.

I, like an usurp’d town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.

Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,

Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

This is the language of courtship, marriage, passion, submission, and trust.

Conclusion: Be Bold

Years ago, I announced my intention to resign as the Rector of Christ Church in Plano, Texas, where I had served for over 30 years. Except, I didn’t leave! The search for the new Rector took longer than expected, and in those intervening months, I had plenty of time to preach with abandon, as it were. As I have previously explained, I was preaching like I was going out of business because I was! Richard Baxter famously said, “I preached as never sure to preach again and as a dying man to dying men.”

Preacher, I encourage you to preach this way, especially about the Trinity. If preaching about the Trinitarian God were a crime, ensure you have left lots of evidence for a swift conviction. Don’t cut corners. Don’t nuance terms. Speak boldly. Be clear. Love mystery. Love doctrine.

And please, in the name of our Trinitarian God, do not be boring. Seldom will you come across a point of doctrine that does most of the heavy lifting for the Christian faith. Is it a mystery? Check. Does it reveal and underscore God’s capacity for Love? Check. Is it necessary for salvation? Check. Are there practical applications for community, inclusivity, mission, marriage, and family? Check. Will contemplating the doctrine of the Trinity deepen your faith? Yes!

Image by Simon Berger on Unsplash.

Published on

May 27, 2023

Author

David Roseberry

David Roseberry leads the nonprofit ministry, LeaderWorks. He was the founding rector of Christ Church, Plano, Texas, and is the author of many books. He lives in Plano with his wife, Fran.

View more from David Roseberry

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