A Unitarian Yankee in a Trinitarian Court

It sounds like the start of a good church joke: What happens when the rector invites a Unitarian to preach on Trinity Sunday?

I tried to come up with some punchlines:

  • The apocalypse begins.
  • It’s so interesting they get their own Netflix special.
  • Jesus appears and settles the centuries-long argument by saying “you’re all wrong” and then disappears.
  • The Deacons ask, what’s a Unitarian?

I couldn’t come up with any good one-liners, so I’ll jump to what our rector said to me a few weeks ago: Wouldn’t it be fun for you, a Unitarian, to preach on Trinity Sunday?

Really, I responded? I mean, early Catholics used to burn us at the stake for being … Unitarian.

“No, I think it’d be great for our people to hear a different point of view on the Trinity,” she said.

So here goes!

Here is what I want to cover this morning:

  • What is Unitarian Christianity and the 2,500 year argument about the nature of God?
  • How Unitarian Christianity is viewed by within some conservative Christian circles.
  • Why I think Jesus wouldn’t want us arguing about this at all.
  • And finally, the unity of Christian faith I believe is the way to bring about the kingdom of heaven to earth.

But first, some definitions: What is a Unitarian? What is a Trinitarian?

In short, a Trinitarian is someone who believes that God exists, and has always existed, in three parts: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Key word: eternal. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit have always existed, and none created the other. God didn’t create Jesus or the Holy Spirit. They’ve always been with us and each other.

A Unitarian is someone who believes that only God is eternal, and that God at some point in time created a Son (who we know as the Christ), and the Holy Spirit.

These two ideas have literally co-existed since the first century of Christianity, and the debate gets ugly, especially for the Unitarians. For most of Christian history, at least up through 1697 when the last Unitarian was martyred in England, being a Unitarian carried a death sentence. Even in the 21st century I’ve witnessed terrible behavior and name calling based on the ancient and beautiful doctrine of the Trinity. Sometimes it’s downright un-Christian.

Why be a Unitarian when it’s so dangerous? Modern Unitarians believe so profoundly in God’s unity they believe God loves everyone equally. Everyone, everywhere, even non-Christians, even Trinitarians. Everyone. Period.

For this, I’ve seen Unitarian chaplains banned from preaching in Protestant chapels or interacting with children, lest they lead good Christians to hell. I’ve seen Unitarians called “wolves in sheep’s clothing” and excluded from Bible studies lest they hurt the “believers.” A primary doctrine within many conservative Evangelical churches today, and I can attest to at least three big ones on Okinawa that teach this, is that good Christians should not associate with bad Christians who haven’t been born again, don’t believe in the Trinity, or are unbelievers. I just don’t remember Jesus ever teaching this. I remember my Jesus mingling with everyone—and having a pretty good time.

What did Jesus himself say about who he was? (And if he was part of a Trinity?)

In Matthew 16, Jesus asks his disciples: “Who do you say I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven.”

That’s pretty much it for Jesus’ take: he agrees with Simon that he’s the Christ and the Son of God. In this teaching Trinitarians and Unitarians largely agree with Simon and Jesus: Jesus is Christ and the Son of God. God is the Father in heaven. “Behold my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased,” God calls down from above in Matthew 17.

For modern Unitarians, we don’t claim to understand this relationship between God and Jesus. It is, we believe, beyond comprehension and there’s more important work to do, such as spreading a Gospel of Love against injustice, hate, and oppression.

But for early Christians struggling to help people understand the Divinity of Jesus in a Roman world trying to abandon Paganism, they had a real problem: if Jesus is the one true God, and God is the one true God, you now have two Gods. Thus, paganism.

This made the nature of Jesus a hot topic. It wasn’t just team Trinity and team Unity duking it out. There were many theories: Was Jesus human? Divine? God incarnate? A ghost? A conspiracy theory? A prophetic rabbi? Just a rabble rousing social justice warrior?

So after three centuries of debate, Emperor Constantine convened a conference to end the argument. After all the minor league teams were defeated, such as the Gnostics, the humanists, and the like, two big teams remained. Trinitarians! Unitarians! Oh my!

On the one side were the Trinitarians, led by Origen of Alexandria, Egypt, who said God was actually three Gods in one. On the other side were the Unitarians, led by Arius, another bishop of Alexandria, who said there’s only one God, the Father, and He created Jesus as His Son—fully divine, but not God.”

Votes were cast. Team Trinity won. My team lost.

For most Evangelicals, this tenet of faith is absolutely essential. Without believing in the literal Nicaean interpretation of the Trinity, you are a heretic. I cannot tell you how many times I have been called a heretic by other Christian ministers.

It’s not that I deny the Trinity: I just don’t know. I’ve studied the Bible and the only place where God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit appear in the Gospels is today’s scripture reading from Matthew, where Jesus says:

“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.”

There are at least 21 other references to the Father, the Son, or the Holy Spirit scattered through the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, but never all three at once, except here. There are references to God the Father and his Son, Jesus, and to the power of the Holy Spirit which we have experienced through Christ. But only once do all three appear, and only here in the context of blessing others in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Nineteenth century Unitarians claimed at least 100 scriptural citations to support their theology, but since the debate was lost in the year 325, my opinion is we should move on. The world has more pressing matters than how our puny human brains think about the infinite majesty of God. Jesus never tells us the nature of God, so maybe we aren’t supposed to know. Jesus teaches how to love God and God’s creation.

Also, most progressive, liberal, and mainline Christian denominations, the so called “Seven Sisters of American Protestantism” seem largely uninterested in continuing this centuries-long division. These denominations include:

  • American Baptists
  • Disciples of Christ
  • The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
  • The Presbyterian Church, USA
  • The United Church of Christ,
  • The United Methodist Church, and YES!:
  • The Episcopal Church

The Trinity was created from the intellectual curiosity of early Christians trying to put words to a mystery we cannot understand. For us, and I speak as someone who has found a home within the Episcopal Church, the Trinity is something that should unite Christians, not divide us. We all find comfort in knowing that God loves us, that Jesus sacrificed himself so we might understand his love for truth and humanity, and that the Holy Spirit guides us in the paths of righteousness and grace. I don’t know a Christian who doesn’t believe in these tenets of faith. We believe in God; we believe in Jesus, the son of God; and we believe in the Holy Spirit. Now let’s leave it alone to start helping heal the world!

But before I leave it alone, I want to tell you a story of how powerful this mystery can be. In a challenging time for my faith, the Trinity became something that held me when I didn’t know what was holding me together. It was last year when for two months I was being treated at an out-patient hospital back in the states. During the week I went between medical appointments and hung out in my hotel room, maybe catch a show or museum on Saturday. But it was Sunday that shaped my time away from home.

My first Sunday there, I decided to visit Denver’s Episcopal Cathedral, called St. John’s in the Wilderness. The name fit since I felt like I was navigating a wilderness. The church was a bona fide cathedral, as grand and majestic as I’ve seen. After attending my first Sunday morning, complete with 40-person choir and all the smells and bells of high church, I decided to go to the evening Vespers service, called just the Wilderness, a play on the name of the church.

Instead of the organ and choir, they had a jam band. Instead of robes, the priests wore jeans. Instead of light streaming through stained glass, the sanctuary was bathed in forest green LED lights.

The liturgy was identical to this morning’s liturgy, except for a big pause between the sermon and communion. During that time, we were invited to wander the sanctuary. Prayer stations were placed throughout the space. One had post-it notes to write a short prayer to stick on the wall. Another had some candles you could light. The one I wept at each Sunday evening was this picture of three women. I think they were supposed to represent the Trinity, but who knows. I just knew that as I stood before that image, that icon, I understood the Trinity like never before.

It is to unite us, never to divide us.

It is to inspire us to be with the mystery of God and Christ, not to define it in any human way.

It is to invite the Holy Spirit to pull us from our human concerns, our wants, our materialistic and selfish impulses, our addictions, and into a divine mystery in which we are whole and complete.

The Trinity is a powerful way to encounter God’s love. Through it we see the Holy Spirit guiding our lives, we find Jesus’ teachings guiding our actions, and we experience God guiding the whole of the universe.

In a few moments we will share communion. Watch for the holy spirit among us; it will be there. In this we have faith. In this we know we are on a right path.

In a few weeks Cindy and I, a couple of “Unitarian Yankees in this Trinitarian Church,” will leave Okinawa. Know this: our lives have been transformed by our time with this congregation. How could it be otherwise? There is love here. There is life here. We have found new hope here.

And so I end with the words of Paul, from our reading earlier:

“Finally, my kin, farewell. Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you.”

Delivered at All Souls Episcopal Church, Okinawa, Japan

This entry was posted in Sermons. Bookmark the permalink.