Today is Trinity Sunday. All over the world the first Sunday after Pentecost is Trinity Sunday. People have different reactions to my announcement of that topic.
For many talk about the Trinity sounds like something archaic, antique, abstract, and academic. It seems colorless and divorced from life. Talk about the Trinity sounds so confusing. “One God in three persons”, “one in three and three in one” sounds like theological double-talk. Maybe you feel as though you are being forced to endure an academic exercise, something impractical and without relevance for your everyday life. To a mother of three who is changing diapers and feeding hungry babies the Trinity may appear like “theo-babble”.
So, maybe you have already slumped back
into your seat in quiet resignation, pulled the shades down and determined to wait it out. It will soon be over. What has the Trinity to do with everyday life?
Those of us from Roman Catholic, Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Reformed, Anglican, Lutheran, or Orthodox backgrounds know something about reciting creeds in worship. You may be familiar with the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed. We say the Apostle’s Creed at TIC from time to time. Creeds are statements of Trinitarian Faith. To those of us from non-liturgical Churches creeds may seem like a bother and evoke a yawn.
I like to think of Christian Creeds and doctrines as maps. Maps and travel guidebooks are far less exciting than the journey itself. But maps and guidebooks help us get where we are going and can orient us when we get there.
Christian doctrines are like maps. They were never meant to replace the journey of lived experience. They help to show us if we are on the right road or not. They serve to keep us on track. They guide us in interpreting scripture. Maps are helpful. But having the map and being on the journey are two different experiences.
Why are we still stuck with the Trinity? Haven’t we outgrown the need to talk about the three-in-one God? Shouldn’t we discard the doctrine as something that a more gullible age needed but not us enlightened moderns? Perhaps the doctrine of the Trinity is a hangover of theological garble so divorced from life that we would do well to just drop it once and for all. I can understand the frustration of the person who says, “Who needs these doctrines? Just give me simple faith in Jesus!” I understand that feeling.
How did we get the doctrine of the Trinity anyway? The word ‘Trinity’ does not appear the Bible. Jesus never taught the Trinity. Paul never referred to it. The word itself was not even coined until the late second century after Christ (by Theophilus of Antioch circa 180 C.E. who used the term “trias” to describe the three-fold reality of God).
Teaching on the Trinity did not emerge out of the need to have a complicated or abstract theology. No one sat around and in a moment of thought and suddenly came up with the bright idea that we should think of God as a Trinity.
A. The idea of the Trinity emerged out of reflection on the ‘lived experience of God’.
Think of what an early Christian living in Rome would have thought when he or she read Paul’s letter to the Romans: Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us. Romans 5:1-5
This text speaks of Christians living our lives in “peace with God” In a few tidy sentences Paul mentions the Christian’s lived experience of peace with God made possible because of Jesus Christ. We can even endure hardship and suffering because God has poured his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. Paul refers to God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit as related realities which reveal God to us.
Paul wrote about the experience of knowing the God revealed in Jesus Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit. He tells us that Christian experience includes freedom from the old sinful nature and that we possess new life in the Spirit. As I stated in last week’s sermon, the Holy Spirit is God-in-Action in the here and now. The Spirit is God’s Spirit, but it is also the Spirit of Christ living in us and we in him. We cannot separate the Father, Son and Holy Spirit without doing violence to a full bodied Christian view of God.
Christians already experience God by coming to know God through Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit before they ever thought of the ‘Trinity’ or even had a word for it. They already worshipped the God they met in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.
Christians pray to the Father, we pray to the Son, and we pray to the Spirit. We worship the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We baptize, according to Jesus’ command, in the Name of the Father, The Son, and The Holy Spirit. Christians are dismissed from the gathered worship with the words “May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with us now and always.”
Worship precedes reflection; faith goes before knowledge. One Church Father said it this way, “For I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this I believe that unless I believe, I should not understand”. ~ Anselm of Canterbury
“I believe in order to understand.” At first they did not reflect deeply on these things. They simply lived and worshipped and rejoiced and obeyed. However, the writer of 2nd Peter encourages us to: …make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge 2 Peter 1:5-6
There is no virtue in ignorance. No one should be proud of Biblical and theological ignorance: “Yeah, I’ve been a Christian 20 years and I don’t know anything!” God created the human mind and wants us to use it. God claims our intellect just as he claims our heart and our wills. We must practice the ‘stewardship of our minds.”
Anselm of Canterbury defined ‘theology’ as “Faith seeking understanding”. God grasps us by the Word of God and the Holy Spirit and we respond in faith. But our minds also seek to know and understand. The first and great commandment is this: He [Jesus] answered: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind.’ (Luke 10:27).
What does it mean to ‘Love the Lord your God with your mind’? It means intellectual effort. God never said that as Christians we should check out our brains and simply believe! God does not give us a mind only to prohibit its use. God does not ask that we sacrifice the intellect on the altar of blind faith. God claims our mind and wants us to utilize it fully in Divine service. The Christian doctrine of the three-foldness of God emerged out of reflection on the ‘lived experience of God’.
B. The doctrine of the Trinity emerged out of reflection on scripture.
Scripture points us to the following truths:
· The oneness of God (There is only one God, our loyalty and worship can only be directed to the one God.
· The Father is God (The Creator)
· The Deity of Christ is affirmed (Christ is worshiped, we meet God in Christ, the one who saves us in none other than God)
· The Deity of the Holy Spirit is affirmed (The Holy Spirit is not an impersonal force, but God-in-action among us)
Christians embraced the oneness of God which they had inherited from the Jewish roots of the Faith. Jesus was Jewish. The Christians and Jews accepted the Old Testament as the Word of God. But how then were Christians to explain the relationship between God and the Man Jesus of Nazareth?
First, we know that God is a mystery. We know something of God. But all we know about God is still not exhaustive knowledge. We shall never completely comprehend the totality of God. We cannot grasp God. Paul put it this way: For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. (1 Cor.13:9-10, 12)
No one decided to complicate the matter. People did try to explain the relationship of the invisible Creator to the man Jesus, and the relation of Jesus to the Father and to the Holy Spirit. Many inadequate and distorted teachings were propagated all claiming to explain the mystery of the God we meet in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. The Church has always tested and examined these ways to see if they account for enough truth as contained in scripture and in human experience. The doctrine of the Trinity was defined against inadequate and distorted views of God.
Distortions of the Idea of God
The statement of Trinitarian faith sought to define the biblical teachings against several distortions. What were some of these distortions?
Distortion 1: Jesus of Nazareth was a mere man, a rabbi or a Jewish prophet, a religious genius. (This is a view held by early Ebionites, many liberal Protestants and Unitarians today)
Statements from the Ebionite Sources
“Those who worship Jesus as God, worship a false god. Yeshua (Jesus) commanded to imitate him, not worship him! The Bible teaches that Jesus was a man who became the Messiah/Christ at his baptism, and the Son of God at the crucifixion”.
The Church rejected the claims of the Ebionites as unbiblical. Jesus is not a mere prophet or sage.
Distortion 2: The one who became incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth was a god, a created and secondary divine being, but not the One God. This early heresy was called Arianism, after Arias, its leading proponent. This is the currently view held of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Iglesia Ni Cristo in the Philippines.
Statements made in Jehovah’s Witness Publications:
"Never was there a more deceptive doctrine advanced than that of the trinity" (Reconciliation, 1928 )
"…sincere persons who want to know the true God and serve him find it a bit difficult to love and worship a complicated, freakish-looking, three-headed God" (Let God Be True, 1946)
"Satan is the originator of the trinity doctrine".
"…the Son of God was known as Michael before he came to earth" (Reasoning from the Scriptures, p. 218).
Statements from an Iglesia Ni Cristo Source: “…to think that God could have decided to be man in the person of Christ is pure imagination.
“…What Jesus Christ revealed concerning His true state of being–His being a man–is a clear proof that He is not God”.
The Church also rejected the claims of Arias and his followers. Jesus is not a smaller created god beside the main God.
Distortion 3: The One who became incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth was one of many Gods. There are many divine beings and Father, Son, and Spirit are three distinct gods. (This is a return to polytheism. It is the view held currently by the Mormons, or Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints. It is a return to neo-paganism with a pantheon of gods and goddesses)
Statements from Mormon Publications:
Latter-day Saints (Mormons) believe in God the Father; his Son, Jesus Christ; and the Holy Ghost. These three Gods form the Godhead, which holds the keys of power over the universe. Each member of the Godhead is an independent personage, separate and distinct from the other two, the three being in perfect unity and harmony with each other.
The Church rightly rejects this teaching about three gods as a simple and blatant return to pagan polytheism.
What does Trinitarian Christianity say about God?
A. The Trinitarian Faith states that we hold to the absolute oneness of God, but also the three-fold coming to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
B. God is Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer
C. God is the Lover, the Beloved, and the Act of Loving
D. God is the Revealer, the Revealed, and the act of Revelation
What does it mean to affirm faith in the Trinity?
A. The One we meet in Jesus is none other than the one true God (not a creature, an agent, a mighty angel, secondary god, but the one and only true God.:
-In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Jn. 1:1
-Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? John 14:9
…God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. 2 Corinthians 5:19
B. God’s essential being is self-giving love
-For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. Jn. 3:16
-This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 1 John 4:10
C. God dwells eternally in loving community (not in eternal isolation or cosmic loneliness-
God created out of the abundance of love not from the loneliness of a Divine being
D. The God we serve is revealed through Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit as God over us, who is at the same time God for us, and presently and forever the God in and with us.
To believe in the Trinity means that God has revealed God’s self in the Man Jesus. God has chosen to make known what God is like and what God is doing (i.e. The Divine character and purpose). When we look at that man we see what J. B. Phillips called “The focused God”. We discover what God is like and what God is doing in this world through the lens of Jesus Christ. In him we see the true God. “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” Jesus said in John’s Gospel. But at the same time we see the True Human Being.
It is good that we are stuck with the Trinity.
Trinitarian faith is indispensable for the Church.
The doctrine of the Trinity is like a fence around a mystery that we cannot fully grasp rationally, any more than we can grasp and comprehend God totally.
The Trinity is simply an attempt to preserve the church from distorted and inadequate formulations that lessen the sense that we have met the true God in Jesus.
The teaching about the Trinity preserves the truth that our salvation does not depend upon the faithfulness of an agent, not even a mighty angel or even a created secondary god. From first to last our salvation is the work of God. Jesus did not come to change God’s mind about us; Jesus came to fully express God’s mind and heart. The writer of Hebrews stated it this way:
In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. (Heb.1:1-3)
I will close with some New Testament texts that can only be rightly understood if we stand solidly within the Trinitarian Faith:
He (Jesus Christ) is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. Col. 1:15-17
For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. Col. 1:19-20
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it. John 1:1-5
Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. John 14:1
No one who denies the Son has the Father; whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also. 1 John 2:23
We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true—even in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. 1 John 5:20
A little girl was whimpering in her bed. Her mom came in to comfort her. “What’s wrong, Darling?” “I’m and afraid of the dark. I want someone to stay in here with me”. “God is with you. God is always with you, dear.” “I know. But I want someone with skin on him.”
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. John 1:14
That is what Jesus is the, focused God who has skin on him. The God over us, is for us, with and in us, everywhere and forever. And I guess we are stuck with this God, because this God has chosen to stick with us. Amen.