Exodus 34:27-35, Matthew 28:16-20
June 19, 2011
The title of this sermon comes from a song we sometimes sing at first service “Father, Spirit, Jesus.” Because this is the Sunday which has been designated “Trinity Sunday.” And it always falls on the first Sunday after Pentecost. I’m not sure why that is, but I suppose it’s because, after Pentecost, all “three persons” of God were now evident to the world in a big way. In a world where the Jewish people were fiercely proud of their worship of one God, now that God had fully revealed himself in three forms. What was once, “Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is one,” had now become “Father, Spirit, Jesus.”
Last week we did a little bit of “Pentecost 101.” And this week I’d like to do the same with Trinity Sunday. This is “Trinity 101.” And I hope this helps you to get a better handle on what can be a very confusing subject! I know it’s always been a difficult one for me to grasp!
First off, we need to remember that the word “Trinity” appears nowhere in the bible. However, it is evident and it’s spoken about in many places. At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, for instance, Jesus tells them to go and make disciples, “baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” Again, that was a new thought to those good Jewish boys! At the end of II Corinthians, Paul writes these words as his closing. “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” That sounds like a benediction, doesn’t it?
The doctrine of the Trinity means that we worship what we call the “triune God” – that is, a “God in three persons.” We sung those words in our first hymn today. But sometimes we get the wrong idea about the three persons of God. And so I’d like to try to clarify some of this today. But as I do, please keep in mind that this isn’t easy to understand!
The first misconception is that the three “persons” of God are separate and distinct. They are not. We don’t worship three Gods. We are not “tri-theists.” (Though the church has been accused of being that over the years!) The three persons of the Trinity are but three different ways God has chosen to reveal himself to us. And over the years, people have tried to use a number of different analogies to help them understand that. I’d like to remind you of a few of them. And maybe you remember some of these from Sunday school or confirmation class.
For example, people have used the analogy of the clover to describe the Trinity. The clover has three leaves, yet its stem has one “leaf system,” or “leaf cluster.” By the way, so does poison ivy! – a fact I’ve been reminded about a lot the last week or so! So it’s three leaves in one leaf, like God the three in one.
Another analogy which you might have heard is the analogy of water. We learned in school that water is actually the chemical compound “H2O.” And like many chemical compounds it has the capability of existing in the three states of matter – solid, liquid, and gas, or as we call them in simple terms, ice, water, and steam. But those are all H2O, aren’t they? And like that, God can be experienced in three persons, but they’re all expressions of the one God. Again, that helps, but it’s not definitive.
Over the years, people have even tried to diagram this. They’ve used the “triangle” example which I included in your bulletins. Take a look at that. It’s always good to have “visual aids!” They help us get things into our minds, just like we’re try to get this into our minds. In the middle of the triangle is the word “God.” And the words “Father,” “Son,” and “Holy Spirit” are at the vertices. (And often there is a circle around the whole thing!) Then there are lines from the three “persons” to God in the middle with the word “is” on the lines. And finally there are lines between the three persons with the words “is not” on those lines. So, what this teaches us is that the father is God, and the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God. But, the Father is not the Son, and the Son is not the Holy Spirit, etc… Do you see how that works?
Another way people have thought of the three “persons” of the trinity is by their function, or their “role.” We have called them “Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.” The Father is the one who created us, Jesus the Son is the one who redeemed us, and the Holy Spirit is the one who sustains us. But even these terms are only helps. It’s not that simple. If we were to read the first chapter of John’s Gospel, we would find this description of Jesus. “He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.” (John 1:2-3) So Jesus, the “redeemer” – the Word that became flesh – was in the beginning and was part of the creation. So it’s not clear cut.
That passage from John actually helps clear up another misconception about the Trinity. Over the years, people have gotten the impression that before the first Christmas, Jesus didn’t yet exist, and before Pentecost, the Holy Spirit didn’t yet exist. John would say “no.” He tells us that Jesus always existed along with, and actually part of, God, and so did the Holy Spirit. And I think that’s evident in many places in the Old Testament – long before the event we know as Pentecost. We read one this morning. When Moses came down from the mountain where he had been talking with God and writing the Ten Commandments, the skin of his face shone with a holy light. And the people were afraid to look at him! I believe that was clearly the Holy Spirit!
Where it gets confusing to me is the time when Jesus was here. Clearly there was a 33 year period in history where the Father and the Son were distinct persons. Jesus prayed to the father – a lot! If they were one, why would he need to do that?! That’s always been hard for me to understand. And I’m sure that’s one of the things that caused “anxiety” for the religious leaders. As I said at the start, they believed very strongly in their One God. “Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is one!” And here was Jesus suggesting different “persons” of the one God. The Trinity may have been the biggest sticking point for them!
So what about us? I’m hoping today that it makes a little more sense. And I’m hoping that we see a little more clearly that the God we worship has always existed, and he has always been capable of being manifest to us in these three forms. If you think about it, it’s really all about us. It’s about how we are capable of experiencing and perceiving God. It’s about how the God who created us, wants to be in relationship with us, so he took the form of one of us. And he decided to live within us.
With that in mind, I’d like to close with the words of Paul at the beginning of the book of Colossians. These words speak of the Holy Spirit living in us, the Spirit whose presence we celebrate in this sacrament of Communion which we are about to share together. Paul writes, “this is the mystery hidden for ages and generations, but now he has made known to us. …it is the mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of Glory.” (Colossians 1:26-27)
Eternal God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we thank you that you have created us, you have redeemed us, and you have chosen to live with us, and to dwell in us. Help us to know your sustaining power in our lives, as we seek to live for your kingdom, and for your glory. For this we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.