I believe most of us would agree that there are certain things people are very careful in defining or describing. That is, there are certain topics or situations or scenarios that most people, most of the time, are meticulous about getting right whenever they talk about them. Two simple examples I can think of would be recipes or directions. You can’t share a birthday cake recipe, for example, by saying, “Well, just mix some sugar and some flour together with a little bit of salt and vanilla and bake it for a while.” You do that and the person won’t end up with a cake. With recipes, people are always conscious about communicating the details. The same goes for giving directions: in most cases, they need to be fairly precise, and so people are careful about how they communicate them. If someone wants to get to my house from church, I can’t just tell them, “I live northwest of here,” and expect they’d ever arrive at my house. It’s accurate…but I need to communicate more to be more helpful.
We also tend to be very mindful in the ways we talk about other people—how we describe them, how we identify them. I think specifically of how careful parents are when they speak about their children. They don’t take the task lightly. Even though they might accidently switch their names every once in a while when they’re talking to them to their face, parents always know exactly what their children are like, how they’re unique. My mother-in-law raised three children, and when they were little she used to say she could tell who had made a mess even if none of them claimed it. Even their messes had their names written all over them, she’d say. That’s how well she knew how to describe and define her kids.
|three interlocking circles have long been used|
as a symbol for the Holy Trinity
The doctrine of the Trinity arose out of the need to speak clearly and carefully about God. Early on, as the people of the church read the Scriptures and made sense of Jesus’ story, as people felt the need to explain how God and the risen Jesus were connected to each other, there came this need to talk about God in ways that were accurate and helpful and illuminating. As this thinking and speaking took place—which occurred even as the New Testament was coming together—it became clear that God’s true nature was somehow One and Three at the same time. People could talk about God as Father or as Son or as Spirit, but really they were all speaking about the same God. The Trinity was never meant to be something to be dogmatic, shoved down the throats of Christians by church leaders and priests. Neither was it something that had its own neat chapter, for example, in the Bible. People nowadays often get freaked out by that word “doctrine,” but really the Trinity was much like conveying a recipe or like giving directions or talking correctly about your child. While it is, of course, is difficult—maybe even risky—to try to explain a mystery, to put boundaries on something so utterly undefinable as God himself, those who have had an intimate relationship with this God, who have experienced God’s grace at points in their life, as well as those who feel distant from God have all recognized at some point the need to be attentive to the language used for God and about God. Therefore, the word “doctrine” should not upset us, especially in this instance.
|ancient icons often depict the Trinity as the three visitors|
in Genesis 18
The issue I find is that people of Christian faith often make one of two mistakes when it comes to speaking about God. Either we’re too intimidated by the task or we’re too casual about it. When we’re too intimidated by it, we end up thinking, “It’s too complex. What’s the point?” and we end up say nothing. When we’re too casual about it, we end up ascribing to God all kinds of traits and actions that should not really be ascribed to God. When we do attempt it, and when we’re thoughtful about it, we find that speaking about God as Trinity best helps us tell the story of God’s love and what that love is like. There are plenty of examples of how the Trinity helps do that, but for the sake of brevity, I am going to focus on just three today—one sermon, but a trinity of examples, if you will—that arise out of the texts we have.
- God is a complete relationship in and of God’s self.
Because God is one and three at the same time, there is a community within God. God is the Father always giving love to the Son through this Spirit that exists between them. God the Father looks upon his Son in a never-ending Spirit of love and the Son is always looking back from wherever he is—from the manger, from the waters of the Jordan, from the cross, from this altar in the same never-ending Spirit of love. In fact, it is this relationship within God’s being that allows some New Testament writers to say that “God is love.” This relationship of love is at the heart of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Lover, the Beloved, and the Love between Them. But because God is this complete relationship, filled with love, God doesn’t really need the rest of us. That may come as a shock, but Psalm 8 says it very nicely: “When I look at the heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?”
|Michaelangelo's "Creation of Adam"|
God the Trinity is perfect and whole, filled with so much beauty and wisdom that it all eventually comes spilling out in the form of creation…a creation that includes “the birds of the air and the fish of the sea,” as the psalmist says. We could include so much more: atoms and the periodic element, cells and organisms, springtime flowers and birds, and birthday cakes and little children making messes, and dance recitals, and graduation ceremonies, beaches for summer trips. Existence is the first grace of the Triune God given to us, his creatures. We will never grow tired of contemplating and exploring it all and giving thanks for it. It all comes so undeservedly.
- God thinks the human race rocks.
Continuing with the words of Psalm 8: “What are human beings that you are mindful of them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.” The message in the lesson from Proverbs is much the same. Wisdom, the figure who is often associated with the second person of the Trinity, says,
“When he marked the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race” (Proverbs 8:30-31).
|"The Holy Trinity Palo della Convertite" Botticelli (1491-93)|
In a world marked by so much sorrow and brokenness, where even our relationship with creation seems out-of-whack, where we are daily reminded how wretched we humans can be to each other, it is important to keep in mind that ultimately we are God’s delight, that God loved creating us and calls us “very good,” and that God has not stepped back in disgust from the world. In fact, God has done the opposite. God delights in us so much that part of God actually becomes human in order to include us in God’s love. And this person of the Trinity—fully God—undergoes the length of human experience in order to include us into God’s very life.
For those of Christian faith the gift of our existence on planet earth, as wonderful as it is, does not explain the full extent of God’s love for us. The fact that God rescues us from sin through the Son’s own sacrifice becomes the main demonstration of the Trinity’s love for us. Once again, it flows from God’s grace.
- The life of faith is a life of giving.
Just like the Trinity is a never-ending circle of the Son giving himself back to the Father and the Father giving the Son to us, the Spirit moves us to give ourselves back to God. And by a life of giving I don’t just mean the offering plate. I mean the giving of our talents, giving of our lives to each other, giving our compassion to others in need, giving our forgiveness to those we’ve hurt, giving up the things that hold us back from following Jesus. When we think life is mainly about achieving, about receiving, about dominating, we are misled. Life in God—and, hence, the entirety of life God lays out for us—is about giving.
In his letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul speaks of the “hope of sharing the glory of God.” That hope actually develops through a process of giving ourselves up, sometimes even in suffering. Through the Spirit, we share in the ongoing love of God and the mystery of this faith. Through God’s Spirit, we participate in the continual outpouring of love between the Father and the Son. Therefore, the more we withhold ourselves, the more we focus on taking and getting, the more we concentrate standing alone and making things all about us then the more we end up closing ourselves off and missing out on the growth that comes from the life God has given us. This is especially true in our suffering, which, unfortunately for the time-being, is part of a holy life in a broken world. Because of the promises given in Jesus, we know that brokenness is being healed and an even more beautiful and complete life awaits us after death.
In the end, I suppose even our best language from our best theologians still falls far short of explaining or describing God. Some days, we often must fall back on the same expressions of awe and respect and fear that the Psalmist uses this morning at both the beginning and the closing of his hymn:“O LORD our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!”
“O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” God is majestic, that is true. But do you know what is even more awesome than his majesty and therefore more important to know? That this Lord may be called our Lord. Through his own death and resurrection we belong to this God, the one who creates everything and redeems it all. This Father loves us. He loves us in the name of the Son and through the power Spirit, world without end.