Today is Trinity Sunday.
Trinity Sunday is a difficult day for priests, who often feel they have to try to explain the idea of God as Trinity. It’s sometimes an even more difficult day for our parishioners, because they have to listen to us priests, trying to explain the Trinity. It’s a difficult day for priests because we find we have to talk about God. You may think we are always talking about God, but in my experience most of us actually talk rather little about God. We talk a lot about what God wants of us. We talk even more of what God has done for us and is doing for us. That, after all, is the Gospel. But we don’t talk very much about who God is. Perhaps they leave that to the liturgy and the hymns, which probably do it better than sermons usually can.
Have you ever tried to express your feelings when you feel something very deeply? That’s what usually happens when we talk about God, really talk about God, actually trying to say who God is – this is one of those times when language fails us. The only words you can find are terribly makeshift, totally inadequate, and not at all what you want to express, but you must use what you’ve got and try to express yourself. Not to say anything would be worse. You must say what you can and hope the words point to what you can’t really say. So it is with the Trinity. There are several Christian ways of trying to say who God is. The one that says the most about God is the one we use in the creeds, when we say we believe in God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. God is those Three and the Three are one God. The Christian shorthand for that is: God is Trinity. But if that says the most about God, it is also the most difficult thing Christians say about God.
How to explain the Trinity? We haven’t done that yet, simply because we can’t wrap our heads around the concept. The story is told of St Augustine of Hippo, the great philosopher and theologian. He was preoccupied with the doctrine of the Trinity. He wanted so much to understand the doctrine of one God in three persons and to be able to explain it logically. One day he was walking along the sea shore and trying to understand just how one God can be in three persons. Suddenly, he saw a child all alone on the shore. The child made a hole in the sand, ran to the sea with a little cup, filled her cup with sea water, ran up and emptied the cup into the hole she had made in the sand. Back and forth she went to the sea, filled her cup and went and poured it into the hole. Augustine drew up and said to her, “Little child, what are you doing?” She replied, “I am trying to empty the sea into this hole.” “How do you think,” Augustine asked her, “that you can empty this immense sea into this tiny hole and with this tiny cup?” She answered back, “And you, how do you suppose that with your small head you can comprehend the immensity of God?” With that the child disappeared.
The doctrine of the inner relationship of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in such a way that each of them is fully and equally God, yet there are not three Gods but one, cannot be fully comprehended by the human mind. It is a mystery. But, we continue to try. St. Patrick certainly did it his best. He gave us a visual example in the shamrock or three leaf clover. As the shamrock is one composed of three, so, he said, is the Trinity: Three in One and One in Three. In the story of salvation we usually attribute creation to the Father, redemption to the Son and sanctification to the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, though they are distinct as persons, neither the Father nor the Son nor the Holy Spirit ever exists or acts in isolation from the other two persons of the Godhead, just as a three leaf clover without all three leaves is incomplete.
If we expected today’s readings to give us a clear and elaborate presentation of the doctrine of the Blessed Trinity, we have found out that they simply do not. The doctrine of three persons in one God, equal in divinity yet distinct in personality, is not explicitly spelled out in the Bible. In fact the very word “Trinity” is not found in the Bible. Early Christians arrived at the doctrine when they applied their God-given reason to the revelation which they had received in faith. Jesus spoke about the Father who sent him (the Son) and about the Holy Spirit whom he was going to send. He said that the Father had given him (the Son) all that he has and that he in turn has given to the Holy Spirit all that he has received from the Father. In this we see the unity of purpose among the three persons of the Trinity.
We believe in the Triune God, and to embrace a doctrine we cannot fully comprehend or explain. It is another thing entirely to base our understanding of God on what we see God doing. So, let me make the most important statement about the Trinity that I can make, and that is — Our understanding of the Trinity, or as much as we can understand of the Trinity, is based on what we see God has done and is doing in the world. Let me give you some examples.
In the Old Testament, God is Creator of both the world, and of the nation of Israel through whom he will bless the world. Of course, God is present as Spirit, and the Messiah is both prophesied and foreshadowed in various theophanies (appearances of God, such as the angel who wrestles with Jacob). But primary on the stage of the unfolding drama of the Old Testament is the God of Israel, Yahweh, El-Shaddai, Elohim, Adonai, and all the other names by which God is called and worshipped.
In the New Testament Gospel accounts, the emphasis is upon Jesus — his birth, his baptism, his message, his life, his death, and his resurrection. But God the Father approves his Son, and the Holy Spirit descends upon — anoints — Jesus for ministry.
In the New Testament Book of Acts and the epistles, the Holy Spirit is at the forefront, equipping, enabling, guiding, empowering the early church. In the Book of Revelation, God the Father, Son, and Spirit are all present, each featured in a way that is both consistent with the Old Testament, witnesses to the New Testament, and brings fully into being the Kingdom of God in its closing chapters.
Okay, that surveys the “What is the Trinity?” question, even though I am sure you probably have more questions now than when we began. But to keep this from being merely an academic exercise, we need to turn our attention to “Why do we care?” This is what’s important and what we need to understand. Doctrine is important, but doctrine comes from the lived experiences of God’s people as they interpret the work of God in the real world. First, the reason we should care about the Trinity, and be aware of the uniqueness of the One-in-Three and Three-in-One is this: Without a balanced view of all three persons of the Trinity, we can misinterpret the work of God in this world. For instance, if we emphasize some aspects of God in the Old Testament, and subordinate Jesus and the Spirit, then we come away with a picture of a god of wrath and judgment, who has little compassion. One very well known Baptist preacher did just that after destructive tornadoes, when he compared the tornadoes that hit Oklahoma with the story of Job who lost all of his children to a mighty wind that collapsed Job’s house. If we emphasize the person of Jesus to the exclusion of God the Father and the Holy Spirit, we miss out on the fact that God sent Jesus because “God so loved the world…” The purpose of God is to redeem the world, not just the individuals in it. Salvation is the work of God, and that salvation extends not just to individuals but to God’s creation as well. Another famous and trendy preacher was quoted as saying that Jesus is coming back to burn up the world, so he can drive a huge SUV because he’s not worried about this physical earth. Not a good theological position, in my estimation. Finally, if we emphasize the Holy Spirit, and the charismatic experiences and gifts of the Spirit, it it is easy to loose sight of God as Creator, Son as Redeemer, and the role that the Holy Spirit played and plays in both of those aspects of God’s work.
Who is God? He is our heavenly Father who made us, takes cares of us and calls us his dear children.
Who is God? He is Jesus Christ who gave his life on the cross to re-establish our relationship with God. He reveals the way to God and to eternal life.
Who is God? God is the Spirit in you giving you faith in God and guiding you in your daily walk as a Christian.
Faith in the Triune God acknowledges the might and majesty of God but at the same trusts in a God who cares. Amen.