by Edea Baldwin
Matthew 28: 16-20; II Corinthians 13: 5-14
May 18, 2008
The subject I want to tackle this morning is a subject that has had Christians arguing and haggling about endlessly, through all the centuries and centuries since Jesus Christ took on flesh and was born of Mary in Bethlehem. It is a subject that I find to be awe-inspiring and daunting to try to speak about. When I sat down last evening to put into coherent words things that have been tumbling around in my head for the past few weeks, I felt tongue-tied. My pen hand felt paralyzed. I felt rather breathless at the audacity of it all, the idea that I could stand before you and try to make some sense out of the very nature and heart of God in a single, brief sermon. The whole thing made me tremble with fear at the responsibility of such a task.
But then, as I sat out on my deck, the moon shrouded in soft clouds peeking out through trees, tiny little bothersome bugs floating in the air around me, I noticed the loud call of a bird somewhere nearby in the woods, and I began to pay closer attention to it. I think it was a bob white. I’m not sure if quails even sing at night, but it had the distinctive call a bob white makes, and it just kep singing that out, almost nonstop. And suddenly the sheer loveliness and perfection of God’s work all around me calmed my soul. I remembered that God had touched me with the heart of what I wanted to say several weeks ago, and that now He would see to it that the right words somehow got from my mind to my pen, and then to my mouth this morning, spoken out to you, my brothers and sisters in Christ. It is just that simple.
And so my pen started to scratch on yellow paper, and my heart began to resonate with the awesome beauty and mystery that is the Trinity. Today is Trinity Sunday. In the church’s yearly cycle of worship, Trinity Sunday marks the official closure of the Easter season. That is extremely fitting, for the Trinity’s crowning glory, the very pinnacle of its work for us and through us, is the resurrection of God the Son, foreshadowing the eventual resurrection from the dead of all Christians into eternal life with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
First, we need to look closely at what exactly the Trinity is. One of the church’s greatest saints and thinkers was Saint Augustine. He spent ten years writing fifteen books about the nature and meaning of the Trinity. (See how audacious it is to imagine one could cover this subject in one sermon?)
Augustine begins with seven statements about God. I found these in a devotional piece by William Willimon, Chaplain at Duke University and one of the best devotional writers I know.
Augustine tells us:
The Father is God.
The Son is God.
The Holy Spirit is God.
The Son is not the Father.
The Father is not the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit is not the Son.
There is only one God.
See, that’s all there is to it!
“Tri,” of course, means three, and “unity” means one. God is three-in-one. The way I grew up saying it was three persons in one God. In fact, my very earliest spiritual memory is a colorful picture in a book about Christian doctrine. One thing Catholics were good at was finding ways to communicate profound mysteries and truths to very young children. In this picture were three figures. The one in the center was seated on a throne-looking chair, and I believe I recall a staff in his hand, though it may have been a sceptre. On either side of Him stood two figures, one with His finger pointing to His heart, the other with a dove floating just over His head.
This idea of God as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – or Holy Ghost, as we said it then – is absolutely foundational to my understanding of who and what God is and what Christianity means at its very center.
You won’t find the word “Trinity” anywhere in the Bible. It is a word that the Church Fathers – like Augustine – came up with to express the way God is revealed in the Bible. Depending on how you view the origin of the Bible, it expresses the way God talks about Himself.
Today’s scripture from Matthew is a very clear statement about the “threeness” of God. Jesus gives his disciples their mission, emphasizing that followers of His Way believe in the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. Christians are not just people who believe in God. They are not even just people who believe in Jesus. Christians are Christians because they believe in the Three-in-One: the Trinity.
God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit.
This triune nature of God can be found in many scripture passages. In Genesis 1:26, one of the other lectionary scriptures for this Sunday, God speaks: “Let us make man in our image.” Note the plural pronouns at creation.
In Matthew 3:16-17, it is written, “After being baptized, Jesus went up from the water and the heavens were opened, and He saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove and coming upon Him, and behold a voice out of the heavens saying, ‘This is my beloved Son, in Whome I am well pleased.'”
In John’s gospel, Jesus says, “I and the Father are one.” “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” “If anyone loves Me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and We will come to him and make our abode with Hin.”
That is only a smattering of Bible passages that reveal the truth that God’s nature is complex, involving more than one person within It.
When people say that we all believe in the same God, so it really doesn’t matter what religion you follow, they are wrong. It matters a great deal. We cannot call ourselves Christians in any traditional sense of that word if we do not accept the Three-in-One. Our faith is built upon who God is, what God is like, and how God has worked on our behalf, for His glory. And that God Who is being and doing is a Trinity.
A common illustration of this is the nature of water. Whether water is a liquid, solid, or vapor, it is still H2O. It exists in three different states of matter under different environmental conditions. I found a sweet illustration by Mary Anderson, a Lutheran pastor in Illinois, as she recalls her earliest thinking about this:
“At the age of three, I had a memorable experience of the three-in-one. I was watching my grandmother sleep during her afternoon nap. As I contemplated her existence, I thought wisely, ‘That’s Grandmamma, Mamma, and Odelle.’ She smiled in her sleep as I called her by the names used for her by her grandchildren, her daughter, and her husband. Three names, three relationships – and yet the same person. Amazing!”
When the doctrine of the Holy Trinity was finally officially defined and pinned down at the Council of Nicea, the word used for the distinct facets of God was the Greek word “persona.” This comes to us from the masks worn in Greek drama, which made it possible for one actor to play several roles by simply changing masks, or “personas.” Even today, we use the word “persona” to mean a metaphorical mask a person wears. “Personas” became persons, and thus we have three persons in one God.
William Willimon points out that human nature itself is triune, or Trinitarian. I discovered his really cool way of expressing this:
“According to Jesus, it is all right to love ourselves, for we are to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. So you can say, ‘I love myself.’ When we do so, we are speaking in a triune way. When I say, ‘I love myself,’ there is a lover that is doing the loving, namely me loving myself. There is also the beloved, the object of my love, which is also me. Then there is the love, the act and energy of the lover upon the beloved. So even with the one there is the lover, the beloved, and the loving.”
I think that is so cool! In our hearts, he’s saying, there exists a trinity – Augustine’s name for this three-in-one imprint on our inner being is the “vestigia trinititatis.”
What does the three-in-one nature of God mean for us? Why is it significant to our lives that God is three persons?
One of the most repsected theologians of our time, Jurgen Moltmann, Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology at the University of Tubingen in Germany, put it very simply, really. He explains that God is, in fact, a community. The Trinity is a “wondrous community rich in relationships.” Thus we can say with certainty that our God is indeed Love. Father, Son, and Spirit exist in an eternal love triangle. Their mutual love is so profound, so rich, so overflowing, it spills over into the creation of beings capable of giving and receiving love. Humanity was born out of the passionate desire of God to share that burning love, the divine flame at the center of the Three-in-One.
I was simply blown away at Moltmann’s description of the Trinitarian love: “One of the Trinity has suffered. The Son suffers death in our God-forsakeness, the father suffers the death of His beloved Son, and the Spirit binds the other two together through unspoken sighs.”
Is that not profoundly beautiful – and mysterious as well?
One of the very first questions in the Old Baltimore Catechism that I had to memorize as a 7-year-old was this: “Why did God make me?” And the answer was, “To know, love, and serve him in this world and to be happy forever with Him in heaven.”
“O perfect love, all human thought transcending…” -the words of a wedding hymn I sang so many times.
Yes, God made you to love Him forever, as He Himself is the embodiment of perfect love at the heart of all things. God is love. God is relationship. The Three-in-One is a burning love, a hot divine wind as at Pentecost, a life-giving breath that sweeps us off of our feet. This love is incomprehensible in its unconditional-ness, love so pure and deep that it frightens us.
We are afraid of being burned, being set on fire by God’s wild, passionate love for us. We are made for love. We we created by love, to be loved, to give love.
Saint Augustine tells us our human hearts were made for God and they will not find rest until they rest in the Three-in-One.
Sadly, we go looking for love in all the wrong places. We spend so much precious time trying to find that love which will fill our deepest hunger, only to discover ouselves wasted, our hearts trampled, thrown away by careless others.
To love is to risk pain.
To open ourselves to the possibility of love is to open ourselves to the possibility of being hurt, sometimes wounded to the depths of our souls. We often learn to be guarded in our loving. Because we have experienced hurt in love, we become fearful of getting burned, and so we close off parts of ourselves from relationship.
We may even come to believe that God could never find us loveable, could never see in us anything worth loving, anything of grace or beauty or goodness. We forget that, after creating humanity, God said that it was good. The sad fact of its later marring with sin does not cancel out the wonder of His creation in us.
But because of past hurts, we may come to reject God before He has a chance to reject us, out of a false belief that His love for us depends on what we say or do, or upon what we do not say or do.
We are afraid of being burned by God, afraid that He will abandon us when He discovers how unworthy we are, afraid that if we do allow His passion to overwhelm and fill us, we will lose control and be lost in that Pentecostal fire.
Yet, our inmost soul cries out for this burning, to feel the fiery possibility of perfect love, love that fills, love that satisfies, love that fills us so much that it overflows into our personal worlds, into our communities. Something within us wants to be utterly consumed by such love.
That is because we are created in God’s image, and that image is the Trinity, divine community of Father, Son, Spirit. Lover, Beloved, and Love.
The need for relationship is the foundation of our being. We are created that way so that we would come to know and desire communion with our Creator. Such love can be frightening, but if we don’t have it, we are dead in our souls. Dead in our hearts. Our existence loses all meaning without the love of God.
I would like to close with a short passage from a devotional book called Soul Cravings, by Erwin McManus:
“Love searches for you. Is it possible this is why the story won’t go away? Two thousand years later and somehow it is still strangely compelling. On the cross, Jesus of Nazareth hung, naked and beaten for love. Talk about rejection. It would be easy to conclude that God made a fool of himself. What was he thinking to die for love? He gambled everything on the power of love. That love was more powerful than hate. That love was more powerful than death. What was he thinking to die for us, to give himself for you and for me, knowing we might just kiss him in the face and then walk away? Love’s just crazy like that.”