May 26: Celebrating the Trinity

May 26: Celebrating the Trinity

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Audio of sermon and affirmation of faith only

May 26 – Trinity Sunday

Scriptures: Isaiah 6:1-8 and John 3:1-17

There’s a really funny Monty Python sketch graphic indicating external link I’d love to show you, but because it’s copyrighted, I’m not allowed to do so. So, instead I’ll read the script aloud, and I’m sure you’ll still get the humor—it’ll just be lacking the classic Monty Python delivery.

A talk show called “How to Do It” comes into view. After the three hosts appear on screen, one of them welcomes the audience, saying, “Hello. Last week we showed you how to become a gynecologist. This week on How to Do It we’re going to show you: how to play the flute, how to split an atom, how to construct a box girder bridge, and how to irrigate the Sahara Desert to make vast new areas of land cultivatable. But first, here’s Jackie to tell you how to rid the world of all known diseases….”

Well, in the spirit of “How to Do It,” today I’m going to fully explain the Trinity so that it makes complete logical sense, answers all of your questions, and finally puts to rest all misunderstandings and theological heresies surrounding the Trinity!

Obviously, I say that tongue-in-cheek, because the truth is, even though the Trinity is one of the most important doctrines of Christianity, it’s also one of the most difficult to wrap one’s head around. The idea that God is one substance in three Persons, or three Persons in one substance—one in three and three in one—is nearly impossible to make sense of since it defies all logic and all reasoning. It’s a true paradox.

In order to try to make sense of it, through the centuries theologians have oscillated between an emphasis on the oneness of God, which leads into unitarianism and the basic abandonment of the Trinity; or else they’ve so emphasized the distinctiveness of the three Persons that they’ve moved toward Tritheism, which is a belief in three distinct Gods. Though there are ways to to describe the Trinity which help us understand certain aspects of its reality, when all is said and done, all those descriptions are incomplete. None of them fully capture the reality and the truth of the Trinity – God is one substance in three distinct but unified Persons. Ultimately, then, the Trinity remains a mystery which, if you think about it, is OK because in the end, isn’t God himself a mystery to us? The human mind will never be able to fully comprehend the ultimate reality that is God the Creator of all that is.

This truth is expressed in Isaiah 55:8-9 – “For my plans aren’t your plans nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. Just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my plans than your plans.”

In the book of Job, during their discussion about why people suffer, one of Job’s friends asks rhetorically, “Do you think you can explain the mystery of God? Do you think you can diagram God Almighty? God is far higher than you can imagine, far deeper than you can comprehend, stretching further than the earth’s horizons, far wider than the endless oceans” (Job 11:7-8, The Message). His point: it’s impossible to fully wrap our heads around the ways of God and who he truly is.

So, yes, the realities of the Trinity are a mystery. But it’s also important to know that the Trinity is not a made-up doctrine per se. The basis for a triune understanding of God is firmly rooted in the New Testament. Some of you might point to Matthew 28:19, where Jesus tells his disciples to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Might not that statement of Jesus be the basis of our doctrine of the Trinity? To which I say…maybe, but maybe not. At least, not to the extent that it might seem. This could be seen as a classic chicken-or-the-egg situation. Which came first, the formula to baptize in the name of the triune God or the doctrine of the triune God? Did the formula to baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit give rise to the doctrine of the Trinity or did it grow out of the doctrine of the Trinity?

Well, I’ll share my answer to that question, but first let me try to lay a bit of a foundational perspective.

Loosely speaking, knowledge is evolutionary in nature. New knowledge is attained over time as human beings experience new things and, therefore, learn new things. For example, there was a time in human history when all the best science at the time pointed to a flat earth. But eventually, that perspective gave way to a new understanding about the shape of the earth with the advancement of scientific study. And consider how medicines and our ability to fight diseases have evolved through the centuries as we’ve grown in knowledge.

Well, I believe that to a certain degree the same is true when it comes to our understanding of God. Over the span of time between Abraham and the birth of Jesus, the people of God grew exponentially in their understanding of God. A huge leap forward was when God gave Moses the Law, which revealed a lot about God’s nature; about what he likes and doesn’t like, and so forth. And then, through the teachings of Jesus, new realities about God and the kingdom were revealed to us. Jesus is often quoted as saying, “You’ve heard it said before, but I say to you…,” and then taught them something new about the kingdom.

Isn’t this exactly what Jesus was doing with Nicodemus? Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a religious scholar. He knew the Hebrew Scriptures backwards and forwards. But what Jesus taught him was new, and it confused him because it didn’t fit in the God box that he knew so well. “How are these things possible?” he asked Jesus. The Lord’s response: “You’re a teacher of Israel and you don’t know these things?” No doubt, Nicodemus grew tremendously in his understanding of God on account of his conversation with Jesus that day.

After the four Gospels were written down, those stories of Jesus could be passed around and shared. Then there were Paul’s letters which contained some of the earliest examples of foundational theological truths. As those letters were passed around, that knowledge spread. And then much, much later, with the invention of the printing press, the Bible was made available to the masses. And with the growth of the church came various theologians who helped us understand the Scriptures. And as the church matured, we codified our core beliefs. We formed important doctrines of the Christian faith.

Of course, when we speak of doctrines, we’re talking about core principles within a system. Typically, these principles or beliefs have gone through a systematic process of development by way of discussion and debate until a point of agreement and common understanding is reached. At that point, it’s presented as a foundational truth within that system.

Theology is the study of divine things and religious truth. Under the very broad umbrella of Christian theology are certain areas of study which are more focused in scope. Here are three examples: the study of salvation is called soteriology. The study of all things related to Jesus Christ is called christology. And the study of the Holy Spirit is called pneumatology. All of this is to say that over time, as we’ve grown in our thinking about and understanding of God, we came to certain core beliefs and wrote them down so that they could be passed from one generation to the next. And also, as a way of pushing back against wrong beliefs and teaching, called heresies.

So, why this brief tangent into the area of theologies and doctrines? Well, to establish the fact that what we today know and believe about God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, salvation, and so on, came about through a deliberate process of thinking and debating until there was agreement. All that takes time. The doctrine of the Trinity—if you think about it—is a pretty complex line of thinking. It really couldn’t have come about quickly. Rather, it probably took quite a while for the earliest thinkers and theologians began to put things together to the point that they saw the truth in the idea that the Creator is one—as boldly stated in Deuteronomy 6:4 – “Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one.” But that he’s also somehow “more” than one.

There isn’t time to delve into the fascinating details this morning, but based on stories such as Jesus’s baptism and Pentecost, those early Christians saw a very close connection between God (the Creator) and Jesus and this experienceable though unseeable power that seems to come from God and is given to people who follow Jesus–Holy Spirit. This connection, or correlation, between these three entities was reflected in some of Paul’s writings. And as the church came to an agreement on what would be included in our book of Holy Scriptures, the New Testament, we took all of that in and began to see the dotted outline which, when connected, became the doctrine of the Trinity. God is one substance in three Persons. God is one, but exists and interacts with creation in the Persons of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

It’s my contention—and no doubt, people a lot smarter than me will disagree with me on this—but it’s my belief that, as reported in the book of Acts, the earliest baptismal formula was most likely “in the name of Jesus.” But over time that formula was modified as we came to see the interconnectedness of God and Jesus and the Spirit. Eventually, new converts were baptized in the name of our triune God: the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. This was probably so by the time Matthew compiled his Gospel and included this official baptismal formula in Jesus’ final words to him and the other disciples before his ascension. Personally, I can hear Jesus saying, “Go, therefore, and makes disciples of all nations, baptizing them in my name.” And as the early church came to believe that Jesus was fully divine, to baptize in the name of Jesus expanded to “in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Which, of course, is the baptismal formula we still use today.

So, what do we do with this? Well, like I said at the beginning of worship this morning, not a lot other than celebrate it! Acknowledge it—mystery and all—and celebrate it.

I suppose one takeaway of the doctrine of the Trinity is that it reflects how relationship is built into the Christian faith. You and I are in relationship with a God who is Father, or even  Mother if that works for you. The Deity of our faith isn’t far off and unknown and unknowable who simply set the world to spinning and then walked away. God created us to be in relationship with him just as he’s in relationship with himself—Father and Son. And relationship describes how we’re called to live out and express our faith. There’s truly no such thing as a Christian in isolation. We’re baptized into the body of Christ wherein we’re surrounded by brothers and sisters in the faith.

With that, I invite us to affirm our faith in a triune God using the affirmation of faith which is both printed in your bulletin and will be shown on the monitors.

Affirmation of Faith

We believe in one God, who is Creator, maker of all we see and all we don’t see; who is Ruler of the universe: Source of all creation!

We believe in one God, who is Jesus Christ, God from God, Light from Light, true God and true human. He is one with the Creator; the Word made flesh, our Messiah: Savior of all creation!

We believe in one God, who is Holy Spirit, Breath of God moving among us; who is one with the Creator; one with the Christ; our Comforter and our Guide: Mentor of all creation!

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