Scriptures: Isaiah 6:1-8 and John 3:1-17
Raise your hand if you have a solid understanding of how to safely blast a rocket into outer space. Raise your hand if you’v e got a firm grasp on the detailed mechanics of a combustible engine (meaning, you could tear one down and rebuild it without the use of instructions). Who here would be able to explain to the rest of us exactly how the brain constructs what we see out of various wavelengths of light? There’s a lot in our world about which most of us have very little understanding. We’re glad that some people have the deeper knowledge and understanding about certain things. Like how to design a vaccine for the coronavirus. Or how to perform a heart bypass surgery. Or even how to effectively convince someone to not take their own life at their moment of greatest despair. But the fact is, there’s an awful lot in this world we take for granted because we have no real understanding of how it works. Now, most of what we don’t understand falls into the broad category of ‘science’, which means that coming to an understanding of how something works is learnable. And provable. And objective (meaning, for the most part it’s not open to interpretation). Generally speaking, something that’s scientific, or even mathematical, in nature is relatively explainable and, when understood, makes logical sense. Such as safely sending a rocket into space and building a combustible engine and explaining how we see what we see.
And then there’re the things in life which fall into the category called ‘the inexplainable’ which science can’t explain, and which are very much open to interpretation because it’s nearly impossible to prove one way or the other. UFOs and intelligent life forms beyond our own solar system. The Big Bang and Evolution (both are theories at best because neither is reproducible in a scientific lab). What it is that keeps galaxies from falling apart. And in that same field of study, what exactly is causing the universe to expand at ever-increasing speeds, which is a recent discovery after having always believed it’s been slowing down ever since the creation of the universe. And, of course, certain medical healings which defy science, such as the nearly sudden disappearance of a cancerous growth. These are the things in life that some people will buy-into and believe in even though it can’t be explained or proven while others won’t believe despite it not being disprovable. In these cases, believing or not believing really comes down to being a matter of faith.
Christianity falls into that category. There’s a reason we call it the Christian faith. There’s very little about our faith system which is provable or reproducible while there’s a considerable amount of it which is inexplicable and contrary to our modern approaches to explaining reality and ascertaining what’s true and what’s not true. Last week I shared with you my doubts about the physical ascension of Jesus Christ. Until a few years ago, I had no faith in that event even though I have all the faith in the world that he walked on water, and inexplicably produced a meal for 10-15 thousand people (5000 was the number of males present), and raised dead people to life, and turned well water into premium red wine, and gave sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf.
Of course, there’s the conception of Jesus, which Scripture explains as happening not through Mary’s physical contact with a man but by the Holy Spirit planting his divine seed within her. And then thirty-three years later, the resurrection of Jesus. Believing both of these claims is a matter of faith because there’s no way to prove them true, which is why the majority of people in the world—including some Christians—don’t buy that they happened the way the Bible says they happened.
The field of study related to the analysis and understanding of God and all things related to God is called theology. Every religion has its own set of theological beliefs, or doctrines. Within Christianity, we’ve formulated some of our most important beliefs into creeds, sometimes called ‘confessions (or affirmations) of faith.’ Most of these creeds have names attached to them. Probably the most well-known creed is one that many of you had to memorize in Sunday school or confirmation class. We profess it aloud at every baptism. What’s the name of that creed? Answer: the Apostles’ Creed.
Those of you here in the sanctuary, I’d like you to grab a hymnal and turn to page 880. Our hymnal contains nine affirmations of faith. We’re going to take a quick look at the first two.
The first one, which is #880 in the hymnal, is the Nicene Creed. It’s named for the city of Nicaea (in present day Turkey) where it was originally adopted by the First Ecumenical Council in the year 325. Fifty-six years later, in 381, it was amended at the Second Ecumenical Council, which took placed in Constantinople. Christian denominations which adhere to the theological teaching if the Nicene Creed are considered a part of ‘Nicene Christianity.’ We United Methodists are such.
The next page contains two versions of the Apostles’ Creed. The top one utilizes the traditional language, probably what many of our older members learned growing up. The bottom one uses terms which are more attuned to our modern ears, such as “the living and the dead” instead of “the quick and the dead.”
So, if you have the hymnal opened up to these two pages, I’d like you to look at the visual structure of both creeds and tell me what you see. There are three sections.
In both creeds, the subject of the first section is who? God the Father. In both creeds, the subject of the second section is who? The Son, Jesus Christ. In both creeds, the subject of most of the third section is who? The Holy Spirit.
OK, here’s the quiz for everyone. Given that both creeds affirm a particular belief about God the Father, Jesus Christ the Son, and the Holy Spirit, each in its own section of the creed, what Christian theological doctrine do these two creeds address and support? Answer: the Trinity.
The Trinity is right there at the top of the list of important Christian doctrines. In fact, I think there’s a good argument for the notion that it’s utterly incongruous to call oneself a Christian while rejecting the doctrine of the Trinity. The truth is, rejecting the doctrine of the Trinity has been a struggle from the very earliest years of the Church’s existence. From early on, the Church found itself having to guard itself against theological beliefs which would put a new spin on the Trinity. These new doctrines would surface from time to time and people would adopt them as truth. But each time this happened, the Church would eventually declare these anti-trinitarian beliefs to be heresy. And today, 2000+ years later, we’re the recipients of the guardianship of the Church against false beliefs, and like every generation before us, it falls on us to maintain the true and orthodox view of the Trinity.
Now, having said all of this, some of you might be wondering what exactly IS the doctrine of the Trinity, and why is it so important? Well, by definition, the doctrine of the Trinity holds that God is one God who exists in three distinct Persons who are of one substance, essence, and nature. The three persons are the Father, the Son (Jesus Christ), and the Holy Spirit. They are equal in importance. They are each eternal. They have the same nature and attributes, and are worthy of precisely the same worship, confidence, and obedience. To put it precisely, they are one in essence and three in person.
Do you remember what I said earlier, that there are a lot of things in life which only experts and those with certain learned knowledge fully understand? Well, I’m here to tell you that the Trinity is something that no one, and I truly mean no one, can fully comprehend and understand. The doctrine of the Trinity falls 1000% in the category of the inexplicable and incomprehensible. As essential as it is to the Christian faith, it’s nevertheless beyond our human ability to fully explain or understand how God is one God in three Persons. And so, belief in the Trinity—which both the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds affirm—is a matter of faith. And faith can be thought of as believing in and following what you can’t see or explain. It’s to acknowledge the mystery and yet believe anyway.
The prophet Isaiah once tried to explain a mysterious experience he had with God. He claimed he was given the ability to see God in his heavenly temple; that he was also able to see a specific type of angel, called seraphs; that he could hear them singing a song of praise to God. He described having his lips touched with a hot coal which signified the forgiveness of his sins. And he said that God talked to him, and specifically told him go forth and be God’s mouthpiece among his people, the Jews.
That’s how Isaiah tried to put into words what must have been a truly indescribable encounter with God. My guess is that none of us have had that same experience of God, and yet we somehow believe him. From our own experiences of God, we understand that it can be nearly impossible to put into words the mystery of experiencing God’s holy, healing presence.
Once during a worship service at annual conference, I experienced the healing hand of God. The sermon was about forgiveness, and in the prayer following his message, a colleague who was sitting behind me, someone I was harboring years of pent of bitterness against, and who was probably feeling the same toward me, reached forward and laid his hand on my shoulder. And as surely as I’m standing here talking to you right now, I felt in my body every ounce of bitterness roll off and away from me. I think you understand what I experienced, but I can tell you that my recounting of what happened doesn’t even come close to fully describing the experience. It really is a mystery. And yet, you believe me despite the fact that I can’t prove what happened. The mystery of it doesn’t invalidate the truth of it.
When Nicodemus sought an audience with Jesus, they got into a conversation about spiritual matters. Jesus explained how a person has to be born again, or born anew, in order to enter God’s kingdom. Nicodemus was confused because his faith tradition didn’t align with Jesus’ point, which is that participating in God’s kingdom is dependent upon a spiritual birth, not a physical birth. For Nicodemus, a Jewish leader, one was physically born into God’s kingdom by being born a Jew. If you could trace one’s lineage back to Abraham, you’re automatically in the club. But Jesus challenged that belief and said that becoming a true child of God happens when a person is “born” of the Holy Spirit. And this happens when the Holy Spirit comes into a person. And this happens when a person stops trying to atone for their own sins and allows the work of Jesus on the cross to be their means of forgiveness.
Is a spiritual birth something we can see with our eyes? No. When it happens, can we prove it to someone who doesn’t understand or believe it? No. Spiritual birth is a mystery. We don’t know how it happens, but we believe it does happen. Being filled with the Spirit is nearly impossible to describe. About the best we can do is to talk about how we’re a different person today than we were before. But we know it’s true.
We cannot adequately explain the truth of the Trinity. Why? Mostly because we don’t fully understand it ourselves! And yet, when by faith we choose to believe that God is mysteriously One God in three Persons, it somehow makes sense at a very deep level we can’t explain. And the truth of the Trinity doesn’t make sense (to the degree it can make sense to our limited understanding) until we choose to believe.
Does the Trinity matter? It absolutely does, and for many reasons. One important reason it matters is because the Trinity as we believe it to be—One God existing in three distinct Persons who share the same essence and nature—is unique to the Christian faith. The Trinity is the backbone to our beliefs about God, about Jesus, and about the Holy Spirit. Without the Trinity, there is no Christian faith.