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God in Three Persons

Rev. Dr. Karin Case
Sun, May 27

Text: Matthew 28:16-20

            We have two indoor cats—Frankie and Fiona—who, like any cats, are hard-wired to hunt. As indoor cats, however, they have precious little opportunity to do so. In our old house, every now and then a hapless field mouse would find its way into our kitchen, only to fall prey to our fierce little hunters. Fiona gives chase to the occasional buzzing housefly. And then there’s this: When the sun falls just so on our living room windows, if there are birds perched on the telephone wires in front of the house, their shadows are cast on the living room walls. And these bird shadows become an object of pursuit. Our cats perk up, ears alert and whiskers tingling in rapt attention. But of course, these birds will never be caught!

I confess that Trinity Sunday, which we celebrate today, feels like an occasion for chasing ephemera. What is the Holy Trinity? It seems so abstract and illusive, like shadows dancing along the wall. After Pentecost Sunday last week—with baptism, confirmation, and new members joining, and with powerful stories of Spirit, wind and fire—Trinity Sunday seems to pale in comparison. What is this invisible triune nature?

And why do we need a Trinity Sunday, anyway? Don’t we pay enough attention, each and every week, to the triune nature of God—Creator, Christ and Holy Spirit? And if we seek to understand God, why not just stick with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost? Why not return to the Genesis story of God creating the heavens and the earth? Why not focus on the incarnate God-with-us in Jesus? These seem so much more compelling.

The Holy Trinity can never be captured, nor fully understood. Yet it dances along, in a play of light, calling to something deep within us.

Over the centuries, there have been debates, controversies, and even Church Councils convened over the nature of the Trinity. Trinitarian theology unites Christian traditions all across the globe; and at the same time, congregations and denominations have split over it. Our Trinitarian theology is the reason we are no longer the same congregation as First Parish Unitarian Universalist right down the street on Mass Ave. Founded in the 1630’s and continuing through the 1700’s we were one and the same congregation, but split in about 1829 over differing theologies.

Whether or not we understand the meaning of the Trinity, chances are that Trinitarian theology shapes both our thinking and our identities.

We are, of course, monotheists. We believe in one God, like our Jewish forbears in faith who proclaim each day at morning and evening prayer, “Shema Israel, Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” We, too, believe in this One God.

Yet, this One God has more than one manifestation. The word “trinity” is never used in any of our scriptures, yet, even in the Hebrew Bible there are intimations that God has several expressions. The Spirit of God moves over the face of the deep on the first day of creation. God breathes the spirit, or breath, into Adam—the human one. Sophia—wisdom—appears as a personification of God in the Wisdom literature in the books of Ecclesiastes, Job, and Proverbs.

In the New Testament, John’s gospel speaks of the eternal Logos, who is with God from the beginning of creation. The gospels portray Jesus as the Son of God, through the special circumstances of his birth, divine in nature.

Importantly, the gospels describe a relationship between the three persons of the trinity—Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit. Most remarkable is the story of Jesus’ baptism, told in Matthew, Mark and Luke. So often depicted in Christian art that we can probably see it in our mind’s eye. Here, God (the Father) calls Jesus (the Son), anoints him, pours out the Holy Spirit on him, and calls him beloved. You can see the clouds opening up and the Spirit descending in the form of a dove and Jesus coming up from the water.

I suggest that this relationship, this beloved-ness is for us, by far the most important thing to understand about the Trinity. This should be our take-away: That God’s very nature, God’s essence is relational and loving.

It may not matter to us what substance God is, or how Jesus came to be, or what entities existed from the beginning of time, or what proceeded or who was begotten from what, but it does matter that Godself is—at her core—relational. Our deity is—from the very beginning and the begetting—fundamentally relational.

Our scripture from Matthew is selected for Trinity Sunday because it articulates the classic Trinitarian formula. “Go, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” These words are so important to who we are, that when we baptize (like we did last Sunday), we use these precise words. They unite us with Christians in every time and place.

It’s unclear, however, precisely what these words meant to Matthew. There really isn’t a fully-developed theology of the Trinity anywhere in the New Testament. That came centuries later, with the Council of Nicaea. (More on that in a moment.)

What we can discern from Matthew, and from Paul’s letters, and from the gospel of John (all of which contain references to the triune nature of God), is that the people who called themselves Christians were discovering something mysterious, sacred, and relational at the very heart of God—an unfolding story of claiming and being claimed—and that they were beginning to use Trinitarian language in their worship and their greetings.

Even in New Testament times, the Trinity was coming to express and shape their understanding of God and of themselves. They were convening and greeting, blessing and sending, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

That Christians were wrestling deeply with the meaning of the Trinity was clear when Emperor Constantine, newly-converted-to-Christianity, called the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE. The familiar doctrine of the Trinity that has come down to us through the ages was hammered out at that Council and we know it as the Nicene Creed.

In a Spark Notes version of Trinitarian doctrine, God exists in three persons, but is one being with a single divine nature. The members of the Trinity are co-equal, and co-eternal, one in essence, nature, power, action, and will. The Father is uncreated, the Son is uncreated, and the Holy Spirit is uncreated, and all three are eternal without beginning. (1)

A radically condensed version of the Nicene Creed makes these three claims:

I believe in one God, Maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.

I believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God. (it continues... begotten, not made, of one substance with the Father...)

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the give of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.

If you find the Trinity confusing, you are not alone! The Trinity is often described as a “mystery,” not because it is meant as a riddle, [or an ephemera,] but because it describes a reality above our human comprehension. It is something we may begin to grasp, but ultimately must know through worship, symbol, and faith. (2)

Even the great Augustine was hard-pressed when it came to explaining the Trinity. “He used the example of a tree, saying: the root is wood; the trunk is wood; the branches are wood. One substance, three parts.” (3) In the end, this explanation is not particularly helpful in our efforts to understand the great mystery of the Trinity. We know what a tree is made of! And when Augustine failed to mention leaves and blossoms, he lost me. 

But using his metaphor of wood, might we be prompted to ask, “What is God made of?” Or more properly, since God is not created, “Of what does God consist?”

God is Spirit and creativity, action and impetus, flesh and experience, yearning and possibility. God appears both within history and before time; God is seen and unseen, visible and invisible, intimate and immediate, yet grander than our touching, seeing, or even imagining.

And God is love-poured-out, inherently relational.

The first mover, the first Lover.

Parent giving birth to child,

Spirit poured out in love, divine intention.

One God in three persons.

Amen!

 

1) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trinity

2) http://www.churchyear.net/trinitysunday.html

3) Steven P. Eason, Feasting on the Word, p. 46.

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