Monday, June 16, 2014

Why the Trinity is Important

[This was prepared to be shared during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Springboro, Ohio, yesterday.]

Matthew 28:16-20

Today is Holy Trinity Sunday, the first Sunday after Pentecost.

When I was a boy, about eight, I remember going to my Mom and asking for an explanation of the Trinity, of how God could be one God in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Mom punted. She told me to ask our pastor, which I did.

I asked him to explain the Trinity. “Mark,” he said, “think of water. It can come in the form of a liquid, a solid (in water’s case, ice), or gas (in this case, steam). But whatever form it takes, it’s always water. Three in one.”

That helped somewhat. But the problem with that analogy is that as Christians, we don’t believe that God takes on different forms as though God were engaged in some eternal Halloween party, changing His costume from time to time.

We confess that God is always one and always three. God is always one being; God is always three persons.

Fact is, no analogy we draw is going to exactly explain something as mysterious as the Trinity. And, of course, only God can really understand it. It’s HIS reality, after all. How could we ever get that?

But the very notion of the Trinity is so difficult for us to get our brains wrapped around that some people give up on even talking about it. 

I heard one pastor, for example, say that the Trinity was difficult to understand, he'd decided to never talk about the subject.

But as I’ve gotten to know God better through the pages of Scripture, the fellowship of believers, and the Lord’s Supper, I’ve come to agree with a Presbyterian friend of mine (a petroleum engineer who’s a very good theologian) who wrote on his blog a few years ago, that there may be nothing more important for us to try to “get” as Christians than the Trinity.

Not the Trinity as a doctrine to be memorized.

Not the Trinity as a teaching propped up by arcane and sometimes meaningless analogies.

But the Trinity as a reality, the Trinity as something centrally important to how you and I live every day, the Trinity as a template for how to truly live as human beings.

The word “Trinity” is never used in the Bible. But repeatedly, by inference in the Old Testament and in plain words in the New Testament, the Bible affirms that three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—are co-equal, co-eternal personalities of the one and only God the universe.

For example, in our first lesson, from Genesis, God the Spirit brings the life of the universe into being.

In our second lesson, recounting the apostle Peter recalls how ancient King David referred to the Messiah--the Christ--Who would come centuries after his own death as Lord.

And, look, please at today’s Gospel lesson. It contains the Great Commission. In verse 19, Jesus says: “...go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit...” Jesus is putting Himself and the Holy Spirit on the same level as God the Father.

The Gospels also tell us that Jesus makes a point of placing Himself on an equal footing with God the Father many times.

“Before Abraham was,” He told skeptical followers, “I AM.” (“Before Abraham was,” in other words, “Yahweh,” using the Name with which God identified Himself to Moses and ancient Israel.)

I and the Father are one,” He claims.

Anyone who has seen Me,” He says, “you have seen the Father.”

Yet, Jesus isn’t suggesting that there are two or three Gods over the universe. Like centuries of Jews before and since, Jesus affirmed the truth of Deuteronomy 6:4: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.”

So, without ever using the word trinity, the Bible affirms that God is one God in three persons. By now, you may be crying, "Uncle! Enough already. The Bible teaches that God is one God in three Persons. So what?"

For those who recently read Mere Christianity, some what I’m about to say will sound familiar, but let me suggest why I think it’s so important.

You’ve heard the phrase: “I love humanity. It’s the people I can’t stand.” We find that funny because we know that there is no validity to our claims of being loving people in general if we are unwilling to love particular people in particular.

Love at its most basic level is not about affectionate feelings.

It’s not about an attitude of heart.

Love is a commitment to willing and doing what is best for the beloved.

Love that isn’t lived out practically isn’t love.

You can’t be loving if there is no object of your love. (Hang with me now.)

One of the most famous passages of the New Testament is 1 John 4:8, which says, in part, “God is love.” Now, John didn't write, "Love is God." God is not an abstraction. Nor is God tolerant of all our behaviors. Much of what we human beings is sinful and of those behaviors, God is completely intolerant, even though He never stops loving us.

In these three little words, John isn't giving us a rationale for doing whatever we want, irrespective of the will of God.

No, in saying that, "God is love," John is making an eternal statement about an eternal God.

Before God created the heavens and the earth, before Jesus died and rose so that all who believe in Him may be freed of their sins, before the Holy Spirit formed the Church, God is, God was, and God will be eternally loving. Love is at the core of God’s character and being.

But, that raises a question: Who did God love before the beginning?

The answer, I think, is that in eternity, before there was time, before there was a creation, God was already loving others. God the Father loved God the Son and God the Spirit and God the Son and God the Spirit each loved the other two members of the Trinity, have done so and will do so for all eternity.

Even the existence of this universe in which we live at least suggests that God is one, but is more than one person.

When I was twenty-five, we’d been married for five years and my parents were growing impatient. Where, they wondered, were the grandchildren we were supposed to be coming up with? Then, my dad, father of five kids, decided to have a heart to heart with me. He told me that if I were looking for the right time or the right reason for having children, to forget it. There’s never a right time. There’s never a good reason.

And that’s the point. Love doesn’t need a right time or a good reason. It’s in the very nature of love to forgo convenience to self and to give, to serve, to love, to stand by, to live for, even, if necessary, to die for. God has always known how to love.

He exists in what the theologians call a "triune" relationship of perfect love and doesn’t need more love. He’s always loved perfectly. He's always been loved. God doesn't need love. Honestly, He doesn't really need us.

But, because God is infinite and eternal in His love, God loved the universe into being. God the Word, Christ, spoke into the darkness and chaos and God the Spirit wended His Word and life sprang up.

We are the product of God’s love, unnecessary but loved nonetheless, superfluous but cherished.

Today, the Holy Trinity calls us to follow Christ right into the center of His loving fellowship. He calls us into a new relationship of love with Him and all that He has made. Sin and death and isolation from God and from others will be the last word over every human life unless people are washed clean of sin and made new through repentance and faith in Christ. Paul reminds us in 2 Corinthians 5:17: “...if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!”

Christ calls us into life abundant and eternal.

But there is no life without love.

This is no biological observation: the unloved child, abused by her or his parents isn’t experiencing life; the couple in a loveless marriage aren’t living; the teen subjected to bullying and putdowns is experiencing a love deficit that is, inherently, a life deficit; the visitors ignored when they worship at a church they’ve never been to before are being treated both lovelessly and as though they weren’t even alive.

And this is why the Trinity is such an important reality for us to experience.

We live in a fractured, fractious world. People are divided and often hateful. Love of neighbors, including love of our enemies, is a rare thing. It’s so rare, it seems, that only Jesus and the people who, by faith, draw life from Jesus really live it. God has created the Church, the fellowship of believers in Christ, to make disciples and to usher believers into a community of love that fills us with the power of God to move toward being the loving people we were made to be and promises us eternal fellowship with God and others. In the Garden of Gethsemane before His arrest, Jesus prayed to God the Father that all who followed Him, “may be one...just as you are in me and I am in you...” God wants us to live in the same selfless fellowship with others He has always known. That’s what Jesus died and rose to give to those who dare to believe in Him.

If all of this sounds airy and theoretical, removed from the hard realities of your life, consider what C.S. Lewis memorably says about how the Holy Spirit is involved in every prayer offered in the Name of Jesus, even the simplest prayers:
An ordinary simple Christian kneels down to say his prayers. He is trying to get into touch with God [God the Father]. But if he is a Christian he knows that what is prompting him to pray is also God: God so to speak, inside him [God the Holy Spirit]. But he also knows that all real knowledge of God comes through Christ, the Man who was God [God the Son]— that Christ is standing beside him, helping him to pray, praying for him. You see what is happening. God is the thing to which he is praying — the goal he is trying to reach. God is also the thing inside him which is pushing him on — the motive power. God is also the road or bridge along which he is being pushed to that goal. The whole threefold life of the three-personal Being [all three Persons of the Trinity] is actually going on in that ordinary act of prayer.
The Holy Trinity can make a difference in our everyday lives if we will be open to His threefold ministry to us.

God in His fullness, Who cares about us even though He doesn’t have to, Who is able to stand with us in every experience, also makes it possible for us to experience fellowship, community, with Him and with His family, the Church.

This is why the Church is so important. Only the Church has been designated to connect people with the Trinity.

And in a world filled with the idea of mashing others into oblivion and lifting ourselves to the top, of crushing and being crushed by selfishness and self-will, we need the liberation from self and the connection to God and to others that only the Holy Trinity can give us.

We need, truly, more than anything else, love that changes our hearts, our minds, and our eternities.

And only the God revealed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit can give it. Amen

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