Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The Trinity: Knowing God

Matthew 28:16-20
This morning, a re-run. I hope you don’t mind.

Today is an often-overlooked day on the Church calendar: Holy Trinity Sunday, the first Sunday after Pentecost.

[This is example of a genre of Christian imagery known as gnadenstuhl. It portrays the Trinity at the moment of Jesus' crucifixion. I thank my son, Pastor Philip Daniels, for sharing this particular image on his Facebook account this past week.]

When I was about eight, I asked my mom for an explanation of the Trinity. How could God be one God in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Mom told me to ask our pastor, which I did.

“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, though it tilts toward a heresy called modalism long ago rejected by the Church.

The problem with the 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 being and that God is always three persons. No analogy is going to exactly explain something as mysterious as the Trinity.

Some people think that the Trinity is an arcane idea best left undiscussed. 

Yet 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 an acquaintance of mine who wrote a few years ago, that there may be nothing more important for us to try to “get” as Christians than the Trinity.

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 (Genesis 1:2).

When God decides to create human beings, He says, "Let us make..." Who's He talking to? I think that pretty clearly, God is talking to Himself (Genesis 1:26).

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 tell us that Jesus makes a point of placing Himself on an equal footing with God the Father many times.
  • “Before Abraham was, I am [Yahweh],” He says in John 8:58. 
  • “I and the Father are one,” He says in John 10:30. 
  • “Anyone who has seen Me has seen the Father,” He claims in John 14:9. 
Yet, Jesus isn’t saying that there are two or three Gods over the universe. Like His fellow Jews, 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.

But what has the Trinity God to do with you and me in 2017?

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.

Love at its most basic level is not about affectionate feelings. Love is a commitment to willing and doing what is best for those we love, even when we disagree, drive each other crazy.

Love that isn’t lived out practically isn’t love. You can’t be loving if there is no object of your love.

Now, one of the most famous passages of the New Testament is 1 John 4:8, which says, in part, “God is love.”

It's important to note that John didn't write, "Love is God." That would make God just an idea.

Nor does God’s loving character make Him tolerant of all our behaviors. Much of what we human beings do is sinful and of sin, God is absolutely intolerant, even though He never stops loving us.

In these three words, “God is love,” we aren’t given a license to do 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.

"God is love" means that love is at the core of God’s character and being. Love is why and how He acts.

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. Only One Who loves and has always known how to love would have thought of giving such a great gift as this thing called life.

When I was twenty-five, I’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 talk with me, giving me advice for the first and only time that I can remember.

Dad told me that if we 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. It’s in the very nature of love to forgo convenience to self and to give, to serve, 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 perfectly. God doesn't need more 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--every one of us--are the products 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 claims us as His own in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit at our Baptism, and then calls us into an ever-renewing 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 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...” (John 17:21). 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 this: Every time we pray to our Father in heaven in Jesus’ name, we do so at the prompting of the Holy Spirit, Who through God’s Word and the witness of other Christian disciples, helps us to trust that when we come to the Father on the bases of Jesus’ perfect righteousness, our prayers are heard.

More than that, we believe that when we’re confused, afraid, worn out, incapable of putting a coherent thought into words and simply call out to the God we know in Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit forms our groans into prayers that, through Jesus, reach the Father. (Romans 8:26-27)

I have never prayed so completely as I have when, wrung out by life, I have asked heaven, “What? What?”

If it weren’t for the Holy Spirit and the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus to open our access to God the Father, prayers like that would only bounce off the ceiling.

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 God Who is 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

[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

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