Isaiah 6:1-8 Canticle 13 Romans 8:12-17 John 3:1-17
A small Midwestern town was in the midst of a long drought, and all the farmers were in fear of losing their crops. At church on Sunday, the pastor led them in earnest prayer asking the Lord for rain. He closed out the service by instructing his congregation to spend the whole week in prayer for rain and to come back next Sunday prepared to thanks God for answered prayers. By the next Sunday, it still had not rained, and the church was full. The pastor stood in the pulpit, looked out over the crowd, and shook his head sadly. He accused the people of not believing in the Lord. They all protested, “We do believe!” He asked, “Then where are your umbrellas?”
What do we believe? Our beliefs are supported by the events in the church year. This is Trinity Sunday, but people who have cancer probably don’t care. This is Trinity Sunday, but those young couples who can’t get pregnant probably don’t care either. “But this is Trinity Sunday!” Even so, the family dealing with a troubled teenager, the couple headed for divorce, the person who has lost a job, they don’t care. Does it really matter to them that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit? We just want to know that God is God and that God somehow knows who we are, what we are doing, and what we need. How can we understand the doctrine of the Trinity, when we don’t know who God is for us?
The New Testament readings for Trinity Sunday focus on Paul’s instructions for the Roman church about dealing with flesh and spirit. Paul’s way of dealing with the problem may be easier to write about and read about than to live out. Nicodemus doesn’t understand about being born from above. He must move beyond literal thinking to understand…and maybe we need to move beyond our preconceived ideas of who God is.
The doctrine of the Holy Trinity can be described as a map charting the Christian journey into the mystery of God. From New Testament times on, as the earliest Christians reflected on their new relationship with God the Father through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, gradually they formulated the classical Trinitarian doctrine as their way to give meaning to their experience and to help others recognize and know the triune God for themselves.
But on this day of the church year, we have to ask…Why does one God need three names? How does one God embody three forms? How can God be both three and one? The Bible often compounds the problem by making it sound as if all three operate independently of one another. Who are all these people? How can God the Father be his own son? And if Jesus is God, then whom is he talking to on so many occasions? And where does the Holy Spirit come in? Is that the spirit of God, the spirit of Jesus, or someone else? If they are all in one, then why do they come and go at different times, and how can one of them send another to them?
Believers throughout the centuries have tried to describe God, but descriptions don’t satisfy us. The problem is that we rarely experience God the same way twice. Some days God comes as a judge, walking through our lives sweeping our messes into neat little piles. Other days, God comes as a shepherd, fending off our enemies and feeding us with cool water and warm words. Some days, God is a whirlwind who blows away our doubts and uncertainties and emboldens our gifts. Other days, God comes as a protector, a dazzling King and a silent servant. The list goes on and on - God the teacher, the challenger, the helper, the stranger, God the encourager, the affirmer, the adversary, the yes, the no, the not yet.
The St. Athanasius Creed (on your insert) was a fifth-century creed attributed to St. Athanasius of Alexandria. It is sometimes called in Latin meaning “Whosoever will” from its opening words. It sets forth orthodox Christian views on the Trinity and the incarnation, warning that these beliefs are necessary for salvation. Athanasius vigorously defended the teachings of the Council of Nicaea that Jesus Christ was eternally divine and fully God. Although it is attributed to St. Athanasius, it probably originated in southern France in the fifth century long after Athanasius had died. Listen to its words…..
The Creed of Saint Athanasius
Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic Faith. Which Faith except everyone do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly. And the Catholic Faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance. For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one, the Glory equal, the Majesty co-eternal. Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Ghost. The Father uncreate, the Son uncreate, and the Holy Ghost uncreate. The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible. The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Ghost eternal. And yet they are not three eternals, but one eternal. As also there are not three incomprehensibles, nor three uncreated, but one uncreated, and one incomprehensible. So likewise the Father is Almighty, the Son Almighty, and the Holy Ghost Almighty. And yet they are not three Almighties, but one Almighty. So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Ghost is God. And yet they are not three Gods, but one God. So likewise the Father is Lord, the Son Lord, and the Holy Ghost Lord. And yet not three Lords, but one Lord. For like as we are compelled by the Christian verity to acknowledge every Person by himself to be both God and Lord, So are we forbidden by the Catholic Religion, to say, There be three Gods, or three Lords. The Father is made of none, neither created, nor begotten. The Son is of the Father alone, not made, nor created, but begotten. The Holy Ghost is of the Father and of the Son, neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding. So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Ghost, not three Holy Ghosts. And in this Trinity none is afore, or after other; none is greater, or less than another; But the whole three Persons are co-eternal together and co-equal. So that in all things, as is aforesaid, the Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshipped. He therefore that will be saved is must think thus of the Trinity.
Okay, so now that we have cleared that up… Our early Fathers wanted the early church to know that “There be three Gods, or three Lords. The Father is made of none, neither created, nor begotten. The Son is of the Father alone, not made, nor created, but begotten. The Holy Ghost is of the Father and of the Son, neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding. So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Ghost, not three Holy Ghosts….These whole three persons are co-eternal together and co-equal.”
God is many, which is at least one of the mysteries behind the doctrine of the Trinity. That faith statement is our confession that God comes to us in all kinds of ways, as different from one another as they can possibly be. The other mystery is that God is one. There cannot be a fierce God and a loving one, a God of the Old Testament and another of the New. When we experience God in contradictory ways, that’s our problem, not God’s. We can’t solve this dilemma by dissecting the divine self. All we can do is decide whether or not to open ourselves up to a God whose freedom and imagination is limitless – a God who can boggle our minds.
With all of that said, thank goodness, Frederick Buechner suggests a helpful way of thinking about the Holy Trinity. From all eternity, God is God in three persons, just as the creeds affirm. But for our limited human perspective, we experience the Father as God-beyond-us; the Son as God-beside-us; and the Holy Spirit as God-within-us.
Buechner says that the Trinity points toward a balanced and healthy relationship with God. We tend to get into spiritual difficulty when we focus too much on one part of this three-fold relationship and it becomes more prominent than the others. Many people seem to focus on the first person of the Trinity – God-beyond-us. In God the Father, we experience God’s holiness, righteousness, power, majesty and greatness, which encourages our worship. But we also struggle with seeing God as the law giver and judge. So then we focus on obeying the rules. Rules are good, don’t get me wrong. But fear and angst can hold us back, can scare us away from developing our relationship.
So, we need to know not only God-beyond-us, but also God-beside-us. The good news is that in Jesus Christ, God has drawn near to forgive us and reconcile us to the Father. Jesus offers himself to us as our mediator, intercessor, companion, and friend. Jesus is the bridge of reconciliation from the world to God. But if we focus only on our relationship with Jesus and exclude the others, we may get ourselves into trouble. Many Christians like to talk about a personal relationship with Jesus – as friend, a non-threatening accepting and affirming presence. That’s wonderful, but such a friendship can easily become a cozy, and comfortable relationship that makes no demands on us and doesn’t challenge us in any way to grow or change. It is wonderful to be comforted, but it is necessary for us to continue to grow in our faith.
So in addition to God-beyond-us and God-beside-us, we also need God-within-us. The Holy Spirit is the divine agent of inner renewal and transformation, working mysteriously within to reform us and transform us into who God has created us to be. But, to focus only on God-within-us, to neglect God-beyond-us and God-beside-us, can be disastrous too. So much of what is considered spirituality today consists exclusively of a quest for “the God-within.” This kind of spirituality assumes that everything we discover about ourselves, including our own dysfunction, comes from God. So we end up worshiping a God made in our own image, instead of the reverse. Any spirituality focused solely on the experience of God-within-us can become totally self-centered and self-absorbed. This ends up mistaking ourselves for God, and we are back to worshipping idols.
The doctrine of the Trinity helps us avoid these pitfalls. Clearly, we need to be in relationship with God the Father, who created us and holds us accountable for obedience to God’s laws; God the Son, who draws near to call, forgive, reconcile, and befriend us; and God the Holy Spirit, who enters the deepest recesses of our souls to renew, transform, and re-create us from within.
On this Trinity Sunday, may we listen to the stirrings of our hearts, our earnest human efforts to describe something that cannot ever be described, which is the nature of God. What if we committed to talk more with God and less about God and see what happens in our hearts, in our minds, in our relationships, in our lives? Our lives will be transformed. In the name of the great Triune God, our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer…Amen.