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One of the most difficult ideas in the Christian faith is the concept that God is three persons in one being. We call that triad the Trinity. The actual term, Trinity is not in scripture, but the idea is all over the place. It began in Genesis when the Spirit of God hovered over the waters (v. 3) and God said, “Let us make mankind in our image…” (v. 26) It stretched through to Revelation 22 where we see the “throne of God and of the Lamb” (v. 1) and the “Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come’” (v. 17). The “Lamb,” of course, is Jesus; and he shares the throne with his Father.
Many non-Christians (as well as a few Christians) have a difficult time with the idea of the Trinity. When the church first burst onto the scene, many people (particularly the Jews) in the surrounding cultures believed these Christ-followers to be polytheists, believing in three gods, not merely one. Today we have the “Jesus only” folks as well as those who believe that the Trinity is merely God manifesting himself in different ways.
At best, the Trinity is a difficult concept. We try to explain it through various means. We use metaphors such as the egg (yolk, white, and shell=one egg), the human being (I can be a father, a son, and a brother but still one human being), or water (ice, steam, and liquid — all H20). No explanation is perfect. No example covers it all. We just keep plugging away and do the best we can to explain the unexplainable. The Catholic Church has simply referred to it as the “mystery of the Trinity.”
The church fathers did their best to describe what they were seeing in scripture. The concept of the Trinity is certainly there. The question was always, “How do we believe in one God and still hold all three entities together?” The Bible is clear in that there is a Father, a Son, and a Holy Spirit. Jesus, in fact, told us before he left that we should make disciples and baptize them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. So the church has done its level best over the years to recognize three Persons in one God — now known as the Godhead.
The apostle Paul probably did as much to help us grasp the fact that there are three persons in one God as anyone. Throughout his epistles to the church, he made references such as the one in Galatians 4:6 where he said, “God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” His benediction in 2 Corinthians 13:14 stood out as another example of the Trinitarian understanding: “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”
In our passage for today, John recorded the words of Jesus as he was preparing to die. He had one final meeting with the twelve. At one point in the conversation, Jesus seemed to wrap it up and said, “Come now; let us leave” (John 14:31). They didn’t leave, however, and he went on to speak and pray for what we now identify as three more chapters.
I can remember times as a child when my parents would invite people over to the house. It was not unusual to hear someone say, “Well, we’ve got to get going.” My Mom would go to one of the bedrooms and bring out all the coats. We would see everyone to the door, and the conversation would meander on for another half an hour. For a young kid, these were the visits that never seemed to end.
I’m not sure this was what was going on with Jesus and the disciples, but it definitely had that feel to it. Jesus wrapped up the conversation but realized there was much more to be said. He knew he needed to move on to what would be his final destiny in his earthly life, but he had more wisdom to impart to his followers. He also decided to stop and pray for them (and us).
In the midst of that, he admitted to the disciples that he still had a lot more to say — “more than you can now bear” (John 16:12). At that point, he reiterated to them that he would be sending the Holy Spirit — who he referred to as the Spirit of truth. That Spirit will “guide you into all the truth” (v. 13). This is a theme that runs throughout his discourse with them during the evening.
Jesus didn’t stop with the Holy Spirit, however. He went on to say the Spirit would glorify him (Jesus) by receiving the words of Jesus and making them known to the disciples. By doing so, he established the relationship between himself and the Holy Spirit. Still, there was more to come.
He said something very telling in verse fifteen: “All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you.” So the Holy Spirit receives from Jesus “all that belongs to the Father” because all that belongs to the Father belongs to Jesus as well. The Spirit, in turn, makes these things known to the apostles in order to glorify Jesus. What we end up with is a covenant relationship among the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. They are a community within themselves, but they are one God. They are independent yet interdependent.
They are, obviously, three different persons; but they are not three different Gods. The early church had no other way to describe this relationship within one God as three distinct persons in one being (or of one substance). If you understand all that, you’re doing better than most of us. The Catholic Church did the right thing when they called it the mystery of the Trinity.
One simplified way of looking at it is through the following generalization: Jesus was sent to earth to reveal God’s love for humanity and glorify the Father. Jesus left and he and the Father sent the Holy Spirit to reveal and glorify Jesus. The Holy Spirit, as we have seen, was present in the Creation with God — hovering over the waters — much like a mother hen hovers (or broods) over her chicks.
As I pointed out, this is really an over generalization. Still, it’s a handy way to remember how the three persons relate to one another (as well as to us). Trying to grasp the nature of God is no simple matter, but as we attempt to get a handle on things, we can certainly come to a better understanding.
In Creation, for example, we have seen the presence of the Holy Spirit. We have heard God (the Father) say, “Let us make human beings in our own image.” Later in the prologue to his gospel (John 1:1-18), John indicated that all things were made through Christ. All three are present, all three are Creator, and all three are in existence prior to the “beginning.”
Another piece of this amazing puzzle is the fact that we were created in God’s image. That could mean a lot of things (and surely does). But one of the distinct possibilities here is that the Triune God created triune people. God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Human beings, according to the apostle Paul, are body, soul, and spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:23).
We’ve only scratched the surface of this topic, but frankly, it took the church over three hundred years to officially establish and define the doctrine of the Trinity. Obviously, the idea and concept of it had been developed long before that, but it was hazy in the minds of most Christians. If it took that long for the church to formulate it, we’re not going to do it justice in one short sermon.
It’s helpful to note that there is no singular passage of scripture that is going to, flat-out, state the doctrine at which many of us have arrived. If there was, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. You can’t point to one verse and say, “See! That proves there’s a Trinity.” While many of us accept the doctrine, there are still many people (Christians included) who wrestle with the entire concept. It’s not an easy one, to be sure.
For many, the question is not so much, “Is there a Holy Trinity?” The real question becomes, “What does that mean for us? How should this affect the way we live and respond to the living Lord?”
I think the first answer to that lays in the fact that God, within God’s self, is in a covenant relationship. It is quite obvious that the relationship among the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is an extremely close one. While they seem to have different functions, they rely heavily upon one another. They are interdependent in their actions as they support one another’s roles. While the Trinity is in covenant relationship with each other, the Lord is also in covenant relationship with us.
Beginning in the book of Genesis, we see God entering into covenants with his people. Because of that, we are even known as God’s covenant people. The five major covenants of the Old Testament (Adamic, Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, and Davidic), along with the New Testament covenant of love, form and shape us as God’s people. As his covenant people, we share in the same love and mission as our covenant Lord.
The second effect the Trinity has on us as human beings is related to the first. The Trinity is not only in a covenant relationship, it forms a community within itself. The fellowship which exists among the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is a picture of what the perfect community would look like. We might not ever be able to attain that kind of community in this life, but we have an example of what it can be.
There is a repeated call to community throughout scripture. We are called to be in community with God. We see this from the beginning. Adam and Eve existed in close communion with the Lord. But it doesn’t end there. We are also called to be in community with each other.
When we read the early chapters of the book of Acts, we get a sense of what this can be like. The early Christians took their sense of community very seriously. They looked out for one another, worshiped together, and broke bread in each other’s homes. They were a force to be reckoned with because they were a force for love. Their love was generated and fulfilled as a part of a Christian community that sought after the things of God. They followed Jesus, were inspired by the Holy Spirit, and glorified their Father in heaven.
The Trinity is our best model for all that can be good within us. The Trinity gives us our potential to be people of the covenant, and harvesters in God’s vineyard. As we grasp what we can of the Trinitarian concept, let us live — body, soul, and spirit — as unto the Lord.
A lady wrote to Reader’s Digest recently. She wanted to tell about an experience she had taking a young girl from India to church with her. It was the 11-year-old girl’s first exposure to Christian worship. The young lady’s parents were traveling on business and left her with their American friends. The little Hindu girl decided on her own to go with the family to church one Sunday. When they returned home, her host’s husband asked her what she thought of the service.
“I don’t understand why the West Coast isn’t included, too,” the little girl replied.
When they inquired what she meant, she said, “You know, in the name of the Father, the Son and the whole East Coast.” I can see why she was confused. There are some parts of our faith that are difficult to understand or explain. One of these is the Trinity.
I find myself in a difficult position this morning on the horns of a dilemma, as they say. On the one hand I feel like the parents of another little girl must have felt. One day she asked her father, “Daddy, what is God like?” The question sounded innocent enoughuntil the father actually tried to put his answer into language that a fiveyearold could relate to. Finally, he gave the answer for which fathers are famous: “Go ask your mother.”
She went to her mother with the question, “Mother, what is God like?” The mother soon realized that she had no adequate answer for her daughter either. She said, “Honey, why don’t you ask your Sunday School teacher?”
The little girl went to her Sunday School teacher with the same question, “What is God like?”
The teacher said simply, “Why don’t you ask your father or mother?”
The little girl thought to herself as she left, “If I had lived with God as long as my father and mother and Sunday School teacher, I think I would be able to tell a little girl what He is like.”
That’s one horn of the dilemma. We are Christians. We have walked with God, many of us, all of our lives. We ought to be able to tell people what God is like. However, there is another horn to the dilemma.
St. Augustine, one of the most astute thinkers the Christian Church has ever produced, was walking along the seashore one day while pondering the doctrine of the TrinityFather, Son, and the “whole East coast.” He seemed to hear a voice saying, “Pick up one of the large sea shells there by the shore.” So he picked it up. Then the voice said, “Now pour the ocean into the shell.” And he said, “Lord, I can’t do that.”
And the voice answered, “Of course not. In the same way, how can your small, finite mind ever hold and understand the mystery of the eternal, infinite, triune God?”
Do you get the drift of my dilemma?
Many Christian churches will be celebrating today the doctrine of the Trinity. It is one of the most prized truths of the Christian faith. “God in three persons, blessed Trinity….”
I’m glad we’re trinitarians. If I had adequately to explain the Trinity to a fiveyearold, however, or even to a fifty year old, for that matter, I would be in trouble. How can you pour the ocean into a mere seashell? How do you explain the grandeur of God to minds as limited as ours?
God in three persons. What does it mean? The word Trinity does not even appear in the New Testament. Why, then, did the church Fathers formulate such a difficult and confusing doctrine? It leads to all kinds of difficult questions. How could the babe in the manger control the movement of stars? Was Jesus merely quoting Psalms when he cried out, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me…?” These are questions for which I have no answers. Still, I want to affirm that the doctrine of the Trinity is the very heart of everything we believe as followers of Jesus Christ.
IT SAYS, FIRST OF ALL, THAT GOD IS BEYOND THE CATEGORIES BY WHICH WE HUMANS CLASSIFY REALITY.
J.B. Phillips was right. Our God is too small! Look around you. Truly the heavens are telling the glory of God. And the glory which they describe is breathtaking.
In 150 BC there lived a man named Hipparchus who said there were exactly 1,026 stars in the universe. Fifteen hundred years later Galileo, using the newly invented telescope, looked into the sky and saw many times that number. Now we know there are about 100 billion stars in our galaxy alone and there are billions of such galaxies besides ours! Can you deal with that? Billions and billions of solar systems like our own?
How big is this universe? February 23, 1987. An astronomer observed with his naked eye the explosion of a distant supernovaa blast so powerful that it released as much energy in one second as our sun will release in ten billion years. The truly startling fact is that this supernova exploded 170,000 years ago. It took that long for the light generated by that faraway event, traveling almost 6 trillion miles a year, to reach us. Can you imagine the magnitude of a God who is bigger than all that? Is your God big enough?
Can you imagine a God for whom time does not even exist? We talk about ‘forever.’ People say, “Forever is a long time.” That’s not it at all. Where God is, there is no time. As Augustine taught us, God created time just as He created space. There is no tomorrow or yesterday in heaven. It is always now! Can you get your mind around that? Eternity is timeless.
In Los Angeles there is a fossil museum beside the La Brea tar pits. At the entrance of the museum is a painting of a ribbon, eightyfive feet long, representing five billion years of the earth’s history. One inch equals five million years. Do you know how much space on that ribbon belongs to the history of the human race, from the cave men to the astronauts? Less than onehalf inch! As one author asks, “What was God doing the other 84 feet 11 1/2 inches? “
It is good to remember when we wonder why God doesn’t keep our timetable that time is nothing to God. Time is a convenience by which we measure things, not God. You see, many of us have a God who is too small. We want to create God in our image, but He is the Divine Other. He is beyond our imagining. When we say, “God in three persons,” we are affirming that God is beyond the categories by which we humans classify reality.
AT THE SAME TIME WE ARE AFFIRMING THAT THE GOD WHO IS BEYOND OUR UNDERSTANDING VISITED THIS PLANET IN THE PERSON OF JESUS OF NAZARETH.
I know I am going beyond what many people can accept, but this is the heart of the Christian message. We are not Deists. We do not believe that God set the world in motion and then walked off and left it. We believe God visited our world in the life of a humble carpenter.
Notice I did not say in the guise of a humble carpenter. I said in the life of this carpenter.
Jesus was not God masquerading as a man. No, God emptied Himself and became fully human when Christ was born in the manger of Bethlehem. He cried real tears, and sweat real sweat and bled real blood. He was a real man, and yet God was in Him, “reconciling the world unto Himself.”
Thus Jesus was more than just another hero. Heroes come and go. Want to hear an absurd statistic? There was a poll recently that caught my attention. It was by the Social Science Research Institute at the University of Tennessee, surveying 1,077 people concerning how they felt about the deceased rockandroll star, Elvis Presley. It found the following startling results: Twenty per cent of those interviewed believe Elvis never disobeyed his parents. Seven per cent believe he never told a lie. (1) Amazing!
Jesus was more than just another hero, more than another great teacher, more than a dedicated martyr. He was all these things, of course, but more. He was God emptying Himself and taking on himself the sufferings of us all. Can you deal with that?
There is an old story about former Notre Dame football coach, Knute Rockne. Rockne devised a play where both guards and the center pull to go block for the ballcarrier. Obviously that left a large hole in the center of the offensive line. It was the quarterback’s job to hit all the big linemen who poured through that hole.
Rockne was once explaining the play to a fellow coach when the coach stopped Rockne’s explanation to ask how effective the play had been. Rockne admitted that he didn’t know. He said his quarterback had never been stupid enough to call that play. (2) It is beyond our comprehension that the God of billions of galaxies would humble Himself to become one of us and to take upon Himself our weakness, our shame, but you see, God is God. He defies all the categories with which we are familiar. That is what the doctrine of the Trinity is saying to us. God is bigger than all our categories. Yet God humbled Himself and walked among us.
AND FINALLY, THIS SAME GOD WHO CREATES AND SUSTAINS, WHO IN CHRIST SUFFERED AND DIED, IS AVAILABLE TO EVERYONE OF US HERE AND NOW.
Wow! That is what we mean by the work of the Holy Spirit. God is present; He is available; He is our Comforter, our Sustainer, our Friend. There is an old story of a conversation between former Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel and President Jimmy Carter. It was during one of Begin’s visits to America. Begin questioned Carter about his platinum, red, and gold phones in the Oval Office. “Tell me, what are they really for?” he kidded the president. “Well, the platinum phone goes to Plains so I can keep track of Billy. The red phone is a hot line to Russia so I can keep track of what’s happening there. My gold phone is a direct line to God.”
“How much does it cost to call God?” Begin asked.
“Ten thousand dollars,” Carter replied. “But it’s worth every penny.”
Later when Carter was visiting Begin in Israel, he asked the same question. “What are your three phones for?”
Begin replied, “One’s a hot line to Egypt, another’s a hot line to Parliament, and the third is a hotline to God.”
“How much does it cost to call God from here?” Carter asked.
“Ten cents,” Begin replied. “It’s a local call.”
The confusing doctrine of the Trinity says that the same God of a billion galaxies, who emptied Himself and walked the dusty roads of Galilee, is a local call. He is here, and He is available. If we have a need, He is our Provider. If we are heartbroken, He is our encourager. If we have wandered far from the path of righteousness, He is our Savior. Everything we ever need, we find in Him. God in three persons. Blessed Trinity.
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1. Chet Flippo, “Burning Love,” Tennessee (July/August, 1989), p.17.
2. Hermin Masin, Speaker’s Treasury of Sports Stories (New York, New York: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1954), p. 40. getContentBlock(); ?>