June 7th, 1998 (St. George s URC, Hartlepool)
Trinity Sunday (RCL - year ĎC )
Revd. Phil Nevard
Readings: Proverbs 8:1-4 (The figure of Wisdom - "I was there!")
Psalm 8 (What is man?)
Romans 5:1-5 (Put right with God)
John 16:12-15 (The work of the Holy Spirit)
Trinity Sunday is traditional. It is traditional for ministers to book a Sunday off so that they can avoid having to try to explain how the Trinity works! They head for Blackpool in their droves. It is traditional for ministers to assume that their congregations are not really interested in theology. But today, I am bucking the trend! (Actually, I got my dates mixed up!)
Theology then.... Theology is not a boring list of academic facts about an idea called God. True theology is personal. It is about relationships. Your relationships. With God, with Godís world, with others in Godís world. True theology is very practical, it is nothing whatsoever to do with angels balancing on pin-heads. Itís all about bringing your relationship with the true God into all your other relationships, and bringing all your other relationships into your relationship with God. If you get your theology right, it will help you to have the best relationships, with God, with your boyfriend or girlfriend, your mum or dad, your children, your sister or brother, your best friend, your worst enemy, your teachers or pupils, the dentist, or even your dog! There is no part of your life and relationships that theology is not relevant to.
I can say all of this because of who God is. God is a personal and relational God. And I want to talk about the most important aspect of that today. Itís the Christian teaching called the Trinity. Donít be scared by that term, and donít be scared to use it. Itís simply short for ďTri-UnityĒ that is, three-in-one-ness. We say that God is a Triune being. That means, he is three persons in one God.
This doctrine of the Trinity is not just some interesting academic sidelineof Christian theology. This is the foundation that will make or break your Christian faith. If you want to be a true follower of Christ, if you want to stay a Christian and grow and persevere in Christ, you must know God as Trinity. So listen carefully. This is one of the most important sermon topics you will ever hear. Iím not saying itís the best sermon on the subject you will hear, but there is nothing more important for you to know than knowing God as the Triune God.
Let's begin with the Unity of God. Christians believe that God is one God. But that oneness is a complex oneness, not a simple mathematical unity. Letís look at what God tells us about His unity of being in the Old Testament, before Jesus came. Because even there we see hints of Godís tri-une nature.
The first is that the word the Old Testament uses most often for God is plural in form. The plural Hebrew noun Elohim (literally "Gods") is used for God throughout the Old Testament. It is even in Israel's famous confession of the oneness of God! Deuteronomy six verse 4, the Shema, declares, "Hear, 0 Israel: the Lord our God is ONE Lord". In Hebrew it reads literally, "Yaweh our Elohim (gods) is one [echad] Yahweh." The Hebrew word for one used there, echad, is a word which allows for a unity of more than one. For example, it is used in Genesis 2:24 where man and woman become one flesh; in Exodus 36:13 when the various parts "became one tabernacle"; in 2 Samuel 2:25 when many soldiers "became one troop"; and elsewhere.
So we do not believe, as the muslims do, that Godís unity is a mathematically indivisible singularity. Instead, it is a complex unity. It is like the unity we talk of when we say ďone crowdĒ or or ďone congregationĒ or ďone squadronĒ.
Jesus said, I and the Father are one. Thatís the unity of the Godhead. God is one God, but he is at the same time three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We see this complex unity clearly in the passages from that passage from John's gospel we read earlier.
So God is a complex unity. If you think about it for a moment, the God that we believe him could be nothing else but a complex unity. Think of it like this...
Some things we believe strongly about God, among them, that God is personal and loving, and that he is everlasting and infinite. No if that is true, then God canot be a simple mathematical unity - one person, he must be a complex unity of persons.
You canít have a God who is both everlasting and all powerful on the one hand, and personal and loving on the other, unless he is a complex unity of more than one Person. Why not? Well, if heís personal and loving, then he canít have existed as a loving personal God from eternity, because there would have been no-one to love. Personality requires relationship. He canít be both personal AND eternal if he is a completely singular being.
If God created us, then he existed before us. But to be loving you have to have someone to love, donít you? To be Personal you have to have another Person to relate to. If God is only one Person, then what was he doing before he made us as persons to relate to? If God is a purely mathematical oneness, a monad, as the theologians call it, then he only becomes loving and personal after he created us. It means he needed to create us to have a relationship. But if he needed us, then he is not infinite in power, is he? Can you see what Iím saying?
For God to be both Personal and infinite in Power, Wisdom and Goodness, he must have had relationship within himself, before the creation of the world. And thatís what Christians believe when they talk about God being Tri-une, Three persons eternally related in one God.
I can see your eyes beginning to glaze over! But cling on for just a few more moments, because this is important! What does it mean for us, for you and me to say that God is not just One God, but Three Persons, Trinity?
It is a mystery how God can exist in three Persons yet be one God; but that doesnít make it untrue. There are heaps of things we canít understand which we just accept every day. Can you comprehend forever? Anybody here with a mind big enough to comprehend infinity? No? Then try thinking about nothing. Can you do it? Is there anyone here with a mind small enough to think about nothing?!
If we canít even comprehend the universe, why should it be strange to us that we canít fully comprehend the God who created it? St Augustine, who lived in the sixth century, said, ďIf you can understand it, it isnít God.Ē
Well, how do we know the Trinity of God if we canít fully understand it?
I read recently of someone who came across this graffiti in Ireland. It said, ďDo you have a split personality? Good, so do I - that makes four of us!Ē 1 + 1 = 4!
Well, in the Trinity 1+1+1=1. Does God have a multiple personality disorder?
Anyone seen that film where Sally Fields plays a woman called Sybil? Sybil had a multiple personality disorder. She had 23 differerent personalities living in the one body. Her mind developed these different personalities as a defense mechanism against childhood abuse. Is that what God is like? Is he a multiple personality in that respect? Well, although Sybil can give us an example of how you can have more than one personality in one being, thatís not quite like the Trinity. Because Sybilís different personalities didnít have loving relationships with each other. Most were unaware of the existence of the others. Within the Godhead, the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit are intimately and eternally in loving relationship with each other.
Want to hear a really good illustration that perfectly explains the nature of the Trinity? Well, when you find it, tell me. Because I havenít found one yet. There is not one earthly illustration that does not fall apart at some point.
[Ask for examples from congregation, then show how each illustration is inadequate. For example - an egg is white, yolk and shell yet one egg. Problem - they are not all one substance - this is really tritheism. Water, Ice, Steam: problem - this is Sabellianism - one changes into the other, they donít exist together]
Let me warn you. Do not try to come up with earthly parallels to the Trinity. If you do, you will almost certainly become a heretic.
Now what am I saying? That we canít understand God as Trinity? Well, it depends what you mean by understand. You see, Godís triune nature is something we experience in relationship with him, not something we completely understand rationally. How God can be both One God and Three Persons is a divine mystery that is beyond our intellectual grasp. We canít understand everything there is to know about the Trinity, but we can know the Trinity. We can experience God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
In John chapters 14 to 17, in the relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we see the basis for our whole faith and our whole life as Christians and as part of the community of the church. And we see also the amazing truth that God invites us to enter into his very being.
You know, one of the things that attracts people to the New Age movement is the promise that you can find the god or godess within. Indeed, that you can become a god. Christ offers something far more radical and far more satisfying! The gods of the new age are all self-centred, self-seeking, and ultimately, lonely gods. They live for self and they teach you to live that way, in isolation and self-centred relationships. But Jesus offers us a place within the Divine Godhead, in the family life of God. God invites us, as it were into his very home. God is in his very nature, other-person-centred, not self centred. God is not like a singular little god who lives in a unit and invites us in for a cup of tea and then when we leave heís all by himself again. God lives in a family unit - the Trinity. And he invites us to become part of his forever family.
Let me finish by reading a quote from Herman Hoeksema and then making a few comments.
ďThe idea of God making His abode with us is that God has a home, that is, there is in God eternal fellowship, God lives a home life. He lives a home life in the Trinity. Father, Son and Holy Spirit loving one another, living in perfect fellowship of friendship with one another, constitute the dwelling place of God. And, when God makes His abode with us, the meaning is that He receives us into His divine family. He extends his own divine family life to us so that it includes His people; they are taken into that divine family life. When God makes His abode with us, He causes our soul to enter into the life of fellowship, He causes that soul to taste the blessedness of His presence, and that soul responds to that fellowship. That fellowship becomes mutual as that soul responds in receiving, in appropriating the forgiveness of sins, righteousness, sanctification, justification and holiness; that soul thrills with joy at the presence of God.Ē - Herman Hoeksema
You see, we are unable to understand the depth of the love of God in the death of Jesus on the cross, until we understand the perfection of the relationship between the Father and the Son from eternity. When Jesus cried, ďMy God, My God, why have you forsaken me?Ē the Triune nature of God was sundered. He chose, for our sakes, to step out into the dark to fetch us. To experience the full righteous anger of the Father at our sin, for us. Father and Son who had from eternity been in perfect relationship, were now sundered by the Fatherís wrath. God himself, in the person of his Son, bore our sins for us on the cross. And then he rose again and ascended back to the Father, taking us with him, into perfect communion with God. He stepped back into Godís family life, bearing us in his arms.
So you see, the Trinity is not an academic theological theory. The Trinity is where you live! In God. And He in you. The bible says that by faith we are IN CHRIST and he in us. God has taken us up into His own Triune nature. That is mind-blowing! Am I exagerrating? No! What does Jesus say? John 17 verse 21, Jesus prayed to the Father for us. He said, ďmay they be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be IN US so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.Ē
Some of us are excited by how this unity thing might work between our town-centre churches - URC, Catholic, Anglican, Methodist. How can we find meaningful unity together? Here is the answer. Here is the only thing that will work. How can we be unified? How can we grow the church? How can we reach out to Hartlepool? Only by remaining together within the Triune character of God. For then we will be celebrating the Triune Other-Person-Centredness of God. Then we will put off our own desires, our own personal likes and dislikes, our own prejudices, and we will put on that perfect love of the Triune God and serve one another as Jesus humbled himself and served us at the cross. We will be one church, one body, one faith, one Baptism, and one Lord and Saviour of us all.