The God Who Is Holy Trinity Sunday, May 27, 2018
I’m always pleased when I turn on my computer and the screen lights up, and the various programs I use start loading. Truth be known, I have very little understanding of how either the hardware or the software comes together to make my computer operate, and yet it has come to play quite an integral part in my work and my life. Not only do I not fully (or even partially) grasp the complexities of the hardware and software coming together, I only have a rudimentary understanding of electricity, and the even less understanding as to how information data moves through the sky into my house or office and appears before me as intelligible words or images on the screen. People from former times would deem it magic (or perhaps even demonic). What I have come to realize regarding though, is that my personal knowledge of WIFI, hard drives, electricity, or data programming doesn’t restrict my use of the computer. If complete understanding were a criterion for use, must of us would still be getting our information from hardbound copies of the Encyclopedia Britannica (or stone tablets).
Today is Trinity Sunday, the only Sunday in our church year that focuses on a point of theology. Some think it overly ambitious to even attempt to delve into this topic, assuming the uninitiated would end up either hopelessly confused, or hopelessly bored (or a combination of the two). In hopes to avert both those less than desirable outcomes, I’ll attempt to consider the texts chosen for Holy Trinity Sunday (and later recite the Athanasian Creed) to see how both the Bible and the Church Fathers have attempted to articulate the question regarding the nature of God.
Isaiah 7- “Isaiah Encounters the God who Is” Is 6:1-18
Some have fantasized of seeing God face to face, walking and talking with Him while in the garden alone, imagining that encounter to be akin to snuggling close to the fire with a favorite blanket. As we read the call of Isaiah, such is not quite the case. The immensity of God was such that even the hem of His robe filled the entire temple. Heavenly dragon/snake-like creatures with multiple wings crying out at the top of the voices, “Holy, Holy, Holy” is the LORD of hosts”. One can’t help but note the Seraphs triple chorus of “Holy, Holy, Holy”. We echo their chorus some 2700 years hence in our church today.
The encounter with the living God and the heavenly host does not bring the warm, fuzzy feeling Isaiah may have hoped for, but rather an acute awareness of the prophet’s sin. In the Old Testament, (and the New Testament for that matter) those encountering the Divine often had such an experience. Rather than feeling comforted and affirmed, Isaiah came to grips not only with his unholiness, but that fact that such an encounter with the Divine would quite likely cost him his very life, as he would likely be familiar with the words of Moses; But,” He (God) said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.” Ex 33:20.
Isaiah does survive however, and the heavenly creature takes a burning coal off the altar of sacrifice and presses the burning coal to his lips. In the process, the prophet receives forgiveness of his sin. We make note of the fact that Isaiah receives forgiveness from the altar of sacrifice. What is the correlation between the altar, sacrifice, and forgiveness? Next, we hear the call coming from the LORD of hosts in both in the singular, and in the plural, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Why does God speak in both singular and plural? For Isaiah, the encounter with the LORD must have been overwhelming (nigh on terrifying). But he knows beyond a shadow of a doubt he had encountered the God who is, and he responded to that encounter with the words, “Here am I; send me!”
“Is This the Same God We Just Read About in Isaiah?” Romans 8:12-17
What were your baby’s first word(s)? More often than not they are “mama, dada, or papa”. Linguists confirm what we already know experientially about babies’ first words. Their initial sounds come to represent the ones from which they came, their mother and father. In this text, God gives his sons and daughters this infant utterance of “Abba” to address the God we just read about in Isaiah, where only moments earlier we had been terrorized with the account of the multi-winged snakes, a God so enormous the hem of His robe fills the entire temple, and hot coals on the lips. There were those both then and now who find it hard to reconcile the God of the OT, and the God of the NT, so practiced something like, “out with the old, in with the new” (a guy name Marcion was the first to model this as early as 144 AD. He liked the God of the NT, and not the one in the OT, and as such compiled our first canon of scripture, leaving out the entire OT and its god).
In his explanations to the commandments, Martin Luther teaches us in his Small Catechism that we are to “fear and love God…”. In this text we find all members of the Holy Trinity at work to call us into relationship, with the God who is, who exists eternally in relationship with each of the three members/persons of the Holy Trinity (realizing that the word “person” has its limitations in defining the Divine). As the Holy Spirit bears witness to our spirits and we address God as “Abba”, we now indeed hear words of affirmation regarding our adoptions as sons and daughters of God, “and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ” Rom 8:17a. It seems unthinkable that the Eternal God who created the heavens and the earth out of nothing, and whose very being is too magnificent to behold and yet live, could give us such a distinction as sons and daughters, and not only that, but also heirs with the Second Person of the Trinity, Jesus himself. And all the while bids us call Him “Abba”. All Three Persons of the Godhead were at work together to bring this reality into fruition. God has not changed, but our standing in relation to God has. We see that work in part in our next reading from the gospel of John.
“The Crux of the Matter” (the Work of the Trinity in Salvation) John 3:1-17
Chances are if I asked you to recite one Bible verse from memory, you would recite a verse from the gospel text for Trinity Sunday from John 3, quite probably verse 16. That verse is sometimes referred to as “the Gospel in a nutshell”, and there is a reason for that. If you and I only had access, or capacity to read one Bible verse… this would be the one, and here’s why. Nicodemus is a teacher of the law, and as such would understand the teachings concerning the nature of God as well as anyone could in his time. His understanding is confronted however in the person of Jesus-both by what he teaches, and by what he does. For Nicodemus it is apparent that God must be with, or working in Jesus in some fashion, but how exactly? He comes by night to avoid the crowds, and quite likely avoid some personal embarrassment, to try to find an answer.
Jesus begins his response by telling Nicodemus that he must be “born from above/on high/again (as the GK word anothen carries the meaning of all three), and this birth requires both Spirit and water (a reference to baptism). Jesus’ answer doesn’t do much to clear up Nicodemus’ confusion, and so Jesus continues by explaining the nature of the Spirit and His workings. How does a small-town Jewish rabbi (one less trained than Nicodemus) understand the intimate workings of the Holy Spirit? As in our previous text from Isaiah, Jesus responds to Nicodemus in both the singular and the plural, “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our
testimony”. Although it’s possible that the “we” here might refer to both Jesus and his disciples, the source of the “what” of this discussion, and how this came to be known and seen are important. Now Jesus drops a bombshell on poor Nicodemus, “If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man”….and so the plot thickens.
Next comes the “crux” of the matter- the purposes of God the Father, Jesus the Son (a term used of Jesus to indicate relationship to the Father, as opposed to denoting offspring), and God the Holy Spirit. The crux is in fact the cross, and as Jesus is lifted up on this instrument of torture and death, and as people look to him as they looked to the serpent lifted up on the pole in days of old, those who see and believe find life. The love of the Father is manifest by sacrifice of the Son, made known by the witness of the Holy Spirit. All Three members of the Trinity are at work to bring about God’s saving plan for Nicodemus and the rest of the world, ““For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life”. The gospel in a nutshell.
Nicodemus came to Jesus to find a rational, reasonable answer as to the identity of Jesus, and from where he received his power. The answer he got may not necessarily have met that criterion, but it is the truth concerning the God who is, as attested to by his resurrection of Jesus from the dead on the third day. Prior to that, Nicodemus could have assumed that Jesus was simply a delusional miracle-working rabbi from Galilee. Rising from the dead took Jesus’ claims to a whole new level.
There were those then, as there are those today, who prefer reason and rationality over revelation. The word “Trinity” came from the Church’s official attempts to profess this truth that Jesus gave to Nicodemus, and we find throughout the pages of Scripture. The Church put this in credal form so that believers then and now would learn of the God who is revealed in Holy Scripture, as opposed to the one many create for themselves. I expect the Council of Bishops who gathered at Nicaea in 325 had hoped that questions surround the nature of God, the person of Jesus, and if the Holy Spirit can even be reckoned as a person at all would have been “put to bed” once and for all at that Council of bishops. Sadly, that never happened, as even today many continue to define God in ways consistent with their own reasoning and understanding.
The doctrine of the Trinity is important, because in it we find the doctrine of the God of the Bible. The drafter(s) of the Athanasian Creed (who most assuredly was not Athanasius) affirms the blessing that comes in knowing this God, and warns us of rejecting this God in favor of no God at all, or one of our own making. Jesus has similar warnings in the verses that immediately follow our text from today, “18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. 19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.”.
We are free to believe in a god of our own making, or no god at all, but if we want to discover the God who is, who was, and will always be, we must meet that God on His own terms, and by His own revelation. We will never come to fully understand this God, but by God’s grace, we can come to know and worship Him. Hear this truth today, in God’s Holy Word, in the Words of the Church Fathers, and in the words of our hymns and liturgies. God is Three, and yet