I Believe | In The Trinity
Sunday after Sunday, we reach a point in the service where someone comes to this pulpit and begins to preach. And as the sermon begins it has the potential to become one of the best sermons we’ve ever heard. It has the potential to be like one of Billy Graham's famed crusade sermons that inspires someone to come to faith in Jesus. It has the potential to be like one of Fred Craddock's sermons that leaves us thinking about the meaning of a story long after the closing song has been sung. It has the potential to be the kind of sermon that gets the entire congregation fired up, like Tony Campolo does every time he preaches his “It's Friday but Sunday's Comin'” sermon.
But this morning's sermon probably isn't going to be one of those kinds of sermons. As a matter of fact, there's a better chance that this morning's sermon will be one of the most boring sermons you've ever heard instead of one of the best.
Why? Because I'm going to use a lot of words that you’re more likely to hear inside of the classrooms of a seminary than you are inside the sanctuary of a church…words that we think are boring.
So today, I'm going to spend a lot of time talking about “doctrine” - which literally means “teaching,” but has been better described as “The fine line between theological sanity and insanity.” And that brings up another one of those words - the kind of word that causes everyone's eyes to glaze over whenever the preacher uses it - the word “theology.” Although “theology” can be appropriately explained as the study of God, it's not a study that only happens in colleges and seminaries. The truth is “theology” is what you do whenever you talk about God. And if words like “doctrine” and “theology” weren't bad enough, I'm going to risk making this sermon extra boring by using a little bit of Latin along the way.
So it's okay if you want to let out a groan before this sermon really gets started. I can't blame you for wishing you had stayed in bed and skipped church this morning, after all, I’d feel the same way if someone told me they were going to be preaching this kind of sermon. But before you hunker down in your chair or on your couch and do your best to doze off until something more exciting happens, how about you give this sermon a chance? Bear with the boring words and you’ll learn why the doctrine of the Trinity is important to our faith.
Because this doctrine is important to our faith...it’s part of what makes Christians Christians. So, just like, we believe in God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit; as a Christian, I believe in the Trinity.
I believe in the Trinity.
Why don’t you say that with me? Ready? I believe in the Trinity.
But before we start talking about why the Trinity matters to our faith, it's important that I give you a little disclaimer. The goal of this sermon is not to help you fully understand the Trinity. As this well-known story about one of the church's greatest theologians, St. Augustine reminds us, this is a doctrine that is beyond our comprehension. So as the story goes:
One day [St. Augustine] was walking along the Mediterranean shore, puzzling over some point about the Trinity for the treatise he was writing. Deep in thought, he half-watched a small child going back and forth from the water's edge, repeatedly filling a pail and pouring the water into a hole dug in the sand. Intrigued, Augustine finally asked the child what he was doing. “Trying to put the sea into my hole,” was the reply. “You can't do that; it won't fit,” said the adult with common sense. The child, who turned out to be an angel in disguise, replied, “Neither can you put the mystery of the Trinity in your mind; it won't fit.”
Or as Elizabeth Johnson explains in her book, Quest for the Living God, the first and most basic rule for talking about God is to remember that the living God is an ineffable mystery.
God is an ineffable mystery.
God is an ineffable mystery, which is a fancy way of saying that God is so much greater than us that there is no way our human minds can ever comprehend exactly who God is.
So don't expect that over the course of the next few minutes that you'll fully understand a doctrine that theologians have been debating for 1,500 years. But also don't write the doctrine of the Trinity off because it’s a mystery that won't fit into our minds. The truth is that just because we can't understand something, that doesn't mean it's not important to our faith. If anything we should be able to find a little comfort in the fact that even the greatest minds in the history of the church have struggled to understand the Trinity.
So, at its most basic level, the doctrine of the Trinity is how we attempt to explain the ways that humanity has connected with God. But since God is beyond our ability to comprehend, let alone describe, this doctrine has become a little convoluted. And it really started to get mixed up centuries ago when theologians began to separate their study of God into two areas the Trinity pro nobi and the Trinity in se.
And, yes, those are the boring Latin words I warned you about earlier, but before you go back to daydreaming, let me explain what those words mean. What these two Latin phrases – pro nobi and in se – mean is that centuries ago, the study of God was divided into two areas: one area focuses on how God relates to us, and the other focuses solely on understanding who God is. Our problem, when it comes to the Trinity, is that so much of our conversation has focused on understanding who God is that we've neglected to think about what the Trinity actually means for us.
And the biggest problem with that is that the entire doctrine of the Trinity arises because of the way that God has related to us, as people, and the way that we have experienced God. Let me explain what I mean.
Jesus’ first disciples experienced God in ways that they struggled to adequately express. It began with their Jewish heritage. From birth, they had been taught the stories of what we call the Old Testament. They had heard about Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Samuel, David, Rahab, Ruth, Esther and so many more. And through these stories they had come to know and believe in the God of their ancestors, the God who created the universe, God the Father, Almighty.
But then Jesus arrives on the scene, and they begin to learn about and experience God in a whole new way. God was no longer limited to the stories of old, because God was now a living, breathing person that the disciples were traveling through Israel with. But they couldn't just forget about the God they first connected with through Old Testament stories...so they had to find a new way to talk about God.
And the conversation is only further complicated after Jesus ascends to the heavens, and the Holy Spirit shows up to be the continued presence of God in the lives of all his disciples. And on that first day, when the Spirit arrived, each of the disciples had a new experience with God that could not be denied. We talked about this just last week, but on Pentecost Sunday, the disciples each spoke in foreign languages to countless other people, sharing the good news of Jesus Christ, and causing many to believe.
So here the disciples are. They have experienced God in three unique and undeniable ways. They've experienced God the Father through the faith passed down from their ancestors and by simply watching the world he had created. They had experienced the personal nature of God in Jesus Christ, bringing them into a deeper, personal relationship with God. And they had experienced the work of the Holy Spirit, as they spoke in tongues and led countless others to believe.
None of these experiences could be downplayed or denied. Yet each of them revealed God in a whole new way. But how do you make sense out of these three unique experiences of God? How do you talk about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Well, the church's answer has been to speak of God as the Trinity.
But, the church, in general, and Christians, in particular, do not often think about what the Trinity means to the faith of the church and individual Christians. We have come to believe that the Trinity is just a doctrine of the church that has no meaning to our faith and the way we live our lives as followers of Jesus. Or to put it another way, we have removed what we believe about God from the way we practice our faith.
We have removed what we believe about God from the way we practice our faith.
And it goes without saying that when we do this we tread on dangerous ground because our faith is not just something we believe in or something that we do...faith is something that we are. Faith is not concerned with solving the mystery of God. Faith seeks the truth of God that wants not only to be known by the mind but also to be enjoyed and practiced by the whole person. Faith wants to be put into action. So how can we put our faith in God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit into action? Well, we find a glimpse of how this happens in the book of Psalms
In Psalm 8, which says:
8:1 O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory above the heavens. 2 Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger.
3 When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; 4 what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?
5 Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. 6 You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet, 7 all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, 8 the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
9 O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!
Psalm 8:1-9 (New Revised Standard Version)
After hearing this Psalm, you're probably still a little confused with what difference the Trinity actually makes in your faith...so let's see what we can learn from this psalm. Psalm 8 opens with a grandiose gesture of praise for God when it says, “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth” - which is a fitting reminder that we should all praise God, but you probably already knew that.
So let's move on to the part of this psalm that jumps out the most to me. You find it in verse 4 when the psalmist writes, “what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” This short verse sums up so much about who God is.
It begins with an understanding of the greatness and awesomeness of God, the Father Almighty. This is the God who created the universe. This is the God who transformed Abraham into the father of many nations. This is the God who freed the people of Israel from slavery, and brought them safely to the Promised Land. This is the God who helped David defeat Goliath, who saved Daniel from the jaws of lions, who spared his entire people when an Israelite named Esther became queen. This is a great and mighty God.
Yet, this is a God who cares about us. This is the God who guided Abraham through life's struggles allowing Abraham to become the father of many nations. This is the God who listened and heard the cries of the people of Israel as they were abused and oppressed as slaves, an injustice which God had to correct. This is the God who knew David intimately, choosing David to be king because of his nature. This is the God who loved Daniel so much that God simply had to save his life. This is the God who was well aware of who Esther was and brought her to the throne at just the right time. This is a great and awesome God, who loves each of us deeply and personally.
But the most surprising thing about this great and powerful God that loves each of us, is that - in the words of this Psalm - God has, “made [us] a little lower than God, crowned [us] with glory and honor. [And has] given [us] dominion over the works of his hands.”
This is a God who loves you so much, that God wants you to share in God's love for the world. God has made us in the image of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; the image of a triune God that is so intimately connected that we cannot begin to fathom how the three are one and one are three. And because we are created in this God's image, we are created to love the world just as God loves the world.
We are created to love the world just as God loves the world.
So God has given us dominion over the world, not because we are superior to everything else that God created, not because we’re powerful and have the right to impose our will on all of creation, but because God has created us to love like God loves. But how is it that we know how to love the world? Well, we learn from the love shown to us through the Trinity.
We love through the heart of the Father.
We love through the heart of the Father, who created all there is and found everything from the sun and the stars, to the fish and the foul, to the animals and the apples to be good. So we must find all of creation to be good - especially our fellow human, who God called “very good.” With the heart of the Father we will be willing to serve our fellow man, just as God was there for Abraham, Moses, David, Daniel, Esther and so many others.
We love through the arms of the Son.
We love through the arms of the Son, who expressed God's ultimate love for us by becoming one of us. That's right, God loved you so much that God entered this world as a fellow human being, allowing God's love not only to be known and shown, but also to be felt. The arms of Jesus Christ were there to aid the lame as they took their first steps, to console Mary and Martha when their brother Lazarus had died, to break bread and share fellowship. And with the arms of Jesus Christ, we will be willing to be with one another in all aspects of life...beside hospital beds and in funeral homes grieving during the bad, and around the tables celebrating the good.
We love through the presence of the Spirit.
We love through the presence of the Spirit, who is God's eternal presence with all of God's people. Just as the Spirit is present in each of our lives day in and day out, we are called to be the presence of God in the world day in and day out. With the presence of the Spirit, we will be willing to not only talk the talk of faith, we will be willing to walk the walk of the love that we’ve experienced through Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
So, are you beginning to see the Trinity through new eyes yet? Are you beginning to understand that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are more than just some church doctrine that we can't figure out? Are you beginning to see that our faith in the Trinity involves more than just our minds...but also our hearts, our arms, our presence...our entire being? Are you beginning to see that all of this is more than just a boring doctrine, but it's something that molds and shapes us as we attempt to be the presence of God in this world?
Then let's leave this place this morning transformed by the triune God so that we may enter our world with the full love of the Father, the hope of the Son, and the enduring presence of the Spirit so that we may truly show the world the love that God has for us all.