WHAT IS THE TRINITY?
This week is not a Wesley sermon, although we will hear from Wesley on the subject. Instead, it is a look at one of the basic Christian doctrines...the doctrine of the Trinity. What for? You might ask. Well, a couple of reasons. First, you might get asked about it. That has not always been the case, but the world is changing. Religious discussion is on the rise in our culture, and if you find yourself in a religious discussion with either a Jew or a Muslim, the issue of the Trinity could well come up, because it is the main stumbling block that both of those faiths have with Christianity.
The Jewish, Christian, and Muslim faiths are sisters. Jews and Muslims honor Jesus, Christians and Muslims honor Moses, and if anybody's got a real problem with Muhammad, I haven't heard about it. We all trace our faith to Abraham; we all look to the one God. Except that's where Christians get themselves in trouble. To a Jew or a Muslim, we don't worship one God. To them, it looks like we worship three gods...Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and when we try to explain how the three are really one, we get really stuck really fast.
Churches who recite the Nicene Creed get to be confused by this every week. Look at page 880 in the hymnal. "We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen." Ok so far. "We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father"--What? "God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father;" What on earth does that mean? The same God, yet begotten? And eternally begotten no less? Father, Son, one being...and now let's add the Holy Spirit down a bit...
"We believe in the Holy spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son." The Council of Nicea spent months of heated debate over the word "filioque"–"and the Son." Does the Spirit proceed from just the Father or from the Father and the Son? And I want to know what it means to proceed from anybody in the first place! Is that the same as being begotten? What a mess!
The doctrine of the Trinity has always made my brain hurt, and yet I think it makes a tremendous difference...a tremendous positive difference...to say that Jesus was not just a great prophet who is now of blessed memory, but is in fact the living God who dwells among us. It makes a great deal of difference to me that God condescended to dwell with us and to make the supreme self-sacrifice instead of sending someone else to be brutalized; and it matters to me that the spirit dwelling within me and within you is God's own.
To believe in the Trinity is to believe some very specific and wonderful things about the nature of God's love for us, and I'm not willing to drop it at the first sign of intellectual trouble. So a few years ago I took a week and went down to the Methodist camp in Leesburg, Florida to figure it out. I brought my computer and a lot of books and journals with me. One of the first articles that I read had these words, "According to Trinitarian theology, there are five notions, four relations, three persons, two processions, one nature, and no sense." And I thought, maybe I'm not completely alone in my confusion.
I read Thomas Aquinas, perhaps the best of the best of the medieval theologians. What did he say about the Trinity? "That God is threefold and one is solely an item of belief and it can in no way be demonstrated, although some arguments can be given that are not necessarily convincing, or even very probable, except for a believer." Now that didn't stop him from trying to demonstrate it anyway, and after reading the rest of it, I thought he should have stuck to his first statement.
I read a lot of stuff in the first couple of days down in Leesburg, and I prayed a lot for wisdom, and then with all of that in my mind, I went outside, sat on a swing, and watched herons. Call it the Zen art of sermon construction, but I hadn't been out there ten minutes when God turned on the lights and gave me the verse for me to start with. Deuteronomy 6:4-5...the Shema... "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength" I thought surely God was joking because that is the very verse that the Jews always point to in order to prove that there is no Trinity. "The Lord our God, the Lord is ONE." But as I looked, there were three things in it...heart, soul, and strength. I had what I needed to begin.
The doctrine of the Trinity is not spelled out in the Bible. It is a construct of the early church, as its leaders tried to make sense out of passages of Scripture that seemed to tie God and Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit together...even to the point of Jesus commanding us to baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I think, as people tried to figure out what that meant, they assumed that those three things were saying something about the objective, absolute, nature of God. All of the confusing language about the Trinity comes from trying to describe the physics and metaphysics of the being of God...God's ontological substance, if you go for that type of language.
But that is a terribly arrogant and ultimately fruitless task. We can't know what the actual being of God is like. It would be like going out to an anthill and asking the ants to describe the functioning of human anatomy and personality. I would wager a good bit that not even the queen of the ant colony is going to be able to do that. It is completely beyond their knowing. And it is like that with God and us. We can't even begin to describe the real, objective substance of a spirit God. It is beyond our knowing.
What we CAN describe, however, is the way in which God relates to us and we to God. And that is what I think the Trinity is about. It describes relationship...not necessarily how God relates to God, but how God relates to us, how we relate to God, and what that means for our relationships with each other. The core of that, I think is there in the Shema...the hinge on which all of the rest of Scripture, Old and New Testaments, swings.
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength. You know by now that I love the richness and depth of the Hebrew language. The word heart in Hebrew means not just heart, but also the mind and the will. It is the seat of the emotions and passions, the place where information is sorted and decisions are made. We often wrestle with a decision saying things like "my mind says...but my heart tells me..." For the ancient Hebrews it was all the same.
The word for soul, nephesh, is not the Greek notion of something that can come and go from a body, that we tend to think about. Soul in Hebrew means "living being, person, life, self, that which breathes, the individual." You don't have a soul in Hebrew without a living, breathing body to go with it. When it says in Genesis 2:7, "The Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being," the word for living being is nephesh...soul. Strength also has expanded meaning in Hebrew. It does mean might and force, but it also means the force that comes from sheer numbers -- abundance, exceedingly, to a great degree.
With that my little brain went to work. God relates to us with love, and in history, we have experienced that love of God in three ways. First God came as Father, Creator, with Heart. Heart, mind, and will. We were given the law–the Ten Commandments--something to comprehend with our minds, something to which we should mold our will, something to direct our passions toward the goal of love of God and neighbor. It was good, very good, but we couldn't quite manage to do it. The law gave us a standard, and we couldn't quite measure up.
And often we couldn't figure it out. We kept trying to define it further and further. The Law says don't work on the Sabbath. OK, but what does work mean? Can I cook for my family? Can I walk to the next town? Can I put on my clothes? What is work? The Law says don't kill. Ok, but how about self-defense, and how about if someone has broken the law, and how about if it's an accident. The heart of the Father was very good, but as is often the case with children, we didn't really understand what God was really trying to say.
Enter the nephesh...the Son, the second person of the Trinity. God as living being...God became a living soul in Jesus Christ, who Paul calls the second Adam. God comes again, in person this time, to say...this is what I meant. This is what the law looks like when it is lived. And Jesus the living soul reminded us of what God the Father's heart had said from the beginning...this is all about love. The law was just so you could understand some concrete ways to live in love. Here is the law in the flesh...here is my heart as a living being that will go all the way to death for you to understand the depth of the love of God for you. God loved us with heart in the law and then with soul in Jesus.
But we still had trouble. We could finally see what it was all about....that the emphasis was on love not on law; on freedom not slavery; on mercy not judgment...but we just couldn't manage to actually put it into practice. Even those closest to Jesus could do nothing but run and hide when the trials came. So God came a third way...in strength, in might, in abundant, exceeding force...like a mighty, rushing wind and tongues of flame. The Holy Spirit. Not just a living soul outside of us, but the very heart and soul of God within us, giving us the power to love as God has loved from the beginning.
That, I think, is what the Trinity means. God loving us totally and completely...with heart, soul, and strength. However you want to work out the physics and metaphysics, we have three distinct experiences of the one and only God. God in the heart of the Law; God in the soul of Jesus; God in the strength of the Spirit found in all the people of God.
Nevertheless, people still get hung up on wanting to explain the divine in human terms. "If Jesus was God then who was he praying to?" some folks want to know. Here is what Wesley had to say on the matter, "You believe there is such a thing as light, whether flowing from the sun or any other luminous body. But you cannot comprehend either its nature or the manner wherein it flows. How does it move from Jupiter to the earth in eight minutes, two hundred thousand miles in a moment? How do the rays of the candle brought into the room instantly disperse into every corner? Here are three candles, yet there is but one light. Explain this, and I will explain the Three-One God."**
We may well know more about light and its properties today than in Wesley's time, but I think the point is still well taken. We are limited in ways that God is not.. Just because we can't figure out the physics doesn't mean it isn't so. God's law is woven through our science, but is not limited to our discoveries. Which is why the things of God are ultimately matters of faith. Is Jesus really God as Christianity claims? Or was he just a good teacher, a holy prophet? We have no way of proving either claim with scientific method. We can only know the truth of the Trinity through our experience and through trust in the experience of others.
For millions of people across the last two thousand years recognizing that Jesus was the revealing of the nature of God changed their lives. Jesus as only a great teacher lived a short, tragic life. Jesus as God achieved an incredible victory for us as well as for him. Jesus as a good man made people sorry to have missed him, much as we might wish we could have met Abraham Lincoln or Ghandi. But Jesus as God means that I need have no fear in approaching God, and the Holy Spirit as God means I can meet and know God in the here and now.
What do you believe about the Trinity? Was Jesus God? Would God go so far as to take on human flesh? Is the Spirit of God active in the world, or is it all up to us? Three? One? Three-in-One? What do you believe?
**Rueben P. Job and Norman Shawchuck, A Guide to Prayer for All God's People (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 1990) 194-195.
Sermon © 2002, Anne Robertson
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