(June 15, 2014)
(Exodus 34:1-8; Song of the Three 29-34; 2 Corinthians 13:11-13; Matthew 28:16-20)
Today is Trinity Sunday.
This church festival marks the only day of the church calendar that is set aside for the celebration of a doctrinal statement. Perhaps that sounds like good news: at least we only have to go there once each year!
I would suggest, however, that the doctrine of the Trinity rightly holds this pride of place. This is a doctrine that is truly foundational for the Christian faith.
The Trinity has often been described with reference to a three leafed clover or perhaps a three legged stool. These are attempts, as is a trinitarian outlook, to defend a monotheistic Christian stance. God is one and revealed in three ways: God revealed as the Father, God revealed as the Son, God revealed as the Holy Spirit.
I have no particular issue with these illustrations. They actually move in a helpful direction as we seek to initially describe this One God revealed in three persons.
But I would like, today, to suggest that the Trinity is a much more exciting, dynamic, and profoundly relevant description of God than such illustrations are capable of communicating.
They may be good places to start the conversation, but they are inadequate as a final resting place.
The doctrine of the Trinity took three centuries for the church fathers to articulate. You will not find the term ‘Trinity’ in your Bible. It is a theological concept with deep roots in our scriptures.
We read this morning the final passage in the gospel of Matthew. Here, in the words of Jesus, we find the church’s call to mission articulated in the making of disciples who are baptised ‘…in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit’. There is here a clear, if somewhat undeveloped, understanding of God as Trinity.
Paul in this second letter to the Corinthians also communicates something similar in what has become known as ‘The Grace’. You know this blessing well: ‘May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you and remain with you always.’ It is an early blessing sowing the seeds of our foundational understanding of God.
And foundational it certainly is. A thorough reading of the church’s scriptures points to three persons who together – in communion and conversation – reveal the character and purpose of God for us and for our world. Nothing could be more foundational for the Christian church than the nature of the God the scriptures reveal.
Our Exodus reading describes God in mysterious, otherworldly terms. This God, self-named as YHWH, or ‘I Am’, descends ‘in the clouds’, passes before Moses, and begins a self-revelation:
‘The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.’ (Exodus 34)
This cloud covered being transcends generations; is gracious, merciful, loving, and just, and; is characterised by both an exceedingly generous forgiveness and a comparatively limited anger.
One gets the impression this one is not to be trifled with!
This is no description of a God-like-us. Rather this cosmic being who sees all and responds accordingly fills Moses with an overwhelming awe. His response: to quickly bow his head towards earth, and worship.
God is Other and worthy of our awe-inspired adoration.
Such worship is also the disciple’s response to the resurrected Jesus, the second member of this Trinity.
These men spent three years walking the towns and cities of Israel with this one. And he proved himself to be very human.
Jesus made friends, ate food, experienced thirst, got angry, and walked in the Palestinian dust; he experienced tiredness; was encompassed in a culture; fought temptation; was moved to action by the plight of others, and; knew loss, betrayal, pain, and even death.
Jesus was a staggeringly human human.
And yet here we see the resurrected Jesus accepting what is God’s alone – the disciple’s worship.
In fact, he goes further. Jesus declares all the power and authority of heaven to be his. Even as they worship the disciples are commissioned to go into all the world. There they will share the salvation message his life has won and proclaimed.
YHWH revealed God as other. Jesus reveals God’s profound and costly identification with us. We call it ‘incarnation’ – the enfleshment of God.
A biblical view – a trinitarian view – insists that we must grapple with both of these revelations of God.
And indeed it goes further. God is not simply revealed as Other and in an historical individual in the distant past. God is also revealed to us now. Jesus is somehow ‘with us always’ – a reality Paul describes as ‘the communion of the Holy Spirit.’ Yes, God is revealed as residing within, gifting each one of us, guiding us into mission, and in communion with us ‘always’.
We are not left alone looking back at a God once active in history. The Spirit of God is loose in our world, residing within, enabling even this community to move into mission. God is not only like and unlike us. God is also with us.
God as Holy Spirit is close, within, a guide, and one seeking to equip each of us for our task in the world.
God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are introduced in scripture as a community. We are offered a complex, dynamic, and multi-faceted picture of the God we are drawn to worship. Our naming God as Trinity is not an owning or mastering of God. It is rather and insistence, a reminder, that God chose to be revealed to us in these ways.
We could only respond by humbly treasuring the relationship.
The trinity reminds us that if we drop any member from the divine community and our picture is lacking. We end up worshiping something less than the God of the Christian faith.
So why do we celebrate this doctrine now?
Firstly, the Trinity is a doctrine that grows out of the Gospel story. We have re-lived and rehearsed the ministry of Jesus since the beginning of Lent right through until last week when we celebrated the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost – the birth of the church.
Over this time we have seen Jesus as the obedient Son praying to and obeying the Father even when it cost his life. We recently remembered Jesus’ Ascension into heaven to be with this Father and his sending of the Holy Spirit into the world.
Somehow as we look back over this gospel story – the story of how God sought our salvation – we see the three members of the Trinity working together.
Having told this story, we now articulate our position on the nature of the God of the gospel.
But Trinity Sunday is much more a looking back. It also introduces the longest season in the church calendar – ‘ordinary time’ or ‘the pentecost season’. It marks our movement into a season of growth, a time of teaching and equipping the church. In acknowledgement of this new season the church will, next week, be decked in green. Green for growth!
And we start this season by articulating the nature of the God we seek to worship. After all, it is from here that we grow; it is from here that we reason; it is from here that we are discovering the mystery and wonder of salvation.
We are a people learning to live the eternal life that relationship with the Trinity offers.
It has been well said that we become like that which we worship. If we are to be all that God dreams that we can be, we must surely first worship God as revealed to us: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Only from here can we be a people, a community, who are truly and faithfully formed in the image of the God our scriptures reveal.
My simple prayer for this community on this Trinity Sunday is this: May it be a people so formed.