And the catholic faith is this: That we worship one God in three persons and three persons in one God, neither confusing the persons nor dividing the substance. (Athanasian Creed)
Blessed be the Holy Trinity and the undivided Unity.
In case you can’t already tell, it is Holy Trinity Sunday, the first Sunday after Pentecost devoted to the sublime mystery of God’s tri-unity as three distinct Persons in one, undivided Being. If you think you’re going to go home today understanding the doctrine of the trinity better than when you arrived, think again. If you’re looking for some tidbit of relevance, a little nugget of inspirational uplift, a sweet hour of prayer, you may be disappointed. Today’s menu is doctrine. Theology. God-talk.
Christian apologist Dorothy Sayers summarizes the popular thinking on the doctrine of the trinity this way:
Q: What is the doctrine of the Trinity?
A: “The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the whole thing incomprehensible.” It’s something put in by theologians to make it more difficult – it’s got nothing to do with daily life or ethics. (Creed or Chaos, 33).
That’s probably representative of the thinking of many people. Thomas Jefferson hated the doctrine. Pop atheist Richard Dawkins cites it as evidence for the obscure pettiness of Christianity. Even devout religious types might bridle a bit at those frightfully exclusive sentences in the Athanasian Creed: “This is the catholic faith, except everyone keeps whole and undefiled, without doubt, he will perish eternally.” How dare we speak in riddles and then threaten everyone who doesn’t believe with the eternal fires of hell?
Our minds do not especially like paradox, two mutually contradictory things held together, side by side. If my wife asks me if I will be home for dinner in the evening or going out, “yes” is not an acceptable answer. Are you Democrat or are you Republican? Both. See, you don’t like it either. Is the Bible man’s word or God’s Word? Yes. Is Jesus God or man? Yes. Is the baptized believer a sinner or a saint? Yes. Is God three or is He one? You get the idea.
I like to call the doctrine of the trinity the paradox of plurality – having one God and three Persons without having three gods or one person. There are two ditches on the road of the trinitarian paradox. The one is tri-theism, what the Muslims charge us with, that we worship three gods not one God. That’s also the claim of the Jehovah’s Witnesses who love to leave tracts at our church’s door because of our name – Holy Trinity. The other ditch is to have one God wearing three masks or costumes – a Father mask, a Son mask, and a Holy Spirit mask.
Some say that the idea of the “trinity” wasn’t invented until the 4th century, a claim for which there is some measure truth. The words “triune” and “trinity” are not found in the Scriptures, and the language of “person” and “essence” don’t get formalized until the Nicene creed.
But the paradox of God’s plurality is already there from the beginning, the opening verses of the Bible where the “Spirit of God” hovered over the waters of creation and the Word called everything into being. The word for “God” (Elohim) is a plural, and would have been translated “gods” instead of “God” except for the Bible’s insistence that there is one God and no other.
When God speaks within Himself, He speaks in the plural: Let us make man in our image, in our likeness. There is YHWH, and the Spirit of YHWH, and the angel of YHWH, to whom Moses spoke in the burning bush. There are all those three-fold blessings and praises: The Lord bless you and keep you, the Lord makes HIs face shine on you and be gracious to you, The Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace. There is the song of the seraphim that Isaiah heard and we sing in the liturgy: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts.” Not just one holy, but three, yet one Lord of hosts.
Now all of that could be more or less explained away by some figures of speech and a God who wears three masks with matching hats, until the Son of God, the second Person of the undivided Holy Trinity, took on flesh and showed his face to the world. Now you have a problem. You see Jesus in His Baptism, but who is that Voice declaring “This is my beloved Son” and what about the descending dove?
And then there’s this problem: Jesus prays to His Father in heaven and teaches His disciples to do the same thing. He tells them “I and the Father are one thing” and that to see Him is to see the Father, yet He also says He is going to the Father and that He will pray to the Father on their behalf.
And this: Jesus promises to send another One, a Paraklete, a Comforter who comes at His bidding from the Father. Not just a force or a breath but a Person who can be grieved and sinned against. Finally, to cap the whole paradoxical thing off, Jesus tells His disciples just before disappearing to make disciples of the nations by baptizing “in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of Holy Spirit.” One divine Name, three Persons (including Himself), it’s enough to make you want to scream or seriously consider taking up another religion.
But don’t worry, you don’t have to understand it, be able illustrate it, or even fully grasp it. You just have to trust it, that is, take Jesus’ word for it. Since He’s the one who died and rose, His is a good word to take. He’s the One who sends the Spirit into our hearts as a down payment on our resurrection, and He’s the One who brings us to the Father by way of His death and resurrection. Jesus is at the center of the Trinity, and He’s the One who will bring you into the triune life of God. Now that may not be completely satisfying to either your curiosity or your skepticism, but that’s all you’re going to get and it’s all you need. This doesn’t mean we either check our brains at the door or let them roll out of our heads, but we recognize that our vocabulary for God-talk is limited to analogy and some cooked up words like “triune” and “trinity.”
Think about it for a second. How is an infinite, n-dimensional, eternal God going to make Himself known to us finite, three-dimensional creatures who are naturally near-sighted when it comes to spiritual matters, except to enter our space and time and hang out with us? And how are we to talk about God except in three dimensional, finite terms? That’s why you can’t come up with a decent illustration for the trinity that doesn’t manage to drive straight into one or the other ditch. That’s why you can’t prove the existence of God in scientific terms. But God has accommodated Himself to us, revealed Himself to us. He has reached out and down to us on our level, in our space and time. “No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.” That’s how we know God concretely – not as a doctrine or a formula or a creed but as a person, the person Jesus Christ.
This is how the Father loved the world, by sending the eternal Son to suffer and die for the sin of the world, so that everyone who trusts Him and His death will live forever. In the Son, the Father was reconciling the world to Himself. By the Spirit, the Son is revealed and His gifts are given that bring us to the Father as the children of God.
This is why the doctrine of the Trinity is important – to lose the Trinity is to lose Jesus as Lord, as the one and only mediator between the Father and humanity, as the Savior who dies the death of God in our human flesh to save humanity and the cosmos, as the One who reconciles the world to Father, as the creative Word who died to save His own creation.
To be baptized in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit is to be baptized into the triune life and love of God. It is to be in Christ, held in His death and life – crucified with HIm, raised with Him, glorified and seated with Him. It is to have the Holy Spirit as guarantee and pledge of the resurrection, to be a living temple of the Spirit of Life who stirs up in our hearts the cry of God’s children, Abba, Father. It is to be called a child of God.
You are baptized, you are forgiven, you are held in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. The triune life and love of God are yours. You have been born again “from above” with the water-Spirit birth that makes you a new creation in Christ. You are given to pray “our Father,” to call God “Father” with the delight of a beloved child held in the beloved Son.
And if we struggle with words and even have to invent a couple to summarize this paradox of plurarity, that God is three and one at the same time, depending on how you are speaking, well, so be it. By what rule do we say that God is supposed to be simple and explainable? And if we don’t fully understand the paradox of God at least we are given to know Him and His love for us? Can you claim to understand all the people in your life and be able to explain them? Why should God be any less or different?
The operative word for today is worship. It’s all you can do. We don’t claim to understand much less comprehend God. We claim only to confess and worship one God in three Persons and three Persons in one God. And thanks to Jesus, it’s all there is to do.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.