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Our sermons are available as audio files to listen at your convenience.
John 16: 12 – 15
June 12, 2022
In an article discussing this day in the church year, writer Debie Thomas acknowledged, “Let’s face it: Trinity Sunday is a hard sell. While most Christian festivals honor dramatic events (Jesus’s birth, the Resurrection, the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost), Trinity Sunday asks us to celebrate an idea. A theological abstraction. Worse, it asks us to celebrate an idea we can’t wrap our heads around, no matter how hard we try,” she said.1
Pastors and theologians throughout the ages have come up with creative images or analogies in the attempt to explain the Trinity, and while many of those are good and valuable, the truth is that every analogy falls just a bit short.
The way God works as one God in three persons is a divine mystery, an attempt to answer the questions, “How do we talk about God in human language? How do we understand the divine when we are only human?”
Ben Johnson, who was Professor of Spirituality at Columbia Seminary, told about something that happened when he was a speaker at a church conference. He was eating in the dining room when a woman a came to his table and asked if she could interrupt his lunch. “’Can you help me put it into words?’ she asked.
Johnson was confused. “‘Put what into words?’” he said.
“”You know very well what I’m talking about,’” the woman replied. “’How do I put this God-experience that I’ve had into words?’”2
The woman had a good question! We have received and reciprocated God’s love; we know we have experienced God working in our lives. Yet how can we get ahold of that experience? How do we find words to describe it? How can we human beings, with our limited, human capacity, understand the eternal, infinite God, who is all-knowing, all-powerful, and always present? God’s nature is so much greater than we can comprehend. As Psalm 8 says, God’s glory is above the heavens! When we look at the work of God’s creation—moon, stars, everything in the universe!--we are filled with a sense of God’s majesty and holiness! We are in awe of God’s greatness!
And yet, the Psalm points out, God is not distant and removed from human beings, but created us with love and is involved in our lives. God wants to have a personal, intimate relationship with us. Trinitarian theology is a way of helping us hold in balance these aspects of God’s nature.
In the gospel passage for Trinity Sunday, Jesus told his disciples that he had more to say to them than he could tell them then. You all have heard of information overload. It seems like our brains can only take in a certain amount of information at a time. If there is too much information, or if it is outside the realm of our understanding, our minds just can’t grasp it. At that point in time, the disciples couldn’t begin to comprehend the full truth about Jesus, that their friend and teacher was also Savior and Lord. They just weren’t there yet. It would be like trying to take an advanced calculus class when you hadn’t even had algebra one. But Jesus explained to them that the Holy Spirit would come and would continue to teach them—a promise fulfilled on Pentecost, which we celebrated last Sunday. In our passage today, Jesus hinted at the divine mystery, as he spoke about himself, the Father and the Spirit. He said that the Spirit will be with us, and help us relate to both him and the Father.
The idea of the Trinity is a gift that helps us get our minds around who God is. Our opening hymn this morning, Holy, Holy, Holy, says what is at the heart of this idea: “God in three-persons, blessed Trinity.” We believe in one God in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, or Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. But how does all that work? How can there be one God, who is all three of those persons? Yes, there is an element of divine mystery in all of this. And yet, it’s something we should try to understand, as much as possible within our human limitations, because understanding the Trinity helps us understand who God is.
First of all, we need to understand that when we talk about Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we are not talking about gender, but about relationship. The wonderful theologian Shirley Guthrie said that when we talk about God as Father, we don’t mean that he is, quote, “a great big Male up in the sky.” When we talk about the Son, we know that this means not just the man, Jesus, but the second person of the Trinity who has been God throughout eternity. When we talk about the Holy Spirit, we know that in the Hebrew of the Old Testament, Spirit is a feminine word; in the Greek of the New Testament, Spirit is neutral; and in Latin, Spirit is masculine.
Guthrie pointed out—and I think this is so helpful—that it’s not about gender, but about relationship. We have to use human language to describe something that is beyond us, and so we use metaphorical language to talk about the kind of relationship that exists between the members of the Trinity and between God and us—“a relationship that is like the intimate relationship between parents and their children,” he said. It’s all about relationship.3
John Buchanan, who was the pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago for many years, wrote about one Sunday service when he baptized a two-year-old boy. After he had baptized the child with water, John Buchanan put his hand on the little boy’s head, and said, “’You are a child of God, sealed by the Spirit in your baptism, and you belong to Jesus Christ forever.’ Unexpectedly, the little boy looked up and responded, ‘Uh-oh.’”
John Buchanan said, of course the people in the congregation laughed; it was a funny moment, but “it was [also] an appropriate response . . . a stunning theological affirmation from the mouth of this child,” he said. “That ‘uh-oh’ was a recognition that everything had changed, that this boy would never be the same. He did not belong any more just to his biological family; he also belonged to the family of God.”4
It’s all about relationship.
Here is something that really helps me understand Trinity. Another theologian named Emil Brunner said that God knows how hard it is for us as human beings to take in all that God is as God. So God makes the divine nature known with three names. These three names correspond to the three different ways that God relates to us. God relates to us as the Father—the Creator of all that is, the One who is majestic and awesome. God relates to us as the Son—the One who comes to us in the person of Jesus, who redeems us. And God relates to us as the Holy Spirit—the One who is the presence of God living in our hearts.5
It’s about relationship. You might think about it like this. Like all analogies, this one is imperfect, but it might be helpful. Think about the different names that different people have for you. Your spouse or a friend might call you, “Sue.” Your child calls you, “Mom.” Your grandchild might call you, “Nana.” Are you three different people? No, you are one person, but you relate to these people in different ways.
So God is one God, who relates to us in different ways. We sometimes make the mistake of thinking of God the Father as an angry or judging God, and Jesus as somehow the one who takes up for us against the Father. This is not true. All three persons of the Trinity act in harmony; there are no contradictions between the way one acts and another acts. God is all-loving; the very nature of God is love. God shows that love by choosing to come to us in Jesus, laying aside glory to live as one of us.
That theologian who I said has been so helpful to me in understanding this, Emil Brunner, said, “Jesus is the One in whom God becomes present, Immanuel, God with us. . . He is the active, personal presence of God, the Act of God become [human]. . . As John puts it so simply: It is He in whom the Father shows us who He is. ‘He that [has] seen me [has] seen the Father,” Brunner said.6
Through Jesus, God helps us understand that God wants to be in a loving, personal relationship with us, like a parent should be to a child. Think about the ideal parent-child relationship. That is who God is to us! Jesus called God, Father, but not only that, he said that we should call God, Father. Brunner said that the holy majesty of God and God’s merciful love to humanity, are united in the New Testament understanding of God as Father, an understanding we have only through the Son, with the help of the Holy Spirit.
Here’s the bottom line: we cannot understand who God is on our own. So God comes to us in Jesus—our means of seeing who God is. And the Holy Spirit, who is God living within us, helps us understand. When we look at what Jesus does, we see who God is. All the acts of love, of healing, of compassion and hope—show us who God is. The love of God we see in Jesus---especially in his death on the cross and his resurrection to eternal life---that love is who God is. God loved us from the very beginning of creation, and all throughout time, God has been working to show us that love. Finally, in Jesus, God demonstrated that love in the ultimate way: by coming to live with us. And not only did God come to live with us in Jesus, God never leaves us, and God gives us the Holy Spirit to live within us and assure us that is true. With these three names, and in these three ways, God shows us how much God loves us.
There was a young man whose wife passed away, and their little girl was, of course, devastated. So the dad decided to take his daughter on a cruise to get away for awhile. They were sitting out on the deck, snuggling in a deck chair, when the little girl asked, “Daddy, does God love us as much as Mommy did?”
At first, her father didn’t know how to answer. But he knew he couldn’t side-step the question. So he stood up and held his daughter on his hip. Pointing out across the water to the most distant horizon, he said, ‘Honey, God’s love reaches farther than you can see in that direction.” Turning around he said, “And God’s love reaches farther than you can see in that direction, too.” And then he looked up at the sky and said, “And God's love is higher than the sky.” Finally he pointed down at the ocean and said, “And it's deeper than the ocean, too.”
The little girl thought for a moment and then she said, “’Oh, just think, Daddy. We’re right here in the middle of it all!’”7
My friends, the love of God is so great, it’s hard to take it all in! If we live a hundred years, we will still be learning about how great is the length, width, height and depth of God’s love for us. I pray that through the Holy Spirit, as we look at Jesus, God will show us who God is; and may you experience the great love of God for you, this day and everyday. In the name of God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Creator; Redeemer and Sustainer, Amen.
Rev. Dawn Mayes
Manassas Presbyterian Church