Three in One? Thoughts on how we understand the Trinity.

Three in One

One of the most interesting things about going to many sporting events in the United States is that before the event begins, we are asked to stand, remove our hats, and sing the national anthem.

The Star-Spangled Banner.

That tradition is so ingrained in me that whenever I hear the Star-Spangled Banner, I want to cry out, “play ball!” when it ends.

And when someone does not stand, remove their hat and sing, many lay the stink-eye on them and might want to say something like, “What’s your problem?”

And God forbid that the person singing the anthem forgets the words!

They are ridiculed and mocked.

And now recently, there have been a lot of folks, athletes in particular, who “take a knee” during the national anthem in protest of some perceived, and often real, injustice.

They are often derided and scorned by those who believe such a protest is inappropriate.

Then there is the other end of the national anthem spectrum.

Many Americans who win the gold medal at the Olympics literally weep as soon at the Star-Spangled Banner starts to play as the Star-Spangled banner is raised.

We take our national anthem seriously!

And so, most of us do stand, remove our hats, and sing the national anthem whenever we are asked to do so.

And hopefully we remember the words.

But why?

What I find interesting is that our national anthem is about the “Star Spangled-Banner” not the United States of America.

The flag, not the country.

America the Beautiful might be a better anthem, in my opinion.

But most don’t really care about what the anthem is about, because the words of the anthem are not so much a statement of what we believe but are a statement of who we are.

We are Americans!

And that is our national anthem!

We have an anthem of sorts in the church.

Most Sundays in church, we recite an “affirmation of faith”.

It is a statement of what we claim to believe that is central to our faith.

The one we recite most often is the Apostles’ Creed.

The Apostles’ Creed is a brief three stanza declaration of several things we hold to be true.

The first stanza is about God the Father.

The second stanza is about Jesus Christ.

The Third stanza is about the Holy Spirit.

Overall, the entirely of the Creed proclaims our belief in what we refer to as the Trinity.

One God in three persons.

That is a hard sell.

It is a hard sell because we can’t visualize it and don’t really understand it.

But we say we believe it because it declares who we are.

We are Christians.

We believe in the Trinity.

So, where do we find the trinity in scripture?

In fact, the word “trinity” does not even appear in the New Testament anywhere.

So where does it come from?

Let’s have a listen to today’s scripture.

John 15:26 – 16:15

26”When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. 27You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.

16”I have said these things to you to keep you from stumbling. 2They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God. 3And they will do this because they have not known the Father or me. 4But I have said these things to you so that when their hour comes you may remember that I told you about them. “I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. 5But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ 6But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts.

7Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. 8And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: 9about sin, because they do not believe in me; 10about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; 11about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned. 12“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. 15All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

If you are scratching your head right now, you are not alone.

At our Wednesday staff meeting, we talked about this passage and there was a good bit of confusion.

It’s hard to understand.

And John is quoting Jesus!

Jesus is talking about God, himself and this “Advocate” who will come only after Jesus leaves.

Can you imagine being one of the disciples when Jesus tells them about this?

They have been following Jesus for three years and have just started to understand that Jesus was sent, not by God, but from God, as a part of God.

Now Jesus is saying that the “Advocate”, the Spirit of God, will be coming next.

And this Advocate or Spirit is also sent not by God, but from God, as part of God.

I have this image of the disciples looking at Jesus with their mouths open in confusion.

We just got used to two and now you tell us there are three?

One God.

Three … what?

Parts, persons, manifestations, presentations?

Christians have been asking those same questions for 2000 years.

The Trinity is one of the great mysteries of our faith.

And mysteries cannot be described, explained or depicted.

At times they are just to be accepted.

As Augustine pointed out back in the 4th century:

If you can comprehend it, it is not God.

 The Trinity is a good mystery.

A mystery that preserves God’s majesty and holiness.

And this is a mystery that goes back to the beginning.

Genesis.

The first 5 verses of the Bible.

The creation.

God. The Word. The Spirit.

All three were there.

We need to know that.

But there is only one God.

God is all three.

How do we explain that?

One of early explanations of the Trinity went this way.

It’s called the Creed of Athanasius and was written in the 5th or 6th century:

[W]e worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in unity, neither confounding the persons, nor dividing the persons … The Father uncreate, the Son uncreate, and the Holy Ghost uncreate. The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible. … And yet there are not three incomprehensibilites, nor three uncreated, but one uncreated and one incomprehensible.

Got it?

Good because there will be a quiz.

Many different depictions of the Trinity have been offered over the centuries and most have been labeled heretical.

Meister Eckhart, a 14th century German mystic who described the trinity this way.

God the Father laughed, and the Son came forth. God the Father and the Son laughed together, and the Holy Spirit came forth.

When all three laughed, humanity came forth.

Thus, the universe at its center is a joyful community.

And then there is a modern fanciful depiction the Trinity.

It comes in the book, “The Shack”.

In this short book, William P. Young writes about Mack, someone whose daughter was murdered some time back.

He is drawn to a shack near the site of the murder.

He enters the shack and encounters manifestations of the three persons of the Trinity.

God the Father takes the form of an African American woman who calls herself Elouisa and Papa.

Jesus Christ is a Middle Eastern carpenter.

The Holy Spirit physically manifests as an Asian woman named Sarayu.

Athanasius is now twirling in his grave.

But for some, perhaps many, and certainly for those who have experienced trauma and loss, the Trinity depicted in The Shack might be a spiritual balm.

I like what Oxford theologian Alister McGrath says about the Trinity:

“The doctrine of the Trinity wasn’t invented—it was uncovered. The doctrine of the Trinity…is not some arbitrary and outdated dictate handed down by some confused council—it is the inevitable result of wrestling with the richness and complexity of the Christian experience of God.”

We discover the Trinity by looking at what God has done.

 We first experience God who created the world and continues to do so and whose glory can be seen reflected in the wonder of nature.

We next experience God who saves us from ultimate darkness and death, and whose love is depicted in the cross of Jesus Christ.

Last, we experience God who is present and active in our lives.

These experiences lead to the conclusion that God has revealed his one being in these three unique ways.

Creator.

Redeemer.

Sustainer.

God created us.

Jesus redeemed us.

The Holy Spirit.

These are not different forms of God.

These are different acts of God.

God creates.

God redeems.

God sustains.

Eternally.

So what do we do with all this?

What does it all really mean?

What is it we believe?

Brian McLaren puts it this way:

If …there’s only one God but not three Persons within the one God, then we would expect that the ultimate reality behind the universe could be silence. It could be power. It could be peace. It could be domination. It could be any of those things. But there’s one thing that it could not be. The ultimate reality could not be love. Because for love to exist, there has to be a sharing, and there has to be a communication, and there has to be a self-giving. But if there’s only one, there’s nothing to give the self to.

We believe that for love to exist, it must be in community.

If God is love, God is somehow a community.

And if we are to love the way God loves, we must also be in community.

I think the Trinity we believe in teaches us that because God acts as a community, we, if we are to be his followers, must also act as a community. 

We must worship in community.

We must do mission in community.

We must do fellowship in community.

We must do stewardship in community.

We must do leadership in community.

We must teach and nurture our children in community.

We must get in community and stay in community.

The Trinity asks us, “How can anyone draw closer to God without being in some kind of community?”

I might not understand how God can be three in one, but I am glad God is.

And if God loves us, we are invited into that triune community.

Listen to the story I read this week.

Henri Nouwen, Roman Catholic priest and theologian was depressed for a long time.

As part of his own therapy, he meditated on an icon that depicted the Trinity as three persons sitting around a square table.

One on each side.

His interpretation of the image was that the three stared at each other in a manner where there was no fear, no greed, no anger, no violence, no anxiety, no pain, no suffering, not need for words.

All that was present was love and trust.

The fourth side was empty.

It was where he was.

He felt he was invited to be the fourth at that table, and to participate in the divine community.

That makes me think of the communion table.

Jesus invites us there to join him in the community of the Trinity.

That is what communion is.

We join the triune God at the table in community.

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