A Whole God for the Whole World
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; May 27, 2018
Psalm 29; Romans 8:12-17
Some years ago, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas teamed up to bring us the Indiana Jones trilogy, beginning with Raiders of the Lost Ark. Do you remember the hero in the movies—Indiana Jones? Played by Harrison Ford, he was a courageous, somewhat single-minded archaeologist. Whether Indy was on a quest to obtain the Ark of the Covenant or the Holy Grail, the adventure was sure to have many obstacles—crypts full of mice, underground caves and castles brimming with snakes not to mention narrow escapes from enemies aplenty! Danger was everywhere, but in the end, the treasure was found—usually bathed in a mystical light.
Today is Trinity Sunday, or “God Sunday,” and preparing to preach about the Trinity is much like going on an archaeological dig with Indy. There are obstacles and danger aplenty. Yet, if we are brave, we may bypass what hinders us and reach the sacred treasure of a deeper understanding of the Trinity—a deeper understanding of God.
What is it that makes preaching about the Trinity so difficult? First, for a church that generally follows the lectionary, this is the only day of the year that calls us to examine a teaching of the church rather than a teaching of Jesus. No doubt, our reading from Romans reflects the Three-in-One doctrine, but it is biblical support for a word (Trinity) that cannot be found in Scripture.
Second, how can we mere mortals even attempt to explain the mystery of God? Gregory Nazianzen says to speak of the Godhead is like crossing the ocean on a raft. Augustine, one of the greatest minds of the western world, wrote about the Trinity. It took a decade and 15 books.
Third, how important is it for us to explain the mystery of God, anyway—God revealed in three distinct ways: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Mysteries explained cease to be mysteries, right? The truth is God’s ways boggle our minds. And, we don’t need to try to explain all the mysteries of God—as if we could! But we do need to explain, in faithful and articulate language, what God has done among us, what God is doing now, and what God promises to accomplish. For many Christians, the language of the Trinity has been a useful tool for doing just that. It’s how the doctrine of the Trinity began in the first place.
Although the term “Trinity” wasn’t coined until the 3rd century, there were hints before then. Take our scripture passage from Romans, for example, in which Paul notes our connection to the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Here, and in other places in Scripture, building blocks were formed from which the historic doctrine of the Trinity was crafted. We experienced God’s extravagant Triune Love, and as a result, we naturally started speaking of God as Trinity. It was the same God that we had experienced as the Creator of the world, the Father of Israel. Now we experienced God in the flesh as Son, and as the power flowing from God—the Holy Spirit. In other words, the doctrine of the Trinity began as a way to give words to our faith. The early Christians, living in a hostile world, needed to find some definitive language to express what they believed Christ had revealed to them. For the sake of unity, they needed a common language, a common confession.
This is still helpful for us today. As Christians, we claim that there is one God—in three Persons—all of the same substance, the God-substance. We worship a God who is still creating among us, who has redeemed us through Jesus Christ, and who works among us through the Holy Spirit. God is still powerful, still working, now and forevermore.
William Willimon recommends that we think of the Bible as a long story of God’s attempted conversation with humanity. We keep rejecting God’s words. We keep turning away. We worship false gods. We run, and we hide. But this doesn’t stop God. God keeps coming back to us. God comes to us in the lives of the patriarchs, the prophets, in the gift of God’s law. Then, stopping at nothing, God comes to us as the Son, comes to us as Jesus. Then, even when we kill his Son, hang him on a cruel cross, thinking that probably ends relations between us and God, in three days, God comes back to us as the risen Christ. God keeps coming back, again, and again.
But here is where it can get a little messy. Our theology—what we perceive to be true about God—can become hazy—so much so, communicating it to others can cause more harm than good. Allow me to offer an illustration. Once upon a time there was a boy who attended a revival. He had been going to church all his life, but this night he heard something new. The preacher placed a dirty glass on the pulpit and said, “This is you, all dirty and sinful inside and out.” Then he raised a hammer and said, “And this is God in his righteousness and God’s justice can only be satisfied by punishing and destroying sin in the world.” Then the preacher slowly drew back the hammer to make the deadly blow, but a miracle happened. At the last moment, he covered the glass with a pan. The hammer struck the pan with a crash. The preacher held up the glass with one hand and the mangled pan with the other and said, “Jesus died for your sins. He took the punishment that should have been yours and by doing so, he satisfied God’s righteousness.”
The boy couldn’t sleep that night. (Imagine that!) After thinking about what he had seen and heard he decided he could not love a God like that. He could love Jesus who had sacrificed himself for him, but that hammer-swinging God—no way! Other thoughts troubled the boy. Was it right for Jesus to be punished for what other people had done? And what good had it all done in the end since the glass was still just a dirty glass?
Now we sense that there’s something wrong with this theology—but what is it? Is this a picture of the whole God who loves the whole world? The illustration comes from Shirley Guthrie’s book, Christian Doctrine. In it, Guthrie continues by providing a clearer picture of God the Father and God the Son, in regard to the doctrine of atonement. He begins by acknowledging how painful it is to imagine God as a wrathful God demanding a blood sacrifice for our sins. The picture he paints is of God as the Judge who looks over the bench and pronounces the death sentence, but the death of Christ for us means that this same Judge comes around to the other side of the bench to accept the sentence on behalf of those who deserve it—on behalf of us. The Judge rules that the debt must be paid—then the Judge pays the debt. To complete the picture of the Trinity on this God Sunday, this same Judge leaves the courtroom with us to lead us to abundant life—now and forevermore.
This is the extravagance of God—this overflowing quality of God. Everything in creation screams the extravagance of God. Not one kind of flower—thousands of flowers. Not one star—millions of stars. Though God is often beyond our understanding, historically, it has been through the Trinity that the church has spoken of this extravagant God who loves us beyond our imaginings.
Over the years, the Trinity has been expressed in many ways: as water that may be present as a liquid, a solid, or a gas; as an apple that consists of the peel, the flesh and the core—yet all is of the same apple. Also, the Trinity may be expressed as a circle where God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are in community with one another—interacting with one another—the Father giving to the Son, the Son offering praise to the Father and the Holy Spirit constantly drawing everything back to the Father and the Son. Within this community, we are invited to experience the flow of God’s endless love.
No doubt, the doctrine of the trinity is complex—feels a bit like going on an archaeological dig with Indiana Jones with obstacles and danger aplenty. But it’s worth the effort. Eugene Peterson proposes that using “Trinity” language can help us keep our conversations of Christian life personal and focused. For as the Christian community, we are people called into a personal experience in personal terms of love and forgiveness and hope. Everything about us—our worshiping and learning, talking and listening, teaching and preaching, obeying and deciding, working and playing, eating and sleeping—everything takes place in the presence and among the operations of our Triune God.[i]
In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he writes, “When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ…” What an incredible picture of our Triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit!
God the Father made you.
God the Son redeemed you.
God the Spirit empowers you.
This is the good news that is ours to share.
A whole God—for the whole world!
[i] Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places
*Cover Art “Trinity” Andrei Rublev; Public Domain