Sunday, June 3, 2007

(Trinity Sunday) God from Three Angles

John 16:12-15; Romans 5:1-5

As we already noted, today is Trinity Sunday.
Probably the only Sunday in the church year celebrating
not a teaching of Jesus, but a teaching of the church.
Trinity is rooted in scripture,
but you won’t find the word Trinity in the Bible.
So why is this doctrine so important to us, you might ask?
Why does the church set aside one Sunday a year to celebrate it?

And more importantly, is anyone here interested in hearing me
pontificate for 20 minutes on the finer points
of the nature of God in the doctrine of the Trinity?
There are volumes written about the nature and substance
of the Three-in-One God.
I could give you quotes from popes going back 1,700 years.
I could tell you how ecumenical councils worked for years
to hammer out language to capture such sublime truths
as the consubstantial nature of the Father and the Son.
I could review with you how the Eastern Orthodox Church
split from the Roman Catholic Church a thousand years ago,
fueled by a disagreement over whether the Holy Spirit
proceeded from the Father and from the Son,
or, from the Father, through the Son.
This could be a mind-numbing 20-minute sermon.

I don’t want to belittle those historical developments,
or the importance of the disagreements.
They did have important implications for the church and our faith.

But I want to move this conversation quickly to a different level.
I think everyone of us here shares something important in common.
We want to know God.
We wouldn’t be here, if that wasn’t the case.
We want to know God more deeply and truly.

There are different ways of knowing, of course.
There is knowing through observation,
and knowing through experience.
We can learn to know something by dissecting and studying it.
Taking it apart, observing the finer details, arguing about it,
until we have a shared understanding of its essential nature.
That’s what the ancient councils of the church were doing.
We can also learn to know something by living with it,
by relating our lives to it.
In this way of knowing we experience it,
interact with it,
develop a relationship with it,
and allow the knowledge to transform us.
There are times and places to seek both kinds of knowledge of God.

We have a good strong foundation in the early creeds.
The creeds did some important, unifying work for the church.
The Apostles Creed is still a great confession,
and one we continue to stand on.
But it’s one thing to speak truthful words about who God is.
It is quite another thing to be in a relationship with that God.

The biggest challenge we face in the church today is not
believing the verbal confessions of our faith.
The challenge is moving into the deeper kind of knowledge.
To know God more deeply,
by experiencing the rich and vibrant and various ways
that the living triune God encounters us in life,
and enters into relationship with us, and transforms us.

That is the place I want to linger in these 20 minutes,
as we think together about the Trinity.
If we know anything at all about God, it’s that God is relational.
Someone said that everything sacred, everything that is of God,
is relational.
People have tried, and failed, to know God in the abstract,
as a purely objective reality that we can study and observe
in the same way we study math or science.
But knowledge of God only becomes real,
when it is a lived reality,
when we allow the reality that is God
to impinge upon the lived reality of our ordinary lives.

Bishop N. T. Wright of England had an imaginative way of putting it.
He said when we argue about God in the abstract,
about God’s existence, or God’s nature,
or God’s activity in the world,
it’s kind of like “pointing a flashlight toward the sky
to see if the sun is shining.”
He said speaking about God is like “staring into the sun.”
It’s too dazzling to look at it straightaway.
We need to look around to enjoy and appreciate
how the light of the sun illuminates life around us,
how the stuff of life reflects, and relates to the light.

Nevertheless, we seekers of God don’t give up trying
to catch a glimpse of the sun itself,
trying to discover the truth about the nature of God.
The doctrine of the Trinity came about because
early Christians were seeing this beautiful light reflected
in so many different ways all around them,
and wanted to catch a glimpse of the sun.
We have the wrong idea about this doctrine,
if we think 1,700 years ago when this doctrine was formulated,
a bunch of theologians who lived in an ivory tower
got together as a purely intellectual exercise,
to make something simple into something complicated.

No, it was that in the early church,
ordinary believers in Jesus
experienced the activity of God in complex ways.
It was their lived experience with their faith that made it clear
that God related to creation in different ways.
They experienced God as majestic, powerful, and awe-inspiring.
They experienced God as gentle, compassionate, and intimate.
And they had stories handed down by recent ancestors,
of experiencing God present in the flesh,
in man named Jesus of Nazareth.
So it was their lived experience with God,
that was given to the theologians to work with,
to help find language to talk about it.

God is not merely a concept. God is known in relationship.
Let me quote N. T. Wright again, from his book Simply Christian.
“It would be a mistake to give the impression
that the Christian doctrine of God is a matter of
clever intellectual word games or mind games.
For Christians it’s always a love game:
God’s love for the world, calling out an answering love from us,
enabling us to discover that God not only happens to love us...
but that he is love itself...
The...heart of God’s own being [is] the love
which passes continually between Father, Son, and Spirit.”

And according to N. T. Wright,
the Trinity, which is all because of Jesus,
keeps us grounded in the worship of a relational God;
it keeps us from worshiping God as a cosmic notion of goodness.
Again, in his own words, let me read a couple paragraphs.
“Once we glimpse the doctrine of the Trinity
we dare not slide back into...paying distant homage
to a god who is...merely a quasi-personal
source of general benevolence...
Christian faith is much more hard-edged, more craggy, than that.
Jesus exploded into the life of ancient Israel...
not as a teacher of timeless truths,
nor as a great moral example,
but as the one through whose life, death, and resurrection
God’s rescue operation was put into effect,
and the [world] turned its great corner at last...
It is because of Jesus that Christians claim
they know who the creator God of the world really is.
It is because he, a human being,
is now with the Father in the dimension we call “heaven”
that Christians came so quickly to speak of God
as both Father and Son.
It is because he [is still] in heaven
while we are on earth...
(though the Spirit makes him present to us)
that Christians came to speak of the Spirit, too,
as a distinct member of the divine Trinity.
It is all because of Jesus that we speak of God the way we do.
And it is all because of Jesus that we find ourselves
called to live the way we do.
More particularly, it is through Jesus that we are summoned
to become more truly human,
to reflect the image of God into the world.”

Those were a lot of powerful words.
I hope you caught even half of them.

The Trinity is not a dry, intellectual exercise
in the study of the nature of God.
The Trinity is putting into words
what it means to worship a God who is with us, really with us,
in a way that puts a claim on our ordinary daily lives,
in a way that compels us to respond to God,
to relate to God, in one way or another.
Accept or reject. But respond, we will.
In obedience or in rebellion, but relate to God, we will.

It is the witness in scripture to our relational God
that has given rise to this doctrine of the Trinity.
The scripture readings we heard this morning are prime examples.

Paul was trying to tell the church in Rome about all of this,
about how it’s all because of Jesus,
that we can relate to the God of the universe, in peace.
Romans 5:1—“We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,
through whom we have obtained access to this grace.”
And Paul was telling them how because of the Holy Spirit
they could experience the real and present love of God.
Verse 5: “God’s love has been poured into our hearts
through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

It is that real, concrete, present, and multi-angled relationship
with the triune God,
that makes a joyful and hopeful life possible,
in a world of suffering.
It’s the reason Paul could say, in v. 3,
that he finds grounds for joy even in suffering,
“knowing that suffering produces endurance,
and endurance produces character,
and character produces hope,
and hope does not disappoint us,
because God’s love has been poured into our hearts
through the Holy Spirit.”

And the Gospel reading this morning, from John 16,
gives another picture of this relational God,
how the triune God is a divine community in itself.
If you look at verses 14 and 15, of John chapter 16,
you see Jesus describing to his disciples,
this interactivity between himself and the Spirit and his Father.
“[The Spirit] will glorify me,
because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.
All that the Father has is mine.
For this reason I said that [the Spirit] will take what is mine
and declare it to you.”

Jesus is trying to reassure his disciples,
that they can experience the presence of God in ways
that do not require Jesus to be physically present.
This must have been the real, burning question
that was occupying their thoughts,
and fueling their fear and anxiety,
here at end of Jesus’ ministry,
when things were starting to come unglued.
The disciples were coming to believe that Jesus was from God,
that Jesus was the Anointed One, Son of God.
They were just beginning to get accustomed to that thought.

But they could not get their heads around this other idea
Jesus kept repeating over and over,
that he would soon be leaving them.
So how was this supposed to work?
Jesus was the real and distinct revelation of God the Father
to the community of believers.
He was the incarnation of God.
God in real flesh.
God present. Emmanuel.
Okay, they could accept that.
But how was God going to continue
to be present in the community
when the incarnation stopped?
See, when Jesus talked about leaving them,
he was talking about the end of the incarnation.

Eugene Peterson has an interesting angle on what’s happening in John.
He compares John with the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
Those Gospels present the story line of Jesus’ public life,
follow his actions during three years of teaching and healing.
The action gradually gathers momentum
until that one final climactic week in Jerusalem,
where the real action takes place.
But John does something different to get the story across.
Peterson says that in John, (quote) “we find ourselves involved
in a world of leisurely and extended conversation,
discourses that expand and ruminate
on something that has just happened...
[As] we are...in the company of Jesus...he takes his time,
repeats himself, picks up a phrase and then drops it,
circles around and picks it up again,
like someone holding a gemstone up to the light
and slowly turning it so we notice the various colors.”

I can relate.
The Trinity is not something for us to dissect and examine
until it makes perfect rational sense.
The Trinity does, however, speak some deep and beautiful truths
about how we relate to God, and how God relates to us.
For us to grasp the Trinity, we don’t need a neat and tidy
point-by-point outline,
or the quintessential story that will put all the pieces together.
We need a leisurely conversation, Gospel of John style.
We need to look at this gem from different angles,
and soak in the beauty it reveals.

The purpose of the Trinity is to help us know God,
to know more deeply, more truly, more dynamically.
Deep knowledge of God will not come from rational analysis.
No, it’s like a multi-faceted gemstone that reflects the light
in different colors and intensities,
depending on the angle from which we’re viewing it.
The Trinity helps us see God from three angles.
God the majestic sovereign,
creator of the universe,
all-knowing, all-powerful.
And, God who understands my human frailty,
God who has been in my shoes,
God who knows suffering, and continues to suffer.
And, God who is near to comfort,
to guide and empower in the present,
to speak the words of God to us today.
God who brings together earth and heaven.

It is our life calling to know this God, not by looking on from a distance,
but to know by participating, by living with,
by letting the truth of God make a difference
in the particulars of our ordinary lives,
by engaging in the kinds of practices
that nurture this deeper knowledge and participation in God.

When we recognize that way of knowing as our life calling,
we will read the creeds in a different way.

Let's now recite the Apostle’s Creed,
a creed shared by Christians all over the world,
dating back to the third century.

But before we recite the words,
I invite us to reflect, in silence,
on how these truthful words
relate to the particular realities of our ordinary lives.
To what experiences or practices of our lives
do these words give truthful witness?

How, in your daily life, do you relate in a particular way,
to God as almighty, as creator of heaven and earth?
How does Jesus sitting at the right hand of the Father
make a difference in the way you face suffering,
or in the way you pray?
What does it mean for you, in the particular,
to believe in “the forgiveness of sins?”

Let us reflect, in silence...

Let us now read together, in unison,
this confession of our faith in the triune God:

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come again to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.

Amen.

—Phil Kniss, June 3, 2007

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