Illuminating the Triune God

May 31, 2015

Christ Church Episcopal, Norcross, GA

Trinity Sunday 
Isaiah 6:1-8; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17

(Gospel text is provided at the bottom of this post)

 

So, here we are – it’s Trinity Sunday. The day we celebrate and attempt to get some kind of understanding of the Three-in-oneness of God. This understanding of God is what differentiates us as Christians. It’s a unique understanding, and was a difficult and controversial concept for early Christians.

You see, central to the Hebrew tradition was a belief in one God. At the time of Jesus, this was unique to the Jews. They were in the midst of the Gentiles, who worshiped many gods. The Greeks and Romans had different gods, each having dominion over different parts of the world: Zeus, Poseidon and Hades; and numerous other gods and goddesses that people believed in and worshiped.

So, what set the Hebrew people apart was their devotion to One God who created and was God of ALL things. The first commandment makes it clear: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of bondage. You shall have no other gods but me.”

But something happened when Jesus came into the world. Our understanding of God changed. Jesus was an incarnation of the divine. And with this incarnation, the understanding of the oneness of God had to shift.

John’s gospel introduces and explains the Triune God in a very explicit way. The three-in-oneness of God is comprised of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit – characterized by early theologians as the three persons of the ONE God.

TrinityFatherJesusChristHolySpiritThroughout the gospel we see Jesus making the case that he and the Father are one. They abide together and what Jesus says and does reveals the Father. But to be clear, “the Father” is not God. The Father is one of the persons in the three-in-one God.

The Holy Spirit is the third person, and the last to be introduced in John’s gospel. We heard last week that Jesus had to leave in order for the Holy Spirit to come. We also saw that the Holy Spirit is interwoven with the Son and the Father. The three are mutually interdependent and in that mutuality, together they are God.

When we try to teach this, we use different images. The best one I’ve been able to find for myself is that of lightning. Unfortunately, lately, we’ve seen some pretty destructive images caused by lightning-filled skies. But, setting that aside for the moment, here’s how the three-in-oneness of God is similar to lightning.

When I was a child, my dad taught us how to figure out how far away lightning was from our house. When we saw the flash of lightning, we’d begin counting until we heard the sound of thunder. For every four seconds we’d count, it equaled a mile in distance between the lightning and our house. For a child frightened by a storm, this was a comforting formula to know!

Later, as an adult, I’d hear people talk about thunder and lightning as if they were separate things. I guess it’s natural since we have separate names for each. But, in reality, thunder is simply the sound that lightning makes.

By way of contrast, when we talk about a clap, both the action of putting our hands together and the noise it makes are called a clap. They happen simultaneously; we hear the sound at the same moment that we see the two hands being put together, so we don’t confuse them as being different things.

But most of the time, in the case of lightning, that isn’t true. Since there’s a time-gap between when we see the flash and when we hear the sound, and since we call the sound something different than we call the light-flash, it creates the impression that thunder and lightning are two different things. They aren’t. Thunder cannot exist without lightning. So, if you hear thunder, please get out of the pool and off the golf course – even if you don’t SEE the lightning!

If you’ll bear with me, I’d like to take this science lesson just a little bit further. Similar to thunder not being its own thing, the bolt of lightning isn’t its own thing either. The lightning we see is actually the illuminated flash that occurs when energy from electron particles shift quickly from one place to another.

Now, I’m getting way out of my depth scientifically and possibly beyond your interest-level, as well. Yet, it was interesting to learn that even with the sophistication of science today, lightning continues to be one of scientists’ greatest mysteries. The way clouds get charged and how these charges shift, remains elusive. As you could imagine, there are competing theories, but suffice it to say that the lightning we see – the streak of light that moves from the cloud to the ground, is simply the visible representation of something powerful that’s occurred. And most of us simplify point to the bolt of light; something tangible we can see; and affix to it all the awesomeness and mystery of lightning, when it is so much more complex than that.

So, as you can see, lightning is an example of how something can be three things and one thing at the same time. Similarly, the mystery of the Three-in-oneness of the Holy Trinity is illumined by the phenomenon of lightning:

  • 13517588662-Lightning-Storm-and-Brush-Firethe energy and mystery points to the power and elusiveness of the Father
  • the flash of light equates to the incarnate presence of Jesus, the Son,
  • and the thunder confirms that the flash that is Jesus, is God revealed in the world. And through the Holy Spirit, God continues to be revealed, again and again.

But even with all that said, I have to return to my initial observation: that this three-in-one God stuff was really problematic for many in Jesus’ time. It was a real issue that had to be grappled with by those who were followers of Jesus, primarily those from the Hebrew tradition. It ran contrary to their way of understanding God.

We get a sense of this in today’s reading. It’s the story of Nicodemus, the Pharisee – a devout Jew and leader in the Jewish community. He comes to Jesus at night, which in John’s gospel imagery tells us that Nicodemus doesn’t understand who Jesus is. Yet, he begins with what appears to be affirming words toward Jesus:

Nicodemus says: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”

And although there doesn’t appear to be a question in that, it says:

Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

And, Nicodemus, steeped in the literal rules of his tradition, replies from the literal, earth-bound place:

“How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit…”

images

So, the gospel lesson is telling these early Christians, and potential Christians, that something’s gotta change. They can’t keep thinking the way they have before. They are going to have to re-understand how and who God is. With Jesus’ entry into the world, the understanding of One God shifts to understanding God’s three-in-one nature. To embrace Jesus is to embrace a new understanding of God – to allow that understanding to be re-born.

John’s gospel makes clear that this isn’t a NEW God, just a differently-understood God. In the opening verses of John, it says:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being (Jn 1:1-3)

So, the Word, which is Jesus, was part of God from the beginning yet we didn’t know it until he was revealed in the world;

Similarly, in the opening verses of Genesis:

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. (Gn 1:1-2)

The wind from God is the same Holy Spirit. Also a part of God from the very beginning. The same wind referred to in today’s reading:

‘The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

The mystery of God has to be re-understood; revealed anew now that there is a tangible knowledge of Jesus. Jesus, like a bolt of lightning, revealed God, and the Spirit’s rolling thunder testifies to who Jesus is. And, that testimony makes explicit the three-in-one nature of God.

For some, that re-understanding is too high a hurdle to navigate. Some religions continue to understand God as ONE and not three-in-one. Even so, I believe it is the same God to whom we all pray.

But, in our belief, as Christians, that Jesus was and is God revealed on earth, and our embrace of the Holy Spirit as the gift that continues to reveal God to us through time, we must shift our understanding of God’s nature – not as three Gods, but as three persons – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit – in one God.

  • Three together, in mutuality, not in competition.
  • Three together, demonstrating the ultimate love and inter-connectedness.
  • Three together, providing a model for living a life based in unity and not in division.

There is beauty and divine love inherent in the three-in-oneness of God. Early church fathers and mothers likened it to a Greek dance: perichoresis. If you’ve been to a Greek wedding, you’ve probably seen it in action.

Three Colorful Figures Dance in a Shape of a HeartThis dance depends on at least THREE dancers. They begin slowly, going in circles, weaving in and out and they gradually go faster and faster, while keeping in rhythm with each other. Eventually, they’re moving so quickly that they appear to be one, a blur, yet still have their distinct identities. This harmonious relationship of mutual giving and receiving demonstrates what it looks like to love as Jesus loved us. This harmonious relationship is what the Trinity is all about.

And, in understanding God this way, I strive for this way of living for myself, and hope for it in the life of the world – a place of mutuality and unity. It is my vision of life eternal.

And unlike the destruction that can come from earthly lightning, the lightning bolt of God is filled with life and love, and I hope to be stuck by this Trinitarian love again and again, and live to tell about it! 

 

 

Gospel Text:

There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (Jn 3:1-17)

One Response to “Illuminating the Triune God”

  1. Jim Greenwood said

    I really like the lightening image. I remember the count as 5 seconds per mile. I looked it up and it is 1,116.43 feet per second at sea level. About 4.7 seconds. At higher altitudes it would be a shorter time. 4 seconds sounds like a better “assurance.” Your warning to get out of the water or off the golf course if you hear thunder is smart in any event.

    Your three part Trinity lesson summary at the end of the sermon is really sublime. An illuminating message indeed. Thanks. Love, Dad

    Sent from my iPad

    >

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