Scripture: Genesis 1:24-27
Last week we celebrated Pentecost, which we sometimes call the birthday of the church: Jesus has just ascended back into heaven and the disciples are huddled, waiting and praying, in this upstairs room somewhere in Jerusalem, when all of a sudden the Holy Spirit arrives with the sound of a great wind and the spectacle of tongues of fire. It’s one of the big holidays of the Christian year, although Hallmark has not quite figured that out yet, and it’s always fun to celebrate the Holy Spirit with bright colors and good music and a chance to talk about how we encounter her in our own lives and how we, like the disciples, are transformed and sent.
But it’s possible that if you’re the kind of person who likes to think a little more deeply about these things, all this Pentecost talk of the Holy Spirit might make you take a step back and say, wait a minute. Just who, or what, is this Holy Spirit, anyway?
Does the Holy Spirit show up for the first time on Pentecost, or has she always been there, maybe just taking a backseat to Jesus for a while? Is she in the Old Testament too? What does she do? Is she part of God? Or one way that God shows up? Or somehow related-to, but separate-from God altogether?
And maybe eventually if you’re that same kind of person who thinks about these things, you might go a step further and say, OK, so then where does Jesus fit in to all this? How do these three divine entities we talk about in church go together? What is their relationship to each other?
By this time you’ve gotten into some serious theology and it’s likely that you have decided you need a strong cup of coffee before trying to sort all of this out.
These questions, of course, all lead us to a central Christian belief in what we call the Trinity: a God who is both three and one, for which we sometimes use the word triune; that God exists in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, each of whom are fully God in themselves, and yet these three make up one God.
Again, this kind of theology is not for the undercaffeinated.
I don’t think it’s an accident that the Sunday after Pentecost in the Christian liturgical calendar is Trinity Sunday, a day set aside for us all to delve into the mystery of what it means to worship a triune God. Trinity Sunday isn’t one of those days I tend to observe every year, because honestly I feel like there’s only so much I – or anyone – can say with any authority on the topic, but I do feel like it’s useful to come back to every once in a while. After all, this idea of a three-in-one God is fundamental to who we are as Christians, something that unites us with other Christians of all denominations around the world and makes us distinct from other religious groups who don’t profess the same, from Jews and Muslims to Unitarians and Mormons. And so we should probably have a working knowledge of what it means.
When I was in fifth grade, I had a good friend who was Jewish. For Jews, as for Muslims, a belief in one God is fundamental to their belief, and the Christian belief in a three-in-one God tends to not quite do it for them. I remember that I was talking to my friend one day at recess and she asked me, “How can you say you believe in one God, when you believe in three?” I think we were on the swings at the time. These are the conversations I had at recess.
What would you have said to that? How would you answer that question if someone asked you now?
I actually have no recollection of what I said to her at the time. What I do remember is that after that, I did what I thought I was supposed to do as someone who loved Jesus, and that is I prayed every night for a while that God would help my friend understand. It’s only looking back that I realize how silly that prayer actually was: well-meaning, of course (and I was only eleven) but still, how could I pray for her to understand a part of my religion that I couldn’t even claim to understand myself?
It’s possible, especially if we’ve grown up in church, that along the way we’ve learned or absorbed certain images and metaphors to help us understand or explain the Trinity. The Trinity is like an apple: skin, flesh, and seeds. Or the Trinity is like water, which can be liquid, ice, or vapor. These metaphors can be helpful, but only if we don’t take them too seriously. At some point, they all break down into one sort of classical trinitarian heresy or another, because the Father, Son and Holy Spirits are not just three parts of one whole; nor are they simply three different modes in which God might exist at any given time. (Come to Bible study today to learn more about heresy!)
Anyway, nowhere in the Bible is it spelled out what you are supposed to say to your Jewish friend when she asks how you can possibly believe this. That’s because the Trinity, as a fully formulated doctrine (or even a word) isn’t in the Bible explicitly at all. Instead it’s like we have these clues we have to put together. At the very beginning of Genesis we read about the spirit of God hovering over the waters of creation, and throughout the Hebrew Scriptures we learn of God’s Spirit entering people and endowing them with certain skills, powers, or prophetic insight. In the Gospels we read of Jesus, the Son of God, who claimed oneness with the Father, and who promised the presence of a Comforter or Advocate who would remain with his disciples even in his own absence. In Acts we read of the Holy Spirit resting like a tongue of fire on each believer. Paul maybe gets the closest to putting it all together when he writes in 2 Corinthians “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (13:14).
But never does anyone write, OK, this is exactly how the Father relates to the Son and the Son relates to the Spirit and the Spirit relates to the Father and they all relate to each other, and this is how they can be both one and three. Instead we are left to read the testimony that is there, of God at work in us and around us known in three entities yet of a God who is still somehow one – and we get to work it all out for ourselves. Or at least try.
These are the kinds of things the early church fought about, and in fact it is out of that conflict that some of our earliest creeds come from. Are you familiar with the Nicene Creed? It’s not one we say a lot here, but if you’ve ever been to a Catholic mass, it’s likely you’ve encountered it there. It goes like this (excerpted):
We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father. …
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
The Nicene Creed was the result of a little church meeting called the Council of Nicaea, back in 325 CE, called by Emperor Constantine to resolve an ongoing controversy about how exactly Jesus was related to God the Father, determining that he was begotten, not created, and of the same substance as the Father. Later the Athanasian Creed delved even deeper into the three-in-one question. The catholic faith, it said, is this: that we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Essence. For there is one Person of the Father; another of the Son; and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one; the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal. Such as the Father is; such is the Son; and such is the Holy Ghost.
Somehow as a church we’ve moved from fighting over things like this to fighting over more mundane matters, like who can get married in the church sanctuary. It does seem to me that today we’re mostly happy to live and let live as far as all this deep theological stuff is concerned. What concerns us is how we agree to live our lives together.
I’m certainly not suggesting we revive age-old disputes about trinitarian orthodoxy and heresy. But I do believe that the theology we profess shapes our lives individually and together. And I do believe that how we understand this mystery we call the Trinity makes a difference.
So I want to go back to Genesis, where we first encountered the Spirit of God hovering over the waters of creation. The pattern of these first verses are undoubtedly familiar to many of us: God creates the earth, sky, and birds and fish all in the course of five days, and then on the sixth day, God says, “Let us create humankind in our image, according to our likeness” (1:26). And so, the Scripture reads, “God created humankind in [God’s] image, in the image of God [God] created them, male and female God created them” (1:27).
Again, I don’t think the idea of being created in the image of God is new to most of us. What does that mean to you, to be created in the image of God?
To me it means, the way I usually think about, that God has called each one of us good, in all of our quirks and particularities: not that we are a physical reflection of God such that we imagine God with two arms and two legs and a large and small intestine, but that there is something of God’s own beauty and goodness reflected in each one of us.
But let me ask you this question again. What does it mean to be created in the image of a triune God?
Obviously none of us is three-in-one, not in the way that we profess God to be. We may very well be multifaceted sorts of people. We may fulfill different roles in our lives: friend, parent, employee. But none of those things really get at what it means to be triune. When we talk about a triune God we’re not talking about qualities of God or roles of God or different kinds of relationships we might have with God, we are talking about God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: who is fundamentally both three and one.
I’ve said before, I think, that what I find most meaningful about this doctrine that otherwise sounds a little made up, is that it gives new meaning to the saying God is love. It doesn’t just mean that God loves and wants us to love too. It means that God actually is love, fundamentally, inherently, on the inside, because God consists of the loving relationships between the three persons of the Trinity.
John Wesley preached that to be created in the image of God who is love means to be created to love and be loved, that this is our first and true nature and purpose, the thing that is both broken in us and restored through our sanctification.
It says something to me that even God can’t be God alone, that God is community, and if we are in fact created in the image of this God, then we are created for community too. None of us can do this alone: not faith, not life. We are meant to be in this together.
You know, if someone asked me today how I can believe that God is both three and one, I’m honestly not sure I’d have a much better answer than I did at fifth grade during recess. I would at least probably pray for my own understanding first. But the fact that I don’t really understand how any of this can be bothers me a lot less now than it did then. I’m comfortable with the idea that maybe I’m not really supposed to know.
Most good theology, I think, can’t be recited in a creed or summed up in a formula. Just being able to say the right words – if they are even that – doesn’t really mean much. Good theology is sometimes more like poetry than the words of a creed, which is why I sometimes prefer the words of St. Patrick to the Nicene Creed. But even more, I think, good theology is something that needs to be lived into. And if I’m living my life in a way that professes that God is love, that I am made for love and community, that that is the image of God my journey of salvation is leading me back to, then maybe my trinitarian theology is better than I know.
And as for the details, we can keep figuring all of that out, as long as we do it together.