The Trinity: Relevant or Not?

June 2nd, 2014

Matthew 28:16-20

Several years ago in another church where I was serving, the children’s minister asked me if I would speak to the first-grade Sunday school class. The topic was worship, and he wanted me to meet with the children in the sanctuary so that we could get a close look at the baptismal font, the altar, and the paraments. Of course, I agreed. I love children and I think it’s so important to teach them about why we do what we do in the church.

So, at 9:45 on that Sunday morning, I met the youngsters at the front of the sanctuary. The children’s minister had asked me to wear my robe so that the children could see it and we could talk about it. After we toured the sanctuary and talked about colors and symbols, I sat down with them and asked if they had any questions. One little girl looked down, pointed at my white stole and said, “What’s that thing?”

I looked at my stole and said, “It’s a symbol of the Trinity.”

“What’s the Trinity?” she asked.

“Uh. . . .” For the next five minutes (which seemed like an eternity) I found myself trying to explain the Trinity to a group of first graders. I failed miserably. By the time I finished hemming and hawing, they looked so confused! How in the world do you teach a bunch of six-year-olds about the most complicated theological concept in the book? I guess the answer is just to wait until they’re older. A six-year-old is too young for Narnia, much less the Trinity!

Wait until they’re teenagers. Or even adults. We adults can handle such theological complexities, right? We’ve been to school. We’ve studied literature and algebra and biology and philosophy. Heck, some of us even have a Masters and PhD! Surely it’s easy for us to understand and explain the Trinity.

“Uh . . .”

One of my professors in seminary jokingly tried to explain it to us: “It makes perfect sense. God is three . . . is one . . . is three. Get it?”

“Uh . . .”

Let’s be honest. It’s hard to wrap our brains around the Trinity. Sure, we’ve all heard the shamrock idea: Just as the shamrock is one plant with three leaves, God is one God with three faces. Or maybe we’ve heard the water image: Just as water can take three forms in ice, liquid, and steam, so God has three forms. Helpful? Yes. Especially when faced with thirty first-graders looking to you for answers. But these images don’t answer many of our questions.

The truth is, the Trinity is a great mystery that is hard to understand and even harder to explain. And yet, it lies at the foundation of what we Christians believe about God. Almost every creed of the church affirms our belief in God the Father, Jesus Christ the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We even devote a high holy day of the church to this mystery. But do we have any idea what we’re doing?

Is the Trinity just an obscure doctrine that we give lip service to because the church calendar tells us to? Does it have anything to do with our daily living? Think about it—what does the Trinity mean to you? It’s worth pondering and praying over.

In Scripture, we have heard about the three persons of the Trinity. We have recalled how God has been revealed to us in three distinct ways. Genesis 1 recounts the power of God the Creator. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. A loving and powerful God made the universe in all its vastness and mystery. Psalm 8 sings of the wonders of the universe and how they reveal to us the power of our Creator. The stars, the planets, the oceans, and the mountains—all of it came from the hand of God. But this creator God is not just concerned with the grandness of the universe. God also created each strand of our DNA with care. God created each one of us to be unique, to have special gifts, and special purpose. Your life and my life matter to God. We have a place in this universe and a calling to fulfill. It is God who has created us in love and calls us to live in love. So, yes, that makes sense. That’s relevant to our daily lives.

One way that God teaches us how to love creation and one another is in the person of Jesus Christ. As Matthew and the other gospel writers tell us, Jesus walked alongside us on this earth to show us the face of God. And in Jesus’ death and resurrection, God becomes our Redeemer. Now, we spend a lot of time in the church talking about Jesus. We learn about Jesus’ teaching, his example, his healing, and his love. The gospel stories give us something tangible to hold onto. Jesus gives us all sorts of guidance on how to live our lives. It’s not hard to find ways that Jesus is relevant to our lives. Just count how many cars have the bumper sticker: “What Would Jesus Do?”

What about the Holy Spirit? For many of us, the Spirit is very relevant to our daily living. We recognize the Spirit’s activity all around us: in those little nudges to call someone or pray for someone, in the peace that surrounds us when we undergo surgery, in the inspiration that comes when we’re teaching Sunday school or praying, in the committee meeting where truth is spoken and consensus is reached. Many of us know the Spirit as our sustainer, our inspiration, our daily guide.

We see daily evidence of God our Creator. We strive to follow the concrete example of Jesus the Christ. We look for signs of the Holy Spirit around us. Individually, the three persons of the Trinity make sense to us. But what does it mean for the three to be one and the one to be three? God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. One in three in one. Ice and liquid and steam. Three leaves of a shamrock. What power can this mysterious doctrine have for us? There is something beautiful and powerful about a God in three persons. There is something God can reveal to us when we ponder the mystery of the Trinity.

In the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, there is an icon of the Holy Trinity painted by Andrei Rublev sometime around 1400. For those of you who are unfamiliar with icons, they are pictures that are used in prayer. Believers are to gaze at them prayerfully until they become like a window into the heart of God.

This particular icon portrays the three persons of the Holy Trinity as three angels sitting together at a table. The head of each angel is inclined toward one of the others, so that there seems to be a circular movement around the table, connecting the three to one another. On the table is a chalice. What this image reveals to me is that in God there is a living, loving community. From the beginning of time until the end of the age, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit have existed as a holy community of love and grace. To put it another way, God is community.

So, as we reflect on the Trinity, don’t let it be just a vague, dry doctrine for us. Don’t write it off as something that’s just too complicated for us to understand. Don’t leave it to the seminary professors to debate about.

Let’s think about the community of love that has been within God since the beginning of time. Let’s accept God’s invitation to join in that community. As we see real, concrete examples of how God has created us, redeemed us, and sustained us, let us respond with love and gratitude. Let us add our love to the Trinity’s communion of love.

What’s more, let God be revealed in our community. The Trinity teaches us that no one ever stands alone. As soon as we accept God’s love and redemption, we are members of a community. We cannot be Christians without being connected to one another. Sorry. If we’re going to embrace God the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, then we’re going to have to embrace each other. Not just the folks who are inside the church’s four walls this morning, but everyone who calls upon the Triune God.

If that weren’t hard enough, God calls us to do more. Not only do we have to love other believers, but we have to go out and share God’s love with the world. Jesus commanded his followers: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). The love we find in the Trinity, the communion we find with one another, is not just for our own sakes. It’s for the sake of the world. It’s meant to be shared.

The world needs love. The world needs grace. The world needs community. May the Triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—help us to share the message of the Trinity with all of creation.

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