Many Winter Olympic fans watch the pairs skating. It intrigues watchers because of its split-second timing, precision choreography, and daring feats. For some elements, both skaters perform the same move with perfect symmetry. Other elements of the routine such as lifts, throws and certain jumps require different movements for the man and woman. In thinking of “pairs” skating as three people instead of two, it could serve as an illustration of the Trinity.
The doctrine of the Trinity is a difficult one for most adult Christians to grasp, let alone children or new Christians. Talk about the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit as equally God is similar to three synchronized skaters. They are in synchronicity. And too, each member of the Trinity glorifies the others. At the same time, the members of the Trinity are very unique. The Father sends the Son; the Son does the Father’s will; and the Spirit enables Gods’ presence. Like an eternal dance, the members of the Trinity move in perfect love, harmony, and glory.
The doctrine of the Trinity is foundational to the Christian faith. According to author and speaker Matt Perman, “(the Trinity) is crucial for properly understanding what God is like, how (God) relates to us, and how we should relate to (God.)” Christians have, down through the ages, believed that God is revealed to them in three ways as God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit yet one God. Christianity is one of a few beliefs that believe in one God however, it is unique in speaking of God as three Persons- God as three-in-one.
This foundational belief started in the early church as Christians were struggling with who God is and how to speak of God. Specifically, they struggled with how to explain God the Father as a heavenly being and Jesus as God on earth. Using the word trinity or tri-unity (three in one,) they tried to explain the relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit, a biblical formula used to speak about our three-in-one deity. The belief in the Trinity was later fleshed out a little more in a creed that we have in our Book of Confessions and that we have a said several times over the years in worship, the Nicene Creed. The Nicene Creed is somewhat echoed in the confession we will use today from The Brief Statement of Faith substituting ‘trust in’ instead of ‘believe.’ Nicene states: We believe in one God… maker of heaven and earth; we believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God; and we believe in the Holy Spirit, … the giver of life. That is the Trinity in a nutshell.
Admittedly, this is a very difficult doctrine to try to explain to others. It took me several hours to put this sermon together. I found a true story illustration of the difficulty of comprehending this one aspect of this concept on the Internet: “While our friends from India traveled around California on business, they left their 11- year-old daughter with us. Curious about my going to church one Sunday morning, she decided to come along. When we returned home, my husband asked her what she thought of the service.
‘I don’t understand why the West Coast isn’t included too,’ she replied. When we inquired what she meant, she added, ‘You know, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the whole East Coast.’” (the Holy Ghost- get it?) It is true for us that within the Almighty’s own mysterious being, God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. How can that be? How can God be both one and three? How could Jesus the Son pray to God the Father? Both are the one God. Huh!
We can’t possibly understand everything about the Trinity because while God is revealed to us in some ways, God is also mysterious to us in other ways. The doctrine of the Trinity is that our one God exists as three distinct Persons- the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. New Testament scripture speaks of God in all three ways. For example, in the book of Acts chapter 5 we read of God the Holy Spirit and in the epistles such as in Philippians chapter 1 we read of God the Father and Titus chapter 2 mentions Jesus Christ as God.
What do I mean that God is three distinct persons? Here the term “person” is used differently than we normally use it in our everyday lives. I don’t mean person as an independent individual separate from someone else. I mean person as in essence. For the Trinitarian doctrine, essence is referring to God using ‘I’ to speak of self while referring to Jesus, who is the same God, as ‘you,’ or, likewise, Jesus referring to God as ‘you’ and himself as ‘I.’ They are still the same, one God. According to Matt Perman, the three persons of God are “a form of personal existence other than a difference in being.” Clear as mud yet? “A form of personal existence other than a difference in being” sounds a little like something you’d find in a science fiction story. Still, it is something you find in Christian doctrine for our purposes this morning. It is God as three Persons in one being. Each person of the Trinity is, in fact, distinct and yet fully God, all at the same time. For example, at Jesus’ baptism in the Gospel of Mark chapter 1, Jesus the Son comes out of the water at the same time God the Father is speaking while the Holy Spirit is descending like a dove on Jesus. Three persons all God, all there at the same time.
Once again, Matt Perman explains, “The fact that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinct Persons means, in other words, that the Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit is not the Father.” Scripturally speaking, each one of these persons of the triune God glorifies the other but isn’t the other. Again, they are three different Persons, not three different ways of thinking about God. It is a mistake to explain the Trinity the same way as this, “I am a minister, a wife and a gardener.” They are all different aspects of the same me and all me but I’m not three separate persons. Those are simply unique characteristics of me. However, God is not playing three different roles. The three Persons are all co-equally God. One is not inferior to the other. During worship we may sing, ‘God in three persons blessed Trinity.’ “The personhood of each member of the Trinity means that each Person has a distinct center of consciousness. Thus, they relate to each other personally.”
I have heard people say, ‘If Jesus is God to whom was he praying?’ If one applies what we have learned so far to this question, then we know that God the Father and Jesus the Son are two different Persons while both being fully God so that they can be in relationship, one with the other. Jesus can pray to God and not be praying to himself. The Trinity is a relational model for one Being- God, the Almighty. It is erroneous to think of the Father becoming the Son who then becomes the Spirit. They co-exist as separate Persons but one essence.
What I mean by essence is being. Essence is what you are. The Lord God’s essence is the Lord God’s being. So the essence of God is God, not a bunch of ingredients that when taken together create a deity. God doesn’t consist of anything except deity. Simply put- the substance of God is God yet in three Persons, all God. That is different from me being of the substance of wife, and minister, and gardener. Those three substances, along with others, make up who I am. God’s substance is one in being- God.
How do these three persons interact and relate to one another? The three personal distinctions of God are modes of existence within the one divine Being. The 19th Dutch Reformed theologian, Herman Bavinck, states it this way: “The persons are modes of existence within the being; accordingly, the persons differ among themselves as the one mode of existence differs from the other.” Think of a hand, he says, and the Trinity it is like the palm of the hand, the hand pointing, and the hand as a fist. All three are distinct but of the same essence or substance. What I described aren’t characteristics of the hand but are the hand instead of parts of the hand instead. Unlike it, the fingers, thumbs, bones and blood are parts of the hand.
God does not have parts. The Father is not part of God but is God, the Son is not part of God but is God, the Holy Spirit is not part of God but is God. Repeating this another time, they are three distinct Persons, each with a separate consciousness, and, at the same time, are one God. (The hand gesture in the picture means blessing or benediction with the three fingers pointing to heaven as the Trinity.)
A summary of what I have attempted to teach you is this: the Trinity is not a belief in three Gods; our one God exists as three Persons; the three Persons are not a part of God but are co-equally God; God is not one Person who took on three consecutive roles; God is one in three Persons. We can come to these mysterious conclusions by reading and studying the New Testament. And this understanding of Trinity, my friends, is what we take on belief.
This whole discussion constitutes more than a blip on our Christian radar, wouldn’t you say? Jill Duffield, the editor Outlook, a Christian magazine Rodger and I receive, states that we believe “in a God of reciprocity and relationship, expansiveness and welcome, very much at work in the world- creating, redeeming, sustaining and still speaking.” The different Persons of the Trinity do all those things as God and can be of great comfort for us today. All of this is important for us today because we know that there is only one God and we can with great conviction state that as truth. We are in relationship with the three Persons of the Trinity for we may at times be talking of Jesus, at other times of God in heaven and sometimes talking about the Holy Spirit. We are to know they are the same God.
Jill Duffield also explains the role model God is for us. The three distinct Persons of God all relate well in perfect harmony, peacefully without chaos. They work together beautifully and that is a model for how we as Christians are to work together and how we Christians are to treat other people distinct from our Christianity. “In 2 Corinthians Paul tells his brothers and sisters (in Christ) to put things in order and to agree with one another. Followers of Jesus Christ are to listen to Paul’s appeal and live in peace.” After Paul explains what he is talking about, he gives the Triune blessing of God’s grace, Jesus Christ’s love and communion with the Holy Spirit- the three Persons of our one God. Following what we learn about the relationship between the three Persons of God, we take that principle and apply it to the abundant grace, genuine love and mutual communion we are to have with one another and are to take out into an often hurting and dark world. Therefore, we bring a little of God’s gracious light into the earth one person at a time.
And now may all thanks be given to our Triune God! Amen.