A circle of friends on pilgrimage for the love of God

Trinity Sunday

Abraham’s VIsitors by Andrei Rublev

Rev. Doug Floyd
Genesis 1:1-2:3, Psalm 150, 2 Corinthians 13:5-14, Matthew 28:16-20

I was sitting in a Theology of Communication class in the early 90s, waiting to give my statement of faith. The professors had asked each of us to prepare our statement of faith and present it in class. We had two professors: one was an Episcopalian and the other was a Congregationalist. While the students were from a variety of church backgrounds.

I knew that I wanted to emphasize the Trinity as the central doctrine of my faith. I had been studying community in church and was convinced the only was the church could be a community was if the God was a Triune God: that is a communion of love.

Each class member read their statement of faith. Many of the confessions would be like those statements found on church websites. The Roman Catholic student simply read the Nicene Creed. I was vaguely familiar with the creed but had not grown up in churches that recited it. When he read the creed, I thought that’s what I should have said. It so impacted me that from that moment on, the Nicene Creed would be my central confession of faith. The creed guards the heart of our faith: the Triune God.

The doctrine of three persons and one God is not something we have to solve. It is not a math puzzle. It is a mystery of communion. We celebrate this mystery and worship God in three persons, but we do not try to solve it. I spent years collecting and reading books on the Trinity. These books offer plenty of insights, but they did not remove the mystery nor should they.

Even as I seek to talk briefly about the Trinity today, I confess I am not trying to bring some innovative approach to this heart of our faith. I am trying only to be faithful to the faith handed down to us.

We might begin by thinking about our New Testament writers. Except for Luke, these are Jewish writers who would be steeped in the stories and language of the Old Testament. It is clear from the Gospels and the Epistles that the writers had a strong sense of the Jewish faith handed down. And yet, they write about something that seems like such a break with their backgrounds. They focus on Jesus Christ.

They are testifying to their own encounter with Jesus Christ. From the way the Gospel writers tell the story, they started out thinking of Jesus as a Rabbi, then they begin to see him as Messiah or King, finally they confess Him as Lord. The very way they tell the stories indicates that they did not understand what Jesus was saying or doing. When they finally come to confess Him as Lord and God, it is clearly a work of the Holy Spirit who opens their eyes and hearts to the truth.

Once they begin to confess Jesus as Lord, they apply the language about God in the Old Testament to Jesus. We begin by recognizing the confession of the Triune God emerges from their encounter with Jesus Christ. While we see hints of the Trinity throughout the New Testament and early church writers, it will take over three centuries before the church will formalize this confession in the Nicene Creed.

But let me back up a minute. Let’s start with the Old Testament. We might say that the heart of the revelation given to the Israelites can be found in the Shema. This is a passage from Deuteronomy 6:4-5, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”[1]

What distinguishes Israel from her neighbors is this confession of One God. In the ancient world, we see two primary forms of belief. First, there is animism. The belief there is a divine spirit behind everything in the world. The ancient Celts were animists. Much of the talk of leprechauns and fairies are holdovers from that animistic way of thinking. These spiritual powers could cause good or ill to the person. In Lord of the Rings, there are good trees and dangerous trees. This is part of that animistic world.

People needed to learn rituals to protect themselves from the spirits. They also used rituals to ask the spirits to assist them. The Celts deposited beautiful golden swords and jewelry into the lakes and waterways as an offering to the spirit of the water. The story of King Arthur mixes Christian themes with animistic themes. In “Excalibur,” a hand lifts the sword up out of the water and presents it to Arthur.

In addition to the animistic beliefs, some societies believed in multiple gods. Initially, these gods seemed to have represented specific areas like a specific mountain or a specific piece of land. Gradually, these gods came to be seen as a pantheon of gods with specific roles and powers. From the ancient stories, these gods were often at war or were seducing humans or causing some sort of trouble for mere humans.

In the period of the kingdom, Israel is particularly tempted by worship these gods. King Solomon marries multiple women and establishes shrines for their gods. The people offer various sacrifices to the gods asking for favor, for rain, for good crops, and so on. You have to stimulate the god to act through sacrifice. Sacrifice could be anything from the sexual act to human sacrifice.

Both animism and idolatry represent a degraded understanding of the Creator. This degraded understanding of God leads to a degraded understanding of humanity. The image of the Hebrews being enslaved in Egypt is an image of what idolatry leads to. While Egypt has multiple creation stories, in some of the stories human are created as slaves to serve the gods. To live in Egypt is to become a slave. The Pharoah and his family were considered divine, so the common people were created as slaves for this divine family.

When the Lord rescues Israel, He exposes the falsity of the Egyptian world. He leads the children of Israel to Mount Sinai where he meets with Moses. Coming down from the mountain, Moses tells the people, And God spoke all these words, saying,

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.
“You shall have no other gods before me.
“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. [2]

It will take Israel over a thousand years to turn from the gods of the nations around them. Every time they follow the gods, they become less then human. As the Psalmist writes,

Their idols are silver and gold,
the work of human hands.
They have mouths, but do not speak;
eyes, but do not see.
They have ears, but do not hear;
noses, but do not smell.
They have hands, but do not feel;
feet, but do not walk;
and they do not make a sound in their throat.
 8Those who make them become like them;
so do all who trust in them. [3]

Idolatry always dehumanizes. It leads to oppression, perversion, brokenness, and destruction. The God of Israel rescues the Hebrews and calls them His own people. Through them He reveals to the world that there is only one God. All these other powers will ultimately imprison people.

The God of Israel will not enslave but lead His people into truth. The sacrificial system in Israel is not about stimulating the God is a form of thanksgiving and repentance. Psalm 50 teaches that the Creator does not need sacrifice. God says to Israel,

Not for your sacrifices do I rebuke you;
your burnt offerings are continually before me.
I will not accept a bull from your house
or goats from your folds.
10 For every beast of the forest is mine,
the cattle on a thousand hills.
11 I know all the birds of the hills,
and all that moves in the field is mine.
12 “If I were hungry, I would not tell you,
for the world and its fullness are mine.
13 Do I eat the flesh of bulls
or drink the blood of goats?
14 Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving,
and perform your vows to the Most High,
15 and call upon me in the day of trouble;
I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.” [4]

The sacrifices of Israel cannot be separated from a humble heart offering thanksgiving and prayer to the Creator.

Now I’ve gone through this short overview simply to reinforce why the Shema is so important. Israel is not bound to ritual systems that dehumanize. In fact, no ritual can control the Creator. The people are called to offer Him thanks and trust in His goodness. Thus the Shema rehearses their responsibility, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”[5]

It will take the whole history of Israel in the Old Testament for this truth to take root. By the time Jesus comes, Israel is no longer running after false gods. In God’s good timing, He sends Jesus to reveal Himself to His people.

Jesus cannot be compared to the gods of the nations. He speaks the truth as revealed in the Old Testament. In fact, He speaks with such authority that the people are amazed. The created world submits to the word of Jesus. He can calm the seas by speaking. He can feed the five thousand by a prayer of thanksgiving to the Father.

The miracles we see in the Gospels are signs of Jesus divinity. Most of all, we see Jesus speaking of the Father. He speaks of God the Creator as Father and invites us to do the same. Jesus is revealing the nature of the Father in His words and deeds. As TF Torrance used to say, “There is no hidden god behind Jesus.” He is revealing nature of the Creator. In Jesus, we behold the depths of God’s love.

The way the New Testament tells the story, Jesus reveals the God the Father, and the Holy Spirit reveals Jesus. We believe in Jesus because the Holy Spirit has communicated the truth in our hearts and minds. The New Testament reveals the Son of God entering our world as a human. We confess that Jesus is fully man and fully God. The Father in Heaven does not have a body. He is pure Spirit. And the Holy Spirit does not have a body. The Holy Spirit communicates the love of the Father and the Son. Sometimes he is referred to as the Fellowship of God.

By saying that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are one God, we are confessing that there is no division between them. One God, Three persons. All revealing the love that existed before the world was begun that is the love within and between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

We cannot know what love is outside of this love revealed to us in Jesus Christ. This love reverberates in every aspect of creation. Yet, we are so often blind to this love.

When I was in the hospital in 2021, I had encounter with the Lord. It was rooted in Job’s vision of God. What I saw was the love of God flowing in the world all around us. The hospital is a picture of this love that moves in and through people to care for the sick and dying. Though humans are serving and caring and helping, they are moving in and through the grace of God. The love of God was so perfect that it did not matter whether I lived or died. I was completely secure in His love.

For all good things come from the Father of lights. As James writes, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”[6]

If we want to understand the Trinity, the best thing we can grasp is that God has created this world and taken it up into His love. Yes, there is sin and darkness in our world. There will come a time when all sin and darkness is swallowed up. For it is temporary. But the love of God endures forever.

I am going to end with a word from Tim Keller. The church is still mourning the death of this gift we enjoyed for so many years. Once during his struggles with cancer, he caught a glimpse of this holy love of God that pulses through every fiber of creation. Here is how he tells the story,

“One of the few times I needed courage, God was very happy to give it to me, and it was very nice. When I was going under, being wheeled in for my only cancer surgery — I had thyroid cancer years ago — I do remember (it was so nice) I suddenly had this sense that the world is wonderful and the universe is this big ball of the glory of God, and we’re just trapped in this little tiny speck of darkness. And even that’s going to be taken away eventually. Therefore, no matter what happens now, whatever happens with the surgery, I’m going to be all right. My family is going to be all right. The world is going to be all right. Everything is going to be all right. It was very nice to have a moment of courage.”[7]

[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Dt 6:4–5.

[2] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ex 20:1–6.

[3] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ps 115:4–8.

[4] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ps 50:8–15.

[5] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Dt 6:4–5.

[6] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Jas 1:17.

[7] Tim Keller (https://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/death-can-only-make-me-better-remembering-tim-keller-1950-2023)


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