Trinity Sermon: Who are these people?

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John 16:12-15

Today is Trinity Sunday: where we are asked as preachers to talk about the nature of God as 3 in 1… One God, in three persons, blessed trinity. I will be honest with you, I’ve not preached too many sermons on the trinity nor heard many. Nor has anyone ever requested a sermon on the Trinity!

My main memory of a sermon on the Trinity comes from my youth when my pastor Lee Stoffel preached a sermon called, “Making Sense of a Three Person God”. That’s all I remember.

But it is a good question, “How does one make sense of a three person God?” Or as a friend of mine put it when talking about the trinity: “Who are these people?!”

I’d like to begin by reflecting upon this week in Oklahoma. Bear with me.

This week we have been reminded once again, through a tragedy in Oklahoma, that the most important and precious things in life are not things, but relationships. There was that sign some of you posted on facebook. On the top of a pile of rubble and debris, the sign that had been in a home said:

The most important things in life are not things.

Ask the people recovering today if that is not true. The most important things are not things at all: but relationships.

In interviews, with destroyed homes in the background, more than one person said they were grateful because the people in their lives were okay.

I love the interview I saw of the man the day after. Behind him was a car turned upside down. It was destroyed. He told the reporter. See that car? It belongs to my daughter who is coming home today from Florida. (No doubt to be near her parents). Last week we had it repaired for hail damage! You could tell he could not care one bit about that car… but was waiting to see his daughter.

On this Memorial weekend, I think of my Dad and know that this was a truth he lived. Years after the war, what Dad would remember most about the war were the relationships that meant so much to him. Not the carnage, not the killing, not even the just cause… but General Wing and so many friends from his unit.

One reason we remember our dead is that the relationship is so important to us.

Relationships are what matter and oddly, on Trinity Sunday, we are lifting up that this is true for God and in the life of faith.

I confess did not always think of the Trinity in that way. Growing up, we always seemed to being trying to make the trinity work out mathematically.

 Now, Sharon, my wife the math educator and Joel the math lover may like that, but for others of us, we struggled. How is it that 1 + 1 + 1 will = 3. It doesn’t! But this year I did realize that 1x1x1= 1. Maybe God is into higher math!

Even so, I don’t think the doctrine of the Trinity was meant to offer us a mathematical formula for God. As if God were no more than a calculation or an equation to be solved.

Quite the opposite: The idea God as a trinity was developed because Christians had come to experience God in a relational way…

Trinity was their way of saying, God is known through relationship. In fact the very character and nature of God’s being is relationship.

You see evidence of this in our passage today. While the Bible may never actually use the word “Trinity” we can see traces of it in Scripture like this one from John’s gospel.

“In four short verses in John, Jesus talks about the unity of himself with the Father and the Holy Spirit. He begins by saying everything which belongs to the Father has been given to himself.  Then he says that he has much more to tell the disciples about himself, but they cannot bear that knowledge now. Never mind, when the Spirit of Truth comes, the Spirit will take what belongs to Jesus and declare it to Jesus’ followers. In other words, it will be up to the Spirit to guide them into the truth about Jesus.

For now, it is enough to know that there is a unity between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”[1]

Within that unity there are relationships. While there is one God, God’s identity is relational…That’s how Christians experience God—as relational… God is a relational being in and of himself. 

I know this understanding of God is familiar to many of you who read that very popular book from a few years ago: The Shack. The God of the Shack is a highly relational and Trinitarian God. You remember the story:

The young daughter of the main character, Mack, has been kidnapped and brutally murdered. For four years, Mack has been devastated, depressed, and deeply angry—especially angry with God. Summoned by a note, Mack goes to the cabin from which his daughter disappeared.

There he meets God—God in three persons: an African American woman, a Middle Eastern man dressed as a laborer (complete with jeans, plaid shirt, and tool belt), and an Asian woman dressed as a gardener, who seemed to fade in and out of visibility. Over the course of a weekend, the three interact with Mack and guide him through his pain into a remarkable vision of God’s presence and into a profound understanding of forgiveness that does not deny but rather overcomes evil. Mack experiences the love of God in a Trinitarian way.

Perhaps this is true for you as well, though you may never have thought of it this way.

Let me ask you this: “How do you know or experience God, the maker of heaven and earth?  Many people are at the beach or mountains this weekend and they will have a powerful experience of God as the Creator. What do you think of when you pray to this God? Do you say “Father”? “Grandfather?” “Creator”  “Parent” “Mother” “Almighty one” “The holy one” “the Awesome God”? There are so many ways to talk about the one who made the heaven and the earth.

 I imagine there are more ways than you know to express your relationship with the Creator God.

Let me ask you another question:  Is the relationship you have with the Creator God, the same or different when you think about Jesus? God in the flesh among us?  When you think about praying through Jesus, do your prayers then lead you to think of God as a friend as a merciful one… as full of compassion?

How about the Holy Spirit? Does this lead you to think of God as your guide… your counselor… your advocate? Someone with you all the time. It did for the early Christians.

Trinity is how they came to put those relationships into words. One God, experienced in many ways.

This should not come as a surprise to us. Isn’t that true of us at a human level?  We experience one another in different ways. Some of us with the same friends often have different experiences and relationships with the same person. Talk with one friend about another common friend and you can wonder if you are talking about the same person!

Some of us with brothers or sisters will have the same set of parents but vastly different experiences of our same parents. Why? Our relationships are different. How does one describe those relationships? They are complex!

How much harder with God! How does one describe a relationship with God?  

Barbara Brown Taylor describes the challenge this way: “Believers throughout the centuries have tried to describe God, but very few have been satisfied with their descriptions. Their words turn out to be too frail to do the job…Whether our experience of God  originates in the pages of scripture or in the events of our own lives, the best any of us has ever been able to do is simply confess what it is like when we are in the presence of God.

The problem is that it is rarely the same experience twice in a row. Some days God comes as a judge, walking through our lives wearing white gloves and exposing all the messes we have made.Other days, God comes as a shepherd, fending off our enemies and feeding us by hand. Some days God comes as a whirlwind who blows all our uncertainties away.

Other days God comes as a brooding hen who hides us in the shelter of her wings. Some days God comes as a dazzling monarch and other days as a silent servant. If we were to name all the ways God comes to us, the list would go on forever: God the teacher, the challenger, the helper, the stranger; God the lover, the adversary, the yes, the no.

God is many, which is at least one of the mysteries behind the doctrine of the Trinity. That faith statement is our confession that God comes to us in all kinds of ways, as different from one another as they can be.

The other mystery is that God is one. There cannot be a fierce God and a loving one, a God of the Old Testament and another of the New. When we experience God in contradictory ways, that is OUR problem, not God’s. We cannot solve it by driving wedges into the divine self. All we can do is decide whether or not to open ourselves up to a God whose freedom and imagination boggle our minds…”

So whether you fully understand the Trinity or not (you won’t) … whether you can ever make sense of a three person God or not… whether or not you can make the math work… know this simple truth:

The God of heaven, who created the earth… the God who lived among us in Christ and who still lives within us in the Spirit… This one God is a personal God, who (however you happen to understand or experience this God)  wants to be in loving relationship with us.

All we can do, as Barbara Brown Taylor says, is to decide whether or not we want to be in a loving relationship with God. Amen.  

[1] Insight from Fred Anderson, Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church