Sunday, June 03, 2012

what is the Trinity and why does it matter? pt. 1

If your church follows the Church Calendar, you may have noticed that today is Trinity Sunday.
At Duke Divinity School most students spend their summers serving as interns in North Carolina churches. Each year as summer came around, everyone knew to expect the pastors they worked with to have them preach on Trinity Sunday--because otherwise the pastor would have to! For whatever reason this, the only Sunday of the year dedicated to a particular doctrine, is a notoriously unwelcome event. People don't want to preach on the Trinity (or hear a sermon on it, probably) because it's a complicated and confusing doctrine, and of all the Christian beliefs that could have been chosen, many would argue this is the least practical, the most removed from our daily lives as followers of Jesus.

I for one was looking forward to preaching on Trinity Sunday this year, and ever since I realized I would miss that opportunity, I've been determined to discuss the topic here. Why? Well, because the doctrine is complicated and confusing, but it's also arguably the most important article of the Christian faith. And I'm not convinced it's all that impractical, either (more on that next time).

So let's talk about the Trinity.

In a nutshell, Christians believe in one God who is three Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. These are not three individuals forming something like a committee or a family, but they are three, each with his own particularities, and all with one nature: God. This three Person God has lived in a mutual and self-giving exchange of love for all of eternity. As one author put it so well, "The Christian vision of God is one that places relationship and love at the most fundamental level of reality." This is the God Christians worship.
Theologians over the centuries have worked out precise and complex ways of talking about the triune (a fancy word for "three-in-one") character of our God. But I think the images that Christian thinkers have come up with for understanding something of God's three-ness will be more helpful for us than the intricate theological definitions.

One of the most beautiful pictures of the triune life of God that ancient Christians left to us is the picture of the dance. The three Persons of the Trinity live in something like a continual dance with three partners, swinging and twirling one another, weaving in and out of each other, in moves clean and coordinated yet so swift and constant that it can be hard to tell which person is which as they go. The persons are distinct, yet they live a life of motion and interrelation that shows us something other than just one person, a second person, a third person. We start to see the dynamic life of the one God. 


Another, very different image that one ancient Christian writer used for the Trinity was the Son and the Spirit as "the two hands of God" the Father: it is by means of the Son and the Holy Spirit that the Father accomplishes his creative and saving works in the world. Think about it like a hug: God the Father reaches out for us with Jesus and the Spirit, wraps us up and draws us close in his embrace. This is what salvation is. (We'll come back to the role of the three Persons in salvation in pt. 3.)

Of course, every image or analogy for the Trinity will eventually break down. Talking about the Son and the Spirit as the ‘arms’ of God the Father downplays the distinctiveness and full personhood of the Son and the Spirit--they aren't just appendages on some larger being. The beautiful picture of the divine dance captures the personhood of all three clearly and offers a powerful image of the dynamic interactions and harmony in the life of God, but then it fails to illustrate the oneness of God very well. When the dance is over, the dancers will go their separate ways. Take these pictures for what they are worth.

But why is it so important that we talk about God this way, as Trinity? What does it matter if we talk about 'God' or 'Father', or just talk about Jesus, or whatever else?
Matt Redman (yes, that Matt Redman) captured my feelings pretty well when he said, “it is essential that our worship reflects Trinity, because the one true God we worship is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Our God has revealed himself in three Persons; this is simply the only God we know. 

And because God has revealed himself to be Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we really can know a lot about this God. Because Jesus and the Spirit are God, we can actually come to know the eternal God as we read the stories of Christ and the Spirit in the scriptures. Our God does not cast stones, even at those caught in the adulterer's bed (John 8:2-11). Our God is the helper who comes to us when sorrow has filled out hearts (John 16:5-7). It is our God who is the breath of every living thing on the earth (Job 34:14-15). The Son and the Holy Spirit tell us that this is the character of God. That's part of what the doctrine of the Trinity means. The God who can seem so distant is the God who was borne in a mother's womb, who dwells in our bodies now, making our flesh and blood his temples. The God who can destroy body and soul in Hell is the God who dined with the tax collectors and prostitutes. There's no Mr. Hyde, no dark side of God that's totally different from what we see in the life and ministry of Jesus. The doctrine of the Trinity assures us of that. This is who the Christian God is.

Maybe there's more to this confession than we give it credit for as we rush and fumble our way through Trinity Sunday every year.

Next week we'll be taking a detour away from the topic, but we'll be back on track with "what is the Trinity and why does it matter? pt. 2" in two weeks time.

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