June 7, 2020

 “An Old Doctrine for A World in Turmoil”     

Matthew 28:16-20; Romans 5:1-5

 

It is difficult for us to fully comprehend and understand the idea of God in three persons, blessed trinity. I could produce a continuous parade of three things that are also one thing for you right now- water, a 3 leaf clover, an atom, the composition of the earth (You can ponder each one of those on your own J), but in reality, these objects do not fully explain this idea of three in one. Suffice to say that there are mysteries of the Divine that no one can fully explain.  Although, I have another example of the trinity for you to consider: Today’s passing the peace song is an example of the Trinitarian formula- The three of us, Laurie Anne, Beckie and I all participated in one song- the three of us worked together for one goal- sharing this Taizé song to inspire you and bring you peace. You could look at us and see each one of us as individuals, Laurie Anne singing and playing piano, Beckie singing and me singing and playing guitar-but in the moment of making music, there truly is no distinction. The three of us become as one.

 

God/Son/Spirit works in a similar fashion - each is dependent upon the other, and works together for one goal- God’s work in the world. The trinity in effect makes the music of heaven, and in that sense, there is no true distinction between the three. This analogy still does not give us full clarity on the issue of the Trinity, but in reality, nothing can fully explain God in three persons. American pastor A.W. Tozer once said, “Love and faith are at home in the mystery of the Trinity. Let reason kneel in reverence outside”. I think Rev. Tozer was right. But there are things we can come to learn about the mystery of the Trinity. That being said, does this doctrine even matter, in the midst of a nation in upheaval over racism and police brutality? Let’s see if it is a worthy concept or not. From where did this notion of three in one, one in three come?

 

Last week, in part we celebrated the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost in Acts 2. The experience of Pentecost- when the Holy Spirit came into believers, along with Jesus’ own words at the end of Matthew- Baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit - helped shape the beginnings of the trinity for Christians of the first century. For after Pentecost, these early Christians found their understanding of God expanded. They continued to believe in God, the creator of all things. Yet they also believed that in Jesus, they had seen God and that God had become flesh through the Son. Now that they had experienced the Spirit, they believed this new power at work within their community was also God. So, based upon this understanding, Jesus’ own baptismal formula, and some of Paul’s writings such as the one from today, comes an attempt to understand the divine nature of the Creator of all things. This is not, nor has it ever been an easy proposition.

 

This idea of the trinity of God became an accepted, fuzzy understanding, but not all questions were answered, nor really can they be. Part of faith is divine mystery, yet belief in the Trinity became an important concept of early Christianity. For the next 20 centuries, it would become a battleground that continues today.

 

 

Many questions over the Trinity led to sharp divisions over the centuries in the church, such as: How is Christ and the Holy Spirit related to God? How is God One in light of the Son and the Spirit? Different theologians arose with their own attempts at explaining the Trinity. Gnostics believed Christ was only spirit, not human. Marcionites believed in two Gods: one of the old testament and one of the New, making more of a Holy Quartet. Monarchianists wanted to do away with any sense of equality of God's Son Spirit, emphasizing monotheism instead - One God, rather than what they saw as three different gods. Against some of these early arguments stood the second-century priest Tertullian. Tertullian argued that God is of one substance, but three persons. These three persons have their activity in God. Tertullian further explained that within the nature of Jesus Christ, there is one person, but of two natures, divine and human, spirit, and flesh. For the most part, Tertullian’s notions of the Trinity became the foundation for the official doctrine of the church, but that didn’t stop new controversies from coming forth.

 

By the 7th century, the church in Spain began saying that the important thing about Jesus was that he was fully human, yet also fully divine and therefore, God must’ve adopted his human form. This was to say that Jesus was not fully with God from the beginning, (going against the gospel of John) suggesting an unequal relationship within the trinity.  One priest remained imprisoned for 18 years until his death, even after he recounted this adoptionist theory because the pope and others did not believe he was sincere.  Be thankful you don’t live back in those days!

 

Some three hundred years later, St. Anselm took up the argument of the Trinity. Another priest by the name of John Roscellinus believed in the trinity as three separate gods, known as nominalism. Anselm believed in Tertullian's understanding of one God in three persons- and that there was a procession of the Spirit from the Father and the Son. Anselm’s view won. A council convoked by the archbishop of Reims condemned Roscelinnus’ interpretation. He was formally accused of tritheism, and he recanted the doctrines attributed to him, but only out of fear of ex-communication and even stoning to death by the orthodox populace, for later he returned to his early tritheist theories.

 

By the 1500s, reformer John Calvin explained the Trinity as follows: “When we profess to believe in one God, under the name of God is understood a single, simple essence, in which we comprehend three persons. Therefore, whenever the name of God is mentioned without particularization, there are designated no less the Son and the Spirit than the Father.”

 

Some 500 years later, we are still talking about and trying to define this single, simple essence in which we comprehend three persons. At the 2006 Presbyterian General Assembly in Birmingham, Alabama, the assembly debated whether or not to accept a paper entitled “The Trinity: God’s Love Overflowing”. This paper on the trinity had gone through more than five years of study and revision and was a comprehensive report affirming the importance of the three-fold nature of God. The paper was not meant to have the same weight as a confession or creed, just to be a guide for the church as it considers God’s divine nature. “An action of God cannot be restricted to one of the three persons,” the report says. “All of the acts of the triune God are indivisible. The persons of the Trinity do not work independently. Each of God’s acts is always the one work of the whole Trinity” This report, some 34 pages, was passed by the elder and minister delegates, 282 to 212, with 7 abstentions. Yet there was much controversy. There were concerns over language and attempts to explain the Trinity as “Speaker, Word, and Breath,” among other things. Despite the paper using the traditional form of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and claiming that this particular image of the Trinity “Is the foundational statement about God, humanity and the world,” many delegates were concerned and upset over the report. Some congregations threatened to leave over its acceptance. The minority report claimed, among other things, that the Trinity paper creates confusion by using analogies or metaphors for God as actual names of God. "Thus the line is blurred between a metaphor for God and the revealed names for God in Scripture," the writers said.  48 percent of the commissioners ended up supporting the minority report, and if there had been just a few more delegates voting for the minority report, the paper would’ve been sent back to the Office of Theology and Worship for further consultation with churches.

 

John Calvin also said concerning the Trinity that, “Satan, in order to tear our faith from its very roots, has always been instigating great battles, partly concerning the distinctions of the three persons....and today is also trying to kindle a new fire from the old embers.” This was Calvin in 1563, and, sadly it still applies to the church today, as new fires burn from old embers.  The result of all of this is that “The Trinity: God’s Love Overflowing” isn’t used by many congregations for study in the PCUSA, even though it is very well written in my opinion.

 

Rather than try to stoke the fire more, or throw people in prison for their understanding of the trinity - just not politically correct these days - I’d like to focus upon Paul’s understanding about the Trinity from scripture that seems like pretty safe territory. Paul believed that from the Trinity, we followers of God receive gifts.

 

Paul identifies four special gifts believers receive from the different persons of the Trinity.

The first special gift we receive is the wealth of peace. Through Jesus Christ, Paul tells us, we are now at peace with God. We have been reconciled to God through Christ’s sacrifice. This peace we receive is not just between ourselves and God, but can also be the peace we do not see in this world. Peace is very much a desired condition in our world. In this present time, with our nation protesting over the death of George Floyd, grappling with the sin of racism, fighting over martial law verses the constitution - all of these events remind us how evasive peace can be. History proves—and modern-day life teaches us—that peace in the world is an elusive dream. However, peace is still possible. Jesus tells us: “Peace I leave with you; my Peace I give to you. I do not give you what the world gives you.” (John 14:27). We have seen visions of this peace from Christ even during the protests. The highest-ranking uniformed member of the NYPD took a knee to show his support for protesters at Washington Square Park.

A visibly emotional Chief of Department Terence Monahan took a knee and hugged George Floyd protesters at the park on Monday evening. This happened after a few people threw bottles at the cops and a peaceful organizer with a megaphone approached Monahan and he spoke to the crowd.

Monahan said the protest leader asked the chief to take a knee with him for peace." I thought it was appropriate. We hugged to show there's solidarity," Monahan said. After Monahan's show of support, protest leaders even asked for help to better organize their marches and promised to keep marching peacefully.

 

The second gift is the benefit of access. In the Old Testament, followers of God were kept from God’s presence by the veil in the temple and a wall at the temple warned that any Gentile going beyond that wall would be killed. But when Jesus died on the cross, the Bible teaches that the veil was torn and the wall was broken down. Now, through Jesus Christ and by faith, any person has access to the very presence of God, anytime, anywhere. I SO need that kind of access right now - sometimes to help me sleep at night, or to make it through the day, or to get through a newscast without yelling at the top of my lungs…

 

 

The third gift is a foundation of hope. This gift of hope comes to us by God’s own action of pouring love into our hearts through the Holy Spirit. This hope is tested and borne out of suffering. It is a stubborn hope that lives on, even when darkness surrounds us, even when we battle disease, even when a loved one dies. God gives us hope that does not abandon us in times of trial or suffering. God’s hope provides strength and helps us see beyond this finite world. My favorite seminary professor, Rev. Dr. Howard Rice said this about God’s hope. “Hope is trust that life is not without meaning. It is belief that God is present with us in the worst that happens, and that God weeps with us in our pain. It is trust that God’s will cannot be thwarted by human ugliness.”  A Facebook friend of mine posted the slogan, “Forget hope. Now is the time to act!” I cannot forget hope. I act because I hope. I preach about racism because I hope in a God who will help us fallible, sinful human beings stop seeing the other as inferior, stop seeing God’s creation through a lens of partiality, and make the world better. There are glimpses of that hope with police units taking a knee, joining hands with protesters, and even praying with them. So I have hope. I am thankful for such stubborn hope in troubling times such as these.

 

The fourth gift- is God’s love, which has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. This love from God is unconditional, never-ending. It is a never-wavering love that enables us to love others. In Houston Texas, during a protest over the murder of George Floyd, a passing officer noticed a little 5-year-old girl with her parents, who was visibly upset. The officer put his arm around her when she asked him: "Are you gonna shoot us? "In a bid to reassure her, he gave her a hug and said: "We're here to protect you okay? We're not here to hurt you at all. "You can protest, you can party, you can do whatever you want."

 

These are the gifts of the Trinity for us to ponder today, and they are so active right now! They help us understand more about the nature of the Trinity, but by no means do they fully explain God in three persons. They also apply to the mess our nation is struggling through right now. I think the words of the report to General Assembly say it best here, “The doctrine of the Trinity testifies to a mystery beyond human comprehension. It speaks to the very being of God that exceeds our understanding. Our minds cannot fully comprehend and our words and images can never fully explain the mystery of God. But while the name of God is inexhaustible and exceeds our grasp, we are not left in ignorance. We are invited to participate in this mystery that has been opened to us by God’s own self-disclosure in Jesus Christ and in the coming of the Holy Spirit who binds us to Christ.”

 

And so, I promise not to send you to prison if you think of the Holy Spirit being like the special music, or even if you just want to focus upon God, because the rest is confusing. At best, you’ll still only have a partial understanding of the mystery of God anyway. Your reason, by the way, is kneeling outside your doors at home, waiting for you to let it back inside.  So as we conclude this morning’s worship, let us embrace, as best we are able the unreasonable, mysterious notion of God in three persons, blessed trinity. We are thankful for the peace, access, hope, and love of three in one, one in three. Alleluia. Amen.

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