“God in Three Persons”
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
The Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
27 May, 2018
Today is Trinity Sunday. We always observe Trinity Sunday on the week after Pentecost because, at this point in our liturgical year, we have been introduced to all three “persons”: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Or, in less gender-specific but more role-specific language: Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Although we use the language of the three persons of God, or the Godhead, regularly in our worship services, it’s worth spending a little time reflecting on the Trinity—how we came to our understanding of it, what we know about each “person”, and why it’s important—because it is our understanding of the Trinity that sets us apart from all other world religions.
The first of the early church fathers recorded using the word “Trinity” was Theophilus of Antioch, who wrote in the late 2nd century (around the 190s A.D.). He defined the Trinity as: God, His Word (Logos) and His Wisdom (Sophia) in the context of the first three days of creation. Although it’s retrospective interpretation—and it’s not an interpretation that our Jewish forbears or spiritual contemporaries recognize—some Christian theologians will argue that Trinitarian allusions (or at least, allusions to God being more than a singular person) can be identified throughout the Bible, from the earliest chapters of Genesis where it’s written that “God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image…’”, and other references to God not being singular or solely masculine (for example, in the Abraham story that we talked about in the Introduction to the Theme as we looked at Rublev’s Trinity icon, and in references to God’s spirit as feminine as I’ve referred to in previous weeks).
But it was Tertullian, writing in the early 200s, who explicitly defined the Trinity as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and first defended it as a doctrine or official teaching of the Church. It may surprise some of you to learn that the word “Trinity” does not appear anywhere in the Bible itself. But the three-fold reference to God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit appear in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians which he wrote in the decade of the 50s—some 20-odd years after Jesus’ crucifixion. Paul closed that letter with the benediction that is often spoken even today: “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.”
The three-person united formulation also appears in Matthew’s gospel, which was written some time after Paul was killed—probably in the late 70s or 80s of the first century. Matthew’s final scene was of the resurrected Jesus commissioning his disciples with the words, “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
In terms of the story of Jesus’ life, the first time all three persons of the Trinity are represented in one scene is at Jesus’ baptism. The Synoptic Gospel writers—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—describe a scene wherein, after John baptizes him, Jesus emerges from the water and he sees the Holy Spirit descending “like a dove” and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven declares, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” This scene is the moment when the world began to recognize and comprehend Jesus’ identity. And, it’s the moment when Jesus himself began to grapple with his call to ministry in a profound way: immediately after his baptism, he made his way to the wilderness to come to grips with his core commitments and fundamental purpose in life.
Maybe it’s because the Gospel writers didn’t testify that Jesus knew clearly from his earliest days about his identity that there was some early disagreement in the early church about whether Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were all equally co-eternal. Luke is the only gospel that refers to Jesus in his childhood—some of you will recall the scene where his parents have a minor melt-down because they realize that he’s not actually with the caravan of people he’s supposed to be travelling home with after their trip to Jerusalem for a festival. When they travel back to the city, they find adolescent Jesus in the temple and express their dismay and frustration. But he’s equally dismayed and asks them, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
In any case, in the fourth century, the major theological debate in Christian circles was not between so-called “evangelical” and “mainline” Christians, about whether or not the Bible was the literal, inerrant, infallible word of God. It was all about how long the three persons of the Trinity had co-existed, and whether one or the other was subordinate to the others. Believe it or not, there were violent fights over who was right—excommunication and execution were things that happened for daring to proclaim something controversial.
In 325, the Council of Nicaea adopted the Nicene Creed, which described Christ as “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father”. After more than fifty years of debate, the Greek term homoousios (meaning “of one substance”) was affirmed as orthodox teaching regarding the relationship between the Father and the Son, and was further developed into the formula of “three persons, one being”.
Those of you for whom history and doctrine are not especially engrossing may be wondering what any of this has to do with your life, or why any of it matters. Where is the part that connects up with 21st-century life?
Well, in addition to helping to unpack and interpret some of the words of our opening hymn, I hope that hearing a little bit about Christianity’s earliest history helps us to recognize that, although God has been the same for all eternity, our perceptions of God are growing, deepening. And having an appreciation for the three persons in the singular being of the Trinity will—I hope—help you to relate to God in deeper ways in your daily living.
We spent a tiny bit of time during our Introduction to the Theme discussing what we know about the Trinity, and learning a tiny bit about how icons have been used to help develop spiritual growth through contemplation. We’re going to practice a spiritual exercise for the next few minutes that I invite you to do by yourself sometime, when you’ve got a quiet moment. We’re going to meditate, or reflect, on the three persons of the Trinity—we’re going to contemplate out loud about the ways that understanding God as Creator/Redeemer/Sustainer or Father/Son/Holy Spirit. In my experience, most of us identify more closely with one person of the Trinity than others. So, we’re going to take this in turns. As we reflect, you may discover that we hit on many of the themes we’ve covered liturgically in the past few months, from Advent through Pentecost.
If, when you pray, you find yourself most comfortably addressing God as Father, what is it about God as Father (or Mother) that connects most deeply with your spirit and experience?
* A parent is typically understood as a life-giver, one who is responsible for the creation of life.
* There are also adoptive parents—this image is equally powerful, as it is an adoptive parent receives as their own one whose life was otherwise quite vulnerable. (Our N.T. reading referred to how we have received a spirit of slavery or fear, but of adoption.)
* Ideally, a father/mother/parent nurtures their child and teaches them how to navigate life in this world; demonstrates unconditional love, forgiveness, healthy boundaries and discipline or instruction.
* Parents are protectors, and advocates.
* In healthy relationships, parents are compassionate authority figures:
In our O.T. reading, Isaiah recognizes that he’s surrounded by God’s power and glory—recall as a small child how you felt in the presence of a powerful parent—and he felt completely inadequate, a man of unclean lips living among a people of unclean lips. In Isaiah’s vision, God’s loving response was to cauterize the lips but also to forgive. And not only that, but God also empowered Isaiah to become a leader for truth, justice, and righteousness.
For all of us who have experienced the imperfections of human parenting—whether as a parent, or from our parents—God is the perfect parent, infinitely wiser and more loving than even the best human parent.
How many of you find your heart or mind attaching to Jesus the Christ or the Redeemer when you pray, or think about God? What is it about the Son that helps you feel more deeply connected to God?
* His humanity: in his flesh, he experienced things that every human being does: the neediness, vulnerability of infancy and toddlerhood, the growing independence of childhood and adolescence, the expectations society has for adults (well, for every age, actually).
* He’s suffered the same sorts of disappointments and frustrations that we all have, the limitations and challenges of inter-human relationships, the ways that physical attributes—gender, skin color, personal appearance—all impact how the rest of the world receives us. The embodied experience would be very different from a purely spiritual
* His strength: his ability to speak truth to power, and to embrace those whom others rejected is encouraging. These teach us that we, too, in our human capacity can do such things when we trust the Spirit that was in him, and he has passed along to us.
* The Redeemer: he saves us from the futility and emptiness of our broken, sinful life by demonstrating how life is meant to be lived in close communion with God and with our neighbors. He redeems us from the fear of death by his own fearlessness in the face of death, and then in his resurrection—proving that, from the very beginning, God’s love has always been more powerful than death even though we’re slow to learn.
How many of you feel God is most easily related to in the person of the Holy Spirit or Sustainer? What is it about the Spirit that compels you?
* Sense of breath, of movement, of continuity across time and space.
* The experience I’ve had of a gentle breeze quieting my unsettled spirit. Likewise, the experience I’ve had of being in community and feeling the quality of a common spirit.
* Observing the way that individuals and groups can be completely devastated, but inexplicably find energy to pick up and move forward. This is the Sustainer in action.
* The invisible determination that washes over individuals or groups who open themselves to God’s power, and it becomes visible and transformational. It’s the force that was described in our New Testament lesson—the one that recognizes our connection to one another and to Jesus because we’re all connected by virtue of that same Spirit, which is God’s own breath and spirit.
All of this prepares us for next Sunday, when we will have a remarkable service demonstrating the liveliness and continuation of the Triune God’s work among us, connecting us back to the earliest days of the church, and paving the way for the future of this church. It’s going to be a little bit like a second Pentecost right here in Hollis, with seven or eight baptisms (of a range of ages), 13 youth confirming their faith, and three or four adults becoming full members of our congregation. We’ll celebrate the reception of all these new members of God’s family and Christ’s church, and we’ll gather around the communion table as we remember what God—our Creator, and Redeemer, and Sustainer—has called each of us and all of us to do together.
We are blessed to God-in-Three-Persons, whose triune nature reveals things to us about our own oneness in the midst of diversity and plurality. In the week ahead, may we find ourselves meditating on and finding deeper communion with the Trinity: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—one God, Mother of all. Amen.
 Genesis 1:26
 2 Corinthians 13:13
 Matthew 28:18-20
 Matthew 3:16-17; Mark 1:10-11; Luke 3:21-22