Three Times Blessed
Psalm 8 2 Corinthians 13:11-13 Matthew 28:16-20
This morning is celebrated in the church as Trinity Sunday. Traditionally, it is the day preachers take the opportunity to talk about the Trinity and explain it as best they can. As a doctrine, the Trinity can be confusing. We say we worship only one God, and yet we speak of this God in three significantly different ways: Father/Creator, Son/Savior and Holy Ghost/Comforter. The concept of the Trinity was developed as people attempted to understand and explain what they knew about the divine. It was one of the earliest doctrines within the church, with reference given to the Trinitarian formula’s use during Christian baptism immediately following Jesus’ lifetime. The Trinity shows up in the writings of Ignatius in the first century, Justin Martyr in the second, and Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria in the third. It was formalized into doctrine when it was included in the Nicene Creed in 381.
I remember as a child, a pastor described the Trinity using the example of ice, water and steam. Each of these three things are related to the other by being made up of the same element, and yet each is very different in terms of how we experience it. Ice is cold and solid. Water can be a variety of temperatures but it is always liquid in form. Steam is mist, vapor. It cannot be held and is hot enough to burn. This illustration is helpful because it shows that it is possible for one element to take on three different forms, but if I attempted to relate an aspect of the Trinity to each one of these, I would only be able to take the illustration so far. It is not a perfect illustration of God, Jesus and the Spirit because it is not all-encompassing. It does not stretch far enough to help us grasp the fullness of the Trinity, and so we are left with a partial understanding.
We are taken a little ways down the road, but not all the way to our destination. For the record, I am not sure we can arrive at the destination of full understanding in our lifetimes. That might be something that is only revealed to us when we meet God face to face.
In the meantime, what does the Trinity have to do with our lives, with our personal experiences of faith? Even if you are not someone who normally thinks in terms of categories or labels, it can be helpful to have some structure to hang our experiences of the divine on. The structure of the Trinity gives us a handle on the divine in a similar way that knowing what language someone speaks can help us relate to them better. We at least know what dictionary to look up words and phrases in, even if we don’t know the language ourselves. This morning’s two New testament readings gives us clues about this God in three persons. The Gospel according to Matthew quotes Jesus (who appears to them on a mountain in one of many appearances after his resurrection) as telling the disciples to baptize people in the name of “the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” Paul’s second letter to the Christians in Corinth mentions the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit. Our relationship with this God of ours can be complicated, if we tried to sort out every single reference to the Father, Son and Spirit and see which aspect the reference belonged to; however, our relationship with God can also be extremely full of blessings, if we are open to however God chooses to touch our lives.
Gaining some sort of understanding of God may begin with something we hear from another person - whether an early Sunday School teacher, a grandfather reading Bible stories to us, a friend speaking of their experience with God - but in order for faith to take root in us, the experience has to become personal.
We need to have an encounter with God in our own lives. My sense is, that this is how our understanding of the Trinity grew. The Hebrew people before Jesus’ time had a relationship with God, the one whom they called Yahweh. This Yahweh spoke to the Hebrew leaders on mountaintops and in fires. He led the people out of bondage in the form of a fiery pillar by night and a column of smoke during the day. He fed the Hebrew people manna and provided them with water when they were wandering in the desert without a true home to call their own. When Jesus arrived on the scene, he referred to their God as Abba which means “Daddy”. This was certainly a brand new way for anyone to talk about the holy one whose name dared not even be mentioned! The people who were fortunate enough to meet Jesus and hear him speak experienced a personal connection with him that was not possible to have with the Holy before this time. Even those who did talk directly with Yahweh had to protect themselves from the fierceness in some way. Moses, for example, had to hide his face with a veil because it shone so brightly when came down from his mountaintop encounters with Yahweh.
The Incarnation, when Jesus enters the picture, is all about God becoming human, taking on a body made of flesh and blood. Jesus experienced the joys and the sorrows of human life firsthand, and so he was able to bring this perspective to the divine. I remember a story I once heard that described Jesus’ incarnation being similar to one of us human beings taking on the form of an ant so that we could then experience life as an ant experiences it. We could go into the ant hill and see for ourselves what it looked like. We could follow the trail of fellow ants to a food source, and then carry the food back to our home, all the while experiencing things that we could never even imagine in our human form. The thought that God became flesh for us, to experience alongside us exactly what life was like, is amazing when you think about it. When I contemplate the ant example, I think of how easy it would be for a person to be stepped on and squashed when they were in ant form, and no one would ever be the wiser. It was just as dangerous for God to become flesh in our midst and live by the rules humans set up to govern ourselves. Jesus lost his human life in a way that seems as senseless and thoughtless as the squashing of an ant. If only he hadn’t taken on human form so completely, things might have turned out differently. But then again, maybe that was the point.
As he was preparing to leave them, Jesus taught the disciples about the one whom he called the Comforter or the Holy Spirit. Throughout Jesus’ life, the Holy Spirit was with him, protecting him and guiding him. There are times and places when this was especially apparent. The Spirit showed up at his baptism in the form of a dove, descending on him as he came up out of the water. The Spirit also is said to be responsible for chasing him out into the wilderness for his 40 day sojourn there. That same Spirit was with him throughout his time in the wilderness, however, protecting him from Satan’s temptations and keeping him from harm. When Jesus says that he will send the Holy Spirit to his followers after he leaves, he is sending them and us his very own protector. I wonder if this is why the Holy Spirit could not come to the followers until after Jesus left them? Was the Holy Spirit’s first loyalty to Jesus, protecting and guiding him, during his human life? Was that a full-time job for the Holy Spirit, and so while Jesus was on earth no one else could experience the Holy Spirit’s protection and guiding influence? It is certainly interesting to think about.
God shows up in our lives in many ways, at many different times and in various places; usually just when we need to know that we are not alone. I have found it intriguing over the years to discover that we each experience God in different ways. We each also seem to have a special affinity for one or more persons of the Trinity. This can relate to the particular time we are in in our lives, when a particular person of the Trinity seems most supportive and helpful to us for what we are facing, but it can also be an overall special connection. Some of us relate especially to the Father, needing to know that we are held and protected in arms that are big and strong. Father’s day is perhaps a good day to think about how you experience the father-ness of God. Some of us have a special and sacred relationship with Jesus. He is our friend and savior. He knows what we are going through no matter what it is we face, offering us compassion that comes from experience, and so we find comfort in knowing he is with us, holding us close. For some of us, the Holy Spirit is the most personally helpful aspect of God. The Spirit is often seen as the feminine face of God, and for some of us this can be comforting. She also gives the sense of being everywhere all at once, as Spirit can be, and so we are reassured by this loving, caring presence pervading our entire lives.
No matter how we best relate to the Holy in our lives, no matter how we perceive God, the important thing is to be open to how God wants to work in and through us. This openness to God, and God’s own presence, is what makes the world itself a sacred place, shot through by the holiness of God-in-three-persons, blessed Trinity.
God our Father, Jesus our Savior, Spirit our Comforter, guide us throughout our days and years. Keep us close to you and close to one another in your love, compassion, peace and justice. Amen.