“The Holy Trinity: God ‘With Us,’ ‘For Us,’ and ‘In Us’”

A Sermon Primer for May 22, 2016; First Lutheran Church, Sioux Falls, So. Dakota

Some seventeen hundred years ago, so the story goes … the brilliant bishop and father of Western theology, St. Augustine of Hippo (North Africa) … set out to write a book on the Holy Trinity (De Trinitate, ca. 420 A.D.) on the basis of Holy Scripture and history of Christian thought. The reason for such an enormous venture (ca. 400-420 A.D.) was Augustine’s deep conviction that this doctrine – regarding the triune nature of God – is a foundational tenet at the very heart of the Christian faith. Augustine knew well that it’s one thing to say you believe in God; but what finally matters is the kind of God you believe in … that is, the nature of God and how God reveals this nature in relationship to the world (cf. T. Fretheim’s The Suffering of God, p.1).

One afternoon, as Augustine was taking a break from his writing – strolling along the coast of the Mediterranean – he noticed a young boy pouring sea water into a hole he’d dug in the sand. Augustine watched the young boy for a while and then asked him what he was doing. “I’m pouring the sea into this hole,” the boy replied. “Don’t be silly,” smiled Augustine. “You can’t fit the whole sea into that little hole.” “And so are you,” said the young boy, “trying to write a book that contains the mystery of God.” Hmm?!

Martin Luther referred to John 3:16 (from the Gospel text for us today) as the euaggelion in nuce or “the gospel in a nutshell.” And so it is that when we parse this famous passage of Holy Scripture, together with the Christian confession of the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed, we gain a wondrous glimpse of the triune/three-fold nature of God. It’s reflected in the relational dynamic of 1) God the Father (“Creator of heaven and earth”) … 2) God the Son (“who for us and our salvation came down from heaven”) … and 3) God the Holy Spirit (“the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son”).

Now, we’re not straying here from the monotheistic, Judeo-Christian witness that “God is one” (e.g. Deuteronomy 6:4; Mark 12:29), spuriously trying to argue that 3=1 or 1=3 (an intellectual dishonesty of 1+1+1=1.) Rather, we’re confessing how it is that God has come to reveal himself to us in history as three persona (perhaps “personalities” gets at this best in the original Latin): as Father (the creative handiwork of all things in heaven and earth) … as Son (the redeeming power of Jesus) … as Holy Spirit (the ongoing Pentecost breath of Christ’s resurrected life in and through the Church). Here we come to see the ongoing dynamic of God’s relationship to his beloved creation and people (a relational dynamic better expressed as 1x1x1=1).

And so, on this Sunday we call “Holy Trinity Sunday” … we are invited to pause and ponder again, “What does this mean?” And if we do, we’ll see this Trinitarian theme “come alive”; for example, in our worship life: in the Invocation, the Prayers, the Creeds, and the Benediction. Moreover, we discover this Trinitarian dynamic/form in our very life in God: the way we measure gestation as trimesters, of the three primary colors, of the strongest architectural structure in a triangle. And finally, this triune nature and Word of God comes to us in our baptism and at our death, as God claims and enfolds us for always as his beloved: “in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Blessed Trinity!!! (Please study the following biblical passages at home this week, as they speak to you of God’s Trinitarian nature and relation to the world:

John 3:16; 14:16-18; 15:26
I Corinthians 12:4-6
II Corinthians 13:13
Ephesians 4:4-6
Matthew 28:19

Or for some added intrigue, consider Scripture’s witness in Genesis 1:26: “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness …”).

Further Reflections for Holy Trinity Sunday

“If a person once feels the infinite passion of God’s love which finds expression [in the cross], then he understands the mystery of the triune God. God suffers with us – God suffers from us – God suffers for us: it is this experience of God that reveals the triune God.” (Jurgen Moltmann; The Trinity and the Kingdom, p.4, see also p.39)

 “The Trinity is the Church’s way of saying that God is so intimately, inwardly and steadfastly bound up with the whole of reality, both past and future, that nothing can separate us from God [Romans 8:31f]. It is this relatedness which is certain, for all eternity, and that is the basis for our hope.” (Lee Snook; Word and World, Winter 1982, p.14)

“The heart of the Christian life is to be united with the God of Jesus Christ by means of communion with one another. The doctrine of the Trinity is ultimately therefore a teaching not about the abstract nature of God, nor about God in isolation from everything other than God, but a teaching about God’s life with us and our life with each other in God. Trinitarian theology could be described as par excellence a theology of relationship.” (Catherine LaCugna; God For Us: The Trinity and the Christian Life, p.1)

“He is the Holy Spirit because He is the Spirit of Jesus Christ.” (Karl Barth; Credo, p.129)

“Thou seest the Trinity when Thou seest love … For the lover, the beloved and the love are three.” (St. Augustine; De Trinitate VII, 12.14)

“The doctrine of the Trinity sums up the astonishingly rich and hard-won insights of Christian believers down the ages into the nature of God. For the theologian, it is a safeguard against inadequate understandings of God; for the Christian believer, it is a reminder of the majesty of the God who gave himself for his people upon the cross … The Christian will still find it easier to talk about ‘God’ than to talk about ‘the Trinity,’ and need hardly be criticized for doing so. But when the believer begins to reflect upon who this God whom he/she worships and adores is, his/her thoughts will move toward the ‘strong name of the Trinity.’ It is here that the long process of thinking about God comes to a stop, as we realize that we can take it no further. And it is here that thought gives way to worship and adoration:

“Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty!
All thy works shall praise thy name
in earth and sky and sea;
Holy, holy, holy, merciful and mighty,
God in three Persons, blessed Trinity!”

(Bishop Reginald Herber)
(Alister McGrath; Understanding the Trinity, p.151-52)