Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Trinity - June 11, 2006

“To try to deny the Trinity endangers your salvation; to try to comprehend the Trinity endangers your sanity.”  Martin Luther said that, placing his name on the long list of people who have professed faith in but have wondered about this doctrine.  It does defy rational explanation as it represents an effort to put into words that which really can’t be put into words.  Pity the poor preacher who thinks that he or she is going to explain this doctrine to an eager congregation on Trinity Sunday.  I used to kind of dread this Sunday, but now I like it.  I’m better able to accept the mystery of the Trinity and my own inability to understand it.  I can celebrate the God and the tradition the Trinity represents rather than worrying about trying to explain it in ten minutes.

I like to say that the Trinity is how we talk about God and this language is certainly part of our worship life, you know we baptize in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, we forgive sins in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, we begin worship using some Trinitarian formula, the creeds are all Trinitarian confessions, many of the communion prayers invoke all three names and at least some of the benedictions we use to end worship are Trinitarian and then of course on top of that there are many hymns that invoke the three names.

We do use this language, but does it really matter?  Wouldn’t it be easier to just believe in God, period, without having to struggle with three persons and how one can be three and three can be one?  Or wouldn’t it make more sense to say that we believe in three Gods, God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit without trying to put them all together into one?  Let me assure you that none of these questions are new.  Any question you can come up with on issues relating to the nature of God and the doctrine of the Trinity has been asked before and questions will continue to be asked, because we’re talking about God here. 

When we talk about God, the first assumption we have to make is that we can’t understand it all because God is God and we are not.  The usual paths of reason and logic don’t work in approaching God whose essence is unknowable.  So as John Wesley, author of some of our favorite hymns and founder of the Methodist church says, “Find me a worm that can fully comprehend a human being and I’ll find you a human being who can fully comprehend God.”

Let’s make one thing clear here though regarding the Trinity; Jesus is the problem.  I know we don’t like to think of Jesus that way; we prefer to think of him as the solution, which, in other ways, he is.  But when it comes to the doctrine of the Trinity, Jesus is the problem.  He caused people to think differently about God.  The people who began to worship in the name of Jesus saw him as divine in some way; he was more than just another martyred prophet to them.  But exactly what Jesus being divine meant was understood in many different ways; exactly how God was to be understood in light of Jesus was also understood in many different ways by the early church.  So it was inevitable that at some point it would become necessary to come to some general consensus on these things or at least to exclude certain false ways of speaking and thinking about God.

That happened or it began to happen in the year 325, after Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and called for the first ecumenical council at Nicea, out of which came the first version of the Nicene Creed and the beginnings of a more formal doctrine of the Trinity.  Despite books and movies like the Da Vinci code that seem to be making popular the idea that the church suppressed certain writings and certain ideas and promoted others in order to achieve power and control, those who formulated the doctrine of the Trinity were not engaged in some massive exercise of conspiracy.  Conspiracy theories are fun and people who want another reason not to go to church like to run with these things, but the history of these councils tells a different story. 

There was a desire for more unity and order in the life of the church, that was part of the motivation of these councils (unity and order which was never fully realized however) but what they came up with as a statement of faith was less about a desire for unity and more about their deepest experience of God in Christ and an effort to come to some consensus on all the questions they had about that, to draw a fence around the mystery as it were.  My guess would be that they knew that what they were trying to do was impossible, but they had to try.

The basic problem that confronted these early church fathers was that in Jesus, they and others before them had experienced God as more.  In their experience God was more than an omni God; omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent.  God was more than sheer otherness, an unapproachable holy other.  God was still all those things, but in Jesus, God was more.  Judaism had always understood God as a God of steadfast love and faithfulness, but in Jesus that love and faithfulness came closer and ultimately gave itself away.  In Jesus there was a divine intimacy available which had always been there but in him it was made more clear, more real, but also more confusing because in some ways more was less, with Jesus’ power being made known in weakness.  God hadn’t been thought of that way before.

But this wasn’t just men thinking deep thoughts.  This was their experience.  They had experienced God as more in Jesus and they struggled to put the object of that experience into words.  That’s all part of the Jesus problem I mentioned before.  But another part of the Jesus problem was something that there was general agreement on; that is that Jesus was connected to salvation.  Those who worshiped in Jesus’ name believed that he made it possible for sinful humanity to be made whole and well again in the eyes of God.  Salvation or forgiveness of sins is another way to think about it, was through Jesus.  Despite disagreement on many things, the early followers agreed on this. 

A central question then became, “Is this divine Jesus who has appeared on earth and made forgiveness of sins, a reunion of God and man possible, is he identical with the supreme being who rules heaven and earth, or is he something a little less?  Is he the same as God or is he just similar, you know, more than a man, but not quite the same as God the creator of the world?”

The answer was not obvious.  Biblically it could go either way.  But while the agreement was not without dissent, the agreement was that Jesus is the same as God.  God is an appropriate name for Jesus which is probably the cornerstone of the doctrine of the Trinity.  The witness of scripture is important to this statement, but even more than that it came out of the ways that the early church had experienced Jesus in worship and in life.  Experience is at the center of the doctrine of the Trinity…which is still the case.

Every week in the words of the Apostle’s or the Nicene Creed we confess our belief in the God of the Trinity even though we don’t really understand it.  But we do experience it.  Like those early church fathers, in Jesus we experience God as more and we can give thanks for their efforts in defining the nature of this incomprehensible God because we too experience the beauty and order of the created world and marvel at the creator God; we too know the comfort of sins forgiven and we experience that comfort as we gather around the body and blood of Christ every week;  we too experience the presence of God active in our lives in mysterious, but real ways, ways that some might chalk up to our own talents and efforts or to mere coincidence, but we know better. 

We may not be able to fully comprehend the doctrine of the Trinity, one God in three persons, of the same nature or essence, of one power and authority, all that stuff.  We may not fully comprehend the doctrine, but we have experienced the God named and described this way and that of course is what is most important.  To grasp the words and concepts is one thing; to know the living reality behind the words and concepts, that’s another, far more important thing because knowing the living reality behind the words and concepts, we become part of the life of this mysterious triune God.

I don’t want it to endanger your sanity, but you might want to think about that for awhile on this beautiful Trinity Sunday.   

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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