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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Trinity Sunday 5/31/2015

Who is God? If you’ve ever been up in my office and seen the hundreds of books on the shelves, there’s no one book that has “Who is God?” as the title, but the vast majority of them, in some form or fashion, address that question. After all, whatever religion you profess, that is the overriding question and the answers are varied as witnessed by the number of different religions and the number of groups within any one religion and the number of groups within any one denomination of any one religion. Going even further to a single church like Bethany and the individuals who comprise its membership it is quite likely that no two of us would answer the question exactly the same way.

For Christians though there is an official answer to “Who is God?” that answer being found in the doctrine of the Trinity with God defined as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Acknowledging that, we sing about the Trinity, Trinitarian formulas are part of the liturgy, we pray in the name of the Trinity, we confess our faith using the Apostles’ or the Nicene Creed both of which describe one God in three persons. Trinitarian words are familiar and for most of us they roll off the tongue and we don’t think too much about it. It’s just part of the air we breathe as Christians, just a part of faith.

We might not think too much about it, but many of those books I have upstairs do think about the words and delve into the doctrine of the Trinity and the mysterious nature of God’s inner being. But…while there are those of us who enjoy engaging that mystery, at some point we have to acknowledge our human limitations. I’m thankful for those thinkers and theologians who are able to provide some insight, but I’m also reminded of the quote attributed to Martin Luther: “To deny the Trinity endangers your salvation but to try to understand the Trinity endangers your sanity.” I think anyone who claims to really understand all the three in one, one in three stuff is either lying or else they think they’re much smarter than they really are. The doctrine of the Trinity really does belong in the realm of mystery.

We are Trinitarian Christians though so in addition to being words we use in worship, many churches have Trinity as part of their name; Trinity Lutheran is the number one name for churches of the ELCA and probably every Lutheran church, regardless of the name, has symbols of the Trinity similar to what we have in stained glass, or around the altar, or on the paraments.

One could argue though, as to whether or not the formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity was a good thing or a bad thing in the history of the church. Those who say it was a good thing would say that some uniformity was necessary; there needed to be a framework within which we as Christians could talk about God, particularly in how Jesus fits into our image of God. They would say that faced with that challenge, those who formulated the doctrine of the Trinity did a pretty good job. Those who say that it was a bad thing would cite the fact that it provides an answer to a question that can’t really be answered which wouldn’t be so bad except that it then creates insiders and outsiders and effectively closes the discussion with those who question the official answer being branded as heretics.

So is having this doctrine a good thing or a bad thing? Personally, I feel strongly both ways. How I answer the question might depend on what day you ask me and what mood I’m in and perhaps in just saying that on Trinity Sunday I already risk being branded a heretic. But…as Lutherans, we’re supposed to be “scripture alone” people meaning that we rely on the Bible to answer questions and settle disputes. Scripture alone though, doesn’t definitively answer the “Who is God?” question.

What scripture does is to provide images and attributes of God as well as descriptions of people’s experiences with God. It does not give us doctrine, not directly anyway. With that, the part of me that isn’t always completely satisfied with the official answers is attracted to biblical texts that make no effort to rationally explain God but instead use poetry and imagination to proclaim God and to make God known.

That’s what we get in today’s lessons, starting with Isaiah. In this reading, through the vision of Isaiah, we are invited into the throne room of heaven where the Lord sits in splendor, surrounded and attended by heavenly creatures each having six wings and singing, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” There’s no attempt to convey any doctrine here, just an invitation to picture the Lord in this way, to imagine the glory and majesty of God.

The same kind of thing happens in the psalm where again the Lord is enthroned above the flood, enthroned as king forever surrounded by divine beings who announce his glory, glory a term that is repeated several times, a term that summarizes the strength and power, the splendor and majesty of the Lord. Adding to the image is the voice, the voice out of the storm that thunders over the mighty waters, bursting forth in flashes of lightning. Similar to Isaiah, this isn’t doctrine in any sense, but another overwhelming image of the divine, an image before which we can only stand in awe.

They’re great images; but of course that’s not all there is to the God we worship. So we move to today’s New Testament lessons and in those lessons there’s more to ponder concerning the nature of God. The gospel is the story of Nicodemus that includes John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” Majesty and splendor, strength and glory are all attributes of God, but here we have all of those attributes wrapped in love, love that we see personified and made flesh in Jesus. That kind of love can evoke a sense of awe too, but it’s a different kind of awe and a different way to think about God.

Romans then touches on the nature of our relationship with the God described in the other lessons, a relationship in which we are called children of God. This God who thunders over the waters and shakes the wilderness is also a loving father figure. Again though, none of these lessons contain any doctrine. Things are left more open to discussion and speculation and a part of me says that’s a good thing, that it was a mistake to try to formulate doctrine out of all these different images.

But then I think, in defining God in Trinitarian terms those fathers of the early church did leave things open. In describing God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, one in three and three in one, a mystery has been identified, one which I don’t think we are supposed to solve, which is a good thing because we can’t solve it. Drawing from all the biblical images though, the doctrine of the Trinity gives us a creator God who brings order to the cosmos, one who creates human beings who are so beloved that this powerful God will not give up on them despite their inclination to disobey but instead he will save them by becoming one of them in the person of Jesus. It gives us a God who will continue to inspire and guide us through the power of the Holy Spirit and of course everything I just said is wrapped in mystery but, acknowledging the mystery, it still provides a way for us to talk about God and to have some understanding of the nature and work of the God we call Trinity and that too is a good thing.

For me, the mistake is when saying yes or no to these doctrinal statements become a litmus test for belief. We don’t worship a doctrine and we’re not saved by a doctrine. We worship the God the doctrine attempts to describe, a God about whom some things can be known, but one who will always more fully exist in the realm of mystery.

On Trinity Sunday we give thanks for those who formulated the Doctrine of the Trinity and also for those who continue to use that framework to engage the “Who is God?” question. We also give thanks that faith isn’t about having absolute answers to that question; it’s about worshiping the God revealed and made known through the ages, the God who calls us children, the God who became flesh, the God we name as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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