Every year on Trinity Sunday, we read as our second reading the concluding verses of Peter’s Pentecost sermon, as recorded in Acts 2. It is important that we finish up the message that was begun last Sunday. Even more, it’s important for us to notice these first words of an apostle of Jesus, speaking after the resurrection, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Here we see that the Day of Pentecost was not only a day for celebrating a new power and inaugurating a new mission, but it was also a day to proclaim theology. As such, our first Sunday after Pentecost is a day dedicated to a theological teaching of the greatest importance—the theology of the Holy Trinity.
In some ways this is a new theology, because Peter’s words reflect the new reality that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection created. And yet, in actuality, this theology is not so much new as it is simply deepened. The resurrection of Jesus and the giving of the Spirit sheds new light on the nature and purpose of God, but that God is the same One who had been revealing himself from the beginning.
One sentence in particular from our text captures this new reality and deepened theology. In verses 32 and 33, Peter says: “This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing.”
Here we see that the church’s very first proclamation takes on what we would call a Trinitarian theological form. God is referred to as Father. Jesus, though not specifically called here the Son, is said to rule with the Father as his rightful heir. And the Spirit is proclaimed as a separate and yet inter-related identity, coming from both the Father and from Jesus.
The theology of God as Triune, three in one, would not be articulated in its fullness until many years later. But as we see, the substance was there from the beginning. It’s there in the church’s first sermon. Soon after, within a few decades of the church’s existence, early versions of the Trinitarian Creeds that we say today started to appear. This is no surprise since proclaiming the Gospel of Christ requires that we say some very specific things about the nature and purpose of God. It was necessary on the day of Pentecost. And it is necessary today.
Speaking of the Creeds, we studied their content and development during our most recent Sunday morning adult Bible Class. As part of our study we referred to a book by Roman Catholic author Luke Timothy Johnson called The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why it Matters. It’s an excellent book written for both novices and scholars. I checked out a copy from the public library.
While Johnson doesn’t delve with great detail into the doctrine of the Trinity in this book, he makes two points about the Trinity that I thought would serve us well for our meditation today.
First, Johnson notes how the Trinity reflects well the ways in which we encounter God.
In thinking about this, consider the ways in which you encounter others. Or, just to use a specific example, consider how you encounter me. You probably first encountered me as a pastor—someone who leads the worship, says prayers, gives a message, greets you and represents the church. After being around here for a while you may get to experience me as someone who has a family. You learn that I have a wife and two kids, parents, brothers, cousins. You may have met them. You realize I’m not just a pastor but a family guy. If you’ve become involved in the work of the church you’ve experienced me in the role of a manager or leader. You’ve gotten emails from me. You’ve been in meetings with me. You’ve dialoged about decisions with me. Finally, if you’ve hung out with me in social situations you’ve perhaps experienced me as a friend. At least I hope you have!
Even though you’ve encountered me in all these different ways, I’m the same person. Johnson, in his book, notes that the different roles or “faces” of people are “dimensions of the other’s inner life that were called to outward expression in their relation with us.”
He goes on to say that “it is in such fashion that we, by analogy, try to move… to an appreciation of God’s own life.”
And so, we meet God as a Father, because we realize that, like a Father, God gave us life. Likewise, we encounter him as more powerful than us, and wiser too. We discover that God is the perfect father-figure—meaning he uses his power and wisdom to care for us and protect us. He loves us, for we are his children.
At the same time, we also encounter God as a Son—meaning one who comes from the Father but is with us, understands us, and is even, in many ways, like us. This is the God we can see and understand. He’s our brother. Even more, this is the God who doesn’t just protect us but saves us after all was lost, for this is the God who puts himself in our place, pays our penalty and sacrifices himself for us. He is the greatest of all brothers.
Finally, we also meet and encounter God as Holy Spirit. We sense him and feel him and know he is there, even though we can’t see him. God as Spirit is the One who moves us and moves through us. There is power here… a good and holy power… and we recognize it, and yet can’t completely figure it out. This is the God who gets things done, but also remains a God of mystery and surprise.
Father, Son, Holy Spirit—these are the ways we encounter God. Johnson says that “we affirm, we trust, that God has been truthful in his self-revelation, and that the faces of God that we have learned from our experience, and… from the language of Scripture, show us something of God’s own life.” Yes, that is what confess. To say it another way, we, together as the church, have been moved by the Spirit to say that there is one God in three persons, and that these three persons show us the fullness of God as we can experience him.
The Trinity reflects the ways we encounter God. That’s point one. The other point I’d like us to consider from Johnson’s book is one that I recall many other authors writing about as well. This point says that the Trinity reflects God’s provision for community. This happens because God as three persons is, in fact, a community in himself. He is Father, Son, Holy Spirit—all together.
Johnson says: “What the mystery of the Trinity discloses, is not a mathematical problem—how can one be three? – but the mystery of life given and shared.”
The Creeds speak to that mystery of life given within the Trinity. The Father “begets” the Son. The Spirit “proceeds from” the Father and the Son. Mysterious language indeed. None of us can explain exactly what this means. But it is certainly language which speaks to the giving that has taken place with God.
Even more important is the sharing which takes place within the Godhead. “I honor my Father,” says Jesus in the Gospel reading. “And my Father glorifies me,” he adds. Last week we heard Jesus say: “I do as the Father has commanded me.” The interactions among the members of the Trinity speak to the importance of community. We can say that they even speak to the communitarian nature of life itself.
When God first created the world, he said: “Let us (plural) make man in our image.” And then when God created man, we are told that he created them “male and female” – and as “helpers” for one another. The communitarian nature of God is reflected in his people.
St. Paul speaks to this when he talks about being transformed into the image of Christ, who, he adds, is the image of the unseen God. As Paul does this, he does so in communitarian terms—stating that “we” are being so changed (2 Cor. 3:17-18). Change and transformation work best when they are done within the community and when they are directed by our communal God.
Indeed, our life together in the church will function best when we base it upon the unity and diversity found in the Trinity. As Johnson explains: “thus we are able to imagine the Christian community in ways that reflect the life of the Trinity, in which diversity and unity are not opposites but mutually positive dimensions of life together, and in which equality of worth and subordination of function are not incompatible but complementary.”
We could certainly do a lot more thinking about diversity and unity, and about equality of worth and subordination of function. The church, as you know, has lots of debates within itself that kind of play out along those lines. But in the few moments we have remaining today, I’d like us instead to lift up Trinity Sunday as not only a day for theology but a day to give thanks.
Let us give thanks to God for revealing himself to us in such a deep and personal way. Yes, there remains great mystery in God’s revelation, but let us not forget that he has given great detail too.
And let us give thanks to God for working in the church to bring about the unity and diversity that we have. Let us give thanks for the Creeds that unite. Let us give thanks for the many, diverse ways that we can sing praise. Let us give thanks for the walking together that takes place in the church. Let us give thanks for the diverse gifts that each of us shares with one another.
Above all, let us give thanks to God who has created us and still preserves us. And let us give thanks to God who has saved us and continues to do so each day. And let us give thanks to God who inspires, empowers, guides and gathers us.
Our God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Our God is Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier. Our God is faithful. Our God is one.
May God grant us thankful hearts; and lives that reflect his goodness and mercy. In the name of Jesus, amen.