“What is Trinity?”
May 22, 2016
By John Partridge*
Scripture: John 16:12-15 Romans 5:1-5 Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31
How many of you know anything at all about cars?
Most of us know a little, and most of us know that a gasoline engine has cylinders that burn the gasoline, and go up and down, which makes the driveshaft spin, which makes the car go.
So what would you say if we were standing next to a car and asked where the engine was? You would point to the front of the car where the engine does its thing. But if I reached under the hood and pulled out a cylinder, is that the engine? What about the engine block? And the answer to each question is both yes… and no. Each is a part of the engine and the engine can’t do what it does without the contribution of all of them. If you want to be even more confused, think about the thing that pulls a train down the railroad tracks. We call that thing a locomotive or an engine, but inside of that engine are several engines. All of them work together to make up one engine, but each one is, by itself, also an engine.
And that brings us to today because today is Trinity Sunday. That means that today is the day when your pastor makes a valiant attempt to explain the unexplainable, makes your head hurt, and usually ends up leaving you more confused than you started.
Toward that end, this morning we are going to learn (I hope) a little more about the Trinity than we knew before we came.
As you probably know, the Trinity is our understanding of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God in three persons. This is not one person with three divided personalities, and this is not three gods who like to hang out together. The followers of Jesus Christ have attempted many ways to describe the Trinity and while many of these are helpful, each of them falls short in some way. I admit it is a little confusing.
Let’s begin this morning by reading Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31. This passage doesn’t speak about the Trinity because it is from the Jewish scriptures, what we call the Old Testament. The Jews didn’t, and don’t, think about God as a trinity, and in fact, the name “Trinity” is never found in the New Testament. What we do find however, is an idea that becomes so apparent… that it needed a name.
8:1 Does not wisdom call out?
Does not understanding raise her voice?
2 At the highest point along the way,
where the paths meet, she takes her stand;
3 beside the gate leading into the city,
at the entrance, she cries aloud:
4 “To you, O people, I call out;
I raise my voice to all mankind.
22 “The Lord brought me forth as the first of his works,
before his deeds of old;
23 I was formed long ages ago,
at the very beginning, when the world came to be.
24 When there were no watery depths, I was given birth,
when there were no springs overflowing with water;
25 before the mountains were settled in place,
before the hills, I was given birth,
26 before he made the world or its fields
or any of the dust of the earth.
27 I was there when he set the heavens in place,
when he marked out the horizon on the face of the deep,
28 when he established the clouds above
and fixed securely the fountains of the deep,
29 when he gave the sea its boundary
so the waters would not overstep his command,
and when he marked out the foundations of the earth.
30 Then I was constantly at his side.
I was filled with delight day after day,
rejoicing always in his presence,
31 rejoicing in his whole world
and delighting in mankind.
The obvious thing to say about this passage is that it is not about the trinity at all but is all about wisdom. That is absolutely true, but this Old Testament understanding of wisdom helps us to understand how the followers of God in the New Testament came to understand God as a trinity.
In this passage, wisdom is described, metaphorically, as a living being that God “brought forth” into existence before the beginning of creation. And so while there are some big differences between the trinity and wisdom, this metaphorical description of wisdom, which every Jewish believer would have known and understood, eventually allowed, and even assisted, those same believers to understand the relationship between God and Jesus Christ. In the world of the Disciples, and in the early church, Jesus was described with this same language. Jesus was said to have been “brought forth” by God, not as a created being, but as a person who had always existed and who was made from the same stuff that God was made and was co-equal, and co-eternal, with God.
In Romans 5:1-5 we find one of several passages in the New Testament where all three members of the Trinity are discussed together.
5:1 Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. 3 Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4 perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5 And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.
In this passage we hear that we have peace with God, through Jesus, and also that God’s love has been poured out through the Holy Spirit.
Another passage where this sort of thing happens is in John 16:12-15 where we hear Jesus say…
12 “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. 13 But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. 14 He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you. 15 All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you.”
And so John is telling us about a conversation where Jesus was speaking about the Spirit of God, and about God the Father as if they were not exactly the same person but, at the same time, neither of those persons were the same person as Jesus.
Does your head hurt yet?
Honestly, if you don’t completely understand how the Trinity works, that’s okay. I know that I don’t. I know that bishops and people with PhD’s argue about it. And I know that this is often described as one of the “mysteries” of the church, not because it is unknown, but simply that this is one of the places where the nature of God is not completely understood. The way that I have described it is that this is one of those places where finite, created, mortal creatures with a finite and limited capacity to think and understand, are attempting to describe and understand something that was not created, and is infinite, immortal, and unlimited in its understanding. It is inevitable that we fall short when we try to get our minds around it.
But instead of focusing on the things that we do not understand, let us instead focus on the things that we do understand.
We understand that the three members of the trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, are co-equal, co-eternal, uncreated, and made of the same substance.
We understand that through faith we have peace with God through Jesus Christ and that through Jesus we gain access to grace.
We understand that it is through our hope in God that we bring glory to God and that God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the power of the Holy Spirit.
We understand that the Spirit of God was a gift to us, from God the Father, through Jesus Christ and that the Spirit of God is the agent that leads us to the truth in all things.
We understand that the Spirit of God brings glory to Jesus Christ because Jesus sent him, and because that same spirit allows us to hear the voice of God and to understand the words of Jesus Christ.
And finally, we understand that everything in all of creation belongs to God the Father and everything that belongs to God also belongs to Jesus.
My suspicion is that, just as I predicted at the beginning, you just might be more confused that when we started. But I hope that you will remember that it’s okay not to completely understand the Trinity.
There are a lot of things that we may not understand completely and yet are able to understand what is important to us. We may not completely understand how televisions or cell phones work, but we do understand that they carry information from one place to another. We may not completely understand how the internal components of an automobile engine work, but we understand that because they do, we can travel from one place to another.
And so, remember this: We may not completely understand how the Trinity works, but we know enough to understand that God loves us so much that he gave his own life to save ours and that he has come down from heaven to take up residence inside each believer to lead us, to guide us, and to point us to a better of understanding of Jesus Christ.
It might make our heads hurt.
And we might not completely understand it.
But the parts that we do understand are absolutely, incredibly, wonderful.
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