The mystery of the Trinity lies at the heart of our Christian faith. The Trinity is who God is: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God, three Persons, neither mixed together nor divided into separate parts; all equal, yet none identical with each other. To be the children of God, as John tells us we are in his first letter, is to be children of the Triune God, the God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Now, when I say that the Trinity is a mystery, I don’t mean it’s like a detective novel, with clues lying around waiting to be discovered so that we can put them all together and solve the mystery. I mean that the Trinity is like a secret. Part of the secret is out. God really is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit! The one who came by water and the blood, Jesus Christ, and the Spirit who is truth testify to us about the Trinity; they show us who God is. But part of the secret is still kept and will always be kept by God, and by God alone.
Many Christians today are intimidated or even turned off by language about the Trinity; maybe you are one of them. How can something be three and one at the same time? Why should we get caught up with this instead of sticking to more important issues? Since the Trinity is a mystery that escapes our control, that we cannot solve, many times we just give up and pretend it doesn’t matter.
But John tells us that belief in the Trinity does matter. The last verse of 1 John seems odd and out of place: “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” There’s been no talk of idolatry anywhere in the rest of the letter. Why would John end with something that appears to be a new topic? Only, I think if we examine the letter carefully, we will find that it’s not a new topic at all. One of the major issues in 1 John is about testimony: what counts as testimony? How do we know that testimony is true? For John, testimony is true when it is rooted in who God is: God is the one who is revealed in Jesus Christ, the Son of God; God acts in the world in Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit; and the actions of God and those who are of God are characterized by unity and love. All along, John is prodding us, gently, to understand that the truth of the Christian witness depends completely on who God is. If we let go of the mystery of the Trinity, the whole thing—our faith, the church, our love for one another—falls apart. So keep yourselves from idols, indeed.
Today is Trinity Sunday. Just like every Sunday really is an Easter Sunday, so every Sunday is, or should be, Trinity Sunday. Everything about our faith depends on God being the Trinity, so every time we gather to worship we gather to worship the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Trinity Sunday focuses our attention on who God is, but that shouldn’t be a substitute for making all our worship and all our lives dedicated to the Trinity. Unfortunately, sometimes Trinity Sunday becomes a day to try to explain the Trinity. You might get to hear about how the Trinity is like an egg with a shell, the white, and the yolk; or like a shamrock with three distinct but united leaves; or like Neapolitan ice cream, with chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry flavors all in one delicious package. There’s something to these analogies, but they also each have serious flaws. And, more importantly, the Trinity is not something we are supposed to be able to explain with an easy image like an egg, a shamrock, or some ice cream. We are talking about God here, aren’t we?
Instead of trying to explain the Trinity, we need to learn how to talk about the Trinity. If your doctor came into the operating prep room and said, “Well, today we’re going to take that little knifey thing over there and poke around a bit near your ba-boom-ba-boom-ba-boom until we can get more of that, uh, red stuff moving again,” would you let her perform open heart surgery on you? Of course not!! You want a doctor who takes her job seriously enough to know how to talk about it. And we all have a job that’s at least as important. We are witnesses to God’s mighty acts of salvation in Jesus Christ; we are witnesses to the work of the Trinity. And how we talk about the Triune Lord is just as important as how the doctor talks about your heart problems. So here are three ways to say things, and three ways not to say things, about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
First, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all God. They are all co-equal, co-eternal. So we want to speak in ways that affirm that the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God. And we want to avoid speaking in ways that make it sound like one of them is more or less God than the others. Don’t just pray to the Father; pray to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, too.
Second, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are each Persons of the Trinity. The Triune Persons are not different gods, but they are also not indistinguishable. So you should say that the Father sends the Son and the Spirit for our salvation, but you should not say that the Holy Spirit is just Jesus without a body. And you should not say that sometimes God shows up as the Father, sometimes as the Son, and sometimes as the Holy Spirit, as if there was a single master puppeteer hiding behind the three divine figures.
Third, everything we know about the Trinity we know because God revealed it in Jesus Christ. So we talk about God the Father because Jesus calls God Abba, Father; we call the Son the Son because at his baptism God calls Jesus “beloved Son”; and we say that the Holy Spirit is the Holy Spirit because that’s what Jesus calls the Spirit. We should not say things that suggest that God is more “fatherly” than “motherly,” or that “sonship” is more divine than “daughtership” or that “spirituality” can be had without holiness.
We bear witness to the God who saves in Jesus Christ by speaking in truth according to what God has revealed. In Jesus Christ, God has been revealed as Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is who God is. It is a mystery, a secret. We do not need to understand it or bring it under our control. We are to bear witness to the Trinity. And we are to praise the Triune God.
And this is where we United Methodists should celebrate our heritage most. Charles Wesley, the brother of John Wesley and one of the Methodist founders, wrote thousands of hymns, including an entire collection of Trinity Hymns. Unfortunately we don’t sing too many of these hymns anymore, but here’s one I’d like us to get to know: (Trinity Hymns CXXI)
|Holy is our God alone,
God the Father and the Son,
Holy we the Spirit esteem
God omnipotent, supreme,
Manifest in Persons Three
God through all eternity.
|3 God by nature we confess
Pure essential holiness:
God inhabiting the heart
All our holiness thou art,
Thou art here to sinners given,
All our holiness in heaven.
|2 In each Person we revere
God’s authentic character;
Praise in each the Holy One
Bright on his eternal throne,
The great God we glorify,
Bless the name of the Most High.