Today’s sermon is available here: Who is THIS God?
Today is Trinity Sunday. Today, I get to talk about God.
Some of you are likely thinking, don’t you do that every Sunday? Well, if you stop and think about it, the answer is actually no. I rarely talk about God in my sermons. Rather I talk about what God’s acts—what God has done (the Scriptures), what God is doing (our mission), and what God will do (our hope). And I talk about what we ought to be doing (also, our mission—our cooperation with God in God’s mighty acts). And this is, of course, exactly as it should be. It is the task of the preacher to help the community read their lives in the light of the Great Story of God’s redemption of the world through the sending of the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Well, fair enough. But don’t we talk about God in the liturgy? Again, however, the answer is no. We don’t talk about God in the liturgy we talk to him. We sing praises to God as we gather. We pray to God in the Collects and Prayers. We pray God’s own words back to him when we sing the Psalms. We give thanks to God in the Eucharist. In the liturgy, God is a present subject. God is here. And we speak to him. “Well, surely the Creed! A Creed is a statement of Christian belief after all!” some of you might be thinking. And you will be forgiven if you continue to think that after we confess the Creed of St. Athanasius in a few minutes. Again, though, the answer is still no. The Creed, like all the other acts of worship, is far more a speaking to God than a speaking about God. “Believe” here has the meaning “trust in” or even “pledge myself to.” It is not a simple “I believe x to be true.”
Today is the one day in the church year where I must (at least if I take my vows seriously) as the question that lies beneath all this speech about and speech to. Who is this God? There are two related reasons why we should reflect on this question, and more regularly than annually.
But, first a story. My brother Aaron is a minister in Brockville Ontario. One Sunday, as he was greeting people at the door of his church, a woman shook his ands and said words very much like this. “I don’t believe in a magic man in the sky.” To which Aaron said, “That’s great. I don’t either!” Undaunted, she continued: “I don’t need a Cosmic Santa Claus to make me happy!” which prompted Aaron to say, “Neither do I!” In the ensuing conversation, Aaron discovered that the woman was an atheist taking a “church-tour” and apparently, taking her responsibility to be an evangelist for Richard Dawkins very seriously indeed. Aaron’s purpose in replying as he did was to suggest that the god the woman didn’t believe in was not the God of the Christian Scriptures. And so both of them could not believe in this obviously false god.
Here’s my point: we can no longer assume that people, whether inside or outside the church know what Christians mean when we say the word God. We can assume this confidently because “fairy tale magic man” and “Cosmic Santa Claus” are treated as acceptable (if scornful) definitions.
There’s another, related, reason why we should ask Who is this God?
We need to undo the years of bad analogies (some of them promulgated in the name of some very great Saints) to “explain” God. Here’s one from the Fathers: God is like the Sun, heat from the Sun, and light from the Sun. Have you heard that one? Here’s another with a noble pedigree: I am a man. I am also a father, a son, and a brother. A third: Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy are three human beings who share one human nature. And a classic, which Calvin picked up by osmosis when, as a young lad, he shared with Rachel and me his first dramatic monologue. Do you want to hear it? “I am St. Patrick. God is like a shamrock.”
Oh friends, what a terrible situation we have when our best response to “Your God makes as much sense as a flying spaghetti monster,” is “God is like a shamrock.”
So what is a better response? What is the Christian answer to the question, “Who is this God?”
Ready? Here it is: God is love (1 Jn 4:8). That is the shortest, most intense description of the divine identity Christian faith can offer: Love. Ah, but that begs the question, doesn’t it? What is love, after all?
Well, the entire Christian Bible—that great story we re-read and rehearse every Sunday—is the filling out of that one little word. Here I quote the NT scholar, Richard Bauckham: “The Bible tells us what sort of love God is by telling the story of God’s love for us. It tells how God created the world out of love, and the story of how God continued to love the world he had created and got involved with it in his love for us. It tells how even when we rejected God’s love and spoiled God’s world with evil, still God went on loving us and did all he could to rescue us from evil and to win our love for him. That’s the Old Testament story of God’s involvement with the people of Israel. It’s the story that comes to a climax with Jesus, when God in his love for us sent his Son to be actually one of us, to live a human life with us and to die for us. It’s the story that continues with God’s loving presence in the Holy Spirit, in the church, in our lives. The story of God’s love for the world goes on: we’re part of it.
The story tells us who God is because we see what kind of love God is. God is self-giving love. He doesn’t just sit up in heaven and wish us well. He gets involved with us in his love for us. He gives himself for us in costly self-sacrifice in Jesus’ suffering and death for us. He gives himself to us when he gives us his Holy Spirit as the gift of himself present with us in our lives. ‘God is love’ means that God gives himself – for us and to us. That is God’s nature.”
And that, my friends, is the doctrine of the trinity. Did you notice that shift? In telling the biblical story of God’s acts, we told the truth about God’s nature. God’s identity. Who is this God? He is the God gives himself for us and to us. Who is this God, He is the Father sends the Son and breathes the Holy Spirit.
When we say “Trinity,” we are naming a God who is active love. We name God the Father who watches over us; God the Son who comes alongside us and justifies us and reconciles us and suffers for and with and instead of us; God the Holy Spirit who is the love of God poured out in us.
Bauckham again: The doctrine of the Trinity is not rarefied theological speculation, having nothing to do with the Christian life. On the contrary, the doctrine of the Trinity is what we must believe if we really grasp that amazing truth of the Gospel: that God himself in his love has really come into our world as Jesus Christ and that God himself in his love has really come into our own experience as the Holy Spirit.
Neither is the doctrine of the Trinity a mere mental formula that brings God within the grasp of our minds, as though now we actually understand God. Not at all. The doctrine of the Trinity takes us into the mystery of who God is, but it does not explain or dispel the mystery. When we know God as Trinity we truly know God, but we by no means understand God.
God the Trinity is the love we find in Jesus Christ and experience in the Holy Spirit.