Three in One
By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: John 3:1-17
You may recall me having said in the past that the Church has its own calendar. And just as we have holidays on our national calendar – 4th of July, Memorial Day – likewise we have holidays – or holy days – on our Christian calendar; holy days that usually commemorate special events recorded in scripture. Christmas celebrates Jesus’ birth; Easter celebrates Jesus’ resurrection.
Today is another special day on the Church’s calendar but one most folks are unfamiliar with. Today is Trinity Sunday. Now admittedly, at our church every Sunday is Trinity Sunday. But today is Trinity Sunday everywhere and it is a holy day on the Church’s calendar that is not associated with a particular bible story or event. Rather, it is doctrine or theological belief that is grounded in scripture as a whole; scattered throughout its pages and passages.
Now at this point, you might be thinking to yourself, “a sermon on a doctrine; ugh, I should have gone camping this weekend or to that Memorial Day mattress sale.” But, don’t worry because here’s the thing: in my opinion, the Trinity – more than any other doctrine that the Church holds – holds our faith together. The Trinity – more than any other doctrine or theological pronouncement – teaches us what life is about and what life is for. Perhaps that is why, when John Wesley provided the Methodists in America with 24 articles of religion, article #1 was “Of Faith in the Holy Trinity.”[i]
The Trinity is what makes Christianity distinctive. You may not realize that many other religions read, study and even honor the teachings of Jesus. But, no other religion affirms that Jesus is both fully human and fully God, one with God.
This morning’s gospel story of the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus captures the essence of the Trinity’s significance. In this morning’s story, Jesus reveals that love is at the heart of the Trinity because love is who God is. The Trinity reveals what life is about. Life is about love. Out of love, God the heavenly Parent sent Jesus, God’s Son; John tells us. Out of love for us, the Holy Spirit – God’s presence within us – makes that divine love the ground of our being, like air that we breathe. In fact, at the close of John’s gospel, before Jesus returns to heaven, he breathes on his disciples and they receive the gift of the Spirit;[ii] the ongoing, never-ending presence of God inside of them that equips them to live in a brand new way; like a new birth. 1 John tells us that “God is love.”[iii] That love was revealed, unveiled, when the Son became human, sent to earth like a love letter written from the heart of God. 1st John goes on to say that we have knowledge of that love because we feel it inside of us; it is alive in us through the Holy Spirit.[iv]
Now, current research shows that – with all the distractions in our world today – Americans no longer track with 3 or 4 point talks or sermons. So I usually try to stick to one point when I preach. But this morning I’m going to name some different ways that disregarding the Trinity can have negative effects on the way we live our lives. You don’t need to remember them all. You probably won’t. What I hope is that you will hear and latch onto something you find meaningful or significant and maybe make a note of it on your program or in your phone and take some time this upcoming week to reflect on it a little more.
One of the first dangers in ignoring the doctrine of the Trinity is what I label as “pie in the sky by and by when you die.” Without the Trinity, religion is apt to place little value on life in this world. Today, a lack of regard for this world and life in this world are ravaging the environment. It reflects an attitude of “what difference does it make if this world becomes uninhabitable; it’s not our eternal home.” Yet in the beginning, the genesis, God pronounced all that God made in this world as good.[v] Even before the appearance of homo sapiens, God was already delighting in the goodness of creation. Many ancient cultures had creation stories that involved violence; stories in which the value of creation was its slavish service of the gods. But our two creation stories in Genesis chapters 1 and 2 reveal a God who made a world in which God chose to personally engage. God enters the garden and walks with the first man and woman in the cool of the evening.[vi] God plays in creation; hands down into the dirt, into the earth like kids making mud pies.[vii] God goes above and beyond in creating this world. Our scriptures conclude in Revelation with the story of a city, the New Jerusalem coming down out of the heavens to earth; the image of our eternal home.[viii] Not some fluffy, nebulous cloud, but a city. The substance and matter of this world matter to God. In the early centuries of the Church, some wanted to deny Jesus’ divinity because it made no sense to them that a God so great would want to step into the messiness and suffering of life in this world. But that is precisely what God chose to do. When we deny the Trinity, we deny the value of life in this world; we deny that life in this life is worth redeeming and that allows us to disregard suffering. It allows us to ignore situations of injustice and oppression; to kick the can down the road of eternity. It is a “heaven can wait” mentality. And so, abundant references to heaven can be found in African American spirituals; birthed from a context where justice in this world seemed hopeless and impossible; there was little to do but wait. In my Appalachian culture, which birthed bluegrass or mountain music, there are also frequent references to heaven; springing from a culture that had resigned itself to the mining and steel companies that oppressed them and “owned” them. No longer was justice even hoped for; life in this world became reduced to a waiting game; waiting for “Some bright morning when this life is over I'll fly away to that home on God's celestial shore; I'll fly away.”[ix] But Jesus entered this world to heal the sick, release the captives, feed the hungry, free the oppressed.[x] Belief in the Trinity should prevent us from sitting on our hands or even simply wringing them. God, the one who was there at the beginning of all time, the one through whom all things came into being – so the intro to John’s gospel proclaims[xi] – that God became flesh and was born in our midst. God does not view us from a distance; our God is up close and personal. This world does matter to God. The “here and now” have value to God.
Secondly, the Trinity is a testimony to relationship and unity. Remember I said that the doctrine of the Trinity tells us what life is about and what life is for. Life is about love and life is for relationship. We live in a culture that is increasingly focused on individualism. But perhaps no event in recent history more dramatically reveal our need for fellowship than this COVID pandemic. As Brent Clemenz mentioned a couple weeks ago, even introverts found the social distancing and isolation inflicted upon us by this pandemic to be insufferable. Mental and physical health providers have been overwhelmed as so many of us have developed anxiety, depression, addictions, and a host of health conditions. God did not design us to live in isolation. We were created in the image of God and our God is three in one; our God is the origin of relationship, of connectedness. Little wonder God created a partner for that first man in the garden.[xii] God is not alone; God is three in one. In passages of scripture like this morning’s story we see that Father, Son and Spirit are bound together. Life is about love and life is for the purpose of relationship. This morning’s opening hymn contains the line, “God in three persons, blessed Trinity.”[xiii] Now obviously Parent, Son and Spirit are not “persons” in the same way that we define homo sapiens, a biological description of a human person. But that word “person” is a relational term. We are defined as persons through our relationships with others. This begins at an early age as infants distinguish and understand themselves in relationship to their families. A “solo God,” so to speak, could justify a solitary, isolated, even selfish human experience. But we do not believe in a “solo God.” We believe in a God whose very identity, whose very character is relationship: the Trinity; what Augustine named “a society of love.” And God, out of love, invites us into that divine fellowship; we are drawn into the union which is God, which is love.
Finally, because our God is a relational God, the doctrine of the Trinity affirms that it is and has always been God’s desire to be in intimate relationship with us. Another early church heresy saw Jesus as a new form that God “put on” like a costume in a particular time and space in order to fix the problem of human sin by becoming human, dying on a cross and rising. But incarnation isn’t about the heavenly Son playing “dress up.” Such a perspective turns the coming of Jesus into nothing more than a “clean up on aisle earth,” so to speak. Now, certainly the death and resurrection of Jesus offer us forgiveness of our sins and reconciliation with God. But I cannot believe that the only reason for God’s coming to live among us was to fix our “screw up,” AKA sin. As Trinitarian people, the incarnation need not be reduced to “clean up on aisle earth”; or a mopping up of human sin. It is, even more fundamentally, the act through which God most fully reveals God’s self, God’s character and love; and invites us to enter that “society of love.” So Jesus, in John’s gospel, prays over his disciples that “they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me.”[xiv] Jesus reassures his disciples that he is the revelation of God. When Philip asks Jesus to show him God the Father, Jesus replies, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”[xv] Certainly there is salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus. But there is also salvation through the very coming of Jesus to make God known to us. Jesus is like a bridge that joins heaven to earth. In fact, the first chapter of John’s gospel[xvi] concludes with this imagery of Jesus like a ladder of connection between earth and heaven.
Friends: the Trinity is the doctrine of one God above us, among us and within us; one society (or fellowship) of love seeking to draw us into divine union. The doctrine of the Trinity – like our congregation Trinity’s Vision Statement – reveals what life is about and what life is for: life is about love and life is for the purpose of relationship.
[i] See http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/the-articles-of-religion-of-the-methodist-church
[ii] John 20:21-22
[iii] 1 John 4:7-9
[iv] 1 John 4:13-16
[v] See the first biblical creation account (Genesis 1:1 – 2:4).
[vi] Genesis 3:8
[vii] Genesis 2:7
[viii] Revelation 21:9-27
[ix] "I'll Fly Away", is a hymn written in 1929 by Albert E. Brumley and published in 1932 by the Hartford Music company in a collection titled Wonderful Message. It has been called the most recorded gospel song, and it is frequently used in worship services by Baptists, Pentecostals, Nazarenes, the Churches of Christ and many Methodists. It appears in many hymnals where it is listed under the topics of eternal life, heaven and acceptance. It is a standard song at bluegrass jam sessions and is often performed at funerals. https://www.godtube.com/popular-hymns/i-ll-fly-away/
[x] See Luke 4:16-30
[xi] See John 1:1-18
[xii] See Genesis 2:18
[xiii] Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty text by Reginald Heber, 1826. Found in The United Methodist Hymnal; The United Methodist Publishing House; 1989; #64.
[xiv] John 17:22-23
[xv] John 14:9
[xvi] See John 1:51
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