Three Faces of God
The Psalmist sings: When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet…
God is proclaimed in scripture as the Creator of all that exists. This is the song of the faith person, whether a Jewish poet, a prophet, a king, a peasant. This is Israel’s faith. And when we turn to Jesus and the New Testament writers this theme is continued with one important change in language. They sing from the same song sheet but add that Jesus in fact is the one who initiated creation as well as completing God’s rescue mission by dying for humankind. We read in Paul’s letters that this Jesus, is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. This is the kind of language that the Christian writers use to describe Jesus.
So when we think of God what picture comes into our minds? Ask a person on the street and you may get one response that crops up again and again. They tell you that God is the old man with a beard high up in the sky. Others may say God is a spirit that is in everything: we along with all creation are expressions of the divine spirit. You find this view among native peoples. Others, such as those who belong to Islam or Judaism, believe in monotheism or one God. For Jews God is named Elohim or Yahweh, and for Muslims God is named Allah. Both religions believe in only one God who is creator of all that exists. Our duty is to worship and serve this God. For both historic faiths God can have no equals.
Christians also are monotheists. We believe in one God, Sovereign, Creator and Redeemer. We also believe in this one God in three persons, Father, Son and Spirit. This doesn’t mean we believe in.
three gods, as many accuse us of. No we simply mean that God exists in these three persons, is one and yet three. Before we go any further we add that this is a mystery and not something we can figure out or find analogies to help us explain it. What does it mean to have a Trinitarian theology? A little history will help.
In the third century a man called Arius made popular the notion that Jesus was a created being, had a beginning and is therefore not God. This was a notion that had popped up in various Christian circles throughout the first three centuries, but in Arius it found a champion. He made it a strong movement within the empire and in so doing created a huge challenge to the orthodox understanding of Jesus as divine and human. The new Christian emperor, Constantine, sick of the bickering and divisions within the church called a council to which Arius was invited. The two factions sat throughout the council and debated. In the end the orthodox view was adopted. Arius and his beliefs were condemned. The council adopted the Greek word, homoousios, with reference to God the Father and the son, to mean they were of the same substance. The creed formulated by the council to combat Arius and to capture the orthodox position is our Nicene Creed. It goes like this:
We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father.
Paul in our reading today and Jesus in what is called the Great Commission, each put forward a Trinitarian confession. Jesus has invited his followers up the mountain to bid farewell. His last words to them have rung in the ears of Christians throughout the centuries. He says to them and us: All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.
We notice that baptism is to be done in the Trinitarian formula. God is Father, Son and Spirit. Notice also the command to go! We are a sent people. We are the bearers of a unique message about the person of Jesus Christ. Our task is to continue the work of Jesus on earth. He asks us to make disciples, or if you like, by evangelizing wherever we go in life we seek to add followers to the faith. And once these converts accept Jesus as their Lord and Saviour, they are to be baptized in the name of God in three persons.
Here we pause on a sidebar. Notice that the language of the New Testament is strikingly different from the way we talk in our churches today about membership in the church. I have been talking to a church in our Presbytery recently about the question of membership. When we lived within Christendom, that is when the church was endorsed by society as the religion of the state and of all respectable folk, membership was important to one’s social standing. It opened doors to jobs, to clubs, to relationships, to politics, indeed to any of the institutions of the day. But we no longer live in that world. Membership in the church is today irrelevant; indeed it might be looked on as strange and detrimental to one’s social standing. We are back where the faith began. Faith in Jesus is what marks us as members in the body of Christ and the church. The language is very different and it forces us to turn upside down all our previous notions of what it means to be Christian and members of the church. Christians are folk who have become followers of Jesus. Belonging to the church is no longer about social respectability or political correctness. It is about following, believing, baptizing, and repentance, change, altered priorities, new life, spiritual new birth-all of these and more. This is what Jesus commands us to do.
Paul in our reading is defending his integrity. Other preachers have influenced them to reject Paul’s apostolic authority. He asks them to test their faith and to know that Christ lives in them. He concludes with these words: The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you. Once again we have Trinitarian language. God exists in three persons, Father, Son and Spirit.
I would like us to allow our imaginations to run wild for a moment. One of the children asked a question last week: what was it like before there was God, or if you like, what was there before creation? I said there was only God. Think about it! Only God in all that silence and emptiness! But God was in relationship. Father, Son and Spirit lived in loving relationship before there was any stars or galaxies or worlds, or people, or animals. God is social in God’s inner being. That’s probably why we can call God love. God is love and love is never solitary. While it remains a mystery to our feeble minds, God in three persons have always been bound together through eternal love. They opened themselves to us through the creation and ultimately through the work of Jesus Christ in redemption. As the New Testament will affirm all over its pages: This is what love is: it is not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the means by which our sins are forgiven.
On this Trinity Sunday let us celebrate God’s love to us: Father Son and Spirit. You may have read the novel, The Shack. In it Mack’s daughter is brutally killed and he is left tortured by grief and loss. One day he receives an invitation to go to the place where she was murdered. He arrives and knocks on the door. At the shack he meets Papa, Jesus the carpenter and Sarayu. Father, Son and Spirit are presented as real human figures. Papa is a plump, generous, happy, black woman. The Spirit is a wispy woman who seems to shimmer and glow. And Jesus is a man who works with his hands. All three display a love for each other that overwhelms Mack.
This is a fictional representation of the Trinity but in many ways a helpful picture of each person in action. This is the God into whose name we are baptized and live out our faith with the promise that he is with us always.