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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

Trinity Sunday, May 22, 2016

 God’s Triune Ways

Romans 5:1-5; John 16:12-15

            A week ago last Friday, on an exquisitely beautiful day, I was playing golf with two members of our church who know how to play the game.  At best, I am a mediocre golfer – but on this day, I was far from my best.  I played like a dog.  But even a dog can pull off a few good shots now and again.  We were playing a par three island hole, and I actually hit the ball over the water and right onto the center of the green.  Unfortunately, I had a little too much right hand on the shot, and when the ball hit, it bounced left and began to roll, ever so painfully, slowly off the back of the green.  My partners cried, “Bite!  Bite!”  (My partners should have saved their breath.)  As it rolled slowly out of sight, I held out hope that it stopped on the bank.  When I got there, it had settled on a soft piece of sod at the bottom of the bank right next to the water.  I moved my feet three or four ways trying to figure out how I could stand to get a swing at the ball.  Looking back, I should have stood on the rock that was just away from my ball, but it felt uncomfortable under my feet.  So I found my stance, hit the ball solidly, and as I was swinging, I suddenly felt the ground give way under my feet.  I watched the ball fly softly onto the green as I was standing up to my ankles in muddy water.

            Today is Trinity Sunday, and if you will pardon the analogy, the Trinity is the Church’s way of making sure that you are standing upon solid ground when you speak or think about God.  The Trinity is the Church’s way of offering a solid, dependable, useful and sufficiently complex way of picturing and speaking of God.  And not because the doctrine of the Trinity makes God simple or easily understood, but precisely because it captures the mystery and truth of God does the Trinity offer us solid ground for all our living.

            The cynic or modern critic says that the doctrine of the Trinity is a third and fourth century invention that speaks of God in Greek abstract philosophical terms.  Like much criticism, this dismissal of the Trinity holds a grain of truth.  But where you stand often determines what you see.  Jürgen Moltmann, one of the world’s leading theologians, says, “The Trinity is the Church’s way of saying that the story of Jesus is part and parcel of the story of the God of Israel.”  This makes the Triune God, or the thought of a Trinitarian God, something you can find traces of nearly anywhere you look in the New Testament.

            Today in John’s Gospel Jesus says, “All that the Father has is mine….  When the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all the truth….”  This is Trinitarian language, or traces of the Trinity, found in the New Testament three hundred years before the doctrine of the Trinity was created by the Church.

            In 2006 our denomination adopted a wonderful study paper on the Trinity called, “God’s Love Overflowing.”  The committee of ten included three of our denomination’s best and most able theologians: Daniel Migliore, Cynthia Rigsby and Amy Plantinga Pauw.  They based their work on Romans 5.  Romans 5 begins, “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ….  More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, which has been given to us.”  Again, we hear Trinitarian language, three hundred years before the Church had a doctrine of the Trinity.  This is what Saint Augustine called, “traces of the Trinity.”  Augustine saw these traces everywhere – in scripture, in creation, in human relationships of love, in the human acts of remembering, knowing and willing.

            I love what “God’s Love Overflowing” says: “The mystery of the Trinity is an open and radiant mystery.  It is the mystery of the truth that God is Holy, abundant, overflowing love, both in relationship to us, and in all eternity.  We meet God’s threefold love in the astonishing faithfulness of the Holy One in Israel, in the costly grace given to us in Jesus Christ our Savior, and in the life in communion with God and others that has come to us in the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

            Life is mysterious and complex.  If we are to speak of God honestly, it must include this mystery and complexity.  Yet I would also say that at heart, the doctrine of the Trinity proclaims the simplest and most profound truth of all: God is love.

            God is one.  This is the ground of all Trinitarian thought.  “You shall have no other gods before me.”  But God is not lonely, or ever solitaire.  God exists in a relationship of perfect love.  And the reason the world, the created order, is so complex and diverse and breathtakingly beautiful is because God, in God’s very being, is complex and diverse and breathtakingly beautiful.  Beauty and diversity are also traces of the Trinity that reveal to us something of who God is.

            Let us start with diversity.  We hear this word wherever we go.  In higher education, it has become our religion, the unquestioned idol we serve.  In the absence of a God we can talk about, we have turned diversity into our god.  Luther said, “Whatever thy heart clings to, that properly is thy God.”  Diversity was God’s idea in the first place.  We engage in plagiarism when we cite an idea without giving credit to the source.  Diversity is God’s great idea that we have plagiarized without due acknowledgement!  Just look at creation – the generous, abundant, extravagant variety of flora and fauna speaks of God’s love for a diverse world.  Thirty-eight different species of warblers live in Middle Tennessee alone!  God loves diversity, for God is the one who first thought of it.  These are still more traces of the Trinity.

            But God is diverse even within the Divine Being.  God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  God is three distinct persons, yet remains undivided, one.  Gregory of Nazianzus was born in 329 in modern-day Turkey, and died in 390.  He was Bishop of Sasima, then Bishop of Nazianzus, then for a short period, Bishop of Constantinople.  We call him Gregory the Theologian, and along with Gregory of Nyssa and Basil the Great, the Bishop of Caesarea, we call him one of the Cappadocian Fathers.  Gregory of Nazianzus understood this Triune character of God, this three distinct or different Persons that remain undivided, or one, in all their difference.  God models for us in the Godhead how we are to live in the midst of all our God-created diversity.  He said once, “No sooner do I conceive of the one, than I am illumined by the splendor of the three; no sooner do I distinguish them than I am carried back to the one.”

            To draw close to another human being is to discover how incredibly different from you they are.  That is why God calls us “peculiar treasurers” in the Book of Exodus.  (Some of us are more peculiar than others!)  Yet in all our differences, God models for us in the Trinity that we are to remain one – undivided by what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has called “the dignity of difference.”  Sacks says difference has dignity because God created it.

            But note one more trait revealed to us by God’s Trinitarian nature: It is God’s overflowing love, or God’s abundant, extravagant generosity.  We see traces of this in the lushness, the lavish beauty of the world.  We also see it in the Incarnation – in God the Father’s giving of God the Son (this only Son!) – born a helpless baby in Bethlehem.  God’s gift to the world that forever changed the world is Jesus the Son.  And of course, we just celebrated Pentecost – the coming of the Holy Spirit “like the rush of a might wind.”  Paul is right: “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.”

            God is staggeringly, abundantly, astonishingly generous.  When God gets to giving, God does not know when to stop.  (If you don’t get that God’s generosity calls us to be generous, then you miss the very heart of the Gospel!)  The Trinity is God in action.  In creation, God said, “Let there be light.”  In the Incarnation, Jesus came down “and having loved His own who were in the world, loved them to the end.”  And by the Holy Spirit, God is pouring out Divine love into our hearts.  God is Triune – Three, yet perfectly one.  And this, dear friends, is great good news for us.  It is terra firma – solid ground that holds.


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