June 11, 2006
Please turn in the pew Bibles to Romans chapter 8 and follow along as I read verses 12-17.
12 So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh--
13 for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.
14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.
15 For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, "Abba! Father!"
16 it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God,
17 and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ--if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.
Amen. The Word of God. Thanks be to God.
OK, close your books; Get out a pencil and paper. We are going to have a test today. If you don’t pass, you can’t leave, so pay attention. First question. Which verse in the Bible uses the word “Trinity”? That is a trick question. The word “Trinity” is not in the Bible.
Next question: What is the difference between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit? That is not a trick question, but it is a question that we have no hard and fast answer for.
The answer to question 5 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism says that we believe in one “living and true God.” That is, we are monotheists. But in question 6 we also affirm that we believe in “three persons in the Godhead.” That is, we affirm the deity of Jesus Christ and the deity of the Holy Spirit and the deity of the Father. Your first response to that might be, “Well, that sounds like three Gods.” No, one God, but these three persons all somehow one God.
Notice that I did not say that God has three personalities. We are not saying that God has some kind of split personality disorder. That would make God mentally ill, and I do not think we want to affirm that.
But the doctrine of the Trinity states that God is three in one. Unfortunately, it does not tell us how there can be three persons in one God. You may have heard several illustrations that try to help us with this problem.
Many children learn in Sabbath school that the Trinity is like water, which can be a gas, a solid, or a liquid but is still water, so it is three, and it is one. Or we might use the egg as an illustration. The egg has yolk, white and shell, but it is still just one egg.
St. Patrick is famous for his shamrock explanation of the Trinity. According to the story, Patrick took a shamrock and asked the Irish chieftains: "Is this one leaf or three? If one leaf, why are there three lobes of equal size? If three leaves, why is there just one stem?" Even so, said Patrick, God is three leaves of Father son, and Holy Ghost, and yet one God.
In Mathematics, the equilateral triangle is the most popular symbol for the Trinity. You sometimes see that triangle on Chrismon trees, representing our Triune God. But math can be a two-edged sword in this discussion. Addition does not work to explain the Trinity. 1 + 1 + 1 = 3. Thus, you could say if you add three deities, you get three Gods. On the other hand, multiplication seems to work: 1 x 1 x 1 = 1. Thus multiplying the three persons in the godhead gives us just one God.
Now if these metaphors and illustrations help you understand the Trinity, fine, but ultimately they all fall short. A skeptic might say that just because we can find a threeness in some things does not prove that God is a threeness. And that is a valid objection.
Historically, the Church has always debated what we mean by the doctrine of the Trinity. For example, in the early fourth century, Arius (AD 256-336), the Bishop of Alexandria, taught that the Son is not eternal and is subordinate to the Father. This view is called Arianism, and is still held today by the Jehovah’s Witnesses. In AD 325, the Emperor Constantine convoked the Council of Nicaea, which overwhelmingly rejected Arius. The council wrote the Nicene creed which emphatically affirms the diety of Christ .and the equal status in the godhead of Father, Son, Holy Ghost. I guess the Jehovah’s Witnesses never got the word on that.
We affirm the Nicene creed, but ultimately we recognize that creeds are only signposts that point the way of faith. Creeds outline doctrine. Creeds don’t explain doctrine.
So where shall we go for an explanation of the Trinity? Let us try Romans 8. First of all, in verses 12-13, Paul urges his Roman readers to discern the difference between living for self and living for the Spirit. Paul then shifts to the language of relationships. Those who live by the Spirit are adopted by the Father as children of God and are co-heirs with Christ (8:14-17).
Paul tells us the purpose of the Trinity. The purpose of the divine threeness is to rescue us from a self-destructive way of living and bring us into relationship with God,.
The best word to describe God's nature, God's being, God's focus, is “relationship.” Our connection with the Trinity is a heartfelt relationship that is made real through the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost "bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God" (8:16).
Now, in the first century this was dangerous talk. In the first century, if you declared yourself a daughter or son of God, you declared that you were equal to the Roman Emperor. The first emperor Augustus proclaimed that his adopted father, Julius Caesar, was a god, hence Augustus was son of God. All the other emperors continued and intensified this emperor worship.
Paul certainly knew this. He knew that to speak of our divine adoption was treason, which could get his head chopped off. Why then is this so important that no matter what the danger he is going to tell us about it anyway?
First of all Paul wants to assure us of our ultimate safety. When we are led by the Spirit of God, we become children of God. With our adoption, God, the Father of this divine family, extends his protection and comfort to us, assuring us of eternal life. This assurance is given to us through God's Spirit, which was the expression of God's activity. Through divine adoption, we become a new family, and this family never ceases to be.
A second reason Paul wanted to tell us about our divine adoption was to contrast the kingdom of Christ, and the kingdom of the Roman emperors. For the Romans, divinity was established through war. If you won battles you got to call yourself a son of god or even a god. The kingdom of the divine Son Jesus Christ has a different source. It is the kingdom of love.
In these verses from Romans, Paul does not use the word “Trinity.” And he certainly is not attempting to describe God. He is rather describing our experience of God. He speaks of our relationship with God in terms of our membership in God’s family. Because we are members of that family, we are assured of God’s presence among us. This assurance derives primarily from Jesus of Nazareth. God is with us. How do we know that? In Jesus, God showed us that he is with us. He came among us and lived as one of us, as a human being.
As members of the family of God, we also understand God as providence. That is, we see God working in the history of the church. Since Pentecost, the Holy Spirit of God has been working in the church to make God’s gathered people into a light for all humankind.
Thirdly we experience God as power in our own lives and in the world. We see God’s power and influence in that God is moving the whole universe towards its predestined end. So we can speak of a Trinity of God’s Presence, Providence, and Power, but that is the same as the Son, the Holy Ghost, and the Father.
It is in the gospels that we know of God’s presence in Jesus, in the history of the church that we know God’s providence, in our own experience and in our hope that we dare speak of divine power. Thus, the actions of God for us indicate the nature of God. God is what God does. If God actions show us God’s presence, providence, and power, then God is Presence, Providence, and Power in his very being.
We assume that God cannot be less that what God can do. The actions of God tell us the nature of God, and the actions of God reveal that God is about relationships. God’s presence, providence, and power describe how the Triune God relates to us.
C.S. Lewis, in his book, Mere Christianity, describes the action of the Trinity in a Christian at prayer. "What I mean is this" he writes. "An ordinary simple Christian kneels down to say his prayers. He is trying to get into touch with God. But if he is a Christian he knows that what is prompting him to pray is also God: God so to speak, inside him. But he also knows that all real knowledge of God comes through Christ, the Man who was God - that Christ is standing beside him, helping him to pray, praying for him. You see what is happening. God is the thing to which he is praying - the goal he is trying to reach. God is also the thing inside him which is pushing him on - the motive power. God is also the road or bridge along which he is being pushed to that goal. The whole threefold life of the three-personal Being is actually going on in that ordinary act of prayer."
So Lewis describes the Trinity in terms of relationship with us. The Apostle Paul does the same thing in Romans 8. Christian theologians have often thought that when they talked about the Trinity, they were describing God. In fact, the Trinity is not just about God, it is about God and us. The Trinity is about God relating to us as creator, redeemer, sanctifier.
John of Damascus, one of the early church fathers who lived during the late seventh and early eighth centuries, used the Greek word “perichoresis” to describe the oneness and threeness of God. “Perichoresis,” loosely translated from Greek, means "circle dance."
I asked earlier: “What is the difference between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit?” John of Damascus would say that is the wrong question. John would say that we should not be concerned about the distinctiveness of the persons nor the unity of the persons, nor the equality of the persons, nor the sameness of the substance of the godhead. Moreover, John would argue that a triangle is an entirely wrong-headed approach to the Trinity.
John saw the Trinity as a creative circle dance of God with the world. The Trinity is a divine dynamic community defined by love. In a circle to see one is to see all; to dance with one is to dance with all. To be invited into the Trinitarian circle, is to be invited into a love relationship where we see God face to face.
And God extends this invitation to each of us. God calls us into his family, into his circle, to live in assurance and hope. That is God’s invitation. How are you responding to that invitation? God wants to include us in his love.
Last question of today’s test: Are you included? Are you included in God’s family circle? I hope your are. Amen.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
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