May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be fruitful in your sight, O God. Amen
Last Sunday, Pentecost Sunday, the lectionary focused on the Holy Spirit and the beginnings of the Christian church. Sometimes Pentecost is referred to as the birthday of the church.
Today we begin the longest season of the church year. The Time after Pentecost. Our paraments turn green and the focus is on the life of the church. Just like the world around us the growth of the church needs water and sunlight and the proper nutrients to reach its full potential. To understand ways in which to nurture that growth, we need to understand who and what the church is. Throughout history various individuals and groups have worked together to provide us with this information by doing theology---literally the study of God. Their goal has been, and continues to be, to figure out who this God is that the church worships. How should God be defined? What kind of God is God? Today is one of the few Sundays in the church lectionary where we take time to look at the answers to these questions by focusing on God as Trinity. While it is not easy to explain a God that is transcendent, that exists beyond the boundaries of space and time, it is important that an attempt be made to talk about God in terms that we humans can understand, because how we talk about God, what we believe about God, does make a difference.
In both the Apostolic and Nicene Creed we speak of God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. These are our confessions of faith that come from early in the life of the church as the Church Fathers struggled to explain God as Trinity. In our opening hymn we sang, “God in three persons, blessed Trinity.” How can one God be three persons? Part of the problem here is the way in which words are translated. Tertullian, who lived in the 2nd and 3rd Century is credited with originating the term Trinity. For him God was a fundamental unity or substance with three personifications. The Latin word persona that he used actually meant mask, such as an actor would put on as they portrayed different roles. The idea was that God is always one even though outwardly there is an appearance of diversity. This God acts in distinct but coordinated ways. While appearing different, these personas are not separate or independent. This concept is not easy to grasp and theologians continue to try to explain just what the Trinity is. For most of us we may need to accept that this is a mystery that we will never fully understand, yet we use these images whenever we confess the Creed. Why is this important? For the Early church fathers there were a variety of groups who had different opinions about who God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit were. Some groups said that Jesus was only a human being, some that when Jesus died God made him into a deity, others that Jesus was only God and never human. Some individuals wanted to say that Christians actually worshipped three Gods and it was important to the Church Fathers that Christians clearly worshipped one God. This led to outright hostility between different Christian groups and other religions. Those groups that viewed God differently were considered to be practicing heresy. Sometimes this led to ‘heretical’ groups being persecuted and even sentenced to death. In one case it led to a Great Schism in the church. You may never have noticed the footnote in your hymnal for the Nicene Creed where instead of reading the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son’ that instead it can be stated that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father” and that “The phrase ‘from the Son’ is a later addition to the creed.” Why, you ask would that make a difference? Actually, it made such a difference, that when it was added it eventually caused the Eastern or Orthodox churches to split from the Roman church in 1054. A division that has continued to this day. Words matter. Beliefs matter. Even today, you will discover that different churches exist because they view God differently. Following the instructions in Mathew 28:19 to the disciples to “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…” a church is considered to be Christian if they use the Trinitarian formula in baptism, however, there are churches who consider themselves Christian who do not use this Trinitarian formula in baptism. Schisms continue to form.
Today, however, is not the day to focus on churches who believe differently than we do. Today we need to focus on how our understanding of a Triune God impacts our lives as Christians.
Terrence E. Fretheim, Luther seminary professor and author of The Suffering of God: An Old Testament Perspective, writes in his introduction “It is not enough to say that one believes in God. What is important finally is the kind of God in who one believes…The images used to speak of God not only decisively determine the way one thinks about God, they have a powerful impact on the shape of the life of the believer. (1)” Looking to our lessons for today we are reminded in Proverbs that Wisdom, was there from the beginning of God’s creation. She is viewed as being feminine in nature. The Hebrew word for Wisdom, hookah, is feminine, as is the Greek word for Wisdom, sophia. She was pre-existent to creation and aware of divine activity, delighting in humanity. Just as Wisdom existed from the beginning so did the Word. In John 1:1 we read, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Jesus is the divine word the Logos that like Wisdom has always existed. Paul reminds us in Romans 5”1-2 that we “have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand: and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God…(and in verse 5).and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” We hear in John’s Gospel reading that Jesus promises his disciples that there is one who will come to them, the Spirit of Truth, who will guide them because all that the Father has belongs to Jesus and that which belongs to Jesus the Holy Spirit will declare to the disciples. The implication of these two readings appears to be that there is a deep connection between the Father, Son, and Spirit. God Jesus, and the Holy Spirit work together.
Beyond looking at the lessons assigned for today, there are other ways in which we can get a glimpse into what kind of God, God is? We can expand our understanding of God by looking at God’s actions throughout history, the way God has appeared, and the ways in which those actions are recorded in scripture while remembering that the way in which those actions have been recorded depend upon the historical, social, and cultural context in which the recorders lived. Historically we have assigned mostly male characteristics to God. Along the way we have become aware that we need to expand our vocabulary when we speak of God to reflect the changes in society and culture. We need to embrace all aspects of God’s being. Looking at the Trinity, expands our understanding of who God is. Because we are trying to define a God that exists beyond our understanding, we need to be careful that we do not limit who God is, by only speaking of God in narrow or limiting terms. There is more to God than we can ever know or comprehend. We run the danger of defining a God that is too small. Instead of limiting God to our narrow perspective, perhaps we should reverse the process. Dr. Fretheim suggest that we begin by remembering that we are created in the image of God. If we are created in God’s image what does that mean for the ways in which we should choose to act. Another Lutheran theologian, Martin Mary asks, “How are our lives a reflection of God’s image?” If we confess in a Triune God who creates, who redeems, and who sanctifies the World; and if we believe in a Triune God who is faithful, loving, gracious, and generous; we need to ask, how then, do our actions reflect the creative, redemptive, and sanctifying work of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit? In what ways do we show faithfulness, love, graciousness, and generosity?
Dear Lord, Thank you for a being a God that is beyond our imagination or experience. Please help us to keep from making you too small. As your child we ask that you open our minds and hearts that we may be a true reflection of your image in word and deed. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we pray. Amen.