Triune Love

Our brains are way too small to comprehend God. The Trinity is what makes sense of what we know about God, even though we really can’t fully explain it.


John Wesley once said, “Show me a worm that can comprehend a human being, and then I will show you a human being that can comprehend the Triune God.” Martin Luther’s comment was even more to the point. “To try to comprehend the Trinity endangers your sanity.”

I tend to agree with Justo Gonzalez who once said, “Trinity is a mystery, not a puzzle. You try to solve the puzzle; you stand in awe before a mystery.”


We run into this problem of addressing the Trinity in how to address God in prayer. The typical formula for Christian prayer is to begin the prayer by addressing God in general or addressing the first person of the Trinity.


The prayer closes by reminding ourselves that we pray through Jesus. This is because Jesus promised that whatever we ask Jesus it will be done by his father. Jesus said, “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.” (John 14:13, ESV)


Now if we want to be really ambitious in prayer, we might add the Holy Spirit in there too, like we might do on Trinity Sunday. At times, a prayer might be concluded by adding the whole Trinity by person, “In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”


Only rarely, have I ever heard or seen a prayer that begins by addressing the Trinity. When that happens something really big is coming, like a confession.


So, I will examine the thing we cannot comprehend. I will begin a crazy quest. Let’s begin with the first person of the Trinity, sometimes called Father. And let’s begin by looking at a classic prayer.


When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we begin by saying, “Our Father.” We are addressing God, but we say, “Our Father.” What does it mean to call God, “Father?”


This comes from Jewish tradition. When Jews refer to a father, they can mean a direct biological father or they can mean a relative or a rabbi may be called “father.” Abraham is sometimes referred to as “father Abraham.” This is because there is a sense that we are all children of Abraham.


There are several Old Testament examples where God is referred to as “Father.” The same reasoning is that we are children of God. The term was used before the Babylonian exile, but became more popular after the return from the exile. This may be because there was a great desire for more intimacy with God so that the mistakes of the past are not repeated and the Jews would not be exiled again.


When Jesus taught his disciples how to pray, Jesus taught them a typical Jewish prayer. Jesus began with, “Our Father in heaven.” This might be because there will be no question about what father is being referred to here. It is God – in heaven. The prayer addresses God. Jesus could have begun by merely saying, “God.” Instead, Jesus chose a term with more intimacy.


Now a side note. When we say God the Father, we are repeating centuries of tradition that we inherited from middle eastern and Roman cultures. God gets the Father role for Jesus because Mary is his mother. It seems to me that God is beyond gender.


God did something radical. God took on human flesh and gender in the incarnation. Jesus was human and divine. AND, and he didn’t go crazy. He was focused.


As Paul reminds the Romans, we have access to God through Jesus. (Romans 5:10f) Through Jesus we receive God’s grace and many benefits: justification by faith, peace, hope, and sharing in God’s glory. Jesus shares his relationship with God to us. This can only happen because Jesus is God. This is a divine act.


It was only Jesus who could destroy the bonds of death. It was only Jesus who could resurrect and ascend into heaven. All of this was prefigured by the few that Jesus brought back to life after they died. The last person Jesus did this for, Lazarus, was the last straw for the authorities and led to Jesus’ execution. And in that crucifixion, sin was vanquished and we were reconciled with God – a divine act.


Jesus’ divinity provoked a problem for Christianity. If Jesus is God, are we monotheists or polytheists? The early church struggled to define it. It was largely accepted that Christianity was monotheistic. The sticky part was defining Jesus with God – but Jesus is God. How does that work?


The settlement came with the Council of Nicaea which produced the Nicene Creed, version one. Jesus is of one being with God the Father. Jesus is eternal from before time and forever. It was a majority vote and those opposed continued to oppose Jesus’ oneness with God for centuries. The difference in theology was very fine.


Once the relationship of God and Jesus was officially resolved, the question of the status of the Holy Spirit needed resolution. Christians used the term Father, Son, and Holy Spirit from the first century. In Matthew, Jesus commands us to baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Jesus told his disciples that the Holy Spirit would be with them.


The Holy Spirit comes from Judaism. The Spirit was active in creation in Genesis 1. The Spirit is referred to in the psalms and the prophets.


We celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost Sunday by recalling the disciples receiving the Holy Spirit giving them the power to proclaim Jesus’ story and teachings. This was a divine spark. Paul refers to the Holy Spirit many times as, principally, the engine of the church and of Christians.


The First Council of Constantinople amended the Nicene Creed to include the Holy Spirit as God and as proceeding from the Father, not the Father and the Son. That was a western, unofficial, addition.


In John 16, Jesus promises that the Spirit of truth will guide us in all truth. Then Jesus implies that the Spirit will, in essence, impart God’s wisdom to us through the Spirit. Jesus combines the Trinity by saying that Jesus has all that the Father has and the Spirit will declare to us what Jesus has. I have no clue how all of that works but I have experiences of it.


The core of God’s expression to us is love. That is the core of our relationship with God. That is what Jesus commanded us to do. That is what the Holy Spirit declares to us. I suppose, I could summarize the Holy Trinity as three expressions of love. But that might create more problems than it solves.


It is this incomprehensible, divine, love that beckons us. Our response is to return God’s love and to love one another. This gives us a taste of the divine. As Paul says, “The same Spirit agrees with our spirit, that we are God’s children. But if we are children, we are also heirs. We are God’s heirs and fellow heirs with Christ.” (Romans 8:16-17a, CEB)


The Holy Trinity is in many ways incomprehensible. There is one God. However, we experience God in three ways. I don’t think that God is limited to three, but that is what we perceive. The glue is love. We are created, in love, to have a relationship with God. To make that love visible, Jesus came among us. The Holy Spirit makes those connections permanent for those who choose to see.


“God is love” (1 John 4:18b) and we are “children of God.”[1]  If we never experienced love, then there would be no God. We get a taste of God’s love here, in this life. Yet, there is a much greater love that waits us in the life to come.


Text: John 16:12–15

[1] Children of God has Old Testament roots, but is explicit in: The Beatitudes, John 1 and 11, Romans 8 and 9, Philippians 2, 1 John 2, 3, and 5.

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