The Threefold Nature of God

Trinity Sunday is on us once again. I am always grateful for it, because annually it forces me to go back and dig deeply into the mystery at the center of the Christian faith--the Trinity--and what that means about God and us. The doctrine of the Trinity itself cannot be found explicitly in scripture. Yet, it is scriptural to its core. It is the result of the church's some 250 years of reflecting on scripture and on its experience of God's self-revelation, as those encounters are recorded in scripture and the church's continuing experience of God over us, of God with us, and of God in us. Once a year it is good for us to think hard about the threefold nature of God the Bible reveals to us as the Holy Trinity.1

God is one: shema yisrael, adoni eloheynu, adoni echod, "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord."2 This ancient confession from Deuteronomy is foundational to all that we say about God--God is one in essence, unity, being, power, holiness and purpose. We talk so much about the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit that we need to remember that they are three portions of the one reality we call God--the One the prophet Isaiah encounters in the temple in Jerusalem.

Isaiah catches but a glimpse of the hem of God's robe, and even that is so imbued with God's holiness that Isaiah must turn away his eyes, crying out, "Woe is me." Of the many things being said in this first lesson, central is this vision of God's holiness, God's wholly otherness, God's separateness, if you will--that is what holy means. God within God's self is so separate from everything else in existence, so different, that we simply have no reference for God--no analogy will completely do. Theologians know that every metaphor for God finally breaks down. God is like but not like; nothing in creation is comparable to God.3 So wholly other is God that even the seraphs--those heavenly beings that guard God's throne--shield their eyes with their wings as they cry out their eternal hymn of praise: "Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord...." Yet their song reveals something more about God than God's holiness. As holy, as wholly other as God is, not only heaven, but also the earth is filled with God's glory, full with God's presence. Here is the divine contradiction: God who is one, who is so beyond and unlike anything in the created order that nothing can be compared to God, is nonetheless personal, fully present, and at work in this world, and revealing God's self to the world in ways that can be encountered and comprehended. Isaiah cries out, "Woe is me, I am lost"--"undone" is how the King James puts it--"for I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips, yet--yet, my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts." God, who is holy, and wholly other than us, is also for us and present to us.

The Bible reveals this God coming to us in three distinct ways, as three distinct co-equals--over, with and in us--who are nonetheless the same God. God is over us as our source, our creator, our protector, the One above and beyond who governs justly throughout all creation--King and Lord--the Divine Parent Jesus called "Father," beginning and preserving all things. But this One God is also a loving savior, gracious, merciful, and has revealed himself as a Son, determined to overcome the gulf between the holy and the profane, reconciling, liberating, and saving--redeeming the profane from its lost-ness so that we might live in communion with God. And this God not only creates, governs and preserves, reveals, loves and redeems, this One also renews, transforms, empowers and sustains everything within creation and remains eternally present to us. All of this is the work of the One God who is indivisible in being, purpose and work; God is one.

Yet this one God has revealed God's self to us in three different ways: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The western church has called each of these ways "persons," not to differentiate them as individual gods, but to identify them as the three different ways God has revealed God's self to us, as well as the three different ways the three are related to one another within the unity of God's being: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.4

Father: the Father is the Father, not because God is a male--God is beyond all gender, male or female--nor because the first person of the Godhead is like a father. Remember, nothing in the created order is suitable for defining God and capturing God's essence, save what God gives us. We call the first person Father because this is the Father of the Son and the source of the Spirit. We call the first person of the Godhead "Father" because this is what Jesus called him and taught us to call him in Jesus' name. Through Jesus, the One Jesus called "Abba Father," is also "Our Father" the source of all that is.

Son: we call the second person of the Godhead "Son" because he comes from the Father, was sent by God as God's incarnation to reveal God to us, to be God with us, to live out his life with and for us as one of us. He was not a hologram; he flesh and blood. We know Jesus as the Son not only because he was male and flesh, but as the gospel of John confesses, because of his life lived out in filial obedience to his Father.5 And as Jesus prepares to return to his Father, he promised another Advocate--the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit--the present tense of God.6

The Spirit of God is the wind of God Jesus spoke of in today's gospel, who blows where it will, whose work is to give new birth from above, to transform, renew, sustain, to make us children of God. The Spirit is the lifeline through whom the risen Son is present to us in life--it is the Spirit's work to make bread and wine Jesus' body and blood for us and to use it as the means of drawing us into Christ's risen presence so that we can feed on him. The Holy Spirit is the wireless connection between us and the Son and us and the Father because they are "hard-wired" together in the one essence we call God.

The Father is not the Son or the Spirit, but the Father, Creator of heaven and earth. The Son is neither the Father nor the Spirit, but God in human flesh, sent as the Savior to redeem the world through divine love. The Spirit is neither the Father nor the Son, but God's present tense with us now, the means through whom you and I come to experience and know God, and who initiates within us the desire and ability to call out to God. Father, Son and Holy Spirit--three distinct means of God being over and above us, with and for us, and in and among us, and three distinct relationships with one another, who are nonetheless one in essence, will, purpose and work. What one wills all three will, what one does all three do--they work in concert, the three playing their different parts--three voices emerging from the same string at the same time, forming a trio of melodies that harmonize into one glorious sound, in order to accomplish the same purpose--as indivisible in their work as they are in their being--One God in three co-equal persons.

It has been said that every Christian heresy is, at bottom, a Trinitarian heresy which has resulted from our separating the will and the work of the one member of the Godhead from the other two. Remember, what One wills all Three will, and what One does all Three do. And so, though we call the Father Creator of heaven and earth, remember that the Son and the Spirit were also present at creation, working as co-equals in God's work.7 And though we call Jesus the Redeemer and the Savior of the world, remember, the Father and the Spirit were also at work in that act of atonement, redemption and salvation.8 And though we call the Spirit the Sanctifier and Sustainer of life, the Father and the Son are also both at work accomplishing that transformation within us: creating, redeeming and sustaining us as God's holy children.9 What one does all three do; each is involved in everything God does.

We have another problem in the western Church, especially in the Protestant traditions, and that is we tend to think of God from the top down. Rather than identify Father, Son and Holy Spirit as three co-equals who, in the community of mutual love and essence, are One God, we think of the Father as the one who is really God, with the Son and the Spirit subordinates that the Father sends forth to do God's work, as though they were divine footmen. That gets us into the craziness of the loving Son offering his life as a guilt offering to appease an angry and vengeful Father. Or we think of the Father as someone separated and disconnected from the Son and the Spirit and wonder how it is that Jesus can say, "No one comes to the Father except by me." When you remember that God is Father, Son and Spirit, co-equals bound in the unity of their mutual love and divine essence, it becomes clear what Jesus is saying: he and the Father and the Spirit are One, we simply cannot encounter one without the other. Jesus is the one in the Godhead whose role it is to reveal God and reconcile us to God, to be the one through whom we are able to enter God's Holy presence, and the Spirit is the one who transports us there, if you will. When one encounters God, one encounters all three, whether one knows it or not.

This is the mystery of God we celebrate today: God over and above us, God for and with us, God in and among us, One God, the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ, the God who in the waters of baptism makes us his own, the God who meets us at table to give us the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation, the God who is in us and among us, using us to share the good news of his love and purpose for us all.

The Word of the Lord; thanks be to God.

Let us pray.

Most Holy God, Father Son, and Holy Spirit, mystery above us, beyond us, yet in and with us, we give you thanks that you have given yourself to us in Jesus Christ and that you continue to be present to us by your Spirit. Fill us and use us. Make us your people. Receive our thanks we pray, in your holy name. Amen.

1 I want to acknowledge my indebtedness to three authors and their work: Shirley C. Guthrie, Church Doctrine, Revised Edition, (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994); Cynthia M. Campbell, "Trinity," Encyclopedia of the Reformed Faith, Donald K. McKim, Ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992; and H.E.W. Turner, "Trinity, Doctrine of the," A Dictionary of Christian Theology, Alan Richardson, Ed., (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1969). Their work has helped me keep the complexities of the mystery of the Trinity straight. Whatever errors are here, are simply mine.

2 Deuteronomy 6:4

3 Isaiah 40:18, 25; 46:5

4 The Eastern Church has used "one essence in three hypostases," hypostasis meaning one of the three distinct entities or "substances" within the undivided essence of God.

5 John 4:34

6 Remember, we have two Advocates-the Son and the Spirit-both advocate for us before the Father. One of the reasons the Spirit could not come until the Son had returned to the Father was so that we would always have an Advocate in the Father's "immediate" presence.

7 John 1:3; Colossians 1:16; Genesis 1:2

8 2 Corinthians 5:19; Ephesians 2:18

9 1 Thessalonians 5:23; Ephesians 5:26