The Holy Trinity - What's in a Name
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him."
The idea of “identity crisis” comes to mind whenever I think about the work of preaching on Holy Trinity Sunday – describing what this Holy Trinity thing is all about, I mean. This Sunday is one of the few, if not the only Sunday of the church year, when we’re invited – and where I feel challenged – to preach and teach and worship around a proclamation of the Church moreso than simply the teachings of Jesus.
What I mean is, this whole notion of the Trinity – the word itself, in particular – isn’t something Jesus ever actually bothered with. It’s a word and a notion and a theological understanding that has developed as believers have tried to wrap their brains around who God is. And, I’d like to think, it’s something we’ve constructed as we’ve struggled to go about introducing the God we worship to the world around us.
It can be more than a little confusing – the usual language around it all. And most of us know about the language of the Trinity – the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Some theologians talk about those titles as references to “Persons” of the Trinity, saying things like, God is “at once three persons and at the same time one being.” There are even pictures that put all of this confusing, philosophical, theological stuff into words and images that try to make sense of it. Sometimes they look like this:
It can be a bit much, really. Smarter people than me are better at it than I am, I admit. And I don’t blame people – especially non-believers – who might doze off or let their eyes and ears and hearts gloss-over to hear someone speak of it all this way. So I’ll stop. But there’s more to be said – and better ways to say it, I think.
And I was reminded of that recently when I was tutoring over Doe Creek Middle School, which I do most Monday afternoons during the school year. One Monday this semester, a table of boys – most of them new to me – showed up for the first time. When I asked if any of them needed help with anything in particular – preferably anything particularly NOT math, they said “no,” but “thanks.” Then one of the boys said, “Your Jack’s dad, right?” And, caught off guard a bit, I said “Yes,” and asked him his name.
Not knowing if I’d ever seen this kid before and wondering how he recognized me, it made me think about the many different ways a person can be known in the world. To the kid in the middle school library – and to the rest of my sons’ friends – I was and am only Jackson’s dad, or Max’s dad, as far as I can tell. To a lot of other kids around town, like the ones who know me here, as well – people from Cross of Grace, like all of you – I’m not only Jackson’s dad, or Max’s dad, I’m also Pastor Mark.
To a lot of other kids around town, like the ones who know me here, as well – people from Cross of Grace, like all of you – I’m not only Jackson’s dad, or Max’s dad, I’m also Pastor Mark.
And that’s not all. I have lots of different names and ways of being known in the world. I’m also a husband to Christa.
I’m a son to my parents...
a brother to my brother...
and I’m a friend to more people than I deserve it seems to me.
In fact, when it comes to some of my friends, there are still a handful of them for whom this title of “Pastor Mark,” is hard to believe, even 17 years in. I got a Facebook message from one of my fraternity brothers on Tuesday who jokingly called me “Father” – because this pastor-thing is still such a strange notion to so many who knew me way back when.
So you get the idea. We all have titles and names and ways of identifying ourselves that describe and define who we are to the world around us. And one way to consider the notion of the Trinity might be to imagine that God – the Father, Son and Holy Spirit – can be the same way.
But what matters most about all of those identities and descriptions, isn’t just the name or the title that goes along with each one. What matters most is the relationship that’s fostered or made known by each of them.
I suspect that kid in the middle school library knew I was Jackson’s dad because he’d seen us together a time or two. I hope he believed I was his dad because he’d seen us walking around town together, or seen me rooting for him at the baseball diamond, cheering for him at a basketball game or tennis match, or dropping him off for school in the morning. All of that – the stuff we do in relationship to each other – is what makes me Jack’s Father, more than any word or title or description else.
And that’s how I try to make sense of and to celebrate the God we identify as “Father,” “Son,” and “Holy Spirit.”
We say “Father,” “Son” and “Holy Spirit,” because those are words Jesus used to describe a relationship. We talk about a “Father” – as in a perfect parent – who creates and who loves and who guides and who leads. We understand a “Son” to be a child who obeys and who honors and who is created, by grace, just like the rest of us. We listen for a “Holy Spirit” that is promised and delivered and who comes to somehow transcend time and space to inspire, encourage and enlighten us, according to the will and wishes of the divine.
Just like I can no longer be known fully outside of my relationship to my children; just like I can no longer be known fully outside of my relationship with my wife; just like I can no longer be known fully outside of my relationships as the Pastor of this place; God cannot be fully known outside of the different and holy ways that the Father, Son and Spirit relate to one another and to the world as we know it.
The reason the Trinity matters is that it’s one way – one way … however incomplete and insufficient … of understanding God’s nature among us. And the main reason that matters, if you ask me, is because understanding God’s relationship to us will help us share God’s love with the world. It is because of and through the God who loves us like a prefect parent, who resembles us in the Son, and who speaks to and through us in the Spirit that we can engage, by grace, and in life-giving relationships with the world.
And when we do that, we shine light into darkness, we bring hope where there is none, we comfort the lonely, and we speak of new life, even, in the face of death. We become the hands, the feet, the voice and the heart of God – Father, Son and Spirit – in loving relationship for and with the world in God’s name.