Tag: trinity sunday

Sermon: What Is The Trinity and Why Should We Care?

Tomorrow is Trinity Sunday. This is a great opportunity to help one another experience the uniqueness and importance of the doctrine of the Trinity, and the Triune work of God. I hope your Sunday will be wonderful! 

What is the Trinity and Why Should We Care?

John 16:12-15 NIV

12 “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. 13 But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. 14 He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you. 15 All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you.”

Today is Trinity Sunday

Today is Trinity Sunday in the calendar of the Christian Year. Frankly, I’m not sure I have ever preached a sermon on the Trinity as a theological concept. And, there are several reasons for that.

First, the word “Trinity” is not found in the Bible. That is actually not that unusual because there are a number of theological concepts not found explicitly in the Bible that scholars and Church history and tradition have validated over the past 2,000 years. But the absence of direct teaching from the Bible on the Trinity makes it hard to find a passage of Scripture from which to launch out for a sermon. The passage we read today has hints of a trinitarian relationship between God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit, but you have to look carefully for it.

The second reason I haven’t preached directly on the Trinity is because it is a topic, a concept, from the academic discipline called “systematic theology.” Systematic theology, briefly, is the attempt by Christian theologians to craft a coherent understanding of the work of God. Typically systematic theologies are crafted from Scripture, Church tradition, and the overarching philosophy of the particular theologian who is writing. So, the topics of systematic theology tend to be conceptual, and often difficult to explain in a way that doesn’t put a congregation to sleep quickly.

But, the primary reason I think I haven’t preached specifically on the Trinity is because it is one of those doctrines that Christians worldwide affirm, but have great difficulty explaining. The idea of One God in Three Persons — three-in-One — is a concept we have difficulty getting our heads around.

While in seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, I served as associate pastor at a church in Irving. Next door to the church was a large apartment complex that for some reason tended to attract large numbers of international residents. The Dallas-Fort Worth area is home to several major universities such as SMU, TCU, and others, and perhaps that was the draw.

A couple of times young men from the Middle East, mostly Iranians, would come to the church office and ask to speak with a “holy man.” Apparently I was the closest thing we had to one, so I often got to talk with these young Muslim men. The primary thing they wanted to debate with me was the fact that Christianity had three gods. I would then try to explain the Trinity to them, but they, like me, had great difficulty in comprehending how One God could be constructed of Three Persons. I never convinced any of those young men that Christians worshipped One God, but that experience did remind me of how difficult the concept of the Trinity is to explain.

The Trinity in The Shack

Several years ago, an interesting book titled The Shack became a bestseller. The story was compelling, but one aspect of that book sparked discussion and disagreement among Christians. William Paul Young represented the Trinity in a very unique way.

For God the Father, Young portrayed God as a large black woman, who was outgoing, warm-hearted, and kind. For God the Holy Spirit, Young’s persona was that of an Asian woman dressed in bright colors who seemed to dart in and out of sight in a Tinkerbell-like fashion. For Jesus, the author pretty much stayed with the stereotype of Jesus as a workman, complete with jeans, flannel shirt, and toolbelt. Each of these personas of God exhibited unique characteristics, and each had a specific role to play in the fictional story.

But, as creative as that portrayal was, Young’s attempt to give the Trinity personality fell short of capturing the theology fully.

Early Heresies About the Trinity

This idea of the Triune God, the Trinity, is a difficult idea to grasp. And it has been difficult for Christians from the early church down to the present. Some attempts have failed miserably to capture the three-in-oneness of God completely. These imperfect attempts to define the Trinity became early Christian heresies. A heresy is a doctrine or teaching that is incompatible with the Church’s view of Scripture and the traditional understanding of the those who have gone before us.

The two primary heresies about the Trinity, although there are more than two, are modalism and subordinationism. First modalism: there were those who said that God was One God who just appeared in three different roles — or modalities —  as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. A good illustration of this is one I have heard used to describe the Trinity, but unfortunately it falls short.

The example is a easy one to grasp. I am Chuck Warnock, but I am husband to Debbie, father to Amy and Laurie, and pastor to this church. So, I am one person in three roles. But while this sort of gets at one aspect of the Trinity, it is actually a good example of the heresy of “modalism” — one god playing three different parts.

The other heresy is that God the Father is the supreme figure, while both Jesus and the Holy Spirit are subordinate to him in some way. The details are not important, but trust me, this is not what the Bible teaches.

Early Creeds Address Misunderstandings About the Trinity

So, in order to correct the theological conversation, the early Church developed creedal statements that expressed what the Church believed. The first was the Apostles’ Creed, which we looked at in detail several years ago. The Apostles’ Creed simply affirms in three statements a belief in God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

1. I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.

2. And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord;

3. I believe in the Holy Spirit.

But The Apostles’ Creed left the door open for misunderstanding about the Trinity, so the Nicene Creed was developed from 325 AD, and took its final form in 381 AD.

We believe in one God,

the Father, the Almighty,

maker of heaven and earth,

of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,

the only Son of God,

eternally begotten of the Father,

God from God, light from light,

true God from true God,

begotten, not made,

of one Being with the Father;

through him all things were made.

For us and for our salvation

he came down from heaven,

was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary

and became truly human.

For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;

he suffered death and was buried.

On the third day he rose again

in accordance with the Scriptures;

he ascended into heaven

and is seated at the right hand of the Father.

He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,

and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,

who proceeds from the Father [and the Son],

who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified,

who has spoken through the prophets.

We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.

We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.

We look for the resurrection of the dead,

and the life of the world to come. Amen.

Note the detailed explanation of the person of Jesus and the Holy Spirit. These details were included to correct the notion that God the Father was superior to God the Son or God the Holy Spirit. The “essence” of all three persons of the Godhead was, in other words, the same.

Theory Gives Way to Reality

But it’s one thing to assert something about the Trinity, to say we believe in the Triune God, and to embrace a doctrine we cannot fully comprehend or explain. It is another thing entirely to base our understanding of God on what we see God doing.

So, let me make the most important statement about the Trinity that I can make this morning, and that is — Our understanding of the Trinity is based on what we see God has done and is doing in the world.

Let me give you some examples.

In the Old Testament, God is Creator of both the world, and of the nation of Israel through whom he will bless the world. Of course, God is present as Spirit, and the Messiah is both prophesied and foreshadowed in various theophanies (appearances of God, such as the angel who wrestles with Jacob). But primary on the stage of the unfolding drama of the Old Testament is the God of Israel, Yahweh, El-Shaddai, Elohim, Adonai, and all the other names by which God is called and worshipped.

In the New Testament Gospel accounts, the emphasis is upon Jesus — his birth, his baptism, his message, his life, his death, and his resurrection. But God the Father approves his Son, and the Holy Spirit descends upon — anoints — Jesus for ministry.

In the New Testament Book of Acts and the epistles, the Holy Spirit is at the forefront, equipping, enabling, guiding, empowering the early church.

In the Book of Revelation, God the Father, Son, and Spirit are all present, each featured in a way that is both consistent with the Old Testament, witnesses to the New Testament, and brings fully into being the Kingdom of God in its closing chapters.

Why Should We Care?

Okay, that surveys the “What is the Trinity?” question, even though I am sure you probably have more questions now than when we began. But to keep this from being merely an academic exercise, we need to turn our attention to “Why do we care?”

This is what’s important and what we need to understand. Doctrine is important, but doctrine comes from the lived experiences of God’s people as they interpret the work of God in the real world.

First, the reason we should care about the Trinity, and be aware of the uniqueness of the One-in-Three and Three-in-One is this: Without a balanced view of all three persons of the Trinity, we can misinterpret the work of God in this world.

For instance, if we emphasize some aspects of God in the Old Testament, and subordinate Jesus and the Spirit, then we come away with a picture of a god of wrath and judgment, who has little compassion. One very well known Baptist preacher did just that after the tornadoes in Oklahoma last week, when he compared the tornadoes that hit Oklahoma with the story of Job who lost all of his children to a mighty wind that collapsed Job’s house.

If we emphasize the person of Jesus to the exclusion of God the Father and the Holy Spirit, we miss out on the fact that God sent Jesus because “God so loved the world…” The purpose of God is to redeem the world, not just the individuals in it. Salvation is the work of God, and that salvation extends not just to individuals but to God’s creation as well. Another famous and trendy preacher was quoted as saying that Jesus is coming back to burn up the world, so he can drive a huge SUV because he’s not worried about this physical earth. Not a good theological position, in my estimation.

Finally, if we emphasize the Holy Spirit, and the charismatic experiences and gifts of the Spirit, it it is easy to loose sight of God as Creator, Son as Redeemer, and the role that the Holy Spirit played and plays in both of those aspects of God’s work.

So, that’s the downside of why the Trinity is important to us. But what’s the upside, what are the positive reasons we need to care about developing our own understanding of the Trinity.

We Learn Two Important Lessons From The Trinity

First, in the doctrine of the Trinity, we find our model for community. As God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit relate to one another, demonstrate love for each other, and work in concert to accomplish the purpose of God in the world, we get the idea of community.

This idea of the relationship between Father, Son, and Spirit has been depicted by many Christian scholars using the term “perichoresis.” That’s a Greek word which means, literally, “dancing around.” I like the implications of God — Father, Son, and Spirit — in a divine dance, interacting with one another, expressing love for one another, and complementing the work each has to do.

In the passage we read today, we find some of these elements of mutuality. Jesus says that the Spirit will guide his disciples, glorify Jesus, take what belongs to Jesus and give it to the disciples. But, everything Jesus has comes from the Father, and that is why the Spirit can make it known to the disciples.

If that sounds like circular reasoning, it is. God the Father creates, God the Son redeems, God the Spirit illuminates and equips. In this divine dance of mutuality, each person of the Godhead complements and builds on the work of other members of the Trinity.

So, at the baptism of Jesus, Jesus demonstrates his obedience to the plan of God through baptism. God the Father announces his approval, and the Holy Spirit anoints Jesus for ministry.

In the early church, the Spirit empowers, equips, and emboldens the apostles to tell the good news of Jesus, who is God’s gift sent into the world to redeem it.

Secondly, in the doctrine of the Trinity, we find our mission. Jesus stated to the disciples, “As the Father has sent me, so send I you.” Just as God the Father sent Jesus into the world, so Jesus sends us into the world to do the Father’s work, equipped and accompanied by the Spirit of God.

God’s work involves more than taking individuals to heaven when they die. God’s work is to bring in his kingdom on this earth, so that God’s creation can know the shalom of God — the peace that says all things are as God has intended them to be.

So, God sends Jesus to bring the shalom of God — also called salvation — to the nation of Israel and to all who will respond, whether Jew or not. Which is why Jesus teaches his disciples to pray “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

The Father and Son then send the Spirit who equips, empowers, and emboldens the early apostles as well as us today.

And, salvation itself — the idea that we are right with God — proceeds from God, is incarnate in Jesus, and is made possible by the work of the Holy Spirit.

Whatever work we have to do in this world, we do from the standpoint of the Triune God — Father, Son and Spirit — who created, redeemed, and enabled us to do so.

So, let me encourage you today to think about the Trinity — God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. But we can’t stop at just thinking about a theological concept. As followers of Jesus, we are loved by the Father, and led by the Spirit. All three persons of the Godhead are at work in our lives, in the life of this church, and in the life of this world.

As we live in new awareness of God in all God’s expressions as Father, Son, and Spirit, our spiritual lives will deepen, our vision of God’s kingdom will expand, and the work that God has chosen for us will take on a new vitality and urgency.

Sermon: The Kingdom of God In Today’s World

I preached this sermon today on Trinity Sunday from Matthew 28:16-20.  We know this passage as The Great Commission, but the final words of Jesus to his disciples are about the Kingdom of God.  Even though this scripture has been used to validate the sending of Christian missionaries to other nations, Jesus’ instructions carry important messages about the Kingdom of God for all Christians.

The Kingdom of God In Today’s World

16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”  — Matthew 28:16-20 NIV

Today we come to the last Sunday of the Christian Year before we enter Ordinary Time.  This is Trinity Sunday, and this passage reflects both a Trinitarian awareness and the sending of the disciples by Jesus into the world.

This passage, called The Great Commission, is the final instruction Matthew records Jesus giving to his followers.  And, the interesting thing about this is there is no ascension into heaven, no angels appearing to reassure the awestruck disciples, nothing but the final command of Jesus to the Eleven.

Matthew’s Gospel has been called The Kingdom of God Gospel because Matthew features the Kingdom so prominently in his record of the life and ministry of Jesus.  Even though the words “Kingdom of God” do not appear in these verses, the Kingdom’s presence and impact is very evident.  Last week we looked at “What Pentecost Means To Us Today.”  Today I want us to think for a few moments together about “The Kingdom of God in Today’s World” — in other words, what the Kingdom of God means to us today.

The Kingdom of God is Predicated on Jesus’ Authority

As I mentioned earlier, this passage has been known as The Great Commission for a long time.  William Carey, the cobbler and preacher, invoked this passage to plead his cause for the sending of missionaries to those in India and other nations who had not heard the Gospel.  The entire modern mission movement, which began in the late 1700s, owes its genesis and success to this command of Jesus.

But too often we begin the reading of this passage with verse 19 — “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations…”  But, if we do so, we miss the reason for our going and the means by which we go.  We’ll get to the going in a minute, but first we must back up to verse 18 to capture the profound context and the reason for our going.  I have deleted the verse numbers so you can see how verse 18 flows logically into verses 19-20:

“Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations…”

The reason we are to go is because Jesus has all authority in heaven and earth.  This authority is his because God has vindicated Jesus and made him both Lord and Christ, according to Paul, by raising him from the dead.  While we might argue that Jesus always possessed the authority of heaven and earth, Matthew is making both an historical and theological point by including this account at this place in his Gospel.

After his resurrection, the disciples are told to go to Galilee and wait for Jesus there.  That’s all Matthew offers us.  There are no other appearances of Jesus in locked rooms, or on the seashore.  Matthew’s focus is on this one appearing (although Jesus does appear at other times in other places) and Matthew does not close his account with the ascension.  Rather the entire focus of Matthew’s account is on this one encounter with the Eleven, and Jesus’ final instructions to them.

For Matthew, this is the culmination of the Gospel.  This is the moment in which the Gospel is entrusted to Jesus’ followers.  And, not only entrusted, but entrusted with explicit instruction on what to do (go), the purpose of their going (make disciples), the scope of their mission (of all nations), the practices involved (baptizing….teaching), and the assurance that they did not do this alone (I am with you…).  This is Matthew’s version of the continuity of Jesus’ life and ministry, now entrusted to his disciples.

In addition, Jesus echoes the words of the Lord’s Prayer, in which Matthew records Jesus saying, “…Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven…”  When Jesus says “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me…” he is revealing that the prayer he taught his disciples to pray is being partially answered in his own life.  The idea is that God’s will be done on earth as it is done in heaven, and Jesus was the example of that for the first time.

Make Disciples Of All Nations

But Jesus’ teaching was not for the disciples alone.  They were to go and make disciples of all nations, which was a new notion to the Jews.  Prior to Jesus the Jews had a vague notion that other nations were also to be part of God’s plan.  The Temple in Jerusalem contained the Court of the Gentiles, the largest court of the Temple compound.  The implication was that all the nations were afforded a place in the presence of God, even if access was limited to the Court of the Gentiles.

But, by the first century, the Court of the Gentiles in the Temple had been reduced by the presence of vendors selling sacrificial animals, and moneychangers exchanging Roman currency for Temple currency.  The space allotted to the nations had been turned into a marketplace.

So, Jesus braids a whip from leather cords and drives the merchants and moneychangers from the Temple, with the words, “My Father’s house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations, but you have made it a den of thieves.”  The international scope of God’s redemptive plan was very much on Jesus’ mind during his ministry and in this instruction to the disciples.  The Book of Acts records one way in which “the nations” hear the Gospel on the day of Pentecost.  But the disciples were to go themselves and make disciples of all nations.  That would happen not only on Pentecost when representatives of all the nations were gathered in Jerusalem for Pentecost, probably having stayed over after Passover.  But it would also happen when the church in Jerusalem is persecuted and then the disciples are dispersed from Jerusalem into the known world.

Baptizing Them Into The Name

The result of the disciples going and making disciples was that there would be those who would follow Jesus.  These new disciples, in the manner of the original Twelve called by Jesus (now Eleven after Judas’ death and before Matthias’ election and Paul’s call), were to be baptized.  John the Baptist sets the scene for water baptism in the New Testament, and Jesus himself submits to John’s baptism as both sign and symbol of his submission to the Father’s plan, and to validate the call to repentance, or a change of heart and mind from the traditional thinking of first century Judaism, to the ministry of Jesus.

These new disciples, not called believers here but disciples, were to be baptized “into” the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  This Trinitarian invocation meant that followers of Jesus recognized that the Father had sent the Son, and the Son had promised the Spirit, and the Spirit would empower and send the church into the world.

Baptism was identification with the missio Dei, the mission of God, that involved all three expressions of the Trinity.  It was identification also with the community of faith, the followers of Jesus as Lord, who quickly established a koinoinia, or fellowship, that characterized their common belief and practice.

Their immersion into both water and the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit was also a theological as well as a liturgical statement.  And, remember these new disciples are from “all nations” so this is not merely John’s baptism for repentant Jews, but Jesus’ re-imagined baptism that builds on John’s but carries meaning of the Kingdom of God with it.  Those being baptized had repented of their sins (primarily their wrong understanding of God and his purpose), identified with Jesus, and were empowered by the Spirit.  The prime example of this unique joining of Spirit and water baptism is found in Acts 10 with the Holy Spirit and water baptism of Cornelius and his entourage.

Teaching Them to Obey Everything

But it wasn’t that the disciples were merely to get the volitional assent of these new disciples.  They were also to teach them to “obey everything” Jesus commanded.  This is where we in the 21st century both misunderstand what this means, and fail to carry out this part of The Great Commission.

Since the modern missions movement particularly, we have done a good job of getting decisions, and baptizing believers.  But what we’re really supposed to be doing, if we are obedient to Christ, is making disciples like the original 12 who followed Jesus.  That means that this next generation of disciples is to do what the first generation did — follow and obey Jesus.  Jesus said in John’s Gospel, “You are my friends if you do what I command.”  And here the command is to “obey everything” Jesus taught.

Matthew gives us a good idea of what those commands are in The Sermon on the Mount section in chapters 5 through 7.  The things Jesus commanded were things like “turn the other cheek;” “go the second mile;” “do not repay evil with evil;”  and, so on.  In other words, the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount were the teachings of how life is lived in the Kingdom of God.

These new disciples were to live Kingdom values, just as the original disciples had been instructed to do.  These Kingdom values were to illustrate life as God intended for it to be lived.  Violence was no longer the operative force in the world — self-sacrificing love was to replace violence as a way of life.

Some evangelical theologians are concerned about the dumbing down of the Gospel to attract as many people as possible.  While crossing cultural and social barriers to communicate the Gospel message effectively is praiseworthy, the reduction of the Gospel to the lowest common denominator that attracts people is not.  One theologian observed that the Gospel is in danger of being reduced to the phrase, “Jesus was nice, so you be nice.”  Obviously, that neither honors the Christ who holds all authority in heaven and in earth, nor does it meet the test of obedient discipleship that Jesus commanded and which is part of The Great Commission.

Of course, our North American consumeristic culture drives the strategy of churches which seek to appeal to as many as possible.  Whether we admit it or not, we in evangelical expressions of Christianity have been more guilty than even mainline denominations, or even the Catholic Church, of changing everything we do to “reach more people.”  But, is that the commission that Jesus gave us, or did he give us and the Eleven the commission to make obedient disciples.

A Story About Peacemaking

John Paul Lederach tells a story in his wonderful book on peacemaking, The Moral Imagination, that illustrates what I believe is a Kingdom approach.  The story is about Tajikistan and its civil war that followed the breakup of the Soviet Union, and the new-found independence of former Soviet satellite states.

Tajikistan borders Afghanistan, and also has a Muslim majority.  Civil war was at full throttle when according to Lederach, a Tajik university professor, Dr. Abdul, was enlisted by the government to contact a Mullah who was also commander of an army of rebel fighters.  Professor Abdul was asked to open a dialogue with the Mullah, which appeared to be both unlikely and dangerous.

Finally, a meeting was arranged, and Professor Abdul arrived at the Mullah’s camp.  Because he had arrived later than expected, the Mullah insisted that it was time for prayers, and so they observed that essential practice of a Muslim man’s life together.  Surprised at his participation in prayer, the Mullah asked how the professor, a communist, could pray.  Professor Abdul said that his father had been a Communist during the Soviet era, but that he was not.

The Mullah then asked what the professor taught, which led to an extended conversation about philosophy and Sufism, a mystical form of Islam.  The appointment which was scheduled to last 20-minutes, extended itself for two-and-a-half hours.  After many such meetings, many cups of tea, and many stories shared together, a bond of trust began to form.

After many months of talking, eating, and sharing their stories with one another, Professor Abdul finally thought it was appropriate to ask the Mullah if he would consider laying down his arms and help end the civil war that was tearing apart Tajikistan.  The suggestion that the Mullah meet with government representatives was offered.

The Mullah considered Professor Abdul’s suggestion thoughtfully.  Then he said, “Can you guarantee my safety if I go?”  Professor Abdul knew he could not guarantee the Mullah’s personal safety.

Professor Abdul moved beside the Mullah, locked arms with him and said, “No, I cannot guarantee your safety.  But I can guarantee that I will go with you, and if they kill you, they will kill me also.”

When the Mullah arrived at the meeting with the government’s representatives, he said, “I come to this meeting out of respect for Professor Abdul.”  With that the slow, but certain peace process began which ended the civil war in Tajikistan.

That is the kind of life we as followers of Jesus are to lead.  The Great Commission to go, make disciples of all nations, and baptize and teach them to obey Christ must be done in the same way that Professor Abdul won over the Mullah — with self-sacrificial love.  Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

The Great Commission is a call to go, but to go in the same self-sacrificial love with which Christ was sent from the throne room of heaven to all of creation.  We go, we make disciples, we baptize and teach with the same commitment to others — in this case “all nations” — that Jesus had to this world, as expressed by John —

“For God so loved the world that He sent His only Son…”  Just as God sent Jesus, and Jesus sends the Church, then and now, to obey all things he commanded which includes giving our lives in Kingdom living for others.