The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit – and a special helping of hope – be with all of us.
We are entering our 5th month of constraints imposed on us by the coronavirus and the 3rd week of widespread civil unrest as millions of Americans have protested outrage following the death of George Floyd. In addition, the nation has seen the deplorable destruction of pro-perty and violence by a few criminals that not only compounds our pain and suffering but dis-honors the memory of George Floyd, Trayvon Martin, and other black Americans who have died in incidents involving law enforcement officers. Hopefully all of these stories will soon find their rightful place in the memory banks of our longtime struggle to guarantee liberty and justice for all our citizens. Meanwhile and however else we respond to this challenge, we will continue to pray that God’s kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven, that we will learn to love God with all our heart and our neighbor as we love ourselves, and that we may be delivered from evil. Trinity Sunday is a good time for Christians to be reminded of why we pray that prayer.
Every religion has stories alongside beautiful liturgies and deep mysteries, and I want to tell you one of them that is central to us. Today we reflect on how Christians came to name God as a three-in one, one-in-three, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It’s a story both deep in mystery and our history. As most stories, it has a beginning, middle, and end; and when those parts ultimately congeal to form a complete story, a certain symmetry occurs that is truly magical. This is one of those stories.
A brief history of the life of God as we know it starts when Genesis tells us that in the beginning God was alone and had no history; but this story begins in the Tanakh, the Hebrew scriptures, and specifically in of the book of Exodus (3:14-15). Try not to worry about chronolo-gy or gender inclusivity. This a long-time-in-the-making ancient androcentric story; and it begins when God appears to Moses while he was tending a flock of Jethro’s sheep and noticed that a bush on fire wasn’t burning up and went over to investigate. That was when the thunderous voice of God called out “Don’t come any closer, you are standing on holy ground” and then God added, “my people have suffered enough in Egypt so I’m sending you to Pharaoh to demand that he free my people and let you lead them back here”. But Moses said, “I’m not the person for that job – the people of Israel won’t believe me – and they will specifically want to know which God I am talking about”. Raised in Egypt, Moses was familiar with the names of dozens of Egyptian gods like Horus, Osiris, and Amun – as well as the names of Canaanite gods like Asherah and Baal – so this was a valid point to which God responded directly. Just “tell them ‘I Am’ sent me”, and if that’s not enough, tell them “the God of your ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob has sent me to you.” Then God added ”I AM WHO I AM [and] this is my name forever”.
It is a pivotal moment in our history when God calls himself ‘I Am’. Later his name as ‘I Am’ appears hundreds of times in the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation (22:16). What is impor-tant about this story is that God’s response to Moses’ question sets this God apart from all of the false gods his people had known. His name reveals who he is. He is the eternal, transcendent, unchanging, self‑existent one – infinite and glorious in every way – above and beyond all created things. And he is also present with his people, knows their suffering, and wants to hold them in the hollow of his hands. In revealing his name to Moses, God signifies an intimate first-name relationship that is to be shared in a covenant relationship. From that time onward, the God who had always been with his people will now be actively present and ready to intervene on their be-half. That’s the beginning of the Christian story; the revelation that God is I AM WHO I AM.
The middle consists of the early church’s effort in the first 5½ centuries to interpret the right thing to teach about Jesus. The first Christian theological writings are the letters of Paul which report that a man named Jesus is believed to be God’s long-promised Christ, and that he is worshiped. Today’s epistle reading (55-56 AD) already contains the common greeting among early Christians: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you”. Then the next earliest writings are the four Gospels that tell the story of the historical Jesus. With the rest of the NT writings, they initiate the central intellectual activity of the Christian tradition. That task is to hand-down from one generation to the next both the practical and theoretical wisdom that should be taught in the church about who Jesus is. Unlike other religions, Christianity is basically a faith, not a way of life that’s defined by laws and rules. The Lord Jesus is central for us – and he is similar to the Tanak, the Hebrew Bible, and the Koran for Islam – and the Bible is important for us, but it’s not as central for us as Jesus is because Christianity is fundamentally a belief in a particular person named Jesus, and Christian theology is about what is the right thing to teach about him. So nothing is more important than the King of the ‘Kingdom of God’, and theology is not only about what Jesus did but more im-portantly about who Jesus is.
Our traditional wisdom is therefore not how to live my life but about how I should live the life of another person. The word “follow” is often applied to those who believed in Jesus, and Jesus is quoted as requiring imitation in some form (Matt 10:38; 16:24; Lk 14:27). Some call it the ‘Imitatio Christi’. Paul refers to the imitation of Christ, as well as himself: “And you became imitators of us, and of the Lord, having received the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Spirit” (I Thess 1:6). And similarly, Peter explains the duty of Christians to “follow in [Christ’s] steps” (I Pet 2:211). For Paul the imitation of Christ involves readiness to be shaped by the Holy Spirit (Rom 8:4, 8:11), and a self‑giving service of love to others (1 Cor 13. Gal 5:13). The imitation of Christ, as in Ephesians (5:1), is then viewed by Paul as a path to the imitation of God: “Be you therefore imitators of God, as beloved children, and walk in love, even as Christ also loved you”.
So we first learn how to worship like a Christian and then begin to ask questions about what is going on and what we are doing when we worship this way. And the answers begins with what the NT documents tell us about how the early church worshiped God’s Christ – the ‘Christ of faith’, not the ‘historical Jesus’. I’ll just note parenthetically that this is exactly what our children are doing in the Delaney House in the learning process of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. Everything else in theology grows from our obsession with the question “who is Jesus?” – and what we call “the Gospel” is the story about who Jesus is. So when Christians talk about the ‘Word of God’, the most important Word is not the Bible but Jesus. Incarnation is the doctrine how God becomes human, and Grace is the doctrine of the humanization of God, how he becomes one with us. These doctrines are about how the goodness and love of God is spread among the entire human race. The early church Fathers had a wonderful saying that embraced them both: “God became human so that humans may become divine” – which meant that all hu-man beings share in the divine life. This humanization of God is the scandal of our faith that, so far as I know, no other religion shares. (Repeat?)
Peter’s first recorded sermon in Acts 2 occurs 50 days after the feast of Passover and that sermon is important because it is about who Jesus is, and what he has done, and that he has sent his Holy Spirit to comfort and sustain us after his crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension to the right hand of the Father. It contains a brief narrative of Jesus’ life and God’s hand in it, and then Peter ascribes to Jesus some characteristic titles from the OT: he is the Christ, the Messiah, the anointed Son of David, the King of the Jews – all of which refer to Jesus as Lord, which suggests that in some mysterious way, the name of the God of Israel (“the Lord”) has been bestowed on him. At the end, Peter urges his listeners to repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Jesus is no longer dead; not immortal as the Greeks taught, but a living resurrected person.
All through Eastertide we have been reminded that our Lord’s resurrection was an unpre-cedented epiphany which evoked an unprecedented faith. A large part of what the lections of the Great Fifty Days of Easter mean to teach us is that acknowledgment of Jesus’ risen presence was not a discovery by the disciples, but a revelation to them. Remember the women who came to the empty tomb, the disciple whom Jesus loved running to the tomb, those two followers on the road to Emmaus who didn’t recognize their companion until Jesus ate supper with them, the dis-ciples by the sea of Tiberias. All of these witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection became vehicles of the resurrection and they rushed breathlessly to tell others of what had been revealed to them because this is not ‘life after death’ as modern ‘near death experiences’ claim, but a reversal and defeat of death itself. And it suggested to early Christian theologians that the NT writings put forward what scholars call the “preexistence “ of Christ – that before he was born a man he was already seated at God’s right hand and of the very essence of God. As a man, he had humbled himself and taken the form of a servant, and God had exalted him and given him a name above all others, in which the earliest Christian confession names Jesus as ‘Lord’.
The first Nicene Creed of the First Council of Nicaea in 325 said little about the Holy Spirit. At that Council all attention was focused on the relationship between the Father and the Son, without making a similar statement about the Holy Spirit. Later, at the first Council of Con-stantinople in 381, the Nicene Creed was expanded to say that the Holy Spirit is worshiped and glorified together with the Father and the Son, and by suggesting that he was also consubstantial with them. So today we say: “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, of all there is, seen and unseen. We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, Light from Light, very God from true God, begot-ten, not made, of one being with the Father… And in the Holy Ghost, the Lord, the giver of life, who pro-ceeds from the Father and the Son. With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.”
St. Augustine (354-430) later showed in 7 statements how both the doctrine of Jesus’ in-carnation and the doctrine of the Trinity are fundamental to the logic of orthodox doctrine. The 1st 3 are ‘the Father is God’, ‘the Son is God’, and ‘the Holy Spirit is God”. The 2nd 3 are ‘the Father is not the Son’, ‘the Son is not the Father’, and ‘the Holy Spirit is not the Father’. Then the 7th statement summarizes: ‘There is only one God’ – and emphatically reaffirms Christianity’s commitment to monotheism by denying that God has parts or that there is hierarchical descent from the Father to the Son to the Holy Spirit. The Trinity is eternal and from the beginning.
Our difficulty with comprehending the Trinity is that it IS a mystery – and there is nothing in the creation that we can see as truly like it. And I think it’s perfectly natural for us time and space creatures to use natural time and space metaphors and analogues to help us better compre-hend the God who, however much present he is to us, remains supranatural, extramundane, mys-terious. In an earlier sermon I tried to make clear that there is no materiality to God – no essence, no substance, no existence, no being. God simply is – breath or spirit as John puts it. “God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit.” What differentiates the Three is their relation that both distinguishes and binds them. Let me put it this way: throughout the NT we see that Jesus carries out the Father’s action in the Son – and similarly we see that God’s Holy Spirit is promised us to continue to carry out the Father’s action in the Son. And this is not only the NT’s story; it’s our experience of the presence and action of God as well.
There are many metaphors to help describe the Trinity, and virtually all of them violate the Nicene Creed. But I’ll say again that, in his book, Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis offered a metaphor for the Trinity that is worth repeating. You may remember he says that in space we can move in 3 ways – to left or right, backwards or forwards, up or down. Every direction is either one of these three – or a combination of them – and they are called the 3 dimensions. Think about them, he said, in terms of drawing straight lines. Try it on paper and see. If we use only one di-mension we can draw only straight lines up and down, left and right, backward and forward. But if we use 2 dimensions, we can draw a figure that is made up of 4 lines – as in 2 lines up and down and 2 lines left and right that is a square ¨. If we use 3 dimensions, we can then build what we call a solid body – say, a cube made up of 6 lines – something like a die or a lump of su-gar q.
That’s not a perfect metaphor – but it’s a useful illustration and worth thinking about it because that’s also you and me – several dimensions, several relations tied together as one interrelation. The point is that as we advance from 1 dimension to 3 dimensions, we don’t leave behind the lines we drew on simpler levels. We have the same lines, but they are combined in the 3rd dimension in ways we can’t imagine if we know only the 1st or 2nd dimension. It is a unity that is organic, not arith-metic. But the main point of the Trinity is clear. Ours is no lonely God, acting in splendid isola-tion. His handiwork is evident in creation. He has most fully revealed himself as Jesus. And he abides with us in the presence of the Holy Spirit. This is the one true God whom we worship and adore, and whom we have named after our experiences of him: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. So glory be to the one God whose name is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be – world without end. So be it.
In the 20th century, the American Bible Society conceived an ambitious world-wide project. Recognizing that there were foreign mission fields as yet untouched by Christian missionaries – and believing that although the laborers were few, the harvest would be plentiful – the ABS proposed to fill several sea-going ships with thousands of boxes of Bibles, direct those ships to foreign mission places, and throw overboard box after box of Bibles – which the tides would wash up on the shores of pagan lands. When discovered, the boxes would be opened, the Bibles read by the pagan inhabitants of these places, and they would then be converted to the Christian faith. As it turned out, this project was never completed – and one of the principal rea-sons for abandoning it was the belated recognition that pagan people, like the rest of us, cannot hear or understand the gospel without a preacher.
Aseity is our word for it – a word that’s sometimes used to refer to the Christian belief that God contains within himself the cause of himself. So we know nothing about God before he begins to live out-side himself. In addition, aseity has two aspects, one positive and one negative. In its ‘negative’ meaning it affirms that God is uncaused, depending on no other being for the source of God’s ex-istence. In other words, God is simply uncaused, and many Jewish and Muslim theologians have believed that God is independent in this way. So although the use of’ aseity goes back at least to Plato and has been in circulation since Augustine, notions of aseity as the highest principle began only in the Middle Ages.
For thousands of years then, one of the major attributes of God, along with ‘unchanging’ and all the ‘omni’ words like omnipotence and omniscient, has been God’s aseity, God’s being in and of itself – alone by itself, without any beginning. The prologue to John’s gospel (1:1) makes the point succinctly about what this means for us: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”. And we believe that over time God began to make himself known ouside himself – to create things like the heavens and the earth, wind and water, creatures great and small – and that God revealed himself to us in creating the world, the prophets, the Law. But we notice in the NT readings appointed for today a radical departure from the ways by which God had disclosed himself to us prior to Jesus. We believe that Jesus is the Son of God, risen and alive, and that he continues be with us in and through the gift of his Holy Spirit. So Trinity Sundays are the occasion when we acknowledge how the doctrine of the Holy Trinity neatly compresses all this in the triple structure of biblical experience in both the OT and NT, and we are reminded that this doctrine is deeply rooted in our experience of God and not some frivolous flight of imagination that emerges out of thin air.
That episode came to mind as I studied and prayed over the lections appointed for today. It occurred forcefully when I re-read 1st John: “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he first loved us….” because this single sentence reminded me that none of us knows naturally what the word ‘love’ means in the context of the gospel. We appear to know naturally what it means to love ourselves…to look out for number one…as we sometimes said in the Navy, “you first, right after me”…and that selfish and egocentric inclination has frequently been named as our ‘original sin.’ On the other hand, it is clear from the lections appointed for today that none of us knows the gospel meaning of ‘love’ intuitively…that none of us has the capacity to discover that meaning on our own…that, in a word, to love as the gospel intends us to love is something we have to be taught.
Most of the sermons I’ve listened to on these texts focus on the centrality of ‘love’ in the gospel…they exhort and urge congregations to embrace the great commandment – to love God with all our heart and soul and mind, and our neighbor as ourselves. Important as that it, I want to invite you to think about something else…and that is the precondition of our loving…to think about what, in the first of it, underlies and makes it possible for us to love as Christ commands us to do.
I taught theology and ethics for 40 years at Duke before retiring last summer…and, you would not be surprised if I said that I saw lots of changes occur within the university. Although Duke has the youngest student population among US divinity schools, there has been an increas-ing ‘graying’ of Divinity School students in recent years as more and more 2nd career people, more and more late-life vocations, and fewer and fewer young men and women directly out of college entered the student body. Were I to be perfectly candid, my experience with these older, 2nd career students was mixed – a minority of them arrogantly, and mistakenly, let it be known that they brought to their seminary training all that they needed to know about the Bible, church history, theology, and the care and feeding of congregations. These people not only de-prived themselves of useful learning, but the congregations they will serve will be similarly depriv-ed. The large majority of these older students, however, came to school with life-experiences which had taught them that they neither knew everything, nor knew enough…and these were the ones, of course, whom I delighted to teach! They recognized that all of us who would know God’s story must listen to somebody tell it, because it is that listening alone which will equip them to tell that story to others.
I’ve cherished for a long time one of St. Augustine’s wonderful aphorisms…this one is that God always wants to give us something, but cannot so long as our hands are full. For those of us who venture to understand and intend ourselves as disciples of Jesus, that is a sobering thought. What Augustine’s metaphor of full and empty hands suggests to me in the context of todays’s lections is that so long as we insist on formulating our private notions about what it means to love, we will only know a love whose meaning is divorced from rich awareness of how God loves us.
In today’s gospel Jesus makes that very point: “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you…you did not choose me, but I chose you….” And I John declares that “in this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins.” For Jesus’ disciples, how God loves us is paradigmatic for how we are meant to love our neighbors and ourselves. Indeed, if I John is to be believed, the very possibility for our loving at all is rooted in God’s having first loved us. So, to put it plainly, the disciples of Jesus are a people who acknowledge that we do not know how to love apart from learning and appropriating how God loves us.
The poverty of English grammar, however, has probably helped to confuse this issue for us. We have several synonyms for love – affection, fondness, ardor, devotion, adoration – but colloquially we employ the word “love” to describe our attachment to a very wide variety of objects: I love ice cream, I love to sing, I love you, I love football, I love going to church, I love my children, I love myself, I love my country, I love Jesus. Of course, we think that we generally understand the nuanced differences when we express all these loves – we think that it’s clear that we mean something different when we say that we love ice cream, that we love our spouse, that we love Jesus. But my experience is that we probably don’t pay enough attention to the ways in which language defines relationships…and that, as a consequence, sometimes relationships are eroded in the bargain.
There are four words in Greek, all of which we translate into English as ‘love.’ Epithy-mia is associated with what Freud called ‘libido,’ a desire for sexual gratification. At a gross level, epithymia gets expressed in behaviors like rape and paedophilia, and maybe some forms of sexual harassment. In Greek mythology Eros (the 2nd word) is the god of love; and that may be why eros has come to connote a more inclusive, although still egocentric, love than a mere desire for sexual gratification – in the pantheon of Greek words for love, eros describes the selfish desire for another person…it signifies the exploitation of another person or thing for the self’s private satisfaction. The 3rd Greek word is Philia, and it means to indicate a friendly love, a shared affection or mutuality. Philial love is typically illustrated by the love which parents have for a child…but it can also apply to golfers who share a love for the game, or folks whose friendship is based in playing bridge together. In Platonic philosophy, agape, the 4th Greek word, is the love of the eternal and perfect Ideas of Beauty, Truth, and Goodness. Agape originally meant to desig-nate the highest form of human love…a love which surpassed epithymia and eros and philia in the extravagance and purposiveness of its self-giving or other-fulfilling affection…so it is unsurprising that when Christians appropriated this vocabulary, agape was the word they chose to describe the love of God for us.
In today’s gospel, the word which we translate as ‘love’ is this last kind of love – we call it agapeic love because it is a love which is unsurpassed in its selflessness, in its giving for the well-being of an other. I John illustrates the point beautifully: “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him.” And St. Paul reiterates it with his customary eloquence in Romans 5:8 – “God proves his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” Were to transliterate these texts, I would say that we are permitted to encounter the love of God in Christ because the Father loved the Son and the Son loved the Father…and that their love for each other was consummated in the Son’s death on the cross. Or to put it another way, the beloved was obedient to the lover’s command. It is by his death, we believe, that Jesus has constituted his disciples as a society of ‘friends’ – no longer God’s enemies as the bastard offspring of a faithless Adam, but friends first of Jesus, and then to each other. Only because we are Jesus’ friends can we be friends to each other. As the Quakers have borne witness, the church is thus a ‘society of friends.’ “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.”
How we experience and appropriate God’s love for us, and how we ought to express the love of Christ in a life of holiness are important questions. And we need to do a much better job than we do in catechesis, in educating and training the friends of God to understand what it means to say, “if God so loved us, we also ought to love each other.” But those are matters for another sermon or Sunday school lesson. The important point that most of the lections during the Great Fifty Days of Easter mean to nail down is that, for the disciples of Jesus, love is of God and from God…and that if we want to learn to love, we will need first to learn about God’s extravagant and never-failing love for us in the gift of himself to us as Jesus our savior.
The seven “I Am” statements in John might best be understood as echoing this initial, ultimate claim of Jesus. He is God, and he is the God of Israel. All the OT and God’s redemptive acts were pointing to the coming of Jesus as the God‑in‑flesh, the true and better Israel, and the fulfillment of all the OT types and shadows.
Rev. Harmon Smith, Ph. D.
Emeritus Professor of Ethics, Duke University
Harmon Smith is an Episcopal Priest, Emeritus Professor of Ethics, and an avid golfer.