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06.03.12 How do Father Son and Holy Spirit Relate, John 3:1-17 Sermon Summary

by on June 11, 2012

The Trinity is the heart of the Gospel and the most distinct contribution Christianity makes to religious discourse. So why do so many Christians get it wrong? Some, like Thomas Jefferson, want to get rid of the doctrine but still follow Jesus. Others avoid it by calling it a “mystery too great for us to understand,” or by simply neglecting to pay any attention to it. Most over-simplify it, misunderstand it, and thus fail to benefit from this most remarkable doctrine of Christianity.

Summary Points

  • The question the Trinity answers
  • The Trinity in Christianity’s Most Famous Verse
  • The Historical Evolution of the Trinity
  • What the Trinity Rejects
  • Orthodox Words on the Trinity

For as many questions as the Trinity raises, it really is trying to answer only one. Most questions with regard to the Trinity begin with what God is, but the Trinity answers who God is. It does not try to define God as much as describe God. What the Trinity is trying to say is that God is known by God’s actions.

John 3:1-17 contains the most popular Christian verse of the 20th century (and so far, the 21st also), namely, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” Together with its context, this verse tells us a lot about God’s actions and God’s nature.

First, God is giving “signs” through Jesus. In the Gospel of John, signs play a prominent role. Throughout his gospel, John numbers the signs of Jesus and suggests that the greatest sign is the resurrection of Christ. Here, it is because of signs that Nicodemus comes to Jesus. Jesus is a both a sign-giver and a sign himself, because God gives signs through Jesus.

Second, all these signs point to the kingdom of God. And Jesus tells Nicodemus that if one wants to see the kingdom of God, one must be born of the Spirit, also translated “born from above” or “born again.” Here we begin to see some Trinitarian outlines: God who gives signs in Jesus, illumined by the Spirit.

Third, we learn that God loves the world: “God SO loves the world that he gave . . .” This fundamental attitude of God towards the world contradicts most people’s impression of the church’s proclamation, namely that God just can’t wait to judge the world. But Jesus says God did not send the son into the world to judge, but to save. And this is the fourth thing we learn about God’s nature: not only is God loving, but God saves rather than condemns the world.

And finally, we learn that God loves and saves the world through Jesus and the Spirit. God’s triune nature is on display in the actions of God, actions of love and salvation through Jesus and the Spirit.

From this passage we draw three fundamental conclusions about God: God is relational, God is near, and God is love. This was the experience of the people of Jesus’ time, so convincing that they had to develop a new way of talking about God to express it to others. This is the historical evolution of the doctrine of the Trinity: it arose as a responds to the experience of salvation in Christ.

Originally, people heard a testimony of Christ, like the one contained in John’s Gospel. Some of these people were initially “gripped” by Spirit. We experience something like this when we say there’s a “spirit” about being an immigrant or a fan of your favorite sports team. After this initial Spirit-gripping experience, some of the people followed Christ, led by this same Spirit, and their lives began to change. Throughout this experience, these people attributed it all to God. God spoke to them in the testimony about Jesus. God gripped them. God led them. God changed their lives. They experienced transformation through God in Christ and in the Spirit.

This is what the doctrine of the Trinity was formulated to say. It also refused to say a number of things. The Trinity does not allow three gods. The experience of the church was holistic. They knew that, despite its varied expressions, it was one experience with God, and thus God must be one. It also refused a hierarchy in the divine. Each episode of their experience was equally powerful. God was not more powerful than Jesus, who was more powerful than the Spirit. God was equally at work in each aspect of their experience.

The Trinity also rejects a kind of functionalism in the divine, as if there was one God who changed roles. Their experience with God throughout their lives was inter-related and inter-dependent. When they spoke of God they naturally referred to Christ. When they spoke of the Spirit they naturally referred to God.

So their solution, the doctrine of the Trinity, eventually came to assert that there is one God, existing (technically subsisting) in three person, all of whom are equal. The language they used for this formulation is from the Bible, namely, “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” The orthodox opinion was hammered out between 325 and 381 during two church councils in the cities of Nicaea and Constantinople. Today we call the document these councils produced the Nicene Creed, though it really should be called the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed.

God is, of course, assumed, and like most ancient cultures, the name “Father” was synonymous with God. In other words, that God is addressed as “Father” isn’t all that unique. But when it comes to talking about Jesus, the creed asserts that he is 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.”

About the Spirit, the creed says it is, “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.” The reason for the parentheses is that “and the Son” wasn’t added until the 5th century in Spain. The Eastern church maintains the original wording and has never recognize this addition.

In next week’s sermon we’ll look at some of the practical applications of the doctrine of the Trinity. For now may it be enough to quote a prominent Trinitarian theologian of our time: “The goal of Christian life is to participate in divine life and to become holy, living in conformity to Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. The Christian community is supposed to be an icon of God’s triune life.” Catherine Mowry Lacugna, “God in Communion with Us” in Freeing Theology, p. 106.

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