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06.10.12 God is Triune, So What? John 14:1, 6-11, 16-20; 15:26; 16:7, 13-15

by on June 11, 2012

In this second of two sermons on the Trinity, we look at some practical applications of the doctrine that I consider to be the most distinctive contribution Christianity makes to world religions. For the fullest appreciation of these verses, read John 14-16, or better yet, John 13-17. The comments below were drawn from the verses listed in the title.

Summary Points

  • How “Father” is and isn’t unique to Jesus
  • Jesus as Icon
  • Jesus and the Holy Spirit as Advocate
  • Other roles of the Holy Spirit
  • Four Practical Applications
  • Questions for Discussion and Reflection

Jesus’ favorite title for God is “Father.” We shouldn’t be surprised to observe this, as “Father” and “God” were synonyms in many ancient religions, not to mention the fact that Jesus is a Jew. Ever since God claimed sonship of biblical Israel in Exodus 4:22, God was known as “Father” among Jews.

The unique contribution Jesus makes is that he claims that by having seen him, one had seen the Father. In other words, look at Jesus, and you’re looking at God. This is only the case for those who look with eyes of faith. We can look at Jesus and see a wise sage, a revolutionary, or a religious reformer—none of which requires faith. Looking at Jesus and seeing God, however, does require faith. To the eyes of faith, then, Jesus is an icon: a physical presence that mediates the divine.

Jesus identifies himself as such when he says he will ask the Father, and the Father will send another advocate. Icons mediate, they facilitate conversation between the physical and the spiritual, and Jesus here says he will mediate with the Father and obtain the Spirit in his absence.

For it is “another” advocate Jesus hopes to secure. According to 1 John 2:1, Jesus is our advocate before God. Here, Jesus assures us of another advocate in Jesus’ stead, namely the Holy Spirit. The Greek word Parakletos means “one called alongside.” It refers to a lawyer assigned to a non-Roman who finds himself in a Roman court. He can’t represent himself; he needs someone to stand beside him and plead his case. We call such lawyers our counsel, and in such cases, advocates provide great comfort, which is why some English translations render parakletos as “counselor” or “comforter.”

Jesus refers to this other advocate as the “Spirit of Truth.” The Spirit abides in and among us as the church. The “you” throughout this passage is plural. Surely God’s Spirit advocates for each of us individually, but when Jesus says the Spirit of Truth will be with and in “you” (John 14:17), it is the community of faith he’s referring to, not individual persons.

The role of the Spirit is to teach us truth, to remind us of truth, and of course to guide us into truth (John 16:13). But the Spirit also testifies. It testifies of the Father through Jesus to us (John 15:26; 16:14-15). And the Spirit also testifies of our incorporation into the Trinity. Jesus said he would not leave us orphans, and Paul gives us specific descriptions in Romans 8:14-17 and Galatians 4:5-7 that God’s Spirit testifies with our spirits that we are children of God.

So here are four practical ways to apply the doctrine of the Trinity. First, if you want to see God, look to Jesus Christ. Or rather, since Jesus is an icon, look through Jesus Christ and see God. This requires faith, as mentioned above, which requires the Holy Spirit. But when we are dependent upon the Spirit and we look to Jesus Christ with faith, it is God that Jesus reveals to us.

Second, if you need comfort, the triune God provides it at least two ways. First, we know from the doctrine of the Trinity that God is not only with us, but God is for us. The doctrine of the Trinity teaches us that in Christ and the Holy Spirit, God is relational, that God is near, and that God is loving. But the second and greater comfort offered by the Trinity is that we are children of God by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. God’s faithfulness to us as his children is no less than God’s faithfulness to Christ. It is indeed comfort, especially through the valley of the shadow of death, to remember that resurrection followed Christ’s own death.

Third, the Trinity gives us options in our prayers. The biblical witness and practice of the early church was to conceive of our relationship with God “through Christ, in the Holy Spirit” (for some examples, see Colossians 3:17, Romans 7:25). In other words, the advocacy role of Christ and the Holy Spirit were recognized and respected. This was especially evident in prayers from the ancient church: they prayed “to God, through Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit.”

In the fourth century, however, some tried to propose a hierarchy in the Trinity which led others to offer prayers “to God, and Christ, and the Holy Spirit,” or “to God, with Christ and with the Holy Spirit.” This was meant to protect the full divinity of Christ and the Spirit. It had the negative effect of exalting Christ so high that he ceased to be regarded as a mediator between God and humanity. Saints, and especially Mary, emerged to take this role in the middle ages.

But this development in the way we pray does validate and invite us to pray to any person in the Trinity, so long as we remember that one person always refers or leads us to the others. So we can pray to Jesus if our concerns are more physical, for example, or to the Father if they are more philosophical, or to the Spirit if they are especially intimate and personal.

Finally, if you are looking for direction in your life, the doctrine of the Trinity offers some guidance. In John 14:12 Jesus says, “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.” Most people try to get around this prophecy of Jesus because they can’t conceive of any greater work than what Jesus did, or perhaps they don’t want the responsibility. But this is what Jesus said, and it suggests that the Spirit testifies of God and Christ not just to us, but through us—through the work we do together to realize the kingdom of God.

Questions for Discussion and Reflection

  • How does thinking of Jesus as an icon open new pathways for thinking about the Bible, the sacraments, the communion of saints, and other ways God reveals himself to you?
  • How could the concept of the Holy Spirit as our here-and-now advocate in place of Christ change the way you think about God’s work in your spiritual life?
  • How can you incorporate the two comforts offered by the doctrine of the Trinity into a difficult situation in your life today?
  • To whom do you typically address your prayers? How does this habit form your relationship with God? How does it affect the way you think of the other members of the Trinity?
  • How can you personally engage the “greater work” of Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit and in collaboration with others in your church?
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