Icon of the Old Testament Trinity by Andrey Rublev, between 1408 and 1425

Trinity, May 26, 2013


David W. Adkins, Starling Avenue Baptist Church, Martinsville, VA

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31, Romans 5:1-5,  John 16:12-15

The first Sunday after Pentecost for many Christians worldwide is a day to focus on the triune nature of God. The one in three and the three in one. It took the church three or four hundred years to settle on a way to express that. At the bottom of the worship order is a part of the summary statement on the doctrine by Athanasius. A lot of folks are “do it yourself” when it comes to faith, so we should not be shocked if in one lifetime they could come up with something that it took centuries of discuss to arrive at. We can cut some slack for the Unitarians who haven’t got to Trinity in their figuring.

As a matter of fact we can afford to be generous to anyone trying to understand God. Whatever we say about God is a preliminary report. It will never cover all there is to the Divine, and what it does cover will probably misrepresent God in some way. There will always be room for more God talk; we will not finish the discovery, even, I deem, in heaven.

I am going to invite attention today to God as the Three in One, but I realize that for some there is a prior question, posed by modernity: Whether there is a God to begin with. And it is appropriate to take questions like that seriously. But for a lot of people who flirt with atheism, there is a problem with their starting assumption. They picture God as one part of the world, the way that a king exists as part of his kingdom, just the most important part. So they imagine that if there is a God they would be able to find him out by beating the bushes. “There  he is, over there” or “Look, there are the footprint.”

God is not in the world or part of the world like that. As a matter of fact the reverse is closer to the truth: the world is in God. God transcends the world, is beyond and more than the sum of things. And this is part of what it means to say that everything that exists is dependent upon God, God’s creation.

So when atheists begin to describe the God they say does not exist, many times Christians can agree. The God they describe is not the God that we know and testify to, so we too can agree the “god” they describe does not exist. God does not exist in the way they assume god would exist.

Trinity describes a God that is irreducibly relational. Not only relating to us but relating within God’s self. It may be puzzling to say “three in one” and “one in three.” But this is really just a formula to describe that this unity within relationship is the most basic truth about God.

Formulas are a kind of shorthand — you have to unpack them a little.

It is sort of like that famous equation, E=mc2. A youngster can memorize the equation, but all it implies may take a lifetime to unpack. How on earth did Einstein have that leap of insight of the theory of Relativity, that insight that you could explain so much about the world if you saw that matter and energy are two aspects of one thing, and that somehow their relation was defined by the speed of light, which bring space and time into the formula. It makes your brain itch to imagine how matter and energy and space and time all are part of each other like this equation says. And yet as time has passed scientist have confirmed that more and more of the universe gets explained by this theory. It took 50 years to develop the instrumentation to check some of the results predicted by the theory, but it has held out at every turn so far. Einstein saw it in his head before folks could see it with a telescope.

Of course understanding God is different order of knowing from knowing things scientifically, as I said before. God is not simply a part of the world that you can separate from the rest of it, as you do when you isolate DNA. When you study the world you are coming at it objectively, as if it were laid out like an anesthetized patient to be examined. While it is knocked out, you prod and poke. You treat it as an “it” to talk about. You are in charge of deciding how to describe it.

This is an inadequate way to attempt knowing God.

And this is the first thing we mean by Trinity. God in..persons.

Above all else God is personal. You cannot know God without realizing that God knows us. As the anthem Psalm 139 says, God knows us more intimately than we can know ourselves, knows even what we are about the say, anticipates our thoughts. Knowing something that knows you back is different from something that can’t know you.

It is not possible to know a person without somehow knowing how they feel, how they think, what they want. Oh, we may know their approximate weight, and their original hair color, and their DNA even, but all the things we know about a person do not add up to “knowing them personally.”

They say that human babies develop this ability to know persons fairly early.

“Psychologists had known for a while that even the youngest of babies treat people different from inanimate objects. Babies like to look at faces; they mimic them, they smile at them. They expect engagement: if a moving object becomes still, they merely lose interest; if a person’s face becomes still, however, they become distressed.

“But the new studies found that babies have an actual understanding of mental life: they have some grasp of how people think and why they act as they do. The studies showed that, though babies expect inanimate objects to move as the result of push-pull interactions, they expect people to move rationally in accordance with their beliefs and desires: babies show surprise when someone takes a roundabout path to something he wants.” 1

A very young child develops the ability to understand another person’s preference even when is not the child’s own preference.

That is to say early on we realize that knowing a person as a person is a whole lot different than knowing an object and a lot more interesting.

And how much you know about a person depends on how much they communicate their preferences, feelings, thoughts to you. They have to reveal it in some way. If they clam up or never tell their story, you may just be left with guesses.

This past week I was at the Baptist History and Heritage Society annual meeting which was held this year in Richmond to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. We heard talks on how Lincoln came to write that Proclamation the way he did, how it was influenced by his ruminations on Providence, and how having made the proclamation affected what he did at Gettysburg and in the Second Inaugural. We heard about what we learn from diaries about what was on the mind of women in the South before, during, and after the war. And we talked about how the scars of slavery still affect racial relations to this day. One woman whose family had been prominent Jews in Richmond for over 150 years described how Jews came down on one side and the other. And then to hear about Grants Order 11 demanding that all Jews leave the territory of Mississippi- within 24 hours, and how it was only by a lot of desperate connections that Lincoln voided the order. But how it left Jews feeling that maybe their place in America was not so sure. So many stories. I learned about the slave who ran away from his master after helplessly watching his wife and all his children be marched away to be sold to new owner. And we heard about an owner who penned a note to the dress of a slave girl as he sent her to her new home, saying “this is the best housekeeper we have ever owned and we hate to lose her. I would not sell her except I need the money to buy a new horse.” And you see it was all these stories that made you understand people today in a different , deeper way. and to recognize some of the scars of over 200 years.

We all have our stories, don’t we?

The stories explain who we are. Where we hurt. The memory that shapes us still. The hope that pulls us into the future. We know each other only when we are given some access to each other’s heart. We may know about the other person’s skin color, regional accent, the date of birth and family relations. But to know them personally really involves some access to their heart.

God is personal which means there is only so much you know about God abstractly. You may know that there is a god.

Psalm 19, for example, says, “the heavens are telling the wonder of God” The psalmist knows that the mystery and marvel of creation points “silently” to its creator. “without speech

But then the psalmist starts praising God for speaking to us. The word, the law, the covenants, the precepts, all these are sweet, joy-giving, comforting, guiding. It is not enough that the world may speak of God, testify to God; God speaks to us. God addresses us as persons who can understand his interest in our best interest. The universe reveals God indirectly; God can reveal God’s self.

(And so the psalm, which begins with the “speech without words” of the universe, and glories in God’s speech to us, ends with our speech to God. The response, to the recognition that God is personal and speaking to us, is to speak to God. “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable unto Thee.”)

Karl Barth described the Trinity this way.

God is the “revealer”– God decides to communicate God’s self

God is the “revelation” – that what God reveals is nothing other than or less than God’s self: God the Son is God

And God is the revealedness– God is the one who works inside us so that we are able to recognize and receive the revelation as the revelation of God. Romans 8: when we call God Abba, Father, it is the Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are indeed God’s beloved children.

The Father reveals God’s self, God’s nature, in the Son, and we are inspired to grasp that the Son is God by the work of the Holy Spirit in our spirit.

God’s communication to us– his Word– finds its culminating expression in Jesus Christ, the Word translated into the language of humanity and we receive it by the gift of the Spirit’s work in and among us.

Augustine used our own experience of speaking to describe trinity.

The father is like the thought you have the feeling inside you , which goes out from you when you speak express it – that is the Word. What was inside you and invisible is now in a sense out there for others to know. But the language event is not complete until we understand what we have heard or witnessed . And that, Augustine said, is what the Holy Spirit does. It is God in us that makes it possible to for what God has done to become part of us inside.

Now both of these–word and understanding–, you will notice, describe God reaching out to us, communicating to us, permitting us to know his heart, revealing himself to us.

Trinity is a diagram of relationship. The relationship which God enjoys withing God’s self, the self-giving, other-glorifying love that defines the life of God spills over to make a world for the sake of loving more. I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race

The Trinity describes how God not only circles within but reaches out to the world to bring it into the joy which God has from all eternity had within God’s self. Gregory of Nazianzus (d.389/90) used the term perichoresis to describe this relation. Its meaning relates to circle dance. And it is a mightily suggestive image. The Father Son and Holy Spirit weaving in and out in a circular dance, each with its part, but all together one in the dance– one rhythm, one music, one complicated unifying movement, one shared joy. And here is the good news.

The God comes to us, ultimately in Jesus, to invite us to the dance. To become one with the movement of the Divine Life.

Jesus is not only our point of insight into the inner life of the relational trinity that is God, but he is also our point of insight into what the life of God looks like when projected into creation. Or to put that more simply, Jesus is the full revelation of what the world is intended to be like and how God’s creatures are intended to relate to one another: a world and a web of relationships that is completely free of all rivalry, hostility, jealousy, defensiveness, and possessiveness, and is instead characterised by a gracious and loving inter-dependence, full of generosity, hospitality, compassion, beauty, joyous playful creativity, and a reciprocal self-giving and other-receiving. We, then, are called to mirror that life in all our relationships with one another, in our relationships with the earth itself, and in our representations of all this in works of art and craft and word and music and service and stewardship of creation. (Nathan Nettleton)

I read one theologian recently who said that sin could be understood a a refusal to accept the life God offered, to turn our back on the generosity of God.

Maybe in that sense, sin is turning down the invitation to the dance.

God would give us joy and a life that is good. As Moses put in (Deuteronomy) “why would you die?”

Trinity is shorthand for the story of God who reaches again and again to include humanity, offering another chance, always another chance, to receive that goodness and just bracket the past history of ingratitude and start fresh.

Father, Son and Holy Spirit– God in every dimension, calling us to graceful living and joy. AMEN

1“Not long ago, a team of researchers watched a 1-year-old boy take justice into his own hands. The boy had just seen a puppet show in which one puppet played with a ball while interacting with two other puppets. The center puppet would slide the ball to the puppet on the right, who would pass it back. And the center puppet would slide the ball to the puppet on the left . . . who would run away with it. Then the two puppets on the ends were brought down from the stage and set before the toddler. Each was placed next to a pile of treats. At this point, the toddler was asked to take a treat away from one puppet. Like most children in this situation, the boy took it from the pile of the “naughty” one. But this punishment wasn’t enough — he then leaned over and smacked the puppet in the head…

“….With the help of well-designed experiments, you can see glimmers of moral thought, moral judgment and moral feeling even in the first year of life. Some sense of good and evil seems to be bred in the bone. Which is not to say that parents are wrong to concern themselves with moral development or that their interactions with their children are a waste of time. Socialization is critically important. But this is not because babies and young children lack a sense of right and wrong; it’s because the sense of right and wrong that they naturally possess diverges in important ways from what we adults would want it to be.”

“The Moral Life of Babies”, PAUL BLOOM, NYTimes Magazine, May 5, 2010. (

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