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Trinity Sunday, 2014
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
The Bible begins in the beginning. That is a bold start. To claim to know the beginning and to tell the beginning is to claim to know ultimate reality and the true nature of things. For us, on our own, by ourselves, the beginning is lost to us. We can make up beginnings, just as we can make up religions and make up gods and image fantastic realities for ourselves. We can invent stories about Thor or Zeus or a Big Bang or the evolution of the species, but these things won’t get us very far. Our own ideas about truth and reality are, in the end, impractical because they eventually run into the facts which demolish them and leave us with bitter consequences for our foolishness. The first and most devastating fact for our foolish thoughts is the fact that “God is.”
So God, in His goodness, doesn’t leave us guessing. He tells us the beginning. “In the beginning God made the heaven and the earth.” If we could go back to the very beginning, we would find only God. He is the author of all reality. He speaks and it comes to be. He wills and it is so. But who is this God? Is He indeed, as we Christians say, the Holy Trinity—Father, Son and Holy Spirit, three equal Persons incomprehensibly united in one Godhead? The Jews and Unitarians, Muslims and Jehovah’s Witnesses would say, No. They say that God is only one Person. Philosophers, too, with their own reasoning have never reasoned out the Holy Trinity. Mormons would also say, No, too, but for a different reason. They hold that there are innumerable gods. Buddhists and Hindus have no Creator God in the sense that we understand. What does the beginning tell us about God? What does God tell us about Himself in Genesis 1? What does creation itself tell us?
In the beginning “God created…” Now if you look in the original Hebrew, you find that the word for God here–Elohim, the very first word for God in the whole Bible–is actually plural. The singular is El. We hear it in names like DaniEL, meaning “My God is Judge” or “ELisabath” meaning “God of Hosts.” Elohim is really the same word which, used in other contexts, would read “gods,” but when referring to the God of Israel it is always understood as a singular. The verb is singular, indicating that there is one subject. The action is singular, but there is already in this first mention of God’s name a suggestion of a mysterious kind of plurality. And as we read just a little more, we find alongside the Creator God one who is called the “Spirit of God.” He hovers over the waters like a hen brooding over her eggs, present with nurturing power to bring life and order and blessing to the unformed world.
And God said, “Let there be light” and there was light. That’s powerful speaking, divine speaking which creates what it says. The Word goes forth and accomplishes what it says with almighty power. From first chapter of the Gospel of John we learn that this Word is with God in the beginning and this Word is God. It is this Word who spoke the Father’s message when the prophets were filled with the Spirit of God. It is this Word who took on flesh and became the man, Jesus Christ, to be our Savior, filled with the Spirit, to bring us back to the Father.
And when God turns to make the first man, what does God say but “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” Why this plural here? The Jews will say that God was speaking to angels, but we have no word in Scripture that angels helped in the creation of humanity. Creating is something only God does. Others will say that God was speaking in the “royal we,” like the Queen of England complaining about her crumpets might say, “We are not pleased with the crumpets.” But such usage would be strange in ancient Hebrew. No, God says “Let us make man in our image” because the one true God is also mysteriously plural. So here already, Christians can point to the One God revealed in Genesis 1 as being God, the Spirit and the Word – all divine, all together working the uniquely divine work of Creation.
Christians have also pointed to the works of creation as having hints or traces of the Holy Trinity. On the first day, God created light. Over and over in the Bible, God uses light as an image of Himself. Just a few examples: The Bible says He dwells in in approachable light; John reports that in the Son of God is the light of life; and Jesus says “I am the Light of the world.” Light is one single thing and yet it has three aspects. Church Fathers in the 2nd Century pointed out that light has a source like the sun, it comes down like rays, and then it strikes an object with warmth and light. They used this illustration to try to explain how the Father is the source of all deity, the Son of God is like a ray coming forth from the Father, and the Spirit brings the warmth of true life with God which is the result of Jesus’ coming.
When we confess the Nicene Creed we say that the Son is God of God, Light of Light, Very God of very God. What do we mean, calling him Light of Light? Well, just like the flame of a candle is hot and bright and dancing, so another candle lit from it is just as hot and bright and active, too. Even though it derives from the first, the first is in no way lessened and the second is in no way lesser. So, too, the Son of God has every aspect of the Father – because He comes from the Father, He is as wise, as powerful, as good, as eternal and all other things just as the Father. The Spirit too proceeds from the Father and the Son as a divine equal, sharing the same divine nature.
If we go to the Second day, we see God dividing the waters above from the waters below. He’s creating a space for life. Space itself has been used to explain the Trinity. God made space with height and length and depth – three dimensions, yet they define one space, they extend into one universe. Water has been used, too, for it is familiar to us in three forms—solid ice, liquid water and gaseous steam. It’s all water but we know it in three distinct ways. The problem with this popular example is that water transitions from one form to the next. You can turn vapor into liquid and liquid into solid ice, but God does not transition back and forth between being the Father and then being the Son and then being the Spirit. God is all three at once. Now physicists do tell us that there is wonderful point called the triple point, where steam and water and ice exist together at the same time. That would be a better illustration of the Trinity but I suspect none of us have ever seen water at its triple point. We could bear the temperature – it’s just bit above the freezing point, but we would have to endure the almost complete absence of all atmospheric pressure. At that point, we might see water, ice and steam together, but we wouldn’t enjoy that vision for long for we ourselves would quickly explode under those conditions.
On the third day, God created the vegetation. That brings us to the most famous image of the Trinity, the one used by St. Patrick on the green fields of Ireland. Just as the clover has three leaves and yet is one plant, so God is three Persons and yet one God. This is better even than the triple point of water because those three leaves usually look pretty identical, whereas ice, liquid and gas have different characteristics. Father, Son and Holy Spirit share identical characteristics as they share in being the one true God.
There’s another popular example from the third day which isn’t quite as good. Some say God is like an apple. There’s even a popular children’s book illustrating this, showing how an apple has a core, flesh and skin, so God is Father, Son and Spirit and yet one God. But core, flesh, and skin each have different characteristics, so the clover example of three identical leaves is better. The weakness with the clover example is that each leaf is only part of the clover, but it is not proper to say that Father, Son and Spirit are each parts of God. They are each Divine Persons, each fully God.
On the fourth day, God filled the heavens with sun, moon and stars – greater and lesser lights. We’ve already mentioned how the sunlight has been used to describe something of God. The fourth century church Father, Gregory of Nazianzus, was apparently not satisfied with that example. He described the Trinity as three suns occupying the same place in space. Each would be hot and bright and from the outside you couldn’t tell that they were three. There would be three and one together. From this creation day we also learn that God made the sun, moon and stars to mark time and determine days. Time, too, has its Trinitarian character – past, present and future, and yet time is one. Again, the problem here is that past, present and future do not exist together at one time.
Fifth day: God fills the sea with fish and the sky with birds. Here is the beginning of living things and God makes them to reproduce each according to their kinds. This, too, gives a hint about God, for God the Father is eternally Father – He is not a lonely, solitary God. He never was. He eternally generates His own Son and His Son is of the same kind as Himself – God with God as He is in the unity of God. Thus, even the reproduction of birds and fish provides a hint about the begetting which takes place within God. The relationship between a human father and his son is a sufficiently close analogy of that relationship within God that God even picks up these titles and makes them his personal names to reveal Himself. The other way around, the relationship within God became the pattern for our own creation and so St. Paul says that God the Father is the one from whom all fatherhood is named (Eph. 3:15). On the fifth day, God blessed the creatures, telling them to be fruitful and multiply. And the blessing of God upon the creatures is a hint of how the Holy Spirit is the Blessing who rests upon the relationship of the Father and the Son.
Day Six: God creates animals and finally man. St. Augustine was the pro at finding reflections of the Holy Trinity within the human creature. We were, after all, made in the image and likeness of God. We should be somewhat Trinitarian in our very nature. You might say we’re body, soul and spirit – three aspects but one person, and that has been said before too. St. Augustine would also come up with things we might not expect: our minds have memory, understanding and will and yet they consist together, in each other in one mind. My favorite from St. Augustine, though, is when He points out that God is love. For God to be love, there must be One who loves, a Beloved, and the love that unites them – this corresponds to the Father, the Beloved Son and the Holy Spirit of love between them.
Seeing man in the image of the Holy Trinity, others have pointed to the human family as a Trinitarian structure, as man and woman come together and the result is a child. Some point to human language, which has three persons – the first person to refer to ourselves, the second person to address others and the third to talk about others. We can see that every one of the days of creation has offered examples and illustrations of the Holy Trinity, though none of them have been perfect. The Trinity, after all, is a unique reality which belongs to God alone. We can only find faint echoes of it in the created order.
Finally, we come to the seventh day, the day of blessed rest which is God’s gift to His creation. Genesis begins at the beginning and starts everything with God the Creator. A lot happens in those first six days, as the Lord establishes and orders and fills creation. The account and the activity give hints about who God is. But here at the end we find the gift of rest, which is God’s ultimate goal for us. The Trinity is not a mystery to be solved. We’ll never solve it, but we can rest in it. We can know God who reveals Himself to us through His Holy Word. We can know and confess that God has created us, that God has saved us in the Person of Jesus Christ and that God blesses us and makes us holy after His image and likeness. This is the God we know as Christians – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He tells us of our beginning and who we really are – His creatures, made to live in community with one another and in harmony with the rest of creation, made to be His image and His likeness in this world, made to know Him and be blessed by Him, become holy in Him, and rest in Him. That was our beginning and because of Jesus who came to die to atone our sins and rise to defeat death, this is not just our beginning but our life now by faith and our blessed end as well.
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