The Everflowing Stream of God: The Trinity as a Useful Theological Tool

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First let me say that this sermon will be a bit more overtly theological than most sermons I give here. We are talking about heady matters, and they are important to the church. I hope to show why they are important this morning.

That leads to my second point. Everything I say this morning will come from another source. I want you to know that I am not making any of this up. I will be trying to reflect what people who are a lot smarter than me are saying about the Trinity. These books here are just the ones in my library that focus specifically on the Trinity.

Third, I cannot explain what the Trinity is. I cannot explain how God is three-in-one. What I want to do is tell three stories. One is the story of how we came up with this incredibly confusing, but also incredibly sublime doctrine. The other is a parable about what this doctrine means for us.

Everything I say, and everything the theologians say, is at best an analogy. We do not have the words to actually describe God. We can only say, God is like…a father. God is like, a good shepherd. God is like a mother hen who cares for her young. God is clearly not male, even though we use the word Father. By the way we use that word because Jesus did.

Our first story starts in the Old Testament. People worshiped many different gods, almost all of whom were idols. By idols I mean that they had a physical representation on earth. They were a statue, or figurine, or natural structure. In other words, these were God who could be seen and touched. Then Abraham comes along saying that he worships a God who is invisible. His god is not an idol. You cannot put his god on the mantel in your home. And then Moses comes along and says he had an encounter with the same God, except that he learned that you cannot even use the name of this God. When asked for a name, the god merely says, “I am who I am.”

And so things roll along this way for many, many years. Eventually the people come to believe that this god is not just one among many gods, but is in fact the One True God. All the other gods are fakes—just pieces of rock or wood. But this god is still a relatively simple god in spite of the being invisible thing going on.

But then an itinerant preacher from Galilee comes on the scene. He talks about this god. He talks about him a lot. And much of what he says is radical, but understandable. There is one thing he says about this god however that people had a real hard time with—he calls this god his father. No one had ever done that before. That was different. He also talked about having a very special relationship with this god. He says things like what we heard in the Gospel passage this morning. Jesus is talking about how the Spirit of God will come down and will give to the disciples all that Jesus has. Oh, and by the way, Jesus says, what I have is everything that God has. In other words, he kind of makes himself equal to God. Oh, not kind of, he does it. He says that he and his Heavenly Father are one. Oh and by the way, there is this other part of God, not the Father, but the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit will come down and will dwell in you.

Jesus gets killed for saying this.

But then he goes rises from the dead. That got him a little attention. And then, after he rises from the dead, he ascends into heaven. And after that, all of sudden Jesus’ disciples are running around saying this Holy Spirit has come upon them, and it turns out that the Holy Spirit is pretty contagious, because other people start reporting the same thing is happening to them! These people all worship that Jewish God of the Old Testament, but it seems they have enlarged the cast of characters in the story.

And things are a mess for a while. There are people running around saying that Jesus was just a man, there are people running around saying he was a god, there are people running around saying he is both god and man and there are people running around saying he was created by god to be a bridge between god and man. People split into factions, they got into fights about this, they developed all sorts of elaborate theories to try to explain the relationship between God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Now here is where it gets interesting. In 325, at the Council of Nicaea, a group of bishops meet to proclaim that Jesus is both God and Man, and that God is both three, Father, Son, Holy Spirit, but…there is only one God. They didn’t try to explain that—they just said that’s the way it is.

Of course people being people, a lot of people jumped in and did try to explain things. Some of the explanations made sense; some of them didn’t. But for the last 1700 years or so, this has been a core belief of the Christian Church.

So why keep it? I mean, if it is something that people don’t understand, why not get rid of it. Why talk about the Trinity if it only confuses people?

Two reasons. First, the people who developed this idea did it because they thought it was true—at least truer than any other idea floating around at the time. Second, it helps them understand some other things about God. The Trinity does make God more complex, and while we may not understand that particular piece of theology, it does help us understand other things about God.

And that is what I want to talk about now.

I want to introduce you to man named Augustine. He was born 354 in Northern Africa. He was a bishop in a town called Hippo, which is in modern day Algeria. And he wrote a lot of books. One in particular was about the Trinity.

Now when I say the word “God,” when I talk about God in sermons, when I pray to God, what is in your mind? What do you think of when you think of God? My guess is that we tend to have an Old Testament view of the word. I would guess that for most of us, our conception of God is probably pretty similar to, say, King David’s idea of God. We think of a divine power, and celestial being, a cosmic force of some kind. Maybe we have a picture of God in our heads.

Now when Augustine said the “God” he meant something like this. There is the Father. And the Father is full of love. And there is the Son. And the Son is also full of love. They have a relationship with each other. This is a much more intense relationship than you or I could ever imagine. They are full of love for one another. But they are different. The Father is not the Son, and the Son is not the Father. Now put on your seatbelts because it gets a little weird here. The Father has always existed. And the Son has always existed. We tend to think that Jesus came into being when he was born in Nazareth. But according the Bible, Jesus the Son of God existed before the foundations of the world.

 

So when you say God you are talking about this intense love between the Father and the Son. Now this love generates an energy. That is not is exactly right. This love IS an energy. And according to Augustine, this energy of love is the Holy Spirit. Now remember, “Father” is a metaphor, but an important one. You see, you cannot have a father if there are no children. I can call myself a father, but if I have not had any children, if I am not taking care of any children, I don’t have a relationship with any children, then I am hardly a father. A father only exists if there are children. Now we are about to go into even stranger territory. We can only talk about God the Father, because Jesus told us he was the Son of God. God is not like our fathers. God is the Father of Jesus. And God the Son only exists because he springs from God the Father. He flows from God the Father. And the Holy Spirit only exists because of the great love between God the Father and God the Son.

In other words, God is really a series of interconnected relationships between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Without those relationships, the God we worship would not exist.

Now the way the theologians describe it, and I have to admit it gets more than a little weird here, the Father begets, produces, is the source for the Son. The Father did not begat Jesus when Mary got pregnant. The Son of God existed long before man Jesus was born. I know that’s a mindbender, and I cannot explain it. I also cannot explain how Jesus has always existed, yet was begotten by the Father. But the important thing is this: the Father begets something else. The Father begets the creation of the world. The world exists because the love of the Father for Son whereby the Son is begotten, kind of overflows into the creation of the world. In other words, This world was created by an excess of love.

Ok, set that aside for a moment. Or you might just want to forget about all together!

 

Imagine a spring up in a mountain valley. It is big spring, and eventually it fills the valley with water and creates a lake. The lake overflows the mountain valley, and creates a river.  The river only exists because it flows out of the lake. And in a sense the lake exists so it can to create the river. The way the lake is set up, it will eventually create a river. It really has not choice, given what it is.

 

That is like the Father and the Son in the Trinity. The Father is the lake and the spring—let’s call that the Source. The Son is the River. Both are made of water, but the Source, the Spring is not the river and the river is not the spring. In the same way we say that the Father is God and the Son is God, but the Father is not the Son and the Son is not the Father.

Now, what does a river do? It flows. The flow is the Holy Spirit. The Flow only exists because the Spring and the river are connected. The flow is also made of water, but the flow is not the River, nor is it the spring. The flow exists in both the spring and the river, and it exists because of the Spring and the River.

Now also imagine that we live down below the Mountain, where the lake and the spring are located, and that we have no possible way of getting up to the lake where the spring is. There is no path, the walls around it are too steep, whatever, but we cannot make our own way there. We have heard there is a great body of water up there, but we have no way of getting to it. It is too high up, too inaccessible. It is beyond our reach. We have heard stories about it, but we are not even sure it exists.

And then, one day, a stream of water comes flowing past our village. The stream eventually turns into a river, and now we have an endless supply of water. It is in the midst of us. The river has made its home in our village. We can go to the river and get water whenever we want. We realize the river is a bit dangerous. If we fall in, we could drown. But it provides us with an endless stream of fresh water. There are some who do not believe in the river. They refuse to come out and see it. They think the story of the mountain lake is a myth, and since it is a myth the river is also a myth. There are others who believe in the river, but not in the lake that feeds it.

Then one day a very strange thing happens. A group of men, people who have spent a lot of time at the river, show up one way with a wooden shell. They call it a boat. And they tell us, “There is a flow in this river. It is powerful. It can do things we can hardly imagine.” We are not quite sure what they are talking about—we don’t know what a “flow” is, but we can see the water moving. And these men put the wooden shell into the river, and they climb into it.  And before our very eyes the they move down the river. “How are you moving?” we call out. “What is pushing you?”

“The flow,” they answer. “We are moving down the river by the power of the flow!”  And they disappear for a while. Some of them come back. They have learned much about this thing called a flow. They tell us the others have moved on down to other communities to explain to them about the river and how it is connected to the Great Lake on the Mountain. Some of them, they tell us, have been swept by the flow to a place they call the Sea, but we really do not know what they are talking about. The Sea, they tell us, is a place that is ALL water, but we have a hard time imagining what kind of place that could be.

Of course in this story the boat is the church, and the flow is the Holy Spirit. When the boat enters the river, it is connected to and controlled by the flow of the river and the source of the river. The sea is heaven, something we cannot imagine.

I want to tell one more story. One week, many years ago, my friend Dan Solie and I took a canoe trip down the middle fork of the Gulkana River. On the third day we got to a tricky part of the river, and Dan pulled the canoe over to the side, we took everything out of it, and did a portage past some really tricky rapids. It took several trips to get everything out of the canoe and down the river by land. Dan said the rapids here were too strong, and we would never make it through them in the canoe.

We went back for the canoe, and Dan stood there and looked down the river, and turned to me and said, “You walk, I’m going to see if I can run those rapids.” Dan is an excellent canoeist, so I took a place on a rock above the river, and watched to see if he could make it. A ranger joined me, and together we watched Dan run the rapids.

It was a thing of beauty to watch him. He deftly nosed the canoe into the worst of the rapids, and skillfully guided it around a series of rocks and eddies, until he was past the swirling water. The ranger said he was the only person to run the rapids all summer.

Going back to my past analogy, this church has a put its boat in the River of the God, and we are being carried by its flow. Without the flow, without the Holy Spirit, we would be dead in the water. Last week was Pentecost and we celebrated how the flow of the Holy Spirit empowered the church of Jesus Christ to do great things for God. Our church is like a little boat making its way down the river of Jesus Christ, propelled by the flow of the Holy Spirit, to the sea. The water we are in flows from the very source of God.

If you have ever been on a canoe trip, you know that there are times when the water is broad and calm. Of course those are the times when you have to the hardest. And there are times when the flow just takes on down the river and you just have to dip a paddle in every once in a while to keep your bearings. And there are times when the river is dangerous.

But we work our way down river, through the doldrums and the rapids. There are times when we are tempted to pull over the side, and just carry everything ourselves, without the power of the flow, and there are times when the flow is so strong, we are afraid we might capsize.

Today, I feel a bit like we are my friend Dan Solie, nosing our canoe through some dangerous rapids. This is not a peaceful part of the river, these times in which we are living. I am sure we all might feel like abandoning ship at times. We feel our boat is small, and the river is wild. It does not feel like there are enough people to paddle. We are all having to work hard to make sure our little boat does crash in to the rocks ahead. Most of us remember the times when the river was broad and peaceful, and it took a minimum of effort to keep our boat in the flow. The flow was strong, but slow and predictable.

That is not the case today. But we are in the River of God. And we are flowing to a divine destination. People have been floating this river for the last 5000 years, this river of God. It looked very different up stream, but we are not upstream. We are here, in the waters of God; fed by the Father, supported by the son and propelled the Holy Spirit.

This Trinity Sunday I pray that your view of God has gotten a bit bigger. I did hope that you would come to understand the Trinity, but that you would come to see your place within it. Created by God the Father, sustained and guided by the Son and propelled by the Holy Spirit, we make our way through this life.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit; Amen.

About tmrichmond3

I am the pastor at the First Presbyterian Church in Medford, Oregon. I believe that faith should be able to sustain us, not oppress us.
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