Three Persons of God
Isaiah 6:1-8, Psalm 29, Revelation 4:1-11, St. John 3:1-15
Some of you will have heard of Allister McGrath, the Anglican theologian and church historian who holds forth at Oxford University. A few years ago, in Houston, I went to hear him speak, and he spun a yarn:
“I don’t think you use it over here in the States,” said Dr. McGrath, “but back in England we occasionally bring out the old Athanasian Creed. It refers to ‘the Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible.’
“Well, after church one day two old blokes were walking out and one was overheard to say to the other, ‘The whole damn thing’s incomprehensible to me.’”
And so it should be. The Trinity is not for finite minds to penetrate. But the mystical vision of God is not too remote for us. The author of Hebrews, in fact, promises us we can ascend into the divine presence when we worship. A poet named John Gillespie Magee Jr. caught the vision.
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of – wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up the long, delirious burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark nor ever eagle flew –
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.
Another poet sees God reaching down to touch our hearts, this one in Psalm 33:
The LORD looks from heaven; He sees all the sons of men.
From the place of His dwelling He looks on all the inhabitants of the earth;
He fashions their hearts individually; He considers all their works.
This is God high and lifted up, seated upon His throne, whom Isaiah encountered in his vision, our Creator and Judge. So far, He seems comprehensible . . . so far. But He is as well God the Holy Spirit, of whom God the Son testified to Nicodemus. He is the God, active on earth, by whom we are born again. He is the God who is One in Three and Three in One.
Nicodemus comes by night, but the wonder is he comes at all, considering the risk. Nicodemus – God bless him! – is more enchanted than he is afraid. He must know who this Jesus is. A teacher of the Jews who performs wonders never seen? He must have come from God. What precious jewels of wisdom must He bear!
But the truth He reveals gives Nicodemus a good old jolt: Only one who is born again can see the Kingdom of God.
Now, already unhinged, Nicodemus must grapple with the Greek word anothen. It may indeed mean “again.” It may mean “from above.” It may mean “in the beginning.” Or might it mean that to see the Kingdom of God one must be born again from above and restored to his sinless state in the beginning?
Oh, dear. Nicodemus blurts, back into the womb? A literal-minded man, he latches onto “again” and he is superbly befuddled. At last, he is in a state to receive divine instruction.
That man must be born of water and the Spirit. Water cleanses, the Spirit empowers. One who is washed can roll in the mud again but one who has the Spirit has the strength to endure in the glistening purity of God’s truth.
And so, says John, one born of the flesh has naught but his own meager resources but one born of the Spirit has within him the victorious life of God. He is re-created. The Father creates, the Son saves, the Spirit re-creates. This is God.
But now He is perhaps a bit less comprehensible. On this Trinity Sunday in the Anglican churches, on this Seminary Sunday in the Diocese of Mid-America of the Reformed Episcopal Church, it is meet and right that we consider how we comprehend Him.
Goodness knows there’s no shortage of confusion on the subject. Just the other day I was witnessing to a woman of about 50. She was born and raised in Poland, in a strict Roman Catholic home. I’ll call her Daria.
She explained that she had rebelled against a religion that was shoved down her throat. The priests didn’t teach anything; they simply demanded she take everything they said on faith. Her parents would brook no complaining; she should shut up and go to mass.
She took the only way out available to her: She married at a very tender age. After the marriage collapsed, she fled with her young son to Chicago and, after many years there, made her way to Tulsa. Along the way, she has read a good deal and formed her own idea of God.
In Daria’s telling, god is one and god is everywhere. God exists and creates and loves – but doesn’t judge. God is always the same, whether described by a Jew, a Christian, a Hindu or Buddhist or Muslim. Interpretations vary but in the end everyone is referring to the same god.
I explained that this is what the Bible calls idolatry, the worship of false gods. The religion of Jesus and that of Mohammad cannot both be true. If one is true, the other is demonstrably false, and its god is an idol.
Daria countered that it is impossible to worship wrongly because god is everywhere and various understandings, which are conditioned in our youth, are incidental. The important thing is to be happy, knowing God.
This to-ing and fro-ing had gone on for quite some time when I asked, “Is Jesus God?”
“Yes,” said Daria. “Jesus is god. Buddha is god. You are god. I am god.” This belief is as old as the hills. It has a name: pantheism.
On this Seminary Sunday I submit to you that it is imperative we build a strong seminary to train pastors and missionaries and teachers to tell the world who God is – the true God who has revealed Himself in His creation and in His Son, the Living Word, and in His written word, the Holy Bible.
This is our bounden duty as Christians commissioned to go forth and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.
But the job doesn’t end with evangelism, it only begins there. The next part of the task is discipleship, and for that, too, God’s people must be trained. For it is not only on the outside but inside the churches as well that strange teaching doth proceed.
Just a couple of days ago I saw that Beth Moore has come under attack. For many years she has been speaking to large audiences and churning out books, which have sold millions of copies, I suppose. I don’t know her but for several decades we shared a hometown and I know her to be of pristine reputation.
Her theology is not mine but I believe she is a lovely, sincere, committed Christian with a passion for communicating the gospel. And now she is branded a heretic.
A popular Christian blog has deemed her such – repeatedly in recent weeks. Of what does she stand accused? Of saying God speaks to her. Those who indict her insist that since the last author composed the last book of the Bible in the first century God has revealed nothing to anyone.
Has He not? Have they ever opened the book they hold so dear? For in the 14th chapter of the Gospel of St. John we find God the Son promising:
“But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you” (v. 26).
Those who accuse Beth Moore are worshiping the book, exalting it to the stature of the One who gave us the book.
We must have a strong seminary to train leaders and teachers in orthodoxy – correct doctrine. It doesn’t happen by osmosis. You can’t buy it in capsule form. Telepathy has not proved effective. It happens in the seminary.
Here’s one of the things I learned in our diocesan seminary, Cranmer Theological House: As Anglicans we persist in a resolutely Trinitarian theology because of the errors that result from an unbalanced Trinity.
The mainline Protestant churches have emphasized the Father above the Son and Holy Spirit, making God so remote as to veer off toward deism, the belief that an aloof god made the world and now sits back, as though watching a movie, to see how things will turn out. This view opens up for them a gospel of social justice and ecological awareness that misunderstands evangelism and discipleship and worship.
The charismatic churches have elevated the Holy Spirit above the Father and Son, claiming such a torrent of direct revelation through myriad personal lifelines to heaven as to diminish the importance of the Scriptures. Yes, the Spirit may teach us today, but you can’t whistle Him up like room service.
The evangelical churches have exaggerated the Son over the Father and the Holy Spirit to the point of making God altogether too familiar: Me and Jesus, we’re tight; He’s my homeboy. Nowhere in view is the God Isaiah found high and lifted up, to be worshiped and praised.
We only know Him for who He is when we know Him as three Persons, equally uncreated, eternal, almighty and worthy of worship.
In my time in Tulsa I’ve had a few edifying exchanges with a man named John, a seasoned saint who loves God passionately and studies at depth. He recently raised a point about what he sees as fellowship in the churches.
His starting point is authentic fellowship as we find it in the Scriptures – Christian people who hunger to know God through study of His Word, to love one another to the point of giving of themselves, to hold one another accountable for fidelity to the Bible – maybe something like this:
“And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers. Then fear came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need.
“So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:42-47).
John suggested the churches have fumbled their fellowship because, while celebrating the Incarnation and the Resurrection, they have forgotten Pentecost. It is the Spirit who came to those first Christians in Jerusalem to bind them into a body of believers. It is the Spirit who will do the same for us – if we will cease grieving Him and open ourselves to His filling.
I believe my friend John is right: We must know God in His fullness if we are to know Him rightly and well. Only then will He begin to be comprehensible to us. Here at St. Michael’s, we do not blow off Pentecost . . . and even we have some room for improvement in the biblical fellowship department.
When we know God rightly we can worship Him rightly. For this is the chief end of man. Evangelism and discipleship lead us to God’s altar, to our communion with Him. For this purpose, too, we must have men trained in the ways of the Bible and of the Book of Common Prayer. Trained to lead God’s people to His throne of grace.
How John must have shuddered as, in the Spirit, he surveyed the celestial array before him, gazed upon the One in Three and Three in One. How it must have dazzled and bewildered and terrified him. What did this revelation mean?
The Anglican theologian Gerald Bray sums up: “The sense of the presence of God is so overwhelming that we can move among the persons almost without noticing, yet we are always fully conscious of their presence.
“There is never any confusion in the reader’s mind about who is speaking or acting, yet in coldly logical terms, the three cannot be clearly distinguished from the one God. Father, Son and Holy Spirit reveal themselves to John, and so also to us, as one God, living and moving in the fullness of his Trinitarian being.
“The doctrine, culled from the rest of Scripture, and laboriously constructed, is here presented to us in all its profound complexity and splendid simplicity. The God whom we cannot explain, we know, the One we cannot picture, we see.
“The Book of Revelation is first and foremost a revelation of the Trinity, and it is only when we understand this that we will be equipped to interpret its meaning, which is nothing less than the mystical vision of God.”
So wrote the learned Dr. Bray. And so, beloved, on this Trinity Sunday, on this Seminary Sunday, I ask: Is God comprehensible? Wrong question, really. Is God knowable? A resounding yes. So long as we know Him in His fullness, for who He says He is. Amen.