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  • Writer's pictureRuss McDonald

God in Three Persons

Trinity Sunday is the one Sunday a year where preachers have the opportunity to instruct their congregations on the doctrine of the Trinity, that teaching of the church which tells us that God is somehow both one God yet also three, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. So that leaves us preachers at risk of heresy once a year, hoping to explain something beyond us, something that perhaps we are not meant to understand.

I have always found the incomprehensibility of the Trinity in its own way one of Christianity’s most compelling attributes. Instead of inventing something that makes sense to the human imagination, the early Christians grasped for language to explain a God they experienced. There was a God who acted in the world and we mortals worked for a way to speak of this God.

This passage, the first in the scripture, shows this God at work. When God chooses to create, it is not “let me” but a “let us.” God speaks, and through the Word of God creates the world. Early Christians thought the Word of the Lord had a life of its own so that John writes of Jesus that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Somehow the word of God took life and was itself, God. And this Word became Flesh and named Jesus, the Son of God. And the Wind of God, the Spirit, blew over the face of the deep, giving order to chaos. And this Spirit was also God. So there were three, Father, Son (the Word), and Holy Spirit.

The language that the early Christians used for these three was Trinity. They are both three and one. Not just one thing presenting itself as three different things: Father, Son, and Spirit speak of each other as being somehow different from one another, yet the same. So while they are three, they are not three different gods.

The language that they used for the three parts of this Trinity is “person.” One God in three persons. Now “person” might be more confusing for us now than it would have been then. We hear “person” and we think “individual.” We think a person as idefined by how we are distinct from one another. We describe personhood in terms of independence.

I would encourage you to think of “person” in terms of how we relate to one another, not who we are apart from them. I am husband, father, son, friend. Who I am is wrapped up in

everyone I’ve loved, who have loved me into being. As the songwriter, Jason Isbell sings, “a man’s the product of all the people that he’s ever loved.” We are those people. They are us and we are them.

This is what we mean when we say that the Trinity is composed of three persons. We mean that God is fundamentally relational. This is why we say that God is love. Love is at the heart of who God is because even before the creation of the universe. Before the sun, before stars, before man and even the angels, there was God and God was three and one. God was never alone. Always at the heart of God is love.

So when God speaks and creates, God does not do this out of loneliness or need. God was complete in the fullness of the Trinity. Love always wants to share. Love creates more love. So the act of creation is pure love, driven not by necessity but out of selfless giving. If you exist, you know that God loves you since your very existence is an act of love and love holds the universe together.

Out of love this God creates. He divides the light and the dark. He calls the light, day and dark, night. He separated the sea and the land. He filled the world with trees and dolphins and birds and cows and sea anemones. Then he said let us make humans in our image. Male and female he created them.

In the next chapter, we read a different perspective on the creation of the world. We read how God creates Adam, the first man, and says “it is not good for man to be alone.” This is remarkable, since, with every bit of creation from the beginning, God has exclaimed “it is good!” But it is not good for man to be alone because man alone is not in the Image of the God who is community. So God makes the woman and they together are in the Image of God: man, woman, and the promise she bears in her womb. It is together, in community, that man bears the image of the Triune God.

Once again, this bears witness against the kinds of ways we understand our selves. Our identity and even our fate is tied up in the fate of one another. Somehow our own salvation is tied up in the salvation of others. I think the capacity for forgetting this truth is a particular American ailment.

An American writing for the British paper relates what he sees as the difference between America and England. He sums this up in a story that a friend of his from Yorkshire, a place he notes that many Americans deride as steeped in decline. While on vacation in Florida, this Briton witnessed something that we Americans experience as routine: a homeless man rummaging through garbage to feed his family. This Englishman greeted this experience with horror. That this man from a town in decline could not comprehend that someone would be left by their community to starve caused the American writer to wonder how a society allows its people to reach such desperation. In contrast, he writes of England:

“What most impressed me about the England I saw was the opposite: a feeling I encountered, again and again, that whatever happens, people are all in this together. Solidarity was one of the great themes after the terrorist bombing in Manchester, as the city came together around the victims in a truly impressive way, but it goes much further than that. It is the sense you get that the country is somehow obliged to help out the people of the deindustrialised zones and is failing “

When we live as if our fates are not tied to the fates of others, that is sin. We are together made in God’s image, but sin destroys that image within us. Sin wrecks our relationships with one another, making us unable to live in community with one another. The Psalmist writes that God has crowned us with the glory of God’s image (Psalm 8:5), by Paul reminds us that all sinned and now bear a broken image (Romans 3:23). Sin is an anti-personal force that makes us less than persons, less than human, makes us unable to live together, live with God and with creation.

But in the fullness of time, the God has acted. As in the beginning, the fullness of the Godhead has broken through into our world to remake us in God’s image. The Father has sent the Son, the Image of God invisible, so that we may be remade in his image. God has offered him up and raised him again from the dead. Jesus then ascended to the throne and sent the Spirit so that our broken selves may be put to death in Christ Jesus and made again in his image in his resurrection.

The fullness of the three-and-one God works together to reconcile us, to remake us. The God who first made the world now remakes us. They make us in the Image again, make us persons again. The God who made the world made us to be in God’s own image, the image of a God who eternally lives in community with one another. This is where we are in the Image of God – together. This is what John Wesley meant when he said “all holiness is social holiness.” Godliness happens in how we live together, how we treat one another, how we love God and each other. There is no Godliness outside relationship because God is community. And it is this God, the God who is forever loving another, that we are made to resemble.

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