I read a sermon by Thomas Long this week. He started it off by telling this story, “In a magazine article recently, a forest ranger in Wales described the most common question that visitors to his park ask the forest rangers. Many people, he said, come to the park to hike one of the beautiful trails that wander through the forest, trails designed to display the magnificent trees and plants, to let the hikers encounter the array of wildlife in the forest, and to take hikers on to hilltops for breathtaking views of the countryside. But the most frequent question that visitors ask the forest rangers is not "Where does this trail go?" or "How long does it take to hike it?" or "Do we need bug spray on the trail" but instead "Excuse me, can you tell me where the trail starts?" It makes sense. No matter how lovely or breathtaking a trail may be, if you don't know where the trail starts, you can't hike it.”
When we think of God, where do we start? Where does that trailhead begin? Let’s start where we should always start, in scripture. The doctrine of the Three in One God, the Triune God, the Trinity is not something that is spelled out in the Bible. The word ‘Trinity’ is not found in the Bible itself. The doctrine is something that was fleshed out later as the church started to develop. There are places where we can point to in scripture though and demonstrate this idea and see where this doctrine came from.
At the end of Matthew’s Gospel Jesus gives the disciples what is called the Great Commission. He says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Jesus tells us to baptize people in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Then in 2 Corinthians Paul ends his letter with a benediction. “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” You can see a trend here with when Jesus and Paul refer to the whole name of God they say Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
My theology professor at Duke, Geoffrey Wainwright is a spitting image of Alfred Hitchcock, and is quintessentially British too. He always said, "When I say, God, I mean Father, Son, and Holy Spirit." He drilled it into our heads that when we talk about God, if we are going to talk about the Christian God we worship, that God has a specific name and that name is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. If you remove one piece of that name of God, you no longer have the God we worship.
The name of God is really important. We can go all the way back to Moses and the burning bush to see that. Moses wants to know the name of God so he can tell Israelites who is sending him. He asks God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”God said to Moses, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’”
If you know someone’s name then you understand a little bit of who they are. Try to describe someone without using their name and you can get only so far. For example, can you guess who I am thinking about? There was a musician who was known for his guitar skills. He is known world wide for his licks and runs. His mastery of the instrument set the tone of new style of rock and roll. He is seen as a revolutionary musician. Would you know who I am talking about? What if I told you he was black and had hit albums hit the 60s. He has influenced many throughout the his life. Do you know who I am talking about yet? There are still too many people that come to mind. The person I am thinking about is Chuck Berry. Not Jimi Hendrick or even B.B. King. Yet, if I started with his name you all would have been with me from the start. There is power, understanding and acknowledgement when you know someone’s name.
The fact is we know the name of God and that is what we celebrate today. Our God’s name is the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit. Three different persons in one God. They are all the same yet they are different. They serve different purposes yet they are all one. It is a confusing and mind numbing doctrine but that is our limited human brain trying to make sense of God.
When we start with God’s name we learn more about who God is and what he does. If we look at the scripture story today we get the familiar story of Nicodemus talking with Jesus. But Nicodemus comes searching for something; something that many of us come to Church searching for. He comes to Jesus at night after being astounded by the miraculous signs. He comes because he wants to know more. He comes because he wants to be apart of the God who is making the ministry of Jesus possible. He, as a religious leader, can sense that there is something important going on here but he can’t put his finger on it. He is introduced to a different way of seeing God, talking about God, and is confounded by the language. Born again? Born of the Spirit? Many of us feel the same way when we first started to learn about God.
When we stand at the trail head we see things for the first time and we can be easily distracted by the beauty and the language those who have been on the trail for a while use to describe it. Yet if we look at Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus we can see that Jesus still pushes us in a weird way. As Jesus explains what is like to follow God he is demonstrating the community that God exists in. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit live in community with one another. We are invited into that community.
One of the misconceptions of our modern day Christian language is that we constantly are telling people that they need to invite Jesus into their lives. Jesus needs to come into their life. Yet the reality is that Jesus is not telling Nicodemus that if wants to know God better that all he has to do is ask Jesus into his life. No instead he talks about being born of the Spirit. The reality is that God doesn’t want to be invited into your life, God wants you and invites you to be a part of God’s life. God wants us to be a part of the community and the relationship that makes up the Holy Trinity.
But this is the joy and love of God that we need to remember. There are lots of images out there of what God is thought to look like. Some see God as a clockmaker who created the world, wound it up and then let it go. He is the creator but doesn’t interact with the world any more. Others see God like a cowboy that John Wayne or Clint Eastwood played. He is one who brings down justice with a cold and swift fury. He is sitting on a cloud, like Zeus, waiting for us to mess up before he sends down lighting to punish us. But that is not true. God is active, vital, and loving this world right now. What is amazing is that God invites us to join him in that work.
I want you to reach back into the dark recesses of your brain and remember a popular piece of clothing from back in the 1990s. I know it is hard to go back a decade in a half, but do so. Remember these bracelets that came out with WWJD on them. They were started by a youth pastor in Michigan to help his youth remember to think about what Jesus may be asking them to do in situations. It caught on nationwide and soon everyone was wearing them. To think about what Jesus would do in a certain situation is a noble and great idea. But it almost makes God out to be a life coach not God. All we have to do to be a follower of God is to think about what he would want us to do in this situation. While on a youth trip to Lake Junaluska one summer the speaker there asked another question which I found what a much better way of thinking about it. He told us we should be asking, What is Jesus Doing?
When we place our lives in the midst of God’s life then the world seems different, changed, and we see things anew. That is because we are seeing things through God not our own eyes. We are walking through life while dwelling inside the community of the God we worship. It is hard to do that and not feel for the people that God’s heart breaks for. It is hard not to feel compassionate about feeding the hungry, helping the sick, and reaching out to the least of these. It is hard to sit back and watch people be oppressed and taken advantage of. That is because when we place ourselves in the midst of God’s relationship with God’s three persons, we are changed.
We can see this the best at the communion table. I truly enjoy doing communion through intinction because of what it represents. The physical act adds so much to the sacrament it self. Think about it. When we come to receive communion what do we do. We get up out of our seats and we come forward. We put our hands out and receive the gift of the bread and wine. “Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf. The bread which we break is a sharing in the body of Christ. The cup over which we give thanks is a sharing in the blood of Christ.”
The God we worship is a God of community, a God of relationships, a God of constant and unconditional love. The Three in One, Triune, Trinitarian God we worship is named the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We are invited into that relationship. We are welcomed into the love and compassion that the three persons have for one another and us. As we stand at the trailhead we realize that the trail we are walking is the one God is walking. When we are ready we step forward in the work God is already doing, the relationship that God is already living out, and the love that God is already expressing. When we are born again, born of the Spirit, when we finally want to give our lives over to God, we are invited into community, into relationship. We are welcomed into God’s life, God’s community and the relationship that is the God we worship, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
And all God’s people said…Amen.