From the Book of Exodus:
And God called to Moses out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
The ancient Greeks were good at philosophy. So good at philosophy, in fact, that one may truthfully say that they invented it, and the questions, answers, problems and speculations they posed and pondered are posed and pondered still. The ancient Hebrews were also inventors; the intellectual invention they came up with was history.
As solemn and serious as is Thucydides and as colorful as is Herodotus, these Greek writers only produced chronicles—the recounting of numerous events with occasional moralizing. The Bible, however, is very different. It is about history itself, and from the beginning it seeks to disclose the meaning of events, as much as to record the bare facts of what happened. The Jews were convinced that what took place in the world was not at all part of a meaningless cycle or series. They saw a beginning of things and an end toward which all things headed. There was direction in history and the motivation behind this direction was moral but also, and most important, theological. What happened in the world, and what happens and will happen in the world has purpose. It is not simply the random selection of blind fate. There is a reason behind history and an order that moves history toward its end.
This was the Hebrew discovery. And though Greek philosophy has forever influenced the Western World and still does, it may quite accurately be said that the Hebrews and their history created the Western World, for that world from Moses and Jesus up to Karl Marx – three Jews – sees history just as the ancient Hebrews did: with a beginning, a middle, and an end.
It should come as no surprise that the Hebrews discovered history, for history is made by persons and the other, prior, and even more important discovery of the Hebrews is this: that God, the force and motivation behind the created universe and the force and motivation behind history is person, a person.
You may have heard it said that the most important spiritual and intellectual idea of the ancient Jews was that God was one. There was one God alone. That’s not strictly true. Others had grasped this fact some time before the Hebrews made it their creed. The Hebrews, however, encountered a God who revealed Himself as person, and that, really, was their most important discovery: that God was person, that He was defined not by human thought—not by concepts or speculations. Rather, God defined Himself, for God revealed Himself. God defined Himself, for he made Himself known in encounter. By will and desire. By action and word, and by summoning the Jews into a relationship. And that relationship with its laws and promise and meaning would be their history and finally it would be the history of the whole creation.
I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.
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Today we celebrate the mystery of the Holy Trinity—the Christian doctrine of God, who God is and how God is: Three Persons, One God. In beginning this sermon as I have, my point is to make clear that when we speak of the Trinity we are not dealing with human constructs: abstraction or theory or concept or metaphysics. All these things have been used, to be sure, in attempts to explain the Doctrine. To make it understandable, even reasonable. All such attempts only go so far before they either fail or founder. For you cannot explain a person. Let me say that again: you cannot explain a person. I cannot explain myself and I cannot—certainly—explain you. I only partially understand myself and what I do understand is often not reasonable at all. To understand you, you have to show yourself to me. For you to understand me, I have to reveal myself to you. A person is a complete mystery until that person reveals himself, reveals herself.
In speaking of the Trinity we are dealing with person/personality, for the Doctrine of the Trinity is only the Christian unfolding of the ancient Hebrew encounter with God. In Jesus that God was encountered again. In the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church and in the human soul that God is encountered again. God reveals Himself. God defines Himself. Again as before—by will and desire, by action and word, and above all, in relationship.
God acted in creation. All things are grounded and exist by His fiat, God’s sovereign word of creating power. The Father. The God of Israel. God acted and continues to act in creation—upholding it and sustaining it—creating and calling it every moment of time out of nothing.
God acted in Jesus Christ. All things are redeemed and set right by Him. The Son. The Word. The Savior. God incarnate in the world. God acted in Jesus Christ and continues to act in Jesus who, risen from the dead, is present to His people and saves his people, who frees them from the guilt of their sins and gives them grace to resist sin and evil in this world, and who promises his people a victory over death. Jesus Christ, who will come again to consummate his act of salvation and fulfill the history which was begun at creation.
God acted and continues to act in the Church and in the world. The Holy Spirit. The giver of life. The fire and breath of God in the Church. Inspiration—the breathing out of God throughout the world.
One God. But a God known and experienced and therefore self-defined in three unique persons. Whose uniqueness is their identity one with the other. Three persons one God—equal in glory, equal in splendor, equal in majesty and equal in love. One God who is a complex simplicity of self-relating personhood. An overplus of personality and relationship.
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But what on earth does this mean? What on earth can it have to do with you and me? Is this just chatter for theologians and clergy, who have nothing better to do, or can it somehow touch us and even change us?
In the first place, let me say that the doctrine is in fact, crucial. It is not an extravagant embellishment of the Gospel, but is, again, crucial, for the Trinitarian doctrine of God has something very important to say about you and about me. And what it says is this: that what we are as persons and how we are as persons is grounded in the reality and the personality of God.
I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.
We are made, as Scripture tells us, in the image of God, and personhood, personality is one aspect—to my mind the primary aspect – of God’s image in us. Personhood is not an accident or the by-product of something else, some remarkable biological complexity, for instance. Rather, personhood is that which is really real about you and me. It is the dignity and excellence of our created nature to be images of God. Our nature is defined not as a genome or the succession of heartbeats toward an end, but as persons. Biology is built upon personhood. The richness and complexity of human personality is prior and it is primordial. Bodily life may well be its context and its part of its character, but personality is both the crown and the ground of creation. And the depth of personhood – even human personhood – far surpasses the unthinkable magnitude of the universe.
And this means—in the second place—that relationship, relatedness is an essential part of human life. Personhood is and can be only in relationship. You cannot be a person alone. Personhood is never solitary and unconnected. It can be only in community. And, therefore, community, life together is—again—an essential part of what it is to be human. We cannot be persons alone. We can only be human together, and it is no surprise then that salvation in Christ entails the creation of a Church. Relatedness one with another in Christ.
The image of God within us, which is the reflection of His Triune Person-hood/Personality, means also that relationship with God—prayer, in fact—is not only possible, but is also at the heart of what it is to be a human being. The image is made to be related to its prototype. God’s likeness within us yearns for the God without. This is how we are created to be: related to God. Prayer and worship are the ground of that relationship. The non-religious human being is a sad aberration. The person without prayer is a sad disappointment to his very nature.
And all this because God is Person, Persons, who created us, and who redeemed us, and who inspires us, and who himself yearns for us. The Father. The Son. The Holy Spirit. One God. The Triune God, to whom we ascribe this day and every day all honor, all power, all might, majesty, dominion and worship, now and ever, and unto ages of ages.