Trinity Sunday: Naming God

Welcome to the only day in the church calendar that is entirely devoted to a theological claim. It’s Trinity Sunday! Today we do not commemorate something specific that happened, as we did last Sunday with the story of Pentecost—the sending of the Spirit in wind and fire, the miracle of communication as the story of Jesus was shared, the birth of the church among Jesus’ followers. Nothing like that. Instead, the Consultation on Church Union—an ecumenical body that created the Revised Common Lectionary I generally use for preaching—that body invites us to join together with churches all around the world in pondering the mystery of the Trinity, an understanding of the nature of God that arose in first centuries of the church, and which was declared orthodox doctrine at the Council of Nicaea in the year 325 AD.

Many pastors like to call this “Heresy Sunday,” because, let’s be frank, everyone is on thin ice trying to describe something that scripture fails to name or define.

About 1200 years after Nicaea, John Calvin, who is every Presbyterian’s spiritual great-grandpa, described the Trinity in this way:

When we profess to believe in one God, by the name “God” is understood the one simple essence, comprehending three persons or hypostases; and, accordingly, whenever the name of “God” is used indefinitely, the Son and Spirit, not less than the Father, is meant.[i]

We Christians are believers in one God; we also claim that God is one essence in three persons, whom we traditionally refer to as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. 

I don’t know that pondering the hypostases of God will get us very far unless we move away from theory and towards our experience of God… ours and our ancestors in faith, many of whom helpfully left their stories for us, here, in this book.

Why do we name God as we do? How do you experience God? And how do we experience God, as a community? That’s what I’d like us to ponder together this Trinity Sunday. And so we will begin with…

God the Father, Creator

In our reading from the book of Isaiah, we have the story of the prophet’s call—the moment when he understands himself to be called by God to a special kind of work. Isaiah tells of a dream or vision of being in the Temple in Jerusalem, where he sees “the Lord, sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple” (Isaiah 6:1).

This vision makes your hair stand up on end, just a little bit. Our view—Isaiah’s view—of the Lord seems to be the view of someone very, very small, looking almost straight up at someone or something that is very, very large. All he can see from his vantage point is the throne and the hem of a robe that is large enough to fill the entire Temple. The face of the Lord is hidden, which begs the question… does the Lord have a face? According to traditional Jewish belief—and Christians do worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, so we should probably take their beliefs into serious consideration—God has no body. God is pure spirit, even though here, we find reference to a robe God is wearing, and in other places we read about the hand of God, or the arms of God, or a description of God walking in a garden. But these things are figures of speech, designed to make God more comprehensible to us, we who wear clothing, and who ourselves often have hands and arms and feet for walking around.

There are seraphs flying around, and these aren’t the sweet cherubic angels of greeting cards, or the gentle-looking Gabriel from the Sunday School coloring pages who announces a birth to Mary. These angels are frightening to look at. Though it doesn’t say so here, in other passages they described as being covered with eyes, and they each have six wings, and they use them, mostly, to hide themselves, but also to fly.

One calls to another, “Holy, Holy, Holy!” In Hebrew that word is “kadosh,” and it literally means, “apart,” or “separate.” God is apart from us. God is separated from us by virtue of unimaginable power, or the kind of glory that makes us melt with fear, and to look away, lest we go beyond the bounds of what humans are supposed to see.

Isaiah melts with fear; Isaiah looks away. Isaiah is convinced he is unworthy of encountering God. He quails in terror.

Why then do we name this God father? Or maybe mother…we did that in our call to worship. In the psalms we often read of the desire to see the face of God, or the hope that the light of God’s face will shine on us. In fact, this is a very well-known blessing…
May the Lord bless you and keep you, may the Lord’s face shine upon you. But… do we really want that? Are we sure we wouldn’t simply melt in terror if we did in truth come face-to-face with the power of the One who created everything that exists? God whom we call Father or Mother of all that is, God who created the universe out of nothingness… God is almost surely not cozy. Or even, necessarily, recognizable. What could possibly bridge the gap between God and humanity? I’m so glad you asked. This brings us to…

God the Son, Jesus Christ

The scripture passage I read today dips us down into the first months of Jesus’ ministry as recounted in the gospel of Mark. We can’t help approaching this story knowing what we already believe about Jesus—that he is, in some unique way, the Son of God. But I am here to tell you that, even though Jesus was referred to in Mark’s gospel as the Son of God, it’s not at all clear that Mark understands him to be God the Son.

Jesus is in a house in Capernaum—his house—and once people realize he is at home, they flock there. They lean in the windows and the doorways, they squeeze shoulder to shoulder in the alleyways between dwellings, they knock at the doors. They want Jesus. He is already known as teacher and a healer. His reputation is clearly getting around. And everyone—everyone—wants to hear what he has to say.

But there is also someone who needs his healing… there is always someone in need of healing, it seems to be a universal condition.  This man is described as a paralytic, and four of his friends bring him to Jesus on a mat. Only, they can’t even get near the door of the house, for all the crowds pressing in. So someone gets the bright idea of climbing up on the roof, removing it, and letting their friend down into Jesus’ presence that way. Roofs in small, modest homes were made of reeds or branches laid across beams, and then covered with a layer of mud. So, a little deconstruction would have done the trick.

I’m going to pause right here, to give us an opportunity to take note: In our reading from Isaiah, God is elevated, lofty, unseeable beyond the hem of a robe, not to mention the ranks of flying cherubim and thick smoke. But Jesus—the Son of God, whom we claim as God the Son—is not above the man he will heal, but, for a brief moment, below. The man is lowered into Jesus’ presence.

When the man is lowered into his presence, it appears that Jesus deliberately—provocatively—ignores the fact that he is paralyzed. Instead, he notices their faith—the faith of the four friends—and he says, almost mysteriously, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”  And some in the room—some who know their scripture, I would add—start thinking to themselves, “What? He can’t do that. Only God can forgive sins.”

And Jesus reads them. He reads that room, and he feels their question and their challenge in his bones, and he says, “OK, fine. So… which is easier for me to say?” And he turns to the paralyzed man and says, “I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.” And as that un-paralyzed, re-mobilized man does just that, the people are slack-jawed and shocked, and murmuring to one another, “Who does stuff like this?” Who indeed.

The gospel of Mark is the very earliest writing we have that tells us about Jesus’ ministry—it was written about 40 years after Jesus walked the earth, and, quite honestly, no writer of any gospel ever heard the word “Trinity.” Neither the concept nor the doctrine existed. The writers simply shared the stories they knew, or had heard, about the life and work of Jesus. And… It is a scene like this, a homey, homely scene about people crowding around to see the wonder-worker in their midst that provides that perfect bridge between God from whom we must look away in Isaiah’s Temple vision, and Jesus, who we cannot get enough of in Capernaum.

Is this why we name him “God”? How do you experience Jesus Christ, the Son of God, God the Son? How do we, as a community?

God, the Holy Spirit

But more is needed. The Trinity describes God in one essence, but three persons, and last week we took a long look at the action of the Spirit on Pentecost Sunday. After the time of Jesus on earth has come to an end, the Spirit comes. The Spirit comes in wind. The Spirit comes in fiery flame. The Spirit comes through visions, and the Spirit comes in dreams. The Spirit comes bringing a miracle of communication that was formerly seen as unlikely to impossible.

But who or what is the Holy Spirit, exactly? It is the Spirit of God. In Hebrew the Spirit of God is known as the Shekinah, and she is described using feminine language. In the New Testament, the Spirit is sent by God and/ or Jesus. The Spirit makes it possible for Jesus’ work in the world to continue. Presbyterians and other churches in the Reformed tradition believe that the Spirit initiates everything to do with our faith. The best and most succinct summary of this, I believe, can be found in our Brief Statement of Faith,

The Spirit justifies us by grace through faith,

sets us free to accept ourselves and to love God and neighbor,

and binds us together with all believersin the one body of Christ, the Church.

The same Spiritwho inspired the prophets and apostles

rules our faith and life in Christ through Scripture,

engages us through the Word proclaimed,

claims us in the waters of baptism,

feeds us with the bread of life and the cup of salvation,

and calls women and men to all ministries of the Church.

In a broken and fearful world the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing,

to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior,

to unmask idolatries in Church and culture,

to hear the voices of peoples long silenced,

and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.

If I could choose just one word to describe the work of the Spirit, it would be empowerment. The Spirit empowers us to live faithful lives.

Is this how we name the Spirit “God”? How do you experience the Holy Spirit, the empowerer? How do we, as a community, experience the Holy Spirit?

Today I offer no answers to these questions, and I offer no explanation of the doctrine. Heresy: averted. But I will say this, inspired by another Trinity Sunday sermon I read recently by the Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney,[ii] There are many, many more names for God in scripture than these. To name a few: God is described as rock, fortress, almighty, God-of-Mountains, living water, light, gate, shepherd, comforter, and, in the only place a human is seen to give God a name, the slave woman Hagar names God: God-Who-Sees.

God has many names. How do you name God? What is your heart-name for the Holy One, the name you use when calling upon God in prayer? On this day, we remember and honor the three that bind us together in faith community.

In gratitude to God, empowered by the Spirit, we strive to serve Christ in our daily tasks

and to live holy and joyful lives,even as we watch for God’s new heaven and new earth,

praying, “Come, Lord Jesus!”

Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, I,xiii, 20, ed. John T. McNeill (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1960).

[ii] The Rev. Wil Gafney, Ph. D., “Naming and Numbering: God of Many Names on Trinity Sunday,” .