One God or Three?
Scriptures: Luke 10:21-24; Matthew 28:16-20
I have mentioned before a book by Robert Coles called The Spiritual Life of Children. Coles, a Harvard researcher, interviewed children from all over the world about their concepts of God. In some cases he asked them to draw pictures of God. He writes,
Often children give God their own hair color; indeed, a blond Lord, a blond Jesus, give way to darker divinities as one moves from Sweden to Hungry and Italy, thence across the Mediterranean …. The same thing happens with the eyes—a preponderance of blue eyes in the drawings of Swedish children yields southward to brown and dark eyes. In North and South America a similar pattern holds (p. 44).
One day Coles was sitting with a group of children looking at drawings of God, and a girl named Betsy held up the drawing of a 10 year-old boy named Hal. She pointed out that Hal gave God the color of his own eyes and hair. Hal defended himself. He said, “No one has ever seen God, not before you die. So how can you know?” Then he pointed at the stack of drawings and said, “There’s no correct answer—they’re all right. You see God, and I see Him, and He’s how He looks to you and how He looks to me. He’s both” (pp. 44-45).
I was struck by Hal’s argument. Since no one has seen God, we can picture God any way we want. Is that true? Do any of you see a danger in that?
Larry did. Larry was another one of the children in the group looking at pictures of God. Only Larry noticed that none of the pictures looked like him. Larry was 11 years old with dark hair and wide brown eyes. His family came from Puerto Rico. He said to Robert Coles, “The priests here treat us [Hispanics] like we’re not as good as they are, their people. To them, Jesus must be Irish! They’d tell you—they’d draw Him as if he has the same color hair they have, the same eyes” (p. 45).
You see what happens? When people picture God anyway they want, they often end up picturing God like themselves. Then they use that picture of God to put down people who are different.
That, friends, is why we believe in the Trinity. The Trinity, as I will try to explain, is what keeps us from picturing God anyway we want. It keeps us from turning God into a self-made idol.
The word “Trinity” never occurs in the Bible, but there are many places in the Bible where the Trinity shows up. One is the scripture I just read from Luke 10. In verse 21 Jesus rejoices in the Holy Spirit that the hidden God has been revealed, not to the wise and intelligent but to infants, meaning to his disciples. Then in verse 22 he says, “All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” It is God the Son—Jesus—who reveals to us God the Creator, a God who is, in a sense, hidden from us.
Last year at a church dinner I shared a chart that I like to use to explain the Trinity. [Slide 1] On this chart I picture God as a cloud. In a sense God the Creator is hidden from us. We can learn certain things about God from looking at the creation. When we look at the universe we realize how big and powerful God is, and sometimes how artistic. A few nights ago I took this picture of the sunset at the Des Moines Beach Park. [Slide 2] I remember thinking, “Okay, God, now you are just showing off.” Sunsets don’t serve any evolutionary function in nature. I think they are just God showing off.
But nature can be deceptive. The same nature that produces beautiful sunsets also gives us terrifying volcanoes and devastating earthquakes and frightening hurricanes, not to mention drought, cancer, and Ebola epidemics. Nature is ambiguous. From looking at nature you might just as easily assume that God is a capricious tyrant, like the gods of Greek mythology. From looking at nature, we cannot really tell what God is like. So that is why I picture God like a cloud. [Slide 3, Click 1] God the Creator is hidden from us, no matter how wise or learned we are.
But that’s why we believe in Jesus. The Son shows us what the Father is like. [Click 2] We know that God forgives us, because Jesus forgave us. We know that God loves us, because Jesus gave his life for us. We know that God has a future for us, because Jesus rose from the dead and promises to raise us up to be with him. Jesus shows us God’s heart.
At the same time, Jesus prevents us from making God look anyway we want. For example, if God is revealed in Jesus, then God cannot be anti-Jewish, because Jesus was Jewish. I know there are Christian groups in history that have committed terrible atrocities against Jews, but they did so by forgetting or ignoring who Jesus actually was. Jesus was Jewish. He didn’t look Norwegian, he looked Middle Eastern. He probably would have been pulled out of the line at an airport. If God is revealed in Jesus, it means we cannot assume that God looks like us and cares only about our kind of people.
But if God is revealed in Jesus, there are also other things we learn about God. If God is revealed in Jesus, then God cannot be the kind of God who turns away from the poor, the hungry, or the sick. Because Jesus fed the hungry, healed the sick, and brought good news to the poor. If God is revealed in Jesus, then God is not a vengeful God but a forgiving God. If God is revealed in Jesus, then God is determined not to wipe out the people of the world but to redeem them, even if it means dying for them, and that includes us. If God is revealed in Jesus, then the key to our future lies not in money, power, or reputation, but in our willingness to accept and live in God’s grace. Jesus shows us what God is like, and that changes how we see God and how we see ourselves.
But where does the Holy Spirit fit in? If Jesus shows us what God is like, then the Holy Spirit is the power and presence of God showing us what Jesus is like. [Click 3] Jesus lived 2000 years ago. He died, rose from the dead, and then ascended into heaven. None of us living today have seen Jesus. But we have learned about Jesus from the Holy Spirit working [Click 4] in the church.
It began when the Holy Spirit came upon the apostles at Pentecost. It continued as they started churches and wrote down the words and actions of Jesus in the Bible. It continues today in the people who have translated the Bible so we can read it in our own language and in faithful pastors and teachers who have taught the Bible.
I know there have been plenty of unfaithful pastors throughout history and even today. There are plenty of unfaithful pastors and even unfaithful churches. But you can recognize them by comparing their actions and teachings to the actual words and actions of Jesus. To expose a false teacher, read the Bible, not just the few verses that the false teacher may quote, but the whole thing; at least the whole New Testament. The Holy Spirit is the power of God that helps us know Jesus, and it works through the people who gave us the Bible and faithfully taught it generations after generation to people who worshiped and served Jesus together in churches.
One more note about the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit also tells that God is not male. The language of God the Father and God the Son can be misunderstood to mean that God is male and that males are more like God than females. We are in an awkward position here, because Jesus was male. To be a real human being he had to be one gender or the other. But that does not mean God is more male than female, any more than God is more Middle Eastern than European. So the Holy Spirit is a corrective in that regard. The Holy Spirit is not male or female but works through both males and females to show us what God is like. Thus at Pentecost we are specifically told that the Holy Spirit came upon both men and women in that upper room.
The same is true of nationality. Jesus does not mean that God is more Middle Eastern than African, Asian, or European. At Pentecost the Holy Spirit spoke through multiple languages to tell us about Jesus. Jesus shows us what God is like, and the Holy Spirit works through both men and women of all nations to show us what Jesus is like. [Slide 4: Blank]
In our first scripture reading Jesus says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name (singular!) of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” One name, three persons.
As Christians we do not worship three gods, we worship one God, revealed to us in the Creator who gave us the world, the Savior who died for us on a cross, and the Spirit who works in our lives today. That is the blessing we are given in baptism, a blessing that prevents or at least restrains us from making God into our own image.