Some year ago my wife and I were visiting her sister in rural North Carolina. My sister-in-law invited us to attend a Sunday night prayer meeting at the local Southern Baptist church she attended. I found this congregation very friendly and welcoming. Pastor Bobby (I think that's what his name was), dressed in a snazzy double-breasted suit and carrying a Bible the size of Rhode Island, had decided to forgo his sermon that evening and, instead, held a Q & A night. A nine-year-old boy in the congregation asked, "Are Jehovah's Witnesses really Christians?"
Pastor Bobby answered, "Well, technically, no. The reason I say this is because the Jehovah's Witnesses don't believe in the Holy Trinity."
"But why do we have to believe in the Trinity?" the boy asked.
Pastor Bobby smiled. Then he looked down from the pulpit straight at me and said, "Let's let our Lutheran brother answer that one!"
Thanks, Bobby, I thought. Sure. Put the visitor on the spot. But I stood up and addressed the congregation, knowing I'd better have a pretty good answer for this one. Truth be told, I hadn't really pondered this question too much. I've always just swallowed the Church's teaching. So on this night I was preaching as much to myself as to the nine-year-old Baptist boy and the congregation which surrounded him.
Why must we believe in the Trinity? First, let me deal with the history of the question. The Trinity became dogma--literally a decree or command--after the Council of Nicaea in 325 C.E. The Roman emperor Constantine convened the Council to deal with the theological dispute about the nature of Christ. Was this a political move? Sure. Old Constantine wanted all his subjects to be on the same page. In the Middle Ages, one would confess the Trinity simply because you'd be burned at the stake as a heretic if you didn't. All that having been said, I still believe that those early Church Fathers at Nicaea got it right when they attempted to define humankind's experience of God.
So what goes through your head when you hear the word "God?" An invisible old man in the clouds? I hope not. To me, in spite of the gorgeous depictions of the Father God in centuries of Christian art (See the Francisco Albani painting I used above), I explain God as creation and existence. God is the very fact and state of all being. For an analogy, I go back to the appearance of God to Moses in Exodus chapter 3. Moses encounters a bush which is burning but not consumed--a living presence giving off the source of life, light and warmth, but never decaying or ending. When Moses asks for the name of God, he is told that name is "I AM." God IS. And all that is is in and of God.
But experiencing God as Creative Existence is impersonal, cold and frightening. We must also experience that love is present in this experience, and that the joy of relationship exists, too. As Christians, we experience this divine love reflected in the sacrificial love of Jesus on the cross. Here we see what makes our being worthwhile, the willingness to deny personal survival for love of others. We see the depths of our depravity in the cruelty of the cross, but in Christ's willingness to suffer it we see the holiness of love. Out of death we see real, meaningful life.
Yet even this experience is not enough unless we also contemplate the Spirit of God. In both Biblical Hebrew and Greek, the word "spirit" can also mean "breath" and "wind." In Genesis 2:7 God breathes into man's nostrils the breath of life, and the man becomes alive. Both breath and wind are actions. When they cease to do, they cease to be. God's activity and God's life are what we experience when we experience God as Spirit. When we contemplate God as Spirit, we acknowledge that this Spirit is present in us. Indeed, it is present in all life. So the Spirit not only connects us with God, but with each other and the whole universe. Should I sin against my brother, I have sinned against God and against myself, for we are all connected in one Spirit.
If I neglect the Spirit of God, I can still find myself alone in the garden with my loving Jesus, but my focus will be on my own comfort and individual salvation. I will be useless to the world around me.
If I take Jesus out of the equation, I can still be awed by the Creator God and connected to Creation; however, I will not know the sacrificial love of God. I will never give of myself. Life will be cold and empty without the image of both love and suffering. If I remove Christ's compassion, forgiveness, empathy, and eternal life from my conception of God, with what can I replace them?
And even if I focus on Christ's great love and the interconnectedness of all living things, I still have to keep the awesomeness of Creation in mind. Without reflection on the mystery of the great I AM, I run the risk of becoming too involved with my own efforts and losing all perspective.
The beauty of Trinitarian thought is that one may encounter God through any of the three experiences. We can know God in the beauty of creation, we can know God in the sacrificial love of Christ and others, and we can know God through divine actions which make our own existence meaningful. We can enter through any of the three doors, and be led to experience the other two.
Obviously, all of the above is woefully inadequate to describe the mystery of God. I do hope, however, that it gives you something to ponder and to discuss. May the awesomeness of creation, the divine and eternal compassion and mercy of the cross, and animating gust of all life be with you all!