Trinity of Love
Trinity Sunday

A sermon by Dr. Steve Booth, Associate Pastor
Richmond’s First Baptist Church
Richmond, Virginia
June 15, 2014

Matthew 28:16-20; 1 John 3:1, 23-24 [link]


Happy Father’s Day!

Once every couple of years, I find myself in this place of sacred responsibility.  The infrequency of this “blessing” fosters the temptation to over-speak.  And on this day there seemed to be a number of competing directions I could take.

I was tempted, with my son and son-in-law in attendance, to direct my thoughts toward fathers.  No one would be surprised.  It is Father’s Day after all. 

I also pondered the idea of expounding on the process of Christian formation. No one would have faulted me for speaking to my passion and primary calling.   

And of course, there is the gospel text for the day . . . Matthew 28:16-20. What we most often refer to as the Great Commission.

And if these aren’t enough choices, it’s Trinity Sunday.  The only Sunday on the Christian calendar that focuses on a Christian doctrine.  The concept of the Trinity – God as three in one – doesn’t lend itself to easy explanation.  And yet, it is this non-biblical word . . this heady theological conundrum . . . that captured my thoughts and won the day.

Growing up, I accepted my seminary-educated parents’ pronouncements of truth as the Gospel.  The idea of the Trinity wasn’t something to be pondered and questioned.  It was fact for me.  But as I grew older and availed myself of a theological education, I discovered this “truth” wasn’t as seamlessly constructed as I thought. 

Thirty-five years ago last month, I was in a whirlwind wrapping up a 3-year seminary sojourn.  In addition to completing term papers, taking final exams, packing up and moving to a new church, I found myself preparing for an ordination council.  No prepared statements or answers were allowed by the candidate but a council member could ask any personal or doctrinal questions he desired.

As the appointed time for concluding the examination neared, this question arose.  “What is your belief concerning the Trinity and what scriptural text would you offer to support your perspective?” 

My first thought . . . “of course, I affirm the Trinity as a foundational understanding of God as Father/creator, Son/Redeemer and Spirit/Sustainer.  But my mind was blank on where to support it scripturally. 

My problem in that moment of panic was I could not recall any of those passages.  Then as I hummed and hawed aloud stalling for time, the picture of John lifting Jesus up out of the waters of the Jordan popped into my mind’s viewfinder.  There it was . . . “At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God, descending like a dove and alighting on him.  And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love, with him I am well pleased.” (Matt 3:13-17). Spirit, Father, Son . . .there it was.  And then another Matthew passage came to mind (our text for today), those words spoken by Jesus at the end of his earthly ministry as he commissioned the remaining 11 apostles to “go, make disciples, teach . . . baptizing in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”

Yes, I passed the exam and was ordained a few weeks later.  Many years later, this understanding of God as three-in-one continues to challenge my thinking.

John’s first epistle is riddled with references to the three persons of the Triune God.  Note Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of 1 John 3:23-24 found at the top of your order of service.   What marvelous love the Father has extended to us! Just look at it—we’re called children of God! That’s who we really are. . . .Again, this is God’s command: to believe in his personally named Son, Jesus Christ. He told us to love each other, in line with the original command. As we keep his commands, we live deeply and surely in him, and he lives in us. And this is how we experience his deep and abiding presence in us: by the Spirit he gave us.”

So here we are on Trinity Sunday and these words from Jesus and John get to the heart of the day . . . what the Trinity is really and truly all about. And it is this . . .  God loves me, . . .God loves you . . . .God loves us.

So here’s a question for you, a deeply personal question. Can you think of a time when you really experienced love, when you really experienced being loved?

Two personal examples: 

  • As a boy, it was our family’s practice before bedtime to gather in our family room for devotions.  My dad would read a scripture and share his thoughts on the message contained.  If I was lucky I’d be sitting in momma’s lap or as at least have my head in her lap. I can remember her touch as she stroked my head . . smoothing my hair.  It was a tender time . . . God’s word, my father’s voice, my sister and brother’s presence, my mother’s touch.  As a young boy, I knew I was loved, and in some way I knew even more that my experience of earthly love within my immediate family was a mirror of God’s love for me.

  • Fast forward 45 years, and four little guys are now calling me “Papa” . . . well . . .two of them are voicing the name . . .and the other two are communicating with non-verbals. Whether a crushing hug from Jackson, a slightly timid “pop-pop” with a hand blown kiss from Wesley , a clearly expressed grunting bounce to play “horsey” from Ford, or Walker in a relaxed snooze snuggled in my arms, this grandfather is overwhelmed with love – pure and simple.  And when I am with them I know God loves me. There is no other explanation. I don’t deserve their love. I’ve done nothing to earn it. They just freely offered their love without condition. Just like God.

Actually this is the basic truth of God.  GOD IS LOVE. God’s loves you and me.  The desire of God’s heart is for us to let go of our anxious performing and surrender ourselves into his arms.  I believe that at the very center of God’s heart is His desire to lavish his love upon us.  And thus,  He relentlessly pursues us . . . loving us through any avenue or relationship we will allow. This is the central and primary theme of Holy Scripture.  It is the heart and soul of the Gospel itself. “For God so loved . . . For God so loves . . . “

In May 2013, one year before her death, Maya Angelou, revered poet and activist, was interviewed by Oprah Winfrey as part of Winfrey’s Soul Sunday series.  Winfrey asked, “You say words are “things” and so powerful.  So, what words do you turn to for comfort?

“Love.” Angelo responded, then continued, “I believe love is that condition in the human spirit so profound that it allows us to forgive.  Maybe  it is the energy that keeps the stars in the firmament . . I’m not sure.  It might be the energy that keeps our blood running smoothly through our veins – I’m not sure.  But it’s something beyond explanation.  It can be used for anything you can’t explain . . . for any good thing you can’t explain.

Oprah . . . “So when Maya Angelou needs comfort, where does Maya go for solace?

Angelou recounts many years ago reading aloud to her mentor and voice coach, Fred Wilkerson. Reading from a religious text, she read the words, “God loves me.”  Wilkerson said, “Read it again.” “God loves me.”  “Read it again.”  “God loves me.”  Finally, “read it again.”  GOD LOVES ME.”  At this point in the interview, Angelou bows her head and pauses for several seconds. Slowly raising her head, tears streaming, voice quivering she continued. . . “It still humbles me that this force which made leaves and fleas, stars and rivers, and you ---- loves me, me, Maya Angelou.  It’s amazing.  I can do anything . . .any good thing I can do it.  That is why I am who I am.  Yes!  Because God loves me and I’m amazed at it and grateful for it.”

I would suggest that the ancient belief of God as Trinity is most importantly a belief about the love of God.

. . . .Indeed, that God loves us enough to be the Creator who created the whole universe and every creature.  The God who has created you and me and given us the very breath of life. 

. . . . It is the belief and experience that God loves us enough to be the Redeemer who has saved and redeemed the world from sin, sorrow, and separation so that we might be joined to that love forever.

. . . . AND . . it is the belief and experience that God loves us enough to be the Sustainer – Guiding Spirit – who is at work in us inspiring, strengthening,  advocating and illuminating us in our living.

So often we give the belief in God as the Trinity, over to academic theologians.  But this belief and experience belongs equally to all of us, because it describes the majestic love (O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth). . .the magnificent, humbling love that God has for us.  We are welcomed into that love.  We abide in that love in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  We are held in the arms and embrace of that love with all the warmth, care, and intensity of a little boy sitting in his mother’s lap and listening to his father’s voice surrounded by those who love him most. 

Believing in God as loving Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer also reminds us that our relationships are infused with that love, and indeed that God participates in and cares very deeply about all of our relationships.

In other words, God is relating to us and to the relationships of love that we experience in our own lives.  Just picture/imagine in your mind a moment you felt truly loved.  Who was she?  Who was he?  Can you remember the loving embrace, the soothing tone of his/her voice?  Let me suggest that such relationships are experiences of God’s relationship with us and of God in the midst of family and friends loving us through each other.

Richard Garland, a United Methodist minister, shares this tender story of God’s presence in the final days of his father’s life.

It would not be a long visit. Dad was in the hospital. The cancer had come back, and the outlook was bleak.

You're never quite prepared to see your father in the hospital. He smiled when I came into the room. "I'm glad you came, Son." I leaned over his bed and gave him a hug, careful not to hurt him. We had never been hugging men; but that, too, was in the past now. "I'm glad I'm here."

The two days went quickly, too quickly. I stopped in at the hospital on the morning of the last day before heading to the airport. We were quieter. The words weren't necessary for what we had begun to feel. "I'll have to be going in a little while."

"I know. It's OK, Son. It was good to see you."

"Can I do anything for you before I go, Dad?"

He hesitated, then said: "Yes, would you be willing to give me a shave? I haven't had a good shave since I got to the hospital."

I was stunned. As a child I loved to watch my daddy shave. We'd stand in the bathroom in our underwear. He'd lather up and then soap my face just like his. And while he shaved, I pretended. It was a silly, sacred ritual -- a bonding that I had all but forgotten. Now he was asking me for a shave.

I found his old razor and the tube of shaving creme in the kit he had brought with him. When I opened the tube, it was the same aroma I remembered as a child. Dad's eyes were closed but he was clearly enjoying this. I spread the creme and prepared the razor. I was so afraid that I would cut him. He was so trusting. It didn't take that long. When we finished shaving, he put his hand up and felt his face and smiled. I handed him the mirror and he took a long, satisfied look. "Son, that's the best shave ever. Thanks!

Soon it was time to go. We hugged, gently. "I love you, Dad." "I love you too, Son." We had only lately learned to say that. It felt good. What felt better was the trust that had finally established itself between us -- a trust that had made it possible for a son to give his father the best shave ever. It is a holy remembrance, sacramental even.  Love is like that -- born in due season of common things made holy by the amazing grace and surprising Presence of God.

Transformation (into Christ-likeness) happens as God convinces us we that we are loved – that, like Jesus, we are God’s beloved children.  John, the beloved disciples, could not contain his wonder at that truth: “See what love the Father has given us that we should be called the children of God, and that is what we are.”  The words God spoke to Jesus at his baptism are words God speaks to us: “You are my beloved son, my beloved daughter. With you I am well pleased.”  We are invited to experience a relationship with God – the Father, Son, and Spirit - that embraces and transcends our fondest experiences of any earthly relationship. God’s threefold love for us is tender and strong, reassuring and challenging, and nurturing and energizing. The Triune God’s arms of welcome and affirmation are always open to us.  We are God’s children. We are loved.

And for our part we are called to believe it. We are called to proclaim it. We are called to invite people into it. We are called to embrace and be embraced by it.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirt.  AMEN.

Steve Booth 2014
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