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Trinity: The Practical Name for God (sermon)

June 18, 2011

Texts: Matthew 28:16-20   1 John 4: 7-16


Welcome to the one Sunday in the Christian calendar in which the focus is on God… specifically on the identity of God.


Some people like to think that everyone believes in God. This is simply not true…(in any straightforward sense). I don’t want to get too philosophical today, but in actual fact millions of people don’t believe in God… whole religious traditions, for thousands of years have not believed in God. Buddhists, for example, don’t believe in God.


Some people resist this fact desperately… somehow, underneath everything they say, there must be this common denominator… this God thought… So they desperately try to map all the traditions onto each other with this idea of God… Maybe they’re right… in some vague sense.

Again without getting too philosophical about it… I do think, that this idea that underneath all culture is something that can helpfully be called ‘God’, is the kind of idea that gets more difficult the more you look at what any particular tradition actually says if they happen to use the English word God.


Christians have a name for God: Trinity. You can see the origins of this name in today’s text.


Jesus, in a resurrection appearance says “All authority has been given to me”. It is a claim of divine status. The text suggests that there’s a kind of ‘godness’ about his life. His resurrection from death vindicates him as a point of newness in the world and in history, a point of finality has broken into history. He has ALL AUTHORITY! All of life now must be located within that authority. And from that perspective the risen Jesus says “Go and make disciples of all nations”. It matters that this ‘newness’ that Jesus is (good news, if you like), reaches the whole world, forming new life wherever it reaches.


And the point of entry into this new life of discipleship flowing from the life of Jesus – is baptism. So when we enter through the waters of baptism we are marked with a name.

Is it one name or is it three names? THE NAME of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

It’s not clear.


Perhaps it can’t be clear, because the three can’t be separated. Just as in Christian life you cannot separate discipleship from the Father or the Son or the Holy Spirit. You can’t be a disciple of Jesus if you are not also following the will of the Father for the restoration of creation. Jesus’ life is from beginning to end defined by obedience to the Father. As the Father sent me, in the same way I send you. Also you can’t be a disciple of Jesus unless you are empowered by the same Spirit as Jesus was. We talked about that last week at Pentecost.


There is no such thing as a Christian life apart from this three-fold name. It’s what Christian disciples mean by God


The name reminds me of the longest Maori place name in New Zealand. In our family it’s one of Jan’s party tricks to recite this name to the kids: Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamateaturipukapikimaungahoronukupokaiwhenuakitanatahu


Why does that remind me of the Christian name for God (you ask)? It reminds me because it is a name which tells a story. The place is defined by a particular event in history, a story, a memory.


It means something like: The summit where Tamatea, the man with the big knees, the climber of mountains, the land-swallower who travelled about, played his nose flute to his loved one


Same with the Christian name for God (Trinity). It is really a shorthand for a story.


Those who want to think that everyone believes in God (even if they think slightly differently about it) also like to think that everybody is their own authority on God… Effectively that means that talking about God is a bit unnecessary and perhaps not very polite. God is a matter of private insight. Whatever you think about God… when we talk together, the identity of God, who or what God is, whether it be what is jokingly referred to as ‘the man upstairs’ or as the life-force of the world, it should be taken for granted.


That would be fine if the identity of God didn’t matter! That would be fine if we didn’t have to pay attention to the story of God’s involvement with human life. That would be fine if Christianity was a philosophy. Christianity’s not really interested in whether you believe in God or not… at that level of generality. But Christianity is a life of discipleship. It doesn’t have the luxury of a vagueness which allows us ‘all authority in heaven and on earth’ … to do what we want with our lives.


The Christian life gets its authority from a story of God’s entry into physicality and history in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. The Christian life looks to the unraveling of human society and the reconstruction of it by the power of the Spirit of Jesus.  This is the story. For the sake of the good of history and of creation God enters into what God has created, suffers it and moves it from within in new ways. By referring back to this story about the Father and the Son and the Spirit, Christians try and let God define who God is.


So that’s my first point… trinity is the least theoretical name for God… it’s not a philosopher’s name. It’s the name Christian disciples have for God. It’s the most practical name for God.


Second  point… it may be the most practical name for God, but to call God “trinity” also shows a greater sense of the mystery of God’s being than most other, perhaps vaguer, ways of talking about God. If we call God ‘the man upstairs’ or ‘the life force’ we are opting for simplicity. We’re certainly opting for a kind of parallel with what we already know, whether it be (on the one hand) a bigger version of a human individual (and a male at that). Or, on the other hand, something even simpler than a male, a life force, perhaps something like a magnetic or gravitational field. But the name Trinity captures the sense that Christian disciples have of the complexity within God. God’s life is not simpler than ours, it is richer. There is differentiation within God. There is relationship. Love is not just something God does, love is something God is… in the richness of God’s life. As 1st John puts it: God is love.

And to support this claim the writer of 1 John (in the reading we read earlier) offers the most succinct account imaginable of why we call God, Trinity.

By this we know that we live in him (that is God) and he in us, because he has given us his Spirit. And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Saviour of the world…


We name God by identifying the place that God has reached out to us so that we live in God and God in us. And if we start there we do so not as philosophers but as disciples. God is not a matter of armchair curiousity but the one who defines our life as it takes shape in everyday details… who gives us God’s newness… the good news, if you like, which gets us up in the morning and sends us out, not as victims of circumstance but as people on a mission.






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