Trinitarian Faith: Born of the Spirit

Scriptures: Isaiah 6:1-8; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-19

This doesn’t have to do with the sermon on the Trinity directly, but I wanted to mention, I occasionally have noted my pet peeves with Scripture, and it generally deals with where people have misapplied or misinterpreted things.

One of my pet peeves, well-loved by most people, is John 3:16-17. I mention that because it needs to be read in the context of what came before in the chapter, to understand it in its fulness. And it needs to be read in the context of what comes after.

It’s a wonderful thing of what Jesus himself speaks to and promises, that God loved the world so much that He gave His only Son so that everyone who believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life, and that God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved.

But too many people take that to be universalism – that means everybody is going to be saved. After all, if God is love, He’ll save everyone He can. So that means that everyone is going to be saved.

They don’t read the following verse. It talks about how those who believe in Him are not condemned, but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the Son of God.

It goes on to tell about the nature of humans without the presence of the Holy Spirit. They do deeds that are evil. Evil being not necessarily as we would understand murdering and things, but of selfish intent. We place ourselves above God in determining what we should do in our lives and how we can be saved and get to heaven.

Jesus makes it clear here, as he does elsewhere, that he is the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except by him. And we must believe.

Now that plays into the rest of the passage, into my sermon topic for today, dealing with the Trinity. Today is Trinity Sunday. We follow the Church year. That confuses people sometimes, when I talk, for instance, about having my Scriptures prepared for an entire quarter, three months at a time.

They get confused, because my year starts in December. When I’m working with the church year, it’s December, January, February, because Advent is in December. Then March, April, May, and I promise you there are some of them that are sweating right now, for June, July, and August. (But not to worry, I came through. The Scriptures are there and have been put up on the board for the next three months.)

We follow the Church year, and among the seasons like Advent and Lent, there are also certain days, like Christ the King Sunday, which is the last day of the year. Or Ascension Sunday, which was two weeks ago – even though the ascension day was actually on a Thursday, we celebrated it on Sunday.

This day is Trinity Sunday. Trinity Sunday is important, because the Trinity is such an important concept for us to understand as best we can. We can’t understand it fully, because God is beyond our understanding in His entirety.

I don’t know about you, but personally I think that’s a good thing. Because if our God was totally understandable, then He would be no better than we are. He would be like a man. Of course, I’m not even sure we understand ourselves really…

But the fact is, our God is greater than we can totally comprehend. That means that we can put our trust in and turn to Him and lean upon Him. One of these understandings, as best we can, is the Trinity.

The word “Trinity” is not in the Bible. It’s “tri-unity” – trinity. But it is alluded to in a number of different ways. The best known, in the New Testament, is where Jesus gives the Great Commission and he tells people to go and make disciples of all nations, “baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

But there are other points in Scripture, which I can make available to you at another time, or you can up online, where the Bible, where Scripture alludes to a sort of a trinitarian God, a plural God, even though one God.

Trinity. Tri-unity. Three persons, one God. One God, three persons. This concept, in itself, is so tough to deal with, at times, that we tend to try to analogize it. We try to make analogies for it, and frequently those themselves can lead us to what are known today to be heresies.

On YouTube, there is a group that has a few videos, that is called Lutheran Satire. Even Presbyterians can apparently learn from Lutherans. They have one called “St. Patrick’s Bad Analogies.” I played this a couple of years ago; I’m playing it again. Watch and see.

[Watch clip on YouTube]

He went through that last bit a little quickly, so I decided that I would make some slides here and we could go through it.

The Trinity is a mystery that cannot be comprehended by human reason but is understood only through faith and is best confessed in the words of the Athanasian Creed.

That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, neither confusing the persons nor dividing the essence. We are compelled by the Christian truth to confess that each distinct person is God and Lord, and that the deity of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit is one, equal in glory; coequal in majesty.

So what we have there is that it’s a mystery. I want to touch first on the analogies that led to the heresies, that St. Patrick mentioned briefly in the clip. One is that modalism thing. Modalism is best understood as we have one God, different roles.

The most modern analogy that’s used frequently, and the one that he mentioned, is that as a guy, I can be a father, a son, a husband, and a brother, all three at once. I’m the same person, but my interactions with each one are different as I have a different role. Especially with my brother. But I’m still just me.

If we think of God that way, that is a heresy, because we have three distinct persons in the Trinity, not just one person acting in different ways. In fact, while we do frequently refer to the Father as the Creator, the Son as the Redeemer, and the Spirit as the Advocate or Comforter – and Jesus himself refers to the Spirit that way – I think that can lead us astray if we’re not careful.

Because, as I’ll allude to a little later and tell you about, God as Trinity is involved in every single act that He does in Scripture, all three persons are involved. So we have to be careful that we understand that God is acting in three different ways.

In the same way, the Son and the Holy Spirit are not creations of the Father. That was the Arianism that was mentioned, that used the sun as its example. Basically, Arius was concerned with the oneness of God and monotheism, so he told people that Jesus was the first of created beings.

Arius said Jesus was created before the earth. He was greater than humans. He was greater than angels. But he was still created. Thus the Godhead, the unity, the oneness of the Godhead was not impinged upon. That is also an error, because Jesus is fully human, fully God. As I like to say, it’s the only time I’ve ever seen where 100% plus 100% equals 100%. Because 100% God and 100% man equals 100% Jesus.

The third one the clip mentioned was partialism, and that’s very popular today. That says that God is so big that we can only understand a piece of Him. The three-leaf clover, which has been attributed to St. Patrick as a means of describing the Trinity, really, as they noted, does describe partialism.

It says one God, three pieces, each one being a third of the Godhead. And that’s not it either. They’re all fully God, and they’re all fully individual persons.

That’s popular today, with regards to – actually, they extend it beyond the Christian church. You may have heard of people arguing that every religion is a way to God. God is so big that we can’t possibly grasp Him in His entirety, so we understand Him one way here in the Christian church, and they understand Him another way in the Islam faith, and they understand Him another way in the Buddhist faith.

They like using the analogy of an elephant and three blind men. One of the blind men, in trying to determine what an elephant is, finds the leg of an elephant and says, “The elephant is like a tree, all firm and heavy and solid, something that can be leaned on and hold a lot of weight.”

The second blind man, feeling his way, feels one of the ivory tusks, and says, “No, the elephant is not like that. The elephant is actually fairly hard and it has a point to it, and it’s very restrictive, and you’re outside it if you don’t follow the contours that are there.”

A third blind man touches the tail or the trunk, depending on which version you read, and says, “No, the elephant is like a snake, being very flexible and able to move every which way, and therefore can be understood in that way, very flexible.”

So people say God is like the elephant, and we just understand the little part we touch. Well, that’s a mistake. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except by me.” He was God fully revealed. And He is part of the Trinity, the tri-unity of God.

We cannot grasp that in its entirety with our human reason any more than we can grasp the real concept of eternity. As I noted earlier, I think that’s a good thing. I love a good mystery, first of all. It constantly challenges me. But secondly, the idea that my God is greater than I can possibly imagine means that He is someone that I can put my faith and trust into.

This brings us to our passage today from John, chapter 3. You see, Jesus himself, in the incarnation, was already beyond what they could fathom. And a Pharisee came and was searching, and asked him a question.

We don’t know what the question was, because it doesn’t say. But I find it fascinating that after he tells Jesus what a good guy he is, it says Jesus replied. Now that usually means you’re answering a question.

And he answers the question and he says, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” I’m glad this translation says “born from above.” The Greek can mean two different things. One is “born again,” and the other is “born from above.”

The “born from above” is probably the better translation. But it’s obvious in verse 4, then, that Nicodemus uses the other translation. Whether he’s deliberately provoking Jesus, or challenging Jesus, or being sarcastic, or whatever, he notes that “wait a minute, how can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”

Jesus wasn’t talking about being born again in that manner. “Born again” of course is used today in a lot of different contexts and ways. So I like this “born from above.”

“Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. … Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above. The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

You see, it’s not something that we can comprehend. It’s not something that we can do on our own, like the Pharisees wanted. We cannot earn our salvation. We cannot earn our understanding of God. Because it’s not about what we believe, so much as who we believe. And they didn’t believe in him.

The Spirit has to move us and open our eyes and our hearts. Once the Spirit has moved us – and as Presbyterians we call that election, which I can explain on a different day, in a different sermon, and probably get into a lot of trouble with some people – but the Spirit chooses us, and then our eyes are opened and we can respond to the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and accept him as Lord and Savior.

Everyone who is born of the Spirit has been chosen by God. Isn’t that good news? God chose you, and He loves you that much.

Nicodemus said, “How can these things be?” And Jesus gave a little sarcasm back: “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?”

You see, it took faith to understand what Christ was talking about, a faith that only comes from and through the Holy Spirit. You who are of trinitarian faith are born of the Spirit, born from above, as Jesus said. And it is only by faith we recognize the true nature of God.

The Trinity is hard to grapple with. It is hard to understand. But I would encourage you and challenge you, on this Sunday – you know, it got a lot nicer out, but at the earlier service, at the other church, it was still really overcast, and I told them they didn’t have anything better to do, because it was too nasty outside to go boating on the river.

You can still go boating on the river or something. But wrestle a little bit with the Trinity and your understanding. And in the end, then give praise to God. Praise that He is bigger than we can know or understand in His entirety. And yet, loving enough to give us something that we can understand Him by, in Jesus Christ.

Let God rule in your life. The kingdom of God that Jesus spoke of, in the Jews’ understanding, meant the rule of God. Anytime they speak of the kingdom of God that’s what we’re talking about. When Jesus said, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand,” he was talking about the active, present rule of God in your life. We say that we accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. Do we mean it? By the power of the Spirit we can make it so. The kingdom of God begins here on earth. But only if we’re born from above.

Wrestle with that. Give praise to God. Pray to God if you’re not sure, if you don’t understand things, that He would give you that understanding, that He would give you that sense of the Spirit, that that feeling of God’s touch, that the Spirit indwells you, would be in your life, so that you can clearly see the way that your Lord Jesus is leading you at this time. And the Spirit will empower you to accomplish that which He calls you to do.

I’ll give you one other thing to wrestle with during the week, something to take home and chew on a little. This is one of my more scholarly, if you will, I guess, sermons. I’m in my teaching mode here. Those of you who have been to Bible study can tell you I get kind of passionate about things.

But one of the words, the Greek word that Gregory of Nanzianzus came up with – he was a very famous theologian that you have probably never heard of – he came up with the term for understanding the Trinity and its actions, and it’s perichoresis. Now that Greek word peri means circle, and choresis means dance.

Circle dance. If you think of the Trinity as was up on that first slide after the video clip, you see that they’re all intertwined. Now, some of you may have square danced, or if you’ve done any of the old Renaissance dances, if you’ve ever been to a Renaissance fair, everybody’s weaving around, in and out, do-si-doing, and if somebody missteps or isn’t in their place, there’s a hole, and everybody notices.

In much the same way, every single act of God is an intertwining of all three persons of the Trinity, and so that’s called perichoresis. Let me give you two quick examples here, from the Bible itself.

One is from Genesis chapter 1. “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God” [or “the Spirit of God” is a better translation] “swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.

So you have, before the foundations of the earth, the Spirit brooding over the waters. You have God the Creator, and He speaks and the word is formed, so you see the Father in the creation, you see the Son being the defining principle. John, in John chapter 1, says “In the beginning was the Word,” the Logos, Word with a capital W, “and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”

Jesus is the Word, that defined what light was, and the Holy Spirit was the power of God moving over the waters, creating the light. All three were involved in creation. So even though we call the Father the Creator, all three were present.

In redemption itself, on the cross, as Jesus died, it says in Hebrews that he became sin for us. He took all of the sins of the world upon himself. And in that moment, as he was purging the sin – because, remember, what Jesus touched did not make him unclean but he cleansed what he touched – as he was purging the sin, the Father, who cannot stand the sight of sin, turned His face away.

For the first time in all of eternity, the Father and the Son were separated, for whatever moment that was, that eternal moment. So the Father was involved in the redemption, the Son was involved in the redemption.

And the Spirit was present too, giving witness to this activity, as there were earthquakes, and people were coming out of their graves. The veil of the temple was torn in two. It’s an 80-foot-long, 40-foot-wide, couple-inch-thick velour – doesn’t tear easy, but it tore in two, to show that God’s presence was now amongst His people and He was no longer hidden away in a certain area.

And a Roman centurion, who was there at the foot of the cross, who had no reason to believe anything about Jesus or understand anything, looked at Christ and said, “Surely this is the Son of God.” The Holy Spirit witnessing in that moment of redemption. All three present in some way.

And it’s that way even in our work and our life today. As God provides us, the Father provides us with the gifts that we need, Christ gives us the direction that we must have, and the Holy Spirit empowers us to accomplish what God calls us to do.

So chew on that word perichoresis this week. And see where God is acting in your life, all three persons. Then celebrate His actions as a unity with you. And may God get your praise and glory, for the wondrous things He has done in your life.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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