Listen to the sermon here.
The Trinity is like a clover. It has three parts, but is one thing.
No, no, no.
The Trinity is like an apple. It has skin, meat and the core, but is one apple.
That’s not quite right.
The Trinity is like water. Water can exist as a gas, liquid or solid, just like the Trinity exists as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit!
Well, that doesn’t quite do it, either, does it?
For as long as there have been preachers and Sunday School teachers, we have been trying to find a way to express the idea of the Trinity—that we believe in one God, who exists in three forms. It took early Christians 325 years after Jesus’ death to hammer out exactly how they wanted to express this idea. 325 years! In the meantime you had tons of arguments about which member of the Trinity existed first, and whether one member generated the other, and whether Jesus was really God or whether he was a human who was turned into God.
It was about this point in theology class where our brains began churning at a dangerously high rate of speed. Words like homoousia and co-eternal and consubstantial were tossed around the room as if they would clear up this tricky business once and for all.
So, before we veer off into dangerous territory, let’s take a deep breath and a step backward, and look at what the apostle Paul has to say about the Trinity.
First of all, Paul is not familiar with the term Trinity. If we asked Paul what he thought about the Trinity, he would just stare at us blankly.
However, if we asked Paul about the relationship between Jesus and the Father, or Jesus and the Spirit, he’d have quite a bit to say! At the risk of being completely reductionist, when Paul describes the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Paul sounds like he is describing a family. Not any family you and I know. This family doesn’t squabble over who gets to sit in the front seat of the car or who gets the last drumstick of fried chicken.
In his letter to the Philippians, when Paul describes the relationship between the Father and Jesus, he uses a liturgical hymn popular in his time. Part of it says:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
. . . .
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend
For Paul, the members of the Trinity are a family who are always lifting each other up. In this hymn from Philippians, Jesus is humbling himself before God and God is exalting Jesus. Their relationship is wholly mutual.
In the Gospels, Jesus always listens for what his Father would like him to do and shows perfect obedience, even when obedience leads to death. Jesus feels so close to the Father he refers to him as Abba. Abba could be translated as Papa, a term of endearment. Their relationship was a tender one.
The Holy Spirit empowers the church to tell the world about Jesus, to ensure that the Father and the Son will be worshiped across this globe.
One imagines the members of the Trinity in a holy dance, never jockeying for position or striving to be best, but exhibiting perfect love and respect.
That pretty much sounds like your family, right?
The Trinity is not a family we can recognize. We can kind of wrap our minds around the Father-Son dynamic, but I’m not sure where the Holy Spirit would fit into our limited understanding! Is the Holy Spirit mom? A really interesting cousin from California? Ultimately the metaphor of the family is only slightly more helpful that the metaphor of a clover or apple.
But! But in our passage from Romans today, Paul tells his readers,
For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ– if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.
Paul claims that the Holy Spirit gives us a spirit of adoption—that we become God’s children through Christ.
Paul is claiming that this family of the Trinity, this family marked by perfect love and humility and generosity wants to include US in the family.
Paul is claiming that Christ, who came to earth and DIED for his Father, is willing to have us share in his inheritance.
Does the Trinity really think this is a good idea? Humans are terrible at being in families. We argue over whose turn it is to visit our father in the nursing home. We complain if we don’t get the same amount of ice cream as our sister. We scream bloody murder if our brother hits the button on the elevator before we do. We destroy families over inheritances. Why would God want to adopt us???
I have about a half dozen close friends who have adopted children and two themes I have seen in each family are these. First: The parents long for their children years before they are adopted. The parents do not know who will be their child, but they love that child and long to include them in the life of their family. I bunked with my friend Maggi at a retreat a dozen years ago, just when she had begun proceedings for adopting her first daughter from China. As we drifted off to sleep, we talked about this daughter, who might not even have been born yet, and Maggi’s voice was filled with love as she said her name. Caroline. Her name would be Caroline.
Caroline and Maggi celebrate a decade together this weekend, and have welcomed another sister, Betsy in the intervening years. Even before Maggi saw a picture of her daughters, they were real to her in her heart.
Second: Once that child is adopted, she becomes wholly and completely of that family. That child belongs to that family. Through and through. Forever.
My friend Alex, who has adopted three beautiful children, once said to me, “Sarah, I sometimes wonder what it would have been like to carry these children in my body, but even if I had given birth to children, I would want it to be to these children.” My friend Alex loves her children. Completely. No other children could take their places.
And maybe the experience of adoptive parents gives us a little glimpse into the mind of the Trinity. Maybe the Trinity was so overflowing with love, it decided to share that love. Maybe the Trinity even longed for us. Maybe the Trinity wouldn’t trade us for any other children. The Trinity claims us for its family. We belong to the Trinity, through and through. Forever.
Children are not adopted because they understand their parents, or because they are good or smart or talented. Children are adopted because a family’s love and longing overflows its boundaries and can’t help but to love more. The Trinity adopts us because of who the Trinity is, not because of who we are. And the Spirit invites us to join Jesus in calling the Father, Abba. This adoption is not a formality. The Father wants us to love him, to feel protected by him, to call him pet names.
Not only does the Father offer us intimacy, but offers us intimacy at great cost to himself. The Trinity is willing to threaten its very existence, to lose part of itself, so that we might be included in the family. Christ is willing to die so that we might live with the Trinity forever. What family does that? What family sacrifices one of its own members for children who don’t even deserve to be part of the family?
In the end, the Trinity is not like a clover, or an apple, or water. Water cannot love. Apples cannot long. Clovers cannot embrace. But the Trinity is not quite like a family, either. No family could go to the lengths and depths of love and sacrifice that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit go through for us. No brother would lose his life for unworthy siblings and then welcome them into the family with open arms.
And yet, this mysterious, complicated Trinity does. This mysterious family breaks itself open and welcomes you inside into perfect love. You. You. You. Welcome home. This is your family.