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A Trinity of Love

A sermon on Romans 8:12-17 and John 3:1-17

[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Sharon Santema on Unsplah.]

Last month one of the questions in the “grab bag” that I did not get a chance to answer had to do with the Trinity.

And – although it was completely random chance, I promise! – I’m kind of glad that I did not pull this question for an on-the-spot sermon and then have to come up with a clear answer in real time.

In part, that reaction is because the Trinity is a famously difficult topic to preach on without accidentally committing heresy.

I know multiple pastors who DELIBERATELY plan vacations on Trinity Sunday every year just to avoid it.

But beyond that trepidation, I actually really love the way that this particular question frames the exploration of what the Trinity means on a practical level, so I am glad to have it as a jumping-off point for my sermon today.

Here is the question:

“If God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are all the same entity, then who was Jesus praying to in the Garden of Gethsemane when he was asking “Father, please take this cup away from me?” In theory, wasn’t he praying to himself?”

The first thing I love about this question is that it is just so real and down-to-earth.

No lofty theological mumbo-jumbo here. Just, a simple presentation of logic that seems to lead to a simple conclusion, but with an implied “that can’t be right, can it?”

The second thing I love about this question is that the answer is, “Well, actually, yes! That can be right.”

As in, from one perspective, Jesus is praying to himself.

I love this unexpected idea as a way to dive into the meaning of the Trinity because it breaks through our assumptions about what is “allowed” when we try to figure out the mystery of God’s nature.

It confronts us, so concretely, with the truth that the laws governing our experience of selfhood break down when we try to apply them to God.

Or, put another way, if we try to bring our assumptions about what it means to exist as an identifiable and separate entity into our imagination about what God’s existence is like, we will inevitably run into problems.

Because the model doesn’t fit. While we are made in the image of God, God is not made in our image.

Our experience of selfhood is an immutable experience of individuality.

Other than people who experience intense trauma and develop dissociative identities, we each only have one sense of self.

We might show different parts of ourselves to different people, but those parts are all part of one whole, that each of us experiences as our self, as “me.”

But for God, selfhood is an experience of community, of being in relationship at the most essential level of being, of being “us.”

It’s hard to even imagine what that would be like, but I think one way in is for us to really embrace the biblical claim that God is “Love.”

Love cannot exist in isolation. It requires both a subject and an object of love.

And so, part of what it means for God to be "Love" is that God's very essence is loving relationship.

Love flows within and between the community that is God’s nature: God the Parent, God the Son, and God the Spirit.

Before there is anyone or anything else, God can exist as love because God has relationship internally.

Jesus can pray to himself – and have it still make sense as a prayer, as a soul-deep form of communication, and need, and trust – because his self is an us.

So, that’s a bit mind-bending. And probably still confusing. I would never promise to explain the Trinity in a way that clears up all confusion.

But there’s more to this understanding than just another (hopefully non-heretical) way of explaining the Trinity.

Because if God, who is love, is in essence community…

and if that means Jesus’ prayer to God the Father is an expression of the communication and trust that exists within the inherent nature of that love and community…

then that has profound meaning for our prayer as well.

In our reading from Romans, today, the Apostle Paul writes that, “When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.”

So, breaking that down:

When we pray to God as Abba, as Father, as Loving Parent,

we are doing so empowered by the way that God’s own Spirit prays to God as “Abba”… God’s Spirit is bearing witness to us that we belong to that same loving community…

that we are welcomed as children of God into the love that is God’s very nature, that allows us to pray with total trust because we are not praying across a chasm of otherness and unknowing…

We are praying the way Jesus prayed. We are praying to the one who knows us and embraces us and who doesn’t do the separation of me and you… the one who is always an us.

That is the reason that the Doctrine of the Trinity matters.

Because it invites us into God’s love by helping us to understand (imperfectly, but transformatively) what it means for God to be love for us.

And I think this understanding is also what Jesus is trying to communicate to Nicodemus in today’s gospel story, with his description of being born from above and born of the Spirit.

Nicodemus knows there is something important and different about Jesus, but he is deeply attached to being a “teacher” of his people, to what he knows and can understand.

He wants to fit Jesus into his own preconceived notions about how God and reality work.

But Jesus wants him to open up, to be willing to learn, to be able to see God in a new way that he never imagined before.

A way that isn’t about the rules that have to be followed, but rather about trusting the incredible world-changing power of God’s love.

Nicodemus is stuck in the flesh, in what he already knows, in the individual separateness of one life, that cannot retreat backwards in time to be born again…

But Jesus is inviting him to be born of the Spirit, the Spirit whose reality exists within the us-ness, the essential love that is God.

Because that rebirth, that connection with the God of love is the only way that we can not only understand but be a part of what God is really doing in the world.

John 3:16 is often cited as a one-verse explanation of God’s plan of salvation: For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

But this verse is not a stand-alone claim. It is part of this conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, in which Jesus is inviting Nicodemus in to be born of the Spirit… to be welcomed into the love that he is talking about when he says that God so love the world.

It is describing a love that gives of itself… that comes close, and sacrifices its own wholeness, to convince us that we can trust the love of God in ways much more profound than we can trust our own understanding about how the world and God actually work.

If it’s any reassurance… Nicodemus didn’t get it… at least not right away.

This gospel reading ends without Nicodemus offering any response to Jesus’s teaching…

And we see him later in this gospel, still attached to his position as a Pharisee and teacher, although he does start to ask more questions…

And it is not until Jesus dies that Nicodemus appears to join his disciples to care for Jesus’s body.

So, if you still don’t quite get it… if the Trinity still seems super confusing, and you don’t get how it is that the Spirit bears witness to our spirit when we pray… or what it actually means that we need to be born of that Spirit… don’t worry.

The point is not to gain a perfect understanding.

In fact, the point may be that perfect understanding is not the solution at all.

God did not so love the world that he sent the Son that everyone who understands how that works would be saved.

The wholeness of God so loved the world… so loved us… that the Son-ness of God came to be someone we could see, and learn from, experience his love … so that we could believe in him, put our trust in him, lean into his love.

And that’s what it means to be “saved.” That we too could know we are children of God… welcomed into the love that makes and changes everything.

Thanks be to God


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