Reading Ramblings – May 31, 2015

Reading Ramblings

Date: Holy Trinity Sunday (First Sunday in Pentecost) – May 31, 2015

Texts: Isaiah 6:1-8; Psalm 29; Acts 2:14a, 22-36; John 3:1-17

Context: For roughly 700 years the Western Church has formally celebrated the first Sunday after Pentecost as Holy Trinity Sunday. It was a long disputed topic. The controversy of Trinitarian teaching reached an apex in the fourth century with Bishop Arius of Alexandria, who denied that Jesus was eternally equal with God the Father in an effort to make the faith more rationale. But the Church resisted creating a particular feast for the Trinity, arguing that the Trinity was honored and exhalted in the daily offices of the Church. It is traditional on this Sunday to read the Athanasian Creed, the longest and least familiar of the three ecumenical creeds. It deals specifically with the nature of the Trinity, insofar as we are able to describe it, seeking to eliminate confusion that can result when we try to say more than has been revealed about the nature of the Trinity.

Isaiah 6:1-8 – The first five chapters of Isaiah are laments and declarations of judgment and reassurances of God’s preserving power and ultimate glory, but chapter six details Isaiah’s call as a prophet of God. This reading emphasizes the power and majesty and holiness of God the Father. Note that there is no physical description of him even though He is described as enthroned. Rather, what is described is is majesty, with the result that Isaiah despairs. He knows that as a sinful man he cannot abide in the presence of the holy power of God. Yet God enables him not only to remain, but to be fitted for service as his prophet. What fits him for this service is forgiveness.

Psalm 29 – This psalm emphasizes the power of God, and the worship and glory due to him as the Creator and Master of all things. Similar to many psalms, it begins with a call to worship (vs.1-2), describes the content of worship (vs.3-10), and ends with a prayer based on the content of the worship (v.11). Unlike the other psalms though, this one calls not mortals to prayer and praise but heavenly beings. As such, it unifies the worship of God’s people here on earth (who are speaking or singing this psalm responsively) with the worship of God that occurs in the heavenly realms. This psalm is also unique in how extensively it describes the voice of God in relation to natural phenomena. While never commiting the sin of calling us to worship thunder, it maintains that it is the voice of God that powers the thunder. He is the creator and master of these phenomena, and so they attest to his power and glory.

Acts 2:14a, 22-36 – We continue the reading of the first Pentecost account that we started last Sunday. For those who wish to asser that Trinitarian doctrine was a later innovation of the Church, it is clear from this, Peter’s first sermon, preached within a few weeks of the resurrection, that Trinitarian thought was already present, particularly in verses 32-36. Peter clearly asserts that Jesus reigns with God, a thought that would be anathema both to Peter and his hearers as faithful Jews who assert the Shema, that there is only one God. Peter sees no discrepancy between asserting that God is one, yet God consists of more than one aspect. God the Father, God the Son, Jesus, who reigns at his right hand, and God the Holy Spirit who is now present and at work in creation.

John 3:1-17 – Once again Trinitarian language figures prominently in the reading (not surprising, given the theme of the day!). This time Jesus himself speaks of God as having three aspects or persons. God is the Holy Spirit, by whom one is born again in faith as a citizen of the kingdom of God. God is the Son of Man, Jesus’ term for himself drawn from Daniel 7:13 and a reference to the promised Messiah. It is this Son of God that has come down from heaven, has become incarnate, and through this Son of Man that hope and life is offered to the world.

How is this hope and life offered? Through forgiveness of sins. The Son of God is the one who grants forgiveness, an attribute exclusive to God as the Isaiah reading attests to. To offer forgiveness of sins authoritatively indicates a freedom from sinfulness, and a power and glory commensurate with God. Nobody but God can forgive sins (Mark 2:7).

Christians confess what God has revealed – a single God, but a God comprised of three distinct aspects or persons. God the Holy Spirit is God, God the Son is God, and God the Father is God. Each is unique and distinct. It is not merely God the Father changing clothes, so that He appears as the angry God of the Old Testament, the huggy hippy God incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth, and now the invisible, pervasive Holy Spirit. This is another ancient heresy called modalism. Rather, the ministry of Jesus clearly demonstrates that God is all three persons simultaneously. Jesus’ baptism is a fantastic demonstration of this – God the Holy Spirit descending, God the Father speaking from above, and God the Son in the water. Jesus makes the unparalled assertion that He and the Father are one (John 14:1-14).

No Jew could make such a claim, or accept this claim from another – it was blasphemy. Either Jesus was crazy in making this statement, or He was an evil man deliberately lying, or He was exactly who and what He claimed to be. The resurrection is the proof that He was who He said He was – the promised messiah and also the divine, incarnate Son of God.

This is no less an outrageous statement in our day and age than it was 2000 years ago. It violates not our capacity for spirituality – people believe a stunning variety of things, some mutually incompatible! Rather it violates our understanding of reality, asserting something that we have no other experience for or with. To me, this is one of the most compelling things about Christianity. It describes God in terms I can understand (to a point) but that I cannot duplicate or emulate or relate to. I have no way of creating such a God on my own. God is wholly other from me in this respect, and will always be so. While it makes it difficult at times to describe God to others without sounding crazy, my faith is grounded in a God too unlike me to be a creation of my own imagination or the imagination of someone else.

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