2 Corinthians 13.11–13
Last week, I said that while preachers often feel the Trinity Sunday is a hard gig, I really feel that Pentecost is the hardest day to preach and to do justice to the message.
Today, I’m not so sure. Trinity may be the hardest day to preach after all. But here goes!
‘Trinity’ is the best way we have to speak of the unutterably great, incomprehensible God who came to earth in Jesus Christ and who comes to earth today as Holy Spirit.
God is unutterably great; God is beyond the understanding of our best minds. God has come to us as a human being, Jesus of Nazareth, exactly as we are yet without sin. God is poured out upon us as the Spirit of Jesus, the Spirit of God.
When the New Testament speaks of God, it often links God our Father with Jesus the Son.
For example, Paul begins 2 Corinthians like this:
Grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
It is clear from the New Testament that we can’t think of God, we can’t talk about God, we can’t know God without Jesus the Son.
And then the New Testament also speaks of God in a threefold way, so Paul ends 2 Corinthians with these very familiar words:
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.
And there are other places too. For example Galatians 4:
God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’
Or Ephesians 4:
There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.
There are other examples, but let’s look at the closing verses of Matthew’s Gospel. Here, the (singular!) name of God is given as Father, Son and Holy Spirit:
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.
And that’s the Name we use of course, whenever we baptise anyone. The name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
I wonder what would happen if we only baptised people in the name of the Father? Or just the Son? Or just the Holy Spirit?
For a start, I suspect it would be a very fruitful cause of disunity if we could choose which name to be baptised in. Can you imagine what people might say?
—I was baptised in the name of the Father—that’s the First Person.
—Well, I am more ‘down to earth’; I was baptised in the name of the Son, Jesus of Nazareth.
—I think it’s best to be baptised in the name of the Spirit, who gives me such wonderful spiritual experiences …
But what may we be saying if we only baptised people in the name of one of the Persons of the Trinity?
Suppose the Church decided to baptise people in the name of the Father alone. What might we believe?
Well, the Nicene Creed says
We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.
God the Father is the maker of all. So if we baptised people only in the name of the Father, then we might have a strong theology of our responsibility to care for the creation.
Of course, that would be a good thing these days. There is a virtually universal consensus that climate change is a real threat. Pacific nations are vanishing below the sea. Polar ice is melting, animal and plant species are under threat. We need a strong theology of care for creation today.
So why don’t we simplify things and just baptise people in the name of the Father and leave the Son and Spirit out?
It’s because we’d be acknowledging only a part of the reality of God. What happens when people focus on God the Father at the expense of the Son and the Spirit? When that happens, ‘God’ becomes somewhat remote. So when we leave the Son who took human flesh out of things; when we ignore the indwelling Holy Spirit, then God may turn out to be a distant figure, a bit far away.
Perhaps we might trust God for the seasons to come in their turn, we might beg God for rain—but would we really be confident we can be forgiven? Wouldn’t God be too far away to be interested in us? And would we have much to say about God’s work in us if we didn’t include the Spirit?
Ok, so let’s simplify things differently. Let’s baptise people in the name of the Son. Just the Son.
Well, we’d be able to develop a good doctrine of salvation. And incarnation. And we could talk a lot about imitating Jesus in his good works. Maybe even do some of them.
But what happens when people are so Jesus-centred that they ignore the Father and the Spirit? Their faith my be about ‘me and Jesus’. They have a sense of familiarity with Jesus, but it may really be overfamiliarity. Jesus may be more their boyfriend than their Lord.
The Father again seems distant, a father who dishes out punishment—after all, he sent Jesus to the cross—but not a father who is close to us.
And the Spirit is a vague, ghostly figure who stays in the shadows.
So what about being baptised just in the name of the Spirit? We’d be great on our doctrine of spiritual gifts! And if we did our work properly, we’d have a very high view of the church as the Body.
But we’d fall down eventually, if we ignored the Father and the Son. We wouldn’t ‘discern the spirits’ properly. The New Testament says (1 John 4.1),
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.
We have to discern what is of the Holy Spirit. Not everything leads us to God. Some seemingly-wise words only serve to puff people up with pride, some apparently good deeds are done more for profit than for love. Last week, we spoke of the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of Christ. When we love spiritual gifts more than we love the Giver we may well lose the ability to discern spiritual right from wrong.
We need the whole of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We need the grace, love and communion of God (2 Corinthians 13.13). We need the God who creates all things, redeems all things and who comforts and guides all things.
It’s hard to get the Trinity ‘just right’. I suspect we all overemphasise one Person of the Trinity over another. But don’t worry. To know one member of the Trinity is to know God.
The Father is God, the Son is God, the Spirit is God. Or to put it another way, the Creator is God, the Redeemer is God, the indwelling Spirit is God.
To know one is to know all three. And that is why we baptise people into the whole name of God, into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.