June 11, 2017

Baptizing Them in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit

Passage: Genesis 1:1 – 2:4a, Psalm 8, 2 Corinthians 13:11-13, Matthew 28:16-20

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit

Kevin Manion and his sister Claire live with their family in Wisconsin. Last July (2016) Kevin was a little bored during summer holidays and decided to play a prank on his family; he began replacing family photos around the house with pictures of someone else: actor Steve Buscemi. Kevin was wondering how long it would take for his parents to notice; according to his sister, their father "noticed [on] the second day but [their] mom didn't notice until the fifth day." Claire said of her mother, “she was in the kitchen and could tell something was wrong with my brother’s senior photo, like the colors were wrong, and his head was too big, so she walked over to it and started laughing so hard.” (BuzzFeed item)

1. Does it matter whose picture is in the family photos? When it comes to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity—that there is one God eternally existent in three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—many Christians wonder how important it is whose picture is in the family photo, so to speak. In fact some say that any picture will do. Christians find the idea of the Trinity confusing and hard to grasp and conclude that our relationship to this doctrine should be loose with lots of flexibility. In the church today we hear all manner of triune names used to speak of God; i.e. “God unbegotten, God incarnate, God among us” or “Sending One, Seeking One, Greeting one.” Studiously avoiding saying Father and Son. Does it matter whose image appears in the family photo?

Today is Trinity Sunday and we are baptizing a little one in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit in accord with our Lord’s command. Matthew’s gospel is written about forty years after the resurrection of Jesus and it is clear that at this early point in its history the church already baptizes new believers in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Matthew writes to a church and explains why they baptize new converts. It was the Lord’s command given in this post-resurrection appearance. The formula—in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, was set from the beginning in the life of the church.

In the fourth century the nature of the triune God was being challenged and debated. The result was the council of Nicaea in 325 AD and the resulting Nicene Creed. A further clarification was articulated in the sixth century knows as the “Athanasian Creed” which states, “we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the Persons; nor dividing the Essence. For there is one Person of the Father; another of the Son; and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one; the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal. Such as the Father is; such is the Son; and such is the Holy Ghost.” Many today find such articulation a little much to digest; it doesn’t easily conform to a tag line and so wonder what all the fuss is about.

2. Not long ago I heard a minister indicate that the emphasis in our Christian faith is better placed on right practice than correct theology. It wasn’t that a good understanding of theology was unimportant but that an emphasis there often leads to division. This minister suggested that right practice where love was the measure for everything was the better approach. It was the practise of love that would bring hope for our world. And as I am listening to this sermon I am wondering how one would define love (I didn’t hear a definition given).

The Apostle John declared, “God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” The Apostle went on to say that “God is love.” Love isn’t some value or principle that exists apart from God. The gospel teaches us the love of God—true love—is seen in the self-forgetful self-giving of the Son for our sakes. The love the gospel enjoins is revealed most clearly at the cross of Christ.

The scriptural witness is that no human beginning from themselves can know God; rather that God makes Godself known by coming to us; by incursion into our lives. In our gospel story today we read of how these eleven disciples were together and of how “Jesus came and said to them.” Notice that they didn’t find Jesus; Jesus came to them.

“Who is God?” Scripture never answers this question directly. Scripture answers this question indirectly by posing two other questions. The first, “What does God do on our behalf? He has given himself in the Son. The second, “What does God effect within us?” He effects faith by the work of the Holy Spirit.

This brings me to the doctrine of the Triune God. The doctrine wasn’t invented in a theological think tank purposefully articulated to make it hard to understand. It was uncovered in the experience of the encounter with God in Jesus of Nazareth. It isn’t as if this is to say we now know who God is as if the Trinity we some complete description of God. It is to say that it became the grammar for speaking of God in this encounter with God. It is God’s self-disclosure that informs the gospel story.

The doctrine of the Trinity is crucial. At the very least it attests the truth that who God is in his dealings with us is who God is in himself; and no less importantly, who God is in himself is who God is in his dealings with us. In other words, the doctrine of the Trinity witnesses to God’s identity: what we see in Jesus Christ is what we get; namely, God himself and nothing other than God himself. In addition the doctrine of the Trinity witnesses to God’s unity. What is done for us in Jesus Christ and what is effected in us through the Holy Spirit is an act of the one God: these two acts aren’t the activities of two different deities or two lesser deities or two non-deities.

Put another way, the love revealed in Jesus is identical with the love that in the heart of the One Jesus called the Father. When you were a child and your friend at school invited you to come over to play there was always a little bit of apprehension in meeting their parents for the first time. You and your friend may be great buddies but this was no guarantee that his or her parents would be as congenial. The doctrine of the Trinity is crucial because the love of Jesus you experience in his pouring himself out for you is one with the Father and the Spirit who makes this known to you.

Christian faith is rooted in the oneness of being between Jesus Christ and God the Father. In the gospel God has revealed himself to us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. (Without the divine activity of the Holy Spirit we should not know of the deity of Father and Son.) In this self-unveiling God has revealed himself in such a way as to disclose that what God is in himself God is toward us, and what God is toward us God is in himself, throughout his saving acts in history. In other words, what God is eternally in himself, that is, in his internal relations as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, God is in his activity toward us through the Son and in the Spirit.

Love, then, doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It is known in what God does in Jesus Christ. In saying this, Christian faith is not saying that God has neglected or forsaken people who are non-Christians. Nevertheless, it is in Jesus Christ that we learn that God neither neglects nor forsakes anyone. The doctrine of the Trinity will ever orient us to the living God whose love for a dying world commissions us to love it no less.

3. We have been thinking, in a manner of speaking, about the importance of whose picture is in the family photos. We have noted first that God makes Godself known and so discloses to us who he is through God’s own incursion in history and into our lives. We noted, secondly that Christian faith is rooted in the oneness of being between Jesus Christ and God the Father—this is how we know that God is love; manifested in the self-giving of Son and Father at the cross for our sakes.

In our family photos we often have pictures of family members at different points in their lives revealing various activities or aspects of their lives. As we probe who God is today revealed in the gospels as Father, Son and Holy Spirit we looked at the photo, so to speak, known as the creation story. Let’s reflect on this creation-story photo for a moment.

On 8 October 2013 the Nobel prize in physics was awarded jointly to François Englert and Peter Higgs "for the theoretical discovery of a mechanism that contributes to our understanding of the origin of mass of subatomic particles and which recently was confirmed through the discovery of the predicted fundamental particle, (by the ATLAS and CMS experiments at CERN's Large Hadron Collider)." Known as Higgs boson it is believed to be a special subatomic particle that allow all other particles in the universe to have mass and to come together to form everything around us (and us). It was dubbed “the God particle.”

One of the points that the Genesis story makes very clear is that God is not his creation. The wonders of the subatomic structures of creation are fascinating but it isn’t God. You are not merely a product of the particle structures of the universe though the human is surely a creature within the universe.

Many who are not Christians have come to the conclusion that the universe is not self-generating. Many scientists have postulated that there is some creative energy or intelligence behind what they observe in the universe. Philosophers have proposed the necessity of a first cause or a prime mover. But is this greater intelligence or prime mover or first cause the one in our family photo?

We must remind ourselves here of the logic of the gospel. The believer learns first of a God who loves her then discovers that this God who loves is our Creator. We will never, by scientific observation alone, conclude that this great intelligence loves us. We first discover that God loves us then learn that this one who loves us is the author of all intelligence. In the older testament the story of Genesis is written after the experience of Exodus from slavery in Egypt. In the New Testament the Apostle John meets Jesus, watches him die, sees him risen and then is able to also know that “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” (John 1:3)

We learn from our creation photo that this God who loves us in Jesus made us for relationship with him. The human is distinguished from the rest of God’s creatures in that God speaks to the human and renders the human God’s own conversation partner. This is at the heart of what it means to be created in the image of God.

Surely one thing that means is that when parents commit to raise their children to know this God who loves them you open them up to the relationship that calls from them the true wonders of their humanity—in relationship with God they discover who they really are. You can give you child no greater gift. And what is true for children is true for all—we are loved by God who created us to be ourselves and all he imagines for us.

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit