A week ago, New Yorker magazine had a delightful cartoon, purporting to be a look at the Theology and Philosophy department of fictitious Grandview University. It shows the teacher’s lounge of the department with two men in clerical collars relaxing with coffee. At the door was a third man dressed the same way looking in and saying, “Back to work, boys! Those mysteries of the Trinity won’t grapple with themselves!” As I shared that on my Facebook page, I remarked, “That’s pretty much been my life, and in a lot of ways it still is.”
At first glance, it would seem that “grappling with the mysteries of the Trinity” is an exercise in esoterica, dealing with abstruse theories about the nature of God but having little practical value. But the early church didn’t think that way, and neither should we. It has been noted that when the Roman empire was falling, the church was busy dealing with issues surrounding the Trinity and the Incarnation, and culminated with the Athanasian Creed, that consummate description of the God in whom we must believe, we must trust, for our salvation. Being one of those people who believes that all theology is practical theology, I would submit that we have no choice but to ponder the mysteries of the Trinity, for it is our life with God, the true God, the God who is who He is, that makes life, both in this world and eternity, life with meaning. The church down through the ages has taken its cue from the church’s grappling with the mysteries of the Trinity. From the Gloria in Excelsis, the opening line of which was spoken by the angelic host to the shepherds on the night of our Savior’s birth, to the songs of Zechariah (the Benedictus), Mary (the Magnificat) and Simeon (the Nunc Dimittis), to the fourth and fifth centuries, the golden age of the creeds, which were turned into that universal praise hymn known as the Te Deum, ascribed to Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, and versified our hymns, “Holy God, we Praise Thy Name,” and “We Praise You and Acknowledge You, O God, to be the Lord,” the church sings its unending hymn to the Trinity. The doxology at the end of “Holy God we Praise Thy Name” states clearly what I have been saying:
Holy Father, Holy Son, Holy Spirit, three we name Thee,
Though in essence only One, undivided God we claim Thee,
And, adoring, bend the knee, while we own the mystery.
This states clearly both that the Trinity is the center of our faith and the center of our existence. Yet as such it also remains a mystery that can only be pondered.
The Trinity is of central importance because the Trinity is the One God, the only God, who is at work for us. Yet as mysterious as it is, it is the truth, and must therefore be received. Jesus’ final words in the Gospel reading for today notes the mind-boggling importance of this, as well as the offensiveness of it to the mind that is set either on signs and wonders or on rational thought. “Before Abraham was, I AM.” The very God who spoke His word of promise to Abraham, the very God who commanded Moses to go to the people enslaved in Egypt, He is the one standing before them. If true, this is mind-boggling. If false, it is such a blasphemous lie that the Jews were right to pick up stones to stone Him to death. But the fact is, it is true. God in the flesh was standing before them.
When Jesus talked about Abraham, He said that Abraham rejoiced to see His day. Abraham lives. Abraham had no continuing city on earth, indeed was a sojourner on earth, not able yet to possess the land promised for his descendants. He proceeded through his life by faith. Yet even for Abraham, already that faith had given way to sight, for Abraham was aware that the day had come, the promised day had dawned that was bringing about the forgiveness of sins. All of history is wrapped up in the event of Jesus Christ. Even though according to the flesh he was but 30 years old, He knew Abraham, gave him the promise in which he trusted, and fulfilled that promise, becoming the one by whom all of the nations of the world would be blessed.
Jesus taught by His own authority. He demolished the facile arguments of the Pharisees, who sought to justify themselves by the law, and the Sadducees, with their denial of the resurrection of the dead. When the Sadducees sought to ridicule the idea of resurrection with their story of the woman who married seven brothers in accordance with the law, but died without a child, Jesus first pointed out that we do not marry in the age to come. Then he pointed out that the Sadducees did not understand the Scriptures. The idea of the resurrection is present throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, but the Sadducees accepted only the Torah, the Law, the books of Moses, as authoritative. But by going back to Moses at the burning bush, Jesus tells them that that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the God, not of the dead, but of the living (Luke 20:27-38). In saying this, He declares to them that the resurrection of the dead is taught in the Torah. Quite bluntly, He told them that they were wrong. He confronted their lie with the truth, because HE IS.
At the burning bush, when God confronted Moses and was sent to Egypt to confront Pharaoh and to lead God’s people out of slavery, He was told to tell them that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had sent him. When asked the name He should use, He was told to tell the people, “‘I AM’ has sent me.” As scripture records this account, the voice from the burning bush is called both “The LORD” and “The Angel of the LORD.” The Angel of the LORD, the messenger of the LORD, is identified as the great “I AM.” Both the LORD and the Word, the one who both is the messenger and the message, is the one who says of Himself, “I am that I am.” He is the one who gave the promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and would now be the one who would use Moses to lead their descendants back to the land promised to them. At Mount Sinai He would instruct Moses and Aaron to set up the sacrificial system that prefigures the sacrifice of Christ, the once-for-all sacrifice for sin.
This God, who is the God of the living, is of course the God who would raise Christ from death. And He is the one who had a lot of practice doing that already. In Hebrews 11, that magnificent passage with the theme “by faith,” the writer runs with the theme. He notes that God “as good as” brought Abraham and Sarah back from death by giving them a child in their old age. So, also, it is clear that when Abraham was tested and told to sacrifice His “only” son, that is, the son of the promise, he willingly did that. He knew the promise, so he knew that God would give him back his son, that is, He would raise Him from the dead. All of this He knew by faith. The testing of Abraham is a foreshadowing (a type) of God not withholding His own Son. Abraham was told to sacrifice his son on Mount Moriah, the very place upon which Solomon’s temple would be built a thousand years later. And nearly a thousand years after that, God would sacrifice His own Son on a hill overlooking that temple.
It certainly seems that God takes His time doing these things, and indeed by human standards He does. But as Peter reminds us in His second epistle, God does not count time the way that we count time. With Him a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like a day. Here, Peter echoes the words of Moses in Psalm 90:4. “For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night.”
But of what practical importance is all of this? It is of great importance. In the letter to the Hebrews we are reminded, “Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb 13:8). He is the one who was, who is, and who is to come. The promises endure no matter what the world throws at us. We find ourselves living in a world in crisis. Yet by faith we know that though we live in a world subjected to futility, and though we ask ourselves if it is all worth it, the promise remains that these are just the birth pangs preparing us for the new heavens and the new earth, the restoration of all things as God has always intended them to be. The sufferings of this present time can in no way be compared to the glory that will be revealed to us (Rom 8:18), as creation itself looks forward to its release from its bondage to decay.
It is in knowing this that we can still go about our lives, whether in self-isolation or in the world as our vocations continue. After going into detail about what the incarnation and the death of Christ mean for us, after showing how God has prepared the world for the coming of His Son, the one Who Is Who He Is, the one who wrote to the Hebrews to sustain their faith in the Triune God and to prepare them against the temptation to abandon Christ and to revert to the old ways, concludes his letter (chapter 13) with very practical advice that derives from knowing the Trinity: Let brotherly love continue. We are told that in using the gift of hospitality we may even be entertaining angels while not being aware of it. Let true marriage be upheld and marriage bed be undefiled. This echoes Saint Paul, who in Ephesians 5 tells us that the one flesh relationship between husband and wife is an image of the relationship between Christ and His church, as Christ set aside His bride for Himself by the washing of water with the Word. Indeed, he tells us that this relationship is a great mystery, a mystery with which we must grapple, the mystery of Christ and His Church. The mystery of the Trinity overflows into the mystery of life in this world, in which we care for one another and let brotherly love continue unabated. Look at the ten commandments and the table of duties in the Small Catechism, the table of Bible Passages for the various vocations of life in the family, the church, and the world. These are given for our benefit, not because they save us, but because by living according to them the true meaning of life is displayed before the world. It’s not that meaning is created, but that it is revealed to a world that is subjected to futility (that is meaninglessness).
Moses was told to tell Israel, “I AM has sent me.” Jesus says, “Before Abraham was, “I AM.” After His resurrection, He told His apostles,” “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” He sends His apostles, His called servants, into the world, and by extension, He sends His entire church into the world, to tell the world, “I AM has sent me.” I AM continues to bring the message of repentance and the forgiveness of sins into the world, and through that message He frees us from captivity to our fears and continues to bring us hope. Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and forever. He will not fail us. Amen.