In order to cover all our material before the year ends, the remaining class sessions will be a little more “full” of content. It will also require all of us to be attentive and thoughtful about some big questions of Christian faith. We begin with some additional thoughts on Heaven and Earth, Resurrection, and New Creation.
When most people think of Heaven, a certain image comes to mind. Bright light, clouds, harps, angels. What does scripture really say about the after-life? If Jesus was the “first fruits” of all our resurrection, what does it mean that our destiny is not just to live on in a spiritual sense, but to have a body like Jesus when we rise again?
But we find ourselves in between the resurrection of Jesus and the eventual completion of human history. So what do we make of this period we find ourselves in? Jesus spoke about his Kingdom as both “among us” and “coming”. The kingdom has come according to Matthew 12:28 and Luke 17:21; and the coming of the kingdom is still future according to Luke 19:11–12. How can it be both?
An analogy from the second world war might be helpful. Most historians would agree that when the Allies successfully invaded Europe on “D-Day”, Nazi Germany was officially beaten. The Nazis could not fight a war on two fronts and survive. So June 6th, 1944 was the day that the war was lost. But the fighting went on in Europe for 11 more months until Germany officially surrendered. You could look at the Kingdom of God in a similar way: the death and resurrection of Jesus was a decisive blow against sin/death/devil that cannot be reversed, but sin/death/devil will continue their losing fight until Jesus returns and the New Heavens and the New Earth are finally reunited (Revelation 21). So we are fighting “in between” Jesus’ victor and Jesus’ return.
The remainder of the New Testament is about this fight. Jesus has been resurrected, then returns to the Father in heaven, but God is still at work in the world through his Holy Spirit. Fifty days after Easter, the Holy Spirit came upon Jesus disciples. We call this the story of Pentecost. It is unofficially called, “the birthday of the church.”
Who is the Holy Spirit? Christian faith confesses that God is One Essence of Three Persons of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Trinity). Of the three persons, perhaps the hardest to explain and understand is the Holy Spirit. This is because scripture itself uses so many different words and images to describe the Holy Spirit (wind, fire, water, oil, a dove, advocate, counselor, power) and what the Holy Spirit does (gifts us for ministry, produces “fruit”, interprets our prayers). With all these somewhat strange descriptions, its no wonder its the most mysterious of the tree persons of the Trinity. Our confirmation “building blocks” try and sum up the Holy Spirit this way:
The Holy Spirit is God, everywhere present and powerful working in us, in the church, and in the world.
The Spirit is God’s activity in the world. The Spirit is present in our worship, in our prayer life, and our work together in the church. The Spirit is the one who prepares our hearts to believe and follow Jesus. The Spirit is at work in creation revealing God to us. The Spirit is the one who takes the words of the Bible and gives us life in them.
But then how does the Holy Spirit relate to Jesus and God the Father? This is complicated stuff that took the church decades and centuries to come to understand. We do not worship three Gods, but God has revealed himself to us in three distinct personalities. The word “Trinity” doesn’t actually appear in the Bible, but all throughout the New Testament there are examples of how the earliest Christians came to understand God had three distinct persons within one unified being.
The early church articulated it this way:
We worship one God in trinity and the trinity in unity,
neither blending their persons
nor dividing their essence.
For the person of the Father is a distinct person,
the person of the Son is another,
and that of the Holy Spirit still another.
But the divinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is one,
their glory equal, their majesty coeternal.
-The Athanasian Creed
But what does this matter? Because the nature of God is not individualistic or solitary. We read in the Bible, “God is Love.” (1 John 4:8). Notice it doesn’t say, “God is loving” or “God loves”. God’s very nature is love. God exists as a community of three persons so deeply in love with one another they exist as a single essence. Saint Augustine once said, “Love is the greatest symbol of the trinity because Love is not love without three parts: the lover, the beloved, and the bond of love between them.”
This diagram can be a helpful image to get to some of the “technicalities” of the Trinity. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are more distinct than just ways God speaks to us… but they are the same in that they are all eternally of one essence and substance… they are One God.
The Ancient Celtic Christians had a deep fascination and reverence for the mystery of the Trinity, and their culture’s ancient art forms helped illustrate that mystery. The Celtic “Trinity Knot” is one single line woven seamlessly to create three distinct shapes, all intertwined together.
In trying to explain the mystery of the Holy Trinity some theologians of the early church had come up with a word to describe the relationship of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Perichoresis. Perichoresis is two words: peri which means “around” chorein which means “make room for”. Its a word you’d use to describe a circle dance, like maybe one you’ve seen at a Greek wedding, where three or more dancers hold hands, and step in a circle, and they weave in and out, make room for one another as each steps inward and outwards twisting and leading one another as stye step both in time and independently. The early Christians looked at that dance and said, “that’s What God is like!” When we confess that God is Trinity, a perfect oneness of three persons, we are saying that God exists as a joyful and loving dance.
This is some of the most difficult material we’ll cover in the entire process of confirmation. So don’t be discouraged if it feels like none of it makes sense. Part of the journey of Christian faith is wrestling with mysteries we can’t fully comprehend, but in at least trying to get some understanding, we may find our hearts fall deeper in love with a God we are so very much unlike. One of the oldest songs in our hymnal is #19 Holy God, We Praise Thy Name and verse four goes like this:
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.
Journaling Questions this Week
Pray that God would quiet your head and heart, ask God to help you understand, and then read Romans 5:1-5 and 1 John 4:7-21. Afterwards, make a “mind map” of these nine words (also feel free to use the image of the Celtic Trinity knot to help you mind map):
FATHER | SON | SPIRIT
PEACE | LOVE | HOPE
GOD IS LOVE