God in three persons: service plans for a four-week series on the Trinity

My children still can’t believe that I am unable to discern the three-dimensional image in a magic-eye picture. “Dad, go like this,” they advise, looking at the picture cross-eyed, or touching their nose to the surface and backing up slowly. But no matter what I try, still no image. Only a vague sense of failure and frustration. “Don’t worry, Dad,” they say with a sympathetic pat on the shoulder, “you’ll get it one day.”

Seeing the Trinity can be a similar challenge. Search the Bible cover to cover and you’ll not find the word Trinity anywhere, not even once. Even more difficult is discerning the Trinity at work in our daily living. Yet the Trinity has its fingerprints all over the Bible and is active in our personal lives. In New Testament times, awareness of the Trinity was not a neatly articulated doctrine, as found today in the Athanasian Creed. Instead it was a living reality that God’s people encountered. Historian Eugene Oosterhaven comments that belief in the trinitarian form of God “did not emerge merely from the study of some church father, or because of a pronouncement from a church council; it arose in the experience of the people when God had made himself manifest in a new way.”

The intent of this four-week series of service ideas is to help your congregation see the Trinity in Scripture and experience the Trinity in their lives. Jesus prayed that all believers “become one in heart and mind—just as you, Father, are in me and I in you, so they might be one heart and mind with us” (John 17:21, The Message, Eugene Peterson). This relational analogy, with its invitation to draw the congregation personally into trinitarian life, serves as a theme in this series.

The Trinity is much closer than we think. To help us see its intimate proximity we will study an etching by Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669). In his book A Critique of Christian Art, Calvin Seerveld cites Rembrandt as one artist whose philosophy and artistic expression are an example of thoughtful Christian art. At first view we do not detect the Trinity in this picture, just as we do not discern it overtly in our daily circumstances. But it is there! All we need to do is take the time and thought to see it. Although a variety of Bible passages are suggested, most of the following thoughts are based on John 16-17. Our goal is to help our fellow believers get the trinitarian picture.

Sunday Before Ascension sunday

God the Father

Scripture
John 16:25-28; John 17:1-3, 20-21; Psalm 104; Psalm 139

Confession of Faith
God formed the land, the sky, and the seas
making the earth a fitting home
for plants, animals, and humans he created.
The world was filled with color, beauty, and variety;
it provided room for work and play,
worship and service, love and laughter.

—from section 9 of the Contemporary Testimony “Our World Belongs to God,” Psalter Hymnal pp. 1019-1038

Sermon-Building Ideas
Aaron, our seven-year-old son, needed to visit the allergist for testing due to a perennial sniffy nose. On arriving home he informed me that the problem was dust. My wife elaborated, explaining that the actual culprit was not the dust but dust mites living on the dust—literally thousands of microscopic bugs living on each dust particle. I was bemused at something so tiny causing such a problem. Just imagine—we have whole colonies of dust mites living right in our nostrils!

Creation is an endless source of inspiration. Psalm 104 reveals an awe-struck worshiper proclaiming God’s handiwork and praising God’s provision for all of creation. Nature exclaims a God of wildly creative imagination and incredible power—the Creator of everything from minuscule to mighty, mundane to mysterious. Consider time and eternity, the Milky Way, the boom of a thunderclap, the way of a man with a woman, the human hand, the complex kidney, the color blue, the scent of an Easter lily, the taste of ripe raspberries, the humor in a Jan Steen painting, the hearty wail of a child, the breath of life . . . it’s endless. If your sanctuary is equipped with slide projector and screen, you may want to collect nature slides and create a slide presentation accompanied with instrumental music or a soloist singing a song in celebration of the Creator.

Unlike artists such as Michelangelo and William Blake, who, gifted as they were, helped give us the false impression that God is like a majestic grand-father with a flowing white beard and piercing eyes, Rembrandt never attempted to depict a visible image of God the Father. For the artist, the Bible revealed the Father as invisible Spirit, and the Father would remain so, as far as Rembrandt was concerned. Where is the Father portrayed in this etching? The artist’s work is more subdued than a theophanic shaking of thresholds and terrifying flutter of seraphs’ wings. The subtle stream of light above the head of Jesus tells us that an unseen force is at work in this scene. Jesus’ presence inextricably includes the invisible Father, as John’s gospel emphasizes. The large, significant hands of Jesus are prominently stretched over the gathered group, drawing the viewer to contemplate the providential hand of God. Perhaps the artist had, in his mind’s eye, the image of pastors with arms stretched before a congregation, pronouncing the blessing of the triune God. Each Sunday in church we receive the word of blessing through the voice of a pastor. In what ways have you witnessed the Father’s care in the past week?

Jesus prays that those who come to believe in him will know the intimate heart of the Father, whom we may call “Abba.” (John 17:26) The heart of the first person of the Trinity can be declared in one profound word: love. God is love (1 John 4:16). In The Return of the Prodigal Son, Henri Nouwen wrote about the Father image of God: “Here is the God I want to believe in: a Father who, from the beginning of creation, has stretched out his arms in merciful blessing, never forcing himself on anyone, but always waiting; never letting his arms drop in despair, but always hoping that his children will return so that he can speak words of love to them and let his tired arms rest on their shoulders.”

The Father patiently trusts that his magnetic love will pull his children home. Psalm 139 illustrates this inseparable bond our Maker has established. God formed us in secret and has knit us together. We cannot hide from him. We’re designed to live in our Father’s embrace. Nineteenth-century poet George Herbert expressed this article of faith in a poem, “The Pulley”:

When God at first made man,
Having a glass of blessings standing by,
Let us (said he) pour on him all we can:
Let the world’s riches, which dispersed lie,
Contract into a span.

So strength first made a way;
Then beauty flow’d, then wisdom, honour, pleasure:
When almost all was out, God made a stay,
Perceiving that alone of all his treasure
Rest in the bottom lay.

For if I should (said he)
Bestow this jewel also on my creature,
He would adore my gifts in stead of me,
And rest in Nature, not the God of Nature.
So both should losers be.

Yet let him keep the rest,
But keep them with repining restlessness:
Let him be rich and weary, that at least,
If goodness lead him not, yet weariness
May toss him to my breast.

Prayer
O Gracious and Holy Father,
Give us wisdom to perceive you,
intelligence to understand you,
diligence to seek you,
patience to wait for you,
eyes to see you,
a heart to meditate on you,
and a life to proclaim you,
through the power of the Spirit of Jesus Christ our Lord.

 —St.Benedict, 480-547

Songs
“This Is My Father’s World” PsH 436, PH 293, RL 14, SFL 95, TH 111, TWC 384
“Earth and All Stars” PsH 433, PH 458, RL 33, SFL 98, TWC 357
Psalm 104; any of a number of settings, including the following: PsH 104, PH 224, TH 126

Response to the Assurance of Pardon
“Glory Be to the Father”/“Gloria Patri”  PsH 625, PH 577-579, RL 561-563, TH 734-736, TWC 805-807

Ascension sunday
God the Son

Scripture
John 16:16-24; John 17:1-11; Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 97

Sung Prayer of Illumination
“God of the Word” by Ken Medema (from his collection With Every Breath, 1993, available from Briar Patch Music, 4324 Camel, Grandville, MI, 49418; 616-534-6571)

Sermon-Building Ideas
Art historian David Morgan is fond of pointing out that “a substantial portion of the ‘wetware’ strung between our ears—40 percent of the brain cells composing the neocortex—is dedicated to processing visual information . . . the brain craves images.” We are created as creatures who function and relate significantly to visual images.

The God who designed us uses this primary way of perceiving to bring us to a knowledge of him. Jesus is the “image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). The incarnation is the essence of God made visible. This facet of Christian faith captivated Rembrandt as an artist. His genius was an ability to communicate spiritual truth enfleshed, which implies more than understanding the man from Nazareth as only a visual representation of God. Beyond giving us a visual picture of God, Jesus brings salvation by engaging in our humanity. This too is expressed by the etching. Many of the people around Jesus are not even looking directly at him. They are hearing his words of life. Jesus is engaging them with voice as well as appearance, hands, and his physical presence. Salvation involves much more than head knowledge (the Gnostic and New-Age heresy). It encompasses our whole being: emotions, bodies, hearts, minds, and relationships.

The Bible is packed with metaphorical language to describe God: God is a rock, an eagle, a nursing mother, a leader of an army, a father. In Jesus, metaphor turns to reality. God actually became flesh and shared in our humanity—he lived as one of us in our world. Jesus appears totally at ease among us—whether out on the street, on a subway car, or in a crowded shopping mall. He wants to be here—he loves people, and they matter to him. In turn, those around him seem at home in his presence.

John Calvin noted that even knowing God truly as Creator, as Almighty, is impossible apart from revelation in Jesus Christ. “For even if God wills to manifest His father favor to us in many ways, yet we cannot by contemplating the universe infer that He is Father” (Institutes, II.vi.1). It seems that the disciples of Jesus realized this truth. Why else would they have been so upset at the news that Jesus was going to leave them? They had become intimately acquainted with the heart of the Father only because of Jesus.

Today we celebrate the ascension of a flesh-and-blood Jesus. The crown of glory he receives comes by way of suffering service. One painting Rembrandt made of the ascension pictures Christ being taken up with outspread hands vividly marked with red scars. Why are we comforted by the fact that it is Jesus who now rules and will judge on the last day? “In all my distress and persecution I turn my eyes to the heavens and confidently await as judge the very One who has already stood trial in my place before God and so has removed the whole curse from me” (Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 52). The scarred hands of the Judge, acquired when he hung suffering on a tree, are my assurance that I share in his reign.

Today we already share the victory. People in the pew who struggle with fear and failure need to hear this good news. There may be a dad who is feeling inadequate as a father. A mother may be wrestling to accept her daughter just as she is. Some may live in fear of dying. A son may be feeling bad about slandering his parents before friends. A wife could be questioning her husband’s commitment to their marriage. A businessman may be paralyzed by financial burdens. A single mom may be finding it difficult to overcome her anger over a divorce. A student may be frustrated with a class that remains difficult, in spite of best efforts. Still others may have been hurt by another church member just once too often and wonder if the Christian message is real. Against all of this and more, we need to know about the victory Jesus has won through sharing in our plight. “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). The last word is victory over fear and failure. Jesus, who sits on the throne, has the scars to prove it.

Jesus means joy. The Lord explained that after a time of grief, “I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy” (John 16:22). During medieval times in Europe there was a holiday known as the Feast of Fools. On this occasion the general population, along with clergy and even serious community leaders, donned masks, dressed in costumes, and sang a lot under the mock rule of a Lord of Misrule. In a satirical way this event sought to remember the outrageous joy of the gospel that was becoming increasingly scarce. For a few days the people imagined and enacted a world where the last were first, the lowly were lifted up, peacemakers were blessed, the poor seated in the place of honor, kings were generous, and rulers just. Such Kingdom revelry can fire sanctified imaginations with the joyful truth that our workaholic ways and gross national product can never bring us salvation. Jesus’ ascension serves as a catalyst for such mirth—he prays that his joy may be complete in us. Intoxicating joy comes with the arrival of the Holy Spirit.

Prayer
Dear Jesus,
Your head that once was crowned with thorns is crowned with glory now;
a royal diadem adorns your mighty brow.
The highest place that heaven affords is yours, yours by right—
the King of kings, Lord of lords, and heaven’s eternal light;
the joy of all who dwell above, the joy of all below,
to whom you manifest your love and grant your Name to know.
To us the cross with all its shame, with all its grace, is given;
your Name, an everlasting Name; our joy, the joy of heaven. Amen.

—Adapted from Thomas Kelly’s hymn, “The Head That Once Was Crowned with Thorns.”

Songs
“The Lord Reigns” (Psalm 97) by Dan Stradwick (Maranatha! Music Praise Chorus Book 3, 127)

Settings of Psalms 47 and 110
“The Head That Once Was Crowned with Thorns” PsH 422, PH 149, RL 335, TH 298, TWC 268
“Jesus Is Our King”

Pentecost sunday
God the Holy Spirit

Scripture
John 16:12-15; Acts 2; (Joel 2:28-32, included in Acts reading); Psalm 143

Sermon-Building Ideas
How about this for a sermon idea? On Pentecost Sunday, standing in the pulpit about to begin your message, you point your finger to the back of the sanctuary and, eyes wide with surprise, shout, “FIRE! FIRE!” Once all the head turning and commotion has settled down, you go on to explain that the coming of the Holy Spirit with tongues of fire created quite a stir in the Jerusalem crowd as well. . . . Nah. Something about this idea tells me it wouldn’t fly.

Actually, the work of the Spirit generally does not cause a commotion. The Spirit is the most clandestine of the divine trio, working powerfully yet quietly behind the scenes.

The ministry of the Holy Spirit is christocentric. Jesus explained that the Holy Spirit “will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears. . . . He will bring glory to me” (John 16:13-14) He serves to uncover the life and work of Christ. In a sense he acts like a spotlight. Hidden behind a rock or bush, a spotlight shines forth and illuminates a building. It does not draw attention to itself, but rather helps the eye see something other than itself. Not that the role of the Spirit is inferior. Who would Jesus be to us if it were not for the Spirit? He would either be a really good guy we should listen to for some helpful advice or, considering his claims, he would be a person with serious mental deficiencies. Only the Holy Spirit can enlighten and convict us that Jesus is not only much more, but much different—he is God incarnate, whose life and sacrificial death means reconciliation with God the Father for all who believe.

Sensitive to the hidden fashion of the Spirit’s operations, Rembrandt has pictured the Holy Spirit accordingly. Where is the third person in this etching? The visual manifestation Rembrandt has chosen to depict the Holy Spirit is the people gathered to hear Jesus. They have come because the Spirit has brought them together. If the church is a fitting analogy for the Trinity, as Jesus has expressed in his prayer, the Holy Spirit is surely represented by those who gather to hear and respond to the Word.

The Holy Spirit is the glue that binds the richly diverse members of the church to be the one body of Christ. Consider the variety of people sitting around you in the pew every Sunday. Consider the eclectic group gathered around Jesus. Notice how the two groups are quite similar: an elderly man standing to receive the blessing; a teen with a slightly cynical expression; a toddler paying little or no attention; a mom cradling an infant; a stalwart religious leader keeping his distance; and an intellectual scratching his chin in thought. How is it possible that a group of such wide backgrounds and experiences can work together, serve together, with such unity and cooperation? The only possible answer is the Holy Spirit.

Signs of the Paraclete surround us, leaving evidence as the invisible wind conveys its presence through the motion of trees. Moving messages, changed hearts, transformed minds, healed bodies, reconciled relationships, met needs, jubilant song, and poignant prayer are all evidence of the Spirit’s active presence as well as our intimate relationship to the Trinity. The new community formed by those baptized on Pentecost in Jerusalem shared in the abundant provision of the Father, heard the good news of Jesus’ resurrection, and responded by the power of the Spirit.

Prayer
Almighty and Holy Spirit, the comforter, pure, living, true—illumine, govern, sanctify me, and confirm my heart and mind in the faith, and in all genuine consolation; preserve and rule over me so that, dwelling in the house of the Lord, all the days of my life, I may behold the Lord and praise him with joyful spirit, and in union with all the heavenly Church. Amen.

—Philipp Melanchthon, 1497-1560

Songs
“For the Gift of God the Spirit” PsH 416, TH 339, TWC 285
“Lord, Listen to Your Children Praying”PsH 625, SFL 54, TWC 629 (Sing as a frame around the congregational prayers of intercession.)
“Like the Murmur of the Dove’s Song” PH 214, SFL 191 (also see p. 40)
“Come Lord Jesus, Send Us Your Spirit” SFL 96

Trinity Sunday
The Triune God

Scripture
John 16, 17

Sermon-Building Ideas
Have you ever found yourself in this position? You are surrounded by a catechism class of eager eighth-graders. In an attempt to teach the concept of the Trinity, you quote the creedal statement: “So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God; but there are not three Gods, but one God.” Invariably you are confronted with the puzzled faces of teens who secretly wonder if you are mathematically challenged. To regain their confidence and understanding, you try a few analogies. You might compare the Trinity to water (three forms as vapor, liquid, ice, yet one substance) or the flags of many nations (three colors, one flag) or the triangle (three separate sides, yet one geometric figure).

Naturally we try to grasp the concept of the Trinity mentally so we can understand God’s nature. Yet in the Bible this God, who wants to be known by us, never really seeks to explain that triune nature. God is simply there. The greater priority is that we know God experientially and love him with mind, heart, and body. This biblical truth was not lost on Rembrandt. Although we are unable to see the Father with the physical eye, God is actively among us through the visible Christ by the insightful work of the invisible Holy Spirit. The triune God is revealed throughout the Bible, and his presence and work is interwoven through the daily living of our faith.

Jesus’ prayer conveys the intricacy involved in the relationship of the three persons of the Trinity and the believers’ close attachment. John frequently uses the term abide in to express this proximity. The prayer indicates that serious indwelling is going on. The Father is in the Son, the Son is in the Father, believers are in the Father and the Son, and the Son and Father are in the believer(s). All this happens because of the subversive yet essential work of the Holy Spirit, (cf. John 14:26). The bonds are so complex as to be inseparable, yet all parties retain their own distinctive identity. Simultaneously, identity is defined through relationship to each other.

Attempting to analyze these complex interrelationships leads us into mystery. Exhort God’s people to worship and celebrate the triune God as they witness the signs of his presence. Like a panoramic view and surround sound, the Trinity is all around, revealed in the Word and in our worship:

  • in Genesis 1:1-3 and John 1:1-18; Genesis 1:26-27 and Genesis 2:18-25; Isaiah 61 and Luke 4:14-21; Luke 1:26-38; Mark 1:9-11; 2 Corinthians 13:14
  • in the letters written to the seven churches (Rev. 1:9-3:22)
  • in the blessing that comes from God via a pastor’s benediction
  • in hymns like “Holy, Holy, Holy,” “Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” “Father, I Adore You,” “Now Thank We All Our God”
  • in our unison confession of the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds
  • in the call that invites us to respond to the Great Commission
  • in our celebration of the Lord’s Supper
  • in the Word proclaimed
  • in the opportunity to witness a baptism
  • in our seeking to live as baptized people

Invite the community to participate in trinitarian life—more proclaiming, less explaining.

We engage in the triune nature of God in the unity and diversity of the faith community: in Spirit-inspired praise to the Father for the love shown in Jesus ; in a handshake or a hug of a beloved sister or brother in Christ; in the fellowship of a potluck lunch in the church basement. Or how about on the basketball court or in a game of pick-up hockey? Where else does the trinitarian nature of God reveal itself? All around, in the mundane yet supernatural ministry and life of God’s people.

Do we have the faith-eyes to see the triune God among us? Some of us still may have a tough time trying to see that three-dimensional image in the magic-eye picture. Good thing our lives don’t depend on it. Our lives do depend on eyes to picture ourselves seated with the crowd in Rembrandt’s etching, compelled by the Holy Spirit to receive the Word of the Father’s love through the voice and hands of Jesus.

Sung Prayer
Holy God, we praise your Name;
Lord of all we bow before you.
Saints on earth your rule acclaim;
all in heaven above adore you.
Infinite your vast domain;
everlasting is your reign.
Holy Father, holy Son,
Holy Spirit, three we name you,
Though in essence only one;
undivided God, we claim you
and, adoring, bend the knee
while we own the mystery.

—Te Deum, 4th cent.; vers. Ignaz Franz; c.1774; tr. Clarence A. Walworth, 1853, alt.

Prayer
Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, you know the futility of our fumbling attempts to comprehend you. Time and again we are left exhausted by our finite minds’ endeavour to grasp your infinite Being. We are humbled and thankful you have revealed so much of yourself to us: a Father who creates and provides, who reaches out in electing love and embraces us. A Son who shares in our humanity, who died and rose that we may reign with him. A Spirit who opens our minds and hearts, who brings us into trinitarian truth. Lead us to own this mystery. Teach us to live the Trinity. Amen.

Songs
Most hymnals include songs on the Trinity as a separate section and/or in a listing in the topical index. Choose a trinitarian hymn for the opening hymn, as a response to the sermon, and as a doxology. Consider introducing a doxology that will be sung throughout the summer months. Here are some suggestions:

“Holy God, We Praise Your Name” PsH 504, PH 460, RL 619, TH 103, TWC 3
“Come, Thou Almighty King” PsH 246, PH 139, RL 618, TH 101, TWC 5
stanzas 1-3 at the beginning of the service; stanza
4 as a doxology
“Father, We Love You” PsH 634, SFL 77, TWC 10
“Abide with Us, Our Savior PsH 565   

Tony Maan serves as pastor of the Christian Reformed Church of St. Albert, Alberta, Canada. He earned an MDiv from Calvin Theological Seminary and a PhD in Christian perspectives on the body in the Dutch Golden Age from the University of Alberta.