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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Trinity Sunday 06/11/2017

To deny the Trinity will endanger your salvation; to try to understand the Trinity will endanger your sanity.  That’s Martin Luther’s famous quote and it does sum up the mystery of the Trinity pretty well.  The confessional statement we know as the Nicene Creed that describes the Trinitarian nature of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit was the major result of the councils back in the early centuries of the church as they struggled with questions about the nature of God and especially how to talk about God in light of the belief that Jesus was divine.  They settled on particular statements and they’re good ones, but the doctrine has never been easy to understand, plus you find that any convenient analogies we might use to try and understand it, things like a three leaf clover or how water, ice and steam are different forms of the same thing, they all wind up being heretical in some fashion. 

Still, while a lot of things have been questioned throughout Christian history, God understood as Trinity, one God in three persons, continues to be foundational for almost all Christians even though, as Luther said, to try to understand it could drive you crazy.  So mostly we just accept it as a matter of faith, not that volumes and volumes haven’t been written about it and continue to be written, especially in trying to defend the logic of one God in three persons. 

Karl Barth, one of the best known theologians of the twentieth century defended the logic of the Trinity saying that if we were to have a chance of knowing the unknowable God, God would have to choose to take a form we could see and sense; hence, the Incarnation, where God did take on a form that we could see in the life and person of Jesus.  But, Barth said, more was needed.  God would also have to provide us with the power to make the not necessarily obvious connection between the person of Jesus as the Son and his significance as the revelation of God; hence, the need for the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit.

With that, Barth was really channeling Luther and his explanation of the Third Article of the Creed that begins, “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith.”

For a moment, it almost seems to make sense, three in one and one in three but then we can go back to Gregory of Nyssa, one of early church fathers who was instrumental in the formation of the creed.  In writing about how there is a singleness to each of the persons but also that in sharing the same essence the three can’t be separated so we’re still talking about one God, he said, “Using riddles, as it were, we envisage a strange and paradoxical diversity in unity and unity in diversity.”  “Using riddles…”; Gregory emphasized that the doctrine of the Trinity is paradoxical and that it lies beyond words and understanding.  It is something revealed to us by God, not something demonstrated to us by our own reason.  We can hint at it in human language, but we can’t fully explain it.

In some ways then, the best thing to do is to confess the Trinity as the way that we name and talk about God, to pray to it, to sing hymns and anthems about it, to baptize in its name, to name churches after it but other than that to pretty much leave it alone.  The Orthodox Church though has yet another approach to the Trinity which is to create an icon of it.  I’ve got icons on the brain today as I’m leaving this afternoon to spend a week in the Soo working on another one.  I’m pretty sure it won’t be the Trinity, but hopefully I’ll have something to show for my efforts next Sunday.

The icon of the Trinity, a copy of which is on the cover of your bulletin, doesn’t explain the doctrine, but it does provide an image that I think is helpful in considering the God we name as Trinity.  An icon of the Trinity is problematic though; it raises another question the early church wrestled with.  Icons in one form or another have existed almost from the beginning of Christianity, but the question was, “Are they graven images, idols and therefore a violation of the first commandment?”  The Seventh Ecumenical Council in the year 787 answered that question saying that icons are not graven images as they are not worshiped, only venerated as an aid to prayer.  But they also said that God can’t be represented in an icon except as God became human and took on flesh.  So Jesus can be represented in icons, saints and angels can be represented, but not God, and the Trinity, according to our faith, is God.

Early on though, Christian tradition understood the Old Testament story from Genesis about three mysterious visitors to Abraham and Sarah as a manifestation of the Trinity.  “The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him.”  As the story continues, Abraham and Sarah extend hospitality to the three but in conversation, it’s as if Abraham is talking directly to God which is part of the reason the three figures are understood to be a manifestation of God as Trinity.

In the earliest versions of this icon, Abraham and Sarah sometimes with other servants were present along with the three angelic figures making it more of a visual image of the actual story.  The version of the icon that became canonized though is the one done by Andrei Rublev around the year 1400. Rublev is perhaps the most famous of all iconographers and his icon of the Old Testament Trinity is thought to be his greatest work. 

Knowing that the tradition saw the story and the icon as being about the Trinity that became the focus for Rublev.  Apart from including a dwelling above the figure on the left, a tree, an oak of Mamre, above the central figure and a hard to see rock above the figure on the right, Rublev eliminated other details and focused primarily on the three angelic figures seated around the table.  He’s not worried about the story as an actual historical event but instead tries to illustrate the relationship between the three.

There is a lot written about the internal relationship of the three persons of the Trinity.  Much of what is written however, is pretty much incomprehensible.  It could be argued that with the image of the three figures seated gracefully around the table and forming something of a circle, the icon illustrates that relationship much more effectively than all the ink that’s been spilled trying to explain it.  The postures of the figures, the position of their hands, the way their heads are inclined communicate a silent, motionless peace.  The central angel and the one on the right incline toward the one on the left and look toward it, the one on the left looks toward the one on the right, indicating a mutual relationship between them all. 

Rublev never wrote down exactly what he intended the icon to show, it is left to interpretation. It is thought though, that from left to right the figures are grouped in the order they appear in the creed, the Father on the left, the Son in the middle, the Holy Spirit on the right.  The colors Rublev used offer clues.  Icons are sometimes called theology in color as different colors represent different things, some earthly, some heavenly. 

You can’t see the colors so I won’t dwell on it, but suffice it to say that the colors in the figure on the left are rather reserved, pale and indefinite indicating the impossibility of depicting God the Father.  The central figure, understood to represent the Son, is dressed in purple and blue, the traditional colors for Jesus.  The principal color of the third angel is green, signifying youth and fullness of power, indicating the role of the Holy Spirit in renewing all things and giving them life.  The almost identical faces and figures of the angels emphasize the single nature of the three divine persons.

All in all, and keeping in mind that the figures are symbolic, not intended as actual representations because again, God can’t be represented, the whole composition of the icon, the colors, the forms, the lines, all of it presents a very peaceful and tranquil image as a way to engage the inexhaustible mystery of the all holy Trinity.   The goal isn’t to understand it because it is beyond our understanding, but to contemplate it and to more or less enter into what has been called the most important symbolic report of the Christian encounter with God. 

It is a mystery so mostly I think what we do is to consider the three persons of the Trinity one at a time because that’s what our brains can handle.  So sometimes we think of God as creator, sometimes we think about Jesus, his life, death and resurrection as the means to restoring our broken relationship with God and also about how he gives us a model of how to live.  Sometimes we think about the Holy Spirit empowering us for service; but it’s hard to think about it all at once. 

The good news is that we don’t have to.  We can just continue as we will right now, to sing about the Trinity, to confess our faith in the beautiful words the early church fathers gave us, and to pray in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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