Love Is Who God Is

Jordan Hillebert

On May 19, 2018, I did something I haven’t really been able to do since my daughter was born. I sat down in the middle of the day to watch television. When I turned to the BBC, I was surprised to discover that they were showing a wedding—the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. I thought the wedding was nice enough — good music, and they seemed like a lovely couple — but what really caught my attention was the sermon. With nearly 2 billion people around the world watching, Bishop Michael Curry delivered an extraordinary reflection on the redemptive power of love.

The bishop reminded us: “There’s power in love to help and heal when nothing else can. There’s power in love to lift up and liberate when nothing else will. There’s power in love to show us the way to live.”

For Christians, love is not just that warm and fuzzy feeling you get on a first date, it’s not just a general fondness for someone of something else, it is not some evolutionary failsafe to prevent us from killing certain family members at the Christmas dinner.

As the good bishop reminded us, love is powerful, it is active, it is sacrificial — love moves us and it motivates us to risk everything for the sake of those we love. And for Christians, love is at the heart of what it means to be human, because it is at the heart of what it means for God to be God. The Bible tells us that we were created by love and we were created for love, because God is love.

Now, believe it or not, this is precisely what the church celebrates on Trinity Sunday. I recognize that is not what immediately pops into most people’s minds when they think of the Trinity. I think it’s fair to say that the doctrine of the Trinity is not always the most approachable doctrine. It can often come across as a rather abstract statement of faith, a math problem we have to solve in order to get into heaven, or at least into the local Church school.

While we may recite the creed on Sundays, for many of us the doctrine of the Trinity has little impact on our worship, or our prayers, or our actions. It doesn’t move us, or motivate us, or change us. And that’s a shame.

It’s a shame because the Trinity is not just one belief among many; for Christians, it is the beating heart of what we believe about God. It’s a shame because the Trinity actually has a lot to say to us about why we’re here, about what we were created for and about how we fulfill our ultimate purpose. And it’s a shame because the Trinity is basically what we mean when we say that God is love. God is love, not just in relationship to certain people at certain times and in certain places, but always and forever. God is love because God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The authors of the New Testament were faithful Jews, and like all good Jews they believed firmly that there is only one God. They believed that the God who called Abraham, the God who rescued the Jewish people from slavery, the God who spoke through the law and the prophets, is the same God who created everything.

The centerpiece of Jewish worship and theology can be found in what’s known as the Shema, the words given by God to the Jewish people right before they entered into the promised land: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone” (Deut. 6:4). God tells the people to cling to these words, to cherish them in their hearts, to recite them to their children, to write them on their doorposts and on their gates. These words were so important that they were repeated twice every single day in the Jewish liturgy. But this presented something of a challenge for the authors of the New Testament. None of them doubted the Shema, none of them dared to fudge on their belief in one God, but they were forced to reinterpret this belief in the light of their personal experiences of Jesus the Nazarene.

Why? Well, because in Jesus they encountered, not just a generally good guy, or a prophet, or a miracle worker. They encountered someone who said and did the kinds of things that God alone could say and do. They encountered a life that was fully transparent to the love of God (like a window through which the light of God’s love comes pouring into the world). In Jesus, they encountered “God in the flesh.”

And so the New Testament authors sort of folded Jesus into their belief in one God. As St. Paul declares in his letter to the Corinthians, “for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (1 Cor. 8:6). It’s a rather clever way of saying the Father is God, Jesus is God, and yet, as the Shema reminds us, there is only one God.

But Paul doesn’t just stop here. He writes in the same letter, “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:3). In other words, it is the Spirit of God living within us that allows us to see and to recognize God in the face of Jesus Christ. In Jesus, God shows himself, he lowers himself, he gives himself as a gift to us. And by the Spirit of God we are moved to receive and respond to that gift.

So we have here the basic building blocks of what the Church would eventually define as the doctrine of the Trinity. There is one God, the Creator of everything. This one God speaks to us through his Word, Jesus Christ. And this one God lives, and moves, and acts within us — helping us to understand that Word and to live by that Word.

But what does any of this have to do with the good bishop’s sermon? How does the Trinity transform the way we think about love and the way we think about God? How does the doctrine of the Trinity move us, and motivate us, and change us?

The doctrine of the Trinity teaches us that love isn’t just something God does; it’s who God is. God is love all the way down. At Jesus’ baptism, a voice declares from heaven, “You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11).

In the same way, on the Mount of Transfiguration, when Jesus is standing there between Moses and Elijah, his clothes dazzling white and his face shining like the sun, God the Father declares, “This is my Son, the beloved; with him I am well pleased” (Matt. 17:5). Before any of us were born, before the universe itself was spoken into existence, God the Father loved the Son, and God the Son loved the Father. And just as God pours his love into our hearts by gift of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 5:5), so the Spirit is the bond of love uniting Father and Son, the gift of love given and received since the time before time began.

In other words, God doesn’t wake up one morning and decide to be loving. God is love — always and forever — because God is eternally Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And so when Jesus says in our reading this morning from John’s Gospel that “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16), he is inviting us to enter into the mystery of God’s love.

Actually, inviting is probably too weak a word here. When the love of God is poured into our hearts by the gift of the Spirit, just like on that first day of Pentecost, we are swept into the current of God’s eternal love. The words declared over Jesus at his baptism are declared over each of us: you are God’s sons and daughters. With you he is well-pleased. God folds us into his love and God sends us out to share that love with others.

This is why there’s power in love to help and to heal, to lift up and liberate, to show us the way to live. There’s power in love because love is the source of all things. There’s power in love because when we love, we’re actually working with the grain of the universe — we’re living in step with God’s design and desire for his creation. There’s power in love because love is who God is.

And so as God’s beloved children, created in God’s own image, we are called to live, and move, and love, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The Rev. Dr. Jordan Hillebert is director of formation at St. Padarn’s Institute in Cardiff, Wales.