“The Mystery of the Trinity”
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
May 27, 2018
Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.
2 Corinthians 13:13
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.
Trinity Sunday is one of the red-headed step children of the church calendar, as it were. It’s not one of the big holidays like Christmas or Easter, or even a lesser-known event like the baptism of Christ or Pentecost. In fact, it’s not even an event at all – it’s a concept; and an amorphous one, at that. I bet if most of us had to explain what the Trinity was, or how it works, we would have a bit of a rough go.
And understandably so. Because even though we sing about it in our doxology every Sunday – Creator, Christ, and Holy Ghost – and even though many of us grew up reciting creeds centered around the Trinity, it’s not often given much attention. In churches with multiple clergy, Trinity Sunday often gets pawned off on associates who curse their luck at having to take a whack at such a loaded theological precept. And many churches just skip over it entirely; the lectionary reading assigned for today is about something else entirely, so no wonder.
Explaining why and how God is three and yet one, the same yet distinct, may seem like painfully dry material for a sermon. But I actually love preaching on it, for several reasons. There’s a lot of good stuff going on with this seemingly pedantic topic.
But before I get into that, let’s talk about the players in this whole Trinity business.
First up, we have God the Creator. This is the God we get to know through the Hebrew Bible – the One who creates the world and everything in it, the One who chooses Israel to be God’s covenant people. This God is portrayed as a bit imposing, commanding seas and leviathans, ordering the seasons and judging creation; but also infinitely compassionate, choosing us over and over again, even when we turn away. This mighty God freed the Israelites from bondage, but also mothered and nurtured them, caring for Israel like an infant at the breast, as the Psalm says.
In the New Testament, the Creator God becomes known primarily as the God who has sent Jesus. Jesus affectionately refers to this God as “Dad,” opening the way for his followers to enter into a more intimate, human relationship with the Almighty deity who, after all, created us after God’s own image.
This brings us to the second figure in the Trinity – Jesus. Jesus is both the human who walked this earth, preaching, teaching, and healing, and the divine Son of God who has been lighting the way since before the world came into being. Jesus’ main task during his time on earth was to bridge the gap between heaven and humanity – not because we were dreadfully sinful and needed saving, but because, as we learned in the Hebrew Bible, it is so incredibly easy for us to drift away from God, harming others and ourselves in the process. Jesus also drew the religion of his day back closer to God, destroying the circles of who is in and who’s out and flipping power structures that oppressed those deemed unholy. He continues to invite both individuals and institutions into wholeness, freeing us from our mistakes and healing our wounds, reminding us that there is ultimately nothing, not even death, that can come between us and the love of God.
And then there’s the Holy Spirit, also known as the Holy Ghost, the Advocate, the Comforter. The Spirit’s been around since before the beginning, too – in Genesis when God breathes out over the formless void to create the world, that ruach, that breath, is the same Hebrew word as the word for Spirit. The Spirit is the way God gets things done, you might say – that nudge that moves us to reach out to a stranger, the power that helps us forgive a slight, the energy that fills a room of people worshiping God together. The Spirit can be subtle or put on a show, whispering to us or, like last week during Pentecost, whipping up a mighty wind, tongues of flame, and foreign languages to let everyone know that God is at work.
A quick way to sum it all up: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer: the One who creates us in love, the One who invites us back into wholeness, and the One sustains us through the ups and downs of life.
I’ve just described three rather different beings or entities; right about now, I imagine some of you are replaying in your head this morning’s Hebrew Bible reading: “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.”
The math doesn’t really work, does it?
The disciples at Pentecost, it turns out, really had their work cut out for them, and not just because they were tasked with spreading the Gospel far and wide. They also had to figure out how to articulate and integrate the two wildly different experiences of God they’d just had, experiences that did not fit the traditional Creator mold (and that would not go down easily with their fellow Jews as they tried to share the Good News). Here was Jesus, walking and talking among them, seeing straight into their hearts and calling them to new lives; and here was the Holy Spirit, showering them with power in a way they’d never experienced before. How could they reconcile it all?
Well, it took awhile. I mentioned earlier that this morning’s lectionary, the assigned weekly reading for churches across the world, doesn’t mention the Trinity, and that’s because the Bible doesn’t, either. The closest we get is Paul’s famous sign off in 2nd Corinthians and other letters:
“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.”
There they are, all three, in the same sentence, with nary a disclaimer about polytheism. (Paul was, after all, writing to former pagans in Greek Corinth who probably weren’t shocked by the idea of multiple ways of experiencing God.)
But the actual language that God is three-in-one?
It took over 3oo years of rough drafts and revisions and heretical controversies to get there. Finally, in the 4th century at the Councils of Nicaea and Constantinople, church leaders determined to integrate these three experiences of God with their cherished monotheism came up with this formula: God is three persons but one substance.
That clears things right up, doesn’t it?
The idea is that the Holy Spirit, Jesus, and God the Creator are one in essence, one in being – but that they’re three different persons within themselves: though you can argue they all share the work I described above, they’re not just different modes or stages God goes through; they’re actually distinct in their oneness.
So now you might be asking, Why the heck does this matter? Why do we need this convoluted idea to talk about God?
You could almost say we don’t. After all, it didn’t drop from heaven as a commandment; it’s clearly a concept that humans came up with after the fact to try to describe the evolving experience of their faith. It’s Christianity’s version of ret-conning – retroactively changing the past narrative to account for a new understanding in the present.
Which is one of the reasons I love it: it’s a template for how, as a church, we can respond when we experience God in a new way in the world. The Trinity tells us we have the freedom to develop new words to describe our experience and new responses to live into it. Think about slavery; barring women from ordination; Jim Crow and segregation; preferring abusive marriage to divorce; excluding LGBTQ folks from ordination and marriage: the church used to accept all these as the status quo, but as more and more people began to experience God’s love and power at work in the lives of people excluded by these views, they had to reckon with an old, outdated way of describing things and articulate a new one that accurately reflected God’s claim and call on wider and wider groups of people. And discerning how to talk about three experiences of God in one helped paved the way for that.
Another reason I love the idea of the Trinity is that it models for us how to be church. No one part of the Trinity is telling the others what to do or insisting on rigid conformity; instead, with the Trinity we are reminded that at the very heart of God is mutuality and relationship. Instead of being flattened into one dimension or forced into sameness, the Trinity demonstrates a loving relationship where each person is both cherished for their uniqueness and part of a greater whole doing marvelous things in the world. Choosing to celebrate and hold up diversity in unity – not a bad standard for the church to aspire to. #Goals, as the kids would say.
The last reason I love the Trinity is that it reminds us that God is, ultimately, a mystery. Seriously, if you think you have God figured out, go read one of the early church theologians on the Trinity and see if you can wrap your mind around the whole thing. Wrestling with the Three-in-One is a great reality check that there will always be things about God that we don’t understand – and that we don’t have to. Even if we can’t seem to make it work, God the Creator is still the God who lovingly formed us in the womb; Jesus is still the one who has compassion on and heals and liberates those who come to him; the Spirit is still helping us pray when we just don’t have the words and encouraging us to reach out to others.
I hope I’ve given you something to hang your hat on here, even if it’s just permission to have a little ambivalence, a little cognitive dissonance in your faith life; or maybe it’s just an invitation to explore a little more deeply a concept you’ve never given much consideration.
In the words of poet and prophet Mary Oliver, from her poem “Mysteries, Yes”:
Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous
to be understood.
Let me keep company always with those who say
“Look!” and laugh in astonishment,
and bow their heads.