Now that we have celebrated Lent and Easter and Pentecost we move on to a new season in the church. We move on to this time of the year where we are in a waiting period for the next big season of the church. This is called ordinary time and will take us all the way to advent. Within this ordinary time we still have celebrations in the, but none of them fall in the midst of season like Lent, Easter, or Advent. This ordinary time can be a period of deep intellectual learning and looking at the teachings of Jesus’ life in depth.
This week however, we take a moment to go really deep. As we move into this new season I am going to take quite a risk. We are going to look at the triune nature of God. That is the manner in which our God is three persons yet one God. One of the most challenging theological ideas in Christianity is how we can exist and have a belief system with such a dichotomy. We don’t see the Trinity named in Scripture itself. However, we have illusions to its existence. The Trinity has been something that has confused theologians and pastors for centuries. It is something that has been wrestled with and caused quite some dissension within the church.
St. Patrick, who was one of our early church fathers, living in the fifth century. Many of us know him as the reason that on March 17 we wear lots green and have lots of parties and parades. However, St. Patrick was a very prominent figure in our Christian History. He holds high regard especially in the areas of Ireland and Scotland.
After a rough childhood Patrick went to Ireland to minister and try to convert the Irish dwellers to Christianity. He went around the Irish countryside preaching and teaching and telling people about God. Legend has it that in his teachings he wanted the druids, who inhabited Ireland, to understand the Trinity. He therefore sought to teach it to them.
St. Patrick tried to seek a simple way to help the people to understand the Trinity. Legend says that he ended up using a three-leaf clover to explain it. In his explanations he would note the three leaves of the clover and how we denote our three persons of the Trinity. However, he would try to note the oneness of the leaf itself as well in likening it to the same oneness of God.
St. Patrick brought forth this thinking to help explain the Trinity, but upon looking back we see holes in his execution of trying to explain what the Trinity is.
Why is that though? What makes the Trinity so difficult to grasp in a human understanding?
As we look back St. Patrick had one fatal flaw in his explanation. His example often could disassociate each person of the Trinity from another to much with the clover. Having each person represented by a different leaf could leave people with an understanding of having three different God’s. Even though they are all part of one plant the three persons have been separated. Now we look back at Patrick and see while he did his best he couldn’t quite find a metaphor that captured the true nature of the Trinity.
So why do I tell you this? I could have left that out of my sermon and y’all probably would not have those confused looks on your face right now. Why focus on the Trinity at all?
Well believe it or not, but the Trinity is large part of the basic understanding of our faith. We pronounce it each week in our creed. We pray to the triune God; the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Trinity, whether we understand it or not, is an important part of our theology.
But why then if it is such an important part of our faith is it so difficult to understand or explain? Why do our metaphors fail to catch the true nature of the Trinity? So then, if I cant use metaphors without spouting some kind of heresy then how would one explain the trinity?
Justo Gonzalez, a theological writer, defines the Trinity as, “The doctrine that God, while being one, exists eternally in three ‘persons’…” (Gonzalez, Justo. Essential Theological Terms. pg. 175)
Does that clear everything up?
I am sure it doesn’t. It probably leaves you with more questions than answers…like an episode of Lost. It probably doesn’t help you understand it anymore. In fact I have probably even further confused you than I have made it clear, but stick with me please.
Now what if we are not meant to truly understand the Trinity? What if it is not supposed to make sense? What if the mystery is the key piece to it? And what if our trying to dig deeper and find language and metaphors are ignoring the issue it poses to begin with?
God is shrouded in mystery. In fact our primary knowledge of God comes from our understanding of Scripture, and from scripture we learn that God is quite a mysterious being. The Trinity and what it is is a mystery. Therefore, we have to be careful about the words we use not only because we might be spouting off heresies, but because we must always be cautious of the God we portray to other people. So, maybe God is meant to be mysterious. Maybe some parts of God are supposed to remain mysterious until we are reunited with God.
So if we can never understand or explain fully the Trinity why believe it? Why ascribe to it? Just why?
The Trinity while hard to understand and define is about experience. It is how we experience the triune nature of God. But know and understand that that is part of the greatness of God. That we believe in a God who is shrouded in mystery. That there are still things yet revealed, but that we can still use this understanding to help us grow deep in love and bring others closer.
In John 3 we are have this discussion between Jesus and a Pharisee named Nicodemus. In this discussion Nicodemus asks questions and Jesus gives these very mysterious answers. Things about having to be born again. Or born from above. Jesus is trying to get across that point that not all things are understood. That God works in mysterious ways. But that God works, and God uses his triune nature to do these things. Not in being fully three persons or fully one God, but in being both fully three persons and fully one God.
This exchange between Jesus and Nicodemus shows us the difference between what Jesus notes as heavenly knowledge and earthly knowledge. Jesus says in verses 11 and 12,
“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?” (NRSV, John 3:11-12)
There are going to be things about God that remain shrouded and we will have trouble explaining in our human language, but Jesus wants us to know that is not what the story is about. Jesus gives us a lot of teaching over his lifetime. He opens us to a new understanding of what it means to be a disciple of God. He changes our thinking and causes us to think of things in different ways, and in this way he wants us to look at God’s action and what God is doing in the manner of the Trinity.
Ginger Barfield who is a religion professor in South Carolina wrote in a commentary I read this week,
“What is crucial in our proclamation is the reality of God’s activity in Jesus, God’s only Son, sent and given for the sake of the salvation of the world. Only through the awakening of belief through the Spirit can this be known. That is the story for Trinity Sunday. That is the good news for this day.
All else is mystery. All else is code language. All else is an attempt to render in our words what is God’s word to tell. This is not a reality that we can claim to believe. It is a truth that we receive by faith through the Spirit as gift from God.”(http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2467)
Because after all of this veiled language that Jesus uses to help Nicodemus try to understand look where he ends.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:16-17)
God’s actions present through the Trinity. It is present in God’s oneness, and within the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Will Willimon who is a recently retired Bishop in the United Methodist Church once said,
“We believe in the Trinity because we have been encountered by the trinity, transformed by a power greater than ourselves, loved by a love greater than our love. This experience of encounter, transformation, and love suggests to us that God is more complicated and rich than we were first led to believe.”
(Willimon, William. This We Believe.)
I don’t know if I made things worse, but I actually hope I brought a little clarity to your understanding. We are a weird faith because of the Trinity. This is a Christian belief that no religion really asserts outside of Christianity. However, maybe it is something that is meant to be a mystery and better left for God to have comprehension of. Maybe the part of the Trinity that relates to us is that it is part of God’s action in and through us. Especially through God’s grace. The Wesley Study Bible explains how grace is Trinitarian concept. That it is “grounded in the love and mercy of God the Father; especially manifest in the life death and resurrection of the Son; and experienced through the Holy Spirit in our lives.” (Wesley Study Bible. pg. 1110)
So go forth and use the Trinity to help share your faith. Not getting muddled in the terminology of explaining it, but focusing on how it encounters, transforms, and expresses love.