We’re going to start with a pop quiz—a math quiz. You don’t need paper and pencil for this one—just shout out the answer. Ready?
2 + 3 = ___
6 x 5 = ___
12 ÷ 4 = ___
1 + 1 + 1 = ___
If you said 3 for that last one, you would have been right on a grade school math test. But in the Church, 1 + 1 + 1 equals 1. This may not add up in earthly mathematics, but it does in God’s math. As UMC pastor Curnell Graham says, “Only in God’s mathematics does one plus one plus one equal one.” We have a monotheistic religion but serve a Triune God.”
Today is Trinity Sunday, when we devote ourselves to pondering the mystery of a Triune God. It is the only day in the Christian year dedicated to a doctrine of the Church—the doctrine of one God in three persons. If you were looking forward to a lecture that would fully explain this mysterious concept, I’m sorry to disappoint you. I haven’t heard one yet that gave a satisfying and correct explanation of the doctrine of the Trinity. You’ve probably heard the same examples I have—metaphors that try to capture the essence of the Trinity: a shamrock with its three leaves; water in the form of liquid, ice, and vapor; eggs with their yolk, white, and shell; a woman who is mother, daughter, and sister; an actor who puts on different masks for different scenes.
They seem good at first—all have three parts that make up one thing. The metaphors don’t quite get at the nature of the Trinity, though. You can separate the parts of the leaves and the egg, but you can’t separate the persons of the Trinity. Water can’t be solid and liquid and vapor at the same time, while God is always Father and Son and Holy Spirit. An actor replaces one mask for another, but the persons of the Trinity aren’t identities that are swapped out to meet the need of the moment.
The fact is that it’s really not possible to fully explain this thing that we believe to be true about God. So, once we’ve asked all the questions we can, and tried as hard as we can to understand, we reach a point where we simply rest in the mystery and allow it to lead it us into a deeper relationship with God by as we experience our Triune God in our lives, our relationships, and the world around us.
The story of the creation of the world offers our first glimpse of the Triune God working to bring the world into being. Into the formless void and blanket of darkness, the Creator speaks and the wind—the breath, the Spirit—creates night and day. That is quickly followed by a dome called the Sky, which separates the waters that the ancient people believed surrounded the world, above and below. The waters below the sky wre gathered up into one place, and dry land appeared, made fruitful and beautiful by vegetation of all kinds.
Then, God returns to the spaces that have been created and, one by one, begins to populate them. To the dome of the sky, God adds the celestial lights. The sea and the sky beneath the dome God fills with living creatures—every living creature which swarms in the water and birds of every kind to fly above the earth. At God’s creative word, the land births its own inhabitants—cattle and creeping things and wild animals of every kind.
On the same biblical day that the land animals were created, human beings were added as well. “Let us make humankind in our image,” God says, “according to our likeness.” This “our” can only refer to the 1 + 1 of the Triune God whom the writers of Genesis knew. But we know that there is a third “1.” That “1” is Jesus. We know, as the ancient writers did not, that Jesus is the Word of God who, as John tells us, was also “in the beginning.”
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” The original story-tellers would not have known that the Word with which God spoke the world into being was Jesus, the Son. They would not have known that Jesus was “in the beginning.” But we know, because Jesus tells us so. In the upper room, on the night when he wss betrayed, he prayed for his disciple, saying, “Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.”
The doctrine of the Trinity is not an idea that can be grasped. It is a truth that we can only know through experience and embrace with our hearts. One place where we have this experience is in the midst of Creation. When we look at the beauty of the world around us, we see the work of our Triune God: the Creator who spoke, the Word that was spoken, and the Spirit that breathed life into all. This is not an idea that can be grasped. It is a truth that we can know only experience
I wrote this message in the Dayton Metro Library during Annual Conference. The table where I worked looked out through enormous windows to a park-like green space. There were tall, leafy trees, bathed in sunlight beneath a cloudless blue sky, whose leaves swayed with the breath of a gentle breeze. And I imagined the Word of God calling the ancient ancestors of those trees up from the land that the Creator had drawn out from the water below and shielded by the dome of the sky above. I imagined the very first leaves being made to dance by the same Spirit who touched the leaves outside my window. I imagined the sun, newly placed in the sky, ready for the innumerable risings and settings that would occur before its light enveloped the scene before me. I may not have understood the doctrine of the Trinity any more clearly in that moment, but I could see evidence of our Triune God laid out before me.
Where do you experience the Triune God? Is it in the vastness of the ocean, or is it in something as tiny as a single seed, as you hold the potential for life in your hand? Is it in a soaring passage of music, or in the laughter of a child? Is it in the mysterious workings of love for a friend or a partner—the joy of the physical presence of the other, the shared conversations—both spoken aloud and silently understood, the knowledge that the other person makes you better than you are alone? Do you experience our Triune God when you read the words of scripture, knowing that they express the experiences of countless people over countless years as they tried, as we do, to know the God we worship? Do you experience the presence of the Trinity at the Lord’s table, where we celebrate the gracious love of the Father, embodied in the Son, and conveyed to us by the Spirit, all the gift of the One God?
Perhaps the psalmist was experiencing the wonder of te God he knew when he wrote Psalm 104, which we read as our Call to Worship this morning. Did you notice how closely it lines up with the Genesis story? He looks at the skies and sees God spreading out the heavens like a tent. He feels the wind and imagines it as a messenger. He sees the mountains covered by the waters, until God’s voice thunders and they race down to their appointed place.
Everywhere the psalmist looks, he sees the work of God, whom we know as the Trinity: the streams and springs that satisfy the thirst of every living being, the vegetation that satisfies their hunger, the sun and moon which mark the hours, days, and seasons. The psalmist doesn’t try to explain or grasp all this. He simply erupts in praise of the Creator God he experiences: “O Lord, how manifold are your works!”
These creatures would be lifeless without God the Spirit. “When you send forth your Spirit—your breath—they are created. When you take away their breath—the Spirit—they die.” Every act of creation—every act of any kind—is at once the act of God the Father Creator, God the Spirit, and God the Son, who was in the beginning. There is no separating one from the other. In God’s math, 1 + 1 + 1 = 1.
Limited by our human boundaries, as we are, we have trouble interacting with a God who is three in one and one in three. We tend to speak of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit as members of a divine team, each with a job to do. We think of God putting on the Creator mask when we are awed by nature’s beauty. We think of God with the Spirit mask when we hear a still, small voice guiding us. We think of God putting on the human face of Jesus the Son when we look for a companion in our joy or our sorrow. There is nothing wrong with this, as long as we understand that this is simply our makeshift way of connecting with a God who desires a relationship with us and yet is too mysterious for us to fully comprehend.
In the year 400, it’s said, the great theologian St. Augustine decided to take a break from his work of writing a book about the Trinity. He went for a walk along the shore of the Mediterranean near his home. Nearby, a little boy was running back and forth between the sea and a hole he had dug in the sand. Each time, he would fill a sea shell with water, run back, and empty it into the hole. Augustine watched for a while, and finally asked the boy, “What are you doing?” The boy said, “Trying to fit the sea into that hole.” Augustine said, “You’ll never fit the sea into that hole.” The boy said, “I’ll empty all the water from the sea into this hole before you understand the mystery of the Trinity.”
Early in the history of the Church, Christians wrestled with the same questions we have about how to understand the relationship between Jesus the Son, God whom he called Father, and the Holy Spirit, while still worshiping one God. The doctrine of the Trinity is what they teased out of Scripture, using reason, tradition, and their own experience of God’s work in their lives. We are indebted to those early Church fathers for their gift of the doctrine we confess today. But, fortunately, our faith and salvation don’t rest on understanding the divine math of the Trinity, where 1 + 1 + 1 = 1. Our faith rests on our experience of God’s love for us and the world, however and wherever that happens. Our salvation rests on our experience of the freedom and joy we receive through the loving forgiveness, gracious redemption, and eternal presence offered by our Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, One God, forever and ever. Amen.
~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young