In the year 400, the great theologian St. Augustine began writing his massive work on the Trinity. If you want to read all 562 pages of it for yourself, you can get it on Amazon, in paperback and for Kindle.
I imagine it’s pretty tough reading, and it must have been tough writing, too. One day, it’s said, Augustine took a break from his work and went for a walk along the shore of the Mediterranean near his home. As Augustine stood on the beach, he watched a little boy digging a hole in the sand. After the boy finished digging, he began running back and forth between the hole and the sea. Each time, he would fill a sea shell with water, run back, and empty it into the hole.
Augustine watched as the child went back and forth several times. Finally, he 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, “And you won’t be able to fit the Trinity into your mind.”
The little boy was right. We can’t fit the mystery of the Trinity into our limited human minds. We try. People have come up with all kinds of examples to try to explain the Trinity is—a shamrock with its three leaves on one plant; water as liquid, solid, and vapor; a person who is parent, child, and employee; a prism with one light broken into different colors. The problem is that all of these metaphors fail at some point. They don’t fully capture the essential unity of our Triune God.
This puts preachers in a tough spot on Trinity Sunday. Because, there is no way to adequately and accurately explain the Trinity. Linda came across some advice for preachers about how to avoid preaching a heresy—a “wrong teaching”—on Trinity Sunday, and she passed it along to me. The advice was to skip the sermon on the doctrine of the Trinity, and just show slides of cute little kittens instead. We can’t project kitten pictures during our parking lot services, so we’ll have to go the sermon route. But, I’m not going to explain the Trinity. I’m not even going to attempt to explain this most mysterious aspect of our faith. Because, it’s less important to be able to explain the doctrine of the Trinity than it is to know how the reality of the Trinity can help us order our lives.
The word “Trinity” never appears in Scripture. It’s a teaching that grew out of many—often impassioned and sometimes downright dangerous—discussions in the early Church over many years. The Fathers of the early Church (and they were all fathers at that point) examined the Scriptures, and they found evidence of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. And yet, the existence of One True God was never in question. This discussion prompted some serious debate. How can we say that we believe in the One True God, and yet worship Jesus as both God and the Son of God? How can we say that we worship the One True God, and yet claim that the Holy Spirit is God and is sent from God? How does that work, exactly? Eventually, the Church fathers arrived at what we know as the doctrine of the Trinity: that God is One in Three Persons. Clear as mud.
Let’s just grant that the Trinity is a divine mystery—one that is too great to be comprehended by our human minds. Even Augustine, in spite of his door-stop of a book, said “If your mind can fully comprehend something, it’s not God.” Our human imaginations are too small. Our human language is too limited. Our human reasoning is just too narrow to fully explain a God who is One and yet also Three.
That may lead us to ask, “Then so what?” What difference does the doctrine of the Trinity make as we try to live faithfully in this world? How does it help us find God in the midst of a pandemic? How does it help us navigate this time of national distress over systemic racism and the evils it has caused for centuries, and is still causing today? How does this doctrine help us come to terms with the violence that has erupted in its wake? How does it help us guide our children and grandchildren through the turmoil of growing up in the midst of great uncertainty? Of what use is the doctrine of the Trinity in our day-to-day lives, as we try to worship, serve, and live in peace with our families, friends, co-workers, and neighbors?
Even though we may not be able to fully understand the mystery of the Trinity, that doesn’t mean it is irrelevant or that we should just throw up our hands in theological frustration and defeat. Because it does make a difference that our God is Three-In-One. To find out how, we can be like Jacob, who wrestled with God until he received a blessing (Gen 32:22-32). We can wrestle with the idea of the Trinity until we discover and live in the blessings it holds for us, even though we can’t fully understand it.
Jesus actually gives us permission to do this. Our passage from Matthew is the only one that I know of that specifically speaks of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In other passages, we can make assumptions about God as Father when we acknowledge Jesus as the Son. Jesus speaks of God as his Father often enough, and others identify Jesus as the Son of God, which he doesn’t refute and sometimes affirms. Jesus promises and then sends the Holy Spirit of God to his followers. But, in verse 19, Jesus says those very specific words, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
This may have drawn the disciples up short. This is new language for a new reality. But, Jesus didn’t launch into a lecture about the doctrine of the Trinity. He didn’t expect them to figure out all the ramifications of what he had just said. He just said, “Go and baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” And, if we are to baptize others in the name of the Trinity—initiating them into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus—it makes sense that we live the whole of our lives in the name of the Trinity as well.
So, what does that look like? What can we learn about the Trinity that will bless our lives and, through us, bless the lives of others?
We can start in Genesis, with the creation of the world. In the very first verse we are introduced to God who is the Creator, and the Spirit of God who participates in the act of creation. To find the third piece of this Trinitarian jigsaw puzzle, we look to John, who tells us that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” Jesus was present at the moment of creation, even though we don’t yet hear his name. So, here we have our first meeting with the Triune God, and we find that the nature of the Triune God includes creativity, and cooperation, and community.
Together as One, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit bring the natural world into being. As God’s last act in the first creation story, God speaks humanity into being with these words: “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness . . . So God created humankind in God’s image.”
We’ve heard these words a gazillion times, but sit with them for a moment. Let them sink in. You are created in the image of the Triune God. We together as a community are created in the image of the Triune God. If God’s image is stamped into our very being, and the nature of God is relationship and community, then we, too are created for relationship. We, too, are created to live in community. Community is our natural habitat.
We don’t always do such a good job of accepting the blessing of community. Especially in our society, we prize going it alone. We praise rugged individualism and personal success. We find all kinds of ways to separate ourselves from others. Right now, we’re especially aware of how we separate ourselves by race, but nationality, religion, economic status, sexual orientation and gender identity, and political affiliation are all major barriers in our times. But, it’s not only large-scale walls we erect and defend. We do it in our personal lives as well. We’d be here all day if I started to list them, but I don’t have to—you know what barriers you’ve put up to keep others away, and the ones others have put up to keep you away.
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s shown us how clearly marked we are by with the image of a God whose nature is community. We need each other—and not just to provide us with groceries or care for us when we’re sick. We just need to be in contact with others—face to face contact, and ideally physical contact. As much as society might try to convince us that the individual is king or queen, the image of God in us says otherwise.
Although it falls into that category of bad analogies for the Trinity, I always picture one of those Mexican “Circle of Friends” candle holders that’s made of a circle of people holding hands. I envision the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit joined together in a never-ending circle of loving community, with light at the center. We are blessed with both the need and the capacity to be in relationship with each other.
Our Triune God also gives us the blessing of cooperation. “Let us create humanity in our image,” God says. “All things came into being through the Word (who was with God in the beginning)” John says, “and without him not one thing came into being.” Father, Son, and Holy Spirit cooperate in the creation of the world and in every act of God. Not the Father saying, “The only way I can be sure it’ll be done right is to do this myself.” Not the Son saying, “I’ve got this.” Not the Holy Spirit saying, “Don’t want too many cooks in the kitchen.” There is only cooperation. All create. All redeem. All sustain. Three persons in perfect cooperating unity.
This model of cooperation is a blessing for us. It’s a model for the Church. When we bring our multiplicity and diversity together and act in unity, we can do what can’t be done alone. We can offer to the world the healing it needs, the resources it needs, the love it needs. As many joined into one, cooperating in the work we have been commissioned to do, we also receive the blessings that cooperation produces—friendship and fruitfulness—and we share those with the world.
As we see in Genesis, the nature of our Three-in-One God includes creativity—the creativity that shines through all the natural world. That means human beings are stamped with the ability to create as well. We stand in awe of the great masterpieces of art and literature. We allow the music of great composers and gifted musicians to fill us with their musical genius. We marvel at technological and architectural achievements. On a smaller scale, we admire the piece of furniture built by a carpenter friend or a carefully assembled greeting card. We may run our hands appreciatively over a beautifully crafted afghan or rest in the music we hear every Sunday.
All the while we may be thinking, “I don’t have a creative bone in my body.” But you do. We all do. It’s part and parcel of being human, because humanity bears the creative image of the Triune God. It’s true that some people can individually demonstrate creativity better than the rest of us. But we are not simply individuals. As a community, the sparks of creativity that are in each of us meet and grow. New ideas are born. New possibilities spring up. A new way of living is imagined. And then, through this collective creativity—this blessing that comes from our faith in a Triune God—a new world comes into being.
As we wrestle with the idea of the Trinity, we find the blessing of communication. Genesis tells us that God spoke the world into being. God spoke the proposal to “create humanity in our image.” And God did not stop speaking when those first days of creation were over. The Word of the Trinity became flesh and lived among us. The incarnate Word spoke God’s message of love through parables. He spoke it in words of wisdom. He spoke it in prayer. When his earthly life was over, he continued to speak—and speaks still today—through the Holy Spirit, who teaches and reminds and prays for us. And, we are invited to respond to the voice speaking to us by pouring out our own hearts in honest, unceasing prayer.
Another blessing we receive is the blessing of inclusion. Of course, we can never be part of the Trinity—the divine expression of our transcendent God. But we aren’t held at arm’s length, either. We aren’t excluded from a circle so closed that there’s no room for anyone else. Instead, we are welcomed into that circle of eternal love. On the night when Jesus was betrayed, he spoke these words about those who love him: “We—my Father and I—will come to them and make our home with them.” He prayed, “As you, Father are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us.” Then, he sent the Holy Spirit so that we may eternally experience that inclusion.
We are invited to be part of the circle, participants in the dance of the Trinity. Having been blessed by this divine inclusion, how can we extend anything less to others in our world? Having been blessed, we are moved to open our arms in a welcome as wide as the one we’ve been offered—to all, regardless of creed, nationality, or race.
Finally, the reality of the Trinity shapes the mission of the Church. We see the Trinity as a communion of love, always spilling that love outward. That overflowing love is the foundation of the Mission of God—to bring every person into a saving relationship with the Father through Jesus the Son by the power of the Holy Spirit. And, as we are filled with love for God, through our worship, through our study, and through our prayer, our love overflows as well and finds its outlet in our service to the world. This is a blessing: that as we empty ourselves, we are continually refilled and renewed by the out-poured love of our Triune God.
Soon we’ll come to the table. We’ll share the bread and cup—fruits of the earth, provided by God, whom we call Father. We’ll remember the sacrifice that was made for us by God, whom we call Jesus the Son. By the power of God, whom we call Holy Spirit, we’ll be renewed and refreshed for the work we’ve been commissioned to do. The doctrine of the Trinity is an unexplainable mystery. But, the blessings of the Trinity are everywhere and always present for us to experience. May we live, love, and rejoice within the all-encompassing grace of our One Triune God, now and forever. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young