Preached by The Rev. Ellen Francis, OSH
I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe. How can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? (John 3:12)
Indeed, how can we talk about heavenly things? The ancient Hebrews found “heavenly things” so awesome that they avoided saying the name of God at all. In the Hebrew scriptures the name of God is written with four letters YHWH, and in the place of this awesome word they said “Adoni” or “Lord”. The Muslims on the other hand have 99 names for God, including Merciful, Compassionate, King, Holy.
Today we celebrate the Christian name for and experience of God: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. This is Trinity Sunday, and on this day we are led to examine some of the deepest questions of the nature of God and our relationship with God.
Even though the Trinity is so central to Christian belief, it isn’t explained in the Bible. There are many passages that talk in some ways about God the Creator, of Jesus Christ the Son of God, and of the Holy Spirit. There are even some precursors to the Trinity in the Old Testament. For example, when Abraham and Sarah receive the prophecy that Sarah will bear a child, we are told that there are three men (or angels) and then that there is only one. Three in one, one in three? Maybe.
The three persons of the Trinity are mentioned at the conclusion of 2 Corinthians when Paul signs off with the words: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” (2 Cor 13:13) Paul names all three but doesn’t explain how we know them, how they relate to each other, or how all three can be one God.
What is very clear is that the earliest Christians experienced God in these three ways. They knew of the creator God, YHWH, whom Jesus called “Father”. They knew of the miracles and the resurrection and the saving grace of Jesus. They knew of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
During the first several centuries of the Church, there was a growing debate about these three ways of knowing God. Did Christians believe in one God or three? This became an increasingly hot topic. One ancient theologian wrote that he couldn’t even go to the bakery without getting drawn into an argument about whether the Father was greater than the Son. People actually came to blows over whether Jesus was more human or more divine. Eventually all this got worked out at the great councils of the Church in the 4th and 5th centuries, and the results have been handed down to us in the Creeds.
The Trinity continues to be at the very center of our faith, and continues to baffle most non-Christians and even many faithful Christians as well. One of the most distinguished Anglican theologians, John Macquarrie, wrote: “We may be completely puzzled to know what is meant by the idea of a God who is one in three and three in one, one substance and three persons.” (Principles of Christian Theology, 190)
So, we may well be standing right alongside Nicodemus, saying “How can these things be?” Part of the problem is in the limitation of language that we have available to talk about God. We can use symbols and metaphors and analogies, but they always fall short of the entire dimension and experience of God. A scientist (a psychopharmaologist, I think) once said something like: If our brains were simple enough for us to understand, we would be too simple to understand them. The words and understanding that we have of the Holy are an incomplete expression of our limited understanding of the great mystery of God. Jesus says, “How can I tell you of heavenly things?” Yes, indeed, how can you, and how can we of little brain understand?
I love the story that we heard today about Nicodemus. He’s so precise and concrete in his thinking. He tries to flatter Jesus a little with the affirmation, “We know you are a teacher in Israel….” But Jesus says, in effect, no, you really don’t know. You will need to learn how to be comfortable with not knowing. You are treading on holy ground, and for you, as for Moses, that is an awesome and unfamiliar place. As you stand on holy ground, you will be blown about by the Spirit of God, you will be born again, from above, and you will be transformed forever.
And so here we are on Trinity Sunday, and we are also standing on this very ancient and perplexing holy ground. The Trinity is a powerful reminder of God’s intimate connection with us and the infinite complexity of our relationship with God. The Trinity reminds us also that within God’s own self there must be intimate and balanced and generous relationship.
The Trinity has become the most accessible to me when I pray aloud with others. Extemporaneous prayer doesn’t come naturally to me, and I’m still learning to say out loud what’s in my heart. It’s an awesome and intimidating thing to do, and it helps me to draw on the traditional and ancient experiences of God as Father, Son, and Spirit.
The most effective (and humbling) way to start a prayer is to go straight to the top, so to speak: “Almighty God…” There’s no one else interceding – we are speaking directly to the source of all that is, and praying to the fullness of God in adoration and worship, in praise and thanksgiving. Once the prayer is started and the line of communication is open, it’s a bit easier to continue.
When I pray for guidance, and the loving presence of God, and the grace of God, I pray to Jesus, the one who knows first-hand all of the joys and sorrows of human existence. When I pray for healing power and relief from pain and anxiety, I pray for the Holy Spirit to support and to give comfort.
In the Trinity, God is in relationship with God’s own self. God is diversity and God is unity. God is distant mystery and God is intimately present. In the Trinity, we may experience all the richness and complexity of God, as the disciples did, as we are sustained by the Spirit, washed by the love of Jesus, and blessed with life from the Creator. How can this be? As with all God’s gifts, the blessings of the love of the Triune God are at the last beyond our comprehension.
Still, in confidence, we may pray that “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit [will] be with” us and remain with us forever.