May 31, 2015, Trinity Sunday – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell – Knowing the Unexplainable
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My father was a good man and a very complicated person. I can tell you a lot of things I know about him. He was kind and gentle – when we had trouble falling asleep or when we were sick, he came in to turn our pillows over to the cool side so it would feel nice. He loved grocery shopping. He talked really loud on the phone when he was calling long distance. He was moved to tears when he saw a person, especially a child, who was disabled. He struggled his whole life with alcoholism. He used to get so upset when we got hurt that he would yell at us. He almost never sang, but he had a great voice and did a harmony when we sang “Happy Birthday”. He used to draw Bugs Bunny for us. He took night classes over the years, but he never completed a degree. He was a die-hard RedSox fan, and a passionate supporter of the Green Bay Packers. He was afraid of fire, and of lightning. He hated injustice. He believed in God. He loved his family. That’s just a random assortment of facts among so many more that make up who my Dad was. It is through these things I know about my father that I know him, and yet I couldn’t ever possibly define him or explain him. There is no way to write a formula that defines a person, like the chemical symbols for salt or water. People can’t be defined; people can only be known.
Today is Trinity Sunday. And one of the interesting things about the doctrine of the Trinity is that if you read your Bible from cover to cover you will never once find the word Trinity in there, no matter how carefully you look. The whole concept of the Trinity took three hundred years for the Church to sort out. It came to light when an elder named Arius began teaching that Jesus was a being of a lesser order than God himself. We all know, Arius reasoned, that there is only one God. If we worship Jesus as God, then aren’t we worshiping two Gods – isn’t that idolatry?
Arius’s teaching ended up being denounced as heresy, but he kind of got the ball rolling with his questions. Ir was a great turning point in the life of the Church. The Emperor, Constantine, called together a council of Bishops at Nicaea to come to an understanding of this very perplexing and very divisive issue. The Bishops and leaders of the Church held fast to the teaching handed down from the apostles, that Jesus is worthy of all praise and worship, just as the Creator God is worthy of all praise and worship. And yet, they agreed with Arius that Christians, like their Jewish brothers, worship one and only one God. Moses proclaimed it: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one”. What the council came up with was what we recite every week as the Nicene Creed, which states clearly that our God is one and only one God, but that our God is also three distinct persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – what we now call “the Doctrine of the Trinity”. Of about 300 people who attended the council, all but three signed. It was as nearly unanimous, probably, as the Church has ever been about anything.
But the thing about the Doctrine of the Trinity is that more than 1700 years later, the Trinity is still as great a mystery to us now as it was to those bishops in Nicaea in the year 325. People have tried to make the Trinity into a nice formula by finding handy metaphors – the Trinity is like a four-leaf clover, which has three leaves, but is only one plant. The Trinity is like cherry pie, with a crust and cherries and gooey stuff. So many attempts at formulas and metaphors, and not one of them really helps us to understand the Trinity. And that shouldn’t surprise us. If my Dad is too complex to define with any kind of formula, surely it should come as no surprise that the Almighty God is far more complex, far more impossible to define or describe.
So what’s the purpose of the Doctrine of the Trinity? Were those Bishops just theologizing, playing with words and nitpicking definitions? What does it mean for us to believe the doctrine of the Trinity, if it’s a mystery we can’t ever hope to understand?
But here’s the thing: the Bishops in Nicaea were never trying to make a neat and tidy formula to explain God. They were trying to express what we know about God. They put together what they knew, from Scripture, from the teachings of the apostles, and with the guidance of the Holy Spirit they wrote what they knew. They knew that God created the heavens and the earth, and that he loves the creatures he made as a Father loves his children. They knew that Jesus honored and glorified the Father, and that he was one with the Father in purpose and in glory, and that he became one of us, and suffered and died and rose again. And they knew that Jesus is God. They knew that the Holy Spirit brought the unquenchable life and strength that belonged to Jesus Christ into the hearts and minds and lives of believers. They knew that it was the Holy Spirit that ignited the spark that burst into the burning flame of the early Church. And they knew that the Holy Spirit is God. They knew these three persons of God, and they knew that God is one and only one. The doctrine of the Trinity is just the statement of who we know our God to be, as best the Church could put it into words. It certainly could never explain all of what God is, but it is God as he has revealed himself to us, his children. It was never meant to be a formula that explains God. Because it is so much better and more important to know God than to define him.
There is no chemical formula for God, no dictionary definition or scientific classification to explain him. We can’t define God any more than I can define my Dad. But we can know God, because he wants us to know him. It’s a funny thing, that even though the word “Trinity” doesn’t occur a single time in the Bible, the Trinitarian presence of God is everywhere in the Bible. When the Bishops in Nicea considered what they know about God, they couldn’t avoid the idea of the three persons in one God. The Trinity is purely and simply and inescapably (though most mysteriously) who God is. We catch a glimpse of the Trinity at the Creation of all things when the Spirit hovered over the face of the waters and God said, “Let us make man in our image.” We recognize the Trinity in the Isaiah chapter 61 where the Messiah, who is Jesus, says “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, to preach good news to the poor.” We find the Trinity most emphatically at Jesus’ baptism, when he stood as a man in the Jordan River, and the Spirit descended upon him in the form of a dove, and the voice of the Father boomed out of heaven, “This is my beloved Son, whom I love.” Three distinct persons in one holy being – who could ever explain such a God? It is beyond our human ability to comprehend. We can’t explain or define him. But we can know him, and that is so much better.
We know that God the Father loved his creation so much that he sent his one and only Son to rescue us and bring us home. We know that our heavenly Father is like that father in the story of the prodigal Son, who saw his son trudging home in disgrace, and went running out with great joy to welcome him home. We know that the Father has put our sins as far from us as the east is from the west. We know that he has compassion on us, as a father has compassion on his children. We know that he delights to give his children good gifts.
We know that the Son emptied himself of every joy and glory and privilege to become truly one of us, a man of flesh and blood, subject to every pain and suffering and temptation common to mankind, except that he never failed to love. We know that he held children and touched lepers and respected women. We know that he had no patience for pompous fools and no tolerance for cruelty and greed. We know that he laid down his life and died at the hands of his own people. And we know that he took his life up again and walked right out of the tomb on the first Easter Day. No formula could ever be devised for that most impossible event, we could never explain that, but we know.
And we know the Holy Spirit perhaps best of all, because he makes his home within us. He is our councilor when we seek wisdom and our comforter when all other comforts have failed us. He is our teacher, reminding us of those things we know, but lose sight of in the midst of our fears and difficulties. He is the midwife of our faith, bringing to birth the seeds that were planted in us by our parents or by other people of God who shared their faith with us. That is what Jesus was telling Nicodemus when he said that we need to be born again. As we read today from Romans, we know that the Holy Spirit fights alongside us in that inner battle we all wage against our selfishness and fear and envy, all those things that belong to death rather than life. And that he calls to the Father with us, crying, “Abba!” which is a Hebrew word that is like “Daddy!” because the Spirit is the witness of our true adoption into the family of God.
We know the Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Spirit, because he has revealed himself to us in his Word and by his presence in our lives. We will never really be able to explain how God can be three persons in one. We will never come up with a metaphor that will make the mystery of the Trinity easy to understand. Explaining God is way, way more impossible than visualizing a multidimensional object or comprehending the size of an expanding universe. Those are nothing compared to the complexity of our God. But we can do something much better than explain God: we can know God. God is really big, and God is really mysterious, and God is really, really, complicated – but it is his delight to be known by his children, because he loves us – and he knows us perfectly; he knows every hair on our heads. It is our greatest hope and glory and joy and comfort, that even now we can know the one infinite, eternal God, as our own Daddy, and our brother, and our companion, and that some day we will know him perfectly. As Paul wrote: now we see in a mirror dimly, but then we will see him face to face. Now we know in part; but then we shall know him fully, even as we have been fully known.