May 27, 2018, Axioms and Mysteries – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000082
Next Saturday is our 45th anniversary. Carroll and I were pretty young when we got married, but I think we were fairly normal for newly-married, deeply-in-love people in that we didn’t really know each other nearly as well as we thought we did. We spent lots and lots of time together, ALL the time together we could, in the months before we got married. We talked for hours and hours and hours. But on the day we got married, I think it’s pretty accurate to say that we had only begun to get to know one another. Because the only way people really get to know each other is when they have a shared life. And by that I don’t mean the idea that you ought to live together on a trial basis before you take the big plunge and get married. What I mean is that it isn’t until you have taken the big plunge; it isn’t until you have cast in your lot with this other person, that you begin to really know who they are. We get to know other people as we live alongside them: as friends and as lovers, as parents and as co-workers, as people with major defects and as people with amazing, unexpected gifts. Because people are very complicated creatures, and knowing someone is the work of a lifetime.
And then there’s God.
Today is Trinity Sunday. Most of us have been taught from the time we were little kids that that word Trinity means that God is one God in three Persons: the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It is such a familiar formula for most of us that most of the time we forget how completely and utterly we can’t explain what that means. People have tried to make diagrams of the Trinity, or to picture the Trinity as something like a shamrock with three leaves on one plant, or like a human being that is body, mind and spirit – but none of those things really work in making us able to explain God any better.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t know or that we don’t know God the Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Spirit. The Trinity is a mystery, that’s true. But it is also true that the person sitting next to you in the pew is a mystery. Your husband or wife, your child, your neighbor – every unique individual is a mystery that can only be known over time, as we share our lives with them in all the different interactions that we have with them.
And that’s why the whole idea of the Trinity wasn’t something Christians – or Jews – just knew right from the beginning. You won’t find the word “Trinity” in the Bible, in any Hebrew or Greek or Aramaic variation. It’s not there, because people didn’t begin to understand the whole idea of the Trinity until the Church was three hundred years old. The early Christians kind of stumbled upon the mystery of the Trinity in their life together with God, when an argument arose. If you are married, you may have found that arguments can be great opportunities for growing deeper in knowing people, because they often force us to work through things that we had not thought about before – and that was the case in the early Church.
This particular argument began with a man named Arius, who made this statement: “If the Father begat the Son, he that was begotten had a beginning of existence: and from this it is evident, that there was a time when the Son was not. It therefore necessarily follows, that he had his substance from nothing”. Arius taught that Jesus, if he is the Son of God, must necessarily be a created being, and therefore he is not divine. Once the question had been raised, it was a crucial thing to figure out. If Jesus is a created being, then we may only worship the Father and not the Son, because there is only one God. And yet the Church, from the very beginning, had been worshiping Jesus as Lord.
The concept of the Trinity is what came of the Church’s wrestling with that seemingly impossible contradiction. They believed that God the Father and God the Son were unique persons. They believed that Jesus was the object of their worship. And they believed that God is one undivided Deity. And as they wrestled with these elements of their faith, they also began to recognize the Holy Spirit as a third person in this complex and mysterious unity of the Godhead.
The greatest voice opposing Arius was a Bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius. He wrote in a letter: “We acknowledge the Trinity, holy and perfect, to consist of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The Father makes all things through the Word and in the Holy Spirit, and in this way the unity of the holy Trinity is preserved. Accordingly, in the Church, one God is preached, one God who is above all things and through all things and in all things. God is above all things as Father, for he is principle and source; he is through all things through the Word; and he is in all things in the Holy Spirit.”
In the end, obviously the Church chose to go the way of Athanasius and the Trinitarians. But the controversy wasn’t a simple, quick, one-time argument, where the Church Fathers sat down over dinner and hashed it all out once and for all and then shook hands and went home. It was an argument that lasted over half a century. Like all human disputes, it was messy and contentious; but eventually, by the grace of God and the guidance of the Spirit there was a consensus. And in the end, the Church came together. They gathered their deepened understanding of their God and they laid it out in the very same Creed that we proclaim every Sunday. “We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty….We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God….We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son….” It took 350 years of life together between the Church and her Lord before their eyes were opened to this central mystery of our faith, the Holy Trinity-in-Unity.
I think it’s hard for us to comprehend what a huge revelation this whole concept of the Trinity was, even though the wrestling of those long-ago brothers and sisters changed our understanding of God forever. But we have more to learn from them than just that one doctrine, however central it is. The whole process of living with God and with one another, wrestling with differences, seeking consensus, and growing deeper into the mystery of the knowledge of God, is an all-important model for us in our own life as the Church.
We are all too prone to holding on to our personal idea of who God is, our private God-in-a-box. It takes humility and a sincere hunger for the truth to be willing to listen to those who think differently, and to be willing to wrestle together with the contradictions of what we know of God until together, under the guidance of the Spirit, we come together to a deeper knowledge of our God. Because the truth is, knowing God is a never-ending journey. There is always more to know; we haven’t even scratched the surface in our knowledge of God. But like Athanasius, we begin by holding onto those things we cannot deny. For Athanasius and the Church Fathers, the certainties were the divinity of Jesus and the oneness of God. The only understanding by which they could remain faithful to those central truths was the mystery of the Trinity.
For us, today, there are also certainties we hold: that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; that the grace and love of God were revealed in Jesus’ incarnation; that redemption and forgiveness are free gifts; that the Holy Spirit is present with us. We know these things in our life with God. We can’t give them up.
It’s like in math, where there are certain axioms, or foundational concepts, that mathematicians have to accept on faith. Without those axioms there wouldn’t be any framework for pursuing new theorems or building proofs or discovering new branches of math. We always begin with what we know, in faith, and then we wrestle with what we don’t know yet. And there is so much the Church still has to wrestle with. We are fractured into thousands of denominations. We disagree about baptism and the meaning of the Eucharist. We disagree about whether women can be clergy. We disagree about whether Christians can serve in the military. We disagree about styles of worship. We disagree about what it means to be gay or transgender. We disagree about our responsibility to the poor. We disagree about politics. The Church has a lot of wrestling to do.
But it will be in the wrestling that we will deepen our knowledge of God and of one another, if we seek the truth in humility, if we continue in loving fellowship, and if we follow the leading of the Holy Spirit, who is our guide in all truth. It was that kind of wrestling that Nicodemus was doing when he came to Jesus sneaky-like, under cover of night. He was afraid to be seen coming to Jesus, and yet he came anyway, with those certainties he held in faith: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; if you weren’t from God, there’s no way you could do all the signs that you do.” And from that certainty he wrestles with what Jesus had to say about life in the Spirit.
And it’s a messy interaction. Nicodemus is clearly mystified by what Jesus has to say to him. Jesus wants to tell him about new life – birth from above, as spiritual children adopted by the Father. And Nicodemus gets totally confused by the whole birth image, trying to imagine an old man like himself going through the birth process all over again. We get to see the wrestling, but we don’t get to see Nicodemus reaching a deeper understanding. Not in this particular conversation. But later in John’s gospel, we see Nicodemus again, arguing with his fellow Pharisees in Jesus’ defense. He challenges them (and we can see his growing courage as he speaks up): “Does our law judge a man without first listening to him, and watching to see what he does?” And later still, after the crucifixion, Nicodemus comes with Joseph of Arimathea to care for Jesus’ body, bringing 75 pounds of myrrh and aloes to anoint him. Nicodemus knew from the beginning that God was present in Jesus. He wrestled with Jesus’ teaching, because it was hard for him to understand. He wrestled with the hostility of his colleagues toward Jesus, He wrestled with his own fear. But in the end, along with Joseph of Arimathea, I believe he came to know Jesus.
Sixteen hundred years ago the Church argued and wrestled and prayed its way into the great mystery of the Holy Trinity: that God is Father and Creator and Almighty, the Lord of Isaiah’s vision, “sitting on a throne, high and lofty; the hem of his robe filling the temple”; that God is Son of God and Son of Man, God Incarnate, who was lifted up on the Cross like the serpent in the wilderness, for the healing of all the nations; and that God is Holy Spirit, poured forth from the Father and the Son into our hearts so that we might receive adoption as children, crying “Abba! Father!”; holding firm to the truth that as the ancient Hebrew prayer declares, “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” We can’t comprehend or explain the Trinity with our human minds, but we can know it as a spiritual axiom, a foundational truth that guides all that we will learn of God in our life together.
Because there will always be more for us to discover. The Bible is truth, but it doesn’t reveal the whole of who God is. The Trinity is glorious mystery, but it doesn’t explain the whole of who God is. He is infinite and eternal; there is no end to the depth of what we can know of God. It is in our life together with him, in the married life of the Church with her Lord, that we will listen and pray, and almost certainly argue and wrestle, our way into a deeper knowledge of the wonders of our God.