Yr B ~ Trinity ~ John 3:1-17
[Abbot and Costello style]
When you come to church you need to know the key players . . . you know, the ones who’re worthy of honour and praise.
– Honour and praise huh? Well who are they?
O.K., now listen closely. There is one God.
– One God. That seems easy enough. What do you call this one God?
This one God is called, “God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.”
– Now wait just a minute. You told me that there’s only one God.
– So which is it?
The name I gave you.
– But you gave me three names.
– What’s right?
God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.
– So you have three Gods?
No, one God.
– So which is it?
Which is what?
– Father, Son or Holy Spirit?
– Yes to what?
That’s God’s name.
– Which God?
Our one God.
– Why did you give three names?
Because they aren’t the same.
– But you just told me there’s one God. So which is it?
Which is what?
– Which name is the name of your God?
I told you, Father, Son and Holy Spirit
– But that’s three.
Yes, but it’s only one!
Does the idea of the Holy Trinity confuse you? I had a prof in theological college who said “The Trinity is one of those things that you feel and know to be true but it’s incredibly difficult to put into words.” Just for fun, let’s look at a definition: “Trinity – God as three in one is experienced by humans as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The three Persons of the Trinity share the same essence and relate to each other in love. God is a trinity in unity and a unity in trinity.”
Author, Rob Bell says, “Even the best definitions end up sounding like a small child trying to play Mozart on pots and pans in the middle of the kitchen floor.”
CS Lewis tried to explain the Trinity like this, “You know that in space you can move in three ways—to left or right, backwards or forwards, up or down. Every direction is either one of these three or a compromise between them. They are called the three Dimensions.”
3 in 1. Psychology tells us humans have faculties of memory, understanding, and will – the person is “one” yet functions in “three” ways.
Human social experience can be expressed as lover, the beloved and their mutual love.
So – the Trinity – if you’re counting persons, or more literally personas, there are three – but if you’re counting “Gods” there’s only one.
Clear as mud, right?
Perhaps we should just go to the Bible and read what it says about the Trinity.
Aha, and here’s the problem – the Bible doesn’t use the word. Trinity is a concept we invented to try to explain how we experience God.
History time – While Trinitarian concepts were around by the end of the first century, the Trinity was finally put into orthodox language in the year 325 at a great council that was convened shortly after the Emperor Constantine was converted to Christianity and it became the official state religion of the Roman Empire. The council met at Nicea and the document they produced is called the Nicene Creed (#920 in the hymn book if you’re curious). Of course, there was trouble from the first minute it was published.
As soon as you declare one set of words orthodox every other set of words becomes a heresy. So they had to meet again in 381 to do some rewording – but that still didn’t solve things as many so-called heresies sprung up (because many people preferred their own way to describe their personal experience of Trinity – duh!) and the Eastern Orthodox church eventually broke away from the Roman church fueled substantially by this doctrinal disagreement.
You see, the Nicene Creed was originally written in Greek, and it uses the word “homoousios” (a Greek word meaning: of the same essence) to describe the Son’s relationship with the Father. This word differs from that used by other Christians of the time (about half of them scholars think), who preferred the word “homoiousios” (which means: of similar essence). Same essence / similar essence / homoousios / homoiousios / potato / po-tah-to?
And so it was that by a single Greek letter – an I – which in Greek is an “iota” – the church was thrown into conflict. In fact, this is where we get that proverbial phrase “It doesn’t make one iota of a difference.” (it actually did!)
And the Trinity’s still causing trouble today.
Some folks balk at the “male-ness” of Father, Son, and Spirit, and they choose alternate terminology like Mother, Friend, and Comforter, or Source of Life, Living Word, and Bond of Love
– or they use gender-neutral language, such as “Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer” – focusing on the three roles in salvation.
The trouble is that others reject this formulation saying it’s a new variety of Modalism – (another big word).
Modalists attempted to resolve the mystery of the Trinity by holding that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are merely modes, or roles, of God. They contend that the three “Persons” are not distinct people, but titles which describe how humanity has interacted with or had experiences with God. Probably the best way to understand modalism is to think about how you’d describe yourself. Who are you?
I am Larry – husband, father, minister – I’m all three at the same time, yet I’m not three people. I can function in all three roles at once too, like at coffee time after worship when my wife and children stand beside me as I’m chatting with people. It also works when I’m not physically present – I’m still a husband when my wife’s not in view – my kids still have a dad when they’re away at school – and my effect on people as a minister can be seen if you have conversations elsewhere about something I said or did here.
Modalism’s a good and useful way to shed light on the Trinity, but it’s not the whole answer.
Because there is no whole answer!!!
It’s a mystery!!!
All this fighting about essence and modes and persons comes from trying to explain the unexplainable. As soon as you craft words to describe the Trinity you create so many problems that arguments arise – because no set of words can capture such a huge idea. God won’t fit into a box.
St. Augustine decided to write the definitive treatise on the Trinity – it took him 10 years and 15 large books to explain it – and he still didn’t nail it – because we still struggle with it today.
But we also revel in it today!
Maybe that’s the point?!
Maybe it’s not supposed to be solved?
Theologian Justo Gonzalez says, “Trinity is a mystery, not a puzzle. Love is a mystery, a crossword is a puzzle. You try to solve the puzzle, you stand in awe before a mystery.”
Maybe we’ve had such a hard time with Trinity for so long because the modern age we were living in wanted either/or explanations for everything and Trinity clearly indicates that a third option is required – which only makes sense because we intuitively know that life is all about threes. There’s even an ancient mathematical concept called the “rule of three” which tells us that things come in threes. Ever heard the phrase “bad news comes in threes”?
Thirding – as post-modernists like to call it – explains that we are wired for threes. Think about all the threes in life – especially in the Bible – if we’re wired for threes it’s because God wired us that way!
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – Yesterday, Today, and Forever – Faith, Hope, and Love – Heart, Mind, and Soul – Was, Is, and Is to Come – Holy, Holy, Holy.
I love that trinity came from the Latin word trinitas – which means triad – a relationship of three-ness that creates a harmonious one. I learned the word triad in music – it’s a three note chord that has certain relational properties – it’s not just any three notes – they have to be arranged in a certain way to be a triad – and these triads have been the core of musical expression forever. Triads come in different flavours – major, minor, diminished, augmented – but the core relationship of “three-ness creating a harmonious one” is always present.
Why are triads so pleasing to the ear?
Why are they so foundational in music?
It’s a beautiful mystery.
Mystery. Like God. Frederick Beuchner said, “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit mean that the mystery beyond us, the mystery among us, and the mystery within us are all the same mystery. In a way, the Trinity is saying something about us and the way we experience God.”
Will Willimon said, “(A man – Nicodemus) came to Jesus (certain of) what he knew. He ended with questions about what he didn’t know. He arrived fairly confident that he had a good grasp on who Jesus was – he left being encountered by the mysterious God in the flesh.”
Nicodemus “knows” that Jesus has come from God, so he wants to learn from him. But Jesus is saying, “Don’t look at me and where you think I came from; listen to what I’m teaching. It’s not about me – it’s about you seeing and understanding and claiming the kingdom today. And you can only do that if you’re born again.”
“Psst, Honey, I think we’re in the wrong church. Last week he was talking about gushing all over the place and being Spirit-filled and now he’s talking about being born again.”
Ok, I know, it’s a red flag word – it sounds like some other church’s word – but it isn’t just theirs, it has to be ours too. This was a huge stumbling block for Nicodemus – “how can I be born again? – I’m a full grown man – how am I supposed to crawl back into my mother’s womb?”
But that’s not what “born again” means. It means to be born of the Spirit. It’s a mysterious idea that says if you’re only born of flesh then you’ll only know flesh – but if you’re born of the Spirit – born anew – born again – reborn – then you’ll “get” the spiritual stuff God offers and Jesus is always talking about.
Nicodemus’ problem wasn’t a lack of faith it was an over reliance on logic.
Apparently he couldn’t see the word picture Jesus was painting for him. I think this is what can happen to us with Trinity talk.
Nicodemus says “you’re from God – teach me so I can know about God” – and Jesus replies “you can’t really know about God until you’re from God too”. You can’t get Trinity until it’s in you – or maybe till you’re in it!
And just how does one accomplish that?
Openness. Noticing. Allowing.
You listen to the words of Jesus, you open yourself to the Holy Spirit and you embrace God’s Presence that’s been surrounding and enfolding you all along. That’s how you’re born into it – born anew.
It’s that simple!
God isn’t a “thing” to be obtained – God is a “who” to be in community with. If you can let go of the silly old guy in the sky caricature of God then you can open yourself to the Trinitarian interrelationship.
The Trinity isn’t 3 god-guys – it’s a community of holiness – and we’re invited to live and move and have our being as part of that community – not an equal part – but an integral part to be sure.
Something More as Source,
Something More in Jesus,
Something More flowing between and among us,
and Something More within us.
Hey, maybe that makes us a quadrinity!
God-ness is revealed in Word, and Spirit, and people, and nature, and love – and we come to realize that we are in loving relationship with that which is utterly beyond us, wholly surrounding us, and intimately within us. This is what Jesus means when he says “you must be born anew” – you must allow yourself to be part of that holy community in order to enjoy the abundant life that it offers.
You can’t be Canadian without coming to or from Canada – you can’t be a member without joining a team.
You can’t be in a marriage unless you’re born of love.
To be in community with God you “must be born of the Spirit”. To be reborn – born anew – born again – is to enter into a life lived in the kingdom of God – a grace-filled life – a Spirit-filled life – a peace-filled life – a hope-filled life – a meaning-filled life – a love-filled life – a life worth living – the life we were created to live.
Holding some sort of resonance with the idea of Trinity is what makes us Christian, but the formal orthodox Trinity doctrine is not a make or break doctrine that you have to buy into in order to “qualify” for membership. Ultimately there is only one word that we can all truly agree on – mystery!
God is Holy Mystery.
God is wholly mystery!
We’re invited to live in holy community with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – a holy, harmonious triad.
We are promised a life which flows from the Father – the Source – is revealed in the life of the Son – Jesus – and is animated within us by the Spirit.
Holy, Holy, Holy – One Spirit – One Lord – One God.
One Beautiful Mystery.