Today is Trinity Sunday, but we acknowledge the Holy Trinity almost every Sunday. “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” is an ancient –- and very familiar -- way of understanding God. Some churches sing it in a Gloria Patri or a doxology. Others say it along with the sign of the cross. And almost all churches use the phrase as part of baptism. But what does it mean, really, to speak of God as trinity, as three in one, one in three?
The preacher Frederick Buechner explains it this way:
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. Thus the Trinity is a way of saying something about us and the way we experience God.
The Trinity is also a way of saying something about God and the way God is within Godself, namely God does not need Creation in order to have something to love, because within Godself love happens. In other words, the love God is is love not as a noun but as a verb. ….
(Wishful Thinking, p 114)
So God is love in action, in the threefold way that is a mystery. I’m talking about capital M mystery, the kind of mystery that might better be called mystical, and not the kind that is a problem to be solved. We are good at the latter, at solving problems and figuring things out, but not so good at dwelling with mystery. That’s a problem in itself, because the life of faith, a life lived in, with, of and by God, is just that, a life of dwelling in mystery.
If this isn’t easy for us we can perhaps take comfort that it hasn’t been easy for our predecessors in faith either.
Look at poor old Nicodemus. He just didn’t get it, did he?
He came under cover of darkness to see Jesus, both the darkness of nighttime and maybe also the darkness of his own doubt and confusion. Perhaps he thought that his interest in Jesus would be hidden in the dark, but instead he found himself in the presence of pure light, the kind of light that exposed all his deepest needs and desires and lack and longing. He found himself in the presence of the Light of world.
He was drawn to Jesus by the physical signs he had seen, but Jesus seemed to say that it was what could not be seen that was more powerful. Nicodemus was firmly rooted in the kingdom of the world and Jesus instead pointed him to the Kingdom of heaven – whatever that meant.
And Nicodemus confused Jesus’ instruction to be born from above as meaning that he had to somehow crawl back into his mother’s womb.
He also thought Jesus was talking about the wind when what Jesus really meant was the powerful breath of the Spirit blowing wherever it chose.
We get a sense of how frustrated Nicodemus must have been when he finally threw up his hands and said: How can these things be?
How indeed! If Nicodemus, a learned man, a scholar of the Torah, a teacher of Israel, couldn’t understand, what hope could there be for the rest of the people, especially those like us who never had the chance to approach Jesus in person? How is it possible for us to understand God, to comprehend this mystery? What is God like? How can we know God?
Reflect with me for a moment on some of the ways God is revealed in the Hebrew Bible. God is experienced as a mighty wind, a voice, a rock, a pillar of fire, a sheer silence and the sound of thunder. God is understood as a nursing mother caring for her child, a shepherd, a king; a judge, a potter, a lover, a father. And yet, none of those understandings fully grasp all of who God is. As the prophet Isaiah reminded us: God’s thoughts are not our thoughts nor are our ways God’s ways. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are God’s ways higher than our ways and God’s thoughts than our thoughts (paraphrase of Isaiah 55:8-9).
As much as we might try, ultimately it seems God is unknowable. Except, except, God apparently wants to be known so God comes to us in ways we can understand. As John Calvin said:
“For who even of slight intelligence does not understand that, as nurses commonly do with infants, God is [accustomed] … to ‘lisp’ in speaking to us? Thus such forms of speaking do not so much express clearly what God is like as accommodate the knowledge of God to our slight capacity. To do this God must descend far beneath God’s loftiness.” (Calvin, Institutes, Book 1, Chapter 13, Section 1)
In other words, God speaks to us in baby talk. God kneels down so we can see eye to eye. God comes to us in ways we can comprehend. We have an understanding God who knows our limitations and responds to them, by approaching us in a whole variety of ways, and even going so far as to become one of us. Jesus was both the Son of God and somehow also God. John tells us that “The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” But John also reminds us that “No one has ever seen God. It is the God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made God known.” (John 1:14, 18) And Jesus has made God known to us as “Abba,” a word that means something like “Daddy” or “Papa.” It is a term of endearment, expressing intimacy and love. And Jesus’ Abba is our own Abba, because we, too, are the children of God.
And that is two-thirds of the mystery. From the record of scripture we can understand God as the author of creation, our father and mother, and as Jesus our brother. But God is not limited to the pages of a book, not even if it is the Good Book. The God who acted in the past is still at work. God still breathes new life into our world. And God’s life-giving breath can be as powerful and unpredictable as a sudden storm, or as gentle and refreshing as a cool breeze on a summer morning.
Our Triune God is the one in whom we live and move and have our being – we live because God has created us, has birthed us into life; we move in the world as Jesus moved, acting with compassion and justice and mercy and acceptance and love; and we have our being by the power of the Holy Spirit, who continues to breathe in and through us, inspiring us and those around us.
And in the end, there is only one reason we can ever even come close to understanding the mystery that is God and that is because our understanding God loves us and calls us to respond in love.
Can we explain or ever fully understand love – where it comes from, how it works, its power and tenderness? When we are able to understand the mystery of love, then we will understand God. Because God is love – God who is the creator, transcendent and over all, high and lofty; God who is our brother Jesus, walking with us in the sorrows and celebrations of this life; and God who is as close to us as our own breath, the Spirit which gives us life.
And maybe it doesn't matter at all that we cannot understand God because God fully understands us, understands us and still loves us. God so loves us; God so loves the world.
And for that, thanks be to God: Abba, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.