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Joel 3.26-29

Matthew 28.16-20

I John 5.5-8

Riddle, Mystery, Enigma:  Three in One

Trinity Sunday

            Today is Trinity Sunday, the Sunday when preachers across the land are scratching their heads wondering not only what to say about such an arcane idea as how God can be one and three and three and one and all at the same time, but more to the point, if anyone in the pew even cares about it.  I won’t ask for a show of hands, but I do wonder  how many of you woke up this morning and said to yourself, “Aha!  It’s Trinity Sunday!  I sure hope Alan explains the eternal mystery of the Godhead this morning, I’m just jonesing for a good trinitarian sermon!”  I know some preachers and teachers alike who, when forced to address the topic, like to trot out a handy-dandy drawing of a triangle with God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit at each angle, as if this somehow unwraps the riddle.  Many years ago a high school friend of mine decided to improve on this diagram and inserted himself into the godhead:  Father, Son, Holy Spirit and Keith.  It makes about as much sense as the other.  We may be better off just admitting the whole idea is, in Churchill’s words, “A riddle wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma,” and stroll down to the Sunday market twenty minutes early.

            As I was doing my reading this week, I came across an article written by a fairly conservative evangelical writer, who shall remain nameless, for his blog called, Culture Watch.  He titled his blog, “The Trinity for Dummies,” and I decided he must have written it just for me.  But then I read it and decided the dummy was on the other end of the pen, because his basic premise is that it’s a mystery, nobody can understand it, and and you just have to believe it.  The writer goes on to suggest that if the average person sits down and reads the Bible cover to cover, they will come away with the understanding of the trinity even though the Bible never mentions the word, and, but for a handful of verses, other wise doesn’t mention it.  What average person sits down and reads the Bible from cover to cover?  Even though I have read the whole thing, I’ve never read it from cover to cover, and I wouldn’t recommend you do so either – you may breeze through Genesis and Exodus, but once you get bogged down Leviticus and Numbers, you’ll never find your way out.  That’s just not how the Bible wants to be read.  All I will say is that the writer of “The Trinity for Dummies” has positioned himself firmly among his own audience.

            That said, there are two places in scripture where the connection among the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is expressly stated, although I would prefer to ungender the concept and understand the three persons as God the Creator, Christ the Redeemer and Holy Spirit our Strength and Sustainer.  And I think we can make a case for the three persons of God being present at creation.  Obviously Genesis describes God the Creator; as we read in our Call to Worship, John places Jesus as present at creation – “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” and remember that God creates by saying “Let us create humanity in our image, after our likeness…” suggesting another divine presence.  And third we read that the Spirit of God moved across the face of the waters.  So we do come away with a picture of the three expressions of God all working together in the story of creation in the opening chapter of the Bible.       

            Our two readings from the New Testament this morning though, are the verses the church turns to for its trinitarian theology, but to be honest I don’t think they can bear very much weight.  They are both clearly later additions to Matthew’s gospel and John’s first letter.  We are familiar with Jesus’ parting words to the disciples in Matthew’s gospel, so much so that we have given this handful of verses their own name – we call it “the Great Commission:”  “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey all I have commanded you.”  But baptism in the name of the trinity did not develop until later in the church’s life; and besides, Jesus’ words occur before his ascension, while the Holy Spirit did not appear until Pentecost, ten days after Jesus’ ascension.  Most likely some later writer saw an opportunity to insert the church’s baptismal formulation into Jesus farewell in Matthew’s gospel.  And in John’s first letter, it is even more obvious that the trinitarian language was shoehorned into the Bible long after John’s letter was written.  If you look at the quotation on the back of the bulletin, the brackets – which describe the trinity, “the Father, Word and Holy Spirit, and these three are one,” are the words of a later editor.  If you want to see for yourself, you can open your pew Bible to page 1114, and see how that phrase only appears in a footnote, which indicates it did not belong to the original text.

            Still, in spite of this, the idea of the trinity, the Creator, Redeemer and Spirit as three expressions of God has not only endured, but remains part of the foundation of Christian theology.  And I think it is important.  Not everyone experiences God in the same way, and the three persons, or expressions, of God, broaden the paths that lead there.  They tells us, first, that God has crafted you and me.  Like the first man and woman, God has breathed into our souls the breath or spirit of life.  Every one of us is born of God, God knows us by name, or as one of the prophets puts it, God knows the number of hairs on our head.  Every one of us is a beloved child of God.  Second, it reminds us that in Jesus God also knows what it is like to be human.  The divide between the divine and humanity has been bridged, because God is one of us.  Do you laugh?  Do you cry?  Do you hurt?  Do you love?  So did Jesus – so does God.  There is not a thought we can think, a worry that can eat at us, a laugh we can come from nowhere, a tear that can be shed that God in Christ has not experienced as well.  And third, the spirit of God which breathed on a small community 2000 years ago and created the church, that breathes through our small community every day and makes us the church, continues to sustain us, to build not only the church, but to build community, and to create a just and righteous world.  The trinity not only creates ways for us to understand God, but also demonstrates that  God understands us.

            And I think it also expands our experience of God.  In fact on this Trinity Sunday, I wonder it is wise to limit our experience of and relationship to God to only three persons.  We’ve said before that God will do everything within God’s own power to try to bring us into fellowship, with God and with each other.  So I wonder if there are other expressions of God we can identify.  What if Keith’s diagram is prophetic – not that my high school friend is another person of the trinity, but if we can expand on the tripartite nature of the church’s doctrine.  Maybe in place of Keith, we can place creation within the Godhead.  How many times have we heard – or said – that a walk in the woods, or a stroll along the beach, or the expansive splendor of the night sky, or in the complex simplicity of a single atom, or the countless greens of the spring and blues of the water, connect us with the divine?  Perhaps creation is an equal expression of God as the rest of it.  Or love?  Can we understand love as another expression of God?  Of course we can.  We read elsewhere in John’s first letter, “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God.  Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God… for God is love.”

            I think if the idea of the trinity teaches us anything, it is that there is more than one path to God.  My way to God doesn’t have to be your way, and your way doesn’t have to be anyone else’s way.  In fact I think that is the major flaw in conservative evangelicalism, in that it insists that there is only one path to God, and oh by the way, it’s their path.  Maybe that’s why the blogger’s title, “The Trinity for Dummies” is so ironically and deliciously apt.  God continues to open doors for us, doors of faithfulness, doors of mercy, doors of love.  Instead of building a theology that limits them to one, or even three, maybe God is telling us we can walk through them all.

            It’s worth a try.

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