“Three in One”
This is one of those Sundays in the church calendar, which some of us would rather ignore, others deliberately skip, and still others, pretend didn’t exist. Why? Well, the emphasis for this Sunday is on the perplexing mystery of what we religious folk term, the Trinity. God is one in three person: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. All kinds of questions and concerns arise, not the least of which is, “How can God be understood as One God and yet three manifestations of this Oneness. Then, of course, there is this added concern among some of us that at least the first two persons – Father and Son – assume God is also male, so language and gender inclusiveness for these three God titles harbor much fuel for just about any fiery discussion pertaining to religion.
And yet, we know from our earliest memories, God is described or defined by this triplet of names – God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Artists have used their creative gift to try and ease the confusion by depicting the Trinity symbolically. One example is an artist’s rendition of a circle inscribed within an equilateral triangle indicating to the eye of the beholder a circle for the oneness of God while giving a sense through the even sides of the triangle that each of the three persons are equal in essence and meaning. Symbol, music and poetry are really the only ways in which we can hope to understand, or at least try to understand the nature of God and, frankly, no symbol can adequately capture the essence of who and what God is. It just can’t be done. God is greater than our imaginations.
But, of course, we do continue to look for ways to explain the unexplainable. There is a British Essayist, Sara Maitland who offers her own explanation. She says:
“ My favorite model of the Trinity is that it is a child’s pigtail. If the Trinity is seen as a plait – three equal strands, smoothly interrelated – there are some advantages. Firstly, you tear one of the leaves off a clover threesome and leave the other two still related, but if you pull one of the strands out of a plait, the whole thing collapses.” The same principle applies to the Three-in-One idea of who and what God is. Take away the Spirit or the Son and can we truly say we have a complete, undiminished picture of the God we worship? Probably no. Maitland takes her symbolism a bit further. “Both the orthodox churches of the East and the charismatic movement have suggested that perhaps the mainstream churches of the West, [of which we are one] have become excessively Christ centric –[focused largely on Christ] –their emphasis on the second person of the Trinity has made the pigtail somewhat lopsided. In the same way”, she continues, “I would suggest that perhaps we have allowed the strand of revelation in creation to get rather skinny; that God’s role as Creator and Sustainer of the universe needs some fleshing out, some extra weight.”
Well, it is something to think about. Nicodemus had his own thoughts on the subject but like us, was also having some difficulties sorting out the complexity of God’s work and workings in the world. He acknowledged Jesus as a teacher of God but was clearly puzzled by the subject of God’s spirit and its place in the scheme of divine identity. What was this Spirit that would blow where it chose? What was this need to be born anew, above, in and through this Spirit of God? A teacher himself, Nicodemus was perhaps a good example of a person who was willing to not only teach what he knew but also ask questions of others about those ideas he didn’t fully understand. And, as in most deep questions of reflection, who God is, what God does in us and in the world has much to say about relationships – our relationship to God; God’s relationship to us and ultimately, the way we relate to each other.
Relationship is at the heart of the universe and the essence of life…atoms don’t exist apart or alone but in connection with other atoms. In much the same way, without the ability to relate, there is no life for us. Within the texture of relationship, life is rich and abundant. Urging Nicodemus to look beyond the obvious signs and miracles, Christ encouraged him to see the way God worked through the actions of the Son and power of the Holy Spirit. Nicodemus was at a loss as he tried to take in this new way of thinking fearful that it would change how he thought of God and how he viewed his relationship with God. And he was right. Christ was asking him to believe beyond what he could see and touch to connect with a kind of faith that required him to see his world and his God differently than he had been accustomed. To embrace something new, this new thinking and living would be an awakening, a born-from-above kind of experience. To Nicodemus, it was both alarming and exhilarating!
Madeleine L’Engle wrote these words in her book Penguins and Golden Calves: Icons and Idols: “The Trinity proclaims a unity that in this fragmented world we desperately need. We are mortals who are male and female, and we need to know each other, love each other. The world gets daily more perilous. Our cities spawn crime. Terrorists are around every corner. Random acts of violence increase. Less understandable and less advertised is the sad fact that Christians are suspicious of other Christians. Don’t we have all the central things – God making; Christ awaking; The Holy Spirit blessing – in common?
These words, though originally penned in 1996, were well before 9/11, well before the attack on the UN, and certainly well before the need to protect our selves from terrorists by allowing some of our freedoms to be removed. Perhaps L’Engle was seeing around corners to the day, our day when there would be more overt displays of antagonism between Conservative Christians and Liberal, between the right-wing politicians and the left; a day when human relationships would be severely endangered. Which might bring us to a thought; is it possible the Trinity does have something of value to teach us today?
Perhaps the only way we can truly understand the Trinity is to learn to live in relationship, both as a church and as individuals within and beyond our small community. As we begin to see the many characteristics, which make up our personhood and the many facets, which make up the humanity in others, we will better appreciate the beauty, richness and blessing of God’s totality as it manifests itself in both our lives and in our world. God can’t be defined, certainly not in language we have created. To try and lock God in a particular box is to deny us the wealth of relationships, which are open to us, all possible and only possible because we are in relationship with a divine three-in-one God, a God who is bigger than our imaginations.
“Harry Emerson Fosdick illustrated this understanding of the Trinity by pointing to the many faces of Theodore Roosevelt. In his Autobiography, Roosevelt described himself as a statesman, politician, president, and public figure. Yet in his book Winning of the West, Roosevelt is seen as a sportsman, hunter, explorer and soldier. And, when he wrote his Letters to His Children, Roosevelt is seen as a winsome, lovable, gentle father, husband and family man.” Fosdick adds this: “Each one of these portraits was true to who Roosevelt as. We know enough from each one of them to know something. But even when we put them all together, we still don’t know about who he was.” The same can be said of us, which of course, makes perfect sense. Made in the image of God who creates, redeems, empowers, and sustains, we, by and through God’s, grace, have been blessed to do the same.
Only God knows us completely but we can never completely and with certainty know God. That seems right somehow. God continues to be a mystery to us. We spend our lives learning each and every day more about the wonder of this loving God whose Spirit blows in us and through us so that we too, might be born anew. Life is an adventure, the beginning of which we embarked on knowing that at the end, we still will not understand everything but thankfully, God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit knows us, loves us, and if we are receptive, with every breath we take, this Three-in-One God will free us to be more than we are in any given moment. Amen.