The mystery of the Trinity

Holy Trinity (Year A), Sunday, June 15, 2011

Gensis 1:1-2:4a, Psalm 8, 2 Corinthians 13:11-13, Matthew 28:16-20

Preached by Anna C. Haugen, Saint Luke Lutheran Church, Bloomsburg, PA

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Did you see the new Sherlock Holmes miniseries set in modern times that ran on PBS a few months back?  How about the 2009 Sherlock Holmes movie?  Do you read mystery novels?  Do you watch mystery shows on TV, like Law and Order or CSI or Criminal Minds?  I like a good mystery, which is fortunate since mystery shows and books are all over the place in our modern world.  There’s a huge variety of styles and approaches, but the overall pattern hasn’t changed much since Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published the first Sherlock Holmes story.  The detective searches out clues—just the facts, ma’am—and puts them together like a puzzle to figure out whodunit.  By the end the detectives have figured out who did it, and with what, and where, and why.

Today is a day of mystery, but it’s not the kind of mystery we’re most familiar with. The Sunday of the Holy Trinity is the only day of the Church year where we celebrate a doctrine—an understanding of God and the way God works in the world—rather than an event written of in the Bible.  Trinity, put simply, means one-in-three.  We worship one God who is made up of three persons, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  There are other names for the three persons of the Trinity, for example we sometimes call them the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Sanctifier.  This way of talking about the Trinity is useful because it helps us remember that God is not just an old guy with a white beard wearing a bathrobe, sitting up in the clouds.  The Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God; and yet we worship one God, and not three.  At the same time, the Father is not the Son, and the Son is not the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit is not the Father, yet all three are one God.  Confused yet?  Don’t worry, you’re in good company.  There’s been more ink spilt by theologians trying—and generally failing—to understand and explain the concept of the Trinity than just about any other aspect of Christianity.

A diagram of the trinity, a triangle, with God in the center and the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit at the corners.  There is a line marked "is" between the center and each of the three corners, and the outer edge of the triangle is lines between the points saying "is not."

Saint Augustine of Hippo, one of the greatest theologians in the history of Christianity, was struggling and trying to understand the concept of the Trinity when he had a vision in a dream.  In the dream he was walking along the beach when he came across a child digging a hole.  Now, have you ever tried to dig a hole on a sandy beach?  You don’t get very deep before the sides start collapsing and sliding down.  Augustine watched the child digging, and eventually he spoke up.  “You’ll never be able to dig any deeper,” he said.  But the child replied, “I have a better chance of digging this hole than you have of understanding the Trinity.”

The Trinity is a mystery.  Not a mystery in the sense of Sherlock Holmes, a problem to be solved or a case to be closed.  The Trinity is a mystery in a deeper sense, an older sense.  The word “mystery” comes from the same root as “mystic.”  Mystery means, in this case, something that must be revealed by God.  A true mystery cannot be understood by human reason, for it is deeper and greater than that.  It can’t be reduced to facts, or a diagram (no matter how much we try), and we can’t logically puzzle it out, for it deals with a reality that transcends our limited human imagination.  That makes mysteries even more difficult for us to deal with now than it was in Augustine’s day, because we are far more devoted to literal facts now than people were back then.  We live today in a world where facts reign supreme, where the things that matter most are the things that can be proved in a science lab or a court of law.  In our society almost everything can be reduced to something understandable, something logical, something concrete.  Those things that don’t fit, that can’t be analyzed statistically make us uncomfortable.

Don’t get me wrong, that fact-and-reason approach has given our society great gifts.  For example, I am very happy that my car was designed and built by people who tested and knew how the whole thing worked and made sure that each part was perfectly made to specifications.  I’m glad that if (God forbid) I ever get caught up in a real-life murder mystery like the ones I read and watch on TV, the investigation and prosecution of the crime would be based on evidence and facts.  But at the same time, we are more limited by that understanding of the universe—and of God—than I think we realize.  There are more things in heaven and on Earth than are dreamt of in our (scientific) philosophies.

As poet Killian McDonnell put it,

God is not a problem
I need to solve, not an
algebraic polynomial equation
I find complete before me,

with positive and negative numbers
I can add, subtract, multiply.
God is not a fortress
I can lay siege to and reduce.

God is not a confusion
I can place in order by my logic.
God’s boundaries cannot be set,
like marking trees to fell.

God is the presence in which
I live, where the time between
what is in me and what
before me is real, but only God

can draw it. God is the mystery
I meet on the street, but cannot
lay hold of from the outside,
for God is my situation,

the condition I cannot stand
beyond, cannot view from a distance,
the presence I cannot make an object,
only enter on my knees.

So why did God choose to reveal God’s self to us in this way, in the form of a mysterious Trinity that so often confuses us?  I think it’s to remind us that we are limited, finite beings.  We are the creatures, not the creator.  No matter how smart God has made us, no matter how much about the universe we understand or think we understand, we are not gods.  As God gave us our ability to reason, and created the world that we live in, it is right and fitting that we use our reason to explore and study the gifts God has given us.  And it is right and good to use the gift of reason that God has given us to study the ways God has revealed God’s own self to us.  Yet we should never forget that God is not only greater than we imagine, but greater than we can imagine.  What we know of God, we know because God has revealed it to us.

What do we know of God, this great being, this one-in-three?  We know that God created us, that God created the world and all that is in it.  We know that God’s Word is powerful enough to transform nothingness into an entire world.  God took a formless void and created a universe of possibilities, all that is, seen and unseen, from the stars in the skies to the creatures that live on this planet and more.  And even more than that, God created the world and all that is in it to be good.  No matter what brokenness is in the world, God made the world to be good.  We are created, all of us, in God’s image.  Once God created us, God didn’t just abandon us to our own devices, but stayed with us even when we turned away.

And when that good creation was broken by sin and death, God loved us so much that he came to save us.  He became truly human in the form of Jesus Christ our Lord, who taught and lived and died that we might have life, and have it abundantly.  Jesus was crucified and died so that we might be saved, redeemed, made whole from the sin and brokenness that trap us.  Jesus did this not because we had earned it, but simply because he loves us.  And he rose from the grave so that we who are tied to his death and resurrection might also rise to new life in him.

And after the Son had ascended to the Father, and was no longer physically with us, the Holy Spirit came.  The Holy Spirit is the breath of God, the wind that moved over the waters of creation, our Comforter in times of trial and our guide through life.  The Spirit came to inspire us, to help us live good and holy lives and to understand God’s word.  The Holy Spirit was with those who wrote down the Bible, and is still with us now when we read it.  The Holy Spirit is with us in good times and bad, praying for us with sighs too deep for words when we don’t even know what we need.

God the Father our Creator, God the Son our Redeemer, God the Holy Spirit who leads us in holiness: these are the three faces of God, who together are one.  God moves in mysterious ways, in wonderful ways.  We may not understand how it all works, and we may not be able to understand all of God’s plan for us and our world, but one thing is absolutely certain: God loves us.  God will never abandon us, and God will never stop loving us.


A three-lobed Celtic-style knot, a symbol of the trinity


One thought on “The mystery of the Trinity

  1. Wow. Oh daughter, thou art wondrous! 🙂

    Your sermons and thoughts are always so informative, so interesting, and so thought-engendering that I keep reading and re-reading them. Constantly amazed and thrilled at how much my daughter can teach me. This is one of the better “handlings” of the Great Puzzle I’ve ever heard or read. Thank you!

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