The English crime-writer, Dorothy Sayers, was once quoted as saying, “The whole [Trinity] thing is incomprehensible… If it were comprehensible, nobody would have struggled to make it comprehensible in the various creeds of the church(es). Nobody has yet succeeded, and perhaps the very incomprehensibility is why we no longer pay more than lip service to Trinity Sunday, but slide over it and immediately forget it.”
The Trinity baffles a lot of people. You can explain how windmills work, and fax machines, and ultrasound scanners, but the Trinity often remains a mystery to folks, and yet it has been fundamental doctrine of the Christian church. Today is Trinity Sunday and today we intentionally celebrate and explore what it means to worship a Triune God.
So—here are some expressions of the same thing:
Father, Son, Holy Spirit.
Or Parent, Son, Holy Spirit.
Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.
God, God’s Word, and God’s Wisdom.
Three co-eternal persons within God, who is One.
God, who is One God, but somehow three faces of one God.
“How, exactly, does this work?” we might ask.
Really, there is no book, no sermon, that will tell you how it all works, because Mystery is just that: Mystery. We try to explain it, but it is ultimately a relationship.
This isn’t to say that Mystery is false or somehow not true, it’s just that some things are better learned in relationship than discussed in the abstract. God is discovered in relationship.
Unfortunately, we rationalists have sucked Mystery right out of the church and made our worship a dry thing… At my house, we will often grab a pre-cooked rotisserie chicken for dinner when we are short on time. Now, I am always a little scared when we have chicken that has been cooked a while. I am afraid that all the moisture will be gone. You go to a buffet and they offer you chicken, and you know that it’s been sitting there in those metal pans a long while…and you think to yourself, this chicken is going to be dry, dry, dry. It’s going to get stuck to my teeth. It’s going to get stuck in my throat. It might be good for me, but it isn’t going to taste any good because it’s been cooked way too long and the taste is all gone. Yet, we still buy the chicken, ‘cause, well, we don’t really have the time to cook a whole chicken and we have guests coming. And if we have any relationship with that chicken, it is ultimately to be nourished by that chicken, and to satisfy our hunger….at which point, my metaphor falls apart because while we commune with God, we certainly don’t think of dining on God as a kind of last-minute-dinner-to-go.
Still, over the years, both our ancestors and our contemporaries have debated these doctrines over and over again, though fortunately, folks—for the most part—aren’t killing each other anymore over any particular definition of the Trinity. Instead, we consistently kill God because we struggle and falter with our relationships: the very real human ones, those with ourselves, those with our families, and those with the larger society and world of which we are small, but important part. And we might ask, on what are those relationships modeled? And, over time, though we’ve tried to explain every little thing in the church’s liturgy, the creeds, our historical beliefs, and what it is we mean when we say that we ultimately God– we’ve tended to forget about why we need the chicken in the first place, and in all of our explaining, we’ve sucked the juice out of the Mystery or given up on ever having chicken again.
I’m not sure who said it first, but one of my favorite expressions of the Trinity talks about how we experience God. We experience God as something beyond, something among us, and something within us. Having a relationship beyond, among, and within has been helpful on my life’s journey as I have sorted through the many and various relationships that we –you and I—have with others. At any point, we might ask ourselves “how is it going with our experience beyond ourselves, among ourselves, and within ourselves?” Like a three-legged stool, at any point, one of those legs may be a little wobbly and need some attention.
But here’s the thing: God is incomprehensible. There is a story, probably apocryphal, about Augustine. Augustine was walking along the beach one day, puzzling over the Mystery of the Trinity. While walking deep in thought, he observed a young boy with a bucket, running back and forth to pour water into a little hole.
Augustine asked him, “What are you doing?”
The boy replied, “I’m trying to put the ocean into this hole.”
At that moment, Augustine realized that he had been trying to put an infinite God into his finite mind.
God is beyond our attempts to analyze, to pick apart, and to explain. This isn’t an argument to check our brains at the door…but it is an invitation to wonder, to fall on our faces like the prophet Isaiah in front of a holy God who might expect holy things from us and who might have a few surprising things up God’s sleeve. It’s an invitation to come to Jesus at night and to ask him questions, like our good friend Nicodemus did, even when you aren’t terribly sure if you believe that Jesus was divine and co-eternal with the Father, and even when you find the Trinity as dry as any leftover piece of chicken in your refrigerator. Because sometimes by asking the questions, we find ourselves in a very different place than we were before. And having a quality relationship with anyone or anything is to spend time with it and to learn, if we indeed want that relationship to grow beyond just the borders of our personality, our own opinions, and our own experiences.
Frederick Buechner once gave a wonderful description of the Trinity which may help those of you who need to know how things work.
Buechner urges us to look in a mirror. We have an interior life that we communicate to God as well as those with whom we choose to share it. Then there is our visible face, our outward self, which reflects our interior life. That is like Jesus, the Son. And then there is this invisible power that helps us to communicate our interior life. Others can witness our interior life, but they can also participate in it so much that it becomes a part of who they are. That is like the Holy Spirit. “Yet,” Buechner writes, “what you are looking at in the mirror is clearly and invisibly the one and only you.”
Friends, does it matter what we believe about the Trinity? I think that it does, but not at all in an intellectual sense. It matters how we relate to God and how we relate to each other. Because ultimately, we are relational beings and we tend to model our relationships on those understandings that we have deeply known, practiced over time, and held dear. Even if our first relationships were damaging, we can choose different models and a different way of relating today.
Can we see God as a loving Creator, a loving parent? What kind of relationship do we have with Jesus and does that relationship help us to move closer to our neighbor and enemy? Does it help us to move closer to Creation in a loving fashion? And can we acknowledge the invisible power, the invisible Spirit that animates and blesses every living thing from ants to turnips to our worst enemy? Can we see that these relationships are all distinct yet contained within God and potentially moving within us? How does knowing and loving that Mystery change how we relate to others?
Ultimately, worshiping the Trinitarian God is about getting to the place where we can, like Job and other spiritual ancestors, appreciate that we are small and God is much, much larger than our definitions, our tribal loyalties, and even our sin. Ultimately, worshiping the Trinity is about getting to the place where we can stop debating with Jesus and the Spirit at night and in the light of day, and simply respond, “Here I am, send me.” Ultimately, it is about choosing to be in relationship. Amen.
 Madeleine L’Engle, Penguins and Golden Calves: Icons & Idols. (Wheaton, Ill.: H.Shaw, 1996), 151.
 Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), 93.