Psalm 29; John 3:1-17
Ever since Christianity emerged from monotheistic Judaism, the Trinity has been a core part of Christian faith. That doesn’t mean people have always – or ever – understood it. In fact, as soon as the church created its first trinitarian creeds in the fourth century, theologians and preachers felt compelled to defend the language. We’re still doing that today. I love preaching on Trinity Sunday!
In the early centuries of the Church, the Trinity was celebrated in worship every week. Each Sunday the priest would intone ancient liturgies in praise of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and the congregation would listen as one of the great mysteries of the faith was set before them – probably leaving them a bit bewildered, if not intimidated. I suspect we’d find a similar reaction among gathered believers today.
In the year 828, Pope Gregory IX sensed that the Church needed to bring more focus to this key doctrine of the faith, and decreed that in addition to the weekly references in worship there would henceforth be an annual Sunday devoted to the Trinity. Here we are, 1200 years later. He chose the week after Pentecost, because, after all, with Easter’s risen Jesus and Pentecost’s coming of the Holy Spirit, the church’s theological conundrum was clear and needed to be resolved: is God one or is God three? That’s a good question, the answer to which is a confounding, yes.
I had lots of time to think about the Trinity this week, as I helped our son and his wife paint their new house. One evening, as I was rolling the ceiling, imagining myself looking up to the heavens above, I was listening to music from my teenage years streaming through my hearing aids, and a song by the 1960s rock band Buffalo Springfield came on, called For What’s It’s Worth.
Aside from being a prescient anthem describing social divisions in that troubled era that sound a lot like what we face in our time, the opening line caught my attention. Some of you may remember it. It seemed an apt way to think about the Trinity: There’s something happening here – what it is, ain’t exactly clear.
The early church was quite comfortable with that, with leaving the Trinity right there – as something we need not fully comprehend in order to embrace. The obscure language helps us access what is essentially beyond our capacity to understand or name or describe. The Benedictine scholar John Farrelly calls the Trinity “the central Christian Mystery.” (Rediscovering the Central Christian Mystery)
We Presbyterians share in a perception of the Trinity that allows for ambiguity – even an elusive inscrutability. Here’s how our Scottish ancestors in the faith put it in 1560:
“We confess and acknowledge one only God, to whom only we must cleave, whom only we must serve, whom only we must worship, and in whom only we must put our trust.” (emphasis mine)
One only God, to whom only we must cleave. The language has a kind of fierce clarity. God is one, and we will hold fast to that one. But then they temper that Scottish engineering precision as they go on to say that God…
“…is eternal, infinite, unmeasurable, incomprehensible, omnipotent, invisible: one in substance, and yet distinct in three persons…” (The Scots Confession, 1560)
Unmeasurable. God is not a math problem to be solved. Incomprehensible. God will always be beyond our ken. Invisible. God is not to be seen.
There’s something happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear.
If we search the scriptures hoping to crack the secret of the Trinity we will be disappointed. We will not find there a statement of faith that lays out a neat description of God as one, yet three. But the Bible is full of hints that God is more complex than we might imagine.
It starts in Genesis, in the account of the unfolding creation. The writers of Genesis used the third person, singular, male pronoun in their summary of the action on the First Day of creation: God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. (Genesis 1:5) The Hebrew people used male language about God, generally. The prophet Isaiah took it in a female direction, imagining God as a woman giving birth, or a mother nursing her child. But the ancient Hebrews were limited in their vocabulary for God by the fact that their language has no gender-neutral pronoun.
That was the First Day of creation. By the Sixth Day, the language morphs. God says – the Hebrew is Elohim – Elohim says: Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness. (Genesis 1:26) It’s the earliest instance in our sacred texts when the voice of God speaks in the first person, and it’s plural.
These texts reveal how the people of God in ancient times did not limit themselves only to certain terms when speaking of the divine being. Neither should we in our time. Their language about God was dynamic and adaptive. Ours should be, as well.
The words the Hebrew people used for God in scripture are plural: Elohim, Adonai, El Shaddai – they’re all plural. Even Yahweh, the most common name for God in Hebrew, can be understood as plural. The psalmist this morning urges us to “Ascribe to Yahweh the glory of God’s name,” and then presents us with the image of a powerful divine ruler “who sits enthroned forever.”
Such a sovereign is not bound by conventional identity. God uses the royal “we” – our image. This is a sovereign who exists beyond an individual with a particular gender. God isn’t locked into the use of the singular, male, he. If God were sending emails today, next to the signature would likely be a parenthetical (they, them theirs.)
To complicate things further, remember what happens when Moses asks the voice in the burning bush urging him to go to Pharaoh and seek freedom for the enslaved Israelites, “Who should I say sent me?” God replies, “I AM WHO I AM. Tell them I AM has sent you.” (Exodus 4:14)
The divine refuses to be contained by any single name, or image. I AM WHO I AM.
In the gospel text this morning, Nicodemus sneaks off to see Jesus late at night. His curiosity about who Jesus is has gotten the better of him. The learned Pharisee is on a fact-finding mission. “Rabbi,” he says respectfully to Jesus,
“We know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”
He’s asking essentially the same question Moses asked, the question on the minds of the people of God in every age, including ours: Who are you? By what name may we call you? What is your identity? Nicodemus is trying to pull back the veil and peer into the divine mystery.
But Jesus won’t let him get too close. He replies that no one can see into the realm of God unless they are born anew of the Spirit. Jesus introduces trinitarian vocabulary into the conversation. Now Nicodemus is really confused. “How can anyone be born after having grown old,” he asks.
Again, Jesus refers to the One whom we will come to call the second person of the Trinity: “No one can enter the realm of God, Jesus says, “Without being born of water and Spirit.” (John 3:2-5)
Then, in the same breath, Jesus goes on to refer to God as Father and Jesus as Son. Nicodemus has brushed up against the central mystery of the Christian faith, and he must be reeling from it all. There’s something happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear.
Language matters. It forms our world. It shapes our perception of the merely material, and, with imagination, of the hidden sacred, as well. Language determines and expresses how we think about ourselves and others. It serves as a kind of architecture of the mind. The words we use create the world we inhabit. Language evolves; so does the world. Sometimes the world follows new language; at other times language has to catch up to the world.
The first edition of the Inclusive Language Lectionary was published almost 40 years ago, when I was in seminary. It was a project of the National Council of Churches, and it occasioned enormous backlash. Nearly 10,000 letters were received – snail mail letters – taking issue with the attempt to use wording that expressed what the authors called a more inclusive vocabulary about God and the human family. The new language was trying to find a way to translate the old trinitarian wording. It was ahead of the church, and, thus, the church reacted.
Today, Westminster’s ministers are careful in our preaching and prayers in worship not to use male pronouns in reference to God, or to use male language about humankind. We do that not because we’re trying to be “woke,” but because all of us serving this church as ministers were educated in seminaries and nurtured in communities that opened us to an understanding of God that was non-gendered. We use words that reflect a divine being whom we experience as beyond common human categories. The Trinity gives us wording for that, inviting each of us to speak in ways that reflect our own perceptions and experiences of God.
Today, many individuals are working out their personal identity in ways that parallel our attempts to find the right language about God. Sometimes it seems we barely know how to talk about ourselves, much less about the Creator. God, it turns out, has a rather fluid identity, and so do many in the human community.
Just as we need to respect the divine desire to choose their own holy pronouns, so, too, we can give our friends and children, partners and co-workers space to find the language that identifies themselves in ways that are authentic and reflective of the image of God in which they are created. This will require us to learn new ways of speaking about and to one another. We can do that. We’re doing it in church, in relation to God.
We learn from scripture that our language about God is limited by human vocabulary, and that God’s own identity refuses to be constricted by our inadequate attempts to name God. The Trinity – with all its mystery – is the church’s effort to make that ok, to make the complexity and nuance of the divine slightly more accessible to those of us for whom the old words don’t quite work.
That’s what Jesus was trying to help Nicodemus understand. He was assuring his late-night visitor of the one thing that matters above all else: God’s love for each human being is such that anyone who trusts in God will be saved by God – and even those who don’t may also be included, because God is not constrained by the same rules we live by, where some are in and some are out. Any one of us can be born anew. In the divine economy, grace abounds.
Pope Gregory was right 1200 years ago when he urged the Church to pay attention to the enigma of the Trinity. God is known through it, however imperfectly.
In I John we read that God is love. Perhaps it’s best for us to think of our Triune God simply as one small community of sacred relationship that embodies, experiences, and practices love – the love of a parent, of a sibling, of a friend.
The Trinity is God’s way of modeling how we might live together, diverse and yet one, loving each other in spite of our differences. We need a world like that, and the Trinity offers it.
Thanks be to God.