Isaiah 6:1-8; Psalm 29; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17
I wonder if you have seen the 2004 documentary, “What the Bleep Do We Know?” It explores how we understand the nature of reality, and the mysteries uncovered in quantum physics. It is a controversial film because many academics have called it pseudo-science—it sometimes makes leaps that are a little far-fetched.
But there is one story in the film that has stuck with me ever since I first saw it. It talks about the arrival of Columbus’ armada in the Caribbean Islands in the late 15th century. As the ships came into the harbor of one of the islands, the natives could not see them—they had no knowledge that clipper ships existed, so without a frame of reference, they were not visible to them. They didn’t have a chance of seeing something so outside of their world. But a shaman of the tribe noticed unusual ripples on the shore. He looked out to sea, wondering what made those ripples, and soon was able to see the ships. He told the others, and, because they trusted him, they then saw the ships too.
As I try to understand who God is, and what it means to align ourselves with God, I find that story oddly comforting. There are things in the world that we cannot see because we have no concrete frame of reference for them. But the fact that we can’t see them doesn’t mean they don’t exist—it only means we do not comprehend them.
And that idea has been rumbling around my head as I again approach the complicated task of preaching on the subject of the Holy Trinity. This is Trinity Sunday, when our calendar insists that we focus on this key theological concept. In trying to elucidate this complicated idea of God, we traditionally call God Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; or in a more modern way, call God Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier; or in a more mind-stretching way, call God Compassionate Mother, Beloved Child, and Life-giving Womb; or in a far more meta-physical way refer to God as beyond us, with us, and within us.
But most preachers I know are quaking in their boots today. How do we explain that which is so totally foreign to us? How do we dare to stand before a congregation and speak about something that, deep in our core, we really don’t understand?
Of course, that makes us a bit like Nicodemus, that Pharisee who appears in our gospel reading this morning. We don’t know much more about Nicodemus than what we read here. Nicodemus shows up only in the gospel of John, and appears there only three times: first in this night-time encounter with Jesus; then in chapter 7 when he suggests to his colleagues (the chief priests and the Pharisees) that they should listen and investigate before making a judgment concerning Jesus; and finally in the 19th chapter after the crucifixion, when he brings myrrh and aloe to the tomb to embalm Jesus’ body.
The first clue we get about Nicodemus is the time of his appearance. Remember that this is the gospel of light—it begins with the declaration of the Word (that is, Christ) as the light for all people. So the first hearers of this gospel, familiar with the extensive use of allegory, would hear, “He came to Jesus by night” and know that this meant that he was not enlightened – he didn’t really know who this Jesus was. Yet it does seem that he comes to Jesus with an open mind—or at least a very curious one. And the circumstances of his subsequent two appearances in the gospel (arguing for Jesus and bringing spices to prepare the body for burial) suggest that something changes in Nicodemus in the course of the gospel narrative.
Nicodemus comes to Jesus with a questioning, yet open heart—and that makes him our surrogate in the search to understand God. It is clear that Nicodemus has an earnest desire to understand—he begins by acknowledging that Jesus is connected to God, and he follows up on Jesus’ cryptic response with good questions. And what emerges from this conversation is a mini treatise on the nature of our God, who is manifest in three intertwined persons. We learn a lot here about the Trinity.
Of course, one thing that is fascinating about this concept of God as one in three and three in one is that there is no doctrine of the Trinity in the Bible. Certainly we learn of the three persons of God throughout scripture, but this understanding that the three persons are distinct, yet of one substance, comes later.
The church fathers (we can be pretty sure that the leaders of the church as it became more established were all men, at until the end of the last century) the church fathers were working to understand who God is, and the development of the Trinitarian concept of God came as those church leaders reacted to what they were sure God wasn’t. There was a great concern in the early church about heresies—those ideas about God that didn’t hew to established beliefs. They wanted to be sure that what they saw as false ideas about God did not gain any credence.
And so, to counter the many ideas about God that were floating around the church, the Council of Nicaea, in 325, adopted the Nicene Creed, which described Christ as “begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.” This idea of one substance is what was further developed into the formula of “three persons, one being.”[i]
Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, is credited with developing the doctrine of the divinity and nature of the Holy Spirit in the late fourth century, refining the formula for God in the Nicene Creed. And with that, this concept of God as the Holy Trinity we know it, was pretty much fully developed.[ii] Gregory of Nazianzus, a Cappadocian Father who was also part of that development, said this of the Trinity:
“No sooner do I conceive of the One than I am illumined by the splendor of the Three; no sooner do I distinguish Three than I am carried back into the One. When I think of any of the Three, I think of [God] as the Whole, and my eyes are filled, and the greater part of what I am thinking escapes me. I cannot grasp the greatness of that One so as to attribute a greater greatness to the rest. When I contemplate the Three together, I see but one torch, and cannot divide or measure out the undivided light.”[iii]
Today, as I think about this concept of Trinity, I am less interested in the three persons of God, and more interested in the one substance of God. And that brings me again to the extraordinary sermon that our Presiding Bishop, The Most Reverend Michael Curry, preached a little over a week ago at that big wedding in Windsor, England. He said this:
There’s power in love. Don’t underestimate it. Don’t ever oversentimentalize it. There’s power, power in love…. There’s something right about [love]. And there’s a reason for it. The reason has to do with the source. We were made by a power of love. And our lives were meant and are meant to be lived in that love. That’s why we are here…. Ultimately the source of love is God himself, the source of all of our lives. There’s an old medieval poem that says, “where true love is found, God himself is there.”[iv]
The nature of God—the essence of God—is love. We hear that in the first letter of John (not the same John as our gospel writer, by the way, but rather someone in the Johannine tradition—maybe even someone in the community for which the gospel was written), we read in first John, “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love,” and “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” Augustine amplified this understanding of the Triune God when he said that the Trinity is, “the lover, the beloved, and the love.”[v]
And this idea (that God’s greatest operating principle is love) is confirmed in the best-known part of today’s gospel passage: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16) It seems that for this gospel writer, love is God’s paramount characteristic. While, in the other three gospels, love language is rather sparse, in the Gospel of John love language occurs more than forty times.[vi]
Professor Paul Hammer says this about the love indicated in this most famous verse from John:
“Here love is not a sentiment but an action that seeks the good for the beloved. That self-giving love reaches its ‘finishing,’ lifted up on the cross and intended to draw all to itself. Jesus’ resurrection puts God’s affirming stamp on the cross as love lifted up to reign over the world and to be the source of life ‘from above’ for all who receive it…. That love is ever constant, but never coercive. It is invitational and hopes for a response, to complete the circle of love and share in the interconnectedness of the creating, liberating, healing Holy Trinity.”[vii]
This love is referred to in Greek as “Agape.” It is the highest form of love, defined by some in precisely these terms: “the love of God for humanity and of humanity for God.”[viii] C.S. Lewis defined agape love as, “a selfless love that is passionately committed to the well-being of others.”[ix]
This is the story of God for me—a focus on the substance of God points the way to that selfless love for others that is the essence of all three persons of the Trinity. We can spend an eternity trying to accurately comprehend God embodied in three persons. We can expend all our energy policing heresies and telling people how they have gotten it wrong. Or we can simply embrace that the substance of God is love: A love so creative that this world and all its flora and fauna was made in astonishing complexity and extraordinary beauty; a love so self-giving that the Savior went willingly to his own death to give us eternal life; a love so permeating that we have access to its Spirit at all times and in all places.
John of the Cross, the 16th century Spanish mystic, wrote a poem about the Trinity. It concludes like this:
Three are the persons, their love
Only one love among three!
One love fathering three!
There where the loved is the lover,
life-giving life to the three!
Ponder the range of their power–
each has it all, and alone.
Each is in love with his loving
peers of the luminous zone.
Each is almighty and all,
each and alone is the tie
of the inscrutable union
staggering ‘wherefore’ and ‘why.’
Infinite love is the link
tying the trio above:
love, sole and yet triple
(such is the mystery thereof);
love, the more single and only
generates all the more love![x]
There is great mystery in God, however we understand God. Perhaps on this day where we try to elucidate the meaning of the Holy Trinity, we would be better off living in the mystery, knowing that we don’t have the ability to fully understand the intricacies of that which is beyond us. What if instead we just revel in the embodiments of love that we see in one another and throughout the world around us, knowing that that love points us to the source and substance of all love. Amen.
[iv] “Bishop Michael Curry’s Full Sermon From the Royal Wedding,” The New York Times, May 19, 2108. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/19/style/bishop-michael-curry-royal-wedding.html, accesssed 5/125/2018.
[v] Wikipedia entry on the Trinity, op cit.
[vi] Hammer, Paul L. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 3, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), p. 49.
[x] https://joyfulpapist.wordpress.com/tag/poems-about-the-trinity/, accessed 05/25/2018.