The Triune God is like a riddle and a mystery that we cannot fully comprehend. And like all good riddles it is in the mystery itself that we are drawn to God. In this mystery we proclaim that through the Triune God all things are possible.
Vicar Neal Cannon; The Holy Trinity, year C; text: John 16:12-15; Romans 5:1-5
Sisters and Brothers in Christ, grace and peace to you in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Today is Holy Trinity Sunday, and being as how the Trinity is one of the most complicated concepts of the Christian faith I thought that we should do some mental stretching with a couple of riddles.
What gets wetter and wetter the more it dries? A towel.
I can run but not walk. Wherever I go, thought follows close behind. What am I? A nose.
What goes around the world but stays in a corner? A stamp.
Some of you may like riddles, others not so much. But for all of us riddles are like a bug in our brain that we can’t get out. We humans have an intense desire to know the answer, to solve the problem. But if you are like me, then knowing the answer to the riddle is far less interesting than being in the mystery of the riddle. In fact, for me, actually knowing the answer makes the riddle seem silly, maybe even a little bit boring.
Our God is a little bit like an unsolved riddle; mysterious and sometimes cryptic. Our God is a God that is impossible to figure out, box up, or define. The Old Testament is full of references to God’s unknowability. For example, when Moses asks for God’s name, God responds to him, I AM WHO I AM or in some translations, I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE. How’s that for a riddle?
Later Moses approaches God again and asks to see God’s glory. And God infamously responds, “‘I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the LORD, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.’ But, he said, ‘you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.’”
As Pastor Crippen said in his sermon last week, this is not a God that we can control. And what’s more, in many ways this is not a God that we can fully know. This is a God who shows us God’s back, wrestles with us in the dark, and whose face we cannot look upon and live.
On this Holy Trinity Sunday there seems no greater riddle in all the Old and New Testaments than the fact that we Christians claim a God that is Triune in nature; three and one. This is to say that we believe in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as completely separate and individual, yet completely One God. Solving this riddle seems impossible.
Recently I saw a great satirical YouTube video about the Trinity, where two cartoon Irishmen ask St. Patrick to unravel the mystery of the Trinity with a simple analogy. Every time St. Patrick tries to define the Trinity as a three leaf clover or as how water exists as both ice, vapor, and liquid, in a bantering kind of way the Irishmen explain exactly how these analogies are a heresy of one kind or another. Ultimately, St. Patrick resorts to merely reciting the Athanasian Creed, essentially throwing his hands in the air and admitting there are no adequate human analogies, rather The Trinity JUST IS HOW IT IS.
It feels like God often chooses to come to us in mystery and cloud, and darkness. It feels like God often comes to us in a riddle, only it’s a riddle that we can’t solve and don’t fully understand.
And I can’t help but think that God comes to us in mysterious ways because the more we realize that we don’t understand God, the more we actually want to know God. The more of a riddle that God is to us, the more we desire to be close to God’s very presence. Maybe, God actually desires to be a mystery to us.
This is not to say that we can’t understand anything about God. Our Scriptures, creeds and doctrines actually tell us the story of those things that God has revealed to us. But understanding that God never fully reveals Godself to us simply admits that we don’t know everything about God. God is Triune because God is I AM. We say that while we don’t fully understand how, we believe that God revealed Godself in Jesus Christ, and God continues to reveal Godself in the Holy Spirit who comes to us now.
This means that God has mercy on whom God has mercy, and God will have compassion on whom God will have compassion. It means that the Spirit goes wherever the Spirit goes and reveals whatever the Spirit reveals and we as humans can’t control it, don’t understand it, yet say that it’s true.
After all, in the Gospel of John Jesus tells us that there are some things that we are not ready to hear, and then tells us that when the Spirit of Truth comes the Spirit will guide us into all truth; meaning that right now, we don’t have all the answers and we don’t own the truth. There are things that we haven’t been able to understand and there are things that God is still telling us about what God’s plans are in the world.
Despite this, many branches of Christianity expect that we have perfect doctrine and that we know all the right words and have said all the right prayers in order to be accepted by God and communities as “true believers.” So Christians for centuries have tried to rationalize their beliefs about God and put the infinite in a neat little box. For example, many Christians even today insist that the world is 6,000 years old despite scientific evidence to the contrary. And so when dinosaurs were discovered many Christians claimed that God was merely testing our faith. And, at one point in our history the Pope put Galileo under house arrest for claiming that the Earth was not at the center of the universe, because it went against doctrine.
And it’s not that other Christians are the only ones unable to hear the Spirit of Truth. We have to ask ourselves, what am I unwilling to hear? Are we really ready to know who made our iPhones and Nike shoes? Do we really want to know where our food comes from, or are we content with how things are?
The point is that God is always bigger than our imaginations, bigger than us; that God has done, is doing, and will do things in this world that we have not yet even imagined. And so maybe the Triune God, who comes to us in mystery, wants us to embrace mystery itself.
Embracing mystery is much harder than embracing easy answers. Embracing mystery means not relying on ourselves or our own knowledge or works, but rather relying on something we don’t understand and sometimes isn’t fully here yet. For example, Paul writes in his letter to the Romans that we are justified and forgiven not by our own works, but through Jesus Christ. And in our reading today, Paul says something that is rather peculiar, Paul says, “And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”
Now think about who Paul is talking to for a minute. Paul is addressing the early Christians who are being persecuted by the Romans for their beliefs and essentially tells them to hope. What’s odd about this, is that hope, by its very definition is not certain. We hope that someday we’ll win the lottery, but we don’t know that we will. We hope that we’ll have nice weather this summer, but we don’t know that it’s coming. We hope that two years from now we’ll be promoted or still have our jobs but the truth is, we don’t know.
Note that Paul doesn’t try to explain their suffering and evil. He doesn’t tell them that they are suffering because they are sinful or because of a particular ideology. Too often in the world Christians have tried to explain evil as if God allowed 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina to happen because of one group or one sin. What’s more, Christians have used the Scriptures as a way of saying all the things that God can’t do – slaves can’t be free, women can’t be pastors, gay men and women can’t be married – rather than submitting ourselves to all the things that God can do. But the truth is that explaining evil is just another way that we try to put God in a box by explaining things that we don’t understand.
Paul doesn’t do this. Instead, Paul opens our imaginations to hope in what God does through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. Paul says that because the Son of God suffered, died, and rose for the world, we learned something about God. We learned that this mysterious God isn’t seeking to destroy us, but desperately wants us to be in community with the Trinity.
And so when tragedy, and death, and sadness enter our lives – when tornadoes destroy and bombs explode and jobs are lost – Paul says that we too can have certain hope even when we can’t answer the question, “Why is this happening?” We don’t have to search for answers and blame evil on certain “other” groups or on ourselves. No. Because of what God has done we can say that evil exists AND the Triune God’s love for us is certain, even if we don’t understand how. As Paul says later in I Corinthians, “For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.”
And it is in the riddle of God’s Triune mystery and in these words, that the Holy Spirit dares us to see God as bigger than our imaginations, bigger than our limitations, and yes, even bigger than our creeds and doctrines. In these words we admit that we see God only in part and submit ourselves to the not yet imagined things that God is doing in the world.
So through this Spirit we see the unexpected things that God has done, slave and free are equal, women preach and prophesy as men do, and gay and lesbian couples can love and be loved by God and the world in the same way as straight couples. Therefore, let us open our hearts and minds to the infinite possibility of God.
I AM WHO I AM, says the Lord. What a great mystery.