Embrace the Mystery
Holy Cross Faith Memorial Episcopal Church, Pawley's Island
May 31, 2015
It is often said among clergy that Trinity Sunday is the most unpopular time to try to preach a sermon. And so, I am not at all surprised that today was your rector’s choice for my visit! Further, it is wonderfully ironic that this unpopular occasion for preachers includes a passage found in most ordination liturgies for priests and bishops. At such times, we usually hear the same words from Isaiah that we heard this morning: “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord” (6:1).
For whatever reason, the task falls to me today to deal with the basic Christian doctrine of the Trinity – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit … “Trinity of Persons and Unity of Being” … “three in one and one in three.”
Through the years, theologians and preachers have used analogies to try to explain what continues to be a mystery. Probably the most famous of these is the shamrock – an analogy said to have originated with St. Patrick. Three leaves on one clover offers a visual image that can be helpful, in considering the Trinity.
I’ve also found it beneficial to think of ways that each one of us can seem to be a different person in different settings. Those of us fortunate enough to be grandparents, for instance, know that our grandchildren experience a different person than our children did. As Bennett Sims observed about becoming a grandfather for the first time, “I’ve preached about the distinction between law and grace many times before. But now, I have experienced what that difference really means.” We might go a step further and point out that in some ways, he had become a different person, at least in terms of his grandchild.
The “three Persons” part of this doctrine is the easier one. We understand that God is the Father, and as such, God created “heaven and earth, and all that is, seen and unseen” (BCP, p358). In fact, we regularly make that affirmation in our creeds. Further, we also understand and affirm that Jesus Christ lived on this earth, died, and rose again. And, without quite as much understanding, we affirm the Person of God that we celebrated last week, on Pentecost – the Holy Spirit. We do, therefore, have some awareness of the “three Persons” of God.
But the unity of Being – the one in three – that’s the part which is more difficult for most of us. Perhaps we are better at analysis than we are at synthesis. By the way, that observation certainly applies to groups which claim to be “Anglican” in these parts! Apparently, we are better at taking things apart than we are at putting things back together. For whatever reason, though, the unity of the three Persons of God gives us problems.
It may be helpful to realize that we are in good company at this point. Did you listen to the Gospel reading about Nicodemus? This was a very wise man in his day, but he really had trouble with the doctrine of the Trinity! Jesus spoke of being born again – that is, being infused with the Spirit – and in response, Nicodemus asked, “Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” (Jn 3:4). After further explanation from Jesus, Nicodemus responded, “How can these things be?” (3:9). Nicodemus really is left with that question – a question for which, if we are honest, there is no answer…especially not one that satisfies our analytical minds.
It certainly is true that the Trinity is a matter central to our credal faith. Every time we say the creeds we affirm our faith in the Trinity. As a matter of faith, though, we do not fully understand it. There are some things better left in God’s hands, after all, and I’m afraid that understanding the Trinity ultimately is beyond our power to comprehend. It is truly a divine mystery.
Nicodemus is a good model for us here, as well. He obviously did not understand the Trinity, even though Jesus himself tried to explain it to him. But Nicodemus held onto his faith, apparently. We do not hear much about him in the rest of the Gospel, after this frustrating encounter with Jesus. However, there are a couple of later references to him.
At one future point of controversy between Jesus and the authorities, Nicodemus appeared and called on his fellow Pharisees to be mindful of their own laws in dealing with Jesus (Jn 7:50-51). Remember that Nicodemus was a prominent Jewish Pharisee, and so he took quite a risk here, on Jesus’ behalf. Then, secondly, after Jesus’ crucifixion, Nicodemus assisted Joseph of Arimathea in caring for the body of our Lord (Jn 19:39). Again this was a risky move for him. Thus, in both examples when Nicodemus is mentioned after today’s encounter, he supported Jesus. Even though he did not understand the Trinity, nevertheless, Nicodemus defended Jesus’ rights before his fellow Pharisees, in the first example, and he cared for Jesus’ body, in the second.
Thus, as we confront the doctrine of the Trinity today – that divine mystery – Nicodemus seems to provide a good model for us. We grapple with limitations in understanding, for in this doctrine, we encounter the very nature of God. With Nicodemus, therefore, we continue to ask, “How can these things be?” Nevertheless, we also continue to say the creeds and to practice our faith, as best we can. At opportune moments – perhaps in conversations with friends – like Nicodemus, we show up, in defense of Jesus. Then, too, we also do our best to care for our Lord’s body, which is – we believe – the Church on earth.
This side of heaven, mysteries will continue to exist for us. One of those includes the nature of God, as described by the doctrine of the Trinity. With Nicodemus, therefore, may we embrace the mystery as we also live out our faith. Amen.
The Right Reverend Charles G. vonRosenberg
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