The Knowable and the Unknowable

A sermon from May 22, 2016

Eastminster Presbyterian Church

Grand Rapids MI

Psalm 8

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31

Romans 5:1-5

John 16:12-15
Today is Trinity Sunday. It comes after Good Friday, Easter, Ascension Day and Pentecost. It is a time, I think, for us to reflect on the past 50 days and think about Jesus and the Holy Spirit and how they are related to and connected to the one true God. The response our tradition gives us about that connection is the doctrine of the Trinity. You won’t find the word “trinity” or “triune” in scripture. The Trinity isn’t laid out in tidy bullet points for us. We have to think theologically about what we can know; and we have to embrace and experience the unknowable.

We’re going to try to do a bit of both today.

There are books and books and more books written about the Trinity, so today we’re only looking at a couple of ideas. Understanding the Trinity is the work of a lifetime not the result of 15 or 20 minutes on a Sunday morning. But we need to start somewhere, so here we go.
First with the knowable. What can we know? What can we say?
Someone asked me once, how we know we are thinking theologically and my reply was When your head hurts. Well friends, thinking about the Trinity can make your head hurt.

It is a difficult concept to understand.  We are thinking and speaking at the very limits of our language and our mind’s abilities.  And that makes it frustrating for many of us. And Muslims and Jews, also monotheists, wonder what we’re talking about. How can we say that God is three and God is one? This requires some careful thinking.

This isn’t a topic restricted only to academics and theologians which rest of us don’t have to worry about. In one sense, we regular people don’t have to worry. We are not saved by correct doctrine or by being right. We are saved by the grace of God. But on the other hand thinking about the Trinity does matter, because the doctrine of the Trinity helps keep us from slipping into simplistic and faulty thinking about God.

Where to start?

Sometimes when we’re struggling to define what something is, it’s helpful to define what it is not. So our tradition  has set some boundaries about the Trinity to help us. There are two main ways we get off track.

One is when we over emphasize the “Threeness” of the Trinity. The Trinity is not three distinct beings. And also we are not talking about one main being and two slightly lesser beings. It is not God and the son and the Holy Spirit. That makes us polytheists.
At the same time, we don’t want to  over emphasize the “oneness” and lose the individuality of the persons on the Trinity. We do that when we think of one God who acts differently at different times. As if sometimes God acts or inhabits the role of  the father, sometimes God acts as the son, sometimes the spirit- like an actor in a play.

Or in more current images, there is the real me and then there is the me on Facebook, the me on Twitter, the me on Instagram. Each where I present myself in a particular way to the larger world.
What we want to say about the Triune God sits in between these two, well the best word is, heresies. Don’t panic, heresy is just a shorthand way of talking about a belief that is at odds with the established belief of the tradition. Honestly at any given point in the day, when we are thinking about God,  all of us slide into heresy and then back into orthodoxy.

So that’s what we don’t want to say. So what can we say about the Trinity?  Theologian Shirley Guthrie offers this definition;“one God in three persons” means one personal God who lives and works in three different ways at the same time.”  (Christian Doctrine, 84)
Did that clear things up?
Lets think a little more about what that looks like.   The Triune God lives and works in three different ways but the work of the Trinity is indivisible. The Trinity always acts in unity, The persons of the Trinity do not act in opposition to each other.

There are real, practical reasons why this matters. Remember the Trinity keeps us from sliding,  into  an unhealthy and inaccurate understanding of God- For example the way we understand the relationship between the Father and the Son.

You have, no doubt, heard people say that Jesus died for our sins. And that is true. You may also have heard people talk about it like this, our sin makes God angry.  God cannot tolerate sin and  sin demands a sacrifice. So God the father, the angry father sends his innocent only son to be that sacrifice on our behalf.

Believe me I have heard students speak quite seriously about how much Jesus suffered on our behalf, more than any other human beings because of the  awfulness of our sin. We are so awful, we deserve to die. Someone has to pay-  and that someone is Jesus. Jesus’ suffering was the only way to appease God and set things right. Now there is some truth to some of that. Jesus did most certainly suffer and die on our behalf, as a result of our sin. But this idea of an angry father sending, forcing, causing the death of the  innocent son is wrong and destructive.
When I worked as an Emergency vet in Kansas City, we often had late night/early morning conversations about faith, the Bible, Jesus. Like many of us had in late night dorm room conversations in college. When you work nights, you can have these conversations as an adult. There was one technician I worked with who would repeatedly ask me if God was sending her to hell. She had been the recipient of some very bad, very damaging evangelism.

Someone had impressed on her the “fact” that God was angry with her, so angry he sent his son to die because of her and if she didn’t believe that, she was condemned to hell. I can’t even tell you how many times we talked about this. How many I times I told her God loves you. God wants to be in your life. God doesn’t get up every morning thinking about  fresh ways to send you to hell.

She could never trust God. So finally, I told her,  you know me, now for years, you know I wouldn’t lie to you, you know I am trustworthy. If you can’t believe God, believe me , If you can’t trust God, trust me when I tell you God doesn’t hate you, God loves you. I never convinced her. It’s been probably ten years since we moved back to Michigan and I still think about her and pray for her.
The understanding the Trinity  is hard, it’s complex. We are tempted to  give ourselves a pass from doing this hard thinking  and leaving it to the  theological professionals. But thinking about the Trinity properly matters.

The persons of the Trinity work together in harmony, not in opposition to each other  And what one person in the Trinity does, all the persons of the Trinity participate in. So, salvation doesn’t involve an angry father sending his son to die for us which therefore forces the father to save us. Jesus doesn’t make God change God’s mind about us.

A Trinitarian understanding of God – Father, Son and Spirit  reminds us that God, all of God, loves us. God out of love becomes incarnate, becomes like us. God – Father, Son and Spirit offers themselves for our sake, out of love.Jesus is the physical human expression of God’s love for us. But all of God suffers for us. It’s not sinners in the hands of an angry, punishing  God, it’s sinners in the hands of the loving, self emptying, self sacrificing, redeeming, saving God.
Do you see how the Trinity helps correct our tendency to drift off into unhelpful and even dangerous thinking?

Theology isn’t just a parlor game for eggheads. It really does matter. And yet we must always be mindful that we cannot know everything, we cannot understand everything about God. We can only think our way into the Trinity so far. We can only understand by rational thought, so far.

Shirley  Guthrie also explains,

“The doctrine of the Trinity does not try to explain the mystery of the triune God; it tries to preserve a mystery.” (Christian Doctrine, 84)
The mystery of the Trinity is not a mystery we solve. Too much thinking may be just as harmful as too little thinking. The mystery of the Trinity is a mystery we enter into. We know things, by rational, logical thinking, but we also know by experience, by relationship. And relationships are not simple, linear, logical things.

Jesus and Paul and Woman Wisdom speak in a spiraling, non linear, complex interwoven way about God and the relationships between Father Son and Spirit. When they speak in  this way, it makes our head hurt. We need to shift our way of knowing. We need to not think with our brains as much as enter into experiencing with our entire selves the reality of the Trinity.

The fancy Greek word used to talk about the Trinity is perichoresis. It’s a little hard to translate, there isn’t a direct simple single English word. Peri means around, like perimeter. Choresis is dance. Like choreography. So we have the phrase dancing around to describe the Trinity.

It’s a group dance, like a folk dance. In folk dancing, everyone participate in the dance, we are not restricted to one partner, everyone dances with everyone else.  There’s no wall flowers waiting to be asked to dance in a folk dance.
We can know about dance, we can read about dance, we can listen to someone tell us about a dance, but until we actually dance we don’t fully know, don’t’ fully understand. And, amazingly, in the dance of the triune God, the dancers, invite us to dance.

And not just us, but all of creation. It’s complex, non linear, untidy. The persons of the trinity dancing amongst themselves. But also inviting you and I into the dance. And inviting all of creation,  everything into the dance. It’s all connected and yet not all the same. Unity within and around diversity and difference. It’s too much to hold only in our heads. Any understanding, any experience of the Trinity requires our entire being. We won’t truly understand the Trinity until we experience it. Until we spend time in the presence of the Triune God, in the presence of the God who loves us so much and in such unexpected ways.
That’s what today’s scripture passages are about, that relationship, and they are difficult for those of us who are linear thinkers.
The passage from John is just four verses long. It’s part of the longer four chapter final discourse of Jesus. If you read straight through from chapter 13 through chapter 17, Jesus speaks with urgency. It’s like he is leaning forward to the disciples, straining to find the words to make them understand.

Jesus talks about himself and he cannot do that without talking about the Father. And about the Spirit. And he cannot talk about the Spirit without talking about the Father. Jesus talks about his relationship with the disciples and he cannot talk about that without also talking about the Father and the Spirit. And when he talks about the disciple’s relationship to each other and to the world, again, Jesus cannot talk about those things without talking about the Father and the Spirit and the Son. And running through all that is love, love within the Trinity, love that overflows the Trinity and includes the disciples, love that includes the whole world. We only had four verses to read today but we get a taste of the larger discourse.

I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of Truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

Do you hear the relationship, the dancing around?
Paul is equally dense. Part of what Paul is up to in Romans is helping the church understand who Jesus is and how he is connected to God. Here , today, we only have five verses, but they’re packed with meaning.

Therefore since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand;and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our suffering, 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.

What a great thing, God’s love poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit. Not us poured into God, not our striving, our receiving grace, God’s love poured into us. Paul, like Jesus can’t talk about Jesus without talking about the Father and the Spirit and love and grace and glory and hope.
And the psalm for today which we sang as the hymn of adoration, speaks of God’s creation of the universe.

“To think the one who made all things should care for us at all.”

as the psalmist says, “What are human beings, that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?

God includes us in the work of the Trinity as verse 4 of the hymn says, “Into our hands,you’ve placed all things. The earth, the sea; each place we’re called to probe for secret gifts and venture into space.” A bit of a paraphrase of the psalm but it captures the essence.

And then in Proverbs, woman wisdom. Calling out to all and declaring wisdom’s presence  with God at creation and even wisdom’s participation and delight at creation and humankind. “I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.”

It is hard to grasp all this, and sometimes we the best we can do is more akin to poetry and image rather than rationality.
The Presbyterian Church’s document, “The Trinity: God’s love overflowing” tries to explain our reformed understanding of the Trinity. Part of what it does is give a series of triads to try and capture the essence of the Trinity. I’m going to read them to us.  As I read these, try not to think too much, but to experience. Maybe let these triads float out here as a sort of word cloud that surrounds us and offers glimpses of the our Triune God.
One From Whom, the One through Whom, and the One in Whom we offer our praise

Rainbow of Promise, our Ark of  Salvation, and our Dove of Peace

Speaker, Word, and Breath

Overflowing Font, Living Water, Flowing River

Compassionate Mother, Beloved  Child, and Life-giving Womb

Sun, Light, and Burning Ray

Giver, Gift, and Giving

Lover, Beloved, and the Love that binds together Lover and Beloved

Rock,  Cornerstone, and Temple

Fire that Consumes,  Sword that Divides, and Storm that Melts Mountains

One Who Was, the One  Who Is, and the One Who Is To Come
And then the document says, “ In these and other ways we stammer to confess that the triune God is an inexhaustible mystery of  purifying and transforming love. “

We’re trying, stammering to put into words this amazing relationship.  Between persons of Trinity and between God and all that God has created. The delight God has in creation, the hope that comes from our relationship with God, known to us through Jesus with the indwelling of the spirit who has poured God’s love into our hearts.

There is a deep relationship between the persons of the Trinity and between the Triune God and all of creation.

As a biologist, I learned about the web of life, the interconnectedness of all things. Nothing on earth exists independently, everything is connected. The classic example is DDT, it does a great job killing disease carrying mosquitos, it also does a great job of moving through the food chain so that eagles and other non target species are also affected to their detriment, and nearly to their extinction. We don’t usually spend much time thinking about the all bacteria,the good bacteria around us,  but if all the bacteria left, we wouldn’t last long. We can’t survive without bacteria.

As a veterinarian we learned about distinct body systems, the muscles, the circulatory system, the digestive system. But when a patient came for treatment, we did not treat the particular parts, we needed to treat the entire pet. The inter relationship of all the parts needed to be understood and respected.
The moon affects the tides. Galaxies, and dark matter and black holes exist in relationships set in motion by the Big Bang.  Quantum physics tells us that simply observing a particle affects its behavior. Somehow widely separated particles can affect each other and cannot be understood apart from each other  through the weird and wonderful phenomena of quantum entanglement. It’s all relationship from tiny quanta to the vast expanse of space. It’s all interrelated, it all dances around together, out of the creating love of God. From the dance of the cosmos to the dance of atoms. From the amazingly relational lives of ants and bees to us. God is present with the neutrinos and quarks,

God was present delighting in the big bang.

God was there with Lucy and her ancient hominid family. And God was with the dinosaurs and the Neanderthals. God was there, Father Son and Spirit in the eternal dance, with each other . And their deep love and delight overflows into all and with all of creation.

God loves it all. God delights in it all. It’s all perichoresis. The inner life of God,- Father, Son and Spirit, distinct and yet one. The interwoven, interpenetrating life of God spills over into the interwoven, interpenetrating life of all that God creates. It is too much for us to comprehend, this wisdom of God, this life of love, and grace and hope.

The unknowability of God is not something to be feared, or to be frustrated by. The unknowability, the mystery of God is something to enter into, to experience. Now, as Paul tells us dimly, some day face to face with clarity.

Truly,  we stammer to confess that the Triune God is an inexhaustible mystery of purifying and transforming love. “

Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, One God now and forever, Amen.


One thought on “The Knowable and the Unknowable

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s