The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
May 27, 2018 – Trinity Sunday
The old joke runs: “If you seek to deny the doctrine of the Trinity, you will lose your orthodoxy; but, if you seek to understand it, you will lose your mind.”
The Trinity — the idea that there is only one God but that He exists in three Persons — defeats our best attempts to comprehend it completely.
Given whom we are talking about, we should not be surprised. We should expect that a boundlessly great God would exceed our powers of understanding. In trying to figure Him out in all His transcendent glory, we are beyond our depths.
Augustine wrote a long book entitled On the Trinity. Shortly after finishing it, he was strolling along the North African coast when he chanced upon a boy who kept filling a bucket with seawater and pouring it into a hole he’d dug in the sand. When Augustine asked him what he was doing, the boy replied in all seriousness, “I am putting the Mediterranean into my hole.” “What an impossible thing!” Augustine laughed. “The sea is too vast; and your hole, too small!” As he walked on, it dawned on Augustine that, in his efforts to conceptualize the Triune God, he was like that boy: his subject was too vast and his mind, too small.
Yet, while the doctrine of the Trinity conveys truths we cannot fully apprehend, it does convey truths we can appreciate; and while it is beyond us to capture what it means that God is one in essence but three in Persons, we can employ what we do understand of the Trinity to elevate our thinking about God, talking to God, worshipping God, serving God and walking through life with God.
After all, what we can’t entirely grasp can still grasp us. Think of a great piece of music, or the starry expanse of outer space. Just as these wonders awe, humble and exhilarate us, so the fathomless wonder of God awes, humbles and exhilarates us.
Though it is a central concept of Christianity, the term “Trinity” is nowhere to be found in the Bible. The church developed the doctrine almost immediately to do justice to God’s various self-revelations in the Bible, to reconcile the seeming contradictions of God’s complexity within simplicity, and to prevent believers from spinning off into false conclusions about God.
Consider just today’s scripture. It describes God’s actions to save us as being carried out by three distinct Persons. God the Father loves us; God the Son sacrifices Himself for us; and God the Spirit gives us a second birth and new life. In each divine Person’s unique work, each is individual in the sense of being self-conscious and self-directing. Yet, between them there is no separation in the sense of Anyone’s acting or existing apart from mutual dependence and collaboration or of having anything other than the same one heart and intention.
Moreover, each Person radiates all that God essentially is. None lacks any quality of the divine nature. None is just a part of God or a time-bound form of God. Each is entirely divine in Himself, and each remains co-eternally and co-equally the one God.
This jives with the consistent witness of scripture that there is not a multiplicity of Gods, but one God alone, the only God there is. God is one both by being single and whole, and by being unique. God is not a plurality of any kind, nor is He just one among many. He is utterly a unity, and utterly one of a kind.
The doctrine of the Trinity is admittedly baffling, but it is a true and right one whose capacity to baffle is created by the full counsel of scripture and by the very nature of an inconceivably high and holy God. While God has made Himself truly knowable, He can’t make Himself fully knowable to the likes of us – that is, small enough that we can wrap our minds around Him or encompass His complexity within our words and concepts. Christians believe in there being one God in three Persons while acknowledging their inability to penetrate all the logic of the idea – since, after all, we don’t understand divinity that well or, for that matter, personhood, despite being persons ourselves.
The Trinity, let’s be honest, is not a crystal clear doctrine. But what is unclear can still be believable. We believe in love though we don’t entirely understand it. We believe in great art though we don’t entirely understand it. We believe in the magnificent, fundamental make-up of material things though we don’t entirely understand it.
A number of us in this congregation have read Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus written by Nabeel Qureshi. At one point, Qureshi explains how an insight from organic chemistry helped him, as a young Muslim, to accept the doctrine of the Trinity. He was opened to it while he was listening to one Professor Adamski’s lecture about the chemical compound, nitrate. At the front of the classroom, she had projected, in bold black and white diagrams, three large depictions of nitrate’s structures, in order to illustrate the concept of resonance. Resonance refers to the configuration of electrons in a molecule.
The building block of every physical object is the atom. An atom consists of a positively charged nucleus orbited by negatively charged electrons. Separate atoms bond together by sharing electrons, and so form molecules. Different arrangements of the electrons in molecules are called ‘resonance structures’. Some molecules, like water, have none while others, like nitrate, have three or even more.
Adamski stated that she was displaying the three different structural diagrams of nitrate so as to give students a basic idea about what resonance is, but she added that resonance is much more complicated and mysterious than it first appears. She said – and Qureshi quotes her – “Technically, a molecule with resonance is every one of its structures at every point in time, yet no single one of its structures at any point in time.” Qureshi remembers looking at the three different structures of nitrate, and trying to take in the reality that one molecule is always all three resonance structures at once and never just one of them. The three are distinct but they are one. They are three in one.
“That’s when it clicked,” Qureshi says. “If there are things in this world that can be three in one, even incomprehensibly so, then why cannot God? And just like that, the Trinity became potentially true in my life.”
Now, what is potentially true in one’s life can become actually true in one’s life, as the Trinity did for Qureshi. We can know the Father as God standing above us, hurting over our desperate plight and working in His wisdom and power to set us right again; we can know the Son as God standing with us , descending to our level to bring God within view, and delivering us from our self-destruction; we can know the Spirit as God staying within us, immersing us in a life beyond our own and enabling us to change into the likeness of the God-Man who changed our situation; and we can know all of them as one loving and redeeming God, a beautiful complexity within simplicity, who calls forth from us wonder, awe and adoration. Let us forever praise Him with humility and with grateful joy – and let us now pray to Him!