This morning we are celebrating a mystery, a very great mystery, the mystery of the inner being and inner life of God. And I think I should begin by making clear what I understand this word mystery to mean.
First of all, it’s not a question of whether the butler did it or not. That’s a puzzle, and a puzzle can be solved. When all the clues are put together the right way, everything becomes perfectly clear and understandable. The butler did not do it. Sally did.
And second, it’s more than a paradox. We find ourselves troubled by a paradox when we have in mind two perfectly understandable propositions both of which we know are true, and yet together they contradict one another. With regard to the Trinity we might say God is one, God is three. Three is not one, and one is not three. The two contradict one another, and so we might well conclude that the doctrine of the Trinity is a paradox. But no. In fact, when we talk about the Trinity we should everything we can to avoid talking about numbers. Three. One. As numbers, they imply separation or confusion and those are emphatically wrong ideas.
And so, the Doctrine of the Trinity is not a paradox; it is a mystery and a mystery is much more than a paradox. The dictionary will tell you that a mystery is a revealed supernatural truth, and that’s quite true, but is misses the heart of the matter. For you see, the archaic root of the Greek word mysterion, mystery, means to put your hand over your mouth. Why ? Because that is the normal human reaction when we encounter something astonishing, amazing, tremendous, frightening, beyond words. Something which startles us by its beauty and majesty. The Divine. That is the root meaning of mystery, because that is what a mystery is and that is what a mystery does. Indeed, it is better to say that a mystery encounters us than that we encounter a mystery. The Doctrine of the Holy Trinity is a mystery. Not a puzzle. Not a paradox. It is astonishing. It is startling. It is beyond words.
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There we have a first beginning of this sermon, but we need a second one. We need to think about history, for history, as Christianity understands it, is itself mysterious, and history, again as Christianity understands it, is connected to the mystery of God, the Holy Trinity.
The ancient Greeks, as we all know well, were good at philosophy. So good at it in fact, that one may truthfully say that they invented it, and the questions, answers, problems and speculations they posed and pondered are posed and pondered still. The ancient Hebrews were also inventors; the intellectual invention they came up with was history.
As solemn and serious as is Thucydides, as colorful as is Herodotus, these Greek writers produced little more than chronicles – the recounting of numerous events with occasional connections between them and some moralizing. Who was right and who was wrong. Who was clever and who was stupid, and particularly, who thought to much of himself. The Bible, however, is very different. It is about history, and from the beginning it seeks to disclose the meaning of events, as much as to record the facts of what happened and who was right and who was wrong and so on. The Jews were convinced that what happened in the world was not at all part of a meaningless cycle. They saw a beginning of things and an end toward which all things tended. There was direction in history and the motivation behind this direction was moral and theological. What happened in the world, what happens in the world has purpose. It is not simply the random selection of blind fate. There is a reason behind history and an order that moves history toward its end.
This was the Hebrew discovery. And though Greek philosophy has forever influenced the Western world and still does, it may quite accurately be said that the Hebrews and their history created the Western world.
It should come as no surprise that the Hebrews discovered history, for history is made by persons and the other, prior, and even more important discovery of the Hebrews is this: that God, the force and motivation behind history, is person, a person.
You may have heard it said that the most important spiritual and intellectual idea of the ancient Jews was that God was one. There was one God – alone. That’s not strictly true. Other peoples had grasped this fact some time before the Hebrews made it their creed. The Hebrews, however, encountered a God who revealed Himself as person. He was defined not by human thought – by concepts or speculations. Rather, He revealed Himself. He made Himself known in encounter. He defined Himself. By will and desire. By action, word, and by summoning the Jews into a relationship. And that relationship with its laws and promise and meaning would be their history and finally the history of the whole creation.
Today we celebrate the mystery of the Holy Trinity – the Christian doctrine of God, who He is and how He is: Three Persons, One God. My point in beginning as I have is to make clear that when we speak of the Trinity we are not dealing with abstraction or theory or concept or metaphysics. All these things have been used, to be sure, in attempts to explain the doctrine. To make it understandable, even reasonable. All such attempts only go so far before they either fail or founder. For you cannot explain a person. I cannot explain myself and I cannot – certainly – explain you. I only partially understand myself and what I do understand is often not reasonable. In speaking of the Trinity we are dealing with person/personality, for the Doctrine of the Trinity is only the unfolding of the ancient Hebrew encounter with God. In Jesus that God was encountered again. In the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church and in the human soul that God is encountered again. He reveals Himself. He defines Himself. Again – by will and desire, by action, word, and relationship.
God acted in creation. All things are grounded and exist by His fiat, His sovereign word of creating power. The Father. The God of Israel. He acted and continues to act in creation – upholding it and sustaining it – calling it every moment out of nothing.
God acted in Jesus Christ. All things are redeemed by Him. The Son. The Word. The Savior. God incarnate in the world. He acted in Jesus Christ and continues to act in Jesus who, risen from the dead, is present to his people.
God acted and continues to act in the Church and in the world. The Holy Spirit. The giver of life. The fire and breath of God in the Church. Inspiration – the breathing out of God throughout the world.
One God. But known and experienced and therefore self-defined in three unique persons. Whose uniqueness is their identity one with the other. Three persons, one God – equal in glory, splendor, majesty and love. One God who is a complex simplicity of self-relating personhood. An overplus of personality and relationship.
But what on earth does this mean? What on earth does it have to do with you and me? Is this just fancy chatter for theologians and clergy who have nothing better to do – or can it somehow touch us and even change us?
In the first place, let me say that the meaning of the Trinity is crucial. The Trinitarian doctrine of God means that what you and I are as persons, our reality, is grounded in the reality of God.
“Let us make man in our own image.” We hear that in the Book of Genesis, don’t we? And it’s something we think about often – man created in the image of God.
And certainly personhood, personality is one aspect – perhaps the primary aspect of God’s image in us. Personhood is not an accident nor is it an epiphenomenon, the by-product of something else, but is rather that which is really real about us. It is the dignity and excellence of our created nature, defined not as a genome nor the succession of heartbeats toward an end, but as person. The richness and complexity of human personality is prior and primordial. Bodily life is its context and its character, but personality is both the crown and the ground of creation.
And this means – in the second place – that relationship, relatedness is an essential part of human life. Personhood is and can be only in relationship. Only in community. And, therefore, community, life together is – again – an essential part of what it is to be human. We cannot be persons alone. We can only be human together, and it should be no surprise then that salvation in Christ entails the creation of a Church. Relatedness one with another in Christ.
The image of God within – the reflection of His Triune Person-hood/Personality – means also that relationship with God – prayer, in fact – is not only possible, but is also at the heart of what it is to be a human being. Non-religious man is the aberration. The person without prayer is a sad disappointment to his very nature.
And all this because God is person, persons, Who created us, and redeemed us, and inspires us, and yearns for us. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Triune God, Whom we worship this day and to Whom be ascribed all honor, might, glory, and mystery, now and ever unto ages of ages.