God in Three Persons: Trying to Make Sense Out of Mystery

Scripture  |  Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31  |  John 16:12-15

In an effort to help me with my sermon preparation on the Trinity, Trip kindly sent me some links to articles and video clips from leading theologians – people like Richard Rohr, N.T. Wright, and Jurgen Moltmann. He also shared something he found on Facebook that I found particularly helpful. It was the following press release from The Onion:

Calling the Holy Trinity "overstaffed and over budget," God announced plans Monday to downsize the group by slowly phasing out the Holy Ghost. "Given the poor economic climate and the unclear nature of the Holy Ghost's duties, I felt this was a sensible and necessary decision," God said. "The Holy Ghost will be given fewer and fewer responsibilities until His formal resignation from Trinity duty following Easter services... Thereafter, the Father and the Son shall be referred to as the Holy Duo."

Truth be told, the Trinity is a concept nobody really understands. God is one and God is three and both those statements are true at the same time. We don’t have three Gods, only one. But that one God is Father, Son and Holy Ghost; each person is essential; you can’t fire any one of them and still have God be God. 

Got it?

As Madeline L’Engle once put it, “3 in 1 and 1 in 3 makes even less sense than 3 x 0= 0 instead of 3.”

In fact, it’s a lot easier to describe what the Trinity is NOT than what the Trinity is. 

  • It’s not God in three different roles, like the way I’m a mother, sister and daughter to different people. 
  • It’s not three different forms of the same substance, like how water, ice and steam are all the same molecule at different temperatures. 
  • It’s not about function, the way your smartphone is an iPod, calendar or atlas depending on how you want to use it. 
  • It’s not sequential, either, like God was first the Father then became the Son when Jesus was born and then came back as the Holy Spirit. 
  • And it’s not like God’s masquerading as Jesus or the Spirit, the way Clark Kent is really Superman but is really Kal-El from the planet Krypton. God’s always been a three-in-one, one-in-three God. 

Your head hurt yet?

The Trinity isn’t even a biblical concept. Nowhere in all of Holy Scripture does anyone ever say, “God is a Trinity.” The closest thing comes at the end of Matthew’s Gospel when Jesus commissions his disciples to go out and teach what he has commanded, baptizing in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. 

So how did all this get started, anyway?

It all goes back to the early church trying to figure out who Jesus really was, and is. 

As the disciples obeyed Jesus and news spread of his saving life, death and resurrection, small churches popped up all over the Greco-Roman world. Many of these early Christians didn’t come from the Jewish faith and knew nothing about the God of Israel, the one Jesus called, “Abba” or “Father.” In their world it wasn’t unusual for a king or emperor to call himself “Son of God,” so even that title of Jesus could mean many different things in different places. People had all kinds of ideas about Jesus.

  • Some early Christians said Jesus was the Son of God, but that didn’t really make him God. 
  • Other Christians said, no, Jesus was really God, but he wasn’t really human and so he didn’t actually suffer or die, it just looked that way.
  • Most Christians said, no, he was a human being just like us, but he was also God. 
  • But then some Christians said, well he can’t be God in the same way the God of Israel is God; he must be a creation of God.
  • But then, others argued, if Jesus is divine but isn’t God, are we worshiping two gods? 

Do you see how this could get complicated? 

From the very beginning of Christianity there were disagreements about who Jesus was, and is. Even in the book of Ephesians the Apostle Paul pleads for the early church to understand there is “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.” [Eph. 4:5-6] But the reality was, that as competing theologies developed, there wasn’t one faith, there were many. 

Until Constantine, that is. As our Book of Confession describes, 

In A.D. 312, Constantine won control of the Roman Empire in the battle of Milvian Bridge. Attributing his victory to the intervention of Jesus Christ, he elevated Christianity to favored status in the empire. “One God, one Lord, one faith, one church, one empire, one emperor” became his motto. [But as t]he new emperor soon discovered… “one faith and one church” were fractured by theological disputes, especially conflicting understandings of the nature of Christ, long a point of controversy.

Constantine wanted all this arguing to stop. So in 325 he called a council in the city of Nicaea for church leaders from around the Empire to duke it out and come up with one, single coherent statement of belief they could agree to. The bishops managed to come up with a creed, but the theological battles still raged. In 381 they tried again and created the version we still have today, known as the Nicene Creed. 

Jesus, they said, is begotten, not made. He is truly God. But our Lord became truly human for our sake, and lived and died and rose again for us. The Spirit comes from the Father and the Son, and is the Lord, the giver of life. 

It’s still confusing, I know. And even when I studied theology back in seminary it made my head hurt, the way particle physics still does. It’s trying to make sense out of a mystery. You can explain till your blue in the face, but 1 + 1 + 1 = 1 will never quite add up, at least not in this Cartesian plane. 

But God is mystery. There are so many things about God that don’t add up. I love what N.T. Wright says about that:

You see, the doctrine of the Trinity, properly understood, is as much a way of saying ‘we don’t know’ as of saying ‘we do know.’ To say that the true God is Three and One is to recognize that if there is a God then of course we shouldn’t expect him to fit neatly into our little categories.  If he did, he wouldn’t be God at all, merely a god, a god we might perhaps have wanted.  

The Trinity is not something that the clever theologian comes up with as a result of hours spent in the theological laboratory, after which he or she can return to announce that they’ve got God worked out now, the analysis is complete, and here is God neatly laid out on a slab.  The only time they laid God out on a slab he rose again three days afterwards.  

I, for one, am grateful that we live with a God who is mystery. God who is eternal – forever - bigger than all of life. God who is love, so loving that God came to this world as flesh and blood, a real human being who knows all my faults and flaws and forgives me just the same. God who is Spirit, as close as breath itself, giving me courage every step along the way. God who is one in three and three in one, as if community is the very essence of God.

Jesus said, “Believe in God, believe also in me.” [Jn 14:1] All of our creeds and confessions are our best human attempt to do name what we believe. But they’ll never capture God and pin God down. All we can do is keep head and heart open to the truth God reveals… keep loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. 

 “Now we see through a mirror dimly,” Paul wrote, “but then we shall see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” [1 Cor. 13:12]  Praise be to this God we worship, who knows us and loves us and abides with us eternally, Father, Son and Holy Ghost, one God, forever and ever.

Rev. Karen Chakoian

First Presbyterian Church, Granville, OH