The Rev. Melanie McCarley
In the movie The Dead Poet’s Society there is a scene in which Mr. Keating (played by Robin Williams), an English Instructor at an elite preparatory school, asks his students to rip out the “Introduction to Poetry” essay from their literature textbooks. The essayist had instructed students in a method of grading poems on a sliding scale, complete with the use of a grid, thus reducing the evaluation of art into a mathematical formula. The students look at each other in confusion as their teacher dismisses the essay as rubbish and tells them to rip these pages from their books (after all, doesn’t a command such as this go contrary to everything we’ve heard from our parents, librarians, teachers and all others who wield authority over the printed word?). Yet, Mr. Keating continues to prod, and at last, the students begin to rip. Dr. Keating paces the aisle with a trash can and reminds the students that poetry is not algebra. It is (he says), not composed of songs on American Bandstand that can be rated on a scale from 1 to 10. Instead, poetry is “pieces of art that plunge the depths of the heart to stir vigor in men and woo women.”
You may wonder what this has to do with Trinity Sunday. Here it is. Have you ever hear someone attempt to describe the Holy Trinity? Put aside, for a moment, all of the helpful, if cute illustrations of eggs, apples and shamrocks. I’m talking theological descriptions. Some of them are downright painful to read. Now, don’t get me wrong. These arguments try—they make an effort to put together a definitive and cogent argument in defense of the existence of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Yet, they almost always fail. Not because the Trinity isn’t true—far from it; but because knowing how something works isn’t as important as knowing that it does. Like art.
The Holy Trinity defies clear explanations—much the way fine poetry does. It cannot be reduced to its various elements and substructures. To attempt to dissect the Trinity into understandable equations would be to miss the point entirely. The Trinity is poetry. It is art. At its heart, it is a great and enduring mystery. In the end, this is what I have come to believe. You cannot explain the Holy Trinity so much as you must experience it.
I once heard a person say that physicists can’t explain why a bumblebee can fly. By all accounts of logic, it shouldn’t. Yet, who among us can deny that it does. The bumblebee, making its way to the heart of a flower is a mystery, much in the same way that the workings of the Trinity defy our ability to explain; yet we can see the evidence of it at work in our world.
Take the gospel passage appointed for today as an example. Here, we find Nicodemus, a leader of Israel’s religious establishment, making his way in stealth to speak to Jesus. Once there, Jesus says: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus, not surprisingly, is stumped and replies: “how can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”
Now, bear in mind that I don’t believe that Nicodemus was being sarcastic. Here he was, under the cover of nightfall, at great risk to himself and his family, to try to unravel the mystery of this teacher, Jesus. He was there to learn—and Jesus understands, for he continues: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit…” Nicodemus is still fuzzy (aren’t we all at this point), and so, finally, Jesus sums it up with these words: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
Consider, for a moment, Nicodemus; this man who comes to Jesus by cover of night. He has no inkling that Jesus is “the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one being with the Father by whom all things were made.” He has neither correct belief nor theological exactitude on his side when it comes to sizing up the likes of Jesus. All he has is this: openness and willingness. Nicodemus is open to hearing from Jesus; and he is willing to come, and hear for himself what this man from Nazareth has to say.
And those, my friends, are the basic ingredients for a life of faith, and for making sense of the Holy Trinity: Openness and Willingness. You see, it was neither theological cogency nor liturgy, nor slick advertising or great fellowship events that brought Nicodemus to the house where Jesus was. It was Jesus himself.
What must be remembered as we celebrate Trinity Sunday is that the Christian revelation of doctrine (such as that of the Holy Trinity), begins as an experience rather than a system of theological intricacies. It begins with ordinary people, such as Nicodemus, encountering their Savior, and abandoning themselves to God.
Think of it this way; the Holy Trinity—well, it’s less about the proof-texting of scriptures, theological dissertations or mathematical equations than it is about the experience of Christians, centuries over, who have seen the woks of the Father, have heard the voice of the Son and have felt the Holy Spirit move in their lives. The Trinity is not an abstract idea. At its heart, it is an experience.
And so, I close this morning, with a prayer. It is the concluding prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, in his Letter to the Entire Order. He writes: “Almighty, eternal, just and merciful God, grant us in our wretchedness the grace to do for You alone what we know You want us to do and always to desire what pleases You. Thus, inwardly cleansed, enlightened, and inflamed by the fire of the Holy Spirit, may we be able to follow in the footsteps of Your beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, and by your grace alone, may we make our way to You, Most High, who lives and rules in perfect Trinity and simple Unity…. For ever and ever. Amen.