Isaiah 6:1-8; John 3:1-17
The Rev. Melanie McCarley
Last week I encountered a bit of lore proclaiming that common wisdom dictates that if a person discusses the Holy Trinity for longer than a few minutes, one will inevitably slip into heresy, because that individual is probing the depths of God too deeply. Balm for a preacher’s soul, I thought to myself—because, let’s face it, discussing the Trinity is not a simple subject. Goodness, even St. Augustine, with his enormous capacity for theological insight, said it was beyond his comprehension. So, how do you explain a mystery; particularly in ten minutes or less? In truth, you can’t, but that doesn’t mean that we’re not able to glean something about the truth of God from taking a closer look.
With this in mind (and prompted by the thoughts of Karoline Lewis and her excellent article “The Necessity of Three”), I’d like for us to look a bit closer at the reason there are three persons of the Godhead: Father, Son and Holy Spirit rather than two or simply one.
To begin, numbers mean something when we find them in the Bible. We’re familiar enough with the 12 disciples, modeled, of course, on the 12 tribes of Israel. Seven is the number representing perfection; forty symbolizes new life, new growth and transformation. Then there is 666, the number of the beast! So, numbers, when we come across them in the context of our faith, are of great significance.
But numbers are also important in the world in which we live. And, as I look around, it seems that there is definitely a preference for even numbers, as opposed to odd. Think about it. There are four posts to a bed; four sides to a table, four legs to a chair. There are two sides to an argument; a tale of two cities, a bicycle built for two. A preference for even numbers even extends to procreation—in many circles, two is the ideal number of children (preferably one of each gender). We seek order and predictability in numbers. Add in the odd person and you throw the whole social order out of wack. Chaos ensues.
Here, I speak from a place of experience. I am the middle child in a family of five. I have vast experience with that place of peculiar torture known as the Middle Seat in the car. The Middle Seat was akin to the Gobi Desert—it was a place of exile, the uncomfortable spot over the hump—woe be unto the one relegated to the middle seat on a road trip of any length. The third child also violates the Amusement Park principle—because this means that someone has to ride the roller coaster by themselves or seated next to a stranger! There’s a reason why, when we add the additional person they sometimes feel like the proverbial “third wheel”. And no one double dates with three individuals. Indeed, add three into the mix and you have what we all refer to as the “odd person out.”
Yet today, on Trinity Sunday, we behold a mystery—that God saw fit to express God’s self best in the number three. Three persons in one Godhead. Perhaps this says something about God. Maybe God likes disequilibrium. Maybe God isn’t opposed to a bit of chaos and imbalance in the order of the world. Might it be that when we look at the Holy Trinity, we behold a glimpse of what God thinks relationships really should be about.
Think of it. The concept of the Trinity casts a vision of God as deeply and irreducibly relational. The whole idea of God is bound up in those three persons existing in perpetual relationship one with another. There’s no getting away from the others, no slamming of doors, no retreating into the bedroom or the garage—for they are always with you and indeed, they are a part of you. This is the model God gifts us with this morning.
Let’s take a look at the prophet Isaiah in the first lesson for today which recounts the calling of this beloved prophet. From the moment he accepts his vocation, Isaiah has to contend not only with God, but with God, God’s people, and himself. That’s a lot harder to manage than just a relationship between Isaiah and God. And it brings me to another point. In an era too often dominated by individualism, isolation, loneliness and division—it’s important for us to take hold of the hope and promise which exists in something such as the theological doctrine of the Trinity. This is a principle suggesting that incorporation of others is vital to our happiness, our well being and the good of the gospel.
Such a vision of the number three raises another issue. It presents a challenge to the long-held belief that we should think only in dualities: Good verses evil; your way and my way; orthodoxy and heresy. It offers a third angle for us to consider—an additional perspective to ponder. You see, we are terribly accomplished at focusing at what is directly in front of us. That’s easy. If you add another perspective, that presents something of a duality. But throw in a third option and that’s enough to send us reeling. And this is the situation facing Nicodemus. The Gospel presents us with a devout Jew, a leader of the Pharisees who comes to Jesus by night (because he doesn’t want anyone to see where he is going) in an effort to explore what it is that this rabbi, Jesus, is all about. From a theological perspective, Nicodemus’s world has been upended—no longer is he concerned solely about paganism versus Judaism; but about a new perspective presented to his faith, one which expands horizons in ways of which he had never thought before now. True enough, his world has been thrown askew, but now there are possibilities of which he had never conceived. Indeed…to be born again!
The Holy Trinity, like life, is complicated. It’s a mystery in which we are assured that God is not only “up there”, but also “down here” and indeed “everywhere”. What’s more, the life of this Triune God includes us as partners. It might be that the Trinity remains a mystery—incomprehensible to those brave enough to attempt to wrap their minds around this enigma. Yet, sometimes mysteries are best understood—not in the light of logic, but in the truth of lives lived with trust in the incomprehensible goodness and love of our three-fold God. In the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.