Today is Trinity Sunday, a day when churches around the world — not just the United Church of Christ, but Catholics and Anglicans and Lutherans and Presbyterians and Methodists — recognize and celebrate one of the great mysteries of our faith. We worship one God in three Persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
It is easily one of the hardest bits of our faith to grasp. If it sounds difficult and nonsensical, that’s because it is. It’s difficult and nonsensical and true. It’s one of those things about God that we just can’t get our heads around. It’s one of those things about God that we can’t understand. And I cannot explain it.
There’s a video that shows up on my Facebook feed almost every year around this time. I’ll post it on the website along with this sermon.
In it, two Irishmen named Donall and Conall meet St. Patrick. And they ask him to explain the Trinity. But, since they’re just simple Irishmen without fancy theological educations, they ask him to explain it in simple terms. With an analogy.
So Patrick starts this way. The Trinity is like water. Water is always water, but it can be a liquid or a solid or a gas. Water or ice or vapor. But Donall and Conall and quick to point out that he’s saying that there’s one God in three forms, not three Persons who are one God. That’s modalism. And it’s a heresy.
So Patrick switches gears. The Trinity is like the sun. There is the star and the light and the heat. But Donall and Conall correct him. He’s saying that the Father creates the Son and the Spirit and that they’re not coeternal and equal. That’s Arianism. And it’s a heresy.
So Patrick switches gears again. The Trinity is like a three leaf clover. And Donall and Conall stop him before he even gets started. He was about to say that the Father and the Son and the Spirit are like leaves of a clover, different parts of one thing. But they aren’t different parts of God. They are God. Patrick was about to confess partialism. And that’s a heresy.
And they go around a bit more and Patrick finally gets fed up and says that the Trinity is a mystery that cannot be comprehended by human reason, but is understood only through faith. We worship one God in trinity, and trinity in unity, neither confounding the persons nor dividing the essence, each person God and Lord, equal in glory and coeternal in majesty.
And Donall and Conall ask why he didn’t just say that to start with, with suggest celebrating their conversion by putting on big green foam hats and drinking too much.
And the Trinity really is that hard to get. I do have a fancy theological education and I spend time with this stuff. I can tell you about it. I can recite the mystery. I can say and believe that we worship one God in three divine persons. But I can tell you that I also don’t get it and I cannot explain it in any way that really satisfies me.
Which brings me to our reading from John.
In the other gospels, there’s a scene where a rich young man comes to Jesus and asks what he has to do to inherit eternal life. And Jesus says to him, “You know the commandments. Keep them.”
And the rich young man says, “I have kept them since my youth.”
And Jesus says, “Then there’s just one more thing. Sell all that you have and distribute the money to the poor and follow me.”
In this passage in John, Nicodemus is a Pharisee, a leader of the Jews, and a teacher of Israel. And he doesn’t ask what he has to do to inherit eternal life, but Jesus tells him, anyway: You must be born again, from above, of water and spirit.
And where the other gospels are clear, that’s a little opaque. And Nicodemus is understandably confused. And Jesus is a little condescending about that.
“You’re a teacher of Israel,” he says, “and you don’t understand these things?”
But then he goes on, “I have been telling you what is true. I have testified to what I’ve seen. But you don’t get it. And if I’ve been telling you about earthly things and you’re not getting it, how are you going to get it if I tell you about heavenly things? Look, I know about heavenly things because I’ve been there. You’re just going to have to believe in me.”
Or something like that.
Now, I have had plenty of people ask me if I’m born again. I’ve had people encourage me to get born again. I have had people pressure me to say the sinner’s prayer and sign the back page of the pamphlet and be born of of water and spirit. And maybe you have, too.
And I gotta tell you. I’m kind of with Nicodemus here.
Now don’t get me wrong, I proclaim Jesus my lord and savior. I proclaim Jesus the lord and savior of the whole world. I have been changed by Christ and by the faith that I put in him. I sometimes even do my best to follow him. I repent on a regular basis. And I have confidence that he has saved me. And I kind of even know what I mean by that.
And, maybe, I’ve been born again, from above, of water and spirit. But I don’t know. Because I don’t know what that means. Should I have had a big conversion moment? Should I have passed through the dark night of the soul? Should I be able to point to the day and time and place that I was born again, from above, of water and spirit? Or can it be a gradual thing? A slow realization of what happened when I wasn’t paying attention?
And if I appear ignorant it is because I am ignorant. God is far bigger and more majestic than I can imagine. I see through a glass darkly, at best. There are a few things that I’m very confident about. But even though I am a preacher and a teacher in this congregation, I do not understand all of these things. If I appear ignorant it is because I am ignorant.
And that’s okay. Today’s reading from Isaiah is a reminder of that.
Isaiah was one of the great prophets. He was one of the big guys. And in the sixth chapter of his book, he receives a vision. He sees God, sitting on a throne, filling the temple, with angels attending him. And he says aloud, “Woe is me. I am lost. I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips and yet I have seen the Lord.”
Isaiah sees God and it is too much.
And an angel swoops down to him, holding a hot coal with a pair of tongs. And the angel puts the coal to Isaiah’s lips and tells him that his suit has departed and his sin has been blotted out.
And God asks, “Who shall I send? Who will deliver my message to the people?”
And Isaiah, with his coal stained lips, can say, “Here am I; send me.”
But even that doesn’t mean that Isaiah gets everything. What he gets is what God has given him. He has his message and his mission. And I bet that if you asked him to explain the trinity, he would be lost. And if you asked him if he was born again, from above, of water and spirit, he would just give you a confused look.
You see, it wasn’t given to Isaiah to understand all things. It was given to Isaiah to understand the message that he was to deliver.
And I think that the same is true of me and of you.
John Dorhauer, the General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, once said something like this. Denominations — you know, the United Church of Christ, the Catholics, the Anglicans, the Lutherans, the Presbyterians, the Methodists, and so on — denominations exist because people get together and say, “If not for us, this aspect of the gospel will be forgotten. This part of the gospel will be overlooked.”
And I think that something like that is true for each of us. We are not given to understand everything. We are certainly not given to understand everything about God. But we are each given to understand something. We are each carrying a little part of the Kingdom of God.
And, at the same time, we are not responsible for everything. It is not my job to create heaven on earth. It is not your job to realize the Kingdom of God. But we are each responsible for something. We are each carrying a little part of the Kingdom of God.
And when we come together — when we each bring our little piece to the table — we can join God in doing something amazing. We can see a new heaven and a new earth rise around us. We can see a new Garden of Eden blossom around us. We can see the Kingdom of God live within us.
And then, maybe, we will understand.