The Strange Math of the Trinity

Romans 5:1-5; John 16:12-15

Trinity Sunday

There are moments when the ordinariness of our lives is interrupted by something wonderful.  Times when wonder surprises us. Events that leave us breathless. Moments when words fail to capture the awe that we are experiencing.  Have you ever had one of those moments?

One evening after the Conference session at Lakeside, I was pushing Hannah in her stroller on the path along the shore of Lake Erie.  As we passed the Pavilion, I stopped, got down beside her, and pointed out the setting sun over the lake.  I don’t know if she’s ever noticed a sunset before, and I wanted to introduce her.  She pointed at the round orange sun and said, “Ball.”  “No,” I said, “that’s the sun.”  To my surprise, her gaze continued to be locked on the sun as it dipped lower on the horizon. I was amazed at the colors in the sky and that she kept watching. At another moment, she pointed and simply said, “Ooo!” I wondered at her simple, two-year-old expression of awe as we listened to the water lapping the shoreline and watched the sunset. 

In those breathless moments in life, we experience awe and wonder.  They are important moments, meaningful, touching or inspiring to you.  We might even have felt the presence of God. Often, words fail to fully capture our experience and feelings.

The early Christians had many amazing, awe-inspiring moments with God to share with one another and to proclaim to the world.  Those first disciples of Christ were Jews, as Jesus himself was.  They brought with them an understanding who God is.  God is the One who created everything – the earth, the stars, the land and water, the animals and plants, all people everywhere.  God is the Sovereign Lord, the One who oversees everything.  God is the One who heard their ancestors’ cries, redeemed them from bondage, and led them with cloud by day and fire by night.  God is the One who promised to raise up a Messiah and to bring them home from Exile.  God is the One who formed their nation of Israel and chose their people to be a light to the nations.  Among many metaphors for God in scripture, the metaphor of “Father” was a common way God was referred to. God is the Father of their nation, and as such, they are God’s children; God is the Father to the poor, orphans and the downtrodden, and the Father to all people. Many Jewish prayers begin with words such as “Our Father in Heaven,” or “Our Father, our King,” or “Compassionate Father.”  The name “Father” applied to God shows a sense of filial relationship with God.

Those disciples knew something else key about God.  “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deut 6:4 NIV).  There is only one God, and God is one, alone.  This was the foundation of their faith and understanding. 

God is their Lord and Father.  All their lives they have experienced God in this way.

Then, one day, a rabbi walked into their lives.  He came by the lakeshore and called some fishermen, saying, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”  And they did.  He passed by their homes and places of business; he called them to follow.  And, for some unknown reason, twelve of them did follow.  They traveled with him for three years throughout Palestine.  Along the way, they heard him preach with authority like no other and teach through stories and parables that revealed deep truths of God.  They witnessed sick people healed, possessed people liberated, and even saw the dead rise at his word.  He fed the multitudes, and at his word, the winds and waves calmed.  They saw how he clashed with many religious leaders, while he welcomed sinners, touched lepers, honored women, blessed children, and interacted with Samaritans and Gentiles. 

At one point, the disciples proclaimed him to be Christ, the Messiah, sent by God, but they his words about suffering didn’t make sense.  They were confused when he talked about leaving them, but promised them peace through a coming Comforter.  They witnessed his betrayal, crucifixion and death.  And they experienced his Resurrection for themselves, when he appeared among them and taught them for 40 days, before he ascended into heaven.  This Jesus, the Christ, surely he is the Son of God. 

But how could this be?  God both still in heaven, caring for the whole world, and yet also present in this flesh and blood human who stood right before them? 

Then, at Pentecost, they received power from on high as wind and as fire. They spoke other languages, and no longer afraid, they became bold to proclaim the good news of what God has done through Jesus Christ – bringing forgiveness to all who believe and reconciliation with God for those who receive the gift of grace.  The Spirit gave them gifts and abilities to lead, to serve and to carry on the work of Christ throughout Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.  They continued to grow in their faith, and their lives were transformed. Their hearts were filled more and more with love for God and their neighbor.  The Holy Spirit filled them and knit them together into a community known as the Body of Christ, the Church.

They turned to scripture to reflect on their experiences and came to understand that the presence of God had stayed near them – a real power that was changing lives.  As strange and wonderful as it was, they began to speak of their experiences in terms of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. 

But even those words were inadequate. What human language and words could possibly capture the entirety of the Infinite and Eternal God? 

Eventually, the Church turned to the language of fourth-century metaphysics to talk about the Trinity. Ever since, we talk about One God in Three Persons – the Trinity. Some try to represent it with some simple math. 

What is the solution to this math problem:  1 + 1 + 1?  Straightforward, easy to understand; most of us can likely figure out.  Yes, 1+1+1=3.  That’s basic arithmetic.  If we apply that to the Trinity, however, we end up suggesting that Christians worship three Gods – which is not the case. The Trinity presents us with a different kind of math, so that the equation now becomes 1+1+1=1.  (I hope I haven’t just caused problems for young math students who are learning their basic facts.)

1 + 1 + 1 = 1

Those who don’t accept the idea of the Trinity and those who have questions as they try to grasp what the Trinity tells us about God are quick to object, “That doesn’t make any sense. What kind of strange math is this?”

  This strange math offers one way to understand the Trinity. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are all One God, though they are distinct from each other; together they are the One God experienced by Christians: 1+1+1=1.

In fact, there are many different analogies that have been used to try to convey the deep truth of the Trinity.  It’s important to recognize that every analogy works to a point, but each one also fails to capture all there is to say about our experiences of God.

Sometimes people prefer to refer to the three persons of the Trinity as Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer.  These names offer us an understanding of some of the work done by each of person of the Trinity. They also offer a more inclusive way to refer to God than Father, Son and Holy Spirit, which uses two masculine names, making God more accessible for people with difficult experiences of their human fathers and sons.  It’s important to remember that even the language Father, Son and Holy Spirit are symbolic.  God is not male, but transcends human gender.  The traditional language does help as it points toward the relationship between the persons in the Trinity, i.e., Father and Son.

Augustine, who was born in the mid-fourth century AD, offers another analogy that reveals more about what God is like.  He suggested that the Trinity may be represented by Lover, Beloved, and the Love between them. He saw this reality in Jesus’ baptism:  The love of God was poured on Jesus by the Holy Spirit and a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love.”  Therefore, Augustine reasoned that God’s very nature is relational and personal. God is not a distant being, set apart from creation, but God is personally involved in creation.  In fact, God is so personally involved that God participated in our humanity through Jesus Christ.  As a personal God, therefore, God is relational. “God is love,” says the letter of 1 John (4:8), and that love is shared in the divine community of Lover, Beloved and Love.  Through love, God reaches out to creation and calls it back into relationship through the redeeming work of Jesus Christ by the transformational work of the Holy Spirit. 

Our scriptures point to a couple of implications for our life. If God exists in divine community and we are created in God’s image, then we are intended to live in community.

In Romans 5, Paul writes that we have peace with God through Christ that sustains us in all of life’s circumstances, giving us hope, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.  Through Christ, God accepts us, because that who God is and what God does. We are given peace with God so that we might share that same grace and peace with others.

That means, if the church is a Trinity-shaped community, our focus is outward toward the world rather than inward toward ourselves. Outward not inward: We are not called to survive, but to give ourselves in love and peace to meet the needs of our neighbors. After all, love isn’t love until we give it away.

In John 16, Jesus talked to his disciples on the night he would be arrested.  He assured them that even though they do not know and cannot bear everything now, the Holy Spirit will guide them into all truth and speak what he declares. 

Though the disciples have spent much time with Jesus, they do not have all the answers. Christian community is a place that depends on the Spirit and on each other, as the Spirit speaks through the persons and the words of those around us.  As church, we don’t have all the answers, so we need to create space for conversation, valuing diversity, and including all people so that the Spirit might indeed speak to us through those around us. 

There is so much more that could be said about God than even the Trinity with its strange math can express.  But what we do know is that God loves you and me and all people everywhere. God’s love is expressed through a personal relationship through the Son mediated by the Holy Spirit.

Perhaps, as we ponder and try to find words to describe our God, like a two-year-old taking in a sunset, all we can truly say in response to God’s love and grace for us is, “Ooo!”

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