Evangelist Billy Graham tells the story of a teacher who asked his class of fifth graders if they could explain electricity. One student raised his hand. “How would you explain it, Jimmy?” the teacher asked. The kid scratched his head and then answered, “Last night I knew it, but this morning, I’ve forgotten.” The teacher shook his head sadly. He told the class, “What a tragedy. The only person in the world ever to fully understand electricity and now he’s forgotten!”
Today is Holy Trinity Sunday on the Church calendar. Someone has pointed out that this is the only day in the whole Church Year devoted to a theological doctrine. The Trinity is a lot harder to understand than electricity. Anyone who claims to have it all figured out—this truth about the universe having been created, redeemed, and sustained by One God Who is three Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—isn’t being honest, especially with themselves.
And it makes sense that we shouldn’t understand everything about God. If we did, we ourselves would be God.
But the word “Trinity” isn’t to be found in the Bible. If that's the case, then why do we Christians make such a fuss over it?
A Princeton professor of religion talked about this once. “There are probably a number of people who imagine that the idea of the Trinity was thought up by ivory-tower theologians who, typically, were making things more complicated than they needed to be and were obscuring the simple faith of regular believers,” the professor said. “In fact, it seems that the process worked pretty much the other way around. Practicing believers and worshipers were driven by their experiences of God's activity to the awareness that God related in several different ways to the creation. ... Thus what these believers came to insist upon was that God had to be recognized as being in different forms of relationship with the creation, in ways at least like different persons, and that all these ways were divine, that is, were of God. Yet there could not be three gods. God, to be the biblical God and the only God of all, had to be one God. This complex and profound faith was then handed over for the theologians to try and make more intelligible. They have been trying ever since.”
The fact is that we could just as easily call Holy Trinity Sunday, We Don’t Get It Sunday. That’s because the doctrine of the Trinity describes a truth that Christians have experienced over the centuries, yet still don’t understand.
But it isn’t the idea of a single being having different roles that’s so mysterious or unfamiliar to us. I am, among other things, a son, a husband, a father, and a pastor, for example. We all have different roles and may relate to each other in multiple ways.
But what we see in the Triune God—three Persons, one God--is something altogether different from that. Thumb through the pages of the Gospels in the New Testament, for example, and you’ll find God the Father affirming Jesus as His beloved Son, the exact image of Himself. You’ll find the Son speaking to the Father, even crying out to Him from the cross, asking why the Father has abandoned Him to bear our sins, sins He never committed. And yet, Jesus said, “The Father and I are One.” And, “Whoever has seen Me has seen the Father.” “I am in the Father and the Father is in Me.” In the Father, we see God fully. In Jesus, we see God fully. Yet they are different persons.
So, where does the third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, come in? Jesus talks about Him, the Holy Spirit, in our Gospel lesson for today. It’s just four verses that are part of what’s called Jesus’ farewell discourse. Jesus knows that He’s going to the cross. After that, He’ll rise from the dead and after a period spent with His disciples, He’ll ascend back to the Father. In Old Testament times, God the Father had led His people through the Law and the Prophets. When Jesus was on earth, God related to people in the flesh. But what was to happen to them once Jesus had ascended to heaven? Who would lead people in the truth of this God of grace Who offers everlasting life to all who turn from sin and trust in Christ? Who would relate to believers to help the mature and grow up in their relationship with God? Who would assure believers of the certainty of their hope in Christ when the chips were down, when life got tough, when they faced persecution, disease, death, conflict, temptation?
These issues were on Jesus’ mind when He told the disciples in today’s lesson, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.”
One of my favorite movies is Back to the Future, the story of how Marty McFly went in a DeLorean equipped with a flux capacitor, back to his parents’ high school days. In one scene, Marty, played by Michael J. Fox, is invited to sing and play his guitar with a band at the high school dance. Marty starts performing Johnny B. Goode, the Chuck Berry classic, in a style that some people in the 50s, the era Marty is visiting, might have found a little daring, but most would have still thought harmless...at least as he began playing it. But as the song goes on, Marty, this power guitarist from the 80s, can’t help himself. He saunters around the stage like Eddie Van Halen. At first everybody seems to love it. But then he kicks over an amp. He slides across the stage on his knees. Finally, the guitar screeching a single high-note, he notices that the band has stopped playing and that the crowd is just staring at him. Marty stands up, hands the guitar over to the mystified band leader, and tells the crowd, “I guess you’re not ready for that yet…But your kids are gonna love it."
There were certain facts of life with Him, Jesus knew, for which His first followers weren’t yet ready. Until He had gone through the cross, they (and we) couldn’t understand that the call to follow Him means dying to ourselves and to our sins. Until He had risen from the dead, they couldn’t understand that His kingdom wasn’t about giving us the momentary advantages or pleasures of this world, but about the blessings of eternity with God. Nor could they understand how God might call them and their spiritual descendants, like you and me, to change and grow. All of these were truths that Jesus wouldn’t teach them (or us) face-to-face, truths for which God had to make them (and us) ready. “When the Spirit of truth comes,” Jesus says in our Gospel lesson from John, “He will guide you into all the truth.” And then, the Savior Who said that He and the Father are one, goes on to say that the Spirit and He are one as well: “He will not speak on His own…”
The Spirit speaks the same truth spoken by God the Father and God the Son, as we’re ready to hear it. But what does that mean?
Well, here’s an example of how the Spirit speaks truth that no one was ready to hear before Jesus' death and resurrection. To a first century church grappling with whether Gentiles needed to be Jews before becoming Christians, living in a world where men ruled the roost in a patriarchal society, and where at least 25% of the Roman Empire’s population were slaves, Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, probably not fully cognizant himself of the implications of his words, wrote in the book of Galatians, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” The Church is still being taught by the Holy Spirit the truth contained in those words. It wasn't until 1970, for example, that we Lutherans in North America caught up to one thing that these words surely meant when we began to ordain women into pastoral ministry.
The Spirit will never teach us anything contrary to what God the Father and God the Son have already revealed to us; God never contradicts Himself. But in these times between Jesus’ ascension and the day He returns to the earth, the Spirit will continue to unfold God’s truth for us so that we understand more deeply what it means to be part of God’s kingdom.
We’ll never fully understand the Trinity. Still, we have experienced how God has, through the centuries, patiently revealed Himself as one God in three Persons.
My Geometry teacher in high school, Mr. Allen, knew how difficult Mathematics was for me. I had flunked Algebra I the year before and had to take it again in the summer. But, intent on going to college, I registered for Mr. Allen’s class. It was tough slogging for me. But Mr. Allen wouldn’t let me give in to my penchant for laziness in subjects that failed to interest me. He would go out of his way to help me understand the lesson at hand. When we got to the unit on the Pythagorean Theorem, I remember him saying to the class, “Mr. Daniels is very knowledgeable when it comes to History. You might be interested in knowing…” And then, Mr. Allen told us a little about the sixth century-BC mathematician Pythagoras who came up with the Pythagorean Theorem. Mr. Allen was trying to hook me and students like me. After he’d explained the theorem and how it worked to us, he would look around the class room for the confused faces. Mine was always among them. So, he’d explain it in a different way. And if we still didn’t get it, he’d choose one of us to come up to the chalkboard to go through things step-by-step. His patience was amazing! And, miracle of miracles, I passed the class!
On this We-Don’t-Get-It Sunday, Holy Trinity Sunday, we can say that through the centuries, first through Israel, then through Jesus, and now through His Holy Spirit, God has patiently revealed Himself to all of us. He’s still revealing Himself to us.
- In the Father, we understand God is our Creator and that God calls us to turn away from sin and toward Him and toward others.
- In the Son, we understand that when we turn, we can fall trustingly into the arms of Jesus for forgiveness.
- In the Spirit, we receive new life and the power to move toward becoming the people God made us to be.