This is Trinity Sunday, where we celebrate the proclamation of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is the week when we try to condense all of theology into three words while not forgetting what it means. It is the Sunday in the Christian year that asks preachers to preach a doctrine that isn’t found explicitly in the scriptures. Instead the doctrine is distilled from the way that Jesus describes his relationship to the Father, the Creator, and to the Comforter, the Holy Spirit. The quest to understand the nature and implications of God manifest in Christ begins as soon as Jesus begins his ministry. In this story from the third chapter of the Gospel of John we meet Nicodemus, a member of the Sanhedrin, the leadership council in Jerusalem. He comes to Jesus at night, and is probably both a practical means for seeking out new truth without anyone knowing, and a symbol of our inability to understand. The encounter, while it may not explain in a language we can understand what incarnation means, changes Nicodemus. We know it changes him because when Jesus is confronted by the Pharisees in chapter 7 of this Gospel we meet Nicodemus again as he comes to Jesus’ defense using the religious law that he knows and teachers. Then he reappears once more in chapter 19 after the crucifixion and takes Jesus to the tomb. He is the one that cares for the body with Joseph, and lays him in a tomb. That is one of the most intimate and loving acts offered in the scriptures to Jesus, and it begins from a theological discussion in a desire to know God. Many of us long to be like Nicodemus, to have a deeper understanding of how God in Christ loves the whole world. There have been brilliant theologians and poets and practitioners that have written volumes trying to help us gain greater understanding of the triune God. St. Patrick writes about God as the three leaf clover that comes from a single stem. St. Bernard describes the trinity in terms of a kiss: God the Father is the kisser, Jesus the son is the Kissed and the Holy Spirit is the kiss itself. Even Anglicanism is based on the notion that a three-legged stool of reason, scripture and history is a trinity upon which to build a faith.
In a few weeks, a book I have written called, “Funeral for a Stranger” is coming out. The outline of the book came in a parking lot several years ago as I was preparing to conduct a funeral for someone I had never met. This week I am thinking a lot about funerals as we prepare the funeral for Danny Petraitis today and David Hanna tomorrow. What I remember about sitting in the parking lot is that it felt like I was falling in love with the world. I knew the commandment to love the world, but I never thought about what it would be like to fall in love with it. I knew what it felt like to fall in love with individuals, but never has a wave for billions of people washed over my heart. That day at the funeral, all I wanted to do was comfort the family I never had seen before and knew I wouldn’t see again. And somehow that opened up my heart to a huge feeling of love for the world. I don’t understand the trinity, I am beginning to understand that through the Universal Creator incarnate in Jesus Christ filled with the Holy Spirit there is a mystical formula for loving the whole world. Theology helps us frame our faith, learn the path, and then open us up to the possibility of falling in love with the world. Nicodemus, in the middle of the night, sought to understand God in Christ and the means by which we can really love the world. It led him to a theological discussion and ultimately to fall in love with Christ; why else anoint and bury his condemned body? We like Nicodemus struggle to understand and keep seeking a deeper faith.
The triune God is not an exhaustive formula or limiting; it is the framework from which Christians move toward love. It is in trying to live out the faith we have been taught that a deeper understanding is possible. That is why it feels like there are always nuisances and deeper dimensions even within our perfect trinities. In the description of the clover, there are ones with four leaves that are considered the luckiest. In the description of the kiss it is the longing between the kisses that can be the most powerful. In the three legged stool of our faith there has long been a tradition of a fourth mysterious leg called revelation.
All our experience, theology and doctrine begin with one word, “God”. And from that we form three words and call it a trinity that creates, redeems and inspires. God is our past, present and future. From this doctrine we can write a volume on each word. From these volumes we fill libraries with different interpretations and understandings, both faithful and heretical. And that is just the beginning of understanding. We could write all that was in the beginning, is now and will be forever and still the reality of God could not be contained.