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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Trinity Sunday 05/27/2018

The doctrine of the Trinity has been an inseparable part of Christian theology pretty much from the beginning. Following the time of Jesus life, death and resurrection, the doctrine took shape over the course of more than three centuries and didn’t reach its final form in the words of what we call the Nicene Creed until the year 381. Even before that though, the idea of the Trinity was out there; all the basic liturgical prayers in the ancient church ended in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Paul ends the second letter to the Corinthians with “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” Sound familiar? Obviously it’s a pattern and formula that we continue to use: we confess our faith in the Trinity in the words of the historic creeds, we sing hymns that honor the Trinity, we worship and pray in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

So where is the doctrine of the Trinity in the Bible? Well, it isn’t…exactly. There are biblical passages that hint at the idea of one God in three persons but those who developed the doctrine didn’t do it so much by close analysis of such verses and what those verses allude to. That kind of analysis did happen, but most of it happened later. The idea of God as Trinity primarily comes out of the basic proclamation of Christianity that Jesus is Lord. In Judaism, Lord was the term substituted for the unspeakable name of God, so to call Jesus Lord is to say that in him we see God. The creed and the doctrine that evolves then is a response to this claim that Jesus is Lord, that God is revealed in and through Jesus; it’s an effort to put into words what that means.

With those words, an accepted framework is provided, the framework within which we as Christians talk about God. Throughout the history of the church, anything that has deviated from that accepted framework has been deemed heretical so you could say that the creed represents an effort to rule out false answers but it doesn’t eliminate room for discussion and interpretation, within the prescribed guidelines.

Even with such discussion and interpretation, rational, intellectual understanding of the Trinity is elusive. The doctrine of the Trinity is an expression of the communal inner life of God which is really an effort to explain that which can’t be explained by logic and reason. The early church fathers wrestled with the internal workings and relationships of the Trinity, the metaphysics as it’s called, and theologians continue to wrestle. For most of us though it’s perhaps best to simply affirm that the nature of God is to be in relationship: God the Father is with the Son who is with the Holy Spirit who is with the Father and so on, three in one, one in three.

Even that can leave you scratching your head so we come back to what Martin Luther is reported to have said, “To deny the Trinity threatens your salvation; to try and understand the Trinity threatens your sanity.” Whether Luther said it or if it was someone else, it’s a good quote but significantly, despite his disagreements with church authority, despite the difficulty in understanding the Trinity, despite the fact it isn’t strictly biblical, Luther never questioned the central place of the Trinity in Christian doctrine.

On this Trinity Sunday though, the gospel gives us a story, the story of Nicodemus. Throughout John’s gospel, Jesus has encounters and conversations with people who we could say are on a faith journey. Often these encounters begin with the character’s understanding of Jesus being minimal, still at a very concrete level but most of them, through their experience with Jesus, move toward greater understanding of who he really is. Nicodemus is one of those characters that Jesus encounters.

He’s a Pharisee and comes to Jesus at night which might be an indication that he doesn’t want to be found out by his fellow Pharisees. In John’s gospel though, night or darkness is usually symbolic of not understanding. One suspects that Nicodemus has heard about Jesus and wants to know more but initially all he knows is that Jesus is a teacher, an inspired teacher to be sure as he calls him a teacher who has come from God, but still a teacher with teachers being an understandable category. From there it becomes a typical gospel of John conversation, with no logical progression of questions and answers and explanation.

One of my colleagues, as he spoke at text study the other day described himself as talking in wandering spirals, and he was, but I said, “That’s a pretty good description of John’s gospel:” wandering spirals. That’s what you get in this story of Nicodemus. Jesus takes Nicodemus’ initial inquiry and talks to him about being born from above. Nicodemus, thinking on a literal level, asks “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” You can’t crawl back into your mother’s womb he says. From there Jesus talks about being born of water and Spirit, then about the difference between flesh and spirit, then he shifts to meteorology and talks about the wind all of which just further confuses poor old Nicodemus. Rather than having this wandering spiral lead him to greater understanding, all he can say is, “How can these things be?”

After what seems to be a mild insult, “You call yourself a teacher of Israel but you don’t understand these things?” Jesus proceeds to talk about the Son of Man being lifted up like Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness. Then, he offers promises of eternal life including the well known John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” You can only picture Nicodemus leaving and going back to the other Pharisees still as much in the dark as he was when he arrived.

My question though, is why this story on Trinity Sunday? There are references to the three persons of the Trinity in what Jesus says to Nicodemus but still, it’s not overtly Trinitarian. The various commentaries I looked at weren’t very helpful nor was the conversation at text study on Tuesday so I don’t really have an answer. What I finally came back to though, was Nicodemus’ question, “How can these things be?”

As I said, in the gospel, Nicodemus doesn’t get an answer to his question. As I thought about it though, with John’s wandering spirals, one could say that what Nicodemus gets is an invitation, an invitation into a mystery, a mystery that leads to eternal life. Perhaps the point for Nicodemus is that there are questions for which there are no answers, that ultimately all one can do is to shut off that part of the brain that demands answers and explanation and just enter into the mystery.

Nicodemus’ “How can these things be?” question can certainly be asked regarding the doctrine of the Trinity. Despite efforts to explain it, it defies logic and becomes the undoing of our desire for certainty. Images like three candles positioned in a way that they make just one flame can be helpful but they’re still inadequate. At some point, all you can do is step back and in faith, accept the truth of the Trinity and continue to worship, pray, sing and confess in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Like Jesus’ words to Nicodemus, the doctrine of the Trinity can also be seen as an invitation into a mystery that leads to eternal life. We don’t have to understand it all, we just accept the invitation, an invitation into the wondering.

It may be that the wandering spirals of John’s gospel make it the perfect gospel for Trinity Sunday. I’ve said before that I used to find it difficult to preach on John but now I realize that my mistake was in trying to understand it in a literal, logical, straight ahead way. Trying to do that just left me frustrated because that’s not how it’s written. But in those wandering poetic spirals, there is truth but it kind of has to be teased out because it’s not truth that proceeds logically, but truth is there in John’s words and images and in the seemingly disjointed conversations; truth is there, including truth about the Trinity.

The truth of the Trinity doesn’t proceed logically, but as we worship and pray and sing and confess, the truth is teased out. As we enter into the mystery and into the wondering we do encounter the God we describe as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Entering the mystery doesn’t lead to intellectual understanding, but it does lead to faith.

Today’s gospel reading seemed to leave Nicodemus in the dark, but more light than we realized must have been sneaking in. Some characters in John show up and then disappear; we never hear from them again. Nicodemus shows up again though toward the end of the gospel as he accompanies Joseph of Arimathea and assists in the burial of Jesus. That means he must have accepted Jesus’ invitation into the mystery. He must have come to faith. He must have been surprised by faith.

The God we name as Trinity, as Father, Son and Holy Spirit still extends that invitation into mystery. May we, like Nicodemus, be surprised by renewed faith as we accept the invitation, an invitation that does lead to eternal life.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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