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  • The Rev. Dr. Brian Rajcok

Holy Trinity: God as Relationship

John 3:1-17

The year was 381 AD. Emperor Theodosius had just called the second ecumenical council for Christian theologians to debate and determine orthodox Christian theology. The first council of its kind was the Council of Nicaea in 325 called by Emperor Constatine. Now a new generation of Christian leaders- bishops, pastors, and theologians would meet to discern which theological ideas were orthodox and which were heresy. Three men: Basil of Caesarea, his brother Gregory of Nyssa, and their friend Gregory of Nazianzus (Naz-e-en-zus) were influential theologians at this council. They defended the idea of the Trinity against different groups who claimed Jesus was not divine or that the Holy Spirit was not divine. History remembers these three men as the Cappadocian Fathers, and they are remembered for helping develop and articulate what Christianity considers the orthodox doctrine of the Holy Trinity.

The reason I share this is because today is Holy Trinity Sunday. It’s always celebrated the week of Pentecost before we enter into what’s called “Regular Time” that long period between now and Advent. Today’s the only Sunday in the church year set aside specifically to explore a doctrine of the faith. Now that the Holy Spirit has descended upon the disciples at Pentecost, this Sunday we get to ponder this God who is three-in-one, this Holy Trinity who is one-in-three.

If you find the doctrine of the Trinity or the question of God’s identity hard to understand, you’re not alone. The authors of the Bible had a hard time understanding the mystery of God too. Take a look at the prophet Isaiah for example. In the first reading we heard this morning, Isaiah was in the Temple in Jerusalem and saw a dramatic vision of God in heaven. The awesomeness of God overwhelms him. He says the hem of God’s robe filled the Temple- the tiniest little fray of God’s garment filled the entire Temple. And Isaiah saw strange looking creatures attending to God. Isaiah was overpowered by this tremendous sight, so much so that he said, “Woe is me!” Then one of the strange angelic beings took a burning coal and touched his lips, apparently cleansing Isaiah and his mouth. And when God asks who will go for us, Isaiah eagerly says “Here am I, send me!”

Now I’m sure Isaiah didn’t completely understand what was going on. But he understood enough to get the message. He understood just enough to know that he had been cleansed and that he could volunteer to speak God’s word to the people. As confusing as this experience may have been, Isaiah got the point. He may not have been able to fully comprehend the mystery and majesty of what he saw, but he was able to put into practice the call he heard: he was able to live into God’s mission for him. Despite his confusion, he entrusted himself to God and lived out God’s mission for his life.

And in the reading from John chapter 3, Nicodemus clearly didn’t understand everything Jesus was saying to him. He asks Jesus questions and Jesus sounds almost frustrated that Nicodemus didn’t understand what he was saying. Jesus talked about being born from above, being born of water and spirit, and about the Son of Man being lifted up. Maybe those of us who know the rest of the story feel like we can grasp what Jesus is saying here, but hindsight’s 20/20 and to Nicodemus this was confusing stuff. Nevertheless, Nicodemus trusted that Jesus was a genuine teacher worth listening to. He says, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Although Nicodemus was clearly confused with what Jesus was saying, he nevertheless engages with him, listens to him, and trusts that God is with him.

I think the examples of Isaiah and Nicodemus are models for us on how we might relate to difficult doctrines like the Trinity. Yes the Trinity is a complicated thing to understand. God is beyond comprehension and the Trinity is one way we can approach the mysterious identity of God. But the fact is, as much as we try to understand God, we can’t. We can’t comprehend the divine mystery. We can’t fathom the fullness of the Creator of the universe. It’s been said that humans trying to understand God is like an ant trying to understand calculus. So if we can’t understand God, and our best attempt to understand God is this Trinity idea that we can’t understand either—where does that leave us?

Well the important thing to remember is: we don’t need to understand God in order to know God. Intellectually understanding God isn’t the point of Christianity. The point is to have a relationship with God. To experience God. To trust God. To fall in love with God. Just like Isaiah and Nicodemus may not have fully understood what was going on in the scripture passages we read, neither do we need to fully understand the mystery that is God in order to get the message.

Anybody who’s ever been in a close relationship with another person knows that you can never fully understand what the other is thinking all the time. Whether it’s a spouse, a parent, a child, a sibling, or a best friend—we know some people really well. You might have a lot in common with them. You may even be able to finish each other’s sentences. But you’ll never fully 100% understand them. There’s always some mystery there. But the point isn’t to understand them. The point is to be in relationship with them. To enjoy their presence and to have experiences with them. To grow together. And to continually grow deeper and deeper in your understanding of one another. You may not fully understand your family or friends—but you can enjoy them, experience life with them, and be in relationship with them. We have even less capacity to understand God fully, but the same opportunity to get to know God and fall in love with God.

And I think that’s the key to understanding the Trinity as best we can. We can understand that the meaning of the Trinity is about relationship. Remember our friends Basil, Gregory, and the other Gregory? The way they articulated the Trinity was to emphasize relationship. One of the Greogrys coined the term “perichoresis” as a way to describe the Trinity. “Peri” means circle and “choresis” is where we get words like choreography. So perichoresis literally means “circle dance.” The way God interacts with Godself is to be involved in a divine dance. And a dance is not only relational; it is fun; it is joyous; it is life-giving.

When we understand the Trinity as this circle dance, we emphasize the idea of God as relationship. And that frees us from the need to understand it all and allows us to simply dance. To dance the life that we are living and join the Trinitarian flow.

And so, let us remember not to worry too much about not understanding it all. Let us learn to be comfortable with mystery and with not knowing. Let us remember that God Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—the Holy Trinity—is the source of existence, the heart of reality, something beyond our comprehension which, at the same time, is as close to each of us as we can imagine. Desiring relationship with us. Inviting us to experience healing, forgiveness, and life in all its fullness. Inviting us to join the dance of Trinity.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Pastor Brian Rajcok | May 26, 2024

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