3 Is A Magic Number: Thoughts on The Trinity

My good buddy Steve and I are Presbyterian pastors in neighboring towns.  Our churches are very different, but they also have a great deal in common.  They are different in that my church is nearly 130 years old, while his is maybe 30. My church is in an historic building in the center of the small town of Eustis.  His is down the street from a mall.

Our churches are, however, roughly the same size and have basically the same age range of parishoners.

And both churches are growing.

A few months ago Steve and I decided that we wanted to collaborate on a sermon series.  We also thought it would be a good idea to bring our two churches together and preach from the same texts, share the same ideas for music, hymns, etc.  We also decided to do something crazy and swap pulpits in the middle of the thing and see what happened.

This is the first week of this collaboration and I am excited.

You see, Presbyterians can get along after all---despite all of the evidence to the contrary.

For some strange reason we decided to preach on some decidedly unsexy topics---doctrines of the Christian faith that typically only get play in the seminary classroom or in a pub crawl with a bunch of pastors at a conference (not that I know anything about that kind of stuff).

Over the next few weeks we'll be preaching and teaching on: The Trinity, Predestination, Baptism & The Lord's Supper.

Only we're not going to just offer up dusty old stuff... We think that there's life in these doctrines, and not just life but a word or two of wisdom for those of us who are doing our best to follow Jesus in this day and age.


This week we're preaching on the Trinity---and more specifically how the Trinity helps us to become "relational" Christians.

The Christian doctrine of the Trinity is easily one of the most mysterious, and least understood Christian doctrines.  The pat Christian-y answer to someone who doesn't undersand the Trinity is simply, "God is three-in-one... One God, three persons."

Sometimes people try to explain how God is three-in-one by using water as an illustration.  "Water," they say "can be ice, vapor or liquid... but it's still water."

Or they'll show an egg and explain that there's a shell, a white and the yellow center, but the thing is still an egg.  For the life of me, I don't know how that one works, exactly. But still, it's still widely used.

The fact of the matter is that the doctrine of the Trinity is hard to understand and even harder to describe.  None of our feeble words seem to really do it justice.  It is a thoroughly and completely Christian doctrine.  In fact, it's difficult to describe yourself a Christian without affirming your belief in it.  To do so would fundamentally change what it means to be Christian---which, in fact, some might believe to be a good idea.

I don't believe it's a good idea to water down what it means to be Christian,  for what it's worth.  I also don't believe it's a good idea to dismiss the doctrine of the Trinity, or to diminish it with our feeble illustrations.

What we need is a new way of understanding it.  We need better words, better pictures.

I do like these words, since we're all being honest:

"God is the source, mediator and the power of new life."  

Theologian Daniel Migliore said that.  I read his book in seminary and didn't understand it a bit.

Now, almost eight years later it makes pretty darn good sense.  I guess it takes being a pastor a while and reading a bit of theology to understand... theology. But I guess you have to start somewhere and seminary is as good a place as any I suppose.

But even these wonderful words and images from the estimable Dr. Migliore are inadequate attempts to interpret this into the most suitable images available.  What we really need is something like this:

Brought back some memories, didn't it?

Let's take a look in Scripture for a moment at two wonderful passages where the Trinity is present and accounted for in all three "persons."

Matthew 3:16-17

16 As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”


Jude 20-21

20 But you, dear friends, by building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit,21 keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life.

Father... Son... Spirit....  the way the Church has come to understand God.

And for a lot of people this seems strange.  Many nonChristians struggle with this understanding of God, and Christians don't do a very good job of explaining it.  After all, it is mysterious, and odd.

The fact of the matter is that Christians muddle up this whole Trinity thing pretty well---even with our best words and images.   I read this past week that all heresies are in essence heresies about the Trinity.  So in solidarity with all of the heretics out there in the church, why don't you pick your Trinitarian heresy.

You can have what's behind Door Number One:  God is a heavenly board of directors made up of three equal partners.  God is in charge of production, Jesus is in charge of sales and the Holy Spirit is in charge of customer service.

You can have what's behind Door Number Two: God is a committee or a board with one big boss and two subordinates.  Most Christians tend to commit this heresy on some level.

You can have what's behind Door Number Three: God is like three members of a team sitting on the bench and waiting to get into the game when they are needed.  This one is my favorite---"put me in coach!"

You can have what's behind Door Number Four: God wears three hats, and puts on whatever hat is needed in the moment.  I wonder what the Jesus hat looks like.  And is the Holy Spirit hat... invisible?

At this point you are probably saying, "Why does any of this matter?"  "What is so important about any of this stuff?"  "And do people still get burned at the stake for being heretics?"

We'll answer the first two question in a moment.
The answer to the last question is no... they get book deals and become famous.

To begin to answer why the doctrine of the Trinity is important for Christian living, we need to understand some pretty basic stuff about God.

First and foremost what we need to understand is that God is personal.  God enters into a living relationship with us.  This is something that is vibrant, that you can feel and experience.

Second, it is God's will that we exist in relationship with one another.  This makes sense considering who God is and what God is all about.

Third, God is essentially self-giving love.  You know that famous verse, "For God so loved the world...?"  Well, there are lots of verses in the Bible like that.  It's the main point of the whole Story.

When you gather all three of these understandings about God together you get something that looks like this:

We find in the Trinity a way of knowing who we are, who we are called to be, and what we are called to do.

If you are quick, you are saying at this point, "Wait... those are three things!" And then you might very well ask, "Did you do that on purpose?"  To which I would reply.

Of course.  Then again, all I have done is simply come up with another way of talking about the Trinity---although it's a bit more personal than the ones we've previously discussed.

Here's where we take a bit of a turn, so stick with me.

I believe that there is a deep and abiding knowledge of the Trinity that is imbedded in all of Creation, including us.  

The Bible calls this kind of knowledge ginosko---the kind of knowledge that you feel in your gut.  

How do I know this?  Well, it begins with the number 3.
What's up with the number 3?  Is it really a magic number?

As it turns out... yes, it is.  

The number three looms large in ancient world religions: 
Greeks used the Triad in their beliefs (3 Fates, 3 Furies, etc.)
It was a defining characteristic in Celtic religions
The Triad is the oldest of Indian symbols
Triads have been found in the Temple of Heaven in China
In Buddhism there are "Three Jewels" that Buddhists "take refuge" in 

The number three looms large in physics: 
The Standard Model of fundamental particles includes three generations of matter
Baryons - these tiny little building blocks of atoms and stuff, are made up of three quarks---which are even smaller. 
We also perceive our universe in three spatial dimensions.

The number three looms really large in Jewish tradition, which is of great significance for us: 
The number 3 is used to mediate between two opposing or contradictory values. 
3 is the number of truth
Once something has been done three times it is considered permanent because we are connected to it, and we connected it to this world
The Amida is prayed 3 times a day---this is the prayer that many believe is what Jesus loosely based The Lord's Prayer upon. 
There are 3 people standing when The Torah is Read
The number 3 connects the dichotomy of two and shows a common purpose.
in other words, if you have two lines going in opposite directions a third line can connect them and form a triangle.  
When 3 bricks are stacked upon one another it becomes a pattern, until that time, it's nothing. 
When there are two links in a chain that is joined by a third, the links on the outside are not touching, but are part of the whole.  It becomes something new but not disconnected.
Three represents unity---which is the 13th rule of Ishmael for the Torah. 

Oh... and there are: 
3 Patriarchs
3 Mitzvoth in the seder
3 Pilgrimages that faithful Jews took in the ancient world
3 Days of Reading the Torah in public
3 Year cycle of reading the Torah

Obviously there is something to this whole Trinity thing...  It's not just a convenient way of dealing with Jesus for Christians.  There's something deep inside of us humans that recognizes the importance of the Three...  

Theologians are fond of saying,  "The Trinity is not a revealed doctrine." 
It's true.  It's not explicitly outlined in Scripture.
Sure, we have passages like the two that we read.  But they don't really say what it's all about.  They just give us useful imagery.  

But this is what is revealed:  The doctrine of the Trinity is a doctrine that arises from the experience of the Church.  The Church has come to more fully experience God in God's fullness, which is Three.  Which means that those of us who would follow God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit sort of do the same thing.

Okay, I have to admit.  Despite my seeming certainty,  The Trinity is a mystery.  And when it comes to theological stuff, most Christians are not too fond of mystery.   As Christians we are too fond of being certain because certainty shields us from having to admit that we might be wrong about what we believe/think.

But let me ask you a question.

What happens to romantic relationships when they lose their mystery?  What happens when two people who were madly in love find themselves in a predictable rut?

Without mystery, there isn't a great deal of romance, is there?  I'm just saying.

What we need is not a way to explain the Trinity, but a way to re-imagine it, a way that helps us understand it without losing the mystery. 

I think that the Orthodox Christians might give us a clue about how it could look. In a lot of ancient Orthodox art, the Trinity is depicted as sitting down at a meal together.

You can see what this looks like in a classic Orthodox piece of art like the one to the right:

While this is helpful, and gives us a new of imagining the Three, it doesn't really help us see how they actually relate to one another.

That's why I like the way some of the ancient church fathers and mothers described the relationship of the Trinity as a perichoresis.  This Greek word paints a vivid picture of the "persons" of the Three dancing around in harmonious joyful freedom.

This is the unity of a community of persons who love each other and live together in harmony.

Each exists only in this relationship, but not apart from it.

And that's what makes this an awesome way of thinking about how God is three-in-one.  Because the unity of God is personal and not mathematical.

Which has some fantastic implications for you and me.

Because deep down inside we know that the Trinity not only makes sense---it's essential to our very identity, redemption and calling.

And when we can begin to imagine it in relational, personal and beautiful ways, we can actually begin to live into it's truth for us.

Ever wonder why you love having friends over for dinner and sitting around the table afterwards just talking and laughing?

Ever wonder why it feels so good to sit on the back patio of your house with your family and friends and watch your children play in the yard?

Why is it that loneliness is something to be dreaded, and isolation from others feels like huge chunks of your soul are being torn from you? 

Why is it that your first true reaction when someone says to you "There is no God" is pity? 

Because isolation, loneliness and the "othering" of our brothers and sisters in the world are aberrations.  

We are meant for more than this.  We were meant to dance.  We were meant to be in relationship with God and with one another.

We find in the Trinity a way of knowing who we are, who we are called to be, and what we are called to do.  

And who are you in God?  And what are you called to be?  And what are you called to do?

First, you have a relationship with God.  You are His creation, and His handiwork.  You have an identity with God the Father, the Source, the Parent of all Creation.  You are His and He is yours.  This is personal.

You are called to be in community.  You are not alone.  God did not leave you isolated in eternity, apart from him, lost and lonely.  God the Son became one of us to save all of us, and to teach us by his example what it means to sacrifice selflessly for others.  God the Son also established the Church, because He wanted his followers to be together.

You are called to give your self away for the world. God the Spirit encourages us, guides us, cajoles us, inspires us and convicts us regarding how we should live.  And what we are called to do is to give ourselves away in the same kind of selfless way that God gave Himself away.

Three... it's a magic number.  Yes it is.

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