May 22, 2016
“The Puzzle and the Mystery”
The Rev. Maren Sonstegard-Spray
12 “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14 He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. 15 All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3 And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
In my office I have one of those wooden brain teaser puzzles that someone gave me as a gift, and it sat untouched for a long while, until someone (probably one of my children) took it apart and now I cannot figure out how it goes back together. And so it sits, awaiting a savior.
I think my poor puzzle is a good metaphor for how we often approach faith, theology, even God, as a puzzle to be solved, especially when it comes to understanding the trinity.
If we just get the right pieces in the right place we will be able to see the whole, and it will all make sense.
This is especially tempting for those of us who like things clear and straightforward, who like to be able to wrap our minds around something, who may be uncomfortable with mystery and the unknowable.
Today is Trinity Sunday, where we highlight this unique doctrine of the church (doctrine is a churchy word for teaching or explanation) which attempts to describe the way God is one God, but also in three parts somehow.
Here is the challenging thing about the Trinity: Nowhere in scripture do we find the word ‘trinity’. Nowhere does Jesus or Paul or anyone else say, “Pull up a chair and let me explain to you how God works.”
We have in our Bible sixty-six books made up of history, and story, and biography, and poetry, and wisdom sayings, and laws, and prophecy, and letters to particular churches in particular places, and in every book we catch glimpses of God through what God does.
And doctrines are our attempt to put the pieces of the puzzle together to make sense of what we read in the Bible.
Daniel Migliore, who wrote one of my seminary theology textbooks, “Faith Seeking Understanding” writes that Christian theology (which, as faithful Christians following Jesus, we are always working on) starts and ends with the mystery of God.
The central task of theology is to answer these questions about God:
Who is God? What is God like? How does God relate to us?
And we figure that out based on how we see God act in scripture, and how faithful people in the past have experienced God, and how we experience God right now.
And we take all these pieces and try to put them together like an old wooden puzzle to create a God who we can understand. And it is important that we do this and continue to do this because, as John Calvin insisted, our knowledge of God and our knowledge of ourselves are always inextricably intertwined.
To catch a glimpse of God, is to catch a glimpse of ourselves. To know what God is like, is to know what we are like as well, because we believe that we reflect God, because we were made in the image of God. That is another doctrine, teaching, of the church – that in some way essential to who we are, we mirror God.
Today on Trinity Sunday the scripture passages assigned for today by the Revised Common Lectionary give us hints of the trinity. Throughout our Bible we see footsteps of the trinity – we see a pattern that emerges even in the story of creation where God says let us make humans in our image.
In the New Testament we find three inseparable reference points about God. In John’s account of Jesus’ life we hear Jesus talk in the same breath about the Spirit of truth and the Father.
We read in Romans how Paul is striving to make sense of his experience of God and the history of God with God’s people and what Jesus has accomplished, and using different ways of talking about God to try to express what is really going on. So in Romans 5 he writes that we have peace with God through Jesus and that the love of God has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.
In Romans 8 (which Charlie is preaching on) Paul writes that we are children of God if we are led by the Spirit of God, and as children of God we are just as much a part of the family as Christ himself.
So the pieces of the puzzle in the New Testament are, as Migliore puts it, “the love of God comes originally from the one called the ‘father,’ is humanly enacted for the world in the sacrificial love of the one called the ‘Son’, and becomes a present and vital reality in Christian life by the one called ‘Spirit’.”
Or as he puts it elsewhere, God is the one who loves (the lover), Jesus is the one who is loved (the beloved), and the Holy Spirit is the love.
And yet, and this is another piece of the puzzle, we also have language in the Bible that says that we worship one God. In Deuteronomy we find the Shema, the central prayer of the Hebrew Scriptures: “Hear O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord is one.”
One of my favorite modern commentators David Lose, who is president of The Lutheran Seminary in Philadelphia, writes: “I’ll be honest: I find Holy Trinity Sunday among the most difficult days of the year to preach. As I’ve said before, I don’t claim to understand the Trinity and don’t trust those that report they do.
The Trinity is, at heart, our best if [completely] inadequate attempt to capture in words the mysterious nature of God. It has something to say about both the unity and diversity of God’s work . . . , and about the importance of community to God and all those whom God has created and loved.
Beyond that, I don’t have much to say.”
So perhaps the better approach when thinking about the Trinity, is that God is not so much a puzzle to be solved but as a mystery to be experienced and enjoyed. The early church theologian Augustine writes that “if you comprehend something, it is not God.”
In seminary a lot of time and energy is put towards dissecting God like a frog in a biology class; we call it systematic theology. You dismantle your understanding of God into a pile of different organs on the table, and then you pick one to write a twenty page paper on.
And you step back and wonder where your living, loving, mysterious, surprising God has gone.
I had this moment at the end of my three years of seminary when I decided to try group spiritual direction (which was little outside my Presbyterian comfort zone) and we spent a lot of time getting to know one another and praying and reflecting together in a variety of ways.
And one day the director brought in an abstract sculpture of an adult person with a child facing them, sitting on their lap, holding hands, and the child was leaning back, holding on.
And, while in prayer, I had this realization that I had spent so much time unpacking God to try to understand God, but what was needed now, was to rest in God’s embrace, to not try so hard to understand everything, to enjoy God and the relationship, and just let the mystery be. And it was freeing.
So my approach to the trinity now, is to pay attention to how God is working, but not spend so much time worrying about the labels. God is love itself, we are brought home in Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit is God making good on his promise to never leave us and to always be doing a new thing. That’s enough of an understanding of the trinity for me, for today.
Why does any of this matter?
Philosopher Charles Taylor wrote a book entitled “A Secular Age” and in it he describes secularism as a loss of transcendence: in other words, we don’t expect God to show up in our lives or in the world, even when we believe in God.
When we do mission work with teenagers we have times of reflection to talk about where we saw God that day, where we met Jesus, because otherwise we could spend our whole time serving in God’s name, without even noticing God.
We don’t expect miracles, wonder, mystery, awe. We focus on the concrete, the material things, the knowable, and sometimes we don’t even focus on the present moment, we analyze the past and plan for the future.
And we may find that our material accomplishments are not as satisfying as we thought – we wonder about the meaning of our lives, and our things and our relationships, and our occupations. So with a loss of transcendence comes a loss of meaning and hope.
Because our one God is at work as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we can expect to see God in all things, we should look for God in all things – to know God as love, to know God when we know we are loved, to know God in community, to see God in creation, to experience God in those moments when we feel hopeful because that is God’s Spirit at work, to know God in our moments of courage and fear, to meet God when we pray and when we work.
Faith in God is transformative, it will change your life, but you cannot be passive – look for God, expect God to show up, seek God when your way gets really hard, when you feel alone, when you are desperate for answers.
Author Elizabeth Gilbert writes, “Look for God like a man with his head on fire looks for water.”
Look for God – when you feel alive, when you feel hope, when you feel grace, when you feel the sun on your face.
Look for God when something needs to change, when the world feels wrong.
Look for God when things are going according to plan, and when you have no idea which way to go.
Look for God in your college dorm room, in your classroom, in your cubicle, in your TV room.
Look for God, and if you look, you will find him. Amen.