Genesis 1:1-5; John 1:1-5
I was listening to a Jewish Rabbi at a conference some years ago. He said something like this: “We Jews believe in one God. This is the foundational truth of our faith. Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. Christians believe in three gods, a Trinity of gods.”
These words unsettled me. I still remember the feeling of hearing those words. They felt like a slap in the face! “Wait!, you don’t understand us at all,” I wanted to protest. A trinity of Gods is as much a heresy to Christians as to Jews! We, too, affirm: The Lord our God, the Lord is One. Today is the day we celebrate what we mean by that.
The concept of Trinity has a fascinating history. First, the concept of the “Trinity” is not taught in the Bible. That, in itself, is a shocking statement! It is implied, but not clearly taught. The closest we come are passages which talk about God as Creator, Word, and Spirit, like in the story of creation. There are other glimpses of the three presences in the Old Testament. God’s Spirit is well known, inspiring the prophets, the psalms, and the prayers. The Old Testament has rich story and poetry about the ways God shows up in visible, tangible, incarnate forms in our lives – from the messengers to Abraham to the presence of Wisdom, or Word within God.
In the New Testament, John picks up the term, “word,” for the way Jesus existed with God in the beginning. In the first few verses of John the Trinitarian presence is described as Word, God and Light. There are two New Testament passages which give names for the triune God in a worship setting, but they use different names:
Matthew 28:19 – Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit….
2 Corinthians 13:13 – The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.
These give us some evidence that the early followers of Jesus spoke about God in multiple ways: God/Father/Creator, Son/Word/Lord, and Spirit/Holy Spirit/Advocate and more. There is evidence for these three kinds of presence, but there is no place in the Bible where it is explained.
There are just the stories of the disciples – the twelve and then the hundreds and thousands of early Jesus followers – of their experience of the divine in Jesus. The stories grapple with the presence of God in Jesus. How is this possible?
Trinity is what the church came up with to explain this encounter with God in the very human person of Jesus. The truth is that the experience of the people of God through time has included many, many ways of encountering God. Angels? What of those? Dreams and visions? What of those? Wisdom?…
When the first church councils were convened in the 3rd and 4th centuries, they were assigned the task of writing statements about the church’s understanding of God that would function as the “correct” understanding. In the process of describing God – Creator, Jesus, Spirit – they used the concept of Trinity. It was not a new concept. Divine threesomes abound in the religious writings and art of ancient Europe, Egypt, the near east, and Asia. In addition, Philo of Alexandria, a Jewish philosopher and theologian, read the Hebrew scriptures as teaching that God created the cosmos by his Word (logos), the first-born son of God, and affirmed Spirit, too, as power, emanating from God. Even Philo, the Jew, found Creator, Word and Spirit present in the holy texts about the One God.
Try as we might, the attempt to explain God in words is a blatantly futile task. The One who created us and is both beyond and within us, is and always will be, a mystery. As long as we understand this when we read the documents of the church, they continue to be helpful. But when we begin to believe that these few words contain the whole of God, we are sure to lose our way. St. Augustine in one of his sermons put it this way: “We are talking about God. What wonder is it that you do not understand? If you do understand, then it is not God.” 
The Trinity is mystery. We will never figure it out and we aren’t supposed to. Our relationship to the holy presence in the universe is beyond our minds, and can only be entered from the heart. As Presbyterians, known for our passion for good scholarship, this is not an easy thing to expect of us.
The Reformers, in the passion of the Enlightenment’s rediscovery of intellect and the technological advances of the printing press, focused on renewal of the mind. Mystery had been used by the church to control, invoking priestly privilege to mediate the mystery, almost like magic. In fact, the words spoken over the bread, “This is my body,” Latin, “Hoc Es Corpus Meum,” became the traditional magic words, “Hocus Pocus.” Mystery became magic, controlled by humans.
The Eastern Church Fathers did not have so much trouble with this mystery. Nor did the mystics like the Desert Mothers and Fathers, or those who followed them in the west developing the monastic, mystical traditions, like Benedict, Francis & Clare, Hildegard of Bingen and so many more.
Today, we look at Trinity, not as a way to explain God, but as a way say something about how we experience God in the world.
How many of us have had a sense of deep communion with God standing before a grand vista, a pounding waterfall, or a beautiful flower? We lose our sense of time. We are simply present to something much more than us. In much of our Christian practice, the only response to this experience we have been taught is gratitude – which is good and beautiful. Behind the urge to be grateful, though, is a notion that God is somehow separate from creation – above it, the one who made it and gave it to us. We turn away from creation and towards God to give thanks. There is a separation. Trinity is grappling with the presence of God in, with, the experience itself. It is a way of saying that we are not just grateful in that holy moment, but we are encountering God. God is both Creator and alive within the creation and within us. It is all one.
I like to take photographs. Something I have observed, is that the photographs never capture the scene, no matter how good my camera may be. I had this experience once at a wildlife refuge. I came out of the trees, and looked across the marshy meadow, just as evening light was slanting across the sky. In a leafless tree in the middle of the meadow, at the very top of the tree, was a bald eagle, perched, observing his domain. His head glowed like it was lit from within. His whole being was alight with regal beauty. I took a picture. It reproduced the details, but held none of the magic. That picture is only a reminder of the presence of God which that moment held. The pictures do not and cannot contain the sacred which blesses when light and feathers meet in my presence. That was a trinity moment. The coming together of three to inspire.
In the same way, our word pictures for God, which we call theology, or doctrine, can never hold the presence itself.
Another metaphor: Trinity is like a kaleidoscope. In a shop in South Lake Tahoe, my sisters and I stumbled into a shop which specialized in artist-created kaleidoscopes. They had a special display table for them with a light center. Each scope was a work of art. But when I picked up each one, there was a whole new world of light inside. Each kaleidoscope I picked up was like entering a whole new way of seeing the light. A whole new world, a whole new view. Each one was completely different than the one I had just put down. The views were infinite.
Trinity is like that. In the light the presence of God dances and moves and reshapes itself into an infinite number of patterns and colors and experiences and passions. Perhaps the concept of Trinity invites us to turn our minds and hearts, like we might turn a kaleidoscope, inviting us into a whole new experience of the divine presence. With each turn of awe and amazement, we say, “Yes, that is God, too!”
Those who developed the concept of Trinity were, I think, grappling with the presence of God. There seems to be no way to pin God down, or capture the reality. So, we embrace many “presences” of the One God.
The metaphors, pictures, hints and ah-ha’s of seeking God will constantly surprise, delight and overwhelm us. We will never pin God down. We will never understand. But we will, can and do experience the One who comes to us in myriad ways, to let us know that in this world, we are never alone. We are accompanied by the creatures, the air, the human family and our immediate, personal kin, and with the Spirit which is beyond, in, with and around it all.
Enter the mystery. Let the eyes of your heart turn it over like a kaleidoscope. It is a Trinity moment. Hear O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is One. Trinity, three-and-one lets us know that doctrine is never enough. God is present in holy encounter, indescribable, yes. And, as God said at creation: It is good!
 St. Augustine, Sermon 117.5, (https://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/fathers/view.cfm?recnum=3330).