Twenty-five years or so ago, I was living in Topsham and working in Westbrook. My daily commute took me past the paper mill with its tall chimneys. During that same time I needed to replace my glasses, and because my prescription was woefully out-of-date, I needed a new one. I had the exam and bought the new glasses. Soon after that, I noticed that the chimneys had been repainted, and commented on it when I arrived to the office that day.
“When did they repaint the chimneys at the mill?” I asked.
Everyone looked at me in puzzlement. “What do you mean?” someone asked.
“They repainted them and put the name of the mill up there.” I said.
More puzzlement. The same person said, “The name has always been up there, Nancy…”
It turns out my prescription was so old that I not only couldn’t read the writing on the chimney—I didn’t even know the writing was there.
I tell you this story today because it’s Trinity Sunday, a day when we commemorate a doctrine of the church, rather than a particular event in the life of Jesus. We celebrate the mystical nature of God, the Three-in-Oneness and One-in-Threeness of God. The preacher who tries too hard to pin down the particulars of that nature pretty much always slides over into a mistaken idea of it. (Or, as earlier generations of the church would say, heresy.) There is a beautiful word used to describe the way that the Trinity interacts within itself. Perichoresis. It is related to the Greek word for rotation, and has some sense of “making room” but the best definition I’ve ever come across is “swirling dance.” Doesn’t that seem much more worthy of celebration than a doctrine?
The church came to understand God as “Triune”—one Divine being in three persons—as it began to wrestle with the question of how to believe that Jesus is God Incarnate and that the Holy Spirit dwells among us without letting go of our monotheistic roots. The Hebrew Bible, what we call the Old Testament, is in part a record of the development of this awareness within Judaism.
The earliest people of God believed that YHWH was one god among many—but that YHWH was the most powerful, the one to be followed and obeyed. The development of monotheism—the idea that there is only ONE God and the rest are just idols—takes a while, and it is hard-won. In the days of the Roman Empire, it was also fiercely defended, because it was one of the things that distinguished Jews in the Roman Empire from other religions. Rome granted them an exemption from participating in the civic religion of the Empire, based in part on their ancient belief system in one God.
So when these Christians came along, talking about how Jesus was not just a human Messiah but was in fact the Incarnate Son of God, there were bound to be problems. Add to that the Christian conviction that on Pentecost the Holy Spirit of God came as an indwelling, divine presence in those who declared Jesus as Lord and were baptized in his name, but isn’t the same as either God (whom those early Christians referred to as “the Father”) or Jesus (“the Son”)…Well, it was just too much! It was too different. Too dangerous.
They turned to their own sacred scriptures—the Torah, the Prophets, the Wisdom Literature—and said, “See. ONE God. Not three.”
And the Christians said, “Yes, one God. But, look…look at the story of creation, with the Spirit hovering over the waters…look at Isaiah’s descriptions of the Suffering Servant that so clearly point to Jesus…look at Proverbs characterization of Wisdom as divine…There is a threeness in the oneness. We just didn’t see it until now.”
The lens of Jesus revealed things written there that no one had noticed.
I want to be clear: the Trinity did not come into being in a stable in Bethlehem 2000 years ago. If we believe in the doctrine of the Trinity, we have to believe that the Divine One we know has always been threefold. It just hadn’t been revealed to us yet.
In today’s Gospel reading, we are once again back on the night before the Crucifixion, and Jesus is teaching his disciples. Look at what he says, ‘I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth”—the literal translation for that is “bring the way into all truth.”
You’ll get a new prescription and be able to read the things that were always written there but you hadn’t been able to see yet.
This is an important thing for us to understand, because in it Jesus is telling them—and us—that God continues to reveal deeper and deeper truths to us. What was written down and codified as the Bible is very important, but it’s not static. There is always something more to be discovered, if we open ourselves to the possibility that God still has things to show us. But we have to be willing to see them.
Sometimes I find that certain phrases seem to follow me around, week after week, as I’m studying the readings for the coming Sunday. This spring, it was Jesus saying “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.” I’ve heard that phrase hundreds of times and just sort of nodded at it.
Yep. Okay. Sure. Whatever, Jesus.
But this spring, it wouldn’t let me go. What does that mean? The beginning and end of WHAT? Alpha and Omega are the beginning and end of the Greek alphabet (which, I will confess, makes me wonder if that’s EXACTLY how Jesus, a speaker of Aramaic, would have phrased it…but I digress).
As I thought about that, I had this image of Jesus claiming all the letters of the alphabet, insisting that we cannot read anything written in the name of God without reading it through the filter, or lens, of Jesus. Jesus, who calls himself Truth.
A lot of people like to defend some pretty hateful ideas by picking and choosing verses of Scripture, saying, “See, the Bible says…” Too often, they are reading those verses with some very old or very skewed lenses. I think Jesus is saying that we can’t claim “The Bible says” unless we’re willing to pass it through the Jesus filter, unless we’re willing to allow the Holy Spirit to reveal to us that there is something more written there than we have ever seen before.
I am confident that when we do so, we will discover that this deeper, Alpha-and-Omega Truth is written in the permanent, indelible ink of God’s love. Anything that doesn’t reveal God’s love for us through Christ will fade into the background. And we’ll discover that the Trinity is not so much a doctrine to be wrestled with as a dance to be joined.