Losing Our Minds
Some authors have quoted church father Augustine of Hippo as saying, “If you try to understand the Trinity, you will lose your mind. But if you deny the Trinity, you will lose your soul.”
Of course no one knows whether Augustine said this or not, but he did write extensively on the doctrine of the Trinity. All the church fathers—and I do mean fathers—spent much of their time, several centuries, in fact, codifying the doctrine of what was then a brand new religion. They laid that groundwork, of course, so approximately fifteen hundred years later you and I could gather in worship on Trinity Sunday and collectively scratch our heads over this strange doctrine of one God with three names.
We try this week to understand this bizarre and profound way we’ve named God revealed to us, three in one: parent, savior, spirit. If we give up this tangled exercise of trying to know mystery, God, we could lose our souls. But the problem on Trinity Sunday is: trying to understand God intellectually could seriously make us lose our minds.
I sure wish I could stand up here and explain to you clearly what it means that we believe in this God who is three but actually one, but this particular doctrine does not lend itself to easy explanations. We ministers study doctrines like this quite extensively in seminary. There we learn about the early church councils, like big church business meetings where all the leaders of the new Christian church got together to debate and decide once and for all what the church’s official doctrine would be.
These councils all convened before Baptists came to be, so perhaps those leaders of the first church did not yet know that whatever they decided would be debated and disagreed with for centuries by those of us strange enough to think that we can make our own decisions about God.
Nevertheless, at the Council of Constantinople in 381 A.D., the subject at hand was the doctrine of the Trinity. Seems that this issue popped up on the meeting agenda because there were a couple of radical groups within the church starting to cause trouble.
One of those groups was the Arians, who suggested that perhaps Jesus was not really divine. Then there were the Macedonians who started teaching that the Holy Spirit was actually not God. And this was troubling to church leadership. So, 150 Eastern Orthodox Cardinals gathered to debate this issue, among others, and as a result most believe that they wrote what is now known as the Nicene Creed. Even though this creed is not generally part of our liturgy here, you would recognize the words and you would recognize that our doctrine of the Trinity comes directly from this creed. Here’s some of it, remember?
We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen. We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father. . . . We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
Well, that clears things up…. I would have preferred those Sunday School explanations I learned as a child. Remember this one? God is like an apple: there’s the core, the skin and the fruit . . . all different, but all part of the same apple. Or, how about, God is like water. Water can be liquid, it can be steam or it can be ice . . . but it is all water in the end. Maybe you’ve heard this one: God is like a person who is a mother, a wife and a sisterinlaw. All the same person, just different expressions. You may have other illustrations that are more simple than the Nicene Creed, but it all boils down to this: there’s no easy understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity.
If you try, you might lose your mind.
See, I suspect the doctrine of the Trinity was never really meant to be about easy explanations; rather, it’s about giving God a name, a way in which we might begin to relate, to live in relationship, with mystery.
Many of you know that I have three children. When expecting the first, the task of naming our coming child took countless hours of careful thought. Exhaustive lists lay scattered all around our house those nine months. Options were put on the table, then eliminated, then put back on the table. The list got smaller and smaller until the day the baby was born, when the exact name had been carefully chosen and was ready to go.
By the time child number three was on the way, things were a little different. Most days were spent in a frantic haze of schedules and diapers and timeouts and grocery shopping and getting the kids to sleep at the same time so I could just sit down, uninterrupted, for five blissful minutes.
There was no time to have more than a quick conversation in passing before the day child #3 was born, and in between contractions the decision was still up in the air. After a healthy baby boy was born we still hadn’t come up with a name, and as we sat in the hospital puzzling over the birth certificate, a helpful nurse brought us a wellused copy of a baby name book. This difficulty was not uncommon, she explained, “We have several baby name books at the nurses’ station!”
When we finally decided that Sam would be named Sam, we assigned him that name for no other reason than that he was our son and we might possibly envision ourselves adding a “Sam” to our family. It wasn’t that we felt particularly familiar with the name Sam. And we didn’t really know that red, wrinkled child at all yet, so he didn’t seem like a “Sam” to us right then. But we tried out several other names that we seemed to like; they just didn’t seem right. We decided that we were just going to have to give him a name: that naming this child was the first step in getting to know him and welcoming him to our family, to our lives.
Now, of course, anytime I hear the name Sam I think of my Sam. And when I catch his eye across the dinner table I think to myself, “How could I have imagined calling him anything else? He is so obviously a Sam!”
The act of choosing and assigning a name to someone is so very intimate and deeply intentional—it implies deep relationship, heart connection, personal investment. And permission to use that special name in a familiar way with another person is the opening of a door to relationship. Even sharing our names with one another breaks down barriers. Earlier in the service we said hello to each other, but we probably didn’t share our names. Would you take a moment to experience that break down of barriers by turning to someone nearby whose first name you don’t know and introducing yourself by your first name?
I think the difficulty of humans to access and understand God may have been in the Apostle Paul’s mind as he composed his letter to the Romans. Unlike letters to some of the other churches he supervised, to the Romans Paul felt compelled to be deeply theological in his writing. As he wrote to the church at Rome, Paul tackled the mysterious parts of God’s nature, trying to help those early Christians embrace mystery and welcome relationship with the God.
All of Paul’s theological arguments come to a crescendo in the first verses of chapter 5, which we heard earlier. He says, no matter the mystery, here is the real point of God’s work on earth: we have been justified by faith so now we have peace with God. Peace with God. A share in God’s plan for this world. A reason to go on living in hope, even through the times that we suffer, and God’s love, not distributed sparsely, but POURED OUT into our hearts, given to us, never leaving us because God’s Spirit lives in us.
When we encounter God, mystery, we don’t find an easy explanation that will satisfy our minds, but true relationship, God’s bold expression of fidelity and love and intentionality and intimacy with us, God’s desire to call us by name…and to be called by name.
Maybe calling God by name began for you when you learned in Sunday School that there was somebody you couldn’t see named God, and God loves you.
Maybe your image of God has to do with fading Christmas memories of a baby doll lying in some hay, called Jesus and celebrated every year as Godcometoearth.
Or maybe you learned somewhere along the way about God as a Spirit, animating the world with life and possibility, and calling us to transformational love.
Or maybe you never really learned all of that. Perhaps your first understanding of God came as a feeling, a deep need somewhere inside of you to find something bigger, a sort of impulse to start looking for this person called God, someone you couldn’t even name.
Or maybe it was none of those things, or something else altogether.
Each of us, uniquely created and individually loved by God, approaches God out of the reality and understanding in which we find ourselves, but don’t lose your mind trying to understand it. Instead, open your heart to hear the good news that Paul tried to communicate in his letter to the Romans: God has reached across to invite us into relationship, and God is willing to do whatever it takes to be in relationship with you and me.
I must confess that I was not the best Greek student in seminary. We all have our gifts and all that. I don’t remember all the things I learned about parsing Greek verbs, but one thing I do remember, however, was a story our teacher told us about Bible translation in Australia. Dr. Dyer told us that right after college he entered a program like Teach for America, where recent college graduates go into underserved communities to help transform schools. He was assigned to an island off the north coast of Australia where he taught among a settlement of native Australians: aboriginal people.
While there Dr. Dyer heard the story of Wycliff Bible Translators who had just completed a translation of the New Testament into the native language of the tribe. The translators struggled mightily with John chapter 1, verse 29. In our Bibles it reads like this: “The next day, John saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, ‘Here is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’”
Well, here was the problem. The tribal people on that remote island had no idea what a lamb was. They had never seen a sheep and did not even have a word in their language for “lamb.” The translators were stuck: should they create a new word with no meaning for the community, or should they try to find another word that communicated the same idea? They decided that the goal of the translation was to communicate the message, so the people needed a reference they could understand within the context of their own community. They looked around and noticed that in that particular tribe the main source of nutrition came from pigs that were raised for food and income and thus John chapter 1, verse 29 in that aboriginal translation became: “The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, ‘Here is the pig of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’”
God didn’t change when those translators changed the word in that verse. What changed was that suddenly the aboriginal people of that tribe could understand that name. They could relate to an image like that one. This was a God whose name they could comprehend and with whom they could live in relationship.
You might not understand the Trinity (I doubt Augustine even did, really), but don’t be afraid to give God a name. While we in our limited minds can only see God certain ways, the perspectives with which we approach God will never change the hopeful and loving and redemptive work of God in our lives. God is steadfast and strong, not bending to our limited human interpretations. So God invites us with open arms, to step into relationship, to embrace intimacy with the divine, to give God that name that becomes so intimate and familiar to you that anytime you hear that name for God you will feel the warmth of that relationship, the power of God reaching out to welcome you, whatever it takes.
Today is Trinity Sunday. Listen to words that try to describe the mystery of God, and don’t lose your mind. Instead, open your heart.