You cannot capture nor contain God, Trinity Sunday (A) – 2011

June 19, 2011

Genesis 1:1-2:4aPsalm 8 or Canticle 2 or 13; 2 Corinthians 13:11-13Matthew 28:16-20

God. Is too big for your brain. You cannot capture nor contain God.

In the movie “Three Weddings and Funeral,” the hapless priest repeatedly butchers the name of the Trinity: “In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spicket,” he says at one wedding, and at another, “Father, Son, and Holy Goat.”

Which reminds me of the girl visiting the United States from India. Her hosts take her to church, where she hears the prayers. Later, she asks her hosts, “Why didn’t you pray for the West Coast?”

“What do you mean?” they ask.

“Well, you prayed in name of the Father, Son, and whole East Coast. You didn’t pray for the West Coast.”

As Christians, we say a lot of things about God. What we say about God is called theology: theos, which is Greek for “God,” and ology, “the study of.” The study of God.

For example, we say this about God:

• God pre-existed, chronologically, came before all of created order, all that you see.
• God is all powerful, more powerful than anything in the created order, including atoms.
• God is ubiquitous, existing in all places, all at once.

When we do not understand these enigmatic concepts, we make jokes, or poke holes. For example, “Can God make a rock so big God cannot pick it up?”

On Trinity Sunday, we pay particular attention to this enigma: God is simultaneously three persons in one. Not three persons that seem like one, or one person with three aspects. Rather, we acknowledge something that is physically impossible: three equals one.

Tradition has reduced theological statements about God to writing. You can find them in the Book of Common Prayer, in treatises, and even – in summary form – in the creeds: the Nicene Creed, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Athanasian Creed.

The problem with reducing articles of truth to writing is that we end up confusing what is written with the truth itself, the ink with the meaning. Words are finite, and truth like God is not. The writing merely reflects the truth that has been experienced – the writing cannot and does not contain the truth. When you are searching for truth that is contained in written or spoken communication, remember this: experience precedes the communication. In the case of the Trinity, we experience God as triune before writing the word, “Trinity,” on paper. The words, “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” followed the experience of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Thus, these three words express some semblance of description of the church’s experience, but they are not the experience itself. For example, one person might identify God as “Father,” while some other person might identify God as “Parent,” or perhaps “Mother.” Or “Creator.” It is the experiential relationship being defined that counts, not the word used. No words can contain God fully – God is much larger than ink and letters. None of the creeds can contain God fully – God is much larger than paragraphs.

Think of the trinitarian words as forming a box, and imagine how silly it would be to try to stuff God into any box, much less one bounded by only three words.

Because modern Christians are learning just how limiting words can be – although Christian tradition has long held this position – we moderns have begun using other words to expand our understanding of God. Greek words, such as sophia, logos, and spiritus. Parallel words, such as “creator,” “redeemer,” and “sustainer.” Some dialectic, metaphysical words, such as “energy,” “wisdom,” “light,” and “justice.”

What is attractive about this redemptive approach is its freshness and flexibility. Like the ancients, people of this generation want to use words that more accurately describe their experience of God. People are trying desperately to understand God. People want to know God.

But of course, it is and always will be impossible to apprehend God. This is why the Hebrews refused to name God, because the word, the letters, are insufficient. They wouldn’t even speak the name of God, exactly because speaking the name limits God.

And before you conclude that the concept of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit has always been settled in the church, it took centuries to get to the point of actually reducing the concept to three-in-one and committing the concept to creeds. Plus, the church itself actually split because it could not agree on elements of this stuff. To this day the church is split – east from west – because of disagreement over what the Trinity means.

Well, what is the point of it all?

The point of Christianity has never been to figure God out by reading and learning, but to experience God. The pertinent question is the same question it always was: how do we find God? Where do we find the love and acceptance and redemption?

Finite Humans. We are finite and contained, substance in mortal bodies. At best, we each occupy, let’s say, three cubic feet of geometric space. Three cubic feet, and yet we tend to expect all of the truth of the universe to find a home inside our unique brain and soul.

God, on the other hand, is infinite.

When one fellow was a new priest, his mentor said, “I challenge you to preach on the Trinity without using the word ‘mystery.’” The new priest could not, for indeed, Trinity is a description of experience, as well as a received truth. It is not a scientific description of God. God cannot, after all, be contained, either by the human brain or its soul. Trinity is and will remain mystery.

If we wander outside at night on a crystal evening and look up, there are stars and constellations and meteors, there is a sliver of moon, and Mars and the Milky Way. And these are the few elements of the universe we can actually see, that we can experience with our eyes. But what about the part we cannot see?

The heavens are like God. We look up to the lights of heaven and in them we see God, but what about all in the infinite universe that we do not see? Now we know in part; now we see in part.

But in the part we cannot see, in that lovely black sky, beyond the stars and Milky Way, there is God – Father, Son, Holy Spirit, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, Energy, Wisdom, Light, Justice, Hope, Perfection. In what we cannot see in life, there is God, hidden, yet eternal.

There is both a smallness to the human person, and a largeness. The smallness is our finite structure, but our largeness is the capacity to dream and imagine.

Mystery is about the dream and the imagining. There, in the mystery, is the goodness of God. Who cannot be captured.

 

— The Rev. Rob Gieselmann is the interim rector at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Belvedere, Calif. Originally from the Diocese of East Tennessee (serving at St. Luke’s, Cleveland), he also served in the Diocese of Easton (St. Paul’s Church, Chestertown). Before entering the ministry, Rob practiced law for ten years. Rob is the author of “The Episcopal Call to Love” (Apocryphile Press, 2008), and is the father of two wonderful children.

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