Christian Math: 1+1+1=1



What does God Look Like?

There was a little boy in Sunday School class drawing a picture. The teacher asked him what he was drawing and he said, “I’m drawing a picture of God.”

“Well,” the teacher said, “No one knows what God looks like.”

“They will when I’m finished,” said the boy.

I admire his optimism, but I have doubts about what he is trying to do–honest doubts based on people who had gone before him.

Twenty-seven centuries ago, the prophet Isaiah enters the Temple in Jerusalem. It is dark in the anteroom. Candle light flickers on the stone walls. The air smells of incense, coal from the grate that heats the room, and blood from the sacrifice of animals. It is dark and dank, but for Isaiah it is also a place of refuge. King Uzziah is dead, and with his death came the end of an era. He had reigned for 52 years, and had provided stability for the people. However toward the end of his reign storm clouds had arisen in the North. Tiglath-Pileser III had become king of Assyria, and he was making motions of taking over the smaller kingdoms around him, among which was Judah.

The future of Jerusalem was uncertain, precarious even. The uneasy alliance they had forged with their much larger neighbors to the north and to the east was starting to unravel.

And in the temple, Isaiah saw the Lord.

In this passage, Isaiah gives us an…interesting description of the seraphs who were attending God–six wings cover various parts of their body, but he doesn’t even try to tell us what God looks like. All we know is that he saw God as if sitting on a throne, and whatever he was wearing filled that enormous room.

We jump ahead around 700 years, and we find Nicodemus coming to Jesus.  He has some questions for him. Nicodemus has come to Jesus, at night, which is probably significant, not because Nicodemus is afraid to be seen with Jesus (he was after all a very influential man), but because night is a symbol of the darkness in his head and heart as he tries to figure out how God and Jesus are connected.  He knows somehow that Jesus is closely tied to God (“we know that you are a teacher who has come from God” he says) but that is about as far as he can get. Jesus tells Nicodemus about God and the Holy Spirit, but what he says ends up puzzling this very learned rabbi. All the talk of being born from above or born again, and spirits blowing in the wind, and most radically, a God who loves the world and who does not judge people–a God who saves people–only leaves Nicodemus more confused than when he first came to Jesus.

Nicodemus can see Jesus, the man standing before him, but he can’t see who Jesus really is.


The Trinity

Last week, you may remember, was Pentecost, and we had a description of the what happened when the Holy Spirit came down on the early disciples. We did not get a description of the Holy Spirit however. What we saw was what the disciples looked like when the Holy Spirit came down on them.

One theme that occurs time and time again the Bible is the impossibility of seeing God. Not just seeing God–the impossibility of containing God within our own heads and hearts. No matter how big our heads and hearts, God is bigger, and when we think we have God down, when we think we know all we need to know about God, when we think we have a handle on God, that is exactly the moment when we have lost God.

Today is Trinity Sunday. If there is any day in the Christian calendar that reminds us of the mystery of God, it is this day. The doctrine of the Trinity is, if not the most confusing, the most convoluted of doctrines. We believe in One God, not Three, but this one God has three persons. And the deeper you get into it, the more confusing it becomes. For example you may think that the Trinity is like, God the Father in the Old Testament, Jesus, God the son in the Gospels and God the Holy Spirit from the time of Jesus on, but the good people who have the Trinity condemned that idea as a heresy. You may want to split it out into different job descriptions, like we do in the alternative to the Doxology–God the Creator, God the Redeemer and God the Sustainer, but…once again the people who came up with it said, “No, no, no! Heresy!”

I like the clover analogy best. One plant, three leaves. Other people like the analogy of the orange; peel, fruit, and seeds. Some people talk about the nature  of H2O, ice, water, steam. Over the years there have been countless attempts to explain the Trinity in a way people can understand, but almost every attempt to explain the Trinity ends up with some one shouting, “heresy!”

So, why bother? Why do we hang on this confusing, impossible and seemingly outdated doctrine? Why does it get its own Sunday? Why do I have to preach on this every single year?


Why a Trinity?

Well, for one reason, it is the best explanation we have for the three types of appearances of God in the Bible. Jesus prays to someone he calls the Father, and then tells the disciples that they will receive power when someone called the Holy Spirit drops in on them. Paul says that Jesus was involved in creation, and that the Holy Spirit is what keeps us alive. In the Old Testament the Spirit comes down on prophets and kings, and and often God self-refers as “We.” These are just a few of the places that led the early church fathers to the doctrine of the Trinity.

All in all, it was their way of preserving the presence of the the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit found in the Bible while not losing the idea of there being only one God. In Christian math, 1+1+1=1

I admit, it makes no rational sense. This is not something you could ever prove with any certainty. And in reality, the Trinity itself is essentially a metaphor for the complexity of God. It serves to remind us that we can never fully “get the God thing down pat.”


Unknowing God

I said earlier that people are not able to describe God. That does not mean we can’t say anything about God, but it does mean that whatever we say is, at best, provisional. Anything we say that limits God also limits our understanding of God. Your God is only as big as your imagination–and your love.

The author of the Cloud of Unknowing, a spiritual guide from the 14th century says that we have two ways of experiencing God–through our knowledge and through our love. “To the first, to the intellect,” he says, “God who made us is forever unknowable, but to the second, to love, God is completely knowable by every individual.” This echos a passage from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians:  “Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him.”

Our minds will only take us so far into the mysteries of God, and the Trinity is forceful reminder of just how soon we get caught up in the intricacies of the Divine nature. We should not be surprised that our overall knowledge of God is limited. We have a hard time getting to know each other. James B. Duke, the founder of the American Tobacco Company and namesake of Duke University and the Duke Power electrical utility, both found founded by his son Buck, once said there were three things he did not understand–Electricity, the Trinity, and his son Buck. Now having said that, he was the owner of an electricity company, the founder of Trinity College at Duke University, and the father of Buck, whom he loved.

We have a hard time knowing things, and some things are far beyond our grasp, but we can always love. It is not my aim to understand my wife and children as much as it is to love them. Understanding without love is cold and clinical. Understanding without love turns people into patients or clients. Love makes them human beings in our eyes.

Wendell Berry said, in a wedding sermon, “The mind that is not baffled is not employed.” Well the Trinity certainly is a baffler. It is a mystery. Look to me for guidance here and I cannot explain it. I can give metaphors and analogies, some of which are helpful, but how can 1+1+1=1? I don’t know. I don’t know.

Embracing the Mystery

I cannot explain it. I can only encourage you to embrace the mystery with awe. When we hear about the Trinity, when we say the words, “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” or “Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer,” or, as my colleague Dr. David Cunningham suggests, “Source, Wellspring and Living Water,”  we are saying something beyond our rational understanding, but not beyond our loving understanding. When we think of the Trinity we think of a God who is infinite in complexity, so far beyond our understanding that we can only come with approximations about who God is.

Trying to understand God is like trying to understand our place in the universe. In 1995 a scientist pointed the Hubble Telescope to a blank region of space and let it record for 100 hours. As far as anyone could see, it was a totally deserted area. What they found was amazing.  The “nothing” that the telescope was pointing at was stuffed with galaxies. Not just stars and planets, but whole galaxies. 10,000 galaxies in what was previously thought to be a blank region of space. Each galaxy was between 100,000 and 1.5 million light years across. That means it is so large it would take a beam of light 1.5 million years to get from one side to the other. But from our perspective, it is too small for us to see with the naked eye.

And God is bigger than that. It’s at this point that all attempts at explaining must stop; this is where prayer begins.

          Heavenly Father, Gracious Son, Powerful Holy Spirit,

Words cannot express, nor thoughts contain

The awesome mystery of your love’s domain.

Echoing the prayer of Patrick the Saint,

Who gave love to you and others without restraint,

We rise today through the strength of the Trinity,

The Three in One, the One as Three.

And through the mystery we pray

That we might be One with Thee today.




Isaiah 6:1-8

1In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. 2Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. 3And one called to another and said:
“Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”
4The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. 5And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”

6Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. 7The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” 8Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”


John 3:1-17


1Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?


11″Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.


16″For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.


17″Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”


About tmrichmond3

I am the pastor at the First Presbyterian Church in Medford, Oregon. I believe that faith should be able to sustain us, not oppress us.
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