TEXTS: John 3:1-17 and John 16:12-18

Nicodemus 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?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” (John 3:4-5)

“When the Spirit of truth comes,” Jesus said, “he will guide you into all the truth” … They said, “What does he mean by this …? We do not know what he is talking about.” (John 16:13, 18)

The Canadian theologian Douglas Hall—whom I had the privilege of hearing speak, many years ago—tells the story of being at the beach one day with his three little children. An argument broke out between his older daughter and his son, and it escalated until she shouted at her brother, “God knows! God knows you are not nice!”

Her little brother was not about to be outdone. “Well,” he said, “Jesus is annoyed with you!”  Whereupon Dr. Hall imagined that if his third child had been old enough to enter the fray, the Holy Spirit would no doubt have weighed in on one side or the other.

And so it is that the Trinity has for centuries been misused and misunderstood by children and adults alike. In fact, the Trinity may well be the least understood basic teaching of our Christian faith. We mouth the creedal words and sing the hymns, but few of us would be able to take the Trinity much further than that.

A traditional but less than satisfying response to questions about the Trinity has been simply to describe it as an enigma we cannot ever fully grasp. I remember the story of another preacher who got into the pulpit on Trinity Sunday and delivered his message in such incomprehensible language that, afterward, one desperate soul complained that no one had been able to understand the sermon. To which the preacher replied, “You aren’t supposed to understand—it’s a mystery!”

Well, the Trinity is a mystery—just as the fullness of God is now concealed from us. Our very language itself, inadequate as it is, often gets in the way.

But if we are to embrace and worship and follow this God of ours, we have no choice other than to attempt to name and describe God. That’s how the Trinity came into being: as a way for people to describe their own experience of God.

Can you imagine what it must have been like to be among the first Christians to worship God? There were no established Christian liturgical practices, not even an agreed-upon sacred text. No service bulletins, no hymnbooks or worship slides—only songs and stories, poems and prayers, all of which people had come to know by heart.

Most perplexing of all to those early Christians surely must have been the question of how to address the God whom they had gathered to worship.

After the death and resurrection of Jesus, in the first days of the church, when people gathered to praise God and to pray to God, they needed to name God. They continued to address God as the ancient Hebrews had, as “Father” and as “Spirit.” But they also found themselves praying to Jesus! Those earliest Christians must have asked themselves: “Exactly who are we worshiping?”

So the Trinity—one God, yet known or experienced in three personae—became, over time, one way for Christians to express their understanding of God. Initially, the concept emerged in their worship and prayer life; and eventually, it became central to their way of conceiving of and naming God.

Now, the Trinity as a theological doctrine does not appear explicitly or systematically anywhere in Scripture. In fact, the word Trinity is not used even once in the Bible! Rather, it lurks there like so many pieces of a puzzle waiting to be discovered and assembled.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus offers us some of those puzzle pieces—referring as he does to both the “Spirit of truth” and the “Father.” And then he concludes by saying, “All that the Father has is mine.”

Earlier in the Gospel of John—in the third chapter—we find a passage that is actually the lectionary choice for Trinity Sunday, Year B. Recorded here is a conversation between Jesus and a leading Pharisee named Nicodemus.

The Pharisees believed in eternal life, and Jesus and Nicodemus find themselves in a discussion of this topic. They are talking about the nature of the kingdom of God, and Jesus insists that to be part of God’s kingdom one must be born again—in and by the Spirit. Then he says that whoever believes in God’s Son will not perish but have eternal life.

In the space of just a few verses, Jesus makes plain his own conception of God. It includes a traditional Hebrew perspective that God is like a Father who rules over the world—and that God is also a Spirit offering us new life. He then goes on to add the rather startling assertion that belief in the Son of God is the gateway to eternal life.

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It does not seem to be the intention of John, the gospel writer, to teach us in this text about the Trinity per se, but, from our point of view, what we have here in this exchange between Nicodemus and Jesus is a rudimentary introduction to the notion of a “three-in-one God.”

Elsewhere in Scripture we find references to God as the Sovereign who creates, the Son who redeems, and the Holy Spirit who sustains. But it took the early church several centuries to work out the Trinitarian language that we have come to see as a basic teaching of the Christian faith—the language used at baptisms and benedictions: “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

Ever since Christians first began using Trinitarian language we have been tinkering with it, unsatisfied with the traditional male-infused formula to describe the being of God and our experience of God.

As early as the fifth century after Christ, Augustine suggested this as an alternative way to name God: “God the Lover, God the Beloved, and God the Love.”

In the 14th century, Julian of Norwich wrote: “As truly as God is our Father, so just as truly is God our Mother.”

More recently, Letty Russell has proposed: “God the Source of life, God the Word of truth, and God the Spirit of love.”

Clearly, part of our tradition has called for innovation in the way we speak of God. We tend to think of the search for new imagery about God as a phenomenon of our time—but really, it’s not a new thing. Since the earliest days of the church, Christians have struggled to find new and better ways of naming the God we worship.

The problem the Trinity was designed to address is with us still: what language can adequately express the fullness of God? Or perhaps it cannot be expressed in words!

The great Russian icon painter Rublev, in his famous 15th-century portrayal of the Trinity, has three persons seated in an open circle at a table, with their hands outstretched, as if to welcome the viewer into the circle. It suggests a Trinity that invites us to join and participate in the life and community of God.

A Trinity for today offers us not some monolithic, imposing, doctrinal Supreme Being, but rather an accessible, interactive, approachable, hospitable God. The Trinity is a conception of God that suggests that God is—within God’s own self—a community.

God does not exist apart from relationship or outside community. And neither do we! When we read in First John 4:8 that “God is love,” we are getting to the heart of what the Trinity means.

As Jurgen Moltmann said, “It is only from the Trinitarian perspective that we can claim that ‘God is Love,’ because love is never alone.” 1

The Trinity is like a household—the household of God. It is a loving household, and we are included in it. A Trinity for today focuses on the threeness of God as a window onto the one loving community that is God. And that divine community is the model for all genuine human community.

We need the Trinity now more than ever to begin to grasp, or at least get a glimpse of, the depth and breadth and height of who God is and what God does. Peter Gomes asserted that the Trinity “works to explain the unexplainable and helps to draw for us the big picture, satisfying our need to engage and stretch and stimulate our imagination” about God. 2

A few years ago, I ran into a woman who was a former member of the church I served at the time. She was still living nearby, but no longer part of our congregation. I’m sure she dreaded running into me, fearing that I would ask her about her current church involvement, which—of course—I did!

In response she said, “I have found other ways to feed my spirituality now.”

You know, there are lots of people who would say the same thing. The church’s way of proclaiming its faith no longer feeds their spirits, no longer offers them the nourishment they desire for their souls. I wonder how much of that has to do with our lack of imagination when we speak about God.

Far from being an outmoded, obsolete image for us to use as we speak of God, the Trinity invites us to a new understanding of God—and to a re-energized relationship with God.

Part of our challenge as Christians today is to find a way of using “Trinity” language that is not bound exclusively to the traditional words—language that can have life and meaning not only for us, but also for a world full of people hungry for spiritual experience.

The Trinity pushes us to discover a God who is much bigger than any single image or word—a “three-in-one” God who is above us, beside us, and within us. One God in three persons, blessed Trinity.


1 Moltmann, Jurgen. “The Triune God: Rich in Relationships,” in The Living Pulpit, April-June, 1999, p. 4.

2 Gomes, Peter. Sermons, [New York: Wm. Morrow and Company, Inc., 1998], p. 108.

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