Trinity A Sermon (2002)

Trinity Sunday
Texts: Matthew 28:16-20;
Gen. 1:1-2:4a; 2 Cor. 13:11-13

TRINITY AS MYSTERY REVEALED

I have an apple with me this morning. And if you cut it in half like this, you have the beginning of one of the popular children’s sermons on Trinity Sunday. I think I’ve used this one myself. After cutting it in half, you point out the three parts of the apple: skin, fruit, core. And you explain how God is like that, three in one. Apple equals skin, fruit, and core; three in one. God the Trinity equals Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; three in one.

The problem with using this object lesson, though — and I have quit using it, except like this morning, to show how it doesn’t work — is that it doesn’t tell us anything very important about God. God is like an apple? No, not really. The God we come to know in Jesus Christ is a person who loves us and forgives us — these are among the important things we need to know about God. Trying to solve the Trinity like a logical puzzle generally doesn’t get us very far in trying to know the most important things about God.

In fact, it can even set us back. When we try to solve the problems of the Trinity like a logical puzzle, our usual conclusion ends up saying, in one form or another, “God is a mystery.” We only get so far in solving the logical puzzle, until we finally just say, “God is a mystery.” Even when I would do the apple thing with children, I would generally look around at some rather blank looks and simply end, “God is a mystery.”

I said that’s a setback in talking about God. How so? Shouldn’t we acknowledge that God is a mystery? Well, yes and no. There are mysteries about who God is that we’ll never solve, but there are also mysteries about who God is that become much more clear in Jesus Christ. At least that’s what the New Testament proclaims to us. If our conclusion is simply, “God is a mystery,” then we’ve probably missed out on the ways in which the mystery of who God is is revealed to us in Jesus Christ.

Let’s take a quick look at the New Testament. I have in the pews a word study I did on the word mystery in the New Testament. The New Testament was written in Greek, and you can see that our job is made easier for us from the fact that English word mystery derives almost directly from the Greek word mysterion.

In fact, it would be helpful to learn a bit more about that Greek word before we look at it in the New Testament. (1) The Greek word mysterion comes from the word myein, which means “to close.” Close what? In the case of the mysteries, I think it primarily means to close one’s mouth, because the Greek word mysterion was used most frequently in connection with their religions to talk about mystery cults, groups of religious initiates who had been sworn to secrecy over the mysterious, sacred rituals of life and death. Mysterion meant to close one’s mouth, to keep secret the things they did together in practicing their religion. Mystery was meant to close off discussion, not open it. Even today, if we begin, “God as the Trinity is a mystery,” that tends to close off discussion. What can you say in the face of mystery?

First of all, then, notice the Great Commission in this morning’s Gospel. Jesus tells us, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” If the Trinity is supposed to be a mystery, a secret, then that’s sure a funny way to keep it. Go and tell all nations, all peoples? No, I’d say that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is to be the opposite of that Greek form of mystery. Instead of closing one’s mouth, we are to open them. We are to tell everyone, to welcome everyone into our relationship with God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There’s to be nothing secret here.

Secondly, take a look at the passages I’ve laid out for you having to do with mystery in the New Testament. You’ll see that in most cases it is about mystery not as a secret kept but as one revealed. The mystery of who God is is revealed in Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Take a quick look [extemporizing from the sheet]. Do you see how in the New Testament mystery is almost the opposite of what it was in the pagan religions? Rather than a secret to be kept, the Christian religion is about mysteries revealed — most especially the mystery of who God is as revealed in Jesus Christ. So when we talk about the Trinity, we don’t want to close off discussion by saying it’s a mystery. We want to start talking about the mystery of who God is as revealed in Jesus Christ.

Let’s look again at what I think is the key passage of the New Testament in this regard is 1 Corinthians 2:1-10:

When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. 2 For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. 3 And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. 4 My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God. 6 Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. 7 But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden [lit., “a mystery kept secret”], which God decreed before the ages for our glory. 8 None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. 9 But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him”– 10 these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God.

Here we see a lengthy discussion by St. Paul of the mysteries revealed in Jesus Christ. It doesn’t take fancy language or learned wisdom. It takes knowing “nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” Or it takes what Paul has told them several verses earlier: “but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1 Cor. 1:23-24)

And at the heart of this passage, 1 Cor. 2:1-10, is the reason I stated above: “None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” In other words, the last thing we want is for our sacred violence to be revealed as our violence and not the gods. If we would have known this to be the work of the cross in the power of the Spirit (the Paraclete), then we never would have done it.

So, with our cover blown off, what is our next strategy to somehow put the lid back on, to make it mystery accepted again, rather than mystery revealed? How about a doctrine so obscure that it can take our eyes off the cross again with a fascination for mystery and logical puzzles? One thing I want to show is how this works in the creeds of the church. Have you ever noticed the cross becomes progressively lost in the development of the creeds? The Apostles’ Creed, by virtue of its brevity, can keep the cross more prominently at its center: “He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.” The Nicene Creed holds onto language of Christ “crucified under Pontius Pilate,” even making responsibility for the cross clearly human. The word Trinity is not mentioned in either of these great creeds; they simply witness to the Trinitarian structure.

On the other hand, have you ever noticed that the cross is missing from the Athanasian Creed? After a lengthy discourse on the philosophical relationship of the persons of the Trinity, we simply get towards the end (no longer at the center), “He suffered death for our salvation.” It doesn’t tell us the first thing about how he died. No trials, no Pilate, no cross. Did Jesus die of cancer for our salvation? Of course not. Doesn’t it make a difference that he suffered death at human hands?

I would suggest that with this creed, written after Constantine made Christianity the imperial religion, the “rulers of this age” have had some success in obscuring the cross from our eyes. If the real, incarnated events surrounding the life, death, and resurrection of Christ can be made to take to the background, perhaps the drama of “our salvation” can take the shape of some cosmic drama played out in heaven, in the realm of Platonic ideas, more than on earth, and we will lose once again the simple language of St. Paul which gives us the mystery unveiled in the crucified Christ. We get our violence re-veiled instead of our violence unveiled. We get the wrath of God again, instead of “God is Love,” period. We get the cosmic, heavenly drama of the loving Jesus paying a ransom for us so that we might not die at the hands of a violent, angry, punishing God. Isn’t this a common view of the mystery of salvation that the average Christian clings to today?

I don’t want to leave the matter with the implications that the Trinity needs to be discarded as a doctrine. On the contrary, I firmly believe that the language and relationships of the Trinity are very much rooted in the New Testament. In short, they are rooted in the language of the cross and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth and the relationships of Jesus the Christ with his heavenly Father and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete.

As involving the mystery of the incarnation, the wisdom and knowledge revealed to us is anthropological as well as theological. And, once again, the evangelical anthropology of René Girard provides a key for us and for our evangelical theology. The victory is already won at the cross, but the unveiling of this is the continuing work of the Paraclete through history. As we quoted from Girard above:

Jesus’ victory is thus, in principle, achieved immediately at the moment of the Passion, but for most men it only takes shape in the course of a long history secretly controlled by the revelation. It becomes evident at the moment when we are convinced that, thanks to the Gospels and not despite them, we can finally show the futility of all violent gods and explain and render void the whole of mythology. (The Scapegoat, p. 207)

I believe that an evangelical anthropology is a huge step in this historical process of revelation. To ponder the Trinity without it risks the danger of having things hidden once again in ‘mystery’ that were revealed in Christ….

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Redemption Lutheran,
Wauwatosa, WI, May 26, 2002

Notes

1. My source here is an article on mysterion, myeo by Günther Bornkamm in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (ed. by Gerhard Kittel [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1967]), 4:802-828.

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