There are many intriguing news stories abroad these days, but the one that interests me the most right now concerns the scandal of secret Vatican documents allegedly stolen and copied by Paolo Gabriele, the Pope’s butler. The heart of the scandal involves mismanagement of the Vatican bank, including charges of malfeasance and cronyism. But to me perhaps the greatest mystery is this: the Pope has a butler? Really?
If the Pope has a butler, I ask myself, shouldn’t all Christian clergy have butlers? More to the point, shouldn’t I have a butler? Once I open myself to these questions, all kinds of other queries cascade into my mind. If I had a butler, what would he do? I don’t have any secret correspondence, so there’d be no Top Secret documents for him to steal and photocopy. And Christ Church Cranbrook doesn’t have a bank, so the only cronyism he could uncover might involve sweetheart deals around the treats at Vacation Bible School. Where, precisely, do all those Goldfish and Graham crackers really come from? Are the fruit punch providers getting kickbacks?
Questions and mysteries abound. Today is Trinity Sunday, the day I have always called “the preacher’s graveyard”. Everybody has questions about the Trinity, and the mistake that many preachers make is to try to answer them in a fifteen-minute sermon. As I used to say when I taught seminary students, “It took the early church 400 years to develop this doctrine. Do you think you can make sense of it in a sound bite?”
The convergence of the papal butler banking scandal and Trinity Sunday suggests that many—perhaps most—of us come to church with big questions on our minds. In this we are not alone. Today’s Gospel [John 3: 1-17] tells us the story of Nicodemus, a Pharisee who comes to Jesus by night with his questions. Jesus tells him, “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus replies, “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” Jesus responds, “You must be born from above. The 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.” In a fit of exasperation so violent you can hear it rise from the page, Nicodemus asks, “‘How can these things be?”
How can these things be? When you and I think about the big religious questions—the Holy Trinity, the meaning of suffering, the persistence of evil and injustice in the world, life after death—Nicodemus speaks for us. How can these things be? Jesus has told him he must be born again from above, by water and the Holy Spirit. Nicodemus is flummoxed, as frankly you and I would be flummoxed, too. How can these things be?
In some sense, the life of faith is offered to us as an invitation to step into a mystery. It’s very much like the experience of going to a museum or gallery and looking at abstract paintings or contemporary works of art. Whenever I go to a big museum show, I always notice the people who rent the audio guides. They amble from point to point holding the devices to their ears. They are looking at a painting and trying to make sense of it by listening to what an intelligent person says about it. The problem, though, is that the primary thing about the painting is the experience of looking at it. When you’ve got the audio guide to your head, you’re in danger of confusing someone else’s experience of the painting for your own. I say, turn off the audio guide and look at the picture.
You and I are all products of Western culture and its inheritance of rationalism. A painting, like a poem or any other work of art, is not primarily a cognitive, mental experience. A work of art is an invitation into a new way of being or seeing or hearing. One of my favorite writers, the great Flannery O’Connor, says that most of us approach art “as if it were a problem in algebra. Find x.” O’Connor believes that we regularly mistake the process of thinking about something for the experience of the thing itself. She goes on to say this:
Some people have the notion that you read the story and then climb out of it into the meaning, but for the fiction writer himself the whole story is the meaning, because it is an experience, not an abstraction. [Flannery O’Connor, “The Nature and Aim of Fiction”]
Flannery O’Connor is talking about fiction here, but she could be talking about visual art or theology. A priest scholar friend of mine has called this way of looking at religious problems, “the meaning heresy”. What he means is that, since the Reformation and the Enlightenment, we Western people have tended to think that the most important thing about something is what it “means” as a mental experience. People walk around art museums listening to curators talk on audio guides rather than looking at the pictures. Readers pull apart stories solving for x rather than taking in the story as an emotional, mental, physical event. Churchgoers take the bread and wine of communion and worry that they’re not “getting it” correctly because they don’t know precisely what the Eucharist is supposed to “mean”.
When we put the problem this way, our friend Nicodemus doesn’t seem so different from you and me. Nicodemus is in the grips of an early version of the meaning heresy. He goes to Jesus by night, puzzled by what Jesus “means”. Jesus replies not with an intellectual discourse but by talking about being born from above. A similar interaction occurs in Matthew’s Gospel. John the Baptist’s disciples come to Jesus and ask him if he’s the one they’re waiting for. He replies,
Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. [Matthew 11. 4-5]
Jesus answers John’s disciples the same way he answers Nicodemus. Christianity is not an idea. It is an event, an experience, a relationship. Nicodemus and John’s disciples are looking for meaning. Jesus gives them life.
When I read these stories I see something of myself. As an educated Western person I so much want God to be a manageable, explainable, intellectual concept that I can take hold of and understand. That I can’t quite understand God frustrates me, because I have been raised to expect that hard mental work will unlock all secrets. But God’s mystery refuses to yield even to my exhaustive attempts to make sense of it. As Saint Augustine said,”Since it is God we are speaking of, you do not understand it. If you could understand it, it would not be God.” [Sermons 117.5]
Today, Trinity Sunday, is the first Sunday after Pentecost. By honoring the Trinity on the Sunday after the Holy Spirit comes, the church is saying that the first gift of the Spirit to the church is the revelation that we know God in three modes: as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier, as source of being, personal savior, and ongoing presence among us. But the main point, if we need one this Sunday, is this: the doctrine of the Trinity is a gift. It’s not an intellectual question or a problem to be solved. It is an invitation to know and experience God not just as someone “out there” but as someone among us, “in here”.
People go to museums and often come away having heard someone else’s ideas about the artworks rather than having entered the experience the painting or sculpture offered. People read books the same way. Nicodemus went to Jesus asking for an executive summary and was offered instead a new life, an invitation to be born again from above. Many people come to church thinking that what a preacher says about what we’re doing together is the most important thing about it. As James Thurber once said, "Leave your mind alone". Even people like me who think they understand the Trinity don't really understand it. It's a mystery and a gift. Like a beautiful painting, a poem, a symphony, or a dance, the Trinity is something we're invited to experience rather than interpret. It’s not an idea. It’s a new way of being.
The Trinity, like the Eucharist, is a gift. In this gift, God offers you a new way of living and being. Don’t mistake what it means for what it is. It’s God we’re talking about, and if you think you understand it, then it isn’t God. The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it but you don’t know where it comes from. We are all here, together, in the presence of a deep and wonderful mystery. Don’t let your intelligence get in the way of it. Receive it as God’s gift. Step into it. Let it embrace and transform you. Doing that, for this morning at least, will be enough. Amen.