Grace Presbyterian Church
May 30, 2021, Trinity B
The Power of Three (in One)
“Three is a magic number…”
At least that’s what I was taught by one of the “Multiplication Rock” cartoons I so eagerly watched as a child. The song went on to describe all sorts of things that came in threes. It also taught me a little ditty to remember my multiplication tables for the number three: “Three six nine…twelve fifteen eighteen…twenty-one twenty-four twenty-seven…thirty.” I would always be grateful for that in math classes.
Of course, there are lots of other places where I was taught that three was somehow an important grouping of things. It was, after all, three blind mice and three little pigs, not two blind mice or four little pigs. Even other songs, like the Jackson 5’s “ABC,” made a big deal out of that number: “A, B, C, it’s easy as 1, 2, 3, oh, simple as do, re, mi, A, B, C, 1, 2, 3…” (Sadly, that tune has gotten completely corrupted by being appropriated for some awful prescription drug commercial, with the 1, 2, 3 part now made ugly to remember.) And threes of various sorts pop up in all sorts of literature, art, music, you name it. You could almost be persuaded that three really is some sort of magic number.
Now I’m not a scholar on popular culture and how it gets that way, but it’s hard not to suspect that part of the reason that the number three carries such cultural significance is because of exactly the thing we commemorate on this day of the liturgical year. For all of the significance it holds in the church’s understanding of God, the whole idea of the Trinity is one of the least understood corners of the church’s doctrine and has been virtually since the beginning. Our reading from the gospel of John gets chosen mostly because if you read it with brain fully engaged, you can sort of see how all three members of the Trinity are found in the discussion, with “God” here being used to represent that first member of the Trinity known through much of the church’s history as “God the Father.” The Spirit gets much mention here with the comparison to the wind blowing where it will, and of course the “money verses” at the end speak directly of the Son and his work in the world. So yeah, you can sort of read this as a “Trinitarian” reading. This shouldn’t be taken to suggest that this is what Jesus (or John) meant this passage to be, although Nicodemus would hardly be the only person to be baffled by a discussion of the Trinity if that had been the case. The reading from Isaiah, while a spectacular portrait of the grandeur of God and one of the central “call stories” of scripture, really doesn’t help us much with the idea of the Trinity specifically, aside from providing the inspiration for today’s last hymn.
The whole concept has been so vexing that many of the church’s most ancient creeds were created specifically to address the Trinity and the many ways the church risked getting it wrong. (The Nicene Creed, which we do use occasionally here, is perhaps the most prominent such example.) The challenge isn’t merely about being able to count to three, but it resides in the central paradox of the nature of God: even while we recognize what that last hymn today calls “God in three persons, blessed Trinity,” we are also compelled to recognize that, in the words of another hymn, “God is one, unique and holy.” God is three, and God is one. God is one, and God is three.
This is where people get into trouble. Some have tried to argue, for example, that Father-Son-Spirit (to use the old formula) represents three different modes in which God manifests to humanity. No. This gives rise to the term modalism to label that as heresy – “God in three persons,” distinct and individual yet one.
On the other hand, you get some kind of attempt (even today in some more fundamentalist circles) to emphasize the three distinct persons of God by, for example, placing them in a hierarchy – God the Father being the big boss and Son and Spirit being subordinate, secondary figures. No. God is one, unique and holy – not some corporate hierarchy.
We are perhaps best left with the last stanza of today’s first hymn – “To thee, great One in Three, our highest praises be.” The power of three in one is perhaps first understood as the power of mystery. It stands against our tendencies to reduce Jesus to our “best friend” or to pigeonhole the Holy Spirit as the raucous thing that gets Pentecostals all excited. We don’t get it, and we won’t get it, and we are left with the realization that some things are best left to the musicians.
We sing of God, Creator High, the Sovereign on whom we rely
For life and breath and everything that makes the faithful heart to sing.
We sing of God, redeeming Son by whom all victory is won,
Who showed us love and taught us prayer and charges us his truth to share.
We sing of God, the Spirit free, sustaining us so we might be,
From tongues like fire to wordless sighs, upheld in faith and rendered wise.
We sing of holy mystery, this undivided Trinity,
And praises give in everything to this one God of whom we sing.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #2, Come, Thou Almighty King; #1, Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty!