June 11, 2017
Somewhere chugging along in outer space right now is the Cassini orbiter, a probe that NASA sent up into space in 1997 to get a closer look at Saturn, a planet had previously been virtually unknowable.
Saturn is so ridiculously far away - more than 746 million miles - that it took the Cassini 7 years to get there. Since it arrived, it has been orbiting Saturn and its moons, taking pictures and samples and giving a steady and amazing trove of insights that have been surprising and delighting scientists. I love reading all about the various discoveries. About how it tracked a monster storm that stretched around the planet and then consumed itself.
And how it landed a probe on Saturn’s largest moon — the first-ever landing on any world in the outer solar system.
About how it discovered two previously unknown moons and a few new rings around Saturn. It detected atmosphere around one of Saturn’s moons — the first time molecules of an oxygen atmosphere have been captured at a world other than earth. And it found evidence of an underground ocean on another moon.
Exciting stuff with implication I can only pretend to begin to understand. And of course, every time something new is discovered, every time some clue appears to some long-standing scientific mystery, it leads to entirely new questions, new possibilities of discovery. By the time the probe’s work is done, it will have been orbiting Saturn for 13 years. And we still only know the tip of the iceberg about Saturn and its surroundings. If anything, we just realize now how infinite are the questions we have yet to ask, we’ve just uncovered more unknowns worth exploring. And yet somehow, despite its distance from Earth, Saturn seems closer than ever before.
Which seems a fitting topic for this Trinity Sunday, a day when we celebrate a doctrine that no one understands and that tends to lead to more questions than answers.
But at it’s heart, at it’s best, the Trinity isn’t really about doctrine, but about falling in love with mystery.
At the beginning, there were people who experienced God as beyond them, as the transcendent creator of all things, beyond knowledge and understanding. But then Jesus came along, and these people realized that they were experiencing God with them, in and through Jesus. And they could see that somehow Jesus had an intimacy with God that was unlike anything they’d known was possible. And so they began to understand Jesus as The Christ, the Son of God. And then Jesus died, but these people realized that they felt a dynamic and divine presence within them. And so they began to understand that power as Holy Spirit. They didn’t know why or how all of this worked; it was a mystery — a beautiful, awe-inspiring, experiential mystery — that moved and changed and challenged them.
These people fell in love with mystery. And they wanted a way to talk about all that, a way to speak about their trifold experience of God more fully, and a way to be able to invite other people into it. So they began using the kinds of words we hear in our New Testament readings today:
From Paul’s letter to the community of Jesus followers gathered in Corinth written about 20 years after Jesus’ death: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.”
And from Matthew’s Gospel, written about 30 years after that, explaining how to fully immerse believers into this new Way by “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
But it wasn’t too terribly long before it became less a description of a mysterious relationship and more something to fight about. Over the course of a few centuries, the Doctrine of the Trinity became a line in the sand that separated people into ‘in’ and ‘out’, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. It became a Doctrine that got codified into Creeds. A Doctrine that involved impressive words with Latin and Greek roots, like ‘homoousios’ and ‘consubstantial’ and ‘hypostases’.
And ever since, people have been trying to pin down this doctrine. Writing more and more scholarly articles about it. Using more words to describe it. Words that just lead to more questions…. How does the Trinity work within itself? How are the three persons of the Godhead related? How are they alike and how are they different? How do each of them relate to us? And which one came first?
For almost 2000 years, we’ve been doing our best to conquer the mystery that this doctrine was meant to describe, rather than embrace it.
This is how we humans work. We want to understand things. Get to the bottom of things. We want to know why. And so we work to find answers, we use words to explain, we keep unearthing things hoping that someday they’ll make sense.
The problem is that, as satisfying as it is to figure everything out, that doesn’t seem to work when it comes to God. God isn’t so easily solved. Whenever we try to cement some explanation, we end up raising more questions. And sometimes we get so focused on the solving of questions that we forget about the mystery, the experience that made us ask the question to begin with.
That’s why I love the second sentence in our Gospel reading for today. It says that when the disciples “saw [the risen Jesus], they worshiped him; but some doubted.” But some commentators I read disagreed with this translation from the Greek, arguing that a better reading might be: “When they saw him, they worshiped but they doubted.” Or even: “When they saw him, despite their doubt, they worshiped him.” I love the idea of worship and doubt coexisting in this verse, just like they do in us. Our experience of God can go hand-in-hand with our frustrating inability to have all our questions answered to our satisfaction. The mystery of God, and our experience of that mystery, doesn’t depend on our not having doubt. It doesn’t depend on our being able to wrap it all up into neat doctrines that we can all agree on. In fact, the mystery of God almost certainly makes all of that impossible, because experiencing God usually ends up challenging our assumptions about God. But that doubt, that challenge, is what makes us wonder and think and probe and search. And ultimately draws us deeper into the kind of holy relationship that the early church was trying to express when they used their flailing human words to talk about the mystery and paradox of the Trinity in the first place.
Back to Saturn for just a minute. Hearing about all the discoveries of the Cassini orbiter was very cool, though often over my head. Seeing the photos taken from new angles and distances was incredible. But what really grabbed me was the enthusiasm of the scientists.
These were discoveries of a lifetime for them, and getting to be involved in this historic mission is clearly life-giving for them. They are learning a lot, to be sure, but what seems to be really energizing them is the experience of it all. It is their excitement that made me want to learn more, to see what they saw. That was what made me start reading the updates about the mission and looking at the photos from the orbiter. Their enthusiasm about their experience is what makes Saturn feel realer and closer than ever.
And that’s the heart of the Trinity. Not didactic explanations full of fancy words, but experiences that made God feel closer and more meaningful and so moved people in the early church that they wanted to share it so that we could explore it for ourselves and have our own experiences of awe and wonder. So that God could feel realer and closer than ever. The Trinity is how we tell the story of God and find our place in that story. The Trinity is an invitation to fall in love with the mystery of God.