“Mystery’s Invitation” The Rev. Dr. David A. Van Dyke
Matthew 28:16-20 The House of Hope Presbyterian Church
June 19, 2011 Saint Paul, Minnesota
Prayer: Guide us O God by your Word and Holy Spirit, that in your light we may see
light, in your truth find freedom, and in your will discover peace, through Jesus Christ
our Lord. Amen.
I love the progression of the liturgical year as it moves us through the seasons and
festivals of our faith. We are about to enter a period known as Ordinary Time, that will
last up until Advent, which starts in late November. With the arrival of Lent, the liturgical
seasons move quickly into Holy Week and then Easter, Pentecost and now Trinity
For all the other distractions and debates within Christendom over theology and politics,
the Doctrine of the Trinity is rather settled. Father, Son and Holy Spirit, or God, our
Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer—it’s at the center of our belief as Christians. And yet
the word Trinity never appears in scripture. No place in scripture do we have the
Doctrine of the Trinity neatly laid out and explained for us. Jesus never tells a parable to
help the poor confused disciples understand the concept. An explanation of the Trinity in
Jesus’ own words is not included in the Sermon on the Mount. Apart from the four
verses I just read that include the formula, and there aren’t many of those, it’s just not
there in a convincing way. So what are we to make of that?
And then consider the timing of this day within the liturgical calendar. Last Sunday we
celebrated Pentecost, the beginning of the church. Today we celebrate a doctrine of the
church considered to be foundational and yet one we can’t fully explain. What do you
make of that?
Well, as I consider it, I think it is the church’s desire to express in language that which
the early Christians had a sense of but couldn’t articulate. They already knew Yahweh,
the creator God of the Hebrew scriptures, but those first witnesses to the Christ event—
those who knew him and experienced him both in his life and then again in the way they
experienced him after he was crucified and the tomb was found empty, they didn’t really
know who he was during his fleshly life on earth. That understanding and revelation
would develop over time. But that what kept him alive, what kept those believers and
followers of Jesus inspired and what continues to empower believers today, in real and
powerful ways, is what we experience through God’s Spirit.
And the development of the Doctrine of the Trinity was not an easy road for the church.
And not unlike denominations today that can’t always agree on things, the early church
divided into factions. We tend to do that a lot when we disagree—especially those of us
in the Reformed tradition. We have that reforming gene embedded deep in our
ecclesiastical DNA. Sometimes that’s a good thing but sometimes it’s not.
And so in the debate over the Trinity, there was a group known as the subordinationists,
who refused to see Jesus as fully divine, but instead as just an inspired man of God but
not equal with God—as a subordinate of God. Then there were the modalists, who
wanted to maintain the unity of God, so they interpreted the Father, the Son and the Holy
Spirit, as different modes of God, which sounded good initially, but the harder they were
pressed, the more it sounded like they were promoting the idea of three separate Gods.
They were forced to modify their position arguing that those three distinctions were
really only “forms” of God’s appearing. And that too was problematic.
So most of the early church rejected both of those positions and forged ahead with their
understanding of God, which wasn’t really a solution to the question of how God is one
yet three, three yet one. Rather, all it did was affirm the oneness of God while at the
same time affirm the genuine presence of God in the persons of Jesus Christ and the Holy
But the curious question I keep coming back to is this: In developing a doctrine so
foundational for Christians—the Doctrine of the Trinity, why would the church construct
something it can’t fully explain? I mean, if you are going to have something at the core
of your belief system and then ask others to join you in affirming it, wouldn’t you think
that you’d find something easy to comprehend? Something simple, like the Golden
Rule? Something black and white. Something with boundaries? Something not so
shrouded in mystery.
Instead, and right after Pentecost—immediately on the heels of celebrating the church’s
founding and birth, we lift up a doctrine that when we’re done trying to explain it we’re
left with an even deeper sense of mystery than had we just left it alone as yet another
unexamined article of faith. And consider for a moment, the profound statement that
makes about the Christian faith. That the point at which most Christians are in agreement
is over a doctrine we can’t fully explain and even when we disagree about a great many
It leads me to the conclusion that the Doctrine of the Trinity is the ultimate faith
statement. It is our ultimate confession that the nature of faith and at the core of who we
are and what we believe, is a mystery embraced by faith. Now, this is not good news for
those who insist that all loose ends be sewn up and for whom resting in a state of mystery
is most uncomfortable.
One of my early discoveries that helped nudge me closer to theological education and
better understanding this sense of call I had even as a young boy, was when I finally put
my finger on what I didn’t like about much of my religious experience growing up. It
was the fact that the ministers I encountered either spent too much time in their sermons
answering questions no one was asking, or answering questions to which there were no
real answers. And one of the more helpful images I encountered as I prepared for
ministry was the discovery that among my many roles as a minister, one of my main roles
is to be a steward of the holy mysteries.
To embrace them and not fear them, to honor and reverence them and not to cheapen
them chattering away trying to explain and expose them. And my hunch is that when
those early church leaders considered their understanding of God and who God is and
how they experienced God in their lives and in the world, they began to rest in the
Trinitarian mystery because they know that life itself is full of mystery.
And while most of us would like to live in a world of certainty and guarantees, mystery
need not be feared because it’s given to us like an invitation to dream—given like a gift.
To confront a mystery beyond your ability to comprehend it is to find yourself humbled
and drawn systematically into the business of dreaming.
But our culture today doesn’t seem to respect dreamers or make space for them. And it
begins at the earliest ages, in school. “Sally, quit looking out the window and pay
attention.” We live in a world of unprecedented problems. We’re teetering on the edge
as we are constantly being reminded. Who has time to dream? We need solutions and
we need them now. We know the numbers and we’ve seen the bottom line and in a
concrete, material world, we don’t handle life’s mysteries and abstractions very well.
Our age is one in which usefulness is thought to be the chief merit of nature—in which
the attainment of power, the utilization of resources is taken to be the chief purpose of
humanity in God’s creation. The late Abraham Joshua Heschel, who I can hardly stop
reading once I start, as I discovered again this past week, in his book, God in Search of
Humans have become primarily tool-making animals, and the world is now a
gigantic tool box for the satisfaction of our needs. The Greeks learned in order to
comprehend. The Hebrews learned in order to revere. We learn in order to use. As
such we feel, act and think as if the sole purpose of the universe were to satisfy
our needs. Therefore we have a supreme faith in statistics and we abhor the idea
Heschel goes on to say,
The awareness of grandeur and the sublime is all but gone from the modern mind.
Our systems of education stress the importance of enabling the student to exploit
the power aspect of reality. To some degree, it tries to develop the student’s
ability to appreciate beauty. But there is no education for the sublime. Instead we
teach children how to weigh and measure. We fail at teaching them how to revere,
how to sense wonder and awe (pp. 34-6).
And it was Rabbi Heschel who reminded all people of faith that, if religion has declined,
it declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull and
oppressive. When faith is completely replaced by creed, when worship is replaced by
discipline, when love is replaced by habit, when the crisis of today is ignored because of
the “splendor” of yesterday, when the faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living
fountain—when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with a voice of
compassion—when rigid orthodoxy replaces an invitation to dream and dream big, the
message of the faith becomes meaningless.
Some of the most reverent people I know, those who really understand grandeur and the
sublime, are scientists and astronomers, one of whom expressed it to me this way, “I have
traveled trillions of light-years and galaxies in my quest and study and yet I feel as if I’ve
only opened a door slightly, and have peered into an unexplored room—a room however
that is so vast I cannot begin to see the other side of it.”
I believe that the doctrine of the Trinity is a mystery greater than our ability to
comprehend it. But it is also an invitation for us as people of faith, to dream and ponder.
To ponder the God who created out of nothing, all matter in the universe. To consider
the God who not only created light out of darkness but who created the darkness as well.
The mystery of the Trinity invites us to ponder this architect and creator of the universe
who then walked among us in the person of Jesus the Christ, living out grace and love in
ways the world hadn’t seen before. And it invites us to dream about and to ponder this
God who is still alive and present in our world and in our lives—whose Spirit can be felt
in every kind gesture, every selfless act of love and compassion and in every leaf’s
This is our heritage as people of faith—to take rest and refuge in the mystery of God. It is
a rich heritage of faith and of dreaming, handed down to us by those early church leaders
and all the saints who lived between them and us, who preserved this doctrine and
claimed it as their own even though they couldn’t fully comprehend it.
And not unlike those who went before us, we too encounter this ultimate mystery,
encounter it by confessing it, singing it, praying it and baptizing our children uttering its
I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth…and in Jesus
Christ His only Son our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Ghost.
Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty. God in three persons, blessed Trinity.
I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Those are statements of faith—they’re the creeds of dreamers! So go on your way,
responding to the very real invitation to dream that this mystery provides you. And as
you go, may the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the communion
of the Holy Spirit be with you all.