Pondering the Mystery of the Trinity

by Lowell Chilton

A homily for the people of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Mercer Island Washington.
The text for the sermon is John 3:1-17 and the occasion is the Celebration of the Holy Trinity.


I’ll still be here next week, but this is my last Sunday in the pulpit here at Holy Trinity as your seminary student. I find it highly fitting that it is also the Celebration of the Holy Trinity.

Photo by tschitscherin/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by tschitscherin/iStock / Getty Images

I love the Holy Trinity. I love the idea that God is more than any one way of describing God. I love the idea that God is constantly in conversation with Godself. I love the paradox. I love the mystery.

I love the Holy Trinity.

But trying to talk about it makes me feel a bit like I imagine Nicodemus felt in our gospel lesson.

Nicodemus is a leader, a teacher, an important person. People look to him for understanding and interpretation.

And here comes this teacher named Jesus who is doing “signs.” I bet people were coming to Nicodemus and asking him to explain Jesus’ signs and hoping for some understanding. And he didn’t know what to tell them.

So he goes and finds Jesus. He tells him that they, the whole community, know Jesus comes from God, for all those “signs” he has been doing can only be done through the power of God.

At this point it seems like he has some understanding, he is saying that he knows Jesus “comes from God.” But does he really get it? After all, he did come alone in the night, like he was ashamed and afraid of being seen bringing it up.

In response, we get a classic Jesus statement,

Very truly I say to you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born anothen.

Huh? anothen?

Anothen is translated in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, which I read earlier and is in your bulletin, as “from above.”

However, many of you probably grew up hearing this as “born again.”

The reality is anothen means both “from above” and “again” at the same time. We don’t really have a way to capture this in English. We tend to like words to have one clear meaning. The Greek anothen here carries both meanings all the time. So our translators grab one meaning for the simplicity of reading, relegating the other to the footnotes and we miss something.

Just as Nicodemus does. Nicodemus grabs on to the “do it again” meaning. Not only that, he goes for the most literal meaning possible. He starts thinking about literally being born again and talking about reentering the mother’s womb for a second birth.

He is not getting it.

Jesus tries to help him out. I think of Jesus’ response as,

“no, no, I meant the other meaning of anothen.”

He says,

Very Truly I say to you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.

And Nicodemus still does not get it.

Did you notice that the previous two replies both start with “Very Truly I say to you”?

This third time Jesus interrupts this pattern and says

Are you a teacher of Israel, and you do not understand these things?

Jesus at this point is pretty annoyed with the state of religious education in Israel.

And Nicodemus still does not get it.

He is trying to be too literal. He is too stuck in what he thinks he knows already. He thinks he knows something because he is a learned man and knows something about signs and has seen the signs.

The signs Jesus was doing were not your run of the mill first century signs, which every teacher and prophet would do.

They were miraculous, marvelous signs. They were signs with meaning, which pointed to something greater than anything that had ever been seen or known.

And Nicodemus could not get it.

Do you ever feel like that?

I do.

When I think about trying to explain the Holy Trinity, I feel flustered and stymied.

I feel perplexed.

And I ponder.

I think that it is good to ponder.

This pondering reminds me that I do not know it all. It reminds me that I cannot know it all. It reminds me that I cannot put God in a box.

Maybe pondering can help us glimpse God, just a little bit.

Yesterday I was at a forum at Seattle University discussing interreligious dialogue. One of our presenters is a teacher at a Jesuit high school. He started out his time by doing something that I’m going to ask you to do with me now.

Sit comfortably.

Close your eyes.

Breathe deeply

And slowly.

As you breathe in, think “Spirit”

As you breathe out, think “Love”

In Spirit

Out Love


We feel the spirit moving through us. We feel the love of God moving through us.

We have a glimpse of God.

When we stand in this room, with these people, and gather around this bowl of water, we have a glimpse of God who claims us as beloved children and calls all things into being.

When we come to this table and eat of this bread and drink of this cup, we have a glimpse of God who comes into the world to die for the world.

Through the signs that are more than signs and words that are more than words, through the mystery of the Holy Trinity, we have a glimpse of God.

May we allow ourselves to sit in this mystery, to revel in it, to marvel at it, and to let it wash over us. May we allow ourselves the grace to not understand and to be okay with not understanding and to strive for not understanding. Perhaps in the not understanding we may find the true meaning.