A young, American woman was an exchange student in Paris. One day she stopped by a small bookshop to buy a map of France. The shopkeeper was a small, elderly man. He went to the back of the store and came back carrying an armful of maps. With great ceremony the man announced, “Here is a map of Paris. And here is a map of Lyons. And here is a map of Marseille. Here…” At this point the young woman interrupted him and said, “But sir, I just want a map of France, just one.” The little man drew himself up to his full stature and exclaimed, “But Mademoiselle, France is much too big to be on just one map!”

This is Holy Trinity Sunday and I must say that, like France, the doctrine of the Trinity is much too big for just one sermon. It is big and sprawling and complex and nuanced. Truth is, you can1t explain the Trinity, not really. One of my teachers in seminary put it this way, “Any attempt at a logically consistent explanation of how God can be three and one at the same time is, from the beginning, more wrong than right; more untrue than true. There is no way to explain it that actually does it justice.”

We cannot explain it, but we can explore it. Instead of pulling it apart in an attempt to see how it works, we can leave it intact and think about what the Trinity has to say about our personal faith and our life together as the people of God. The Trinity helps us to retain a healthy balance in our view of God. Most of us, most of the time, are what I call “closet Unitarians.” That is to say that, while we may affirm the orthodox idea of three-in-one, for all practical purposes we gravitate to one of the three persons of the Trinity as our favored understanding of God-ness.

Some of us tend to see God as high, mighty and powerful — as “the big guy upstairs,” as a bit of an “unmoved mover” of the universe, as the creator and sustainer of all that was, is or ever will be. We envision God as a loving yet stern parental figure, making rules and dispensing judgment.

Others of us center our faith more directly on Jesus the Christ. This includes everything from “Have you accepted Jesus as your personal Savior?” evangelicals, through “What would Jesus do?” activists, on to many traditional Lutherans who talk and think a great deal about “Christ and him crucified.”

And thirdly, there are those of us for whom “feeling the touch of the Spirit” means everything. This includes everybody from tongues-speaking, faith-healing Pentecostals through charismatic Catholics and all those in between, including people who say they are “more spiritual than religious” and wait for feelings and circumstances to guide them in their daily lives.

Now, all of us are a little bit of each of these, and almost none of us is completely one of them. But all of us favor one more than the other two. And the point is each is an authentic way to experience God, and none of them is complete in itself, not for a healthy Christian spiritual life.

For this, balance is needed. The doctrine of the Trinity keeps us balanced, helps us to remember the other parts of God that we must pay due attention to, individually and as a community of faith.

The Holy Trinity reminds us that the God who created the universe is also the God who lived among us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth and is also the same God whose Spirit moves us in our moments of spiritual clarity.

As a community of faith, it is not necessary that we be identical in our understanding of God. Rather it is important and vital to our communal health that we share our understandings with one another openly so that we can learn and benefit from each other. In biblical terms: “so that we may build up the body of Christ.”

As a church, we all need each other; we need those with a deep reverence for the Creator God, for “Our Father who art in heaven.” We need those who are head over heels in love with Jesus. And we need those whose souls are in tune with the wispy wind of the Spirit. We need each other in order to live fully as God1s people in this place at this time.

My late father-in-law used to love to tell the story of a man, “a city feller from up in Raleigh,” who got his rented fishing boat stuck on a sandbar along the Outer Banks of North Carolina. When the Coast Guard rescued him, he kept saying he couldn’t understand how it happened. He was experienced, he knew how to navigate; there must be something wrong with his map. He was right. There was something wrong with his map. It was a place mat from Captain Tony1s Sanitary Fish Market restaurant in Morehead City.

In order to find our way through life, we need a good map. Sometimes we need very elaborate maps, like the Frenchman1s many charts of France. But most of the time a map like that is too much, it confuses us. Sometimes we need a very simple map, something to give us the lay of the land, or the water as the case may be. A place mat sketch is enough for that. But if you1re trying to go somewhere, get from here to there, a straightforward, readable map is exactly what you need.

The Holy Trinity is just such a map. It reminds us that we are all the children of God and that we were created with purpose and promise. It reminds us of what God has done for us in Jesus the Christ and what we are called to do for others in Jesus1 name. And it promises us that as we go forth we will never, ever be alone.

Amen and amen.

Talk back:

  • Are you using a straightforward map or a place mat sketch?
  • Can you identify the people in your life whose understanding of the Trinity is different from yours?
Delmer Chilton
Delmer Chilton is originally from North Carolina and received his education at the University of North Carolina, Duke Divinity School and the Graduate Theological Foundation. He received his Lutheran training at the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, S.C. Ordained in 1977, Delmer has served parishes in North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee.

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