I’m Dying And You’re Asking Me Riddles!
May 30, 1999 | First Presbyterian Church Orlando | II Corinthians 13:11-13
There is a wonderful story about the late Cardinal Cushing of Boston who was walking through a Boston department store one day. The manager of the store recognized the famous Catholic priest and ran up to him saying: “Cardinal Cushing! Please come help us. A man has passed out over here. He may have had a heart attack. He may be dying.” Well, as it turned out, the man wasn’t dying; he had only fainted. But Cardinal Cushing, not knowing that, rushed to the man’s side, saw him ashen white and unmoving, knelt down beside him, took his hand tenderly, and began to administer last rites. Cardinal Cushing said to the man: “Do you believe in God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit?” The man roused a little, opened one eye, looked at all the people standing around and said: “Here I’m dying and he’s asking me riddles!”
Well, for many people, our Christian belief in the Trinity is a riddle! Father, Son, Holy Spirit- what does all that mean? One plus one plus one equals one? One God in three persons? It all does sound so complex and so confusing. Furthermore, the word “Trinity” never appears in the Bible, and the word “Trinity” was never used by Jesus. Yet it is important to understand that while the word itself does not appear in the Bible, the belief is frequently stated in the Bible. Most of the letters of Paul, such as his letter to the Corinthians were either started with the Trinity or signed off with the Trinity. According to Matthew, the last words Jesus spoke before returning to heaven, involved this acknowledgment of the Trinity. He called His followers “to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”
Therefore, I would contend that the Trinity is one of the most prized truths of our Christian faith. It was never meant to be an explanation of God- it was meant to describe our experience of God. It was not designed to confuse, but to comfort. The Trinity tells us the Good News of what God has done and continues to do, namely to create, to save, and to sustain. Here then is the key to unlocking this theological riddle. The doctrine of the Trinity is like the concept of love: We don’t have to worry about defining love, we just experience it. In fact, if you were to ask me how I have experienced God in my own life, I could not express it any better. God made me, God saved me and God sustains me. Father, Son, Holy Spirit- one God whom I have experienced in three distinct ways in my life- as Creator, Savior, and Sustainer. He makes us, He saves us, He sustains us. So the Trinity is not meant to explain God- God is beyond explanation. Rather, the Trinity is meant to explain how we experience God in our everyday lives. And when you view the Trinity from that perspective, it is no longer a confusing riddle, it is the lifeblood of a vital and dynamic faith. Let me show you what I mean…
In the first place, when we speak of God as “Father”, we are affirming that we experience God’s creating power in our lives.
When we declare our belief in the Trinity, we are saying that we believe that God created the universe, the world, and your life and mine. William Paley, an English philosopher who lived about 200 years ago, expressed it in easily understandable terms. Paley said: “Suppose you are walking across a field one day when suddenly you see a watch on the ground. Imagine that you have never seen a watch before. You pick it up. You examine it. You see the hands moving in an orderly way. You open that watch and discover inside a lot of wheels, cogs, springs, jewels and levers all ticking away. You notice that things are working together systematically and with purpose. Now, what would you think? Would you say, isn’t it amazing that all of these things came together by chance and by chance wound themselves up and by chance made themselves into a watch that makes perfect time? Of course not! Rather, you would say: ‘I have found a watch. Somewhere there must be a watchmaker.’”
So when we find a universe which has an order more accurate, more intricate, more purposeful, more dependable, more systematic than we could ever imagine, it is natural to say: “We have found a world. Somewhere there must be a world-maker.” Order implies mind. There must be a mind behind it all. I find it fascinating to note that more and more scientists today are affirming what is called “the scientific principle of design”- that is that everything in the universe speaks of an orderly, coherent design, and the design is so fantastically intricate and interwoven that there must be a designer behind it. More and more scientists today are affirming what the Bible affirmed from the very beginning- that God created the universe, the world, and everything in it.
But there is more. God is not just a world-maker who winds her up and lets her go. No. He not only made the world and all of us but He made us out of love and for love. The God who created everything that is loves you and me. If you ever wonder about that, look at your fingerprints. Your fingerprints are unique. They are different from anybody else who has ever lived or ever will live. So God put His distinct stamp of love upon each one of us, created each one of us unique. He made us special because we are special to Him. If you still wonder about that, look at Jesus. And that brings me to the second point…
When we speak of God as “Son”, we are affirming that we experience God’s saving power in our lives.
Do you remember the story about the little girl who was drawing a picture one day? Her mother walked by and asked what she was drawing. Without looking up, the little girl answered: “I’m drawing a picture of God.” The mother then said: “But Honey, how can you do that? Nobody knows what God looks like.” The little girl replied confidently: “Well, they will when I get through!”
Something like that happened with Jesus. He came to show us what God is like. People were saying: “Nobody knows what God is like.” And Jesus said: “They will when I get through.” He then proceeded to live His life in such a way that if we ever want to know what God is like then all we have to do is look at Jesus. Now I know that it is a staggering thought to declare that the God of a billion galaxies would deign to take on the form of a human being, to take on our weaknesses and our shame just to show us what God is really like. But that is what God does in Jesus Christ.
Let me suggest that you and I could learn a valuable lesson from our Jewish sisters and brothers who ask “why” questions rather than “how”. We have a tendency to ask “how” God took on the form of a human being- but the crucial question is not “how” but “why”. Why did God take on the form of a human being? The answer is to save us.
John Hutton loved to tell about the man who had been known around his town as a drunkard and a reprobate. But then Christ came into his life and saved him. Christ changed him and completely turned his life around. His co-workers noticed the change in him. They tried to tease him and shake him and challenge his newfound faith. “Surely you don’t buy all that stuff in the Bible about miracles, do you?” they said to him. “Surely you don’t really believe that Jesus turned water into wine!” The man replied: “I don’t know whether He turned water into wine or not. I wasn’t there. But I do know this: in my own house I have seen Him turn beer into furniture and whiskey into food and tears into laughter.”
Let me be blunt at this point. I hope that all of you can build a successful life for yourselves, but I want you to remember something. You can make a lot of money; you can rise to a place of prominence; you can have all the symbols and trappings of a successful life- but if you don’t have Christ in your heart as your personal Savior, then your life will be an empty shell. Only those who learn how to live and to love in the manner of Jesus Christ are truly successful in life. And it is the Spirit who enables us to do that. That brings me to the last point…
When we speak of God as Spirit, we are affirming that we experience God’s strengthening, sustaining power in our lives.
A recent Reader’s Digest carried the story of a woman who took an eleven-year-old Hindu girl from India to church with her one Sunday. It was the girl’s first experience in a Christian worship service. When the service ended, the woman asked the young girl if she had any questions. The young girl answered: “I don’t understand why the West Coast isn’t included too.” The woman was puzzled and she asked the girl what she was referring to. The girl replied: “You know, the minister kept saying ‘In the name of the Father, and the Son and the whole East Coast!”’
Well, it isn’t just young Hindu girls who are puzzled by the “whole East Coast”. Some of you may remember when we used to say “In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost.” Now we use a more acceptable term “Spirit”, but the meaning of the phrase has always been the same. It means quite simply that God is with us. He makes us. He saves us. He also sustains us. He also does not just wind us up and let us go. He does not desert us. He does not leave us to go it alone through life. He gives us His Holy Spirit to guide us and inspire us and strengthen us and comfort us and energize us and empower us and encourage us.
Norman Neaves recently told about a teacher asking her questions in the fourth grade class to name the person they consider to be the greatest person alive in the world today. One boy said: “I think it’s Michael Jordan because he led the Chicago Bulls to all those championships.” Another child said: “I think it’s Bill Gates because he’s the richest man in the world.” Another child mentioned Oprah Winfrey; still another child suggested Billy Graham. Then it was little Donnie’s turn. He said: “I think it is Jesus Christ because He loves everybody and is always ready to help them.” Mrs. Thompson smiled and said: “Well, I understand why you would say that because I am a Christian too. But, Donnie, there’s a problem with your answer. I asked you to name the greatest living person. Jesus lived and died 2000 years ago. Do you have another name to suggest?” I love the simple, confident, heartfelt response of little Donnie. He said: “Oh, no, Mrs. Thompson. That’s not right at all. Jesus Christ is alive. He lives in me right now!” Donnie has experienced the Holy Spirit in his life. He knows what all of us as Christians ought to know: God is living in us through the Holy Spirit to strengthen and sustain us in life.
Let me say it again. The Trinity is not meant to explain God- God is beyond explanation. The Trinity is meant to explain how we experience God in our everyday lives. When we view the Trinity from that perspective, it is no longer a confusing riddle. Rather, it is the lifeblood of a vital and dynamic faith. That’s what it is for me. I pray it may be the same for you.