How Do We Know?

She doesn’t understand any of these things. She only knows that when something isn’t right, even though she can’t articulate or understand what it is, she cries, and her needs are taken care of.

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The Holy Trinity C
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31
Psalm 8
Romans 5:1-5
John 16:12-15

A few nights ago, Debbie and I were watching a show on the Food Network, probably either Chopped or Cutthroat Kitchen, two of our favorites. We love seeing how these amazing chefs come up with crazy recipes and dishes off the top of their heads in the midst of the most grueling competitions. Their knowledge of the culinary arts is astounding, as is their knowledge of how to put different things together in often weird ways that end up, somehow, tasting delicious.

But that night, a thought occurred to me, and much to her dismay, I shared it with Debbie. “Who do you think the first human being was to figure out that if you take your raw food and put it over a fire for a while, you get something even more delicious?”

I mean, nothing about a big slab of raw meat or even freshly picked vegetables screams “Burn me!” to me. There’s no way of knowing offhand that putting this stuff in heat will make it better.

Scientists aren’t exactly sure when human beings first started cooking their food with fire. Well, maybe I should say they have no real idea at all. Some suggest that we figured it out 250,000-300,000 years ago when hearths started appearing in human settlements. Some suggest it was 400,000 years ago when early humans may have first figured out that fire was something they could use and control as a tool. Some even go so far as to suggest that ancient human beings may have started cooking their food 1.8 million years ago!

But the point is, we have no idea when human beings started doing something we take for granted every day, cooking our food, because it’s hard to imagine a time when nobody did. It’s hard to imagine that one time, human beings didn’t know about putting food in heat and the changes that happen to it, and that at one time, somebody somewhere, most likely by accident, figured out that “cooking” was a thing.

All these hundreds of thousands and millions of years later, though, human beings all across the world put their fruit, vegetables, meats, proteins, and grains in and over various heat sources, mix it other ingredients, and produce food that is so delicious we will pay exorbitant sums of money to have it done in very specific ways. We teach other the techniques we’ve learned and pass on culinary secrets to the next generation, so that they, too, can cook their food.

How do we know what we know? It’s a question I’ve asked our Confirmation class on a few occasions. How do we know anything at all? How do we know how to cook? How do we know how to make buildings? How do we know how to tie our shoes, shoot a basketball, ice skate, fish, drive a car, make a movie, develop a film photograph? The answer is usually the same—either we figured it out ourselves, depending on the task, or we learned it from someone else, either through personal experience with them or through their writing, a legacy left by others to teach us what they knew. Nearly everything we know, we know because someone else learned it first and then taught us.

That idea is an important part of what it means to celebrate Holy Trinity Sunday. The Trinity, this idea of the Triune God, one God in Three persons, is only about 1700 years old. It’s one of the bedrock truths of our faith, but it took over 300 years for the church to figure out what it was. There’s no explicit mention of the Trinity as we know and try to understand it anywhere in the Bible (which doesn’t mean it’s not in the Bible, you just have to put some pieces together in new and interesting ways).

How do we know, then, that our God is Triune, and that the Trinity is a thing? How do we know that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are all persons of one God? The simple answer is that somewhere, somebody figured it out, taught others, and that teaching has been passed down for 1700 years from Christians to Christians.

The development of the doctrine of the Trinity is long and filled with debates, arguments, and even fist fights. The early church theologians argued over words whose difference was a single letter (yes, they were that precise in the ways that they defined things). They argued whether Jesus “was” God or was “like” God. They fought over whether the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father alone or from the Father and the Son. Using their best understandings and the most precise definitions and words possible, they worked out this idea of God in three persons. People went to war over this stuff, that’s how serious it was. And in the end, after many many years of trying to figure this out, they produced three statements of belief, three creeds, that are still used today. These are the Apostles’, the Nicene, and the Athanasian Creeds.

In them, especially the Nicene and the Athanasian Creeds, we should have everything we need to declare our faith in the Triune God, using words that help us conceptualize and understand what that means. They are (relatively) simple and straightforward, as they are meant to be. We recite one of these creeds every week.

But you know, sometimes, I’m not convinced. I hear again Christ’s words to his disciples, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” And I think, “Yeah, like the Trinity”. Because while this idea of God in three persons sounds easy enough in my head, when I say it out loud, it sounds ridiculous. How can one God be three persons? How does that make any sense?

The Trinity is one of those concepts that is not only difficult to understand, it is impossible. If you read through the creeds, and you’re like me, you may get the impression that they don’t explain how the Trinity is possible or how it works. Instead, they merely (or complicatedly) state that it does. And a sad reality comes to the surface: we really don’t understand God at all. We don’t understand the Trinity, even on a day like today when we celebrate it. So why do we confess our faith in it every week?

This is an analogy I use often with the faith, but have you ever wondered why a baby cries when she’s hungry or uncomfortable? I wonder if the baby herself knows. Her body gives her signals she doesn’t understand—hunger, pain, cold, loneliness—and the only response she knows is to cry. And if everything goes right, something amazing happens. Her mother hears this crying baby, comes to her, figures out what the baby herself doesn’t know—that she’s hungry, or uncomfortable, or lonely—and takes care of her need. The baby doesn’t understand what’s going on, only that her body’s signals have changed and she no longer needs to cry.

She doesn’t understand what goes into feeding her, how her mother’s body physically changes to provide the baby with nutrition. She doesn’t know what clothes are and how they’re made, only that something is somehow keeping her warm. She doesn’t understand the concept of another human being, and why their presence makes her feel better.

She doesn’t understand any of these things. She only knows that when something isn’t right, even though she can’t articulate or understand what it is, she cries, and her needs are taken care of.

One day, that little baby girl will grow up, and she’ll learn all about food and cooking and clothes and people and language and music and color and every other wonder life brings. One day, she’ll be able to take everything she learned and pass it down to a new group of human beings who will enter the world just as clueless as she was. One day, someone will pass down to her how things work, how to build things, how to do math, how to paint.

But for now, she doesn’t understand, and she cries out.

This is faith in its purest form: an inability to comprehend, yet crying out in trust that all will be revealed. This is what Jesus meant when he spoke of the Holy Spirit coming in all truth to speak the things that are to come. This is what it means to be Christians who love a Triune, mysterious God that we cannot understand.

In our prayers, in our worship, in our creeds, we cry out without understanding who or what we cry out to. Like a little baby, we trust that our cries our heard and understood when we ourselves don’t understand them. So much of our faith and our God we don’t understand. What we do understand we understand through the grace and working of the Holy Spirit.

Perhaps one day, we’ll understand. I suspect it won’t be until that last day when we stand before God, but perhaps one day, we’ll understand. As we have our whole lives, we’ll learn and grow in our understanding. One day, things like the Trinity, one of the bedrocks of our faith, will no longer be things we take on faith alone.

Until that day, on this Holy Trinity Sunday, let us cry out in our doubt, our disbelief, and our lack of understanding. Let us cry out to the Triune God, even though we don’t understand why or what it is we really need.

And that same Triune God, mysterious, at times unknown, will answer. Like a mother hearing the cries of her children, God comes, knowing what we need and caring for us in ways we cannot understand. This is the truest profession of our faith–that even and especially when we don’t understand it, God hears our cries and answers them.

Featured Image: “Mother and Son” by Glenn Beltz is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Author: Pastor Ken

Ken Ranos serves as the pastor of Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI, a congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

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