Thoughts about Trinity Sunday 2012...

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes for this Sunday, June 3, 2012.  It is Trinity Sunday - the first Sunday after Pentecost - in that long road we know as Ordinary Time.  Here's my take on the continued importance of the Holy Trinity.

Introduction
The ancient rabbis of Europe were known to tell their congregations that “a community is too heavy for anyone to carry alone.” (Chittister, Rule of Benedict, p. 128)  And that rings so true for me:

·       It is too much work for any one person to accomplish, it is too much responsibility for a solitary suffering soul to bear, it is too spiritually overwhelming given the challenges of real life and too morally exhausting to endure given the magnitude of human pain, sin and confusion.

·       I think the rabbis were right: a community is just too heavy for anyone to carry alone.

That is why by faith we were called into the body – we can’t live into God’s will all by ourselves – we need others to help us carry the load in love.  And that is why the Christian tradition teaches the sacred mystery that God is not alone either; rather the Lord our God is a Holy Trinity of love in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit/Creator, Christ and Holy Spirit. God is over us, God is with us and God is in us.  God as Holy Trinity, you see, is not only our best way describing the Lord’s nature, it is also the best model we have for how to live together in Christ.

Now before your eyes glaze over and you quietly tune me out, let me tell you that most of the problems and pain we know in our congregation – as well as in the wider church – all stem from an unwillingness to wrestle with what it means to worship God as Trinity.  So if you care about this congregation, if you care about real justice and compassion in the wider world and if you care about spreading the deep love of God beyond the superstition and narrowness that so often passes in public for the true Church of Jess Christ, then you might want to stay awake:

·       Yes, the truth of God as Trinity is complex; of course it calls into question our addiction to selfishness and bottom-line thinking; and you better believe it confronts our obsession with quick fixes in a paradoxical and mysterious way.

·       And here’s why:  according to the Apostle Paul, “God's Spirit beckons us – it is calling to us – because there are things to do and places to go!  This resurrection life you received from God is not a timid, grave-tending life.  It's adventurously expectant, receiving God with a childlike, "What's next, Papa?"  God's Spirit touches our spirits and confirms who we really are so that we finally know who God is and who we are:  Our heavenly Father and his earthly children.

Did you get that?  Paul is telling us that the Spirit of God is calling to us through Christ – calling us beyond a grave-tending life into the power and presence of real resurrection – but we have to pay attention.  Do you recall how Jesus says the same thing in today’s gospel?  “Take it from me:  unless a person is born from above, it's not possible to see what I'm pointing to—to God's kingdom.”  God is calling to us and has things for us to do that will not only lighten one another’s burden, but also give us meaning and integrity in ways we never imagined possible.  And THAT, of course, is why we speak of God as Trinity…

So let’s take a little time this morning to talk about God’s nature as Holy Trinity because I specifically want to share three key truths with you:

1.     What it means to say that God is Three in One and One in Three:  a unified community of love.

2.     Why we specifically use the words Father, Son and Holy Spirit along with other expressions in describing the Trinity.

3.     And how the Trinity models a way for us to live as God’s authentic children in community.

Is that reasonably clear?  Ok, let’s give it a shot now trusting fully in God’s grace: Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be made acceptable to you through the living presence of your grace made real to us in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

Insights
Our first insight has to do with what it means to speak of God as Three in One and One and Three:  this is mystical, prayer language people, ok? It is NOT linear arithmetic, it is NOT traditional logic and it is NOT a way of speaking most of us use very often.  It is paradox – it is wisdom beyond the obvious – it is trust in God’s presence even when the evidence is obscure. 

·       St. Paul regularly teaches that:  now we see as through a glass darkly but later… what?

·       Later we shall see fact to face – later God’s presence and truth will be revealed fully – later we shall GET it – but not now.   No, now all we can grasp are parts of the sacred reality…

And one part of the Lord we have sensed over time is that God’s protection and power is OVER us – God’s inspiration and authority is OVER creation - and God’s clear call for justice and compassion is OVER human relationships, right?

·       At the same time we have experienced God’s presence in both history and our souls through Jesus, too:  in Christ we have known God as the one who literally walked the dusty roads of first century Israel WITH us, who suffered human pain and shared divine forgiveness WITH us and, as John’s gospel puts it, who came at the right moment in history to move into our neighborhoods WITH us so that we might see the glory of God WITH our own eyes. 

·       Now, although we don’t have understand all of this, many of us have grasped that God not only creates and preserves life OVER us and simultaneously shares and redeems love WITH us, but God also empowers, transforms and renews us from the inside out:  we sense and experience that God’s Spirit is IN us as well as OVER us and WITH us.

So theologians and pastors over the centuries have given names to the way God is over and with and in us calling these different but intimately related truths:  Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Are you still with me on this?  Have I clearly given shape and form to the notion that the one true God has come to us and been experienced as a God who is OVER, WITH and IN us? 

Now here is one of the problems:  sometimes when people talk about these different aspects of God they call them the three persons of the Trinity, right?  And that just doesn’t make any sense to our 21st century minds – and there’s a reason for our confusion: 

·       Back in second century Greece the word person meant the mask an actor wore at different times during a play.  Sometimes the same actor wore many different masks – all of which revealed a different face or truth in the drama – but always came from the same source.

·       Well, that understanding of person is long gone in our culture and does nothing to explain how God as Trinity is simultaneously three in one and one in three. 

The best we can do is acknowledge that we experience God in different ways – OVER, WITH and IN us – and that God is revealed in different ways – as FATHER, SON and HOLY SPIRIT – but always as the same God.  Does that make any sense to you?  First we speak of God as Holy Trinity because this is how we both experience the Lord and how God comes to us:  OVER, WITH and IN us all. 

Second, we look to both the story of Jesus in scripture and the way the wider Bible speaks of God to give us clues about how we might refine our words about God’s three-in-one nature.  This is where we’ve come up with calling God:  Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  And as you might expect, there are both problems and insights for us here, too. 

·       The biggest problem for 21st century people is in the masculine nature of this God language:  the words we use to describe anything matters; so to only speak of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit degrades and limits the feminine.

·       Same thing would be true in the other direction, of course, but let’s be clear that feminine images of the sacred have never been dominant in Christianity.

So we’ve been experimenting for the last 30 years with inclusivity – sometimes we speak of the Trinity as Creator, Christ and Holy Spirit and sometimes as Maker, Redeemer and Sustainer – and while I am down with using any and all of these innovations, let’s be clear:  they are just as incomplete and problematic in their own way as the old words.

And let me attempt to say why the new words create unintended but very real problems, too:   what the Trinity is trying to explain in poetic form is the relationship between the three faces God.  There is a spiritual nuance evoked between Father and Son because this is relational language, right?  There is a mutual intimacy in this poetry as well an awareness that the Son gives shape and form to the Father. After all, Jesus spoke of God as “Abba” – tender Father or Poppa – in order to help us grasp that the source of all creation and power is also cherished and near.

·       So here’s the rub:  this truth is lost in the new innovations.  As helpful and creative as they are – Creator, Christ and Redeemer – describes functions rather than an on-going, intimate relationship. 

·       And this betrays the very purpose of Jesus’ ministry:  to show us as much of God’s face as we could comprehend in our ordinary, everyday lives.  He came to offer us intimacy with the Lord not just ideas about power, function and abstraction.

So we use both sets of limited poetry – the old words AND the creative innovations – knowing that neither are sufficient and both contain only a part of the truth of God in Trinity.

And third the wisdom of the Trinity models for us a way to live in the world as God’s authentic children:  in community.  Left to our own devices most of us will treat our own failings with more grace – and curse the sins of others with more vitriol than is necessary – because that is human nature.  We all know what is good and just and beautiful, we just can’t do it consistently for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God:  you – me – everyone.

The wisdom of God in Trinity, however, gives us an alternative to both the status quo of sin as well as the ideologies of the hour.  Just as God is bound together as Father and Son by the love of the Spirit, so too each of us in this place:  what unites and strengthens and encourages us is NOT our own effort but the presence of the Lord who comes to us as Spirit to nourish us from the inside out.  That’s what dear old Nick misunderstood in this morning’s gospel reading:

Jesus told him God’s spirit could come upon him from above – not really born again as some insist – but more accurately born from above:  God’s spirit can come to you, brother, and be over and with and in you, too so that you will have the strength, willingness, grace and desire to live beyond yourself.  But this wise old teacher was completely baffled, right?  Do you recall how Nicodemus replied to the promise of the Spirit by Jesus?  All he could do was sputter and protest:  what does this mean and how is this even possible?

To which Jesus said:  the time has come for you to trust God more deeply, my man.  There is a love bigger than us all – a love that binds me to the Father by the Spirit – this love will cause me to lay down my life for the world.  And if you trust in this love, if you let the Spirit guide and nourish you in this love, you can be in on the blessing, too.  John’s gospel puts it like this:

This is how much God loved the world:  He gave his Son, his one and only Son.  And this is why:  so that no one need be destroyed; by trusting in him by the Spirit anyone can have a whole and lasting life. God didn't go to all the trouble of sending his Son into the world merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came in flesh and spirit to help and put the world right again.

Conclusion
There is much more to say about the blessings of the Holy Trinity but this is enough for now:  God comes to us, God loves and heals us and invites us into community to share that love with the world.  Let those who have ears t hear, hear.

Comments

David said…
James,

Thanks! As always this is a thoughtful, clarifying, powerful piece of writing.

I believe, as it seems you do, that the reason that doctrinal discourse or language is so unpopular is that people (insiders and outsiders alike) totally misunderstand how this language functions. It is NOT primarily language that describes. descriptive language is ALWAYS a box and the single most important thing that can be said about God is the s/he DOES NOT and CANNOT fit in a box. I always tell my parishioners, "If it fits in a box... it isn't God; if it's God... it doesn't fit in a box. Doctrinal language is language that points to a reality that cannot be reduced to language (ie. a mystery) This is especially true of the doctrine of the Trinity!

I like to think of the doctrine of the Trinity as a warped piece of plywood. You can nail down corner one. You can nail down corner two. You can nail down corner three. But when you go to nail down corner four ... one of the other corners pops back up. What this means is that you can never put it to bed. It is ALWAYS dynamic and always calling you back to wrestle some more.

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