2 Corinthians 13:11-13 and Matthew 28:16-20
A colleague of a colleague tells of worshiping with a congregation in Northern Ireland that used the Athanasian Creed. Though written a century after the Nicene Creed we’ll recite as our Affirmation of Faith today– the Athanasian Creed also focuses on the doctrine of the Trinity.
When the congregation got to the line in the creed that says:
“The Father incomprehensible,
the Son incomprehensible, and
the Holy Ghost incomprehensible,”
the visitor heard an old farmer a few pews back mutter quite audibly, “The whole damn thing’s incomprehensible if you ask me.”
I suspect, folks inside and outside the church sympathize with the elderly, honest farmer. Non-Christians sometimes ask incredulously: “You worship the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Yet you insist you don’t believe in three gods, but one?
The only explanation our tradition can provide is ‘”three Hypostases (or, less precisely, persons) in one God” …all three of whom, as distinct and co-eternal persons, are of one indivisible Divine essence, a simple being.” Huh?
As I wrote in the E-pistle this week, the Trinity is some strange reasoning that hardly makes sense according to the simple rules of math. But, somehow, at least for some of us, it equates with our experience of the Divine.
Jews refer to God as Yahweh;
Muslims call God Allah.
And both agree God is One.
We Christians also talk about the oneness of God.
We refer to God as a Trinity.
Creator, Christ and the Holy Spirit.
Ok, I’ll concede, strictly speaking then, we’re not simple “monotheists!” Christians don’t believe in one, neat, simple God.
Instead, we’re Trinitarians (as opposed to Unitarians, which these days are pretty much a different kettle of fish all together.)
In other words– or better– in more words: nobody so far has found an adequate way, even in the most poetic shorthand, to squeeze our experience of God into a little box. Or even a simple sentence– without some addendum clauses, often subjunctive! We end up with some run-on, nuanced, philosophical formula and numbers that don’t quite add up.
The Jews who became the first Christians had been schooled in the one, single God of Hebrew Scripture. “Sh’ma Yisrael” “Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.” Deuteronomy 6:4. It’s still centerpiece of Jewish morning and evening prayer services.
For those first Jewish Christians, what happened to them, it blew their minds and troubled their souls. So grounded were they to the oneness of God, but then they encountered Jesus.
He wasn’t just another rabbi. Even a very talented one. Or a gifted teacher. Or some particularly godly person. In their experience, he was clearly more than a prophet. For them, in some indescribable way, God was uniquely present in Jesus. For those touched and transformed through their encounter with Jesus, theirs was an experience of God.
But how could this be? God both still in heaven sustaining the whole world, and also present in this flesh and blood human who stood right before them. Huh???
They struggled to find expression for what they were experiencing.
And there was more: when they gathered for worship, there too they had a palpable sense of God’s immediacy and presence — even before their incomprehensible but undeniable experiences of the Risen Christ.
Even after his ascension, when the resurrected Lord wasn’t around in the same way any more. Coming together in worship somehow opened them to an experience that was more than just the sum of the people gathered together. A holy presence. They remembered Jesus’ promise, “Whenever two or three are gathered as my followers, there I am with them.”
They also noticed, as time went on, their own growth as disciples, their lives changing, being transformed — abilities for doing what they couldn’t have earlier. They continued to grow in spirit and in service…
As they reflected on all this, strange and wonderful as it was, the answer the church came up with was “the presence of God that in different ways stayed near them– a real power that was changing their lives.” Borrowing from the words of the Hebrew Scriptures, they began to speak of, besides the Creator God and Jesus who was the Christ, they also spoke of the Spirit of God, or the Holy Spirit.
Christians began to describe their experience of God as Creator, Christ and Holy Spirit.
Even those those words were inadequate, of course; how could they not be? Humans can’t capture God with our words. Even to try to speak of God is to acknowledge the poverty of human language.
But those early Christians were more comfortable than contemporary Christians with things they couldn’t get their minds around. They lived in a world with fewer explanations and more unknowns. They were more familiar with a mysterious God. So what is for us the illogic or incomprehensibility of the Trinity was accepted by them as part of the holy mystery.
But for us moderns who want to understand, who maybe want to control too much… maybe ESPECIALLY for us, there’s a case for speaking of our experience of God as Trinity — even if it leaves as much unsaid as it says…
Because this ancient formula, clumsy and inadequate as it may be, nonetheless says some things we need to hear:
1) It promises that BEFORE the creation of anything else, there were already relationships and love. The love and the relationships that spring forth from it are in the structure of the origin of all things — Love lived out in the relationship between the Creator, the Christ and the Holy Spirit: it’s from there that every thing else comes.
Bound together in a unity only possible, only perfected in love… that’s what we trace back to, what we are to aim for.
At the heart of the universe.
First and last.
And all that really matters in between.
That understanding, for the first 500 years of the early church — and repeatedly thereafter — was not just a defining boundary for the church — how the early church differentiated itself form both its Jewish and Greco-roman neighbors.
It was also the church’s bridge: how it spoke with others, introduced them to, invited them to share in the experience of God that the church felt it was a sacred custodian of.
Eugene Peterson, the New Testament scholar and translator of “The Message,” (one of the most helpful translations of the Bible around today) also authored “Eat this Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading.” In “Eat this Book” Peterson talks about how trinitarian thinking has become embedded in our culture. Or assimilated, even hijacked by our culture.
He points out all the trinities we run across in contemporary culture. The trinity has become archetypal.
But Peterson worries, mostly our trinities are no longer words trying to sketch, stretch to an experience of God. Instead, in an ironic, even perverse twist, they are often, instead, a modern apolgia for self-centeredness.
Instead of pointing to God as the center of human’s truly living, the common, contemporary trinity tries and makes the self our sovereign text for living.
The three-person Creator, Christ and Holy Spirit, Peterson suggests, has been supplanted by a tripartite imposter, an uber-individualized trinitarian worldview:
My holy Wants;
My holy Needs;
My holy Feelings.
Modern, western, consumer culture trains us from the cradle: it’s our right to choose for ourselves what is best for us. Before we’re ever sent out on our own, our apprenticeships are thorough. By the time we can hold a spoon, we have half a dozen breakfast cereals to choose from. Our tastes, inclinations and appetites are consulted endlessly. We decide what clothes we’ll wear and in what style to have our hair cut. The options proliferate geometrically:
what TV channels we will view,
what courses we will take in school,
what college we will attend,
what model and color of car we will buy,
what church we will join.
We learn early, with growing confirmations as we go along, that we have a say in the formation of our lives. Within certain bounds, we believe we have the decisive say.
A compelling, or a constraining sense of the greater reality of the community, much less consideration any consideration for community needs get all but eclipsed. Our culture does a real job on us. A job that turns out to be mighty effective with most of us: by the time we embark on adulthood, we’re working with the assumption that whatever we need and want and feel is the divine control center of our lives.
A new holy Trinity if formed: the sovereign self expressed in Holy Needs, Holy Wants, and Holy Feelings.
My needs are non-negotiable. They’re so-called rights. Defined individually, they are fundamental to my identity. My need for fulfillment, for expression, for affirmation, for sexual satisfaction, for respect, my need to get my own way – all these provide a foundation to the centrality of “Me,” and fortify my self against diminution.
My wants are evidence of my expanding sphere of influence, or reign. I train myself to think big because I am big, important, significant. I’m larger than life (lower case ‘l’), so I require more and more goods and services, more things, and more power over others. Consumption and acquisition and willfulness are the new fruits of the spirit.
My feelings are the truth of who I am. Any thing or person who can provide me with ecstasy, with excitement, with joy, with stimulus, with spiritual connection validates my sovereignty.
The time and intelligence that our ancestors spent on living into, under the sovereignty of God, revealed in Christ, opened to us by Holy Spirit, are now dedicated to affirming and validating the sovereignty of our personal needs, wants, and feelings.
This all, of course, involves employing quite a large cast of advisors and consultants, scientists and economists, therapists and physicians, educators and politicians, writers and artists, travel agents, gadgets and machines, recreations and entertainments to cast out the devils of boredom, loss, discontent or despair – all the feelings that undermine or challenge my self-sovereignty. They are all every bit as intelligent and passionate as our earlier church theologians, every bit as religious and serious, for they know that what they come up with has enormous implications for everyday living. And it’s big business– all the associated consumer paraphenalia.
The studies they conduct and the instruction they provide and the goods they hawk in the service of the god that is us, the godhead composed by the sacredness of our needs, wants and feelings, are confidently offered and very convincing.
It is very hard not to be convinced with all these experts giving their witness. Under their tutelage, I become quite sure that I am the authoritative text for the living of my life.
In the last two hundred years a huge body of knowledge and even more products have been developed to market and serve this new Holy Trinity. In many ways, our culture has remade itself around it. An ever greater, almost religious dedication of more and more of our lives.
But isn’t that, exactly, the challenge before the contemporary church? Don’t we, who say we are Christians, need to define ourselves as different from this culture of narcissism and its modern, revisionist trinitarianism? Isn’t our calling — and the difference we could make by doing it well — every bit as great as that before the first Christians needing to differentiate themselves from their Jewish past and the challenge of assimilation into a Greco-Roman future?
Don’t we, church, need to proclaim that the service of individual needs, wants and feelings are neither the only nor the ultimate goal of human life?
That neither other people nor God are to be subjugated to our selfish, individual pursuits?
That people can not be reduced, used as means to meet others’ personal ends?
That, instead, “truly living” is about being able to look beyond yourself, past your own needs, wants and feelings… to willingly self-sacrifice for others and for the greater community?
The Trinitarianism of the Christian faith presents a very different view:
It keeps a complex, mysterious, and vastly relational God as the center of reality. The very heart of the universe we live in.
It suggests an alternative to our culture: instead of dedicating ourselves to, well ourselves, it calls us to think of others, to work for a good beyond our lifetime; something greater than we can accomplish alone, greater than any immediate context of history.
Yes, of course, one’s self is deserving in as much as its the only instrument with which we have to work. But it’s not the end. Ought not be our end. Can never be an end in its self. (No pun intended!) Rather it’s our means to an end much greater than ourselves.
In our culture, we often think if we are working, your job should be the central push in our life, and relationships are secondary, add-ons, luxuries, frills.
We are taught to invest in our careers. Invest in our income. Invest in our bank account. Invest in our possessions. Sure, it’s nice if outside of all that investing, we have a little time and energy left over for a few relationship on the side.
But the Trinitarian picture of God tells us, it’s the other way around. Our relationships are far more important than our careers, our salaries, what we own or where we go on vacation.
The Christian Trinity paints a different picture:
we cannot live this life on our own or alone because we are made for relationship. Made by love. We are made in the image of God.
God who is somehow One through Three.
We need to work at being one with others despite all our differences. We need to be more about building community than careers or compensation packages or savings accounts.
2) The second possibility that the Trinity promises us moderns is room for difference, not just as some multi-culti add-on, but in the very fabric of our world.
The word “community” is about common life, different people somehow, incomprehensibly, mysteriously holding together in a unity. A unity that’s holding together through the differences contained within it.
(Preacher’s editorial note: the next ?? paragraphs were left out of the sermon as delivered in worship on 06.19)
Beloved, church never asks of us any boring sameness, conformity– something like Mao’s cultural revolution where the whole population was sentenced to wear identical green jackets and read the same red book.
Some times, I think the general population worries that if Christians had their way, the results would be the same– we’d all be wearing sensible slacks from Sears and waving our Bibles in the air.
Instead, the Trinity offers that diversity is integral to our unity. Simple, thorough monotheism might be attractive and easy to understand, it struggles with variety. Anything different from the one God is at best imperfect, at worst, sinful and evil. Monotheistic faith tend to be anti-pluralistic– directing everyone to pray or live or look the same way.
The Trinity, however, undercuts “boring sameness” as our origin, our norm and our goal. Disunity and conflict are also undercut.
Instead, the Trinity offers diversity in unity. Unity found in diversity. 3 persons in one God. Different from each other, but one in relation, purpose and commitment.
We don’t have to be the same, or make conformity our goal. We are gloriously different in person, background and culture. We don’t have to be the same. Conformity is not our quest. Because God embraces, includes difference. By grace difference engenders relationship, and ultimately love.
Next Sunday, we’re having a special training session after worship– to teach us about community organizing, P.O.W.E.R. is the name of the group, that Old First is looking at joining. Our training will be specifically about One-on-Ones, the backbone of community organizing. How we can talk with each other intentionally, and in so doing, begin to upbuild this community.
It’s just coincidental (or do we believe there are no accidents?), but we might consider it a Trinity exercise. I hope you will join us. It could mean a lot for this church, and finally for our city as a whole. Think of the difference we could make if we came to understand that intentionally building community; working with others across the differences that often keep us apart, isolated and disempowered is our real, practical acting out of our Trinitarian faith?
Beloved, the Trinity invites us every day to step out of our selves, our narrow lives and to begin living in the embrace of God’s complex, relational love, and in the company of all of creation.
The Trinity invites you (plural) to live and work, to pray and serve, to worship and to play together as a surprisingly eclectic, even different community that is mysteriously help together by the invisible strands of the grace of God’s love.