Trinity Sunday, Year C
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31
Some years ago, I found myself struggling with the doctrine of the Trinity. A lot of people do, I know. I responded to it in typical academic fashion: I applied for a summer research grant, and spent much of the summer studying what theologians from the ancient world to the present have to say about the Trinity. Now, when Trinity Sunday rolls around, a number of theologians rush to my memory: Jurgen Moltmann, Desmond Tutu, Athanasius, Tertullian ... and The Simpsons.
It's true that The Simpsons never explicitly discuss the Trinity, to my knowledge, but there is one episode that often leaps to mind when I think about any of what can rightly be called the 'mysteries' of faith, and the Trinity is certainly one of them. The episode "Dead Putting Society" from Season 2 has Bart participating in a mini-golf tournament, and Lisa coaching him in Eastern philosophies and martial arts to help.
"What is the sound of one hand clapping?" Lisa asks Bart. "Piece of cake," he says, bending his fingers down to hit his palm. "No, Bart, it's a 3000-year-old riddle with no answer. it's supposed to clear your mind of conscious thought," she replies. "No answer? Lisa, listen up!" Bart fires back, still bending his fingers toward his palm.
Bart is clearly missing the point. He's after a snappy answer that makes it all make sense, that resolves the question in a way that requires no further wrestling with it. I've heard a lot of people try to do similar things with the doctrine of the Trinity. In high school (and several times since -- the latest of them being last week), I listened to someone explain the Trinity as being like H2O, which can be found as ice, water, or steam; God is one substance, like H2O, but can be found as Father, Son, or Holy Spirit. Great explanation -- makes sense, easily understood -- and an excellent example of the ancient heresy of Modalism. Orthodox Trinitarianism doesn't say that God is one person found in three forms, but that God is one Being and three distinct 'persons.'
Every illustration I've heard that makes the doctrine of the Trinity easy to understand ends up falling similarly into some ancient heresy. I actually think that most of those ancient ideas of Trinity rejected by church councils spring from the same impulse that makes preachers want to use the ice/water/steam analogy: They want to make it possible, and preferably easy, to understand the Trinity. After all, every Sunday we stand up and say "we believe" with respect to it, and it's very natural to feel uncomfortable saying, "we believe" if we don't comprehend what we're talking about.
I'm using the word "comprehend" intentionally; it's got that 'hend' root that's about grasping, about having something 'in hand,' literally or metaphorically. And like Bart opening and closing his hand rapidly to try to "solve" the 3000-year-old riddle, I think when we try to 'comprehend' the Trinity, we're missing the point. It's a mystery. It doesn't make logical sense. When we try to chase it and pin it down, we end up running around in logical circles like a dog chasing its tail. That's a process that can be fun (if dizzying) for a while, but is more frustrating than not if it's kept up for very long.
That's not what I think we're called to do with faith's mysteries. They're not something that can be grasped in one's hand or encapsulated in one brilliant analogy that leaves us comfortable or even smug in our confidence that we "get it" and therefore don't have to struggle with it any more. If we are part of God's people, we have been grafted into Israel -- the name Jacob received after his encounter with the angel as one who "wrestles with God." Any intellectual fancy footwork designed to eliminate wrestling, puzzling, and pondering and to settle all questions forever is bound to be unhelpful to a people called to "wrestle with God."
Or let me put it this way:
Most explanations of the Trinity are made to resolve questions and, in effect, end conversation. But the mysteries of our faith are, in my thinking, meant to do almost the opposite. Because they cannot be "solved," they invite conversation. Because they cannot be encapsulated and apprehended by human intellect, they inspire humility. And because they are an integral part of the faith we confess as a Body, we cannot simply say, "oh, I don't get that," and lay them aside; we are rather called together as a people to wrestle with one another as well as with God, to listen deeply to one another as well as to the saints who preceded us and to remain in that creative but sometimes uncomfortable tension that challenges us to love God with our mind as well as our heart, soul, and strength.
Our readings for this week, then, are not explanations so much as invitations. Proverbs 8 doesn't encapsulate a doctrine of the Trinity. It paints a picture of Creation taking place through a personified Wisdom that philosophers and theologians writing in Greek (such as Philo of Alexandria in the first century) called the logos. Much as John 1 poetically describes a logos through whom all things were made before declaring that this logos became flesh and dwelt among us, Proverbs shows Wisdom as God's agent in creating the world and sharing in God's joy in its goodness. Proverbs differs from John, however, in saying quite clearly that Wisdom was created by God, not "begotten," as John says; Proverbs' Wisdom is "with God," but Proverbs wouldn't say that Wisdom "was God."
Neither do our New Testament texts hand us a neatly wrapped doctrine of the Trinity. Our text from Romans presents Jesus as one through whom we have peace with God and the Holy Spirit given to us as means through which God's love is among us. John 16 shows free and full interplay between what we will eventually call persons of the Trinity: Jesus, who is the Truth, sends the Spirit who guides us into all truth, declaring to Jesus' disciples all that belongs to Jesus, which is all that belongs to the Father. But neither of these texts -- indeed, no text in the New Testament -- gives us anything quite like the "one God, three persons" articulation we see in the Nicene Creed. That formulation came after hundreds of years of searching the scriptures and wrestling with them in community, and whatever intent the emperor Constantine had for the council that produced the Nicene Creed, it certainly didn't end conversation or conflict. The wrestling went on, some of it shaming the Spirit as bishops marched against one another in war with troops of armed monks; some of it building up the Body of Christ with theological riches that still speak to the church today.
I'd say we're not done wrestling either -- not for as long as we are grafted onto 'Israel.' There are still people around trying to come up with some single formulation in a creed or a "covenant" that will resolve the questions, ending discussion that includes difference. When we say "we believe" in the creeds, we're not saying, "we've got it." This is not "Constantine (or even Athanasius) said it; I believe it; that settles it." I sometimes wish that the Greek word pistis that often gets translated as "belief" were translated (more accurately, in my opinion) as "trust." We're not saying that we've solved the mystery of the Trinity like Nancy Drew or Scooby Doo, in which all has been explained and all loose ends neatly tied up. We're saying "we trust." We trust God: the Father who created us (and I think that Mother language of God birthing the world is equally appropriate), the Wisdom made flesh to dwell among us and redeem the world, and the Spirit who, as we gather in reconciling communities, is always guiding us more deeply into truth. We trust one another as a result; if we trust the Spirit whose gives gifts to all seeking to follow Jesus, then we must trust the community of disciples in all its diversity enough to stay in relationship and keep wrestling.
God didn't give us hands, after all, so we could try to clap with one of them and show someone that we've got the answer, "piece of cake." God gave us hands so we could use them as Jesus did -- offering them to one another, healing, engaging God's mission together. God didn't give us words to end conversation, but rather sent the Word made flesh to dwell among us -- a living paradox of particularity and transcendence, of strength in weakness, of power in self-offering to empower others, of death on a cross and resurrection life for the world. And so the life of the Trinity is not a problem to be solved, but love we are called to live into, filled increasingly with God's joy and peace.
Thanks be to God!
Trinity Sunday, Year B
Those of you who plan to tackle the doctrine of the Trinity this Sunday might want to check out my sermon from Trinity Sunday in 2003, and I've blogged about this Sunday's gospel here and penned a lectionary reflection on it for The Witness here. I'm grateful for this Sunday's selection of readings, though, as the reading from Romans works particularly well with John 3. The point of being "born from above" or "born again" in John's gospel is not what those of us from individualistic cultures tend to emphasize when we talk about it, namely the chance for an individual to have a new beginning.
To be sure, Christ does offer new beginnings, new life, the possibility of real and important change for the individual. I wouldn't want to lose that; it can be a healing and liberating word in cultures like mine. If I had doubts before, the teenager who commented on the "Finger-paining and Forgiveness" post on Grace Notes, my personal blog, would have dispelled them. I'd posted about an activity I did with the high school youth group at the last parish I worked in. That activity was in part my answer to another activity that's often done in youth groups, usually in a "True Love Waits" context to encourage teenagers not to have sex. What happens is that the group is broken up into teams, with each team getting a tube of toothpaste, a paper plate, and some toothpicks. The teams are then told to race to see who can get all the toothpaste out of the tube first. Once that's done, the teams are told they must race to see who can get the toothpaste back in the tube using the toothpicks. It's a hopeless task, of course, and once the teams give up, the youth group leader shouts, "Aha! And neither can you get your sexual purity back once you've given it away!" It's my opinion that this activity -- especially if the application is about sex -- is awful. I don't think that leaders build trust when even in a game they ask people to do something they don't really want or expect to be done. More importantly, I think the message of the activity slights God's power to redeem. Instead, my youth group did an activity where we each wrote (symbols and such were fine, as it was only for the writer's eyes) one or more arenas in which we'd like to see God's transformation and healing. We offered those with the general confession, and burned them. That much wasn't new to the group. But then we took that ash, and stirred it into some tubs of white finger paint, and the group was invited to use that and all of the other colors to make a mural. At first, the group was reluctant ("yuck -- we have to use the ashy gloppy stuff too?"), but they plunged in with vigor. And what they found is that the "icky gloppy stuff," when incorporated into a larger picture with other colors, other textures, other ideas from a larger supportive community, wasn't icky any more. And we talked about redemption and what it means to us.
I believe that God is working that kind of redemption in us individually as we journey with a community seeking God. And yes, I believe the "born again/born from above" talk in John 3 does bring in some of that kind of redemption. But like the "Finger-painting and Forgiveness" activity, John's language of rebirth has its greatest power, I think, because it's about incorporation into something larger than ourselves. Because although God loves us with as much intensity as God would if each one of us were the only person in the world to love, God in God's love sets us in community. When we are "born from above," we are born into a family of faith, with God as our father and mother, Christ as our eldest brother, and with countless others beloved by God as our sisters and brothers.
This transformation isn't without cost: being "born from above" into the family of faith renders all other ties of blood or nationality irrelevant, and in a culture that says "God, mom, and apple pie" in the same breath, taking Jesus' word seriously can make a person seem eccentric at best and dangerously antisocial at worst. Being "born from above" dislocates us from the network of relationships we were born into in flesh and blood. But God doesn't just dislocate; God relocates us in a new network of relationships -- sometimes even with the same people. We can see our families not just as a set of cultural obligations or a path to respectability, and we don't have to relate to one another in the rigidly constructed ways our culture might dictate. We are invited to relate to others, whether related to us by blood or not, as sisters and brothers, beloved children of the same loving God.
Take that deeply in, and you'll find much more transformed than just your inward disposition. Take in that every child of God is your sister or brother, and you'll feel personally swept up in wanting each one fed, given clean water, an education, decent health care, a real chance in life. Take in that every child of God is your sister or brother in a family of faith following Jesus, and you'll find yourself with genuine desire and taking pleasure in coming closer to the kind of free and full interchange of every gift to which you have access that characterizes the communion of the Trinity.
That's bound to transform your life, your outlook, your heart, your mind. But that's not all. The global fellowship of those living more deeply into that network of relationships characteristic of those "born from above" will transform the world, as questions of what is most loving for others become central even with respect to our sisters and brothers we've never met, those in generations to come and across the globe. That's revolutionary -- and that's Christ's gift to us in an eternal life that starts NOW.
Thanks be to God!
Trinity Sunday, Year A
Please feel free to check out this sermon from a previous Trinity Sunday and this lectionary blog entry from Trinity Sunday last year if you're looking for additional inspiration. I found myself going in a rather different direction this year!
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.
-- 2 Corinthians 13:13
This Sunday is Trinity Sunday, a time when we celebrate especially the communion that is God's very Self, and remember the Great Commission that the risen Jesus gave us to baptize people from all nations.
But the commission Christ gave us doesn't stop there, and too often what follows is the Great Omission in the life of the church. We're called not just to baptize. We're not called to make churchgoers, people who include religion as one among many respectable civic activities. We're called to make disciples, people who really follow Jesus as Lord.
That language of lordship has fallen out of favor in a lot of circles, and I completely understand why: too many people have used it for too long to support their own agendas, ones that undermine the radical freedom which is Christ's gift to us. Case in point: the “Bush fish,” which literally enmeshes the bearer's identity as a follower of Bush in the symbol which is supposed to identify the bearer as a follower of Jesus. For that reason, I have to agree with Slactivist's observation that “this isn't quite 'the abomination that causes desolation, standing in the holy place' -- but it comes close.” I'd feel just the same about it if it was the “Kerry fish” or the “Dean fish.” I'd also feel the same way if it were an American flag, or a Canadian flag, or any other flag, embedded in the fish, and this Sunday's gospel is one reason why I've got such a problem with the idea.
In this Sunday's gospel, the risen Jesus says, “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” That's what we mean when we confess that Jesus is Lord. And that's actually Good News, “liberty to the prisoners,” for the very reason that the confession has that troubling edge in our history. It's Good News because there are a great many people in the world who want to be lord.
You had to win, you couldn't just pass
The smartest ass at the top of the class
Your flying colours, your family tree
And all your lessons in history.
-- U2, “Please,” Pop
You know that among the nations, those whom they recognize as their the rulers of the nations lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.
-- Mark 10:42
The bad news is that there's a lot of competition for the title of “lord,” and most of the candidates will enrich themselves at your expense. But those candidates haven't heard or heeded the news that they've lost the race. The position has been filled, once and for all time. And the really Good News is that the winning candidate is Jesus, the one who gave this vision as an alternative to that of the rulers of the nations:
It is not so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant ... for the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.
-- Mark 10:43-45
In other words, the Lord of all is someone whose only agenda is to serve the servants. The one to whom all power belongs is using all of that power to empower the powerless. And this one Lord is the one to whom all of our allegiance belongs. Furthermore, the Great Commission is to make disciples of all nations through baptism, in which all of us from all nations die to our former ties; from all nations, those of us who were once not a people are called as God's people, in which all barriers between Jew and Greek, American and Iraqi, fall away. We participate in national affairs as paroikoi, pilgrims who live in and among the nations, but whose baptism calls us to seek and serve Christ in others, and to serve Christ only. Putting one of the rulers of the nations in the same category as Jesus and allegiance to one nation's agenda in the same category as our citizenship in God's kingdom indicate a fundamental category confusion, a tragic mistake.
I use that phrase intentionally. New Testament texts have a name for the sort of confusion that puts “God and country” in the same category: they call it hamartia. It's a word that can mean “mistake.” Aristotle in his book on tragedy used it to refer to a particular kind of mistake, a fundamental category confusion that leads to the downfall of a great hero, like mistaking your daughter for a sacrificial lamb, or your betrayer for your most faithful friend. It's a “flaw,” as in “tragic flaw.” We don't usually translate the word as “flaw,” or even as “mistake” when it occurs in the New Testament, though; we translate it as “sin.”
But for a moment, let's look at it in an Aristotelian context as a tragic mistake, the instrument of a fall. I think that's what it is. It's a mistake, and usually an honest one from honest people who love their country and quite rightly want to work with those who work for what's right. That's what makes it so heartbreaking. Such pure and strong intention makes it easy to push that much harder, take it that much further. Just enough awareness of what Jesus asks of us may inspire someone to believe that following the way of the Cross means that violence is inevitable, or even that the kingdom can be brought about by violence.
Your holy war, your northern star
Your sermon on the mount from the boot of your car ...
So love is hard
And love is tough
But love is not
What you're thinking of.
-- U2, “Please,” Pop
That's not it at all. The Cross doesn't belong to you, or to any of us, any more than the crown does. In religious language, Jesus' sacrifice was full, perfect, sufficient. In plain terms, if Christianity is right, then no one ever need die again because of sin, just as no one ever need follow the rulers of the nations as lord. All of that's over, and here's what remains:
God's kingdom coming, making all as it was when the world was born: lands as borderless as the skies. Humanity in the image of God, invited into communion with the God whose very Being is Triune communion. The grace of the Lord, Jesus the Christ. The love of God. The communion of the Holy Spirit. With all of us, always.
So please, get up off your knees. The risen Christ invites us to into the world bearing this Good News!
Thanks be to God.
Trinity Sunday, Year C
John 16:(5-11)12-15 - link to NRSV text
Last year, I preached on Trinity Sunday. Here's my sermon from then, which was written with a different gospel text in mind, but I think would fit for this year as well.
It opens with an acknowledgment of the incomprehensibility of the doctrine of the Trinity. Since when did three equal one? For many years, it was hard for me to appreciate something that I knew I could never compreheand. I think now, though, that the incomprehensibility -- literally, that one cannot take it in, capture it in the hand -- is not at all beside the point. Where on earth did I get the idea that anything important ought to be something my mind could contain?
A lot of us get into a trap of thinking that we could be in relationship -- that we could initiate contact or reconciliation -- with someone if we could comprehend them first. It seems safer that way, somehow. And some of us get that way with God too. We substitute trying to figure out Jesus for following Jesus. We substitute trying to figure out God for loving God.
To me, that's one important thing that the doctrine of the Trinity says. It says that "In the beginning, God made sense and followed the rules" is one of the silliest stories the human race has ever told. The doctrine of the Trinity says that God's eternal nature is as relationship -- that God was, is, and always will be Love. And love isn't about understanding; it's about trusting, and committing, to someone who is Other, different, incomprehensible. Because when we claim to love because we think we comprehend, we are only loving what's also in us. We call that "narcissism." Love requires an other.
So the doctrine of the Trinity gives me hope for our Christian community. We are made in the image of the God who is Love. We are made in the image of Love. Love is what we were born for, and the universe arcs toward it. Love is our home, to which God is calling us. We don't need to understand. We need to listen. Indeed, when we think we understand, we stop listening.
Keep listening. Keep loving. And, as Talking Heads were wont to say back when I was in high school, "Stop Making Sense."
Thanks be to God!