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!
Proper 15, Year B
I must confess that I find the Gospel According to John to be the most difficult of the canonical gospels, and I have to scratch my head sometimes when I hear people say things like, "If always tell people who've never read anything in the bible before to start with John -- it's the clearest of the gospels." The community that produced the Gospel According to John is the same community that produced the biblical book of Revelation, and the imagery that resonated with them as they sought to discern who Jesus is and how they're called to respond to his call in the midst of their profoundly difficult circumstances is at times strange, to say the least, if not not disturbing. This Sunday's gospel reading is an excellent case in point:
"Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink."
No wonder early Christians faced accusations of cannibalism! This is gross. And yet we recall this kind of imagery every time we participate in the Eucharist. As I receive the bread, I hear the words, "the Body of Christ," and then another phrase, usually, "the bread of heaven." As I receive the wine, I hear the words, "the Blood of Christ," and then usually "the cup of salvation." These four phrases have at least one thing in common:
Their meaning is obscure -- unless, minimally, you've spent a fair amount of time hanging out with and hearing from Christians. "The bread of heaven"? How would those words be understood by us were it not for their association with Christian liturgy and tradition? Another way to think about it is to ask how a hypothetical tourist from Mars who'd memorized a decent English dictionary but had little other exposure to Earth cultures might hear those words. "Bread from heaven," our Martian visitor might muse, "it surely can't be about its origin, as that woman over there bought it from a store called a 'church supply house,' and its ingredients -- none claimed to be extraterrestrial in origin -- are listed on the box. Perhaps they mean 'heavenly,' as in very good or pleasant -- but this stuff tastes like cardboard!" The phrase "cup of salvation" isn't much clearer to those without either significant association with religious people who use this language or at least significant study of them.
And that's half the point, I'd say. Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh point out a great deal of John's "antilanguage" -- language used by members of a marginalized in-group that only they understand fully, and that both expresses and furthers their sense of close relationship with one another -- in their Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel on John. Both "flesh" in this context and "blood" evoke imagery of sacrifice, and Christians in John's community understand Jesus' sacrifice on the cross to be THE sacrifice, like those commanded in the Mosaic revelation that made the Hebrews a people of the living God, a revelation accomplishing something even greater, broader, and more lasting than what Moses revealed.
When I say that I don't mean to participate personally in any "my tribe's miracles are better than your tribe's," but as difficult as it may be for us to accept in our scriptures, it is quite understandably present. Remember, the community that produced John was experiencing direct, severe, and life-threatening persecution from some of their neighbors and perhaps even family members in their synagogues. While it's very easy for me typing in my comfy chair in Cambridge to cluck about supercessionism, it's well worth remembering how different the impact of such language is in a society like John's, in which Christians were the smallest of minorities, and their 'alternative lifestyle,' which many Romans and Jews, also perfectly understandably, saw as anti-family and dangerously disruptive to the social order. In a society like mine, in which those who self-identify as Christian are a large and very powerful majority -- witness our country's very, very evangelical president and the religious leaders he invites to confer with him on matters of "faith-based" policy -- a powerful majority adopting "antilanguage" like that of the Johannine community, which was written to give comfort to a tiny, powerless, and persecuted minority, can wreak great destruction in God's name. Let the reader of the Left Behind series understand! But I digress.
My digression isn't entirely purposeless, though. I think the point is important to raise not only because of the prominence in American political discourse of powerful people making much of their identification as Christian and purporting that they are being marginalized and even persecuted because of it (leading Jon Stewart to muse on The Daily Show, "I dream of a world in which people -- even the president, or a Supreme Court justice -- may openly practice Christian faith, perhaps even openly wearing symbols of their faith in jewelry in public ..."). Jesus' shocking image of his flesh and blood as food and drink is significant not only for what it says about the closeness of its "antilanguage" community at the margins, but also because of what it says about the quality of relationships members of this community are called to live into.
Malina and Rohrbaugh hint at it when they rightly say that the language of "flesh" and "blood" evokes language of sacrifice, the fat and blood which is perceived as the "seat of life" -- life bestowed by God, and therefore belonging rightly only to God, not to be claimed by any other. But I don't think their discussion goes quite as far as I would on that point.
Yes, the Gospel According to John, as all the canonical gospels do to a greater or lesser extent, point to the cross as Jesus' sacrifice. But I find it particularly moving when the Johannine community -- a community keenly feeling fear, isolation, and betrayal in light of the persecution they are experiencing -- speaks of Jesus' sacrifice. John's gospel is one with a lot of bitter words for "the world" from which the community feels so alienated and threatened, but they are painfully, consistently clear in affirming nonetheless that "the world" that hates them is still "the world" which God so loves that he sent his only begotten son (John 3:16).
Flesh and blood are the seat of life -- life belonging only to God, life that can be claimed rightly only by God. And yet in Jesus, God has willingly poured out that life for the sake of the world -- not just the good people, the people who try hard to do the right thing, the people who praise and encourage the saints, but as much or more for the people who hate, and who act on their hatred, even to the point of killing a righteous woman or man, an innocent child. The biblical book of Revelation from this same community imagines what total and final vindication of a victorious judge of the nations and his followers might look like, and it pictures Jesus as anything but a cuddly and approachable pal (even the "Lamb of God" imagery isn't about a cute little sheep, as I've blogged about before), but even in the context of the final judgment, the Johannine Christians are given a "call for the endurance and the faith of the saints" in the strongest of terms that regardless of the violence their enemies inflict, they are not to resist with the sword (Revelation 13:9-10).
In other words, the community that produced the Gospel According to John produced testimonies to Jesus that underscore the community's tough circumstances, but that call for a response that, especially in their cultural context, would look anything but "tough" in the traditional, macho sense. And I'm grateful to those who crafted our lectionary for drawing attention to a point that J. Massynbaerde Ford writes about eloquently in her book Redeemer, Friend, and Mother: Salvation in Antiquity and in the Gospel of John: that there is potentially some strong feminine imagery in John's language about Jesus that we'll read together this Sunday.
Our lectionary's editors make their point in their choice for our first reading. It comes from Proverbs, which like other books in the genre of "Wisdom literature," personifies Wisdom as a woman. This Sunday, we receive in both our first reading and our gospel reading an invitation to see God acting toward humanity in ways associated specifically with the feminine. It's an apt pairing, Wisdom literature with the Gospel According to John; from the prologue to John's gospel (1:1-18) in its association of Jesus with the logos through which all Creation came into being to the gospel's conclusion, we find a great deal of language echoing Wisdom literature like Proverbs, portraying God in traditionally feminine roles of preparing dinner and laying the table, as in our first reading for this Sunday, or nursing children, providing nourishment for them from her own life, her own substance, her own breasts.
That's milk, of course, not blood. But Ford points out that in rabbinic writings and some ancient medical texts, the idea was expressed that breast milk WAS the mother's blood, transformed into milk for the child's benefit, with what was left becoming menstrual blood -- in either case, an expression (literally!) of a mother's pouring out of her own life in her love for her child.
In other words, when our next Presiding Bishop preached at General Convention of "mother Jesus," she was using imagery which is scriptural in John and other canonical portrayals of Jesus as Wisdom, as well as traditional in writings like those of Julian of Norwich. But there's no need to get hung up on the gendering of imagery if that's going to obscure the point -- the point of John's gospel, the point of the book of Revelation, the example of our crucified and risen Christ:
God so loves the world that God poured and pours out God's very life, very self, for our sake -- not because we were so good, but because we were hungry and thirsty and dying, and God made us to share God's wholeness, love, and eternal life. That pouring out of God's self for us is revealed most clearly in our tradition in Jesus the Christ crucified, but our scripture and tradition hold that it is far from a one-time event in the distant past of a distant land. It is a continual and eternal expression of who God is by God's very nature. God poured out God's self in birthing Creation, which teems with the life God gave. And God continues to pour out God's self for us in the call of Wisdom, the love we experience in the Body of Christ as we receive Christ together, in countless daily miracles as lives are transformed in the image of a loving God.
If that's "insider" language, then let it always be coupled with the invitation to come inside, to taste and see this limitless, self-giving love of God.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 17, Year C
Benjamin Franklin describes in his autobiography a program he designed for self-improvement. He created a table of the various virtues he thought he should cultivate, and tells the story of how he worked on each one in turn. But he tells us that he made one fatal mistake in his plan to become perfect in every virtue. He left humility for last, and by the time he got to it, he was already so near perfection in every other area that humility was impossible.
Franklin told this story with his tongue firmly planted in cheek, but he makes a serious point in the process about spiritual pride. Spiritual pride just might be the deadliest of the Seven Deadly Sins, because it can corrupt even striving to be good and generous and turn it into an occasion for further pride. Fight it successfully for a moment, and you might just find yourself saying inwardly, "Wow ... I'm being humble. And I'm MUCH more humble than Jean, or for that matter George. Maybe I should teach a class on humility."
Pride is rife among those of us striving to be good. We don't have a corner on it, though. Have you ever caught yourself saying, at a time when you felt a deep (and unhealthy!) burden of guilt, "I can't tell anyone, and I can't pray -- I'm so bad that God can't forgive me." That line of thinking sets you and whatever crime you think you've committed as being more powerful than God, and "I think I'm more powerful than God" is a statement of supreme hubris.
People at both ends of this pride spectrum, though, have something in common: they're deeply concerned with boundaries, with what's right and wrong, with what's appropriate, with who deserves what, and they have a very hard time seeing anyone -- themselves or their neighbors -- getting something that's given "out of bounds."
The lectionary gospel for this Sunday jumps from verse 1 to verse 7 of Luke 14, leaving out the occasion (unique to Luke's gospel) for Jesus' parable: Jesus heals a man with dropsy at the meal, and on the sabbath. That was completely uncalled for. The man's condition was chronic; it could have been dealt with the next day, when the healing would have offended no one. It's not even clear from the text that the man Jesus healed was an invited guest at the dinner; Luke just says in verse 2 (if I can translate it in a wooden way), "And behold, there was a man with dropsy in front of him." Interrupting everyone's dinner would have been rude; bringing impurities (as Leviticus 13 suggests someone with dropsy would have been doing) into the midst of a Pharisaic meal would be worse. And it was the sabbath! There was no compelling reason -- by conventional reasoning, anyway -- for Jesus to 'diss' his hosts by precipitous action.
But that's not how Jesus thinks. When presented with human need, Jesus doesn't ask, "Is there any compelling reason to act now?" In fact, he doesn't ask any questions at all until after he's acted, and even then, he doesn't make much of an effort to soothe the wounded pride of those offended. Instead, he tells a parable that would offend the proud even more.
And in the process, Jesus presents a cure for pride: humble service, the kind that actively seeks opportunities to yield honor and advantage to others. Such opportunities are at least as plentiful as are opportunities to indulge pride, but it takes a lot of psychological and spiritual 'rewiring' for most of us to take them, meaning that most of us (including me) need a lot of practice. So here are a few concrete ways we could try to be intentional in that practice:
- When driving, especially in rush hour or in particularly nasty traffic, take that instinct (finely honed in most experienced commuters!) to look for the fastest-moving lane and cut into it by any means necessary, and use those instincts to look for opportunities to make the drive easier, faster, and less stressful for someone else. The person who just really enraged you by driving by you on the shoulder and then trying to cut back into the lane would be a particularly good person to practice with: the point is not to try to reward another nice driver, but to give up the position of judging who deserves to be let in ahead of you. Pick one day a month or one day a week to try it until you get to a point where you actually prefer driving this way.
- Maybe you don't drive. Here's something that we all (including, or maybe even especially young people in school) have opportunities to do: practice looking around you for the person you think has the most reason to be ashamed, and then look for opportunities to say or do something that makes this person feel genuinely honored and appreciated.
- Those of us who have the right to vote have a responsibility to our power the way Jesus used his -- to others' advantage rather than our own, and especially to the advantage of the poor, the sick, and the marginalized. Christians can and do disagree in good conscience about what specific candidates and laws will most benefit the poor. We can disagree about how we can best serve the poor, but we cannot afford to ignore the poor. The National Council of Churches has put out an extremely helpful leaflet on Christian Principles in an Election Year, which might be a good impetus to further prayer and study about how we can use our power with humility, in a way that lifts up the lowly and invites the poor and outcast -- especially those we think could never repay us -- to the feast.
Any of these things will undermine something that I think does a great deal to build and exacerbate pride: the twinned convictions that there are only so many good things -- only so much honor, love, and justice -- to go around, and that it's very important to see that only the deserving get them. When we live as Jesus teaches us, and as Jesus lived himself among us, when our lives become parable for the world of God's infinite generosity and inexhaustible love, then we can take in the vision of Isaiah 55, of free-flowing wine and milk for all, of an everlasting covenant made with an undeserving but humble king and realized in his crucified and risen heir.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 13, Year C
We can never ransom ourselves
nor deliver the price of our life.
And that's the folly of the American Dream as I've heard it expressed so many times. We dream of accumulating -- by our own merit, of course, because we're more clever and more industrious than others -- enough to take care of any need, any crisis, in our lives and in the lives of those we care about.
It's a lot more common than we'd like to admit that something arises for which no amount of money or insurance or planning or work can do what we think these things are supposed to do -- keep us handsome and happy and healthy and successful. We can be purpose-driven and prayer-minded too, and we still can't deliver the price of our life, let alone the price of eternal life.
The Good News is that somebody else already did that. Somebody else already did all that was necessary to give you love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Somebody else already did everything necessary to give you what you -- the person you really are, the person you are in Christ -- what you truly need and desire.
What would your life look like if you stopped trying to store up enough money, enough duties fulfilled, enough respect, enough approval, to stave off disaster?
What would your life look like if you really believed that "it is for freedom that Christ has set us free" (Galatians 5:1)?
Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us. We are free now to live as God's people are called to live -- in the wideness and the wildness of God's mercy.
Thanks be to God!