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June 13, 2004

"In the Image of Love" - June 15, 2003

Trinity Sunday – June 15, 2003
Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-16

Some years ago, my brother Mike was working on a Ph.D. in mathematics. I'm a humanities gal through and through -- I spent a lot of effort in college doing research on which sections of "Physics for Poets" and "Rocks for Jocks" would let me skate through a bachelor's degree without ever having to pull out a calculator -- but every now and then, Mike would try to explain to me what he was doing. Most of what he said about it went too far over my head to register, but I do recall him saying at one point that he was proving that two plus two did not really equal four. Perhaps it was questionable that two is in fact two. The whole thing was simply unfathomable to me.

I think Mike would chuckle to see me now, standing up in front of you all on Trinity Sunday, about to tell you how the concept of Three being One has become an energizing and life-giving force in my life.

Believe me, it's been quite a journey to get to that point. I can remember in my church membership class when I was twelve asking the clergy about the Trinity. Yes, I was pestering clergy even then! I could get that it was important to say that Jesus is God incarnate, but I couldn't get how one and one and one can be One and not three, and I definitely couldn't get why it was important to say that God is three and God is One if it was something that by definition was a mystery, something we couldn't understand. My teachers struggled bravely to provide me with answers. The first answer I remember well. I was told that the Trinity is like H20 -- it can be ice or water or steam, but it's all water. Makes sense -- no contradictions there! As it turns out, that's pretty much what the Monarchians taught way back in the fourth century, before they were condemned as heretics at the Council of Nicea, the body that produced the Nicene Creed we say almost every Sunday. Most of the explanations I've heard over the years line up with ancient attempts to make more sense of the Trinity, to explain more precisely how God can be one God in three persons, and these apparently more sensible explanations were pretty much all condemned as heretical. After years of study, I felt like I was back to square one on the whole project of trying to understand the Trinity, and after observing all of the arguing back and forth over the centuries -- arguments that sometimes played out on the battlefield, with bloody conflict between bishops and their armies -- I was starting to feel like it wasn't a project that could do much to build up the community anyway.

So my efforts to understand the doctrine of the Trinity went on hiatus for a while. While I was in seminary and starting my Ph.D., I did read some explanations of the Trinity that seemed solid, but I have to admit that I didn't find them very interesting. I'm a people person, and I get most excited about theology when I can see how it informs our life together as human beings -- when it tells us something of how we can be Christ's body in the world in a way that furthers God's work of reconciling the whole world to God's self. I was excited by the writings of African theologians who spoke of ubuntu, a word from the Nguni language in Africa which Desmond Tutu (in No Future Without Forgiveness) describes as meaning that "my humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound, in yours ... a person is a person through other persons." "A person with ubuntu," Tutu says, "is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole."1 That's a thoroughly biblical idea that a humanities gal like me can get excited about. Ubuntu is not just an abstraction -- it's an idea that has been and can be incredibly powerful in helping communities heal and reconcile. In South Africa in the aftermath of apartheid, ubuntu inspired the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, put an end to the spiral of violence that had enveloped so much of the nation. The tortured could look in the eye the very people who had tortured them and say, "What you did to me was a crime because I am a human being and not an animal. And you are responsible for it because you are a human being and not an animal. My humanity is tied up in yours. My humanity is affirmed by my choice today to treat you as a human being, who even now can make the choice not to behave hurtfully. Wounding you and punishing you will not heal me. I forgive you."

How powerful that is! If ubuntu is the fundamental reality of our relationships, human dignity is not a limited good -- and the more I honor you, the more honor there is for me. If ubuntu is the fundamental reality of our relationships, I don't have to worry about whether another person is getting off too easily. I don't have to fret about whether my colleague, my rival, or my enemy is being treated better than they deserve. If ubuntu is the fundamental reality of our relationships -- if it's true that my humanity is inextricably bound in yours and honoring your humanity affirms mine -- there is more than enough mercy to go around, and it is possible, as the prophet Amos writes, for justice to roll down like waters, and righteousness like an EVER-flowing stream (Amos 5:24). An EVER-flowing stream -- an inexhaustible and unending torrent that makes our weather this spring look like the driest August in the Sahara.

All this is true -- IF ubuntu is fundamental reality, and not wishful thinking. That could be a pretty big "if." What encouragement do we have as Christians to stake our future on that "if"?

We have the Trinity. The doctrine of the Trinity tells us that God, in God's very self, is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit -- Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. These aren't just hats that God wears at different times and can put aside, or different ways of being in different circumstances -- that idea was what got the Monarchians condemned. Our doctrine of the Trinity says that this is who God was, is, and will be -- fully, the eternal nature of the eternal God. And it tells us that God -- in God's very and eternal self -- is the kind of relationship, the kind of self-giving love, that we as Christians strive to live into in community.

God in God's very self is Creator. A Creator needs Creation in order to be a Creator. Without Creation, God could not be God's self. God is love, and love that isn't narcissism requires an Other to love. So God NEEDS Creation. God needs us. God's identity is bound inextricably with us, the identity of God as Father is inextricably bound with the identity God gives us as God's children. The hunger we have for the God who made us and loves us reflects the hunger God has for us, the hunger that gave birth to each of us and to the world in which we live.

Martin Buber (in I and Thou) puts it this way:

You know always in your heart that you need God more than everything; but do you not know that God needs you -- in the fullness of His eternity needs you? How would humanity be, how would you be, if God did not need humanity, did not need you? You need God, in order to be -- and God needs you, for the very meaning of your life. ... There is divine meaning in the life of the world, of human persons, of you and me.

This talk of God's need might sound foreign. It was very foreign to the Greek philosophers with whom Paul was in dialogue. Greek philosophers thought of God as an "unmoved mover" who needed no one, whose power lay in complete freedom from passion. When they referred to humanity as God's children, they meant that humans share with God the ability to be rational, that we too could be freed from passion and need. But God's eternal nature as Redeemer speaks against that. It puts the cross, the PASSION, and God's passionate pursuit of us, God's beloved, at the center of the divine life. God, in God's very self, is self-giving love -- the kind of love that unconditionally treats others as worthy of love and honor. Jesus' earliest followers didn't get that very easily -- they kept waiting for Jesus to show the world who he was by showing his power. They waited for him to throw off all this meek and mild Clark Kent footwashing stuff, put on his cape, and beat the villains into submission. We're not much different sometimes -- we talk about the "Second Coming" as a time when Jesus will finally show his power by taking names and kicking butt. There was already a second coming of Jesus, though -- we call it Easter. And there was a third, and a fourth, and a fifth, as the risen Jesus came back to his disciples, and his message was "peace be with you." Some years after that, Jesus came to Paul in blinding glory, and the message then was to follow Jesus by going to the Gentiles and heretics Paul had been persecuting and serve them instead. There have been billions of comings of Jesus since Easter, for Jesus promises to come wherever two or three are gathered. The Trinity tells us that God's very self, God's ETERNAL nature, is Jesus' nature, Jesus' love as revealed in scripture -- loving and forgiving others as if love and forgiveness were in unlimited, inexhaustible supply for eternity -- because they are.

They are unlimited in the life of the Trinity itself. Some speak of the Holy Spirit as flowing from the love between the Father and the Son, spilling over all Creation as the Spirit hovered over the waters before Creation had form, uniting Creation in the love of the Trinity. For this reason, the theologian Jürgen Moltmann calls the Spirit the "unifying God," God poured out over all flesh, inviting all people to join in the Trinity's loving dance, bringing forth the fruit of the Spirit -- love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control -- wherever the Spirit is present. The fruit of the Spirit -- qualities characteristic of loving relationship -- makes clear what is implicit in the doctrine of the Trinity -- that God in God's very self is relationship. God is love.

And we are made in God's image, in the image of Love. To be God's self, God needs Creation, needs to forgive, needs to unify in love. We humans, made in God's image, also need others, need to forgive, need to unify to become most fully our true self, the self God made us to be. God's self is revealed in Creation, in the forgiveness spoken from the cross, in every relationship that bears the fruit of the Spirit; we find our self in God as we enter into those relationships with others, as we love them in ways that are creative and self-giving and uniting, as we experience God's love through them.

God is love. The Triune God is ubuntu, is love found in loving, is self found in self-giving, is unity in relationship, is now, is then, is ever, is everywhere. And so ubuntu is not wishful thinking; it is the rhythm of the life of the Trinity, of the universe. As Thomas Merton writes in Love and Living:

Love is our true destiny. We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone -- we find it with another. We do not discover the secret of our lives merely by study and calculation in our own isolated meditations. The meaning of our life is a secret that has to be revealed to us in love, by the one we love. And if this love is unreal, the secret will not be found, the meaning will never reveal itself, the message will never be decoded. At best, we will receive a scrambled and partial message, one that will deceive and confuse us. We will never be feel real until we let ourselves fall in love -- either with another human person or with God.

Love is the image in which we were created. Let us confess our faith in the Trinity -- the God who is fully, mysteriously, and eternally the Creator, the Redeemer, the Sustainer – and confess it not just in the Creed but with our lives, with our passion, with our offering of ourselves to God for the sake of all whom God loves. Amen.

June 13, 2004 in Community, John, Trinity | Permalink


Great article, ubuntu has become my new favorite thought. It has a great deal to offer an invidualistic culture like the USA.

Posted by: Neil Craigan | Aug 31, 2005 4:07:39 PM

I am a total fan, close to idolotry on the west coast, as a seminarian of Claremont of past years, I appreciate good sermons and yours are great. When I finished many years opening doors for women in the ski industry I said I would never get into another male dominated field, however, you changed my mind

Posted by: Liza Rhodes-Reese, SSP | Jun 9, 2006 8:36:57 AM

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