Disclaimer for my insistently orthodox friends: I am not denying the Trinity. See my statement of faith. Thanks.
Holy God, we long to fully know you, and yet our words fail us. We seek your face, yet flinch away in fear when we get a glimpse of you. We read your Word and find it hard to digest. We long for your Spirit, yet resist surrendering to the life you call us to. We ask "What would Jesus do?" to avoid the question "What did Jesus do?" Come, sweet Spirit, and light upon our hearts. In this moment we rest in you.
Sermon, Sunday May 30, 2010
by Katie Mulligan
Today is Trinity Sunday, that day in our church calendar when we lift up the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. As I was thinking about this high holy day and all of its formulaic glory, I was reminded of this t-shirt I’m wearing this morning. I went to MIT my first year of college. On the day of the first freshman physics exam, and organization named SPAMIT sold t-shirts outside the lecture hall. SPAMIT stood for Stupid People At MIT. Nearby, perhaps more of a comfort, a Christian organization was selling t-shirts; this one has five Bible verses translated into Calculus equations (the specific scriptures are listed at the bottom of this sermon). The Trinity doctrine reminds me a bit of Calculus—in some ways it is simple and elegant, and in others convoluted and tortured.
The Trinity is an important part of our tradition, and it dates back to the Council of Nicea when the heated question of “What is the nature of God” threatened to split apart the unity of the early church. Was the Father and the Son of the same essence? How did the Spirit relate? Who proceeded from whom? How can we claim three persons in the Godhead and still insist upon only one God? Is the Spirit of the same essence as the Father and the Son? What is the function, form, relationship of the three persons in the Godhead? Like any question of the nature of God, it did actually split the church, into winners and losers, orthodox and heresy, those who were of the true faith and those who must be rooted out. We’re still doing that by the way.
I confess that the nature of the Trinity remains somewhat of a mystery to me. Many of my seminary colleagues felt much more strongly about the Trinity than I do, perhaps some of you here feel more strongly as well. There are scads of books written on the Trinity, articles, sermons. Karl Barth, a favorite theologian of Princeton Seminary—I daresay the preferred theologian—wrote this piece in his several volume book, Church Dogmatics, as part of an attempt to explain the person of the Son:
The three divine modes of existence are to be distinguished, but they cannot be separated. As the Son, therefore, He is sustained outwardly by the inflexible Yes of the Father and his inexhaustible blessing, and enlightened and impelled inwardly by the comfort and power and direction of the Holy Spirit. For where the Son is, of the same divine essence there is also the Father, and again of the same essence the Holy Ghost. (1)I believe that about clears it up, don’t you?
The Athanasian Creed, written in the 6th century (and probably not by Athanasius himself) has this to say about the Trinity:
We worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the Persons nor dividing the substance. We distinguish among the persons, but we do not divide the substance. For the Father is a distinct person; the Son is a distinct person; and the Holy Spirit is a distinct person. ... The Father is eternal, the Son is eternal, the Holy Spirit is eternal. Nevertheless, there are not three eternal beings, but one eternal being. Thus there are not three uncreated beings, not three boundless beings, but one uncreated being and one boundless being. ... Thus the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God. But there are not three gods, but one God. (2)Three in one, one in three. Distinct but of the same essence. Separate but eternally interrelated. Trinity Sunday is a day to test one’s orthodoxy, if anyone understands the answer key. This is the day when my insistently orthodox friends remind me that in the Trinitarian understanding of God, God the Father is not understood to be our Father, but rather the Father of the Trinity, the Father of Jesus, from whom also the Spirit comes forth into the world. That’s okay, I usually tell them, I don’t often refer to God as Father. Mother and Creator yes, but Father, not so often. And then my insistently orthodox friends begin to worry seriously for my soul.
There are, floating out in the world, many analogies that have been used to try and explain the Trinity. There is the “icebox” analogy. See, it’s like water. Water has three forms, ice, water, and steam; solid, liquid, gas. And yet all three forms are made of H2O, no matter what the temperature of the H2O, it remains the same molecule. This, some people say, is sort of like the Trinity. God is like H2O and comes in three distinct forms, yet remains the same molecule. This is a fair enough analogy, and yet it leaves me feeling a bit dry on the subject of God. We do not, after all, imagine that God is so impersonal as water.
Recently in the Presbyterian church, and other denominations, there has been a push to use the terms Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer as a substitute for Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I like this, I truly do. But it has caused quite a stir among elders of the church. For this analogy supposes that the person of the Father Creates, the Son Redeems, and the Spirit Sustains. And yet do we not understand that each person of the Trinity Creates, Redeems and Sustains? To limit each person to a single function defeats the question, “What is the nature of God?” and leaves us incomplete and frustrated. (It also, by the way, angers and frustrates those in the church who require for their faith that masculine language be used for God. I mean this not as disrespect for fellow Christians who feel this way, but as a word of caution when debating with others in the church over the Trinity.)
At a recent General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA, the question of the Trinity was taken up by (you guessed it) a committee. Was it possible to replace the language of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to honor our desire to become more gender inclusive in our understandings of God? Was there a way to explain the Trinity better? One person involved suggested in frustration that if you’re going to replace the Trinity language, why not just use any three related words, like "Rock, Paper, Scissors?" Ultimately as a denomination we have declined to replace those three words, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. (3)
The rebellious, chaotic side of my personality resists the idea that God ought to be or needs to be defined by our creeds and confessions. Whenever someone tries to explain the Trinity to me (and folks are so very patient with me on this), my eyes glaze a little, and I think “Who cares? No matter what, it’s still God.” And yet it mattered deeply to some folks way back in the 4th century. It mattered so much they were willing to die over it. The concept of the Trinity as a way of defining God matters as much to some folks as my feminist theology matters to me, and I’ve gotta tell you that’s a lot. And so on this day, I defer to the larger community. God truly cannot be defined by human words, God is who God is, as God often reminds us. And yet the struggle to understand, to seek the face of God, to know and be known by the Almighty who breathes life into us again and again, that struggle is holy in itself and ought to be revered. And so when my friends point to passages in the Scripture and say, “See! There it is! The Trinity! God is present in this passage as Father, Son, AND Holy Spirit!” I can see that yes indeed this is true.
The Trinity doctrine is an act of communal remembrance. Please pardon me while I veer drastically off topic to try and explain what I mean. Tomorrow is Memorial Day, which was officially proclaimed in 1868 by General John Logan. Flowers were placed on the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery. Until World War I, Memorial Day was dedicated to those who fought in the Civil War; afterward the day became a day to honor the fallen in any of our nation’s conflicts. Somehow in changing the focus of that day, we have lost its original meaning as a day of reconciliation in the midst of a war torn nation. We have forgotten that only a short 150 years ago we fought hard amongst ourselves, killing brothers and sisters over land, states rights, and other deeply held convictions. We have forgotten our black brothers and sisters who were used as pawns in that war, before, during, and after. Has it been 6 generations or 8 since that war? We have not yet achieved the reconciliation longed for in the original act of honoring all the dead in a war that tore apart our nation. How many African Americans died in that conflict? Where were they buried—and did we bring them flowers? 150 years later, are we even trying to remember who we are and how we got to be the nation that we are? Like the Trinity, Memorial Day is a tradition with a specific context for its creation, and like Memorial Day, the Trinity provides a foundational understanding of who we were at one time and how we might move forward. Perhaps in awkwardly forcing together Memorial Day and Trinity Sunday we might see that despite the stiffness of traditions of remembrance, there is something important about pausing to remember grief, conviction, and longing for reconciliation. Despite altering the purpose of Memorial Day, we still have not healed Civil War wounds. And despite 2000 years we still have not found how to live in peace around the cross of Christ, our God who died in the quest for reconciliation with us.
Memorial Day is about remembering, and so is the language of the Trinity. The Trinity is about remembering who God was and is and who God will be in the coming time. We remember the beginning, when God created all that is. Our Proverbs passage this morning is the cry of Wisdom, or Sophia, often understood to be the Logos, cited in the beginning of John. Let me read that passage again:
Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice? On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand; beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries out:And hear then, the prologue to John—those opening 5 verses that probably many of you know by heart:
"To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live. The LORD created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago. Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth. When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with water. Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth-- when he had not yet made earth and fields, or the world's first bits of soil. When he established the heavens, I was there, when he drew a circle on the face of the deep, when he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep, when he assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress his command, when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.”
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.Later “The Word became flesh and lived among us...” Throughout scripture we find God dancing and playing all through creation, intertwined with life and death in ways we cannot understand. And so we say we remember God when God was Father and when God was Son and when God was Spirit, and we remember ways in which this is true now, and we remember to the end, when we will be welcomed home to dance and play with the Trinity, however that will work.
In times of sorrow, grief, despair, we cling to God in whatever form or person or function we can discover. Perhaps this Romans passage is my favorite “Trinitarian” scripture. Can you spot Father, Son and Holy Spirit?
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.In a moment when God’s love is pouring through my heart through the Holy Spirit, I care not for the form and function of the Trinity, I simply know that God is. But in times when I cannot feel that flow, I too long to know God. And I too seek out ways of putting God into words.
The Trinity is the struggle for us, poor creatures, to dare to be involved with this mysterious God we worship. And yet, peer too closely at these words, Father, Son and Spirit, and find yourself spun into paradox and confusion, the clever, crafty giggle of God as She drifts by, showing only her backside---maybe to protect us from Her glory and maybe as a way to gently chide us for trying so desperately hard to KNOW exactly who and what God is. (4)
(1) Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics the Doctrine of Reconciliation: Jesus Christ, the Servant As Lord (T&T Clark Publishers, 2004), 94.
(2) Found online http://www.aggelia.com/htdocs/trinity2.shtml
(3) In all truth and fairness, this is a MUCH clearer understanding of the Trinity than what I have provided. http://www.pcusa.org/today/believe/past/may05/trinity.htm
(4) This is a reference to when God mooned Moses in Exodus 33-34. You can't make this stuff up.
Drumroll, please: The answer key for the t-shirt depicted at the beginning. They are sort of punny and a bit of a stretch. Twenty bucks says they didn't use the NRSV translation as their base.
John 13:35--"By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." (Or love equals Christians all over the world)
Romans 3:23--"since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (or something like: all of the set of men are in the set of sinners, which are less than God)
John 1:29--"The next day he saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" (or Christ is the lambda of God)
Colossians 2:14--"erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross." (or the cross of Jesus equals victory over death)
James 2:22--"You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works." (or Sanctification is the integration of faith into life)