When I heard that Ragan has been taking you through the lectionary in his preaching series, I have to admit that in my cosy office with one wall of windows and one wall of books, I shuddered. I knew what was coming up on the church calendar. I knew what the lectionary would read before I even looked at it.
Trinity Sunday. The trinity. I have to preach on the Trinity. O God.
This is a problem for me you see because I remember once in seminary raising my hand and inquiring of my professor in a studious, inquisitive tone, not even in a smart alecy or an obnoxious I’m-gonna-challenge-you-tone of voice the such that young seminarians are often heard spouting off at professors or other students whom they find less enlightened than they, but just out of curiosity, out of a desire to know my place in the world, I asked, “What if we don’t really believe in the Trinity?”
“Then you’re a heretic,” my teacher replied.
Super. Three classes into seminary and I’m a heretic. Should have quit then while I was ahead.
Ten years later, and while I wouldn’t confess to not believing in the Trinity, neither would I admit that the concept has become any easier for me to understand.
I rather envy our predecessors, Bishop Alexander, those attending the council at Nicea, and the Capodocian fathers whom you may remember from your history classes, fought off heretics with their lavish sermons and verbose apologetics. They shut down Arianism (the idea that Jesus was created by God and therefore was subordinate to God) and Saballianism (the idea that God just takes on different modes, sometimes He’s the Father, sometimes He’s the Son and sometimes She’s the Spirit) and all sorts of other “isms” that sadly enough usually appeared as a suffix on the name of some Christian who was trying to explain God. But, other Christians had other ideas about God and as a result, after about 200 years of theologizing about the substance of God, the begotten-ness of Jesus Christ and where in the world the Holy Ghost fit into all that, we ended up with the doctrine of the Trinity: God, as one divine nature, is a unity of three persons, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Not only that, but we have two sub categories of Trinity: “economic Trinity refers to the manifestations of the three persons of the Trinity in relationship to the world,” i.e. to us and all creation while the “immanent Trinity is a term used to explore and, to an inadequate degree, explain the internal workings and relationships among the three persons of the Trinity.”
This is where in my seminary class I would start to get antsy and uncomfortable, worried that somewhere along the line I had bought into a polytheistic religion, and that my Hindu friends were right about Christianity all along: we worship three Gods. I’d sit there, shifting in my seat, trying to decide whether I should ask the professor to explain it one more time or if I should just let it go. I mean, it’s only the Trinity, only what some would call the crux of our faith. Three in one: the Father revealed through the Son who sends forth the Spirit. “Like water,” some Sunday School teacher tried to explain to me when I was a child. “Sometimes it’s ice cubes sitting in your freezer, sometimes if you leave the ice trey out it melts into water, and sometimes if your air conditioner is broken, the water evaporates into the air, it’s all God, see?”
“That’s a terrible metaphor,” our professor told us when someone brought it up in class and he shook his head at our primitive theology. That’s Saballiansim.
And the metaphor we’d been taught as children just got dumped down the sink and new, cleaner, filtered water filled up the trey and it went back into the icebox. According to our forefathers who wrestled with who God is, who Jesus was and how we experience the Holy Spirit, the Trinity is an issue of salvation, and they feared that the ideas their contemporaries were bringing forth challenged the ability of God to save the world.
And since God is in the business of redemption, I guess that would make the doctrine of the Trinity a pretty big deal.
In other words, you can’t worship the creator God, the father of the earth who got his hands dirty making creation come to life and pretend like Jesus and the Holy Spirit don’t exist. You can’t hold Jesus up as a Moral Exemplar, the perfect man after whom we should all pattern our lives and judge our ethics while writing off God as that angry guy in the Old Testament and the Spirit as something western rationalism has rendered irrelevant. Neither can you worship the Holy Spirit and chase after her wisdom (as if you could catch the wind) and in the same breath call God unknowable and Jesus just a really nice guy.
We can’t have one without the other two. Otherwise, we’re missing out on the great mystery that is God.
But I do think that we can relate to those three persons of the Trinity without having ever heard of the word Trinity.
As we heard read earlier, in John 16:12-15 Jesus consoles the disciples by reminding them that when he leaves they would not lose a friend or mentor because “the Spirit will guide you into all the truth.” My therapist told me this week that I should listen to myself, listen to what I hear being said to me, inside me. “You know,” she told me, “It’s been said that humans are the only animals who ignore their instinct.” And often that instinct is the Spirit, leading us to Truth, wailing to the Father on our behalf, warning us against what will harm us.
All of us, when we feel the Spirit, can explain Her as nothing other than, “I just knew.” Or “Something told me,” or an inexplicable sensation of joy or peace. “I just couldn’t explain it,” people say of a brush with the Spirit who is moving around us all the time. She’s like a cat who slips in and around and through our legs, winding her head, her body and her tail so sometimes you can’t tell where the cat begins or ends. She is God’s loved poured out on us, Romans 5 reads, covering us in God’s love.
Likewise, we relate to Jesus, especially to the human side of Jesus. The Jesus who needed a break from the crowds, the Jesus who thought there should have been a little more wine at that last wedding, the Jesus who cried when his friends died. We get that. Not to mention that we want that. We want the dependence on God, the trust that Jesus knew he couldn’t live without. We want the beatitudes. We don’t want to get divorced or even look at women lustfully. We don’t want to be fixated on war, but want to be blessed peacemakers. We want to forgive our enemies, and be strong, beautiful people even though we know we never will. And Christ gives us that. He gives us someone to give up to. We give up because He gave in. He gave in and became a part of our world: the hay bales and the fishing boats and the tax offices and the dinner parties. And he redeemed it all with his love.
And then there’s God the Creator. We know God the Creator too. If we go back just a few chapters earlier in Romans 1 it says that that people can’t help but notice God’s revelation through the created world. It is God the Father we turn to when we want protection, God the Mother we turn to when we need affection. Stereotypical, I know, so reverse them if you want. A mother’s fierce protection is not something to test when it involves the safety of her children, and a Father’s affection, to be seen by one who bears the burdens of the world and still has time for us… We know this God too. And we love this God too even though it is this God that we often blame, shun or deny the existence of because the Creator God’s person is tied so tightly to the baggage we carry with the words, Mother and Father.
I love the book that came out a few years ago and made quite a stirring among Christian circles, The Shack. It’s an allegory of a man who wrestles with the idea of God and becomes so embittered by the sadness in his life that he cringes when his wife calls God, “papa,” her favorite name for God. In the book after telling the story of how he became so unhappy, he mysteriously receives a note from “papa” to meet him at the Shack, the very location associated with much of the main character, Mack’s, pain. So he goes to the shack to take on whoever had played this cruel joke on him, sending him a note with the name, “papa” in it. But instead of a trickster fiend, he finds… well, let me read it to you…
…a large black woman put her arm around Mack’s shoulders, drew him to her and said, “Okay, we know who you are, but we should probably introduce ourselves to you. I,” she waved her hands with a flourish, “am the housekeeper and cook.”… She crossed her harms and put one hand under her chin as if thinking especially hard, “you can call me what [your wife] does.”
“What? You don’t mean…” Now Mack was surprised and even more confused. Surely this was not the Papa who sent the note? “I mean, are you saying, Papa?”
“Yes,” she responded and smiled…
“And I,” interrupted the man, who looked to be about in his thirties and stood a little shorter than Mack himself. “I try to keep things fixed up around here. I enjoy working with my hands although, as these two will tell you, I take pleasure in cooking and gardening as much as they do.”
“You look as if you’re from the Middle East, maybe Arab?” Mack guessed.
“Actually, I’m a stepbrother of that great family. I am Hebrew, to be exact, from the house of Judah.”
“Then…” Mack was suddenly staggered by his own realization. “Then you are…”
“Jesus? Yes. And you may call me that if you like. After all, it has become my common name. My mother called me Yeshua, but I have also been known to respond to Joshua or even Jesse.”
Mack stood dumbfounded and mute. What he was looking at and listening to simply would not compute. It was all so impossible… but here he was, or was he really here at all? Suddenly, he felt faint. Emotion swept over him as his mind attempted desperately to catch up with all the information. Just as he was about to crumple to his knees, the Asain woman stepped closer and deflected his attention.
“And I am Sarayu,” she said as she tilted her head in a slight bow and smiled. “Keeper of the gardens, among other things.”
Thoughts tumbled over each other as Mack struggled to figure out what to do. Was one of these people God? What if they were hallucinations or angels, or God was coming later? That could be embarrassing. Since there were three of them, maybe this was a Trinity sort of thing. But two women and a man and none of them white? Then again, why had he naturally assumed that God would be white? He knew his mind was rambling, so he focused on the one question he most wanted answered.
“Then,” Mack struggled to ask, “which one of you is God?”
“I am,” said all three in unison. Mack looked from one to the next, and even though he couldn’t begin to grasp what he was seeing and hearing, he somehow believed them.
You see, I don’t think the Trinity has much to do with doctrine at all. Rather, I think believing in the Trinity is an act of imagination.
I love to go dancing. Often on Friday nights, I can be found at the Spoke, dancing to some old honky tonk music. But I don’t love to dance because it’s exercise, though it is. And I don’t like to dance because it’s what my friends like to do, though it is. I like to dance because with each song, different steps are required. And as the band plays the slow waltz, the music enters my body which moves to the familiar steps I don’t even have to count and one, two, three, down, up, up, I am imagining myself in a beautiful ball gown dancing around the great castles in Britain or maybe dressed in Jewish wedding wear dancing in Fiddler’s “Sunrise, Sunset.” And then the music changes and I am back in my cowgirl boots two-stepping to “Your Cheatin’ Heart” by Hank Williams, wondering how in the world this girl from Missouri who swore she’d never live in Texas now calls Texas home. And then the band plays the perfect song for swing and as my feet playfully dance the one, two, rock-and, I’m back in St. Joseph, Missouri, at the Senior Citizen’s Center with my grandparents, hanging onto their hands and looking up into their faces as they taught their grand-daughter how to dance.
Dancing is a delight because it is an act of imagination for me. The trinity is beautiful, not because I understand it, but because it too is like a dance, sometimes intricate and sometimes so very simple we wonder why we never picked it up before.
The Creator, Son and Spirit dance together sometimes in a line and sometimes switching partners as they move about the crowded Texas dance hall or the empty green field, or the disco-ball-sparkling teenage gymnasium in whatever dance they feel appropriate to penetrate the souls and minds of those sitting on the side, their dance cards as empty as their hearts.
Methodist George M. Ricker writes, “The doctrine [of the Trinity] really says more about human experience than it does about God. Christians did and do experience the Creator God (Father and Mother), God revealed in the life and ministry of Jesus, and a continuing Presence.”
It’s true, we do. So what’s your experience of God? What about the mystery of God stirs up your imagination?
What about God makes you wanna dance?
Early church Father, Turtullian penned in only the 2nd century the following image of God as Trinity. “When a ray is projected from the sun it is a portion of the whole sun; but the sun will be in the ray because it is a ray of the sun; the substance is not separated but extended. So from spirit comes spirit and God from God, as light is kindled from light…. This ray of God… glided down into a virgin, in her womb was fashioned as flesh, is born as a man mixed up with God. The flesh was built up by the spirit, was nourished, grew up, spoke, taught, worked, and was Christ.
Who is God?
“I am the one who was and is and who is to come,” God replies.
Trinity Sunday Sermon
By Ann Pittman
Sanctuary Church, Austin, TX
May 30, 2010
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Here is more information on the doctrine of the Trinity and how it came to be...
When did we get the “official” doctrine of the Trinity?
Council of Nicea 325C.E. presided over by Emperor Constantine in response to the theological and ecclesiastical war between Arius and Bishop Alexander.
Arius feared Sabellianism or Modelism, the idea that God is three modes or vehicles and felt Alexander treaded too close to the heresy that said sometimes God is Father, other times God is Son and finally, God is Spirit. He was influenced by Origin though who those that Jesus was subordinate to the Father. He, like Alexander was also influenced by Greek philosophy that assumed that “divinity is ontologically perfect in such a way that any change at all is impossible for it and improper to attribute to it.” Arius believe that God the Father was “eternal and immutable” whereas Jesus, the Logos, “was created before the world and therefore was capable of changing and suffering.” Alexander accused Arius the heresy of Paul of Samosata of adoptionism, the idea that Jesus was adopted by God the Father as God the Son. Think Jehovah’s Witness theology of today. Alexander also subtly suggested that if Arius was right, then God “changed” when he created the Son, because it was only after the Son was created that God became God the Father. Consequentially, they both feared that each other’s thoughts challenged the ability of God to save the world.
Arius and his followers, the Arians, were considered heretics and the Council of Nicea affirmed again that the Trinity is made up of three divine beings, all of whom are equally God. It affirmed that Jesus and God the Father are homoousios or consubstantial, of one substance and one being. And it emphasized the word “begotten” (as opposed to “made”) which it borrowed from the Bible itself.
To correct the impression that the Nicene Trinitarian orthodoxy implied three Gods, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus and Gregory of Nyssa in the Council of Constantinople of 381 affirmed God as three hypostases or three persons instead of just one substance.
The Council of Constantinople rewrote the Nicene Creed in 381 which has been accepted in this final form as orthodoxy for most Christian traditions.
We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.
In 589 the Western church added the clause “and the Son” to the Nicene Creed regarding the Holy Spirit, namely that She proceeds from the Father and the Son. And in 850, The Eastern church argued that was a subordination of the Spirit and rejected this addition as Sabellianism or modelism (ironically what Arius feared centuries earlier). This became known as the filioque controversy and contributed to the Great Schism which created The Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church.
John Wesley: “I dare not insist upon anyone’s using the word ‘Trinity’ or ‘Person.’ I use them myself without any scruple.. but if any man [sic] has any scruple concerning them, who can constrain him to use them? I cannot.”