A Triune God
| Genesis 1:1-2
2 Corinthians 13:11-13
|Sun, May 30, 1999
Rev. Ed Searcy
|"Baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Mt 28:19)
"The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you." (II Cor 13:13)
"So God created humankind in his image" (Gen 1:27)
Trinity Sunday. It sounds like a good idea. A Sunday set aside to consider this uniquely Christian manner of speech. It sounds like a good idea ... until you are the one who is called upon to do the considering! Trust me ... there is no more dangerous ‘mine field’ than this. Witness Bill Phipp’s infamous comments on the nature of Jesus’ humanity and divinity. Just this past week the Moderator was fending off a charge of heresy in his home presbytery by declaring that "I believe that Jesus is the Word made flesh, the Son of God, God with us and is the second person in the Trinity". So much for those headlines that read: "Moderator says ‘Jesus is not God’". And so much for Trinity Sunday being such a good idea ... especially if it leads to charges of heresy on Monday. No matter where one steps there are landmines waiting to blow up in one’s face. There are those who point to the Bible and note that one has to search long and hard to find fleeting, explicit references to the ‘Holy Trinity’. Today’s lessons are a case in point. They only hint at the tradition of the Trinity which would take four centuries to fully develop. Then there are those who point to that tradition itself ... and to the mixed motives and political manoeuvring that led to statements like the Nicene Creed. Even one who is no student of church history can glimpse this checkered past. There it is, in the final section of the Nicene Creed (on page 920 of Voices United), the words "and the Son" in brackets. Brackets? Yes ... a reminder of the great schism between the churches of the East and of the West over the ‘filioque’ clause. I told you ... Trinity Sunday is a mine-field. And we haven’t even mentioned the obvious bombshells just waiting to explode. Like the seemingly illogical math of a religion that claims to be monotheistic and yet speaks of ‘God in three persons’. And like the problematic gender-specific naming of God in as ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’. Let’s see ... questions of biblical authority, church history, philosophy and gender. Perhaps there is someone else present who would care to help us consider the Trinity this morning?! No?
Little wonder, then, that I like many other preachers - concerned for our own preservation - carefully and quietly steer clear of Trinity Sunday whenever possible. It is not hard for a Protestant to find ample reason to dismiss such an occasion. After all, it was Pope John the 22nd who, in the fourteen century, instituted Trinity Sunday as a universal feast on which a plenary indulgence could be gained by any who took communion on that day. Such history makes it awfully tempting to leave Trinity Sunday to the Catholics. Tempting ... but not faithful. Because we fail to speak of and think about the ‘three in one God’ - the Triune God - at our peril. People of other faiths know it at a glance - the Trinity is uniquely Christian. It is the thing that they first want to hear about and to question. So, whatever else Pope John the 22nd had in mind, it is only fitting that on at least one Sunday a year we Christians focus our own attention on this core doctrine of our own faith ... even if it means losing a preacher to a land-mine here or a heresy trial there!
Perhaps I should warn you. Later on this afternoon you may find that your head hurts. You may have a ‘brain cramp’. It comes with the territory. Thinking about the Trinity can be difficult ... especially if you aren’t used to it. Not surprisingly, this is the reason that many people give up on such pursuits too soon ... and to decide, too soon, against taking part in the four-part study of the Trinity that is open to all ‘Questors’ here in June. They come to dismiss Trinitarian theology as a ‘head trip’, as a diversion from the really important matters at hand ... things like environmental degradation or global hunger or any one of countless other crises. But just because thinking about the Trinity is difficult doesn’t mean that it is unimportant. This is the same sermon that I give my children when they are struggling through their math homework and wondering what possible use it will all be when they graduate and go into cartooning, say, or English literature. "It is teaching you to think", I say, "it is exercising your brain. No wonder it hurts ... just like your legs hurt after a good run". In September Anneke will be entering French Immersion ... the fourth of our children to do so. By now I have learned what to expect. In that first month she will be bombarded with vocabulary ... hundreds and hundreds of words that seem so incomprehensible. And parents will worry that their children cannot manage ... that they cannot understand. But now I, like the teachers, have learned that they will comprehend ... word by word ... over time. And I have also learned that it is not the vocabulary but the grammar that is most essential in this learning. It is the underlying structure ... the ‘rules’ ... into which the vocabulary fits that is really the heart of the language. From past experience I have come to trust that it will take Anneke time to learn how to make her new found vocabulary ‘work’ within the rules of the French language. For a good while she will keep translating back and forth from English into French and vice versa until one day she comes to the breakfast table and says: "Guess what? I had a dream in French last night!" Later, when I ask her to translate something that we’ve heard on Radio-Canada into English she will say: ‘Actually Dad, there’s really not a way to say that in English". Well ... welcome to ‘Trinitarian Immersion 101'! Welcome to a whole new vocabulary of words like: ‘economic trinity’ and ‘immanent trinity’ ... Father, Son and Holy Spirit ... Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer ... Sophia ... and filioque . But most especially welcome to the grammatical structure of’ ‘threeness’.
Yes ... welcome to the grammatical structure of ‘threeness’ ... the basic grammar of all Christian speech. Oh, and by the way, there is something that you should know. Something that has been going on behind the scenes in theology for the past half-century or so. Trinitarian language is undergoing a renaissance. At first quietly ... and now more loudly ... theologians have been reconsidering the Trinity. For a long time the church - and its theologians - listened to the philosophers of the modern world in their disdain for something as ‘old world’ as the Trinity. The very idea of ‘one God in three persons’ seemed more an embarrassment than a treasure. It seemed impossible to imagine that it was the stuff of heated debate on the street corners of the ancient world! How could anyone possibly become so passionate about something so abstract and removed from everyday reality? And so we focussed on the Jesus of history. Or on the God of love. Or on the spiritual. But rarely on God the three-in-one. Until, one by one, a variety of theologians from various theological perspectives began to realize that the Christians of the first centuries had found themselves entranced with trinitarian grammar for good reason ... because it is inherent in Christian faith ... it is the basic language of Christianity. Without the Triune God it is impossible to speak the Christian language or, as a result, live the Christian life. In the late twentieth Century there are many signs of Christianity’s demise in the West. But there are at least two signs of its rebirth. One is the explosion in hymnody ... in the writing and singing of new hymns (which, as Gerald is only to quick to remind us) is always the first sign of renewal in the church. The other is the growing conversation about the Trinity. Both signal a recovery of Christian speech patterns. Both require the gifts of the poet to capture truths that are, in the end, beyond human language. Both are new buds which signal rekindled life for a church that we had imagined held little promise for the future.
Perhaps we should not be surprised. Trinitarian language is, after all, always the first speech that we hear after our immersion in the waters of baptism: "I baptize you in the name of the Father ... and of the Son ... and of the Holy Spirit". In this we are not only participating in the faith of the fourth century church fathers. In this we are connected, as this morning’s reading from Matthew reminds us, with the very first Christians. Like a newborn infant we emerge from the waters of the baptismal womb unsure just what this language means. No wonder that we, like the church, spend our lives learning the language of the threefold God ... not only on an annual Trinity Sunday but, in truth, on a lifetime of Sundays. We are meant not so much to understand it all as to be immersed in it ... and in the God it struggles somehow to name. Through our immersion in this three-sided God we find ourselves united with an almost impossibly wide spectrum of others who share this threefold grammar in common with us. This is the reason that, at the conclusion of this sermon, we will recite together one of the ancient creeds of the church - the Nicene Creed - rather than our more familiar United Church creed. Immersion in the language and the reality we call ‘The Trinity’ connects us not simply with those like-minded folk we call the United Church of Canada but, rather, with that great collection of saints and sinners called the church catholic ... the church universal across time and space.
Yet the language of the Trinity also brings division and pain. It has been used to silence others rather than to love and respect them. For some this suggests that the threefold understanding of God is inherently oppressive. They would discard all such speech as a means of naming the God of the Universe. Others in our midst call for a renaming of the Trinity. They see that the attribution of maleness to God has unnecessarily denied the experience of too many faithful Christians. They rightly note that Paul does not need to speak of gender in pronouncing a threefold blessing: "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all". The result is a great profusion of creativity as the church seeks to find new vocabulary to speak the truth within the rules of a threefold grammatical description of God. But it isn’t easy. The real test comes at Baptism and at Ordination when the new vocabulary doesn’t easily meet the grammatical test. In the latest proposals to come before the United Church of Canada we are urged to consider baptizing "in the name of God the Source of love; of Christ, love incarnate and of the Holy Spirit; love’s power". On the surface, at least, a rather generic, even Canadian, compromise. Yet, on closer look, a phrase that in seeking to ‘fix’ one problem creates even more. Now something called ‘Love’ becomes the Ultimate Reality which creates and redeems and sustains the world. But this is not the basis of Christian language. God, in whose image we have been made, is the source of love, yes, but much more. Jesus is not just ‘love’ incarnate ... Jesus is the incarnation of Yahweh, the personal God of the Old Testament. In such new found formulas God and Christ and the Holy Spirit are too easily reduced to something called ‘love’. This is the tendency of we moderns ... we want to think of God in good Star Wars terms as a ‘force’ ... as a ‘spirit’ ... but not as being with personality.
I remember singing it every Sunday morning at the beginning of worship: "God in three persons, blessed trinity". Persons. However we imagine or speak of the Trinity it always brings us back to a community of persons who are in some mystical sense a unity. In recent years a number of feminist theologians have reminded the church that the Trinity is not a hierarchy, with the Father disciplining the Son who, in turn, lets their pet Spirit out to play. Instead, they point out, the Trinity is a community of equals. Elizabeth Johnson shows us a 15th century Russian icon of the ‘Holy Trinity’. Inspired by the story in Genesis 18 that tells of the visit of three angels to the home of Abraham and Sarah, the icon depicts the three messengers sitting around a table on which there is a Eucharistic cup. The three are arranged in a circle inclining toward one another, but the circle is not closed. As the viewer meditates on the icon she begins to realize that she is drawn into the feast ... indeed, by gazing at it is already at the feast. Instead of the distant ‘Father’ who stands removed from his children, the Trinity reveals a God whose fatherhood looks almost feminine in its hospitable nature. It was this that Dame Julian of Norwich, the medieval mystic, understood when she glimpsed the God revealed in the self-giving love of Christ. Here is a Father whose love is also that of a Mother. Here is a God who makes us in God’s own image ... created to live in community, in mutual love and care (Voices United #320 - "Mothering God, You Gave Me Birth"). Here is a Trinitarian grammar which we not only need to speak but also to live. Here is the reason that Trinitarian language becomes the most necessary way of ordering reality in a fractured and violent world. Because one Monday morning ... perhaps after months of practice or years of immersion ... we may yet find ourselves saying to anyone who will listen: "I dreamed in the Christian language yesterday. I had a dream that family ... nation ... and world lived a Triune life. I dreamed that all were at the table ... and that all were one". May it be so. Amen.