You probably think this weekend’s claim to fame is Memorial Day, but in the Christian Church, the Sunday after Pentecost is Trinity Sunday – perhaps the only day set aside to celebrate a doctrine rather than the story of a biblical event like Christmas, Easter, Pentecost.
The word “Trinity” means something like “three in one, ” tri-unity. Lots of ink, and alas even blood, has been spilled attempting to nail down the concept. For example, here’s what we read in the Second Helvetic Confession from our Presbyterian Book of Confessions, one sixteenth-century explanation clearly aimed at all the ways various theological opponents had gotten it wrong (and I’m leaving out parts of it); and perhaps not coincidentally, in three sections:
GOD IS ONE. We believe and teach that God is one in essence or nature, subsisting in himself, all sufficient in himself, invisible, incorporeal, immense, eternal, Creator of all things both visible and invisible, the greatest good, living, quickening and preserving all things, omnipotent and supremely wise, kind and merciful, just and true. Truly we detest many gods because it is expressly written: “The Lord your God is one Lord”
GOD IS THREE. Notwithstanding we believe and teach that the same immense, one and indivisible God is in person inseparably and without confusion distinguished as Father, Son and Holy Spirit so, as the Father has begotten the Son from eternity, the Son is begotten by an ineffable generation, and the Holy Spirit truly proceeds from them both, and the same from eternity and is to be worshiped with both.
Thus there are not three gods, but three persons, consubstantial, coeternal, and coequal; distinct with respect to hypostases, and with respect to order, the one preceding the other yet without any inequality. For according to the nature or essence they are so joined together that they are one God, and the divine nature is common to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit…
HERESIES. Therefore we condemn … all heresies and heretics who teach that the Son and Holy Spirit are God in name only, and also that there is something created and subservient, or subordinate to another in the Trinity, and that there is something unequal in it, a greater or a less, something corporeal or corporeally conceived, something different with respect to character or will, something mixed or solitary, as if the Son and Holy Spirit were the affections and properties of one God the Father…
and I will spare you the dozen or so names of the various heresies that are mentioned, amen. Amen! I’m sure you’ve got that, let’s say the creed and sing a hymn and be on our way.
Actually, I don’t expect you to get this, now or at the end of this sermon. All our attempts to be clear and precise end up demonstrating the greater truth that God is beyond our comprehension, a mystery, and that we can speak of God only in analogy and metaphor. If we ever come to the point when we presume to have the perfect explanation or description of God, then we will have made a god of our words and fallen back into idolatry, the worship of something we created rather than the worship of Godself.
But that doesn’t mean that we should stop trying to express our awe, our wonder, or stop trying to understand who God is – because what we think about the nature of God has profound implications for how we live as human beings.
I chose the Proverbs lesson from the lectionary to read this morning because it is an ancient example of probing the limits of our ability to know and to talk about God. Wisdom, personified as a woman, goes out “on the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads, at the entrance of the portals” – in other words, in the midst of everyday life – and proclaims to the people what God needs us to know in order to live faithfully.
Woman Wisdom is portrayed as God’s first act, and the Hebrew verbs imply that God is both her father and her mother; so much for assigning God a gender. Woman Wisdom – in Greek, “Sophia” – was present in the beginning, God’s companion, assisting when God created, intimately involved in the creation process of limiting and ordering chaos; Wisdom, having had a hand in creation, can show us how to live in harmony with the cosmos as we go about our daily lives. Where do we look to find God? In the world God created; in all public spaces, not just the ostensibly religious ones; in all forms of knowledge, since they also have their foundation in God; in each other; even in our own experiences and insights, as long as we test those against other voices.
In Proverbs 8, Woman Wisdom is a means of revelation, bridging the gap between the transcendent God and our very tangible world. When Christians wanted to express their experience of Jesus Christ as God with us, bridging that divine-human gap, they reached to this wisdom tradition and adapted it: Jesus Christ, Word of God, preexistent and co-creator with God in the beginning.
Sometimes Sophia, Wisdom, is identified with Christ, sometimes with the Holy Spirit – it’s not wrapped up neatly in a formula somewhere. Just so, the New Testament speaks of God as Father, Jesus Christ as Son, and the Holy Spirit, sometimes even all at the same time, but there’s no precise definition of Trinity in the Scripture and in fact the word itself isn’t there at all. Father, Son, and Spirit, Christians experience the one God in all three but can’t limit God even to that. Scripture speaks of God using different names and metaphors; human beings experiencing God have used a vast variety of images seeking to describe God – the very variety demonstrates that we will never get it completely. And so, absolutizing one name or formula is every bit as arrogant and dangerous as getting the formula wrong – maybe more so.
I thought about these things – how to recognize the presence of God, Wisdom calling to humanity – a couple of weeks ago when I went to the Cleveland Museum of Art to view the exhibition of Native American art – (if you haven’t been, today’s the last day and it’s free) and I was struck throughout the exhibit by the reverence for creation, for life, for nature, that is displayed in the artwork – the celebration of connectedness, interrelationships, harmony; the gratitude and respect; the determination to use all God’s gifts and waste none, to recognize, maximize, and highlight beauty, the presence of God everywhere we look. Perhaps the most evocative phrase, a snippet from a song in one of the captions: “Something sacred wears me.”
Do we see it – the sacred, the holy, holy, holy in our midst?
A similar call to attentiveness came to me from a quite different experience recently, reading this very unique book entitled The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, in which by the way Tim Beal gets an appreciative mention.
A.J. Jacobs, a writer for Esquire and a secular, agnostic Jew, sets off to spend a year, as the title says, following the Bible as literally as possible. It’s funny of course, and of course he demonstrates what everyone should know which is that even the most literalistic fundamentalists actually do pick and choose which laws they will follow.
But the book surprised me by being much deeper than that. By practicing biblically-enjoined customs for which it is often difficult to see the purpose, Jacobs develops a transformed attitude toward the world – including God and other people. Intentionally giving thanks for everything actually makes him thankful. Praising God, even though he’s not sure that God exists, makes him humble. Not swearing makes him less angry. He’s not allowed to lie – at all – which can prove problematic in maintaining harmony sometimes, and definitely makes you watch everything you say. Even some of the obscure and weirdly picky laws have an impact.
Here’s one of my favorite paragraphs, a reflection on following the rule in Leviticus that you can’t eat fruit from a tree that’s less than five years old:
Each cherry took about three seconds to eat. Three seconds to eat, but at least five years in the making. It seemed unfair to the hard-working cherry tree. The least I could do was to devote my attention to the cherry in those three seconds, really appreciate the tartness of the skin and the faint crunching sound when I bite down. I guess it’s called mindfulness. Or being in the moment, or making the mundane sacred… the fruit taboo made me more aware of the whole cherry process, the seed, the soil, the five years of watering and waiting. That’s the paradox: I thought religion would make me live with my head in the clouds, but as often as not, it grounds me in this world.
Mindfulness. Being attentive, recognizing the connections, discovering the meaning. Holy, holy, holy.
I loved this recent status update from a Facebook friend:
Without awe, people turn to doctrine. Without reverence, people turn to rules. Reverence and awe cannot be taught and cannot be learned. They are only born in our hearts when we begin – finally! – to pay attention.
But A.J. Jacobs found out that rules – with an openness to the possibilities – can prompt us to pay attention. For Jacobs, the biblical rules helped him to see the connections, to know himself to be interdependent, to acknowledge and reverence the holy. He was paying attention to Wisdom, abroad in the created world, connecting God and humanity. Following the rules, many of them seemingly silly in themselves, made A.J. aware of deeper truths. And perhaps doctrine can serve the same purpose, as long as we don’t get stuck there, as long as right belief is not an end in itself so we can think ourselves superior to the misguided, but is a means to understanding God so that we can live in accord with God’s will.
So, the doctrine of the Trinity: one God, three Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. A concerted effort to sum up the mystery of God that proves it can’t be done. Countless metaphors attempting to explain it, none of which expresses it entirely. John of Damascus praised “Sun, Light, and Burning Ray”; Augustine wrote of “Lover, Beloved, and the Love that binds them.” Beautiful and profound. From Dorothy Sayers we get the explanation of Trinity as Creative Idea in the mind of an Author, the Word that expresses the Idea, and the Power in the life of the one who receives that Word and is enlivened by its meaning.
Sometimes we say “Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer,” and those words do express aspects of what God does for us while avoiding the misimpression that we think God is a guy. But that formulation might obscure what is perhaps the most significant truth communicated by the doctrine of the Trinity, and that is conveyed in the term “Persons.” Not simply three aspects of God or three names for God or three ways to think about God, but three Persons – in other words, God is a relationship, “an eternal communion, never in solitude and never static.” (T.J. Scirghi) God is complete mutual self-giving and receiving, communion, love; the Persons are who they are because of their relationship of love, not apart from it – there is no “apart from it.” The very nature of God is community.
The very nature of God is community, equality, mutuality, communion, the utter joy of limitless love. If there’s only one thing you know about the Trinity, let it be that.
Jesus Christ, God incarnate, shows that this ultimate reality of the universe, loving community, is the reality in which, by which, for which we humans were created. To exist is to be in relationship; to be in God’s image is to love one another as equals; to reflect God is to rejoice not in our independence, but our interdependence: trust, intimacy, the delight of both giving and receiving. Imagine our relationships, our communities, characterized by such intense love – what one action will you take today to participate in that reality?
I truly believe that God cares more about relationships than doctrine – what a tragic irony that people of faith fight and even kill each other over differences in belief, like for example condemning the so-called heretics who have different ideas about the Trinity. For when we get the doctrine right, we see that it’s all about the relationship. The sacred is all around us, especially in one another.
Holy, holy, holy.
The Wisdom of God is calling us to pay attention. Maybe the point of Trinity Sunday is not to celebrate a doctrine as opposed to a biblical story, but to celebrate the whole story of God as opposed to the separate parts of it; and the story’s still being told, so listen, and look. You’re a part of it. Holy, holy, holy.