Genesis 1:1-2:4, John 1:1-5, Psalm 8
A few weeks ago, I was waiting for a session of Christian Citizenship Seminar to start. We were holding the event at a church downtown but the door was still locked and they didn’t have any bench or place to sit, so I sat on the front steps of a church across the street. CCS is a youth event and we were in an informal session so I was neither dressed in formal office cloths or anything particularly clergy-esque or in the mode of theologian (no robe, collar, big cross, or theological tome nor theological hat). I sat on a church’s stairs to do a little work on my laptop—which though connected to Google is not particularly authoritative. While there, I heard two people in a fairly energetic but not necessarily angry argument coming down the sidewalk. Since I was sitting on the front steps of a church I apparently was imbued with a fair amount of authority and theological know-how. The two arguing people passing by came up to me and the young man asked—“Are God and Jesus the same thing?”
We have a sign on the fence next to our church yard saying something to the effect of enjoy the yard but don’t sue us if you trip. My experience on the stairs of the random church lends an entirely different layer of concern. Perhaps not only should our sign say—if you trip don’t sue us but it should say “You may sit on our stairs but don’t make definitive statements on theological, spiritual, or ethical matters on our behalf to passersby.”
This Sunday is Trinity Sunday. A Sunday dedicated to what many would say is one of the most significant and argued about theological points of the last two millennia. Mike Kuhn on the blog of the Institute for Middle East Studies of the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut, Lebanon writes of the historic arguments about the divine nature of Jesus between Christians and Muslims noting, “Of course, Christians responded, attempting to defend the Trinity rationally and philosophically. The polemical interaction bears all the marks of “ivory tower theology” with its impenetrable terminology and arcane argumentation.”
So, this Sunday, before noon, we are going to attempt to make something of the Trinity which has often been characterized by “its impenetrable terminology and arcane argumentation.”
And though brunch would have been perhaps less taxing and though theology matters, I am not sure that impenetrable terminology is precisely what we are needing this morning. In addition to what we may or may not feel inclined towards this morning, the Brethren have tended away from such theology and towards the practical.
We only read two of our lectionary passages so far. I’ll read the other two short ones now. I find this selection of passages exceedingly fascinating. This is Trinity Sunday. The Trinity has been a big deal theologically since the beginning of the Church. We could probably fill at least a few pews with the books written on the topic. However, when we come to the Bible it seems that we are left with pretty meager pickings. At least the passages with all three persons of the Trinity present at the same time are pretty slim. While there is much on Jesus, or the Spirit, or the Father on their own–on the same stage at the same time is a different matter. The passages we have are not really teaching about this but seem to incidentally mention the three as part of a larger narrative or teaching. Matthew 28, for example, is about going out in mission—what we call the Great Commission. As part of this sending the three show up in the instruction on baptizing. It reads:
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
“Baptizing in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
And 2 Corinthians 13:11-13:
11 Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell. Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. 12 Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you.
13 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.
Both of these seem to list the three. Neither are speaking about the “Trinity” but they do assume three persons (though don’t immediately comment on this). However, this is also part of the scriptures which include the Shema in Deuteronomy 6:4. Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. This is a central proclamation of the Jewish people and also part of the Christian canon. In the context of this monotheistic statement Jesus shows up and claims to be one with God. For example, in John 13:19 explicit linking with God through “I am who I am.” Mirroring Exodus 3:14 when God defines Godself. Typically, when Jesus says this sort of thing people try to stone him for blasphemy. Additionally, when Jesus is about to leave his disciples after the resurrection the Spirit is sent to fill and empower his followers.
On almost every page of the Hebrew Scriptures “GOD” is referenced or referred to or is the assumed reality of the world. Additionally, in the Genesis creation story there is hint of plurality. In “creating in our image.” Micah commented on the presence of the Spirit last week. The version of Genesis we read says a “wind” from God went over the waters. In others is says “Spirit” or some variant of breath. Also, there are Psalms which are, from the perspective of the New Testament, Messianic and referring to Jesus.
In the New Testament, almost every passage refers to Jesus or the Father or the Spirit. Though this is the case the reason that these seemingly out of place passages in Matthew and 2 Corinthians were chosen is that in very few places do they all show up on stage at once or are they listed as three distinct persons. Now the early church after the writing of the New Testament noticed this the presence of these but also the ambiguity of the mechanics of it all and sought to make sense of it or at least define the theological parameters within which the passages should be understood. Not only are there reams written on this but the church spent great energy trying to codify this in creeds. The creeds were then used as a bench mark for what is consider “right belief” –or orthodoxy.
As you may have heard, however, the Church of the Brethren has stated that we have “no Creed but the New Testament.” What this does is open up the conversation but also seek to reorient the Christian faith back toward discipleship, formation, and theological ethics—or orthopraxy—right practice. Brethren will note that the creeds jump from assertions of Jesus birth to death and resurrection as if the interim ministry of healing, feeding, teaching, reconciling, challenging oppression, and challenging religious practices done without the right motivation are of little or no importance.
When we read of these three divine persons which are also claimed to be one we are rightly left at least a bit perplexed. How does this work? What is their relationship? Are they three manifestations of the same thing—like three sides of some curious coin? The same actor wearing answers to these questions and answers judged heretical and damaging sparked debate almost without end. It also sparked political rivalry, and even violence at times.
If the New Testament is our Creed what are we to make of the Trinity? I was tempted to try analogies or illustrations. However, it was precisely this sort of effort that ended up getting so many theologians and preachers in trouble. I was then tempted to drop in a fancy quote but even these tend to feel inadequate and when read or heard aloud are likely more incomprehensible than illuminating (I at least have trouble hearing and making sense of something better read slowly.)
Perhaps better than seek to perfectly explain it is better to allow mystery. The witness of scripture is both thorough and fragmentary. It tells of a mystery that requires a response. An Orthodox Theologian writes, “The Trinity is not a philosophical theory but the living God whom we worship; and so there comes a point in our approach to the Trinity when argumentation and analysis must give place to wordless prayer.” (Ware, The Orthodox Way)
Wordless prayer should probably be service—perhaps dragging and pushing a wagon full of dirt across Capitol Hill to make a garden to feed our neighbors and celebrate God’s good creation—perhaps in leading music (which I guess admittedly has words)—perhaps as watching a freewheeling toddler—or writing a blog which considers the work of peacemaking in relation to international conflict—perhaps in patience—perhaps in kindness—perhaps in welcoming a neighbor—perhaps in welcoming a homeless neighbor or Muslim neighbor—perhaps in____, perhaps…perhaps, perhaps.
Perhaps these things are the wordless prayer when done in response to the work of the Spirit in our lives, the love of God made manifest in Jesus—in short when done as worship. Of course (at least for me) the Trinity as a formal theological idea does not usually come to mind when doing this sort of thing—But the love of God which has begun reconciliation in us, the calling of Jesus to follow in the way of peace, and the filling of the Spirit which gives new language and empowers beyond what we can ask or imagine—this is the work of the Trinity. As we go, let us worship.