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The process towards being ordained as a minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) is, like any profession, a series of jumping through hoops. When I had reached the final stages, and was being examined on the floor of Presbytery, the committee asked me two questions to answer before the whole body, 300 pastors and elders. Like other candidates, I had been given over 30 questions to prepare, in the areas of theology, worship, sacraments, polity. But I only had to answer two on the floor of Presbytery. After those questions, the body of pastors and elders could ask me anything they wanted to. A pastor from the Outer Banks, who liked to ask questions of all entering candidates, asked me how a pastor could explain the mystery of the Trinity to someone who did not understand it. I used the idea of the apple from the book that I shared with the children to answer, and then I rambled on a bit more after that. I’m not sure my answer was great, but the pastor nodded and sat down. And I breathed a sigh of relief.
On this Sunday, we look not so much at a Bible passage or story as at a doctrine of the church, one of the few times we really do that. We refer to today as Trinity Sunday, honoring this doctrine of the Trinity. Most of us know that the Trinity means God – the Father, Son and Holy Spirit- but few really know what that means in great depth.
While anyone who reads the Bible knows that it talks about God as the Father or Creator, about Jesus the Son born on earth, and about the Holy Spirit as the gift at Pentecost, the mystery of how the three are one, separate yet united, is a mystery and has been for centuries. One of the founders of the Methodist faith, John Wesley said, “Bring me a worm that can comprehend a man, and I will show you a man that can comprehend the Triune God.” It is not easy!
And there’s a story about an Asian gentleman who had a conversation with a well-meaning missionary. The missionary talked about God the Father who created us, about God the Son who died and was raised up for us, and about the Holy Spirit of Love who appeared as a dove over the head of Jesus when he was baptized. The Asian gentleman listened politely to the explanation, then said, “Honorable Father – very good. Honorable Son – also very good. But Honorable Bird – I do not understand at all.” This comes from an Episcopal priest, by the name of Harry Allagree, trying to preach on the Trinity, who says, “So, I suppose I could also say: ‘Honorable Holy Trinity – that I do not understand at all.’” So the Trinity is a mystery to many.
The terms “trinity” or “triune” do not appear in the Bible. But Father, Son, and Holy Spirit appear throughout the Scriptures. Putting it simply, the doctrine of the Trinity emerged in order to clarify and dispute some misconceptions, or heresies about the nature of God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Such disputes also led to the Nicene Creed, which in many ways amplifies the Apostles’ Creed.
Certainly the New Testament, especially in the final words of Jesus to the disciples that we read from the Gospel of Matthew, is the place where we see Father, Son, and Holy Spirit mentioned together more clearly. The letters of the NT use the triune image mostly in salutations and benedictions, like the end of II Corinthians: “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)
But it can be seen elsewhere with just a bit of looking. Genesis 1 and John 1 begin so similarly that they seem meant to draw one to the other. “In the beginning when God created…” (Genesis) and “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John). From these two verses, we know that Jesus, the Word, was with God from the beginning of creation. And if we keep reading a bit more in Genesis 1, we read that “a wind from God swept over the face of the waters” at creation. The word for wind, ruah, also means “spirit,” so scholars see this as a sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit also at creation. It is this same “ruah” that Jesus breathed on the disciples in the Gospel of John in order to give them the Holy Spirit. So there they are, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, at creation, with Jesus and the disciples, and always.
Scholars also cite Isaiah 61, which we use to talk about Christ as Messiah, and which Christ quoted about himself: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me.” Acts 2 (32-33) says: “This Jesus, God raised up, and of that all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, God has poured out this that you both see and hear.” So all three are present throughout the Scriptures, and at times cited together more nearly to the formula that has become a standard for Christian churches for baptisms and for benedictions.
Yet the Bible also very clearly tells us that there is but one God. “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord” (Deut. 6:4). And God said it in the Ten Commandments: (Ex. 20:2-3): “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.” It was indeed those other gods that in part precipitated the need for a doctrine that explained how God could be one yet three, or how the beings that some saw as three gods could actually be one God. Some said that God was the superior being, and that the Son and Holy Spirit were subordinate to God. Others said these appearances were different modes of God, and so on. So the early church felt it necessary to declare that the three are indeed one, of the same substance yet also distinct, and equal in power. They are of the same “essence,” the same being, in a way that we obviously cannot fully explain. Putting it simply, God is one “what” but three “who’s.”
The only way many of us seminary students passed ordination exams was with the help of a book called Christian Doctrine by Professor Shirley Guthrie. It may sound boring in title, but this volume really puts hard concepts into amazingly simple and understandable language. Written in 1994, the book is still used widely today. Guthrie says there are analogies we CANNOT use to explain the Trinity: we cannot say God is like a board of directors of a corporation, made up of three equal partners but each with particular responsibilities because the works of the Trinity are distinguished but not separated one from another. He says we cannot say God is like three football players sitting on the sidelines waiting to go in. With this theory, God the Father goes in first, creating, then the Son goes in to work salvation, and the Spirit takes over where the Son left off. This is similar to what some believe even today, yet it separates the three persons and their works in ways that do not go along with the Scriptures. And, we cannot say God is like a man or woman wearing three hats, or fulfilling three functions at the same time (spouse, wage earner, church officer), because God is not an actor who changes costumes to play different characters at different times. I wonder if Guthrie would like the book I read to the children comparing the Trinity to the parts of an apple! We struggle to find some way to relate to this concept, this mystery of the Triune God.
Maybe it helps to look at the symbols we use for the Trinity. Western Christianity tends to use a Triangle, with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit the three equal sides. Yet it is too easy for this to become a Triangle that has God the Father at the top and the Son and Holy Spirit subordinate on the sides. Eastern Orthodoxy depicts the Trinity with a circle, and the religious art will show Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as three figures sitting around a table, sharing a meal and conversation. John of Damascus, a Greek theologian in the 7th century, called this “perichoresis” (perry-ko-ray-sis). “Peri” means “around,” and “choresis” means “dancing.” So Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are like three dancers holding hands and dancing together in harmony (Guthrie, p. 91). This is the essence of who God is, says Guthrie, and also the essence of who God wants us to be – community, harmony, shalom. God does not want enmity between peoples, races, genders, nations. God, who is a community dancing around in joy and harmony, wants just that for everyone, absolutely everyone.
Guthrie said of this doctrine: “God is a living, acting, speaking, personal God who lives in relationship with other persons. But God’s personalness is different from that of the two kinds of persons we know; it is a personalness that transcends the disctinction between male and female human beings.” So, he reminds us, when we talk about the Trinity, we are not talking as much about the gender of God as about relationships. God as Father is not restricted to a male image, just as God, who made all beings in God’s image, is not restricted to being male or female. What is important is the relationship like that of a parent with a child. Our denomination’s “Brief Statement of Faith” picks up on this when it says that God is “like a mother who will not forsake her nursing child, like a father who welcomes the prodigal home.”
One of the best depictions I have read or seen of the Trinity was in the fiction book, now a movie, The Shack. In the book, a man is drawn to the shack where the clothes of his murdered daughter were found, and he engages in a conversation there with three beings whom we know to be the Trinity. God the Father is (and I love this!) an African American woman who loves to cook, Jesus the Son is much as we would suppose a middle eastern man to look, and, in the book, the Holy Spirit is an amorphous Asian woman who flitters in and out of clarity. The three sit around a table and talk and eat, and move and relate in what is a beautiful showing of the harmony and understanding that we need in our lives and in our world today. This mystery of the Trinity can serve us if we embrace it.
Yet we can try too hard to grasp doctrines and leave behind what really matters. It helps to talk about doctrine some, as it can clarify concepts and open our minds to God. But we can also get so caught up in the debate so much that we forget that we need to open our hearts as well.
I began reading a book this week that will be used for the Women’s Connection Conference in Montreat in August. Author Rachel Held Evans is a woman who says she is on the cusp of the Millennial and Generation X ages. She relates that she left church for some years, but was drawn back not by preaching or theology or Sunday School. The practice of the sacraments drew her back to church even after she had given up on the institution of the church.
In her words:
“When my faith had become little more than an abstraction, a set of propositions to be affirmed or denied, the tangible, tactile nature of the sacraments invited me to touch, smell, taste, hear and see God in the stuff of everyday life again. They got God out of my head and into my hands. They reminded me that Christianity isn’t meant simply to be believed; it’s meant to be lived, shared, eaten, spoken, and enacted in the presence of other people. They reminded me that, try as I may, I can’t be a Christian on my own. I need a community. I need the church.”
At its best, the church lives out what the Trinity is – community. So, friends, let us strive to be for one another a Trinity kind of church, one that dances around with one another, both those inside these walls and outside, far beyond, in the love, peace, and joy that God intends for us.
Thanks be to God. Amen.