One, Holy and Undivided – Trinity of Love
OK, so I have had a terrible time writing this sermon. Why? Because this is the Feast of the Trinity. This is the day we celebrate a doctrine, the only day in the Sunday calendar that we do that. It’s a very important doctrine, the one that essentially defines us as a distinct religion, from one direction. And, it’s a mystery. People have killed each other over this doctrine, and there is no real way to define it. The Athanasian Creed (see a part of it below) is one of the traditional attempts to define it. This is enough to make me want to tear my hair. So I am going to say a few things that make sense to me about the Trinity, and let it go at that.
First, when we look at the readings, we see that the Hebrew Scriptures talk about Wisdom, capital W, as though she were a person – just like we talk about the Holy Spirit as though the Spirit were a person. This personification is a way humans have to speak about the unspeakable. But what the ancient writers have to say about Wisdom is interesting. She is the first creation of God, and claims to be the means of apprehending God. The very fact that there is Wisdom gives us a way of self-awareness that allows for other-awareness of God. But although this is used as one of the “Trinity Sunday” readings, Wisdom is not listed as a member of the Trinity.
Second, Jesus is mentioned in the New Testament readings, but it is really the Holy Spirit that is focused on here. If we go back into the early writings, we find that the doctrines about God were rather hazy. It is not clear from reading Paul, for instance, that he considers Jesus as having been God all along. It seems much more like he thinks that Jesus expressed God, to such a point that one could look at Jesus and see God. Also, in the very early church, the doctrine about the Holy Spirit were even more hazy. It does not sound to me like they considered the Holy Spirit to be anything different than the spirit of Jesus, or from the Shekinah, who is the Spirit of God residing close to us known in the Hebrew Scriptures. Then, there was talk at one point of including Mary as the God-bearer. In Orthodoxy, she is highly revered, above other saints.
Third, the doctrine of the Trinity as we have it came out of a lot of political machination. Back then, there was no differentiation between the religious and the political, it was all one and the same. However, there were a lot of political struggles and infighting, and the stories of who did what to whom are enough to curl your hair permanently. It is hard for us to fathom people killing each other because of a religious doctrine – until we think about whether it makes any difference that we call God Allah or God, or Jesus, for that matter. For some people, it makes enough difference that they will kill those who do not agree with them. I was listening to a former Muslim extremist on NPR the other day, and he was quite clear that there is not much difference between Christian extremists or Muslim extremists, or Hindu or Sikh extremists for that matter. They think it does make a difference, enough to kill for.
So how do we deal with all of this? Is there anything for us to work with here – or should we just not pay much attention and go on with it?
One of the main things that I take away from the doctrine of the Trinity is that it is a celebration of relationship. I know it’s probably great heresy, but I really just don’t care much about the one in three, three in one, persons, in time, before time, etc., etc. When I look at the Athanasian Creed, I just shake my head. It is too much for me. From a historical standpoint, I can tell you that much of what is there is written to contradict then current heresies. That is, there were groups saying, “oh, it’s like this, or like that” and this creed says “no, it’s not like that, or that either.” But what it ends up with does not make much sense, and when the final answer is “it’s a mystery,” I just throw up my hands.
But relationship, that I can wrap my head around, without really understanding. That is, what bothers me is not the answer “it’s a mystery,” it’s all of the other stuff that goes with it. I look at why is it that we love that baby that makes messes from both ends, takes up all of our waking and much of our sleeping hours, and gives us what in return? Why? That is a mystery that I can affirm. There is no good “reason,” other than love. Why do spouses continue their visits to the Alzheimer unit, sometimes for a long time after the afflicted one does not recognize or communicate? It is called love. That is a true mystery, and I think that love has to do with God.
Where do we learn that love? We love because we were loved, and we say that God loved us first. We tend to love well if we were well-loved, and we tend to love poorly if we were not well-loved. It takes a lot of work to overcome the lack of early childhood love. And it is possible. There are people who have chosen to love, who have come out of terrible situations. When they are asked how they managed to make that shift, it usually comes down to someone, like a teacher or an adult friend, having made an effort to love them as they were, where they were. It is a huge gift, and again, one that we affirm that God gives us, loving us just as we are, right now, without any change on our part. As a result of feeling that love, we may choose to change, but it is a result, not a precursor. God does not ask us to change before choosing to love us, just as we do not ask the baby to quit throwing up before we will choose to love the baby. That sounds silly, but is it? We think we have to “be better” before God loves us, when God has said over and over that we are loved already, right now.
If we look back into first century Palestine, the householder was the head of the family, and the eldest son was groomed to take his place, to become the householder. If we think in those terms, then the concepts of the Trinity may start making sense: concepts of Jesus as the Son, in intimate relationship with the Father, essentially becoming the Father, but one cannot be the Father as long as the father is still around – and since this Father does not leave, Jesus is always the Son, the beloved. And in another way he is not the Father, but his own person. And then Jesus talks about sending the Spirit to be with us always, because it is clear he will not be with us in the flesh.
The Spirit is different again. Jesus said, “I will be with you, and I will send you the Spirit, the Comforter.” He continues that the Spirit will do this and that – not that he, Jesus would do this and that in spirit-form. There is clearly a differentiation.
So what else can we take away from all of this? I think it teaches us about human relationships, and to remember that God is always the third party. I do a fair amount of couples counseling or pre-marital counseling, and one of the things that is very clear to me is that the family behind each of the two people getting married is a third party to the relationship. It does not matter whether the family is alive or not, that just changes the dynamics. If we understand that, and accept that as reality, then we can begin to move from that into a new place. If we do not understand and accept that reality, then we are forever chained to the reactivity built into that situation. In the case of God being the third party to the relationship, we are in the position of choosing to work with or counter to God. We make the assumption that God chooses love, first and always. Therefore, if we want to work with God, we too will choose love, first and always.
When the AIDS epidemic started raging across the land, there were many parents, who, in the name of God, rejected their seriously ill children who were not willing to reject the love of their partners. I knew one of those mothers who followed the encouragement of her church to reject her son’s expression of love, and later understood that what she was doing was not of God. As she said so eloquently and poignantly, “I brought the Bible, but his friends brought soup. I brought judgement, and his friends cleaned his house. I finally understood that they were showing the love of Christ, and that what I was doing was not. I had to change. It cost me my church, my husband, and my entire social network. I regained my son, and began to understand what the love of God looked like.” It was a painful experience, but she ended up feeling at peace, filling the role of mother for other dying men whose mothers could not make that leap of faith.
Choosing love is not always easy or fun, but it does lead us into the arms of God. However it is that we want to define God, the One with many, many names, however we want to relate to God, through Jesus, or the Spirit, or even Mary for that matter, God is the one who has named us as the beloved, and that is where we belong, without any question – at least on God’s part. It is up to us to respond to that love, so there is the question for this Trinity Sunday, how will you respond to the offer of relationship? How will you respond to the love?
The Athanasian Creed
WHOSOEVER WILL BE SAVED,
before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic Faith.
Which Faith except everyone do keep whole and undefiled,
without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.
And the Catholic Faith is this:
That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity,
neither confounding the Persons,
nor dividing the Substance. For there is one Person of the Father,
another of the Son, and another of the Holy Ghost.
But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the
Holy Ghost, is all one, the Glory equal, the Majesty co-eternal.
Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Ghost.
The Father uncreate, the Son uncreate, and the Holy Ghost uncreate.
The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible,
and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible.
The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Ghost eternal.
And yet they are not three eternals, but one eternal.
As also there are not three incomprehensibles, nor three uncreated,
but one uncreated, and one incomprehensible.
etc. The entire text is in the Book of Common Prayer, p. 864