Another Sunday with Jessica away, and the fun challenge of getting Silas to church by myself. We got there 6 minutes before worship began! And another sermon finished late Saturday evening. I am ready for vacation.
Proverbs 8 for call; Rom 5:1-5; John 16:12-15
We are used to calling the Trinity a “mystery”—that’s a word I like to use. I like the word because I think we are in the habit of thinking about what we do here in church to be pretty matter of fact. And that’s how it feels, often—pretty ordinary, pleasant but a little boring; some old folks we’ve seen for years; it’s just church, again. Those of us who’ve been around the church for a long time tend to see it that way; but our youth also fall into the mistaken assumption that church is ho-hum. We adults bear some responsibility for that. (Story with teens.) We have to stop thinking that we’ve got this church thing down. We don’t have any solid idea what is really happening right among us. That’s why we need this word mystery: to remind us that we don’t know what is happening when we gather every week and start to open up our mouths about God.
Suppose for a moment that God were like an invisible fluid. And you had been told that God was swirling all around us and within us and passing from one to the other and then washing us out the door like a massive wave and splashing along with us as we crashed upon the reality of our world. And you said, yeah, I feel it. But you couldn’t see all this happening, couldn’t see this God fluid. (Silas just yesterday said, “God’s not real.” And when I asked how he knew this, he said, “Because I can’t see him.”) And so the movements you make here started feeling…dry. Stiff. A little forced. And soon you found yourself not bouncing along on a wave but plodding along on heavy feet. And then imagine if someone said, try this pair of Trinity sunglasses, which had lenses at once green, blue, and red. And when you put them on, you suddenly could see this flowing liquid all around you, as if you could see love itself, swirling and circulating, and suddenly you felt yourself afloat again, bobbing and swaying to the currents of God.
I’ve studied the Trinity for a long time. I’ve taught a course on it twice. I’ve written a scholarly article on it that you could describe as both very traditional and weirdly innovative. I found through all this work that the Trinity does for me what those fictional glasses did. Being able to think intelligently about the Trinity helped me feel the flows and rhythms of God better; made me feel differently in this medium of stuff called “faith” and “church”; made me act differently.
The Trinity, in other words, is not a “mystery” that we just shrug about and move on. It is a mystery with power. That mystery changes us, the deeper we imbibe its truth. Because the Trinity is not an irrational mystery. It’s not just silly or superfluous. Yes, it’s true that God who is three in one is utterly beyond comprehension and understanding; but at the same time, God is supremely real and rational. (I challenged you a few weeks ago to think of God as more real than you are.) It is we who are irrational, who really don’t understand ourselves or even the things right around us. We are all the more irrational because we often think we have a perfectly sound grasp on reality. I’m not a mystic exactly, but mystics of many ages and different faiths have shaken their heads at the overconfidence many people have about their grasp on reality. Thinking about the Trinity with the guidance of great theologians, but also with my own mind and life, helped show me that I don’t understand reality the way I thought I did.
And that’s the “problem” with the Trinity. The Trinity makes perfect sense, even though we cannot completely comprehend it. But we think the Trinity a pointless riddle because, first of all, the church has failed miserably to teach it well, but moreover, because we have only a thin and shallow understanding of what reality is. Well, if you came upon a Van Gogh or other amazing painting but thought that the only thing interesting about paintings is the way the frame was put together, you’d be missing something. Similarly, when it comes to the Trinity, we are missing something about its beauty, splendor, and power; but not because of our personal failures. We just happen to live in an age that is very good at making wooden frames—square and true. But we’ve been coaxed to stop wondering what is on the canvas.
I really don’t want you to feel bad about this. God is gracious. God does not withhold grace from us because our intellects and “discourse” are inadequate to God’s reality. I’d like to think that I’ve improved on that score—otherwise I’ve been wasting much of the last 20 years—because 20 years ago I thought the Trinity was uninteresting and unnecessary. But while I am satisfied with my progress, I know from experience that God’s grace has been poured out on some of you much more than on me, so I cannot pretend that my theological sophistication is necessary to be a good Christian. So just in case any of you are contemplating doing so, I do not recommend that you spend five years studying the Trinity and then write a scholarly article on it.
But a little theology, on an occasion like today, might help liberate your mind to see those flows of God all around you, and help you resist the deadly way our reigning mindset has of framing everything. This is Trinity Sunday, as designated in our Revised Common Lectionary. It certainly makes sense to pause in our church year at this point and to wonder at God’s threefold unity, which we can name as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, or in a more contemporary way, Origin, Offspring, and Spirit, or even more imaginative ways: Source, Illumination, and Direction. We should pause for this even in a UCC church—the joke in seminary was the UCC stood for “Unitarians considering Christ.” Because we have just completed the third manifestation of God as Spirit at Pentecost. And so the course of our church of year has gone from hoping for a God to come in Advent, to the celebration of the beginning of God revealed at Christmas, to the wedding of mystery and revelation at the cross and empty tomb of Easter, and to the experience of power by the disciples as they took in that revealed mysteriousness at Pentecost. Jesus Christ has gone from being a promise in Advent, to a developing and deepening reality in the flesh from Christmas to Easter, and to a continuing experience of presence and power in the Spirit. Each of these moments of the church year—Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost—has favored one dimension of the triune God: first Father, then Son, then Holy Spirit. And so now we can now take stock of the mysterious whole. And that whole of God, three in one, will now be the matrix of our shared life together, the X, Y, and Z coordinates in which we move together. For the next six months of so-called “ordinary time,” wearing green, we will be dwelling in the threefold reality of God. We should come to know, for instance, a peace of God that is not simply one thing, but a three-in-one thing. And I hope that by the time I finish explaining that to you today, you will see what I mean when I say that the Trinity is, even though very mysterious, more rational, and makes more sense, than any other way of seeing life.
Since we just celebrated Pentecost, we can begin with what usually comes last: the Holy Spirit. We sometimes think of the Spirit as the most nebulous, shapeless aspect of God. “The Spirit blows where it will” is one verse that often comes to mind. There is some truth to this. But this shapeless Spirit is not what Jesus is promising to his disciples. The Spirit that they will know will “glorify me,” Jesus says, by taking what is mine and declaring it to you.
But this Spirit does not only look back to God’s greatest hits in Jesus. The Spirit carries forward Jesus’ work into new and unpredictable situations. Jesus explains to his disciples that they cannot yet bear all the truth. Truth is a living, dynamic reality that cannot be taken in all at once and fixed. So Jesus tells them that the Spirit “will guide you into all truth.” This truth will also be Jesus’, but beyond the earthly or historical Jesus: The Spirit “will declare to you the things that are to come.” Paul also marks this difference between Jesus and the Spirit. He notes what we have in Jesus Christ—“justified by faith,” peace with God through our Lord—then says, “And not only that, but…” ‘But wait, there’s more!’ He says essentially that God guides us through our own sufferings by pouring into us the Holy Spirit, God’s own love.
And so we, the church today, have this most amazing gift of peace here and now, because we have the love of God poured into us. We are actively overcoming suffering and hardships, living a reconciling life as a community of God, striving to witness to and implement God’s justice and mercy all around us. By the Spirit of Chirst, guiding us here and now into all truth, we are making peace ourselves. Making it. And sharing it with the world around us. That is our first and most complete sense of peace that we have from the Trinity.
Both John and Paul affirm that God’s peace continues to be at work in us disciples, but they say that while also looking back to the definitive presence of God in Jesus. Because it isn’t always obvious that God is at work in us. (I hope you are not too disappointed to hear that—peaceful bunch that you all are, of course!) And moreover, God as creator continues to be at work in the most intimate way in all things, so we confess. But be that as it may, we cannot recognize God in most things. In fact, if you told me that God is behind everything that happens, I would be as likely to despair as celebrate: just look at our world. Is that the best God can do? We can imagine God to be like swirling water that infuses everything around us, but that might make us feel like we are drowning rather than being borne along in the currents. If God’s Spirit is really all around us, we still badly need some easily identifiable rivers of God’s Spirit to drink from. Just as we need water not just pouring over us and flooding us all the time, but being channeled and portioned out to us in a reliable way to irrigate us and bring us life.
This is what Jesus does, and what the Word of God does generally. How many of us know what the Bible means by “Word of God?” It’s nowhere explained clearly. Try this: when things happen in such a way that God becomes clearly known and God’s power is recognizably felt, the identifiable elements around that happening become a Word of God. This guy Moses happen to show up right when the Israelites were seething under slavery, and maybe belief in one God was in the air, since historians tell us Pharaoh Akhenaten tried to turn Egypt to belief in one Sun-like God. And something remarkable happened when the Israelites were fleeing Egypt—some kind of miracle at the sea. All of this led Israel to an extraordinary openness to God and to adopting God’s law as their own. Or 500 years later, amid the corrupt, overconfident kings and the threats from powerful empires all around them, prophets like Isaiah were able to articulate a powerful call of God who both demands obedience but also tenderly and gently bears with this stubborn people. Or amid Roman occupation and high expectations of some dramatic divine judgment upon the world, along comes Jesus, who by his practice of mercy and by his horrible death and continuing presence, is able to show his disciples how to live as if today is the last day of earth—the end is here!—and yet to embrace a patience full of endurance and hope, like what Paul talks about. That in part is the power that became associated with Jesus’ name and everything he did and said, and everything that happened to him—why he became known as The Word of God. I personally don’t think that you need to believe that Jesus was God in the flesh, as if he were omniscient, omnipotent, but just acting like an ordinary human being. I’m not sure that finally makes sense. But you can at least believe, easily enough, that God has “Words”—moments of clarity and power which become the genesis for a new kind of religious community. And when we can’t see and feel God’s peace here and now, we need to look back to those Words when God’s peace was visible, and paradigmatic or exemplary. These Words give us a language—above all the language of Scripture—and rituals, like our baptism and communion, to keep us grounded in an identity as God’s people and to buoy us with a hope that God can be clearly seen and present in that way again. That is the peace we receive, the second peace of the Trinity, when we cannot achieve peace ourselves, here and now. We look back to the definitive moments of God’s peace through Jesus and the prophets, and maybe back to breakthroughs of peace in our own lives; and we train our eyes in hope to look for such a peace to come again.
“All that the Father has is mine,” says Jesus in our reading from the Gospel of John. Jesus in John, especially, is not shy about equating himself with God the Father or Mother, the first person of the Trinity. And when God is present and powerfully known to us through that Word of God called Jesus, and that same Spirit of Jesus courses through our veins, there will be no doubt that this Spirit is declaring all that Jesus had from the Father and is making it ours too. Father, Son, and Spirit will be to us as one—the same God reigning over all nature, present as if in person by and through Jesus, and working in and through us just as visibly today. And in those moments the peace we know in the Spirit will be one with the peace known in Jesus and one with the peace of God who is creator and Lord over all.
But for us that is going to be more the exception than the rule. (Again, I hope I’m not raining too badly on your parade!) That fact that we, like Jesus, continue to talk about a God beyond just Jesus, and beyond the Holy Spirit, suggests that God remains beyond even those decisive and definitive Words of God, those moments of clarity and power that we identify most typically with Jesus. There is a beyondness to God that no Word can fully capture, that no one religion can do justice to, for which silence is as fitting as language. There is a love in God that we can never fully equate with the love we know. There is an absolute otherness to God that can never become familiar—familiar means family-like, and so names like “Father” and “Son” don’t always seem fitting either. There is an eternity to God that seems to float above our passing time.
And while it rightly occurs here in the third and last place, there is a peace in this First Person of the Trinity, this God beyond all revelation and all knowledge. It is a peace of understanding, at some level, that whatever happens or fails to happen here never disturbs this absolute, unknowable beyond of God. (This is a peace beyond “The Word” but it is still scriptural; read Ecclesiastes in the Bible.) It is a peace that assures us that, while in Jesus we really know God, we even know all of God—there is in God something that can never be known. And it’s quite ok to be at peace with other religions, especially those for whom the word “God” might not even be appropriate.
We have the beauty and splendor of enjoying these three forms of Christian peace. The peace of the Spirit, remaking our world into peace through our own hands. The peace of God’s Word, enshrining the breakthroughs of peace from human history and making them into examples for us to build on today. And while these first two forms of peace can be united in God the Father, there may also be a peace distinct to God beyond all fatherhood and revelation—God the eternal mystery. A facile, one-dimensional thinking would say that these three forms of peace are contradictory; you must choose one or the other. Thanks be to God for the wisdom of the Trinity, embracing God both present, past, future, and beyond time. The Trinity, giving us a matrix of thought and action, and of peace, that exceeds all limits of thinking, as is absolutely appropriate to God. May it awaken our awe.