May 30, 2010
Sermon by the Rev. Amanda Currie
Welcome to Trinity Sunday. Every year, the first Sunday after Pentecost is marked as Trinity Sunday. I suppose it makes sense that after celebrating the great outpouring of the Holy Spirit onto the disciples of Jesus, it becomes necessary to start thinking about the nature of God.
The God who was once experienced and known primarily as the holy and powerful lawgiver and judge, has been revealed to a group of Galilean Jews as a simple man from the town of Nazareth. That was shocking enough in itself – that many of the people who followed Jesus were saying that he was divine. It was the kind of faith statement that got people shouting “blasphemy!” at you, and it could get you in real trouble with the religious authorities.
But now, since the day of Pentecost, God seemed to be present and active in a totally new way. God was somehow working through the disciples themselves… it was like God’s Spirit was within them… giving them wisdom and power and confidence to continue Jesus’ work. They were communicating with foreigners. They were preaching about Jesus. They were full of confidence and hope and love for everyone they met.
Somehow, this was God at work in their lives. God was not only the Heavenly Father, Creator and Ruler of the universe. But God was Jesus the Christ, teaching, healing, welcoming, challenging, and redeeming the world. And God was moving and active, filling the people of God, inspiring and empowering them to be the church, the living presence of God in the world.
When the day of Pentecost had come, those disciples of Jesus didn’t immediately come up with the idea of Trinity. Even those who wrote down the stories later and compiled them into the scriptures that we know today didn’t think of referring to God as Triune: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It was several centuries later, after the Christian Church started to get official status as a religion, that the Church Fathers – the theologians of the time – began to discuss and debate what exactly we Christians are supposed to believe about God.
They argued about the nature of Jesus. Was he God? Was he human? Was he half and half? Was he God masquerading as a human just to get a feel for what it was like? And once they agreed on Jesus’ status as both fully human and fully divine, the question about Jesus’ relationship to God and to the Holy Spirit needed to be worked out. The Doctrine of the Trinity, that God is one but in three “persons” is not a biblical concept. It’s an understanding of God that developed over time, as the Church reflected on its experience and on the stories that had been passed on about God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit.
There are certainly some biblical passages that seem to point towards the concept of God as Trinity. I think of the very beginning of Genesis, when the Spirit of God is hovering over the waters at the very start of Creation. I think of the way the Jesus of John’s Gospel referred to himself as the great “I AM” – the same name God used for himself when he was speaking to Moses way back at the beginning of the book of Exodus. Or the way Jesus talked about God sending a Spirit to be with the disciples even after Jesus himself had gone up to be one with God the Father.
And of course, there’s the commissioning at the end of Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus doesn’t tell his disciples to baptize people in the name of the Triune God, but he does tell them to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. No one has thought of the word “Trinity” yet, but God seems to have three names and three distinct ways of being.
It was the Church that came up with the Trinity concept and put it down in words in the ancient creeds. In the year 325 CE, the Council of Nicea agreed on the words of the Nicene Creed. They’re probably not the words that Jesus’ first followers would have used to describe their experience with God, but the creed uses philosophical concepts such as “substance” and “person,” which were current in that time. In it, Jesus is now fully divine, and “one substance” with the Father.
No, it’s not multiple Gods, it’s one God in three persons… that’s what the creed says. When Jews and Muslims and other from monotheistic religions hear Christians talking about our God, they may get confused. It sounds like we’re talking about three Gods. It sounds like we have abandoned the monotheism of our ancestors, and we’ve accepted three Gods into our religion.
It’s difficult for us to make sense of the Doctrine of the Trinity also. We try to explain it using images and metaphors. The Trinity is like a three leaf clover – one clover with three distinct leaves. The Trinity is like water, ice, and steam – they are all H2O, but they appear very different and have different properties. The Trinity is like three sides of one triangle. It’s like the fingers on a single hand. None of these explanations really makes sense of what the Church means by the Triune God. We are grasping at straws… trying to explain something that may just defy explanation.
In his book, “The God we never knew,” Marcus Borg explains that part of our problem is that we are trying to make sense of a doctrine from a time long, long ago, written in a different language for a different people. He writes: To understand this, we need to realize that the Latin and Greek words translated as “person” do not mean what “person” most commonly means in modern English. For us, “person” suggests a separate being (and thus suggests to many people that the Trinity is like a committee of three separate beings). But “person” in the ancient texts refers to the mask worn by actors in Greek and Roman theatres. Masks were not for concealment but corresponded to roles.
To speak of one God and three persons is to say that God is known to us wearing three different “masks” – in other words, in three different roles. The experiential meaning of the Trinity is actually quite simple: God is one and known to us in three primary ways. One of these ways – one of these roles or masks or faces – is Jesus. Jesus is the image of God and the face of God.
Before Christianity, before some followers of Jesus claimed that they had experienced God’s presence with them in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, I imagine that the primary understanding of God must have been mostly transcendent. Borg explains that The transcendence of God refers to God’s “going beyond” the universe, God’s otherness, God as more than the universe. God spoke from on high, gave commandments, judgments, blessings & punishments. God was holy, and wholly other, worshipped, adored, and kept in a place where no regular person could enter… in the holy of holies.
God’s immanence, on the other hand, means God’s presence in everything or nearness to everything. Immanence means to dwell with or within. In Jesus the Christ, it becomes clear that God comes close to us. God is right here, living in our world, living like we do. In the Spirit, it becomes clear that God actually comes to dwell within us, within our lives, our hearts, and our actions.
This is not really anything new. It’s always been there in Scripture and in the Tradition of the Church. But for some reason, a lot of Christians have primarily noticed the transcendent, holy and wholly other, perfect judge, who watches from above, instructs, corrects, rewards, and punishes. The major premise of Marcus Borg’s book, “The God we never knew” is that many of us have missed the God who is with us and in us, in whose image we are made and loved, and who gives us the ability to become reflections of God’s very own love and grace in the world.
If we get really uncomfortable singing a song like we did this morning in which we proclaim “I am amazing!” I wonder if that’s because we’re so used to thinking of God as wonderful and holy and perfect, and us humans as flawed, sinful, and never good enough for God. Celtic theology has always had this emphasis… not denying the fact that we are imperfect, but emphasizing our blessedness over our sinfulness.
I just love the first two scripture readings that we shared this morning – Proverbs chapter 8, and Psalm 8! One of the things that I love about these two texts is how they emphasize the amazing wisdom, power, and creativity of God.
First, we hear about the Wisdom of God. She is personified as a woman raising her voice in the city streets, calling out to share her wise counsel with everyone who will listen. God’s Wisdom tells us that she has existed since the very beginning of things… back when the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters at the start of God’s Creation. She has been at the side of the master worker as God has created all that exists in the world.
God is definitely portrayed here as transcendent – above all and over all, powerful Creator of everything that is. But there is a wise Spirit with God, a wise Spirit is within God, and she calls out to everyone who will listen. She wants to share God’s wisdom with us. She rejoices in everything that God has made, and she “delights” in the human race. God is not simply a transcendent Creator and Ruler, but God is calling out to us, calling us to share in God’s wisdom, delighting in our existence. God is immanent. God is coming close to us.
Today’s psalm picks up a similar theme. The psalmist praises God, naming God as Sovereign, majestic, and full of glory. The singer proclaims God as the Maker of the heavens, and marvels at the moon and the stars that God has established. But then he asks, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them? What are mortals that you care for them?”
It seems shocking to the psalmist that God who is so much greater, so much more holy and powerful, who works on such a grand scale, would be interested in the affairs of us little human people. But indeed, the psalmist believes that God is mindful of us. God does care about us. He is amazed that God has made us a little lower than God, and crowned us with glory and honour. God has given us dominion over the works of God’s hands, and put all things under our feet.
I believe it too… that God has given us a special place within the creation. We have been especially blessed by God with wisdom and understanding, and we have been given special responsibility to be stewards of the rest of God’s creation. God made us in God’s own image and poured out the Holy Spirit on us to fill us and empower us to be God’s very presence in the world.
I don’t fully understand God yet… God who is holy and wholly other, God who came to be with us, our leader and our Lord, God who is around us, and among us, and within us.
I don’t fully understand God yet… but I am listening for the Wisdom of God. I know she is calling out for me to hear, and to understand, and to be led in new directions of faith and hope and love. Maybe that’s her… singing the blessing and encouragement and empowerment of God into our hearts and lives:
“You are amazing! You are filled with power!
And God loves you, like crazy! You are amazing!
Note: The song “I am amazing!” that we sang during the children’s story this morning is a song by Linnea Good. It is the theme song for the 2010 summer camp program “Be A Hero: Living Like Jesus” which is being used by our local church camp, Camp Christopher.