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Pastor Roger gives a totally fresh (but ancient) explanation of the Holy Trinity.
Trinity Sunday 2021
I have sometimes fantasized about being one of the original disciples who was actually with Jesus – because surely then my faith would be rock solid.
How about you?
As we just heard, the remaining eleven disciples – the ones who had traveled with Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem, who personally witnessed his miracles, who pondered his parables, who even sat beside him as he delivered the Sermon on the Mount – had gathered for one final lesson and blessing.
I imagine that Jesus, who was about to ascend to Heaven, may have already had a glow about him … anyway, this is how it went:
Matthew 28:17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.
What more could it take to have unshakable faith if it wasn’t being face-to-face with the resurrected Lord?
But doubt is a natural part of life, as the gospel writers, themselves, understood.
For example, in Mark 9 we meet a man who was desperate for his son’s healing.
Fearing that his shaky faith was standing in the way, he pleaded with Jesus, (Mark 9:24) “I do believe. Help me overcome my unbelief.”
Have you ever felt that?
Where is your faith shaky, and what could strengthen it for you?
How many times have you heard someone say something like, “I wonder what the ‘man upstairs’ would think”?
OK, we say we don’t take that literally, but the old man with the grey beard “up there” on his throne may naturally come to mind when we think of God.
We may understand God as benevolent and forgiving, but I wonder if that “man upstairs” image still lurks in the back of your mind.
So, if sometimes you have doubts about your faith, you might find it helpful to experiment with a different metaphor of God.
Today we are going to explore a different image of God rooted in some of the earliest Christian visualizations of the Trinity.
This ancient visualization was suppressed as the Roman Empire demanded uniformity of belief – but it has survived in some parts of Christendom, especially in the Orthodox church.
Today is “Trinity Sunday” when pastors in many mainline and Roman Catholic churches traditionally lay some heavy theology on their yawning congregations as they try to unpack the meaning of the Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
I suppose their hope is that if they could just get their people to precisely understand how the Trinity is structured and how each part functions, then their faith would be shored up, and they’d have no more doubt.
But the Trinity is not an engineering problem to be solved.
No detailed blueprint of the triune God will bolster our faith.
The concluding verses of Matthew 28 that Julia just read is the first place the Trinity is specifically mentioned, but it was left unexplained.
It was Jesus’ own words captured by John that engaged the best thinkers of the first several centuries of the church to grapple with the concept of God in a radically new way.
For millennia, people’s concept of the divine revolved around regional deities.
People would appeal to them for fertility, good crops, rain, or successful hunts.
The Bible documents how Abram launched a slow, irregular movement toward monotheism.
At first, the Hebrews thought their god was not regional but instead traveled with them, and that He proved His superior power by defeating local deities in battles – but over the centuries the Hebrews began to see Him as the one and only true God.
It was a breakthrough in thought, yet in many ways the emerging image of God resembled Zeus, the Greek king of the pantheon of gods – depicted in Greek art as an old man holding lightning bolts.
That image even lingers today, but Jesus tried to change that.
The Gospel of John begins with the insight that Jesus and Wisdom were with the Father at the beginning of time.
Then Jesus makes a series of mystical statements like,
John 14:20-21 On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.
Jesus also said that he would ask his Father to send the Holy Spirit to the disciples.
So, from the mouth of Jesus you have Father, Son and Holy Spirit … so was Jesus upending the long march to monotheism by saying there are three gods?
That was exactly the accusation some Jewish leaders leveled against the Christians.
So, what could this triune image of God mean?
Before we go any further, let me remind you that all discussion about God is metaphorical.
St. Augustine said, “If you have understood, you have not understood God”.
God is beyond knowing, and any metaphor for God that we hold too tightly or literally becomes dead.
That’s why Meister Eckhart wrote, “I pray God to rid me of god” – meaning free me from holding too tightly to human constructs of God.
They can point to the truth, but by themselves, they are not the truth and so must be held lightly.
Anyone raised in the Catholic church committed the Apostles’ creed to memory.
I bet you could recite it right now in under 20-seconds, right?
It is all about the Trinity … but as it became dogma – which, by definition, is “head stuff” – it lost much of its original meaning and vitality.
It took three or four centuries to sort out what Jesus was talking about with his mystical statements in John, but eventually some early saints of the church recognized that Jesus was using the language of relationship to describe God.
Jesus was not talking about a single being up in the sky, nor three separate deities.
Even in Matthew, notice that Jesus did not say go baptize them in the names (plural) of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but in the name (singular) of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Jesus talks about the three as inseparably one.
His language in John was about a dynamic relationship between the three.
I won’t get to heavy into this, but it is really important to understand that the triune alternative to the various “old man in the sky” versions of God is not a being of any sort – but a relationship.
What is called the godhead is like three persons who each have unique qualities but are inseparably bound together in a cycling flow of love.
How can that be?
First, that means that while each of the three persons – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit – are unique, one cannot exist without the other.
To compare, think how light cannot exist as a particle without simultaneously existing as a wave, and vice versa.
Light can only be a wave because it is also a particle of energy in motion, so you can’t hold a light particle in your hand.
If you could, it would no longer be in motion and therefore not produce a light wave.
Light is both a particle and a wave – but try to isolate one and the other disappears.
Jesus cannot be Christ without the Father and the Holy Spirit.
Without Christ, there is no Holy Spirit and so on.
Second, there are three persons in the Trinity, but it is the circulation of love between them that is God.
We’ve all heard a million times that God is what?
Sure, God is love.
To say God is love is saying something fundamentally different than saying that God is a loving being.
The source of all love and creation is the love flowing within the godhead.
God isn’t a benevolent version of Zeus.
Love only exists as a relationship – which is why today’s theologians are so aligned with quantum physics where everything is understood as energy and relationship.
In terms of God, relationship requires the three persons of the Trinity circulating love.
The term that evolved a few centuries after Jesus and that is still used today to describe the godhead is perichoresis.
“Peri” meaning around, and “chore” as in choreograph or dance.
That term developed over 1600 years ago as early theologians and mystics said that what best captures the image of the triune God is a dance with three persons in the middle swirling around each other while reaching out in their own way to include anyone willing to join in.
That means you are invited to the divine dance, and as you participate you reach out to invite others in – that is extending love.
Here’s a way to refresh your faith – play with this ancient image of the Trinity.
Rather than trying to bolster your belief by getting a more focused picture of a blueprint of the Trinity where all your understanding lines up with some old dogma – let God be alive, loving, dancing, reaching out for you to participate.
After Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in the early 4th Century, there was a felt need to codify exactly what it means to be Christian.
Groups who didn’t adhere to the increasingly rigid interpretations of the dominant group were deemed heretics.
Have you ever spoken to a Christian whose faith is so sharp and brittle that they are focused on purity of belief and excluding people?
Metaphorically, the divine dance has collapsed in those places.
So, I invite you this week to experiment … try on this ancient imagery of God and see how it fits.
When you pray, instead of visualizing a being to whom you are speaking, try visualizing a swirl of love spiraling from infinity that is reaching out to grab your hand and invite you into a field of unconditional, all-pervasive love.
And then release your prayers into the swirl of love that can make all things new, that can heal all wounds, that abounds in joy, and that will always lift out the best in all circumstances.
It may feel different for you, but actually, you will be stepping into an ancient Christian tradition where our soul abandons itself to God … to God, who is love.