An Eternal Mystery
Isaiah 6:1-8, Romans 8:12-17, May 31, 2015, Trinity Sunday
Today is Trinity Sunday, the one Sunday each year that Christian churches have set aside for a theological topic. Christians believe that God is in three “persons” as we sang in the opening hymn. This sets us apart from believers of other faiths. The Trinity is a confusing, mysterious and elusive concept. Like all ideas about God that we try to convey in words, the idea of the Trinity can, at best, only point us to understanding the truth and mystery of God. I have struggled with this idea for the entire time I have been in ministry. When I was an associate I loved it when the other pastor preached on Trinity Sunday.
For the past few years I have told every new member class how they can get me removed as pastor here. I include this in the new member process as a way of illustrating how Presbyterians make decisions, and who has the authority to act in various church situations. Here’s what I tell them, “If you want the ‘goods’ on me you can tell the Presbytery’s Commission on Ministry that my invitation to the communion table is too broad. Officially, only baptized people can join in communion in a Presbyterian church, but I invite ‘everyone who trusts Jesus and wants to follow him’ to participate.” OK, so now everyone here knows the basis for a charge against me. Well, let me add another one: I do not think that believing in the Trinity is essential to be a Christian. I believe the Trinity is a helpful way to conceive of the Living God, but I also believe that one can be a faithful follower of Jesus Christ without affirming a belief in the Father-Son-Holy Spirit formula.
A recent issue of Presbyterians Today says this under the heading “Core Beliefs:” ‘The Trinity—we believe in one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Trinity is not an optional “extra” to God; it is the very nature of God as revealed to us in Scripture.” [Presbyterians Today, The Presbyterian Resource Guide to Ministry, 2015] When it comes to the Trinity, I consider myself “sub-orthodox.” It is a helpful to conceive of God in this way, but not essential, in my opinion, for one to follow Christ.
Earlier this month I had two conversations about the Trinity, which were very helpful for me. The first one took place at Brown Bag Bible Exploration. We had 8 people there that day and it was really eye-opening how much we benefited from hearing one another’s impressions of this morning’s passage from Isaiah and the one from Romans. The other conversation came on a Wednesday night following a Simple Supper. I am repeatedly amazed at how much we learn just from reading scripture together and listening to one another. Presbyterians do not believe that the Bible is literal—we believe that it must read carefully, critically, and confident that the Holy Spirit is present as we read together. The Bible is so much more than the words on the page. We need each other to understand it. And in a way, that’s also the idea behind the Trinity—God is not static, like written words, God is dynamic and must be understood dynamically. That’s all a long pitch to come to Bible Exploration. We’ll next meet this Tuesday at noon in Magnolia Hall, where there is new flooring and chairs!
So we looked at the call of Isaiah together at the lunch table and we had some questions. Like, “When did King Uzziah die?” and “What’s are seraphim?” and “What’s the big deal about a coal from the altar?” and “Why is this a passage for Trinity Sunday?” Ready for the answers? King Uzziah died in about 742 BCE. This is the way they set dates, it would be like us saying “In the 7th year of President Obama’s presidency.” There’s no particular significance to that king, his name is used to fix the date of Isaiah’s vision. Seraphim are “living creatures” but creatures not like any on earth. They have hands, faces, voices of people, they stand upright, but they also have three sets of wings. And in Isaiah’s vision they are singing back and forth, as though we had two choirs here this morning—one in front and one in back. And there are singing “Holy, holy, holy” the basis for our song this morning. They are attending the Lord, flying around a kind of heavenly throne room and proclaiming God’s awesome holiness. And Isaiah is a priest, in the heavenly throne room when he has this vision and he is terrified and overwhelmed to be in the presence of the Lord. The gulf between his meager presence and God’s majesty is too much. He recognizes he’s not worthy to be there. One of the seraphim flies to the altar and touches his lips with a coal. The altar symbolizes purity, so it’s as though God’s purity has been conveyed to Isaiah. After that has happened Isaiah feels ready to respond when God asks “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”
OK, now I need to comment. There isn’t much of a scriptural basis here to make a case for the Trinity. All there is is the seraphim saying “holy” three times, and God referring to God’s self in the plural at the end, “who will go for us?”
Now the New Testament passage has a little more of the Trinity in it. This is one of the few passages in which we find God mentioned as Father, Son and Spirit so close together. And in our conversation at Bible Exploration someone pointed out a perspective that I had never had before: Paul makes a contrast between the spirit of slavery and the spirit of adoption. And this is huge. Slavery describes and economic relationship, while adoption is a family relationship. And the latter is fully inclusive—all of us have been adopted by God, claimed as an heir to God’s kingdom. The hard part for me, and I suspect for a lot of us, is to truly trust and claim the reality of God’s acceptance. To really believe that God intends this gift for each of us, every day.
I have to say that I do not find this morning’s lessons, which were selected especially for Trinity Sunday, make an especially strong case for God being understood as three distinct, but inseparable, identities. So I’ll close with some thoughts about the idea of the Trinity through history.
First, I want everyone to look at this. About ten years ago a minister colleague in the Presbytery was at a meeting here and found her way to the preschool’s “Noisy Room.” She hauled this thing up and said, “This is a perfect way to illustrate the perichoretic mystery of the Trinity.” I had no idea what she was talking about, but I bluffed my way my saying, “Everyone knows that.” Here’s what she meant—and what she forced me to learn! The perichoretic mystery comes from the Greek word “perichoresis” which comes from two Greek word “peri” which means “around” and “chorein” which sort of means “contain” or “make room for.” This is one of the terms that theologians have used to explain the Trinity since the 7th century. One way to imagine the Trinity is the sphere or realm in which God moves, in relation to God’s self. In this wheel there are three distinct parts, each touching the other parts, each of equal size. Each equally essential for the wheel to be complete. And it’s impossible to say which one is primary, or which is more important. At any time, any of the three portions could be on top or on the bottom. It’s not even meaningful to think of one being superior to the others. This is a really, really helpful thing for me to look at when imagining the Trinity.
Officially, Christians believe that God is eternal. Which means not only that God will exist into the infinite future, but also that God has existed for all eternity. There is no beginning and no end to God. In fact, there are theologians who do not even use the term “existence” when speaking of God. Existence is something people do and animals and planets, but God is a different kind of being completely.
OK, so here’s the part that I really struggle with: All three personas of the Trinity are equal and in relation to one another and have always existed. And yet, we think of God the Father, and Jesus the Son. Father’s always pre-exist their children. It can be no other way…with people and animals, and we understand existence and biology. But when we’re talking about God, we’re talking about something completely different. Yet the words we use are limited, and can, at best, point us to communicating a reality that is beyond what we can see, feel, express and communicate.
And in the midst of the conversation we had on Wednesday, someone handed me a key to help me see the triune God in a new way. I am a son; my mother visited here last week, a lot of you saw her. She’s not just real to me. I am a father; both of my sons are here this morning ringing bells. I am also a husband. I am all three of these things right now, and I am lot of other things too—near-sighted, hard of hearing, left-handed…I could go on and on describing details about my life that co-exist with other details about my life. Sometimes those details overlap and shape other details and sometimes they don’t, but it would be very difficult, or impossible, or at least painful to stop being any of those things.
And the Bible uses lots of different terms and analogies to communicate the reality of God to humans. I found a really helpful article recently called “God in ordinary words” [The Christian Century, 5/13/2015, pp. 30-32] That also gave me some new ways to think and imagine the reality of the Living God. I want to leave you with some other these ideas this morning. I hope you’ll think about them, wrestle with them even, I have been!
Part of the article says this, “Scripture uses many words and names to portray God, [God’s] character, and…actions. Many of the descriptions of God are applications of created terms to God: God is Rock, Light, Sun, Shield, and so on. [God] stands in relation to humanity and Isreal in ways, describable in human relations: [God] is King, Father, Lord, Husband.”…
The import of these descriptions seems straightforward: God is rocklike and shieldlike, kinglike and fatherlike in some unspecified but meaningful way. How [God] is such is left to context and narrative.” For example, Psalm 103 says, “As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.”
“God created everything to communicate of himself and providentially directs creation to the same end.” So of course, we can wonder around in ideas and images, using our God-created minds and imaginations. In fact, we should! The very nature of being alive is to grow and change. And God is alive. And Christ is alive. And the Holy Spirit the dynamism of God understood in the world. In us. In Godself. It’s all a mystery that our words can only point to. And the mystery points us to following the Risen Christ. Amen.