On the Trinity
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31, Romans 5:1-5, May 22, 2016
“O Lord, our God, how exalted is your name in all the earth!” That’s the beginning of Psalm 8. I start this morning’s remarks by exalting God, because in all honesty, it’s probably going to be downhill from here.
Today is Trinity Sunday, and the Trinity is a hard concept to understand. No, it’s an impossible concept to understand. But it’s an idea that’s been around for a long, long time.
At the close of Matthew’s gospel, when the disciples were given the Great Commission, Jesus said: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you…” Language of God as Father, son and Holy Spirit was way back there, before there was even a Christian church.
But the Bible never uses the word “Trinity” or calls God “triune.” We find different passages in scripture that hint at a variety of persons, or personalities of God, but nowhere does the Bible ever come out and say what we sang in the opening hymn, “God in three persons, blessed Trinity.” We get glimpses of something happening with God in heaven. Glimpses like little snatches of conversation we overhear before we’re old enough to understand the words. There are bits of some unexplained mysteries happening with God.
We talked about these images around the lunch table last Tuesday. In the first chapter of Genesis, God said, “Let us make humankind in our image…” Us. Our image. Who’s God talking to?
Again, in the 6th chapter of Isaiah, the prophet said, “Then I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, ‘whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’”
Isaiah spoke right up and said, “Here am I; send me!” and we get distracted from wondering “who is God talking to?”
There are number of possible explanations: Maybe God is talking to Godself. I do it all the time. A lot of us do that, so maybe God does it, and these two bits of scripture are examples of that.
Another explanation is God is speaking in “the royal we” as in when a king says, “We are not amused.” Mark Twain said that the only people who can refer to themselves as “we” are newspaper editors and people with tape worms, but maybe we could add God to that list of being singular, but grammatically plural.
Or maybe something else is going on. If you look at the middle of the lesson from Proverbs you see that wisdom--“chochmah” in Hebrew, “sophia” in Greek—says, “When [God] established the heavens, I was there, when he drew a circle on the face of the deep” and later, “I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.”
Who is this wisdom? It’s tempting for Christians to simply, and neatly say, “It’s another name for the Holy Spirit.” It’s challenging for us to do that too, you see, Wisdom in this passage is female. So to look at the lesson again there’s a feminine presence delighting in God and present with God at creation.
When I was newly ordained, more than 20 years ago there was a huge controversy in our denomination about our participating in a conference called “Re-imagining.” One of the things that happened at the re-imagining conference was that God was addressed as “Sophia,” that is Wisdom personified.
There were those among the Presbyterians who thought we had supported a conference at which prayer were offered to different gods. At least one person lost her job in Louisville because of the controversy. And many faithful people were made to distrust the denomination because it was widely, but inaccurately reported that our denomination supporting worshiping others gods and endorsed heresy. And the whole scandal goes back to this passage from Proverbs. Would it be wrong or anti-Christian, or contrary to scripture, to call God “Wisdom?”
Doesn’t scripture say that Wisdom was present with God a creation?
Is it dangerous to assign feminine images or characteristics to the God we worship and serve who is beyond description?
I have a hard time imagining, or –re-imagining, why these topics caused so much controversy among Presbyterians, but they did.
This is not new. Christians have been fighting, yes fighting, about the nature of God and how God is present in the world, and how we can conceive of God, and Christ, and the Holy Spirit, for a long time.
Back in the 4th century, Christian leaders met in the cities of Nicaea and Constantinople, to settle what Christians really believed, to define, once and for all, who’s in and who’s out. The most controversial topics was whether Jesus was of the same substance as God the Father. A theologian named Arius believed that Jesus and God the Creator were of different substances; that they were made of different ‘stuff.” This idea became known as Arianism. There were bitter debates, angry debates, painful debates. And the side that won decided that Jesus is of the same substance as God the Creator. Furthermore, the winning side decided that the Creator, the Son, and the Holy Spirit were all of the same essence, distinct from one another, but not separate.
And since Christians believe that God is unchanging then idea that all three parts of the Trinity exited at creation made perfect sense. That could explain why God refers to Godself as “us” or “we” on occasion. And it would explain how God could be present in Jesus of Nazareth, a human being in a particular time and place, and still rule creation and be present in the hearts of all people. The Trinity explained some tricky passages of Scripture; it gave believers a better way to conceive of God. It challenged believers to hold onto the idea that is impossible to understand and difficult to describe to non-Christians. Some say that the Trinity is the “central mystery” of Christian faith, its deepest and most-difficult-to-explain truth.
Don’t let this cause too much anxiety. Remember, God is alive and still creating. Any attempt we make at describing God will fall short, will be incomplete. Describing God as “Three in One” is a way that we can be shocked out of our comfortable formulas for praying and living. Even the way we begin our prayers is a good place to start. Some people begin every prayer with “Father.” If you do that, it will feel awkward to start a prayer with “Jesus” or “Wisdom.” But that awkwardness is a moment of growth, maybe even transformation.
Let’s return to the scene in Constantinople about 1,700 years ago. I know you’re dying to know what happened! The Trinitarians won; the Arians Lost. Orthodox Christians, that is those literally “holding the straight opinion,” affirmed that Jesus, God the Son, was of the same substance as God the Father. Then…they started to argue about whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from God the Father or God the Father and God the Son. This debate was even more bitter. And finally in 1054, the Christian church split between the east and the west. Centuries later the western church agreed that the Holy Spirit does proceed from both the Father and the Son, but not before the two traditions had diverged in many significant ways. Earlier this year, Pope Francis met with Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church. This was a big, big deal. The streams of Christianity that had split nearly 1,000 ago may have taken a baby step in reuniting.
Christian history is filled with disagreements, debates and battles over points of theology. Points that to our modern ears just don’t seem worth fighting over. Maybe it’s because I’ve been an American all my life, or maybe it’s because I’ve been Presbytery too, I simply find it difficult to fight about doctrine or theology. Our nation has a long-standing and proud tradition of religious freedom. It’s fine with me if people disagree. It’s even more interesting when people disagree. Next month, Nick Zillges is going to preach here, he grew up in this congregation and one of the things he values is that we encourage questions and don’t try to have a church with uniform, unanimous beliefs.
Presbyterians value strongly the principle of “mutual forbearance,” that is the conviction that others are free to believe other things, and that an outsider should not interfere with their theology is central to our denomination. Our Book of Order say, “We…believe that there are truths and forms with respect to which men [and women] of good characters and principles may differ. And in all these we think it the duty of both private Christians and societies to exercise mutual forbearance toward each other.” [F.3.0104]
I can believe that a church is wrong in what they are doing, but it is not my place to interfere in their life together and get them to do what I believe is correct.
Next month our denomination will hold its General Assembly in Portland, Oregon. Elected commissioners from all across the country will meet to discuss a host of topics. I will represent Winnebago Presbytery as its Teaching Elder Commissioner. I’ve been getting ready for this for months. I’ve already been assigned to a committee.
Some of the topics we’ll discuss are the fact that our denomination has lost members every…single…year…since 1964; and that the average seminary graduate faces a huge amount of debt as she begins her career; and how to respond to international disasters, especially in places where civil society has broken down, and in other places where the existing government is hostile to Christianity. These topics will probably get no attention in the mainstream news media.
What will make news is how we welcome and include homosexuals and people in the transgender community. There is a resolution up for debate that proposes to offer an apology for people who have been hurt by the debate around these topics over the years.
There is no question that we have suffered as a denomination, and as individuals, as we have discussed these issues and reached decisions. For example, two years ago the General Assembly ruled that Teaching Elders, that is pastors, could not be disciplined for presiding at a same-sex marriage—and at the time same-sex marriage was not recognized in Wisconsin. The fact is as a denomination we are evenly divided and very passionate. These issues did not go away two years ago, and people of all opinions have been hurt. A few years ago I realized that while my opinion on these issues has not changed much over the years, my perspective has, as I’ve become aware of the pain that people with whom I disagree have endured. This issue will not go away. We suffer as a denomination and as a people who witness to Christ because of this pain.
Just as they suffered when the Arians and Trinitarians fought and when one side said it is immoral for Presbyterian Ruling Elders to own slaves and the other side that it’s none of anyone else’s business. My prayer is that Paul’s instructions to the Romans are accurate. That our suffering will produce endurance, endurance will produce character, character will produce hope, and hope will not disappoint us. Because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. Amen.