Monday, 23 August 2010 17:49

August 22, 2010 Sermon

“Grab Bag: The Trinity”
Matthew 28:16-20
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
August 22, 2010
University Baptist Church
Minneapolis, MN

Well, we have reached the end of three sermons form the UBC grab bag.  I have really enjoyed this series.  It has caused me to dust off old books, reexamine my beliefs and pushed me to go deeper as I look for the relevance in the topic selected both for me, for the original writer and for the larger congregation.  I don’t think these selections are accidents and I believe God will use our examinations of these topics in unexpected ways.  I think I’ll do a Bible Study on some of the other topics later on in the year.  There were some great things suggested by you all.  Last Sunday, jay linnell picked the topic at the end of the service.  It read: “I would like to her a sermon on the Trinity”.  So, here we go.

This topic elicited several responses from UBCers.  Even Nadean Bishop passed along an old sermon of hers.  I’ll get to that in a minute.

One of you gave me a couple of books on the topic: She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse by Elizabeth Johnson (Crossroads Publishing 2003), and God For Us: The Trinity & Christian Life by Catherine Mowry LaCugna (Harper 1973).  Nice light weekend reading.


Jim Moravek wrote this in an email: “Similar to the Eastern Orthodox faith, I focus on the mystery of the “Trinity,” and feel that it is a human being’s construct on the nature of God.  I cannot accept “Trinity” as the Father, Son and Holy Ghost and feel that the concept is a redaction of the beliefs of the First Century to put it into the form of control for purposes of the State Religion of the Holy Roman Empire.  Personally, I feel it is or was an attempt to bring God into the sphere of human control for human purposes.  Further, I believe that it put restrictions on Jesus and his message of hope, redemption and responsibility for the world we inhabit by moving hope, redemption and responsibilities to a mythical world of Olympus where gods rule with fear and oppression.”

Still another pointed me toward the book, The Shack by William P. Young (Windblown Media 2007).  In this novel, the Trinity are key players.  God is an African woman.  Jesus is a middle-eastern man.  And the Holy Spirit is a fairy sort of woman joyfully tending a chaotic garden.

How do you perceive of God?
How do you perceive the Trinity?
Is It an important concept to you?

I have found myself pushed and pulled by the concept of the Trinity.  One the one hand, I know that the nature of God is bigger and more expansive than I can imagine.  Having three aspects of God makes sense and gives the godhead nuance and flexibility.  One UBCer put it well after church when she said, “water can take the form of liquid, ice and steam.  But its essence is still water.”  I guess you could say the same thing about a tree that is made up of roots, a trunk and leaves.  It needs all three and it’s still a tree.

On the other hand, I find traditional doctrines of the Trinity restricting, especially as it posits God as Father, Son and Spirit.  These have lead to imaginings of the first two and possibly the third as only male.  This doesn’t fit within my concept of God who is beyond gender.  Virginia Woolf implied this when she wrote, “Beware the processions of the sons of educated men.”

What do you think about the Trinity?  I know that the Western church has concentrated more on the people of the Trinity and the Eastern church has focused more on the mystery of the Trinity.  Where do you fall on this debate?   Is it even important to you?

Let me say a few things first.  It’s hard to nail down a doctrine of the Trinity from scripture.  There are hints here and there, but we never get “God in three persons, blessed Trinity”.  We get “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts.  Heaven and Earth are full of God’s Glory.” (Isaiah 6 and Revelation)

We get the Great Commission at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, but most scholars think it’s a later addition to the scripture, perhaps put in their to reinforce the concept of the Trinity.

We get “in the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God” from the preamble to John’s Gospel.  The Word meaning the Divine Logos or the presence of God in Jesus.

Then we have the concept of the Holy Spirit, also called the Paraclete, the Advocate, even sister Sophia in the Hebrew Bible Wisdom literature.

Somehow defining who God, who Jesus and the Spirit were became very important.  Church fights and splits come from this distinction.  I had a person who joined my church in San Francisco who had grown up as a Jehovah’s Witness.  She called herself and Arian.  Not as in the Aryan nation of white people, but as a follower of Arius, the fourth century theologian who thought that the natures of Jesus and God were similar but different.  It really got under her skin whenever we sang a Trinitarian hymn, because she thought it was sloppy theology.  I don’t think I agree with her, but I think it may be true that we don’t think about the Trinity as a concept very often.

So at the risk of boring you too much on this sticky Sunday morning, let me unpack a bit of the history of the Trinity with the hope that it might illumin you to think of God is a more helpful way.  Like many things, the nature of God was a big dispute in the early church. As the early church tried to make sense of who Jesus was, they also had to shift their understanding of who God is.  The world they saw was in conflict with this new revelation of God.  In order to make this new religion distinctly different from other religions, they needed to come up with a new concept of God.  In the Hebrew Bible, God was active and also unapproachable in the sense that you could not mention or write the divine name.  In Plato’s mind, there was one high God who acted through subordinates.  Arius believed this, too—saying that Jesus was a lesser God than God the Father.

Origen believed that there were three hypostasies or natures of God and they were in rank order.

Ideas like this were causing church splits and the people needed to have one set of beliefs lest the church become too fragmented.  The powers that be wanted orthodoxy or one way of believing.  So in the year 325, this all came a head in the Council of Nicaea.  It was there that they decided to define God as three persons.  But each of these three were equal.  Each hypostasy was equal.  The nature of God was fully in Jesus, and fully in the Spirit and vice versa.   In seminary we learned about the debates about homo oousis and hyperstatic union.  Yes this was hard to get our heads around then.  But it was a radical concept.  No one had ever posited that God could be manifst in different ways and still be one God.  The Trinity was an affirmation of equality and mutuality.

But as soon as this was settled, it became unsettled.  You see, they used the language of family, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  The language of family implies a hierarchy, which mirrors the hierarchy in a human family.  Christian art shows this hierarchy, too.  If you look at church art defining the Trinity, you see God above, followed by Jesus in the middle and the holy spirit represented by a bird, flying off somewhere and usually a lot smaller.  Sometimes its inverted, but mostly it’s depicted in hierarchical terms.  Feminist theologians also take issue with this family concept.  Elizabeth Johnson in her book She Who Is, says that this male club of three is the common language of the Trinity.  Since women are not represented in the Godhead, they represent subordinate sinful humanity.  Only men can be like God.

Nadean Bishop did a fine job of articulating this in a sermon from 1996 entitled The Only God Who Counts.

“I like the language of one of the inclusive versions of the Trinity: avoiding the all-masculine “Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” to say “Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.”  Yet even this makes persons whose love I cherish into abstractions.  When I pray with someone who has had a terrifying diagnosis, I do not pray: “Thou who created the Universe, thou whose Majesty is beyond our imaginings, heal this thy servant,” though I do know God is Creator and is powerful beyond belief.  Instead I pray tearfully, “Dear God, Put your loving arms around this faithful child of yours, rock him in your embrace, let him feel your warmth and power flood through so that the panic which now grips every muscle may relax and allow your healing power to flow.”  I think what happens next is that God through the Holy Spirit floods that trusting but deeply wounded body with energy and power.  But because Jesus had flesh-and-blood arms and a loving look we look to Jesus for healing instead of looking through Jesus to the God beyond.”

As much trouble as I have with creeds in general and the Nicene Creed in particular, I think they were on to something when they were talking about the nature of God.  Saying that God was three entities that were equal and yet one was a striking and potentially revolutionary concept.  It was something new and different.  Even St. Augustine pointed this out when he said “And so the Father is wisdom, the Son is wisdom, and the Holy Spirit is wisdom, and together not three wisdoms, but one wisdom.”  
Think of the implications of this.  The Trinity is a radical redefinition of God.  God doesn’t only create, God aso redeems and sustains.  A created being in the image of God, therefore must be a redemptive force.  And it can only be a redemptive force if it is sustained by community.  The doctrine of the Trinity rejects hierarchy.  And yet our language and our art puts it right back in there.  The struggle for us is to conceive of God in ways that are creative, redemptive and sustaining. Following that, we need to see ourselves who are created in the image of God to be creative, redemptive and sustaining, too.  
I like the way Catherine LaCugna puts it in her book God for Us (p. 399)

“The Trinitarian arche (or rule) of God emerges as the basis for mutuality among persons: rather than the sexist theology of complimentarity, or the racist theology of superiority, or the clerical theology of privilege, or the political theology of exploitation, or the patriarchal theology of male dominance and control, the reign of God promises the life of true communion among all human beings and creatures.  Mutuality rooted in communion among persons is a non-negotiable truth about our existence, the highest value and ideal of the Christian life, because for God mutual love among persons is supreme.  God, the Unoriginate Origin, is personal, not an impersonal or pre-personal substance.  God’s Covenant with Israel, the ministry and life of Jesus Christ, the new bonds of community created by the Spirit, are icons of God’s personal nature.”

Here’s the point of all of this.  God wants for us love, peace, justice, compassion and for us to feel God’s presence in all things.  
The doctrine of the trinity is a fallible attempt to capture the essence of God so that we can be set free to imagine and experience mutuality, friendship, equality, community and justice.  We can do this because God does it.  There is not a hierarchy of God, and inasmuch as we try to imagine ourselves in God’s image, we can draw out the very best in each other.  That’s how the blessing of God moves amongst us.

Thanks be to God, all of God.  In that radical equality that is the Trinity.

Let’s hear once again the words from the Nicene Creed and imagine it as a liberative move toward mutuality, an ideal lost in our history, an ideal worth striving for.  For it is the nature of God.  And mutuality is the goal and method of our redemptive and sustaining existence.  You can find this rewording on page 884 in your black hymnal:

We believe in one God, the Father-Mother, the Almighty

maker of heaven and earth,
and of all things visible and invisible.

We believe in one Sovereign, Jesus Christ,
the only Child of God,

begotten from the Father-Mother before all worlds-
God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God;
begotten, not made;
of one Being with the Father-Mother;
through whom all things were made;
who because of us human beings and for our salvation,
came down from heaven,
being made flesh by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary,
and became a human being;…

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Sovereign, the giver of life,

who proceeds from the Father-Mother, and from the Child;
who with the Father-Mother and the Child is worshiped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets…

(sung) “God in three persons, blessed Trinity.”

May we imagine God with liberating equality, loving devotion and gracious wonder.