Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31John 15:12-16
Sarah is an old family friend. She’s incredibly sharp, attended Harvard Divinity School back in the 1950s when female students were referred to as “spinster ministers” and when ordination wasn’t even close to an option, even for those with a passion for ministry and gifts to match. That experience left her theological questions honed, and her outsider status confirmed. She was delighted to find out that I was headed into the ministry. Whenever we have the chance to connect, she is always ready with a new question.
A few months ago, over lunch, she dropped this one on me: “Can I be a Christian if I don’t believe in the Trinity?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, what if I only believe in two out of three?”
Sarah and I have a playful relationship. “Who is it that you want to kick to the curb?”
“I just want to know what my options are.”
That phrase has been ringing in my ears ever since. And now, as we have this Sunday dedicated to this ancient teaching of the Church, it seems a good time to bring Sarah’s questions to us all.
Today is Trinity Sunday. It falls the Sunday after Pentecost and is the last feast day of the Church until we get into the Fall. It is a Sunday unlike any other, in that it is a Sunday specifically dedicated to Christian doctrine. We regularly sing Trinitarian hymns and responses: the Doxology, the Gloria Patri. Our prayers refer to Christ as Lord, the Spirit as divine essence, God as creator, parent, redeemer, sustainer. But it isn’t often that we unpack these doctrinal foundations of Christianity. Perhaps, led by Sarah’s questions, we might ask ourselves: what does it all matter?
Let’s be honest about the Trinity’s origins, at least in our understanding. The texts of Scripture can be baffling, the two lessons today good cases in point. If God is God, and God is one, then who is this character of Wisdom, personified, theomorphized in the lesson from Proverbs? And what about the gospel of John, where Christ’s divinity is made most clear throughout? If Christ is divine, then who is this one whom Jesus calls Father? And what about this Spirit, this Holy Ghost, as we sometimes say?
The early church, and we along with them, struggled through passages like these, trying to make sense of what is, at best, confusing. And their context was very different from ours, one that was profoundly influenced by the Greek philosophical traditions. And it was these traditions, as the early church gathered at ecumenical councils in those first centuries, that began to give some form to the pressing issues of the day. The incarnation: that is, the idea expressed in the first chapter of John that God takes human form in Christ. Christological questions: in other words, how can it be that Jesus is a man born of a woman and, at the same time, divine? And, of course, the question of God’s nature which led to the doctrine of the Trinity. How do we reconcile the clarity of Scripture in saying that there is only one true God with the odd descriptions of multiple aspects of divinity that we see in our two lessons and so many others? In a word, these teachings became a way to understand God. God is Father, God is Son, God is Holy Spirit. God is three; but God is one.
That’s all fine and good, but we’re not early Christians. We are products of the 20th century, shaped by the dawning of the 21st century. There are not many of us for whom Greek philosophy holds a lot of sway or influences our most crucial ways of thinking, processing, and behaving. Ours is a post-modern world, so-called because we are aware that things are changing quickly, that the world of the “modern era” is slipping away, and yet we don’t know what is next. We are post-modern, but we don’t have a new name for what it is.
The philosophical buzz word of this new era is “deconstruction.” One way to describe it is that nothing is sacred. Everything needs to be taken apart and examined. Religions, institutions, nations, ideologies, philosophies, all of it is up for grabs. All of it is submitted, willingly or not, to the microscope of 21st century intellectual enterprise. Could it be that the Trinity, too, stands naked before this line of questioning? Could it be that we are free to pick and choose? What if we only like two of the three? Whom could we kick to the curb? What, indeed, are our options?
A few weeks ago, James and Amy Cate hosted a gathering at their house, which we called Potentially Presbyterian. It was an opportunity for those who have been regular visitors with us to talk about life at OPC, their hopes and dreams and gifts for a place like this, and what it means to join a church, to become a member. It was the largest such gathering we’ve had since I’ve been here. Kids were rolling around all over the Cates’ backyard. It was wonderful. And yet, there was something distinctly different about our conversation. Very few of those who came were interested in being members. But all of them, I would dare say to a person, want to be part of community, our community, church community. They want to participate. They want to learn and give and grow and serve. And all of them want to be part of the conversation, to talk about what this thing called “faith” or “church” means, what it means to be a Christian, what it means to join a Presbyterian church (as opposed to a Methodist, or Lutheran, or Catholic, or Baptist church). The Trinity? Incarnation? Christology? They never even came up.
What I am beginning to see in such conversations is the rich possibility of what Christian life, life in the Church, begins to look like in this post-modern world. I do think that we continue to take the concepts of membership seriously. And I am one, after firm and considered wrestling, to embrace life-giving doctrines whole-heartedly. I also think that this congregation has found a unique way of being in relationship with many in our community and around the world who see things very differently. It is time for us, together, to live into that in a way that welcomes others as we ourselves have been welcomed. And it is time for us, together, to live into that in a way that challenge others as we are ourselves are opened to being challenged. There is something at the heart of Christian faith and relationship, I believe, which gives a place for respite and healing, embrace and calm in the presence of God. And there is something in that heart which pushes and nudges and nourishes and shapes us into new ways of being.
Friends, I am beginning to learn to trust the ways of deconstruction, which can helpfully unwrap and take apart our doctrines, peeling back the layers, stripping them of a Greek philosophical context that is largely irrelevant to us, that we might together see and examine them under the microscope. And as we do so, we might begin to see what it is that we can leave behind and what it is that can truly give life as the Church continues to seek the face and the presence of God.
This morning, I want to offer a few brief thoughts on where this doctrine of Trinity might give life to us. The first is to nurture the ability within us to live with tensions, with murky middles and shades of gray. The Trinity is not, like Hinduism, a polytheism. There are not three gods named: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But neither does the Trinity become a sort of Islam, whereby Jesus becomes a great prophet of the one true God. Instead, we are invited into this world of tensions. God is one, and God is multi-dimensional.
Which leads to the second thought: our faith must always contain a healthy dose of mystery. We might be tempted to force our faith to fit into an easily-explainable box, one which we can open and dissect at will. But to truly live in faith of a God who exists beyond space and time is to submit to the very real possibility that what we know is far outweighed by what it is that we don’t know. We have our glimpses, our experiences at table and in fellowship and prayer that become moments of a kind of divine awareness. But what we don’t know is enormous and should help to keep us honest.
Finally, I want to suggest that what we might be able to see in Trinity is the character of God as one who exists in community. Or, to put it another way, we are not alone. We have each other in this place, to welcome and challenge us. We are connected with others around the world, fellow sister and brother Christians, whose perspectives, very different from our own, are helpful deconstructions of the layers of cultural and contextual build-up on our essential faith. And we are connected with those who profess a different faith or no faith at all, bound together and created in the image of that same, one, multi-dimensional God.
And above all, we are not alone, because God is with us. Just as the wisdom of Proverbs is on the streets and among the people, and just as Christ promises to send the Spirit to give us wisdom and knowledge, we know of God’s care for us.
Can you hear this word of promise, that we are not alone? My hope today is that it would give hope to you wherever it is that you find yourself. What is it that you are facing? Are there conversations that you need to have, ones of support, or comfort, or challenge, or growth? Trust that God will be in the midst, as wisdom and understanding. Are there relationships, ones that give life, ones that wound and destroy, ones that are severed and need repairing? Trust that the Spirit will sustain what needs sustaining, will heal what needs healing, and will bridge that gap when separation is the only life-giving possibility. Or is it that you, like Sarah, simply want to know what your options are? Trust that the hand of Christ remains extended, holding open to us the possibilities of transformation and redemption.