What's a "Trinity"?
The service didn’t get recorded this week. sorry. But here’s a little special bonus message:[audio http://www.opcbrookhaven.org/worship/audio/fail/09.mp3]
Starfish or spider?
Five years ago, Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom published The Starfish and the Spider. In it, the authors compare the biology of starfish and spiders. Both have multiple legs with a central body. But there is one key difference: if you cut off a spider’s head, it will die. The starfish, on the other hand, has no head. If you cut off one of its legs, it will regenerate. And some species can regenerate from just a leg, because the genetic code and the vital organs are all there.
This difference becomes the central point of their book as they compare organizations, especially with the dawn of the 21st century and the explosion of internet technology. Every industry is changing dramatically as a result. If you are working in a business which has not been changed by the internet, please raise your hand.
The most interesting example of this is the music business. As of 2000, it was primarily in the hands of four major record labels. But this four-headed arachnid has since been crippled by internet file-sharing and piracy, a starfish with no centralized organization. The results have been financially devastating. And every time the industry wins a court-case against one form of piracy, another one springs up, each one more anonymous and harder to shut down than the last.
There is bad news in this; but I’m not sure it’s all bad news. The music industry has had a spotty record, at best, in how musicians fare financially from the top-down model. But the argument has always been that record companies, because of their size, can be trusted with the charge of distribution and promotion. And so musicians need them. Otherwise, how else would people know about them?
But as websites like MySpace and YouTube have taken off, musicians have recognized that the old way of doing things is changing.
In 2007, the English band Radiohead released its album In Rainbows. It was posted on their website without a record company present at all. People could pay whatever they wanted. It entered the charts at number one, and within a year had sold three million copies. And even though they offered it as a “pay as you like” download, most fans paid for the record, and the band made a mint.
As I’m reading this book, I’m thinking to myself: what about the church? Are we more spider, or starfish?
We Presbyterians love to talk about God’s sovereignty, the idea that God is all-powerful, all-knowing, that God is, simply put, in control. And when we talk about the church as the Body of Christ, we are always sure to make it clear that Jesus is the head of that body. That sounds like all spider to me.
Think of the Godhead at work in Genesis, forming stars and planets and grass and trees, and animals and fish and birds, and male and female. There is a center out of which everything emanates, and everything owes its life to that center. It’s a top-down hierarchy. God makes, things are made.
Or what about the “Great Commission” that comes at the end of Matthew? Jesus, the early church’s CEO, gives the disciples their mission: go and baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. And so they go, following orders from the head of the organization.
We are inheritors of this Scripture, and so it is not surprising that churches would be spider-like with a centralized organization, such as a Session, or a Presbytery, or, in the case of the ancient churches, Patriarch or Pope. We are spiders in a world full of starfish.
And that, perhaps more than anything else, is why the mainline churches are struggling. We struggle financially and numerically as we work to sustain, transform, maintain, evolve our forms of worship and governance and physical plant. And our evangelism approach seems to be borrowed from the movie Field of Dreams: “If you build it, they will come.” Spiders seem to be going extinct. Is that our fate, too?
But before we go too far down this road, let’s be clear about one thing: we are, indeed, inheritors of Scripture; and we are, indeed, inheritors of the church. But we are also heirs to much, much more. We are influenced by culture and language and philosophy and biology and worldview which are outside (and in some cases even trump) the influence of Scripture, of theology, of ecclesial DNA. Which is which? And how can we possibly know?
Today is Trinity Sunday. It is the one day we set aside to deal with the complicated and confusing doctrine of God as three-in-one, one-in-three.
This is my sixth Trinity Sunday as your pastor. And with this Sunday approaching, I went back and looked at the Trinity Sunday sermons I’ve preached since my arrival. And so, let me sum up the sermon I’ve preached every year in a couple of sentences:
The Trinity is the doctrine the early church created to explain the confusion of Scripture where God, Jesus, and Spirit are all described as divine. What it teaches us, ultimately, is that God is mysterious and that God exists in relationship.
But I wonder if there is more to it than that. I wonder if the Trinity can actually shed light on our starfish-spider debate…
For starters, there is no hierarchy in Trinity. Father, Son, Holy Spirit; Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. There is no “head”.
Look at the creation story. At first glance, it is God – the Creator, the Father – who is at work, fashioning and shaping. And yet, there is this curious pronoun at the creation of humanity: “Let us create…” Not singular, but plural. Who else is there?
Well, let’s jump back to the very beginning of Genesis. Before anything else happens, there is wind, breath, spirit, moving over the face of the waters. The Spirit is there.
And in order for there to be creation of something out of nothing, there must be Word: “And God said…” And that word of God, Jesus Christ, became flesh and dwelt among us. Creation can only happen, it seems, when the fullness of God is at work.
And as we look at the end of Matthew, where Jesus is once again with his disciples after the resurrection, he gives them the Great Commission, sending them out to baptize. But while Jesus is the divine mouthpiece, all of divinity is present. Don’t baptize in the name of God, or in the name of Jesus, but in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The church can only happen, it seems, when the fullness of God is at work.
The Trinity, the very nature of God, is actually far more starfish than spider. But it’s not about the curiosity of chopping off body parts; it’s about part of God containing the fullness of God.
And that’s the gift to the church. We, whether female or male, are created in the image of all of God, that weird first person plural that pops up in Genesis. And the church is baptized in the name of all of God, not just one part. And we, the church, and individually members of it, have that divine genetic code within us.
The question that lingers with us today is, “What do we do with this?” What do we do in a world that is becoming more starfish and less spider?
I think the truth is that we Presbyterians are in a good position to adapt. We have always been suspicious of too much power being vested in one person, whether that be pastor or elder or treasurer or staff. And I think we’ve been sadly vindicated by the evidence we see in church scandals. We are not immune from the headlines, but we are fortunate that the essence of our structure is one of both support and accountability.
When we celebrate communion, we must have at least three people present: someone to receive, an elder (representing this congregation), and a pastor (representing the wider church).
When I go to visit one of our members in the hospital, or to a community gathering, wherever I go, I take the name of Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church. See, it’s not just me that goes; it’s all of you. And you have given me the trust to carry all of that, the fullness of God’s OPC DNA, with me.
But the same is true with you; each of you. When you leave this worship service today, when you leave the physical confines of our physical plant, you have not left God behind. You carry the divine imprint within you. At work, at home, as a parent, a neighbor, a student, a teacher, wherever you go, you remain part of the starfish.
If you’ve bothered to read this far, I want you to do something. Click on this link. Print it out. It’s made up of three cards (appropriate for Trinity Sunday). In the next few days, give them to someone. Hand it to a friend, someone you meet at the coffee shop. Tack it to a bulletin board at the restaurant where you have lunch, the grocery store where you shop. Mail it to a family member. Put it in a neighbor’s mailbox. And as you do, may it remind you of your Godly DNA, that you are part of the body of Christ: now and forever!