June 12, 2022
I have to say… sometimes I think that the best thing about Trinity Sunday is that every three years I get to read that passage out loud from Romans. The joy of getting to talk a bit from Romans just about balances out the yearly preaching fear and panic that is Trinity Sunday.
The Trinity is that theological concept… and I think it’s right that I use the word concept here… it’s a concept… it’s an idea… it’s an intangible experience that is elusive and difficult to pin down with mere words. Whenever we talk about the Trinity there’s always a lot of qualifiers to our language… lots of “yes but” or a healthy dose of “both and”… enough metaphors and analogies to choke a horse. And yet… to get back to my original sentence… the Trinity is that theological concept that sets Christianity apart from our cousin faiths of Judaism and Islam. Part of that defining split between Judaism and the early Christian movement was over what we might call proto-Trinitarianism… and the developing theology that was trying to determine just who Jesus was as the Christ and what that meant in the bigger picture. Early Christians were sure Jesus was more than the new Moses… or the prophet Elijah returned. Jesus as the Messiah was something else… something more than what had come before. Fulfillment of the past, yes. But a new thing in this story God was telling. Christians had to keep going on the path they were on… a path Judaism couldn’t follow. Later in history, part of the theological crisis that led to the development of Islam was a reaction against the Trinitarian theology of the early church. Like Judaism, Mohammed saw the Trinity as a violation of his understanding of monotheism. There is only one God… and this whole three in one, one in three talk didn’t jive. Jesus is a teacher… an important prophet in Islam… but no… no Trinity.
It's not an easy theology. It’s not an easy theology to talk about and explain. It’s not an easy theology to live into. Many Christians today are still what we might call functional unitarians… in that they really focus on just one aspect or one person of the Trinity and that person really is all the God they need or want in their lives. There’s not likely lots of thought put into it… it’s just how it is. Or others… in trying to bring some semblance of order… or control… to the mystery… deflate the expansiveness of the Trinity by reducing it down to some hierarchical model or a concept that is all about the modality of the Trinity. And I’m not even going to try to explain what that sentence means… just leave it alone as a support for the fact that the Trinity is not an easy theology.
As wonderful as it is to read from Romans… remember… Paul, himself, was not a trinitarian theologian. Don’t be fooled into thinking he was simply because he managed to speak of Christ, God and the Holy Spirit in this one small paragraph we read. There were no trinitarian or Christian systematic theologians at the time. He was… well… I think I would call Paul a practical theologian. He was a pastoral theologian working in the field… trying to find the words and the direction for what he was experiencing through this faith that had grabbed hold of him. Ideas filled his heart and his mind… ideas that were expansive… that led Paul into new ways… that were also at the same time old ways… but not really See… there it is again. Trinitarian sermons are going to always be filled with sentences like that… where it is one thing, but also at the same time another thing that is different but the same… connected but there is also disconnection and distinction. Oof.
Trying to hold opposing ideas in your mind… the act of that… as a natural byproduct… opens your thinking to that something new that is happening that is hard to put your finger on. It’s the theological experience of God not being an object to define but a living experience… and how… how do you talk about a living, active experience in words that… as soon as you utter them… are solidifying that god experience back into being a definable object? It’s… to use the tool of analogy, which you knew we would have to employ… it’s like a thought. If I had my old college roommate here with us this morning… my old friend who became a PhD doctor and a medical doctor focusing in neurology… he could explain so much better than I the physical aspects of a thought. The firing of neurons. Chemical reactions in the brain. Electrical currents. But… even with all his schooling and intelligence I doubt he could encapsulate in clear words the experience of a thought… the verb… the action that is thought. He could talk about the noun… the object… the process of thought. But a thought itself… an idea… a memory? How do we engage with such ethereal experiences with limited language… and, at the same time a shared experience among us all? I know what a thought is. You know what a thought is. Most of us have had them. So what is a thought?
Trinity. Not the object… but the experience of being God in any given moment. Makes me think about the Old Testament… old ways that take us to new ways… the Old Testament where the name of God is a variation on the verb “to be”. When in English we translate the Hebrew word to “I am”… I really think we lose something in the translation. Even if we try to expand it to say “I am, was, will be”… trying to express different aspects of that one Hebrew word… it still gets bound up with time and that’s still not it… not entirely even with the effort that gets made. How do you give word to the ethereal experience to existing that neither limits nor confines? Isn’t that the thought behind the name? If the name of God was something more like Fred the storm god… or Sally the god of fertility… or Sally the storm and fertile Fred… to keep things shaken up… that would have been so much easier. That’s clear and our language can easily handle such a concept… because it is a definable object. Oh yes, I understand… you’re the god of this or the god of that. Eazy peazy. But… but… to name God the name that tries to encapsulate the essence of what it is to be living and relational and in motion… mmm.
To get back to Paul… Paul our in the field, pastoral theologian… who is trying to put into words his experience of God through an encounter he’s had with a risen Christ and the Spirit that has poured such a love into his heart that he cannot do anything but go… and engage in and through this good news… and try to relate to people by this resurrection faith that has been given to him. As our passage begins, Paul is coming to the end of this section about justification… about what it is to know that you are living in the moment of forgiveness with a God who meets you in real time where you are. How? How do you explain to someone what the experience of justification is? How do you explain the release? How do you explain the transformation of heart? How do you explain the feeling of connection with God on so many different levels all at once? God being God at work without the safety protocols of religion? The Paul that was… the Paul that was understood the great objectifying power of religion. The establishment of rules and definitions. As a Pharisee, he was a master of the acceptable performative aspects of his religion. He understood the boundaries and played that instrument as a master craftsman. And then comes an experience of God… a, let’s say, encounter of the living and moving and relating trinity that is God… and all that previous mastery of the protocols of his religion become rubbish. Experiential words like love and grace in all their etherealness become the center of his language… the center of his being. Glory becomes detached from privilege. Blessings flip from receiving towards giving. We are rewarded in our suffering… oftentimes our suffering is the natural outcome when the ethereal meets the solid wall of the safety protocols of religions… when fear becomes the response to an active living God that threatens to break the solid idol that has been so well crafted.
Paul was set free by God through Christ… and was surrounded by ongoing grace through the love that was continually being poured into his heart by the Holy Spirit… a love that was the same love that had moved God to set him free, the same love taught by Christ, and the same love challenged by the Holy Spirit. Trinity is God in perpetual motion. Paul tried to explain the motion, but more than that in his faith… through the constant challenge to character… Paul tried to embody the “to be-ness” of the God who came to him. That was his hope. That is our same hope. God with us… wherever… whenever… however. To be awash and to have flow through ourselves the beingness of God. A God who is so committed to relationship… and the being present in that relationship… is not concerned with the definable who or modal or name that we might want to apply… God being God is who God is. And for us that… or at least an inkling… a preservation of that notion… is the Trinity and our trinitarian theology.
Eazy peazy, right? Amen.