— A Sermon by Robert W. Prim —
~~~ Trinity Sunday ~~~
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee,
to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.
When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.
And Jesus came and said to them,
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.
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.
And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
I stand before you as one who feels at once completely unable to address the mystery of One in Three, Three in One, while also being one who believes that understanding God in a Trinitarian way offers us real substance for living out the faith. I will try to say something of value on this Trinity Sunday – it is, after all, my job – but I hope, as I am sure you do, that I will not try to say too much.
I do not want to be like the student who asked Augustine – the great theologian of the early church – “What was God doing before God created the world?” Augustine’s answer was – “God was creating hell for people who ask such questions!”
One thing to say right away, we do not believe in the Trinity; rather, we believe in the Living God who, we as Christians claim, has revealed God’s-Self as the Creator, Redeemer, Sustain-er of the world. Trinity, at least on one level, is about how we have come to name the work of God, the unfolding of God’s story with us in history.
The witness of Scripture and the witness of the Christian tradition is that the God we worship brought this world into being, God spoke and all that is was made. This is One Person of the Trinity – Father/Mother, Creator.
But God did not just windup the clock and watch from the heavens – God spoke through prophets; God came to earth as a a human being, Jesus, and revealed in the fullest of ways how to be in a loving relationship with God and neighbor. This is One Person of the Trinity – Son, Child, Redeemer.
We further claim by faith that God continues to work to renew and strengthen our lives in love through the Holy Spirit. God stays in ongoing communion with God’s creation. This is One Person of the Trinity – Spirit, Sustain-er, Comforter.
Trinity, in other words, is about what people over the ages have sensed that God is up to in the world from the beginning until now and into the fullness of time.
There is a corrective element in this way of thinking about God, a corrective to our tendencies to distort God’s image in our thinking about God. The Trinity as a way of speaking about God and God’s work has integrity. We Christians are not to exalt any one person of the Trinity to the exclusion of the other persons of the Trinity. All of God’s work is in harmony, and the Trinity represents the fullness of God’s revelation, as we Christians understand that revelation. In other words, the Son is not at odds with the Creator; the Spirit is not opposed to the Son; each is present in every act of God.
So, how is this corrective? Here are a few examples…
It is an immature form of the Christian faith to say – “I want to live on the mountaintop of spiritual highs my whole life; God is so good and all I want to do is to be with God in as pure a way as possible; me and God’s Spirit on the mountain – that’s what I am after.” To have this mind-set and this goal is to forget that God’s Spirit is the same Spirit of Christ who descended to earth to walk with ordinary human beings doing ordinary things revealing God in the ordinary of everyday. Jesus himself could not live only on the mountain top, he had to walk the way of suffering as well as the way of joy. The life and death of Jesus, and seeing Jesus as One Person of the Trinity, is a corrective to spiritualizing the faith and our understanding of God and God’s purposes.
Another example of an immature form of the Christian faith which fails to be Trinitarian is to say – “My life is all about me and Jesus, we have our own thing going, its just the two of us. It doesn’t matter how I live my life or what I accumulate or how I treat my neighbor or what affect my consumption has on the third world or on the environment or if my clothing is made in dangerous factories in Bangladesh, or if I support politicians who are racist in pronouncements and policies and pander to our worst angels, none of this matters … just as long as I have my personal relationship with Jesus, that’s all that really matters.”
This is not Trinitarian thinking, and is an immature form of the Christian faith. Why? The Trinity shows us why. God is the Creator of the whole-wide world and Jesus came to bring life to all the world. The Spirit came to unite people with God and with neighbor. To have a “Me and Jesus” kind of religion is to be indifferent to the fact that God created all the world and loves all the world and cares about all the people of the world.
Brutal and deadly acts of racism have lit flames of an unholy fire in our society. Racism has always been a part of our culture and it tears us apart and leads to a deep lack of trust in the social contract that is supposed to be at the heart of who we are as citizens of the United States of America. A contract that we have never fully realized but one that when we listen to our better angels and our best leaders we know is in line with God’s hopes for our nation and for our world. The social contract toward which we should always be striving says this: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men (all people) are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
I want to bring the reality of racism close to home. During the news reports on the shooting of Ahmaud Aubrey here in Georgia one the videos that was released showed Ahmaud walking into a house under construction. I think some folks wanted this to be exculpatory in some way for the men who shot Mr. Aubrey. What struck me hard about that video is that it could have easily have been me. I’ve probably walked around construction sites and in partially constructed homes a hundred times. I really enjoy looking at houses under construction. I’ve had at times a little unease doing so knowing that maybe it was not legal even though I had no intention of taking anything or harming anything, but knowing good and well that if anyone ever said anything to me about it or if a police officer were to ask me what I was doing I could easily say that I was just looking around. And here’s the thing – I, a clean cut white guy, would have been believed. Ahmaud Aubrey, a clean cut black guy and other people of color, do not have the same presumption of innocence.
Simply put this is racism. I exist without the constant fear that my actions or my very existence will be prejudged and lead to my harm. I can only begin to imagine what it is like to live under that cloud of knowing that the color of my skin can put me in danger almost anywhere I go. I have walked around Minneapolis, Minnesota looking at old homes in nice neighborhoods, and I did so without one thought that anyone would consider it inappropriate for me to be there. Racism is real and persistent in our culture and we best face it and work to live beyond it if we want to build a more perfect union.
(By the way, even if Ahmaud Aubrey had been stealing, which he was not, no property is worth the taking of human life. Period. No forged check, the reason for George Floyd being stopped by Minneapolis police and pinned to the street by the neck, is worth the taking of human life. Period.)
The Trinity as a way of speaking about God is about integrity of faith. The language of Trinity calls us to lead lives of integrity and maturity. Trinity can help us lead lives that reflect the fullness of God’s call upon us.
Let me say one more thing about the Trinity. So far we have been talking about what theologians call the “Economic Trinity” – how God works in the threefold way of creating, redeeming, sustaining. But there is another branch of Trinitarian thinking known as the “Immanent Trinity.” This talk of Trinity says that God in God’s-Self is Three in One, One in Three.
The thinking goes like this – if we watch a mother give of herself in birthing a child, and then give of herself in raising the child in love – tucking that child in at night, bandaging wounds, offering words of encouragement, praying and working for the well-being of the child in an ongoing way, even when the child is oblivious to her care – we can say not only that the mother is acting like a good mother, we can say that in and of herself she is a good mother. Being a good mother is who she is at core.
Well, if God is the Creator of the world, the Redeemer of the world, the Sustain-er of the world, then God in God’s-Self is Three. God in Three Persons, blessed Trinity, we sing and say often. God is a divine community of Persons.
Now, I don’t think we have to sign on any dotted line about this notion of God in God’s essence. This is mysterious stuff, to be sure, and living into the mystery is good for us. I do, however, think there is a way of understanding the Immanent Trinity that can become for us yet again, like the economic Trinity, a helpful model for healthy and life-giving human relations.
An Eastern image for Trinity is known as “perichoresis.” This is a Greek word, and if you will stick with me for just a second you’ll know as much Greek as I do. The word combines two words – “peri” as in perimeter meaning “around” and “choresis” as in “choreography of a dance.” This image of the Trinity is three people “dancing around!” Three People arm in arm dancing around. This is a beautiful image for the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer of the world.
There is a depth grammar to this way of speaking of God. Perichoresis communicates the God we worship as three People dancing together in harmonious, joyful freedom. Each person of the Trinity connected to the others, and they are what they are only in relationship to the others. There is no solitary one who is above all the rest. God the Parent, Child, Spirit are one divine community who live with and for and in each other in mutual openness, freedom, and self-giving love.
As the late professor of theology at Columbia Seminary Shirley Guthrie says in his book Christian Doctrine, – this image, then, becomes the model for all genuine human community. We need to learn to think of God and ourselves as living in the circle of a community of free, equal partners who live joyfully and thankfully with and for one another, united in the dance that is God’s life and genuine human life.
I’d like to close with a story that I think captures this Trinitarian thinking. The story comes from the first year of the papacy of Pope Francis. In a sermon during that first year, using the Gospel of Mark’s story about the disciples being upset that someone outside their group was doing good, Pope Francis said this – They complain by saying “If he is not one of us, he cannot do good. If he is not of our party, he cannot do good.” And Jesus corrects them: “Do not hinder him,” he says, “let him do good.” The disciples, Pope Francis explains, were a little intolerant, closed off by the idea of possessing the truth, convinced that those who do not have the truth, cannot do good. This was wrong…Jesus broadens the horizon. The root of this possibility of doing good – that we all have – is in creation.
Pope Francis continued in his sermon The Lord created us in His image and likeness, and we are the image of the Lord, and he does good and all of us have this commandment at heart: do good and do not do evil. All of us. “But, Father, this is not Catholic! He cannot do good.” Yes, he can…The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! “Father, the atheists?” Even the atheists. Everyone! We must meet one another doing good. “But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!” But do good: we will meet one another there.
I think Pope Francis demonstrates Trinitarian thinking with his homily. God created, redeemed, sustains the whole world – all of us, even the non-Catholic, even the atheists….red and yellow, black and white,…all are precious in his sight.
May we live into the Trinitarian three step
of creation, redemption, and sustaining of all people.
May we live into the more perfect union
that is the call of our faith
and the vision of our forebears in this nation,
who caught a glimpse but failed to realize the power
of the covenant of all being equal under God and under law.
May we live into the circle
of a community of free, equal partners
who live joyfully and thankfully with and for one another.
Thanks be to God – Father, Son, Spirit;
Creator, Redeemer, Sustain-er; Parent, Son, Spirit!