Wrestling With the Trinity
This sermon was delivered without a manuscript. What follows is my approximation, from notes, of what I said. – L. Scott Lipscomb
If I asked you to close your eyes and picture God, what images would come to mind? Many of us probably immediately think of the old, bearded white man from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, his hand reaching out to touch Adam’s. Those of us more interested in contemporary films than in Renaissance art might instead think of an actor who has played God on screen—Morgan Freeman from Bruce Almighty or Alanis Morrissett from Dogma, for example. Of course, a number of you might immediately insist that God isn’t some kind of human-shaped thing, and so maybe you imagine a glowing sphere of light or some kind of effervescent
In our Hebrew Bible reading for this morning, the prophet Isaiah pictures God as a vast and mighty king, sitting on a throne suspended in the sky, and so large that the hem of his robe fills the whole temple. Now, I’m not exactly sure how big the Temple at Jerusalem was, but I would guess that it was at least twice as long as the nave here. Truly massive.
Of course, a number of you, when I first asked this question about what God might look like, might have thought to yourselves that this was a rather stupid question: for, of course, God doesn’t look like anything. If God is the source of everything—including time and space—then God certainly can’t be anything in time or space. God doesn’t reflect light. Therefore, God doesn’t look like anything and so can’t be pictured.
Alright, then: if we can’t picture God, maybe we can at least talk about God? What kind of words do we use to talk about God? Well, we Christians say all sorts of things about God. We say that God is love, that God is the Creator, that God is the Beginning, and that God is eternal. Maybe these words capture the truth about God in a way that no image could?
I do think these words get us a better idea about God than our images. Yet they quickly run into their own problems: yes, God is love—yet I worry that we humans can only think of human love: the love of a parent, or a spouse, or a friend. God’s love is sort of like that, but not quite. Human love always has limits and conditions; God’s love is truly unconditional. Indeed, God’s love gives us being in the first place. God’s love is radically different than any human love. And yes, God is the creator, but again this word can get us into trouble. When I create something, I take stuff that already exists and form it into something new. I can take wood and stone to make a house; I can take a canvass and paint and make a picture. Well—I can’t do either of these things, but some people can. But God’s act of creation is nothing like this. God creates from nothing at all.
To say that God is the Beginning is also true, but yet also misleading: for God as beginning is not only past, but also present and future. That’s not like any beginning I know! Finally, it’s true to say that God is eternal, but I don’t know how helpful it is to define one abstract word with another. In short, God is deeply and irrevocably mysterious. God is not like anything we know in our world, and so we struggle to make sense of God. So, not only our images, but also our words fall short of making sense of God.
So maybe we shouldn’t picture or talk about God? I am reminded of a passage from the Tao Te Ching: “those who know don’t talk, and those who talk don’t know.” Perhaps our only response to the mystery of God should be silence…perhaps I should just stand here in silence for the next ten minutes…indeed, I’m sure that at least a few of you would prefer me to do that rather than to hear me keep talking! But, as incapable as our language may be in really conveying who and what God is, I think we have to try. The kind of people who gather on a Sunday morning around an altar are the kind of people who tend to think they have been called to this place for a reason. Whatever exactly we think we do or don’t know or believe about God, I think we come here in part to try and make more sense of our faith.
So, what to do? Our language falls short, and yet we find ourselves needing to say something. Is there some other word that might allow us to talk about God more clearly, that we haven’t mentioned yet? Well, what about “Trinity”? It is Trinity Sunday, after all. Maybe this word will cut through all the mystery? Well, spoiler alert: if we are hoping that the idea of the Trinity will somehow make God less mysterious, we are in for a disappointment. “Trinity” is no less mysterious than “God”. Yet, I do think this word can be immensely helpful to us, not because it resolves the mystery of God, but actually because it can deepen our relationship to that mystery.
Of course, for many of us here, the word “Trinity” seems like an abstract and irrelevant idea. Those of us who were raised in religious schools may have had lessons on the Trinity in middle school: once a year, the teacher would draw a diagram on the board: three circles labelled “The Father” and “The Son” and “The Holy Spirit”, with lines running between the circles, and then more lines running from the circles to the middle of the diagram, all with Latin verbs on them. Such an idea seems dry and abstract, with no relevance to our actual lives.
In truth, though, like all human ideas, the idea of the Trinity developed out of concrete problems, and if we investigate why the early Church arrived at this idea, I think we may find that it does work for us as we try to grapple with God. To put it very simply, the Trinity really arose out of two deep tensions within the early Church: First, the early Church inherited from Judaism—and we must always remember that Jesus was a Jew, and all the first Christians were Jews, so our faith makes no sense without Judaism—a curious set of ideas about God. Jews argued, on the one hand, that God was utterly transcendent—that is, that God was not any kind of being inside of the universe. God is beyond all space and before all time, God is not contained by anything, God is totally Other and beyond us. Yet, at the same time, Jews also claimed that God was utterly immanent: God was in every place and every time, deeply concerned with the fate of every creature. So God is nowhere—and everywhere. There’s a deep tension here.
The early Church then loaded even more tension onto their understanding of God, because the first Christians not only agreed that God was transcendent—nowhere—and immanent—everywhere—but that God was also uniquely present in one particular human being, this Jesus from Nazareth! Yet, through all of this, Christians continued as well to insist that God was truly One, unified, harmonious. Such a theology exposed deep and mysterious tensions at work in the faith of this community, and the idea of the Trinity was meant, not to resolve, but to express and name these tensions.
Understood this way, then, what does the Trinity actually mean? First, God is truly one, unified. Yet God’s unity is not something static, like a rock or an abstraction. God is infinitely creative, always pouring forth, always making space for an Other (that is, us and all of creation). In short, God is always giving, and creation and all creatures, including us humans, are the gift. God’s giving, however, is truly God’s act. It is not other than God, but is God’s own doing. So the second “person” of the Trinity is the act of God’s own giving. Traditionally, the Church called this the “Son” or “Word” of God. Finally, God’s act of giving is never meant to be transitory. God does not give in one moment, and then let the gift fade away. God sustains what is given in God’s love, and this act of sustaining love is one way of understanding what we mean by “Holy Spirit.”
So: God is unified, yet diverse. God is absolute, yet dynamic. God is transcendent, beyond all being and thought, and yet God is also “closer to a human than their own jugular vein”, to paraphrase the Quran. God is completely Other to us, and yet God is our own very foundation. God is both our absolute horizon, and our inmost center. (It may be helpful to begin thinking of God as more a verb than a noun.)
OK, so some of you may be saying, “this all seems fine, but what does any of this mean for us today?” Well, in our Gospel reading today from John, a man named Nicodemus comes to Jesus asking questions about God, about how to know God and serve God and be in right relationship with God. And how does Jesus answer him? He tells him that he must be “born from above” or “born again” or “born again from above” (the Greek is ambiguous). Understandably, Nicodemus is speechless and a bit perplexed. What could it possibly mean to be “born from above”? This is a very famous passage from Scripture, with many hundreds of possible interpretations. Indeed, an entire movement of Christians—the Born Again movement—takes its name from this passage. So I won’t pretend to offer some kind of definitive, final interpretation of what Jesus is saying here. But the interpretation that made sense to me as I was meditating on these texts this week, the interpretation that is speaking to me this morning, is this: God is always giving, and always inviting. God creates and sustains the world in love, to love and to be loved.
If this is true, two conclusions follow. First off, we come to recognize that our very being, our existence, is a pure gift. Ultimately, I cannot explain or justify my own life. It simply arrives, unbidden, a pure and free gift. Some days I might not even want this gift, and yet: here it is. We humans often like to think of our individual identities as tidy, certain, secure things: this is who I am, and I am in control. But to know that we are free and wild and unpredictable gifts-to-ourselves is to know that we—just like God—are dynamic, everflowing, pouring forth.
And this brings us to the second point: if we are truly images of God, and if God is mysteriously dynamic, then we, too, are mysteriously dynamic. Our identities are not fixed. We can—and perhaps must!—change. Indeed, some theologians in the early Church summarized Christianity this way: “God became human that humans might become god,” or, “God became human that humans might become divine.” But actually, I prefer the first version, because it conveys the controversy of what they were saying: God is truly inviting us into a deep relationship with God, into the Triune life, into God’s infinite activity. And that brings us full circle, I think.
We began by trying to understand how to use language to corral God, to control God, to know God the way we might know a physical object or a mathematical equation. But what we are actually invited to is not objective knowledge, but the immediacy of a relationship: having received the gift of existence, God calls us to reciprocate, return the gift—and in so doing, find that the gift is given infinitely, indefinitely. And in fact, I think that’s what we’ll do when we gather around the altar in a few minutes. We will come together to receive a simple gift. And then the question will be: what do we do with this gift? I hope that we go forth into the world with the confidence and love to pass this gift on. Having been fed, let us go and feed others. That’s what I think the Trinity can teach us about the mystery of God: having been given, let us continue to give.