Saturday, May 17, 2008

Feast of the Trinity: 18 May 2008

Feast of the Trinity: 18 May 2008
(Genesis 1:1-2:4a/Psalm 8/2 Corinthians 13:11-13/Matthew 28:16-20)

Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth,
set up your kingdom in our midst.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God,
have mercy on us sinners.
Holy Spirit, breath of the living God,
renew us and all the world.

Cliff Notes religion: that’s what the creeds are – a summary of the essence of a faith in as few words as possible. For the Jews, it is the shema: Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. For the Muslims it is the shahada: There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet. For Christians – at least for those who profess a creed – it is…well, it is more complicated. It is just not enough for us to say “God” or to emphasize God’s unity as do the other monotheistic religions. As William Willimon writes, Christians “haven’t said ‘God’ until we say ‘Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.’”[2] Yes, God is one and yes, there is but one God, but that’s the beginning, not the end, of the Christian understanding. Christians are not simply monotheists as are Jews and Muslims, but monotheists of a particular stripe: We are Trinitarians. We didn’t choose Trinitarianism; a Trinitarian God chose us.

Jesus’s early followers were all good Jewish monotheists. From them and from their spiritual offspring we received the truth that opens the Nicene Creed:

We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.

This is classic monotheism: a slight expansion of the shema, perhaps, but still very much in the same vein. The question is, How did a bunch of good, Jewish monotheists move from stanza 1 to stanza 2 of the Creed?

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.

How did good, shema-quoting fishermen and tax collectors and zealots – followers of Jesus, all – reach this point? They were forced into it, or suckered into it – use any language you please and it amounts to the same thing. They had little, if any, choice.

Jesus comes on the scene announcing the immanent arrival – really, the present reality – of the Kingdom of God. The crowds perk up and pay attention now. “Did he really say what I think he said: the Kingdom of God is here?” That means God is on the move. He’s preparing to judge the nations and vindicate his people Israel. He’s about to bring righteousness and justice, freedom and return from exile. God is once again coming to his temple to dwell among his people. And this can only mean that the Messiah, God’s chosen and anointed one, is even now among us. Could it be this one, this carpenter from Nazareth? He teaches with authority, casts out demons, restores sight to the blind and makes the lame dance. He even raises the dead.

The crowds grow and Jesus keeps them in a state of expectation, a state of suspense. He calls twelve followers, clearly mimicking the twelve tribes of Israel and hinting that he’s reforming the nation about himself. These twelve are with him constantly – an inner circle with special access to the Master. He even commissions them to do work like his: to heal, to exorcise, to preach repentance. And then, toward the end of his brief ministry, he drops the bombshell, the secret he’s been carrying from the beginning.

Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am,” (John 8:58).

“The Father and I are one,” (John10:30).

“Whoever has seen me has seen the Father,” (John 14:9b).

And you can hear the collective gasp of every good, Jewish monotheist. Jesus calling himself, I Am? Jesus and God, one? Jesus the image of the Father? And many in the crowds, unable to harmonize the shema with these new, shocking pronouncements of Jesus, begin to leave, to return to their synagogues and rabbis – though they speak with no authority, heal no sick, raise no dead, promise no immanent Kingdom of God. “Will you leave me, too?” Jesus asks the twelve. And Peter realizes they’ve all been had. Jesus has kept them with him for three years. They know him – or at least they thought they knew him. They’ve felt his compassion. They’ve witnessed his authority. They’ve seen his power. They’ve heard his wisdom and truth. And now he says he’s God. What do you do with that?

C. S. Lewis puts the answer in simple and stark terms in Mere Christianity.

Then comes the real shock. Among these Jews there suddenly turns up a man who goes about talking as if He was God. He claims to forgive sins. He says He has always existed. He says He is coming to judge the world at the end of time. Now let us get this clear. Among Pantheists, like the Indians, anyone might say that he was a part of God, or one with God: there would be nothing very odd about it. But this man, since He was a Jew, could not mean that kind of God. God, in their language, meant the Being outside the world, who had made it and was infinitely different from anything else. And when you have grasped that, you will see that what this man said was, quite simply, the most shocking thing that has ever been uttered by human lips.
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: “I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.” That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to

Pretty stark choices, but that’s the way it all played out historically. Some, including members of Jesus’s own family figure he’s a bit off and come to take him home before he hurts himself or tarnishes the family reputation even more; “beside himself” is how some translations read – “loony” we might say. But the apostles know better. No man was ever as sane as this master of theirs. Some leaders – Scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees – consider Jesus a blasphemer in league with and empowered by Beelzebub, the prince of demons. They come to crucify him. But the apostles know better. No man was ever as holy as this master of theirs. So, they are trapped, snared in Jesus’s plan and will. They are forced by their own personal experience of three years to conclude – maybe against their own will – that Jesus is exactly who he claims to be: I Am, the very image of God – God in flesh and blood. And so they must expand their monotheistic concept of God – not give it up, but expand it to include one God in two persons, one God who is both Father and eternally begotten Son. I’m not certain they understood it any better than we, but they knew it to be true and they had no real choice but to accept it.

Then comes the trauma of the crucifixion and the exhilaration of the resurrection. This Jesus who died was raised to life and was with them again. But only for a time – all too brief a time. Ascension comes and Jesus is gone again – gone after promising never to abandon or forsake them, gone after promising to be with them always even to the end of the age. But a few days later the wind blows and the fire falls and the Holy Spirit comes upon these twelve – and thousands of others – and they know with certainty that God is with them once again, not in the Person of a Galilean carpenter this time, but in the Person of the Holy Spirit that the carpenter promised to send while he was still among them. And again their monotheism expanded – it had to based upon their experience – expanded to include God in the person of the Holy Spirit.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.

So they believed and so we say. So we say, not because we figured this out on our own and certainly not because we fully understand it. So we say, because this was the experience and witness of our fathers and mothers in the faith. So we say because Athanasius stood against Arius and his band of heretics – Athanasius against the world – and proclaimed, “Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.” So we say, because this is the faith we have received, the faith into which we have been baptized.

A recently published book, The Shack, has made quite a stir in some Christian circles. Its central theme is theodicy, the question of how an omnipotent, compassionate, and righteous God can allow terrible evil and suffering. The author’s answers are relatively conventional – nothing really surprising, certainly nothing controversial. But the form in which those answers are presented – well, that’s another matter. The book is not a theology text; it is a parable, a metaphor, a story about a family which experiences great personal tragedy. Later, the husband and father receives a handwritten invitation from God – called Papa in the story – to return to the location of the tragedy and meet with God in hopes of rebuilding a shattered faith. When he arrives he sees a God quite unlike any image he has ever held. I won’t say more and risk spoiling the surprise for any who might like to read the book, but, know that the book has sparked many charges of heresy based on the author’s presentation of the Trinity. I’ve read the book; it’s worth reading, I think. Admittedly, it gets many points of doctrine wrong, which, of course, concerns me. But, honestly it would concern me a lot more if it claimed to be a book of theology instead of a parable. The controversy over this book raises the question of why the Trinity is such a “touchy” doctrine for Christians. So what if we differ on our understanding? Is an orthodox “understanding” of the Trinity really so important? What’s at stake? Much, in every way.

If God is not Trinity – and Trinity in the orthodox understanding of one God in three, consubstantial[4] Persons – then Jesus is not God and we have believed a lie. Since we falsely worship Jesus as God, we are blasphemers and are still dead in our sins. If God is not Trinity – and Trinity in the orthodox understanding of one God in three, consubstantial Persons – then the Holy Spirit is not God and we have no divine life within us. Contrary to what Peter says, we have not been made partakers of the divine nature. We have not been sealed as God’s own people in baptism. To borrow from Paul, if God is not Trinity – and Trinity in the orthodox understanding of one God in three, consubstantial Persons – then our faith is in vain and we are of all persons most to be pitied. So, much is at stake in every way.

Knowing God as Trinity forces us to confront the absolute “otherness” of God. There is always the dangerous tendency to project our humanness on God, to imagine God as simply a wiser, holier, more compassionate version of ourselves. This may well be the ultimate idolatry. Once I imagine God to be basically like me, then God is sure to endorse all those things and people I endorse and to condemn all those things and people I condemn. Maybe you’ve been in a theological discussion and heard someone say, “Well, I just can’t imagine a God who would ____,” and you can fill in the blank: send people to hell; condemn a loving, homosexual relationship; reveal himself as a Galilean carpenter; intervene in the natural world to work miracles; vote Democratic or Republican, etc. As soon as you hear (or say), “Well, I just can’t imagine a God…” then you know you are in trouble: red flags should fly, bells and whistles should sound. Human characteristics are being projected on God and God is being recreated in man’s own image. And reasoning upward from man to God is always fraught with danger and error. The Trinity provides a safeguard against this type of projection by reminding us that God is not just a better version of ourselves; God is totally other than us with a communal mode of existence that we can scarce begin to comprehend. God is not like us and we cannot safely reason upward. We know God only by revelation, only because God became flesh and dwelt among us in the Person of Jesus of Nazareth, only because God abides within us in the Person of the Holy Spirit.

Knowing God as Trinity reveals the Gospel truly as good news. A standard and oft-heard caricature of the Gospel runs something like this.

We are evil sinners, thoroughly depraved, objects of the Father’s wrath. To satisfy the Father’s justice/righteousness he must destroy us. But Jesus, in his love for us, steps into the breach between the Father and man, and accepts the Father’s wrath on our behalf. By punishing his Son, the Father is pacified, and we somehow are made acceptable to him.

There is just enough truth in this presentation to make it plausible; that’s why it persists. But the Trinity says no to this “good Son / bad Father” un-gospel. If the unfailing disposition of Jesus toward us is love and mercy, and if, in the Trinity the Father and Son are one in essence, then Jesus is the perfect expression, the perfect image, of the Father. That means God’s unfailing disposition toward us is not wrath, but love and mercy. However we understand the redemption won for us through Jesus – and we can never understand it fully – we must understand it as an expression of the love that passes endlessly among the three Persons of the Trinity and overflows abundantly to us. God is love, the beloved Apostle tells us: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God is love. That is Gospel. That is good news. That is the Trinity.

Knowing God as Trinity assures us that the God who created us is the same God who redeemed us and is the same God who is even now working in us to complete our salvation. Knowing God as Trinity assures us that we have even now been incorporated into the divine life and divine love that characterize our God. Our Greek brothers and sisters have a beautiful word and concept to describe the Trinity: perichoresis. The Greek is nuanced and difficult to translate but it implies a mutuality, a sharing that “allows the individuality of the persons to be maintained, while insisting that each person shares in the life of the other two.”[5] Literally, “perichoresis” means “to dance around.” And that may be the best description of all. The Trinity invites us to join in the Dance which began before the foundation of the world and which will continue beyond the ages of ages. Let’s listen to the music of the Creed. Let’s feel the rhythm of the Liturgy. Let’s leave our seats and come to the Table. Then let’s join in the Dance of the Trinity.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] N. T. Wright. Trinity Prayer.
[2] William H. Willimon. United Methodist Beliefs. Westminster John Knox Press. p. 5.
[3] C. S. Lewis. Mere Christianity. Harper Collins. pp. 51, 52.
[4] Consubstantial: Of the same substance, sharing the same essence. No one Person of the Trinity is more or less God than any other Person.
[5] Alister McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction, 3rd ed. Blackwell, 2001.

No comments: