Infinitrinity

(sermon 5/30/21 – Trinity Sunday)

Photo courtesy La Maison Laide. Used with permission.

John 3:1-17

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

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Romans 8:12-25

So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh— for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

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Today is Trinity Sunday, when we recognize an important, but maybe the strangest and most troublesome bit of theology and church doctrine. In an age where it seems backward and irrational enough to simply believe in any God at all, it almost seems like we Christians intentionally set out to up the absurdity ante by defining our God in some mysterious, completely inexplicable and confusing way that seems to beg people to reject the whole idea. I mean – a God who is simultaneously a single One, and yet, still distinctly Three; simultaneously both and neither. What is any serious, thinking person supposed to make of that? So before anything else we might say about the Trinity, let’s admit that the whole idea is problematic. That it’s impossible to actually explain in any empirical, analytical way, and it’s even more impossible to try to illustrate with analogies – the Trinity is like the three lobes of a three-leaf clover; or the solid/liquid/gas states possible of water; or like a single actor playing three different roles, in three different costumes and at three different times, in the same play. You’ve undoubtedly heard all those and more, and the truth is that every single one of them veers into some heresy or another that the early church fathers adamantly rejected. There simply is no way to give an acceptable technical illustration of how these three “persons” of God exist and interrelate – heck, even using the term “persons” causes problems, and don’t even think about talking about three “parts” of God.

The concept of the Trinity is so troubling that it can lead a person to think that the whole idea is nonsense – or at least if it isn’t nonsense, if it’s impossible to actually explain, it surely can’t be very important to us and our own lives of faith. I absolutely understand if someone reaches that conclusion. It’s perfectly logical. But I still think it’s mistaken.

In fact, I believe that the concept of the Trinity tells us something absolutely vital about God, and about us as well, and about the relationship between us and God. But in order for it to do that, we have to stop trying to categorize and compartmentalize God’s being, and start concentrating on the larger idea behind the concept. We need to stop seeing the Trinity as a math problem, and start seeing it as poetry.

What was the actual idea about God that the pre-scientific, early church fathers were trying to convey about God when they came up with their understanding of the Trinity; of explaining the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – or as we’d more accurately say today, Parent, Child, and Spirit?

I think that maybe the Eastern church, based in Constantinople, was a bit more successful than the Rome-based Western church in focusing less on trying to parse God, or to diagram God as if God were a sentence; and more on what they called “perichoresis” – meaning a kind of circular, intertwining, self-giving relationship – a dance, actually. It’s a concept meaning that by very essence, God exists in a relationship – that the very core of God’s design, God’s being, *is* a relationship. One that is intense, inseparable, so intimate and self-giving as to be intersecting and even interpenetrating; an eternal, unending dance of pure love, and equality, and dignity, and peace, and joy.

And because that’s God’s design, and we’re created in God’s image, we’re designed to form and foster those kinds of relationships too, or at least as close as we can get to them – those kinds of relationships among ourselves, and between us and God. It means, then, that everything that we do in living out our faith, and living and interacting with others and all of God’s creation, should always be moving more and more toward those same kinds of loving, intense, equal, joyful, eternal dance. This is our design. This is our primary mission in life.

We heard today’s gospel reading from John because it’s one of the few passages in scripture where Father, Son, and Spirit are all referred to in pretty much the same breath, setting the stage for the need for some kind of a doctrine of the Trinity, so it’s an important text for today, and also for thinking about God’s “only begotten Son.” But we also heard from Paul in the Letter to the Romans, that we ourselves have been adopted as God’s children; that we have been grafted into God’s family tree as it were.

And that’s an intriguing truth. Because it means that while the actual being of God, through begetting, is an eternal Trinity; the whole family of God, through adoption – through the Holy Spirit dwelling within us, and God decreeing us worthy to be called and treated as children – through adoption, the kingdom of God could actually be thought of as an “Infinitrinity.” In fact, considering this adoption/family status that God has given us, many people have started to refer to the “Kin-dom of God,” emphasizing the family relationship, instead of the “Kingdom of God,” which emphasizes being a beloved part of God’s family, rather than the forced relationship between subjects and a king.

My daughter Andrea got married two years ago. Her husband, Stevie, is Irish, having grown up in a suburb of Dublin. When they got married in Columbus, Stevie’s parents and a large contingent of his family traveled to Ohio for the wedding. At the reception, there were times when my new Irish family would take over the dance floor, gathering in a large circle for some traditional Irish dancing, and as they did, they invited us Americans into the circle, and into the dance, as well. As the music played, and with interlocked arms, the circle moved around, and moved in, and moved out, and many of us were trying to learn the steps quickly while others knew exactly what they were doing. It was an amazing. It was a symbol, but more than a symbol, of the coming together of these two families, and the forming of a new, expanded family that ultimately transcended time or physical distance. It was a beautiful thing; it was a relative moment but in another way it was also eternal. I’m sure that you’ve all been part of a similar experience, some simple but eternal dance like that; that if you think just a minute about it, says more about the meaning and the significance of the Trinity than a whole roomful of arguing theologians probably ever could.

Once we’re able to travel again, I’m looking forward to the day I’ll be able to see and laugh, and maybe even dance with, my new Irish family, this time in Ireland. On a similar, but even deeper level, I also look forward to the day – hopefully not anytime soon, mind you, but I still look forward to – the day when I join in the great eternal dance with the Parent, the Child, and the Spirit, the Trinity, and with the whole adopted family that they’ve welcomed into the circle of the Infinitrinity. Because I know that together, we’ll all be part of that grand, glorious circle, and that dance, I say     

Thanks be to God.

Reversals

(sermon 5/9/21)

Acts 10 (excerpts)

In Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian Cohort, as it was called. He was a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God. One afternoon at about three o’clock he had a vision in which he clearly saw an angel of God coming in and saying to him, “Cornelius.” He stared at him in terror and said, “What is it, Lord?” He answered, “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God. Now send men to Joppa for a certain Simon who is called Peter; he is lodging with Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the seaside.” When the angel who spoke to him had left, he called two of his slaves and a devout soldier from the ranks of those who served him, and after telling them everything, he sent them to Joppa.

As they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat; and while it was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. Then he heard a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” The voice said to him again, a second time, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven. Now while Peter was greatly puzzled about what to make of the vision that he had seen, suddenly the men sent by Cornelius appeared. The Spirit said to Peter, “Look, three men are searching for you. Now get up, go down, and go with them without hesitation; for I have sent them.”

They came to Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends.

Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.”

While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.

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It’s inevitable, really. It happens to all of us in different ways from time to time throughout our lives. I’m talking about the reversal. You’re apparent, and you raised your child from infancy, always teaching them, always explaining life and the way things work to them, and then suddenly, one day they’re teaching you something you never new. Or you’re a supervisor, a manager, and one day one of your trainees shows you how to do something better than you ever could. Or you’re a teacher, instructor, professor in academia, and one day one of your students offers a fresh new insight that had never dawned on you before in all of your years of experience.

The reversal in those cases is a bit bittersweet – because really, who ever enjoys being moved to second chair when you’d always been in the first chair up till then? – but at least there’s a sense of satisfaction, of pride, sometimes even some joy in it, because it means you’d done your job of teaching them well, and really, that’s the way things are supposed to be in both the micro- and macro- of human existence – “I must decrease so that you can increase,” as has been said. Those kinds of reversals are expected.

The unexpected ones feel different, though. They’re the ones where the reversal comes entirely out of the blue. Where the one teaching you some lesson isn’t anyone you’d ever imagine. The teacher is someone unexpected, or it happens in a surprising way or setting. That’s the kind of reversal we see in this reading from Acts today.

This is an event that happed after Pentecost, which we’ll observe in two weeks. I’m not sure why the Lectionary bounces around chronologically here, but on Pentecost, we see Jesus’ disciples flowing out into the streets in Jerusalem, speaking in tongues, and Peter speaking out, proclaiming the gospel to the Jewish pilgrims there for the religious holiday, and proclaiming to them that Jesus was the messiah.

As we heard, when this story begins Peter has had this strange vision, three times in fact, in which God tells him to not consider anything unclean and unacceptable to God, even something the scriptures, the Law, declared to be unclean, if God declares it to be clean and acceptable. Peter probably wasn’t completely certain what this vision was all about, or how it might apply to him in the moment. He was probably still trying to understand its implications when Cornelius’ servants arrived looking for him. They ask Peter to visit Cornelius, a Roman centurion in Caesarea – a good Gentile, we’re told, but a Gentile nonetheless, and maybe even worse, a Gentile who was part of the Roman Empire’s occupying military force – surely, someone the Law would consider unclean to a good, devout Jew as Peter and pretty much all of Jesus’ disciples were.

Apparently, Peter was able to at least make some immediate connection between his vision and his current circumstances, though, since he invited these unclean Gentiles to spend the night there, at the house, recognizing that offering hospitality to others is more important than maintaining rules of ritual purity.

When they did arrive in Caesarea, even though Cornelius had sent for Peter, to learn from him, the reverse actually happened – Peter learned by listening to Cornelius, that the message of the gospel isn’t just for Jewish ears, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit isn’t just for Jewish hearts, but for Gentiles, too. And just as Phillip came to understand the universality of the Kingdom of God in his encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch, now here Peter learns the same thing. Just as at Pentecost, Peter ends up preaching, and people are again speaking in tongues – but where on Pentecost, it was the speaking in tongues that brought the audience to hear Peter’s preaching, and it was his preaching that led many of those listeners to follow Jesus; here, in Caesarea, Peter says that it’s him who’s learned something. And the speaking in tongues comes only afterward. In this story, God uses a very unlikely and surprising person to teach Peter an important lesson about the kingdom and the gospel – that there is no one who God considers unclean – that all people are God’s people; that all people are loved by God, that all people – all people – are created in God’s image, and dwelt within by God.

It wasn’t anything new for God to teach things to people in unexpected ways, through unexpected people, with the teacher becoming the student, and the new teacher being someone from completely out in left field. Even Jesus himself experienced this, in his surprising, even shocking, experience of being schooled by the Syrophoenician woman who taught Jesus that his mission was to Jew and Gentile alike.

I’ve come to think that this is God’s favorite manner of revelation, because its very outrageousness and surprise shakes us out of our assumptions and our complacency enough to actually be able to see and understand the message God has in mind. It’s easy to miss, or even intentionally ignore, some important but challenging message delivered in a way that’s too conventional, too expected, too polite. The scriptural account of God’s actions in human existence seems to be a strong witness to the idea that important messages like that often need to be conveyed in ways that are unexpected or even shocking, whether in Peter’s time or in our own.

If that’s true, then who in our own lives might God be using to speak some truth to us? What unexpected people, situations, what unexpected ways might God be using to try to expand our own understanding about God and the nature of God’s kingdom? I mean, most of us can imagine experiencing an encounter with the divine on some majestic mountaintop, or in the middle of an old-growth forest, or while watching some breathtaking sunset on a deserted beach. That’s where we expect to find God. But what if the reality is more often that God is in the unexpected? What if God is trying to speak to us through people and situations that would shock us to even imagine? What if God is less about the beauty of the rain forest and more about the shock of the reversal?

I invite you to think about the people you know, in whatever way, large or small. And imagine the person, or people, that you’d consider the least likely candidate for God to use to teach you something important. Now ask yourself, what if God actually is using that person to try to break through to you – and if so, what might that something be? Recognize that unlikely person is a beloved child of God, created in God’s image every bit as much as you, that they illustrate some particular facet of the multifaceted image of God just as much as you. Consider what surprising, unexpected insight God might want you to learn from them.

It’s an important, humbling exercise that we should all do for ourselves as individual Christians, but also in a collective sense, as the church. Even we Presbyterians, who place a high value on things being done “decently and in order” have to admit that so often, God is the God of the reversal. The unexpected. the unorthodox; the indecent and disorderly. The God of “we’ve never done it that way before;” the God of “well that would be different;” the God of “I’d never thought of it that way before.” Because of the very outrageous, unexpected way that God dwelt among us as one of us, and that God reconciles with us, we should always remember that God might very well be trying to do something unexpected at any time, in any way. Maybe sometime this month. Maybe this week. Maybe even yet today. The idea that God is the God of the unexpected, the God of the reversal, is good news for all of us because it means then that we can have hope in all things, in all situations, even when the odds don’t seem to be in our favor. It’s good news for us because the most powerful ways that God shows us how loved and precious we are so often revealed to us in the unexpected, in the reversal. Our God is indeed the God of the great reversal. Phillip and the Ethiopian eunuch learned that. Peter and Corneilus learned that. And, with God’s help, so will we.

Thanks be to God.