Why Trinity?

(sermon 6/16/19)

mellon memorial fountain

John 15:26 – 16:15

[Jesus said,] ”When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.

”I have said these things to you to keep you from stumbling. They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God. And they will do this because they have not known the Father or me. But I have said these things to you so that when their hour comes you may remember that I told you about them. “I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts.

Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned. “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

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Imagine being a congressman’s spokesperson, and on this particular day it’s your job to give the press a logical, rational, totally normal and explainable reason why the congressman had just been arrested by Capitol police drunk, naked, and dancing in a park fountain. If you can imagine that, you have some kind of an idea how pastors feel every year on this particular Sunday, Trinity Sunday, when we’re supposed to lift up and consider this most fundamental, absolute bedrock piece of orthodox Christian theology, and supposedly explain it and make it more understandable, make some sense out of it, without stepping into one heresy or another, which, honestly, is almost impossible.

As I said in the weekly email, the concept of the Trinity came out of the 4th century church trying to construct a rational, systematic way to harmonize what Jesus had taught about God, and himself, and the Holy Spirit, who he called the Spirit of Truth, the Advocate, or the Comforter; along with what the earlier scriptures had said about the nature of God.

Now, the whole idea of constructing a rational and systematic way of understanding something as irrational and un-systematic as the nature of God is a pretty daunting challenge, to put it mildly, I suppose these early church fathers did about as good a job as they could, or as good as anyone could, which is to say not very.  And yes, they were all church “fathers,” they were all men; that very fact alone shaped the solution they came up with, in ways that are still troublesome to us today. I wonder what the past two thousand years of Christian theology would have looked like if their church councils would have been more diverse, more representative, an even proportion of men and women, and from across a broader geographical and cultural spectrum. I wonder what a group like that would have come up with to try to explain the nature of God.

In any case, what they did come up with was essentially a set of propositions – a set of theological assertions that a person had to profess they believed about the nature of God in order to be considered a good or “true” Christian. There are a couple problems with this. The first is that some of these propositions are functionally illogical, so that when someone questions them, the only acceptable answer becomes “Yes, it’s an illogical mystery, but you just have to believe it, and that’s just the way it is;” which is hardly an answer that would satisfy many people, whether you’re a full-grown adult or a thirteen-year old Confirmand. The biggest problem, though, is that most of the people trying to explain God as a Trinity tended to focus on trying to explain the composition, the essence, the makeup, if you will, of these three persons, or identities, or ways-of-being-God; and the details of how they’re in relationship with one another. But I believe that what’s most important about the nature of a trinitarian God isn’t those points, but the far more basic point that they’re in a relationship at all. That in and of itself is incredibly important, because it can tell us a lot about ourselves. Getting a handle on the reality that God is, at God’s very core, by definition, a relationship, can teach us something important about what it really means to have been created in the “imago Dei,” the image of God.

A couple of weeks ago, the sermon touched on this relationship – I’d mentioned “perichoresis;” the all-important, inseparable relational bond among those three persons, identities, ways-of-being-God that those early church fathers termed Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I’d mentioned that this relationship was one all-focused on acts of love, through continuous acts of creation, reconciliation, and sustaining; all of them doing all of those things simultaneously with and through the others. And so, if an intense bond of love and relationship is the very nature of God, then that is still very important to us today, because being created in the image of God means then that we are created with the primary purpose of being in a similar relationship with the people around us. Our whole reason for being becomes doing all that we can to be in relationship with, and to reconcile with, and to sustain, to seek justice and peace for, all people. It isn’t just something nice that we can add on to whatever else it is that we might think is our real spiritual life; it *is* our spiritual life. It’s our  purpose for being here; it’s our “Job One.”

The concept of the Trinity gives us the answer to the question of what our purpose is; in essence, what the meaning of human life is. And because we know that Christ has taken care of the “vertical” relationship between us and God through his life, death, and resurrection; because we know that there’s nothing that we can do to work to achieve that; because we know that that’s a gift given to us entirely by God, that it’s God’s choice to do so; we now have freedom, we have liberation – we’re now free to focus on this “horizontal” relationship among all of us here. That’s our purpose. That’s our reason for being. In all of its shapes, that’s our call.

I want to be clear – I enjoy all of those deeper discussions and debates about the Trinity, and the nature of the three persons, and all of that as much as the next pastor. But maybe just for today, I want to suggest setting those debates aside, because frankly, it’s impossible to ever rationally understand the full nature of God, so no one can ever know the full truth and reality of those discussions anyway. So today, maybe just focus on that way of thinking about the Trinity that focuses on the idea of God being within a relationship of love – that God, by definition, then, *is* a relationship, one that continuously creates, reconciles, and sustains, out of a deep love and desire for peace and justice for all in the relationship – and that means that we should be, too. Focusing on the Trinity like that can be a huge relief. It should make you happy. It night even make you joyful, maybe ecstatic even. But if it goes that far, just make sure you don’t end up singing and dancing in a park fountain somewhere – and if you do, at least keep your clothes on.

Thanks be to God.

Schrödinger’s God (sermon 5/31/15 – Trinity Sunday)

heresykitten

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. – John 3:1-17

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Well this is kind of a double-whammy for preaching in the church calendar. Last week, we had to try to understand what exactly was going on at Pentecost, and now, just one week later, it’s Trinity Sunday and I guess we’re supposed to clear up the mystery of the Trinity. The idea of the Trinity, that in some indescribably way, God is simultaneously one, and three – the exclusive one, indivisible, eternal “Being,” or Essence, of God; while simultaneously the three distinct “Persons”, or Identities, or whatever. We heard this particular gospel text today because it’s one of the few places we find where these three aspects of the Trinity are referred to so closely together. The problem, of course, with this indescribable mystery is that it can’t be left indescribable. In order to explain what it is you’re trying to say about God, and in order to teach people in the faith what it means, you have to try to describe it. You have to find some kind of parallel or illustration to explain it. You’ve probably heard some of these illustrations: The Trinity is like water, which is one thing that can exist in three different states of solid, liquid, and gas. Or another one is that God is like a single actor who plays three different parts in a play, who steps onto stage in one of three different costumes and one of three different masks, at different times in the production. Or, God is like salad dressing: take some oil, some vinegar, and some water; shake them all up together, and you’ve got a single tasty thing.

You could go on listing illustrations like this all day long that people have used to try to explain the Trinity, but every single one of them ends up misrepresenting some theological concept that the doctrine of the Trinity is trying to affirm, or deny, about God’s nature. Every one of them will either overemphasize the “Threeness” of God over the “Oneness,” or vice versa; or it will violate some other theological concept about God. The early church fathers looked at what the scriptures said about God’s oneness, and what they perceived about Jesus. They saw Jesus praying to a God he called Father, and yet when asked about seeing and knowing this Father, Jesus told people if they’ve seen him, they’ve seen the Father. They looked at what Jesus said about the Holy Spirit, and they came up with this doctrine of the Trinity to explain it. In doing so, they created a doctrine where you have to believe two things that contradict each other both exist simultaneously. You have to believe that X, and the opposite of X, are simultaneously true. If you saw this week’s Westminstergram, you saw that it included a funny picture about the preacher’s dilemma every Trinity Sunday. It’s impossible to try to explain the Trinity without falling into one misrepresentation, one heresy, or another. So as the picture suggested, maybe the best thing a preacher could do is to not even try – to just throw up their hands, keep their mouths shut, and just distract the congregation by showing pictures of cats doing cute things.

If pushed to explain the Trinity, most Christians would describe an arrangement where God the Father is the President and CEO of Eternity Incorporated, and Jesus and the Holy Spirit are God’s two Executive Vice Presidents. But that’s heresy according to orthodox belief, which says they’re all equal. In theological terms, most professing Christians are actually functional Unitarians. And we might as well be honest with ourselves and admit that a lot of Christians, whether they admit it or not, have chucked the whole idea of the Trinity, saying it’s just an outmoded way that ancient people tried to explain God that wasn’t even very adequate from the start; that if a concept is so impossible to really explain, then that’s a pretty big clue that the theory is wrong and that you need to go back to the theological drawing board. There are many modern Christians, and many people who have rejected the Christian faith specifically because of the doctrine of the Trinity, who say that God gave us brains and intellect for a reason, and that God-given reason points pretty strongly to the conclusion that the whole idea of the Trinity is nonsense. Two things that are by definition opposites can’t simultaneously be true. Something just can’t simultaneously be two opposite things, the way the Trinity requires.

And yet… that same God-given intellect has given us the science of quantum physics – the study of matter and energy at their smallest, even subatomic level that began in the early 20th century which has shown that at this smallest scale, objects don’t function according to the same set of rules of classical physics. One of the things that quantum physics pointed to was that, in fact, some completely contradictory things were able to be simultaneously true. Quantum physics suggested that matter could somehow move from point A to point B without ever having moved through the space between them. It also predicted that subatomic particles could actually, literally, be in two places at the same time. Understanding the world through the lens of quantum physics, everything seems less real and solid, and things become a series of probabilities, something that goes against the way we’d always thought reality works. When all this was first proposed back in the early 20th century, the noted physicist Erwin Schrödinger thought at least part of the idea was ridiculous, and he formulated a thought experiment to illustrate his objection. Now bear with me, this is going to get a bit tricky…Take a hypothetical cat and place it in a hypothetical sealed box, he said, along with a vial of poison gas, a Geiger counter, and a single atom of a radioactive material that had a half-life of one hour – in other words, in one hour the subatomic particles of the atom would be expected to decay under the laws of conventional physics. When the atom decayed, the Geiger counter would register it, and it would trigger a hammer mechanism that would break the vial of poison and kill the cat. But according to quantum physics – and I’m skipping over a whole lot of detail here – because it’s impossible to say how the subatomic particle will react – whether it will or will not decay at the one-hour mark. This is what the quantum physicists call subatomic indeterminancy. That would mean that at the one hour point, the atom would have to be said to both have decayed and not decayed. And if you extended that same logic to the larger things, Schrödinger argued, it would be just as logical to say that you couldn’t know if the vial had been broken or not, so it existed in a state of simultaneously being broken and unbroken, and ultimately, that while it was still sealed up in the box, unobserved, the cat was simultaneously dead and alive.

It was a ridiculous idea, to be sure. And yet, since Schrödinger’s day, scientists have proven that at least at the atomic and subatomic levels, matter and energy really do behave that way – things that are opposites actually can be simultaneously true; something can move from point A to point B without actually transporting through the space between; something actually can be in more than one place, I more than one way of existing, at the same time.

And if the laws governing existence at the smallest levels can be different from the way we exist in our visible world, why couldn’t the way God exists violate the laws that apply on our own level? Why couldn’t the God who created a cosmos where quantum physics in in force in the micro level exist under similar parameters in the macro level of divine being? Maybe in the doctrine of the Trinity, the ancient church fathers accidentally got closer to the truth of God’s existence than they could have ever known.

Whatever your own understanding about the Trinity might be, personally, I think it comes down to this: If you can conceive and believe in a God who is the ground and source of all creation, who has acted to be in loving relationship and reconciliation with that creation; and who continues to penetrate into and dwell within, and guide, and inspire, and comfort the beings in that creation; and that this God has eternally, constantly been doing all those things simultaneously; then I think you believe the theological underpinning that the early church was trying to convey in the doctrine of the Trinity.

In the end, that’s the best explanation I can offer. That’s the best I can do. If that isn’t good enough, and I have to resort to distracting you all with pictures of a cat, I guess it will have to be Schrödinger’s – now, all I have to do is figure out whether the darned thing is dead or alive.

Thanks be to God.