Jun 7th | The Reverend Kevin Scott Fleming | 1 John 4:13-16
As we make the turn into the summer months - a time with the ignominious label of “ordinary time” - we begin with today, Trinity Sunday. Trinity Sunday is a bit of an oddity in our liturgical calendar in that it is the only Sunday we celebrate an idea - a doctrine - rather than an event in the life of Jesus or the church. I will remind you, as I think I do every year - frankly, I’ve lost track - that the word “trinity” never occurs in the Bible. As close as we ever get are those verses - few and far between - that seem to mention what we know as the “persons” of the Trinity. We read one of them again this morning:
By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. -1 John 4:13-16
They’re all in there - Father, Son, and Spirit. Still, the author of the First Letter of John, and - quite frankly - all the other biblical references, leave it right there. They don’t tell us how one God exists in three persons. They don’t tell us how we are to rightly and fully understand the concept of Trinity. Frankly, they don’t tell us much at all.
Part of the problem was, you see, that before we were the church we were the synagogue. As part of the synagogue, we recited several times each day, “Shema Israel!” “Hear, Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” That was so ingrained in us that it became part of our DNA. We were monotheists then and we are monotheists now.
But then Jesus came along. And then we had the experience of the Spirit at Pentecost. And suddenly it seemed like we were talking about three. But, we had been raised right and we knew that God was one. So, over time, the idea - the doctrine of - the Trinity began taking shape. Unfortunately, many of the early church theologians - and later church theologians - broke a cardinal rule that my elementary English teachers had: that it was unacceptable to define something by what it is not. “Hot” could not be defined as something “not cold.” But, a lot of theologians talk about the Trinity by what it is not. A whole bunch of “isms” were developed to state what the Trinity was not: modalism, Arianism, tritheism, and many more. They are clear about what the Trinity is not, but not so clear about what the Trinity is.
It does not help that those of us raised in the Sunday School were given images that are ultimately unhelpful. Some of us learned that the Triune God is like water, which can be liquid, solid, or vapor. Or even, the Triune God is like a apple with skin, apple, and core. Frankly, those are not good illustrations at all as they begin to encroach on one or more of those “isms.” And, in what world should we be trying to teach children the intricacies of trinitarian theology?
So, let’s reduce it to its simplest terms. We’re talking about God and all that we can say about God is what God has revealed to us. This is the very heart of our reformed faith. We could say it in a couple of different ways. “Don’t get too far out over your skis.” “Don’t get caught in the depths.” Or, “That’s way above my paygrade.”
Too many in the church and beyond seem to know way more about God than has been revealed. In the belief that there is nothing the human mind cannot comprehend, observations and answers into the nature of God have been offered that bear no resemblance to anything the Bible has to say about God.
As much as we might not like to admit it, when it comes to God, we don’t have all the answers. When we come to consider the very nature of God we are met with a mystery - a puzzle - an eternal enigma. Our language is as limited as our understanding. The vastness of God cannot be reduced to our poor language or contained in the meager vessels of our minds.
Still, that truth does not excuse us from doing the hard work saying what we can about God and what that means for us.
The early North African church leader, Augustine, offered us an observation that is helpful. Augustine offered that if human beings are created in the image of God, then there should be traces of Trinity in human nature. He suggested that in the human mind there are three structures: memory, understanding, and will. These three work together in so intricate a manner that there are times when they are indistinguishable from each other.
This idea took hold in the early church. Contemporary pastor, preacher, and writer, Brian Mclaren says:
“I learned that the early church leaders described the Trinity using the term perichoresis (peri-circle, choresis-dance): the Trinity was an eternal dance of Father, Son and Spirit sharing mutual love, honor, happiness, joy and respect. Against this backdrop, God’s act of creation means that God is inviting more and more beings into the eternal dance of joy. Sin means that people are stepping out of the dance, corrupting its beauty and rhythm, crashing and tackling and stomping on feet instead of moving with grace, rhythm and reverence. Then, in Jesus, God enters creation to restore the rhythm and beauty again.”
All of that means that the Triune God exists in community - in relationship - in harmony. The Triune God exists in so complete a balanced perfection that the persons of the Trinity become nearly indistinguishable from each other and work together in a seamless unity.
Now, what does all that mean for us?
Maybe the lesson this year is that if God lives in community - “sharing mutual love, honor, happiness, joy and respect” - then maybe we, God’s people, created in God’s image, should be living in the same kind of community. Maybe the message this Trinity Sunday is to remind us that in every aspect of life, we are all in this together. Maybe the good news for us today is that God still calls us to dance together in beauty and loveliness, and that God still invites us to get back in step with the purpose and design of the Creator’s handiwork.
For far too long we have been “crashing and tackling and stomping on feet.” We have taken advantage of, and bruised, and broken God’s black and brown children. We have profited from their labor and withheld the fullness of citizenship and prosperity they deserve. We have ignored their stories, disregarded their contributions to history, and closed our eyes and ears, and our hearts and minds, to their pain.
The first step we white Christians must take is to repent of our past participation in all forms of injustice and discrimination. We must admit our part in creating the systems that oppressed - and continue to oppress - our fellow citizens and our sisters and brothers in faith. We must seek the forgiveness of those we have wronged and we must do everything - everything - we can to set things right.
The second step: we must learn how deeply ingrained our white privilege truly is. Most of us simply cannot see it, feel it, or understand it and therefore we do not believe it exists. But it does exist - it does exist - and it poisons our efforts at bringing our nation together in a beautiful and lovely dancing community.
And then, we must listen. It is not our place to tell, to speak, to dictate. We must be silent and listen to the voices long silenced - the voices of those who have been harmed - the voices of those who have been maligned - the voices of those who have been abused - the voices of those who have suffered the loss of loved ones - the voices of those who have abandoned hope. We must listen to the pain, the aching, the anguish, and the weariness of those who have called for change but have failed to be heard.
In our Confession of 1967, we read these words:
The life, death, resurrection, and promised coming of Jesus Christ has set the pattern for the church’s mission. His human life involves the church in the common life of all people. His service to men and women commits the church to work for every form of human well-being. His suffering makes the church sensitive to all human suffering so that it sees the face of Christ in the faces of persons in every kind of need. His crucifixion discloses to the church God’s judgment on the inhumanity that marks human relations and the awful consequences of the church’s own complicity in injustice. In the power of the risen Christ and the hope of his coming, the church sees the promise of God’s renewal of human life in society and of God’s victory over all wrong.
If we are to be a community that reflects the perfect and beloved community which is the Trinity, if we are called to join in the eternal dance of Father, Son and Spirit sharing mutual love, honor, happiness, joy and respect with each other and all people, if we are to see the day when the words of the Psalmist come to the fullness of their reality - “how good and pleasant it is when brothers and sisters live together in unity” - then let us make this the day when we begin to heal the brokenness, seek the forgiveness of those we have wronged, and listen to those we have not heard.
Let us be God’s people.
Let us embrace God’s call to be agents of reconciliation.
Let us adopt the pattern of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and promised coming as we pursue our mission.
And let us pray the Spirit’s power and presence that we may be found faithful.
For now and evermore. Amen.