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Excess Baggage? Heavy Luggage? A Stumbling Block? Or the Cornerstone?: Trinity Sunday

Sunday, June 7, 2020:
Genesis 1:1-2:4a; 2 Corinthians 13:11-13; Matthew 28:16-20

Every year, in our, and in many other traditions, the Sunday after Pentecost is called “Trinity Sunday.” And there are different reactions that people have. There are jokes about assistants and students being delegated to preach on the day. Some people get excited, because they can use creative illustrations, like water, and ice, and vapour, or something like that. Others might get discouraged, thinking: “why complicate things, when what we really need is a motivational speech?” Still others just think back to their childhoods, and mention learning the catechism in Sunday School or Confirmation class. And in the clergy ranks, the traditionalists that are my age or younger talk about inserting the very long and detailed Athanasian Creed into the liturgy on this particular day. I have no idea if it actually happens, but they take much pride in talking about it.

Myself, I think it’s important to delve a bit into the mystery of the Trinity. But not to do theology for theology’s sake, but because I think this doctrine, this way of talking about God, has something important to say about our faith, and something to say to us today.

So first of all, we might ask ourselves, or the Church, “why the Trinity?” There’s a story about a controversial bishop, James Pike. He was giving a lecture series in the mid ‘60s at, of all places, Trinity Church on Wall Street in New York, during which he referred to the Trinity as “excess baggage.” Now, by the time he published the book that came out of this, he softened his language, down to “a heavy piece of luggage.” So this famous bishop, and I’m sure many people who are not bishops have this feeling that everything would be so much easier if we could jettison this difficult concept. (At the same time, our ideas about God would be so much clearer if God hadn’t come down here and gotten murdered on a cross. As St. Paul wrote, it’s a pretty big stumbling block, a heavy piece of luggage; but it’s at the core of our faith.)

And that’s a pretty good segue. Why, since the 300s, have we insisted on carrying this rather heavy luggage along with us? Well, firstly, because of Jesus. Sometimes the doctrine of the Trinity gets criticized because you don’t find “Trinity” in the Bible. But doctrine (our thinking about God), or ethics, or whatever reflection that comes out of our faith is more than just finding and picking out Bible verses. Think about how you can pick out a snippet about “subduing creation.” But you can also pick out another one about the sacredness of creation. Or you can pick out a verse about “honouring the Emperor,” while others point to stories about the call to pursue justice. What I’m getting at is that credible, mature, responsible Christian reflection takes place as part of a community, as part of a living tradition, and by taking a step back and looking at what our stories, and history, and practices tell us about God, from a wide vantage point, rather than just zeroing in on something “here” and “there.”

So there were two big things that the early Church saw as important to maintain. With its Jewish inheritance, it insisted that God is one. There’s no room in our thinking, or at least in our worship, for a bunch of gods. So that is priority number one. Then there’s priority number two: Jesus. Jesus happened. The Jesus who said “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One” also spoke of an intimate relationship with that God without precedent. And Jesus did things, whether controlling the waves of the sea or forgiving sins, that was fully from God’s portfolio. And early Christian writing comes to speak of Jesus as the logos of God that was there in eternity with God, and through whom all things were created. So the Church insists on holding these two things together: one God, and Jesus: who is God, but also differentiated.

And then as the Church’s thinking continues on this, it also seems important to maintain that Jesus wasn’t a lesser god. Because if we’re holding to priority one (“one God”), then we can’t have this half-god. Meanwhile, the Church, along with its experience of Jesus, has had an experience of the Holy Spirit, at Pentecost, and in its ongoing life. So admittedly, our experience and our thinking and speaking and writing about God is less clear and simple than the monotheism we find in our cousins Judaism and Islam. But it all starts with this undeniable experience of Jesus. An experience of God that tells the Church that God is not so distant, so “out there” as we had thought. The Church’s experience of Jesus and the Holy Spirit says something to us about God being with us (as we heard in the gospel reading, “I am with you always to the end of the age,” or way back in the same book, “‘name him Emmanuel,’ which means ‘God with us.’”). And not just “with” us, but “in” us, through the activity of the Holy Spirit. So, again, the Church insists on the monotheism, the belief in one God. But the Church’s experience of that God leads it to say that we need to make room for a God that is beyond our initial categorization.

And so this way of speaking of God as Trinity, or Tri-unity, or trinity of relationships, is not the perfect, final way of talking about God. And things get even more testy when different languages, whether Greek, or Latin, or English get involved. But what the Church is trying to do is say that conceiving of God as Trinity is less imperfect than a bunch of the other options that were and are available to us. This language and conception of God as Trinity isn’t so much the rulebook to our game of worship and theology; it’s more like the field, the stadium in which it’s played. It’s the ballpark. It’s the preferred ballpark to the other ones that said that Jesus wasn’t God; or Jesus was a second god, or demigod; or that God was just going through stages at different times in history; or that there are three separate three gods. The Church settled into the ballpark that had room for one God, a perfect unity, but a perfect distinctness within that unity.

I remember almost 20 years ago, I took this course, the Philosophy of Religion, from Renison College. It was a summer distance ed course, on audio cassette, even then, in the early 2000s. And I learned this definition and argument for God that Anselm of Canterbury, Archbishop in the 11th century held in high regard: God is “that than which nothing greater can be conceived.” I did quite badly in the course, so I’ll summarize it hugely: God is the greatest and best that there can be. Because if there’s something better than God… well… then THAT is God. And so, since it’s better to exist than not to exist, then God must exist. It’s an argument from idea to reality, basically.

Now, while Anselm was a Trinitarian, this concept and argument isn’t particularly Trinitarian. It’s a God of the philosophers. A “way out there” kind of God. So we can contrast this idea, with the God we talk about on Trinity Sunday: an idea of God (that ballpark I was talking about just now) that starts from experience — the Jewish experience of the oneness of God, but then the wild, earth-shaking experience of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and the experience on the first Christian Pentecost — it starts with this experience and THEN we begin to put pen to paper and struggle, as best we can, to do justice to the experience, by putting it into the realm of idea, and concept, and language.

When we put pen to paper and try to assign the words, it may not be perfect, but it’s less imperfect than other possibilities out there. But at the end of the day we think that it is how we can speak of the God who wasn’t distant, but who created, and communicates. A God who is with us always, to the end of the ages, and was with us in Jesus, in our world’s suffering. And with us in the church community, when we come together and offer our God-given gifts for the common good. It’s a God who cares, is intimately involved, and a God who involves us (commissions us, like at the end of Matthew’s gospel). And this God that we, the Church, has come to know, especially in the language of relationship between these three “hypostases” or “persons” or “consciousnesses” of God, are not just manifestations of God, but they’re manifestations of God that tell us what God is like in God’s very being. The actions of God tell us something about the identity of God. So the relationship, the partnership, the love, the participation that each one has in the others gets us to the very heart of what God is. God is dynamic. God is self-giving. God is relational. God is constantly springing forth, reaching out, like the reaching out between a parent and child, or the reaching out of the wild Holy Spirit descending on the early Christian community at Pentecost. God is this dynamic never-ending expression of love that the Church has experienced and chronicled in its stories, and letters, and prayers. And as we struggle to embody love, and unity, and the appreciation of distinctiveness in our own world, we would do well to look to God, whose very Being is love, co-operation, diversity, unity, and mission. Amen.

© 2020 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter