Three Strangers and Other Odd Notions

Trinity Sunday | John 16:12-15

Three Strangers and Other Odd Notions

God is one, and the one are three. Together they walk, in Trinity. –Folk Rhyme

The notion of the Trinity is one of the oddest ideas of Christianity. It’s a strange concept. You may well question the usefulness of it, whether there is any practical application. There is. Just stick with the theology for a minute.

Building on the older Jewish teaching that God is one, which was a contrast to the more common polytheism of the ancient world—Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is One—Christianity developed the understanding that within this one being are the three persons of God: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

The Trinity, by Masaccio c.1427
The Trinity, by Masaccio c.1427

The descriptive references to the Father and Son and Holy Spirit are already present in various New Testament writings, but a fully developed idea of the Trinity took a while longer. For some three centuries, early Christian theologians debated and discussed the idea (modern theologians still do), trying to understand the relationship between each of the three persons of God, and trying to find language to express it.

Words like homoousios (ὁμοούσιος) and perichoresis (περιχώρησις) crept into Christian thought. The persons of God are homoousios—of the same substance or essence. They exist in perichoresis—in and around and interconnected to one another, distinct but inseparable.

Let’s put it this way. Christianity holds that God, in and of God’s self, before and after and outside of time and outside of all that is (if such concepts are imaginable), exists as one God in three persons, one being in three and three beings in one, in eternal relationship.

There is practical theology here. Thinking of God as the Trinity has powerful implications for what it means to be human.

At the center of God, within the irreducible idea of God, one does not find a singularity, a separate and lone being. On the contrary, at the center of God, one finds relationship.

That means, theologically speaking, that the entire basis of our universe is relational. The universe and everything in it is intrinsically relational, because it was all the creative expression of a God who is intrinsically relational.

Because God reveals God’s own self as relational, all of us are relational. To avoid relationship, to ignore the interconnectedness of all of us and of everything around us, is to lose the best part of ourselves, to miss the mark, to fail at being fully human.

Yes, you can reach a similar conclusion through psychology, or sociology, or philosophy, or ethics. All of those approaches tell us that to be intentionally connected to the people and society around us is healthy, beneficial, desirable. The theological approach—that we should practice relationship because we are the expression of a relational God—takes one more step. Being relational doesn’t just make us healthier or more balanced, and it doesn’t just make the world a safer and saner place. Being relational means that we are living in harmony with God, that we are, in fact, an expression of the creative will of God.

You might believe that God created an Adam and an Eve out of clay. You might believe that God used the same clay, the same stardust, over millenia, cell by cell and gene by gene, to form humanity. You might believe God had nothing to do with it. It doesn’t matter. In the end, none of these positions have a tremendous effect on the way you relate to other people and to yourself.

The idea of the Trinity? Far from being the esoteric past-time of religious intellectuals (not an oxymoron, despite the anti-intellectual behavior of some Christians), the theology of the Trinity is powerfully, insistently practical. To the extent that Christians embrace this revelation of God, we must embrace the world—all of the world.

That is to say, God as Trinity would have us embrace those who are not like us, those who do not look or act or sound like us, those who believe in God, those who believe in something other than God, those who believe in nothing at all. God would have us embrace all of these, including the least of these, the criminal, the poor, the broken, and the unlikeable.

It is in looking at our neighbors that we see God, and it is in reaching out to them that we touch God.

Song of a Man Who has Come Through

by D.H.Lawrence

Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me!
A fine wind is blowing the new direction of Time.
If only I let it bear me, carry me, if only it carry me!
If only I am sensitive, subtle, oh, delicate, a winged gift!
If only, most lovely of all, I yield myself and am borrowed
By the fine, fine wind that takes its course though the chaos of the world
Like a fine, an exquisite chisel, a wedge-blade inserted;
If only I am keen and hard like the sheer tip of a wedge
Driven by invisible blows,

The rock will split, we shall come at the wonder, we shall find the Hesperides.

Oh, for the wonder that bubbles into my soul,
I would be a good fountain, a good well-head,
Would blur no whisper, spoil no expression.

What is the knocking?
What is the knocking at the door in the night?
It is somebody wants to do us harm.

No, no, it is the three strange angels.
Admit them, admit them.

Masaccio, The Trinity (closeup), c.1427
Masaccio, The Trinity (closeup), c.1427

You Probably Think This Verse is About You

Garden View

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost | Mark 10:1-16

You Probably Think This Verse is about You

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts based on the Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary.

Way back in 1972 (and yes, I remember it) Carly Simon released a song called “You’re So Vain.” Here are the words of the refrain:

You’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you
You’re so vain, I’ll bet you think this song is about you
Don’t you? Don’t you?

Album cover: The Best of Carly SimonIt was a huge hit. Since the song came out, plenty of people have tried to figure out who the subject is—Warren Beatty? Someone else? Several people? All of us?

It should have been playing when the Pharisees came asking Jesus about the legality of divorce. And it should be playing while we read the story in the Gospel of Mark.

We tend to think that the story is about divorce. We may even think it is about us, especially if we have been divorced (or if we’re contemplating it.)

Divorce is the subject matter, that’s true. There is even a followup by way of a private conversation between Jesus and some of his disciples. So you could argue that the passage really is about divorce.

Fair enough. It is just not what I’m hearing in the story.

Still, if you’d like to read more about divorce and about making sense of the various views of divorce in the Bible, you should read Craig S Keener’s book And Marries Another: Divorce and Remarriage in the Teaching of the New Testament. (The link will take you to the Amazon page where you can find it.) Keener’s approach is clear, interesting, and best of all helpful (unless you are looking for ways to beat people over the head with rules—then you’d be happier reading something else.)

In Mark, context matters. The way parts of stories are matched up or put together matters.

Here, we begin with a journey in verse 1 and end with another journey in verse 17. Let’s take those journeys as our bookends and look at what Mark has bound together.

In the beginning we have Pharisees and laws about marriage and divorce. Afterward, we have Jesus being indignant, perhaps even angry, that his disciples were shooing the small children away, keeping them from approaching him. This isn’t about rules or law. This is about relationship and acceptance.

Take Jesus’ response to the Pharisees. He points back to the creation stories, which are overwhelmingly relational: the relationships of God to creation and of human to human are the most foundational theological expressions of the creation stories.

God has joined us all together. It is not just about one marriage, or one relationship, or a handful of people. It is about grasping the relational aspect of God, the relational aspect of the Gospel.

We are all in this thing together. Like that garden in the story of Eden. Like a married couple. Like children running to someone they love.

That’s the point.

Maybe we were right. Maybe these verses really are about us.

Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden
Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1530. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria