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

Seeing God

Second Sunday After Christmas  |  John 1:1-18

Seeing God

The Lectionary Project

Earth_Moon_NASAimage
Earth and Moon, a NASA image

No one has ever seen God, says the evangelist John in the first chapter of his Gospel. Never mind the vision of Isaiah, or Elijah in the cave, or Moses on Mount Sinai: they were mistaken, or only had a glimpse, or perhaps it all happened in their minds. Only the Son has seen the Father, John tells us, leaving us in the quagmire of understanding the Trinity, one God in three Persons, Father, Son and Spirit.

As we have said elsewhere, we may be like God, but God is not like us.

And what does John the Baptizer have to do with all of this? All of the Gospel writers insisted on the importance of this odd man in the wilderness, pointing people to God. What is the big deal, and why should we spend time at Christmas remembering such an outlandish man?

Perhaps pointing people to God is the message of Christmas, and that is what SolarSystem_NASAmattered about John the Baptist. He wasn’t making a fuss about himself, certainly wasn’t dressing to impress or living out the delusion that the world revolved around him. In that regard he was a spiritual Galileo or Copernicus, pointing out that the world, in fact, is centered elsewhere. We might consider living the same way—centered elsewhere. Both Johns, the Gospel writer and wilderness prophet, tell us so.

For all that we grasp the shape of our solar system, we cling to our notion of a world that spins around us.

A Christmas resolution then:

May we be centered in God, not in ourselves. May we live life better for knowing it is not only about us. May we keep Christmas by pointing to the presence of God, the holy Other all around us.

God has come into our world, and God will come into our world. Blessed are those who see.

The Copernican Universe, via NASA.gov
The Copernican Universe, via NASA.gov

God by Lamplight

Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost  |  Matthew 25:1-13

God by Lamplight

Ten maids there were. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise.

As stories go, it is a wonderful beginning. We hear these lines and know that the story might go anywhere. It is as though this is a Jesus version of Once Upon a Time. As with all great fairy tales, we do not think this is a true story, but we do believe that the story is made of truth. Anything might happen, anything at all, but we know that nothing good will come to the five foolish girls.

Most Christians hear this story, or the others like it, and think that it is about something called the Second Coming, the return of Jesus, the moment that evangelical Christians point to as the future and hope of humankind. They are probably right.

What if that isn’t the point, though? What if this story is about something different?

Let’s put it another way. How about the Trinity? Given much thought to the Triune expression of God as Father and Son and Spirit? Ever tried to explain it to a third grader? Ever tried to explain iThreeDuckst to a grownup?

What am I talking about?

Suppose we work with the basic notion of God the Father, the pre-existent Other-That-Is-God, before and after and beyond us—the aspect or expression of God that is untouchable, unknowable, unapproachable. And suppose that we consider God the Spirit, the expression of God who is or can be everywhere, at any time, within and behind and around and through everything everywhere, all the time. And, of course, there is God the Son, who as the incarnate Christ was fully God and fully human.

All three aspects are God. All the time. Everywhere. So what makes us think—in the Kingdom of the Triune God—that we are only waiting and watching for Jesus? How about the Father? How about the Spirit?

Might not God the Father break into our lives? Certainly Moses would argue that it might happen. Might not God the Spirit blow across our lives? Certainly Elijah would say so.

Jesus promised his followers that he would return, that is plain. The manner and timing and form of his return was left less clear.

When the five wise maids take their lamps and flasks of oil to go and wait for the bridegroom to arrive, they don’t know how long they might have to wait. (Even these wise ones fall asleep—a word of hope for us.) Why were they wise? They were prepared to see.

We seem to insist that God appear to us in the form we expect. In that, we act as though we have never read the scriptures. In all of those stories, when did God ever do anything the way anyone expected? Why do we think that this surprising God will appear in our lives in the form and in the way that we are expecting?

WatchingIf we open our eyes to see, we might be amazed at how often God appears, and in what forms. Today, God may have shown up as a child wanting a smile. Yesterday, we might have lost our temper with God when we thought we were only speaking to a waitress, as if anyone were ever only anything. Tomorrow, the Spirit might burst into our lives by way of a job, an illness, a flood, a gift, a stranger or a friend, and we will not see because God has not met our paltry and limited expectations of how, when and where God is supposed to appear, or how often, or to whom.

Once upon a time there were God the Father, God the Spirit, and God the Son. And with that beginning, anything might happen. Anything at all. Anywhere. Anytime. To any of us. Whether we are prepared to see or not.

Some Doubt

Trinity Sunday  |  Matthew 28:16-20

And having seen they worshiped him; but some doubted.

Mal lying down 027Eleven people went up a mountain in Galilee to meet Jesus. This was after he had died, of course, and after the resurrection. It does not say that some worshiped Jesus and some doubted. It says that they worshiped, and some doubted.

To make it plainer, some of the ones worshiping were also the ones doubting. That may be one of the most reassuring ideas in all of scripture.

The word that we are hearing is ἐδίστασαν, from διστάζω, not a particularly helpful fact if we do not know the Greek of the first century. It is a word that means something like “to stand in two places.” That is a more elegant expression of doubt, and one way that we can try to understand what happened—they worshiped while they doubted, trying to stand in two places at once.

It is understandable, their being of two minds about Jesus. After all, they watched the man die, and now here he was standing in front of them. It is hard to deal with that sort of dissonance when the universe dishes it up.

Most Christians today took an easier path. We began with the idea of an already resurrected Jesus. That way the death of Jesus becomes just part of the story, the background to this already living person. Doubt or wonder, or both, creep in when we try to put together the details of the resurrection story. Then we find that we, like those followers on the mountain, have one foot in faith and one in mystery.

The resurrection is simple compared to the Trinity. This man Jesus died, and then he was alive again. Fine, we might say. At least it is a story that moves in a straight line, life to death to life again, and who doesn’t want to hope for life on the other side of death? This was the God-man, you say? At once God and human? Fine, we can accept that too.

God is one God and three persons at the same time, you say? There is God who is entirely Other, and there is an aspect of God who becomes this Jesus person, and there is the aspect of God who is in all places and times at once? This is where most of us have to get off the train. We cannot imagine it.

On the other hand, I am a father, and I am a son, and I am myself. It is true that at some moments I appear to be more one than the others, but I am always all three. A star is comprised of the material within it, an impressive fusion reaction, and the energy that flows out from it as light. My dog has many aspects. He is guardian and watcher, hater of crows, lover of ice cream, bane of cats, fearless behind me, white fur blurring in chase or restful in sleep, his own person, my companion. He is all of those things, yet he remains dog, and I love him for all of his aspects.

The idea of the Triune God comes from scripture, but we have added a great deal over the centuries by way of explanation and illustration. For that matter, we’ve added a great deal of explanation and illustration to everything having to do with God. From the three rings of a pretzel to a bookshelf straining under the theology of Karl Barth, we keep trying to explain it. Here is how God created the universe, we say, never mind that the scriptural point was simply that God did rather than how God did. It is a God-thing. This is how the whole crucifixion thing works, we say—here’s what was paid, or ransomed, or fulfilled. Never mind that Jesus simply said to love one another as he loved us and left off the explanations.

Forget about explanations for a moment. If they mean so much, God would likely have provided a clearer manual for us to read, something with summaries and a nice index. Forget about the rules, who is right and who is wrong, especially who is wrong. Instead of explanations, we have stories, from creation to Jesus on a mountain. That might be a clue as to what is important, what matters.

The stories say that God is not like us, but that we are a little like God. The stories say that God has walked among humans. The stories say that God is love and light and that God loves each of us, though we don’t find any compelling reason for God to do so—quite the opposite. And the stories say that God is everywhere.

All of that leaves us with faith pushing against doubt, reason pulling against acceptance. It is like walking: we only manage to stand because of the tension in our muscles and bones. If you think too much about walking, you won’t be able to do it.

If God is everywhere, let’s expect God everywhere: in the rain, in strangers, in dogs and in starlight. Everything we find reveals part of God, and every revelation of God is all of God. We can worship while we doubt, and it is fine to doubt while we worship. It is part of our story of God, and God loves us for it.