Who Cares About the Trinity? – John 16.12-15

May 26, 2013 – Trinity Sunday

Happy Trinity Sunday! I hope you’ve picked up this far in the service that we’re talking (and singing and praying) with words related to the Trinity. We’ve used language from The Brief Statement of Faith of the Presbyterian Church in the liturgy and you can find the entire statement and see its trinitarian parts in the announcement portion of the bulletin.     
    So…who really cares about the Trinity? Other than the theological idea of the virgin birth, the doctrine of the Trinity is the most maligned, disavowed and ignored theological doctrine in my experience as a pastor. Isn’t the Trinity really just an archaic, pieced together, made up theological doctrine that isn’t really in the bible? A doctrine “lacking in any practical significance and riddled with mathematical nonsense that demands a sacrifice of our reason and a demeaning submission to arbitrary church authority? Can this doctrine serve any other purpose than to obscure and obstruct the important causes to which enlightened people should dedicate themselves?”1 Wouldn’t we be better to let the Trinity die a quiet theological death and put our hearts and minds on more important theological ideas?
    Those are all conversations I’ve heard over the years. They are probably words many of you have said or thought. I can’t recall a single conversation in twenty one years of being a pastor where anyone said, “Tell me about the Trinity. It is such a foundational part of Christian theology and I want to understand it better.”
    So we might very well be tempted to resign it to the shelves of history and dust it off from time to time when we’re recounting for our children theological ideas that came and went. But before we do that, let’s take another look at the Trinity and, like Jacob in the book of Genesis who told the man with whom he wrestled, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me,”2 see if we, too, can wrestle a blessing out of the Trinity.
    I suspect John 16 was chosen for Trinity Sunday because it includes Father, Son and Spirit–the traditional formulation of the Trinity. But as many of you have noted, the doctrine of the Trinity is not something that Scripture overtly points to. You can’t look up the word “Trinity” in a concordance and find it in the Bible. Jesus doesn’t talk about his part in it. There are places in the Bible where God, Jesus and Spirit are all mentioned together–for instance at the end of Matthew where the disciples are told to baptize in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.3 Paul talks about the three persons of the Trinity the most and we hear this in places like his benediction at the end of the second letter to the Corinthians: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.”4 (A refrain you typically hear some version of at the end of the worship service.)
    If we think of the doctrine of the Trinity only as an abstract and arbitrary theological idea, then we might as well throw it away. But what if the idea of the Trinity developed over hundreds of years and multiple generations of followers of Jesus who were trying to figure out how to make sense of their experience of Jesus? The first Christians did not speak about Jesus’ divinity or speculate about his divine nature. “They thought about what Jesus did. Here is a man who acts like God, does what only God can do…He heals and raises the dead with the life-giving power that belongs only to God. He dares to forgive sin as only God has the right to do.” What did all that mean? This experience with a person who seems to embody God. “After his death and resurrection it became clearer to them. They still did not try to explain it, but they now confess that the risen Jesus is ‘Lord’ and ‘Savior’ who is ‘far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named.’” That is, writes theology professor Shirley Guthrie, “they now give Jesus the same names, the same authority, the same saving power that they had reserved for God.”5 Which raises a distinct problem. How can you say there is one God but also now say Jesus is somehow God?
    Add in the Spirit who Jesus says will come to be with us when he returns to God and you have the theological questions that ultimately led to the development of the notion of the Trinity based on reflections on experience and Scripture.
    Now the doctrine of the Trinity is not something we believe in. It’s a way of understanding the nature of God. And, like all the ways we have for understanding God, it is flawed and falls short of God’s true nature. One of the theological tenets we Presbyterians hold with the rest of Christendom is “the mystery of the Trinity.”6 It’s always said that way: the mystery of the Trinity. I’ve never seen it just as “the Trinity.” In trying to understand the Trinity, we need some of the wonder we hear in Psalm 8. Not to explain it away but to look at it and wonder in awe and amazement. Shirley Guthrie writes, “What is finally important is not that we comprehend the mystery itself but that we see how the doctrine of the Trinity functions in Christian thinking about who God is and what God is doing in our lives and in the world around us.”7
    Richard Rohr, who is the founding director of the Center for Action and Contemplation, said at last week’s Festival of Faiths we can’t understand the Trinity with a dualistic mind. That is the worldview of yes/no, up/down, it’s this or it’s that. The Trinity must be understood contemplatively.8 Or as another pastor wrote recently, the Trinity is a truth that “[requires] the wisdom and discernment that come to us only in an ongoing daily walk of faith.”9
    We will sing at the end of the service, “May the church at prayer recall that no single holy name but the truth behind them all is the God whom we proclaim.”10 The Trinity points to the nature of the One whom we proclaim, worship and adore.

    So what is it that the Trinity points us to? What is it that this theological idea tells us about God? And what does it tell us about ourselves?
    John Calvin, who I come to appreciate more and more, insisted “our knowledge of God and our knowledge of ourselves are always inextricably intertwined.”11 That means as we come to know God more, we come to know ourselves more. As we come to know ourselves more, we come to know God more. Which means this stuff matters. Not just for historians of religion but you and me and every other ordinary person trying to follow the way of Christ.

    My seminary theology professor, Dan Migliore, says “the starting point of trinitarian faith is the good news of the love of God in Christ that continues to work transformingly in the world by the Holy Spirit.”12 Shirley Guthrie unpacks the traditional formula of the Trinity that we sang in the first hymn, “God in three persons”13 to mean, “They are one God who in three different ways wills and does the same thing.”14
    But still? So what?
    There are at least three things that matter for our lives–there may be more–but these three catch my attention and perhaps will catch yours as well.
    To confess that God is triune is to affirm that at the heart of God is life in relationship. God lives and loves as Parent, Child and Spirit. We speak of the three “persons” of the Trinity but it’s not like we think of being a person–distinct and independent from others. The members of the Trinity have personal identity not from their separateness but in relationship with one another. They exist in relationship and exist because of relationship.
    And here’s the other thing about God in relationship. The persons of the trinity are not all the same. There is difference and otherness at the heart of the Trinity. At the very heart of who God is there is otherness and diversity.
    If we are created in God’s image, which the Bible says we are, then we are created for relationship. The Christian view of human life is to be connected. We are not isolated free agents, bouncing around in the universe. We are made to be in relationship with others. And with others who are not like us. That is part of where the Trinity points us. Which is not abstract or arbitrary. It’s very specific and very relevant in a world where we are more and more isolated from one another and less and less connected with people who think, believe, and behave in ways that are different from ourselves.

    When we confess God is triune, we are affirming that God exists in community. Each one of the members of the Trinity makes room for the others, are hospitable to each other, join one another in a divine dance. In the triune community, all are equals and all are compassionate toward one another. There is no hierarchy, no domination, no giving up without also receiving.
    Again, that is not abstract or arbitrary. How might we see our capitalistic society through the lens of the triune community? The basis of capitalism is individualism. Society is made up of individuals who pursue their individual interests–including their interests in making money. But at some point individual interests clash and then it’s generally the individual with the most money (which equals power) who wins over the individual with less money (and less power). And then the winning individuals get together to pool their resources and win even bigger against the losing individuals with fewer resources.
    A trinitarian community has no place for a system where some individual interests dominate the interests and resources of others. Being a community in the image and likeness of the triune God means acting for the well-being of all (as difficult as that is to do in reality). Being a community in the image and likeness of the triune God means we set as our goal a community where we do not tolerate differences that separate or set up domination. A community where “human beings hold everything in common and share everything, except their personal characteristics.”15

    Finally, “to confess that God is triune is to affirm that the life of God is [at its heart] self-giving love.”16 You can probably hear that these three ideas are all related to one another. The triune God is in relationship with others, in community where all are welcome and valued, and loves with compassion. Last week at the Festival of Faiths I heard someone say compassion is the recognition of another’s suffering and the desire to alleviate it. Which is a bit scandalous when you think that the Creator of the Universe cares about the suffering of its creatures. To confess God is triune breaks apart the immutable, immoveable, aloof and distant characteristics with which we have too long saddled God. We see this self-giving love of God who chooses the way of suffering, alienation and death for the salvation–the healing–of the world. It is the same suffering love of the God of the Hebrew prophets as in Jesus.
    The Trinity then is not a doctrine that directs our gaze back to dusty history but pushes us forward toward a world that is healed and made whole. Where the commonwealth–and truly, riches of all kinds that are shared in common–of God is fully realized for all of creation. “The glory of the triune God will be complete only when the creation is set free from all bondage”17 and lives to sing its praise to God.
    I don’t know about you but I think that’s a theological doctrine worth resurrecting from the history books and doing our best to live into.

* * *

1 Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding – An Introduction to Christian Theology, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), p60. To clarify, Dr. Migliore is not taking this position about the Trinity but stating how people often think about the Trinity.
2 Genesis 32.26
3 Matthew 28.18-19
4 2 Corinthians 13.13
5 Shirley C. Guthrie, Jr., Christian Doctrine, rev. ed., (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), p78.
6 The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA), Book of Order, F-2.03
7 Ibid., p84.
8 The whole presentation by Richard Rohr can be seen at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uaMVKnpsDA8
9 Barry Howard, “Reflections on the lectionary” in Christian Century, May 15, 2013, p21.
10 Thomas H. Troeger, “Source and Sovereign, Rock and Cloud,” hymn text, Glory to God – The Presbyterian Hymnal – A Sampler, (Louisville: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation, 2012), #2.
11 From Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, quoted in Migliore, p56.
12 Migliore, p59.
13 Reginald Heber, “Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty!” hymn text, Glory to God – The Presbyterian Hymnal – A Sampler, (Louisville: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation, 2012), #1.
14 Guthrie, p88.
15 Jurgen Moltmann quoted in Leonard Boff, Trinity and Society, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988), p151.
16 Migliore, p70.


What Would Jesus Pray For? – John 17.20-26

May 12, 2013 – Seventh Sunday of Easter

The gospel reading this morning from John comes from the very end of what scholars call Jesus’ Farewell Meal and Discourse. It begins in chapter 13 with Jesus celebrating the Passover meal with his disciples and washing their feet. Then, knowing his death lies ahead, Jesus tells his disciples what he most wants them to know as preparation for the time that is coming soon when he will no longer be with them. We hear Jesus say, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” “I am the vine; you are the branches.” He also says in several different ways that the Holy Spirit, the counselor, will be with the disciples when Jesus returns to God.
Then in chapter 17, where we find ourselves this morning, Jesus turns away from the disciples and speaks to God. Jesus prays for himself, for his disciples and then for those who will come after his disciples, who will come to believe, to trust in Jesus, because of the subsequent witness of the disciples. That is, he prays for us.
Now remember in John’s gospel, Jesus addresses God primarily as father. It’s a term of intimacy and closeness as a beloved child to a beloved parent. Because that also applies to a mother as well, I’ll read use father and mother in the reading.

[Read John 17.20-26]

If I were Jesus and I was at the end of my conversation with them about everything they would need to know when I was gone, I would give them a quiz. Or at least a fill in the blank summary of my main points. Or I’d give them a little flash drive with power point slides from my presentation and a bonus video of what I said set to some funky mash-up music. I would want to make sure they got that it was so important for them to remember what I said when I was gone. They could ask me questions now when I was still with them but before long they were going to be on their own and what would they do if they didn’t really remember what I’d said?
The writer of John’s gospel does not make note of any hand outs. No quizzes. No reports turned in by the disciples. Someone took some notes because we have this narrative in the gospel but it came probably decades after Jesus lived.
Instead of making sure his disciples had the Cliff notes they would need after his departure, Jesus prays. That’s how he winds up his farewell remarks. He’s said what he needs to say to the disciples and now he turns to talk to God.
And the disciples, and us all these generations later, get to listen in.
It is as if Jesus is standing in the center aisle where Mark, Madison and I stand each week as part of the prayers of the people. The part where we offer words on behalf of all of us, lifting up people and circumstances about which we are concerned and giving thanks for all that is good and beautiful and holy in the world around us. In this part of John’s gospel, Jesus stands in our midst and prays for us.
“Jesus hands those whom he loves back to God and holds God to God’s promises for this community.”1 He entrusts the future to God. He doesn’t give an end of the semester exam or ask for the disciples to write a paper on his main points because he trusts the future to God. It doesn’t mean that we don’t have any part in the future but, as John scholar Gail O’Day says, as she reflects on this passage, “The future of the church ultimately does not depend on or derive from the church’s own work, but rests with God.”2

This is so freeing because  it means it’s not all about us. The Book of Order, the first part of the Presbyterian Church’s Constitution says, “Christ calls the Church into being, giving it all that is necessary for its mission in the world, for its sanctification and for its service to God.” In praying for us, Jesus gives us what we need.
And what does Jesus pray for, for us?
He prays that we would be one.
He doesn’t pray that we would remember everything he told the disciples. He doesn’t pray that we won’t make a mess of the church. He doesn’t pray that we will do everything right.
He prays that we will be one.
What does it mean for the followers of Jesus to be one? Jesus prays that we would be one as he and his heavenly parent are one. John’s gospel is all about making the connection between Jesus and God. When we see Jesus, we see the one who sent Jesus. When we see Jesus acting, it is God whose actions Jesus embodies. When we hear Jesus talking, it is God’s word that Jesus speaks. Not in any kind of science fiction “pod person” sort of way; as if God took over Jesus’ body and made him a automaton. The incarnation–Jesus, the Word of God who became flesh and made a home among us–is the tangible, presence of God with us. To see Jesus is to see God. To know Jesus is to know God.
It is that kind of oneness that Jesus prays for his followers; that Jesus prays for us. That when people look at us, they will see Jesus. And specifically, see the love of God in Jesus. The love God has for Jesus and the love Jesus has for us.

Regrettably, that has not been our strong suit. The whole history of the Christian church is rife with anything but evidence of the love of Jesus. Even today, isn’t it easy to criticize other followers of Jesus? We’ve sort of made a habit out of it. Just listen to most any conversation among church people–liberal or conservative, downtown or suburban, little church or mega church. We are so fast to criticize others; to point out how we are better than them.
This isn’t just our problem. In the 6th century, Dorotheus of Gaza, a monk and abbot, said of his monastic community, “We remain all the time against one another, grinding one another down…Each considers [his or her self] right and excuses [themself]…all the while keeping none of the commandments, yet expecting [our] neighbor to keep the lot!”
What was Dorotheus’ wisdom in this situation? To pray. Especially a difficult and humbling prayer such as, “‘O God, help my brother, and help me through his prayers. [O God, help my sister and help me through her prayers.]’ In this prayer, Dorotheus says, we show sympathy and love for those with whom we’re in conflict, and also acknowledge our need for compassion in return.”3
It is not easy for us to be one–to share in the loving unity that God and Jesus share–as a witness to the world of God’s love. It is difficult even in our closest relationships. It is difficult in our families; in our churches; in our communities. It’s not difficult all the time but I can certainly think of plenty of times where I have failed miserably–and probably you can too.
I take comfort in this last part of Jesus’ time with his disciples that he doesn’t give an assessment of one more thing that we don’t do well or even one more presentation about love but instead, he holds us in prayer. Praying that we might live the life of love as he lived in God’s love and God’s love lived in him.
So, I wonder, what is it that you need–or our community needs–to be one, to be more whole, to have more love?
And now, can you imagine the risen Christ praying for you? Praying for us? For exactly what it is that we need?

* * *
1 Gail R. O’Day, “John” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. IX, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), p797.
2 Ibid.
3 The story of Dorotheus comes from Kathleen Norris’ The Cloister Walk, (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996), p274.