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F. Earle Fox
St Luke's REC, Santa Ana, CA
Sermons -- Audio Version
Trinity Sunday - 5/30/10
Genesis 1:1-2:3 Psalm 99; Rev. 4:1-11; John 3:1-15
Trinity Sunday is the climax of our long walk through the life of Jesus from the Incarnation, through His ministry, Holy Week, Maundy Thursday, the Crucifixion, Resurrection, 40 days with His disciples, Ascension back to the Father, and the Coming of the Holy Spirit, which we celebrated last Sunday. Today is the summation of all that in the doctrine of the Trinity.
My personal experience with Trinity Sunday growing up, and for much of my adult life did not at all look like a powerful culmination of all those astonishing events. In fact, most of that time, my experience with the Church Year was that, for many Christians, it climaxed at Easter with the Resurrection, and that the rest of the Church Year was pretty much pro forma, not of substantial importance, and often hardly noticed. There was no clear evidence from what I could see that Trinity Sunday was anything other than a merciful end of that pro forma process.
I did not understand the Trinity as a doctrine, I did not understand how three could be at the same time one, but I did believe that there must somehow be a a real explanation of this three-in-one thing. Yet no one seemed to be able to come up with it. So, I just accepted it as one of "those mysteries".
Some of it was not all that mysterious. It was clear that early Christians had indeed experienced God in three different ways. There was first God as Father, which they inherited from their Hebrew ancestors. But God was Father of the community, of Israel, not of individuals. It was blasphemy to call God one’s own father because in Hebrew thinking, that implied being equal to God.
But then, secondly, Jesus comes along talking as though God were indeed His personal father, meaning to imply that He was God by nature. And furthermore, suggesting that God wanted to be our father also, and wanted us to be His children. But by adoption and grace, not by nature.
It is a bit uncertain as to just how clearly the twelve disciples understood Jesus to be the Son of God in the Trinitarian sense of being of "one substance" with God, as the Creeds say. But it did not take long for Christians to begin saying that because the impact of Jesus on their lives was something that only God could explain.
And thirdly there was the almost brand new experience of the Holy Spirit, God dwelling within them, changing their whole sense of who they were, giving them the capacity to stand firm in the face of frontal assault on their persons. They had a new power to "be themselves".
I say, "almost" brand new, because there were many individual experiences of the Holy Spirit descending upon persons in the midst of the Hebrews, right from the beginning. Abraham, Moses, the prophets, in particular, had an undergirding and stability which was rare in the human race, able to stand firm for the Lord in the face of conflict.
That there were these three experiences of the presence of God I had no doubt. How to express the unity of those three experiences as of one God was the problem. Christians were challenged by both the Jews and the pagans to explain whether they were monotheists or tri-theists. They firmly responded, "We are monotheists!".
One of the Church fathers came up with the notion of the "persona", which was the mask worn by actors on the stage to indicate a specific character -- villain, hero, fair maiden, etc. God was like that, one being, but relating to us humans in three fundamentally different ways, three personae, which we called the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost or Holy Spirit.
But to understand the Trinity, we must understand that the word ‘person’ has changed from its original usage, a mask to create a personality on stage. Now the word ‘person’ means a unique individual. God is not three individuals, which would be tri-theism, God is one person in the modern sense. There is apparently no word in ancient languages equal to our current use of the word ‘person’. So I use the word ‘persona’ or ‘personae’ (plural) to indicate the three aspects of the Trinity, and ‘person’ to indicate the modern sense. God is one person in the modern sense, but three personae in the ancient and creedal sense.
In our first lesson, we read the creation story, which is (1) the foundation of all else that follows in the Bible, and (2) unique in all religious literature. No other religion has a clear notion of an original Creator, who created out of nothing. There was no prior "stuff" lying around which God used to make the world. There was only the infinite range of pure possibility, possibility with no existence anywhere to be seen. There was God and nothing. But God decided to make a world, a universe, a cosmos.
The idea of the Trinity in God as a kind of family is not uncommon among theologians. But, beyond mentioning it, few, so far as I know, have developed that idea. The Trinity as family seemed like a very good idea, but I was puzzled as to the nature of such a family. There would be a clear Father, a Son, and then a Spirit with a somewhat fuzzy identity. There is much less clear theology of the Holy Spirit than with the Father and Son.
It seemed a strange kind of family until I began to take the creative side of God seriously as the feminine in God. The creative side of God is that which brings forth life, the power of being -- powerful comfort.
The Bible does not define the word ‘God’, but it is clear from the whole of Biblical history that to be God, one must be Creator of all that is, and one must be Sovereign over all that is.
In the Genesis story this morning, we find God making man in His own Image, male and female. Few theologians have speculated on just what that "male and female" means, but we get clues. We know that a part of man’s role on earth is to bear that Imago Dei, that Adam and Eve are to reflect whatever that Image might be, to carry it into the world. That would mean bearing and manifesting the images of creator and sovereign. We read, for example, that God creates Eve to be "a helper fit for" the man, Adam. Again, we are not told what the "fit for" means.
But if Adam is to reflect the masculine sovereignty of God, and to bear that authority as a spiritual leader, and if Eve is to reflect the feminine creative power of God, and to live her life so that that power of being radiates out into family and society, then it is reasonable to assume that the "fitness" of Eve for Adam is that Adam, who is not equipped to do a good job bearing the feminine, mothering side of God, needs Eve precisely to complete that image..., which shortly all comes together in the marriage of Adam and Eve.
Then, as the parental God-like beings for their children, they are to pass that Image of God as Mother and Father on to their children in preparation for the children meeting God Himself in person as their Creator and Sovereign.
Let us suppose, then, that in the Creator and Sovereign, we have two candidates for being members of the Trinity. They qualify in being both fully God and being both necessarily distinct from each other, as the creeds require.
Where, then, might we find the remaining member of the Trinity?
Christian understanding from early on has thought of the appearances of God all through the Old Testament to be appearances of the Son of God, the Christ, one day to be named Jesus. If that is so, then the appearance of God in the Garden of Eden was none other than the Son of God. Just as at the burning bush.
The Son of God is, among other things, the face of God turned toward the creation, God communicating one on one with His creatures, God as visible and imaginable. We will never see or touch God the Creator or Sovereign, we will see only God the Son. But being the Son of God, He, in His persona, presents the whole of God -- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
All through the Bible, God uses gender imagery to convey His message. Right at the beginning we have a marriage of two persons, Adam and Eve, made in His Image male and female; at the end of the Bible, we see a marriage between Christ and His Bride, the Church; and at the middle of the Bible, we read the Song of Solomon, a celebration of marital love, taken by some as an allegory for Christ and the Church. God is never called "she", but God is often pictured in mothering behavior. In Isaiah, God tells us, speaking of Jerusalem:
Behold, I will extend prosperity to her like a river, and the wealth of nations like an overflowing stream; and you shall suck, you shall be carried upon her hip, and dandled upon her knees. As one whom his own mother comforts, so will I comfort you. You shall be comforted in Jerusalem. Is. 66:12-13.
The word ‘comfort’ comes from the Latin ‘cum’ meaning ‘with’ plus ‘fortis’ meaning ‘strength’. With strength, cum fortis - like a "fort". "A mighty fortress is our God..." A fortress is an enclosing, receptive place, like mother receiving us into her care and protection.
St. Paul refers to Jerusalem as heaven:
But the Jerusalem which is above is free, and she is our mother. Gal. 4:26
"Mother Church" is not an uncommon image among Christians.
We read in our Gospel today, of Jesus telling Nicodemus that if he wanted to see the Kingdom of God, he had to be "born again", born of the Spirit. He could see the kingdoms of Judea, of Rome, Greece, America, but he would never see the kingdom of God unless he was born anew, born of the Spirit, unless he had made that journey from where his mother and father were God to where God was now his Father and Mother. Nicodemus must learn to receive his power of being and his reason for being from God alone, not from any created source.
He must invest his childhood in God to become an adult in the world. If he became a child of God, he would see the Hand and Voice of God at work here and now.
Jesus was pointing Nicodemus toward the answers to human problems. The "family" image then comes quite naturally to the Holy Trinity.
Anna Freud, daughter of Sigmund Freud, developed what she called "re-parenting", helping people to overcome the deficits in the parenting they had received as children. She understood the need for ontological security, she understood that infants first receive their ontological security from their mothers. Psychology has often been spurned by Christians as inherently secular and thus misleading. That is not true. Like any form of study, it can be used and done by Christians or by secular or pagan folks. And indeed, so far as secularized and in denial of God, like anything else, it can be very misleading. But when honest research is done, when truths are discovered, then we Christians ought to be the first to make use of them. Test them out first to see if they are true, and if they are, put them to work! They are from God.
It was work like this among many well-meaning and caring psychiatrists and psychologists which helped develop our modern idea of personhood, especially the notions of ontological dependency. Secular folks did not realize that they were doing our work for us, because many of their insights led us right back to God. Anna Freud was right, we need to be re-parented. But it is only God who can really do the re-parenting. Human beings can do only a temporary fix. God is our real Parent, the real source of our ontological security and of our moral stability. No human source can be the original supplier of those.
The doctrine of the One, Holy, and Undivided Trinity is the only possible answer on any fundamental level to our two basic needs -- ontological and moral stability. Meeting those two needs constitutes our salvation. We need to know who we are, and where we are going. All of us in this Fallen World have been inadequately mothered and fathered. Sometimes disastrously so. Sometimes we have brought the disaster upon ourselves by the unhelpful way we as children responded to bad parenting, or even to good parenting.
What I thought was an abstract and mostly irrelevant part of our Christian faith turns out to be the most powerful and relevant thing we can know and follow. The whole of the prior Church Year leads up to this day.
Rightly understood, the doctrine of the Trinity points to Him who rescues the world, and us in it, from the barrenness of abstraction and irrelevant religion, and from the barrenness and chaos of secular and pagan living. We can understand God Himself in the most personal and relational of family terms. Theology need not be abstract irrelevancies, far from the bumps and bruises, far from the joys and successes, of our passage here on earth. Life is all about relationship, and the Trinity itself is all about relationship, an internal family reaching out to the whole of creation.
We can see in the Holy Trinity an image of ourselves. We too are trinitarian, we too have a mothering and a fathering side as a part of our own nature, and we too have a child within us, forever. We will always be children, the difference is only in.... who will parent us -- God or the world?
Within each of us, these three necessary aspects of ourselves are separate and distinct. They cannot be blurred without damaging the whole. We are each one person in three personae.
When God said, "Let us make man in our own image....," He meant business.
I suspect that when the Episcopal Church in its 1979 Book of Common Prayer changed the summer Trinity Season to the Season of Pentecost, it wanted to replace a boring, and to some, embarrassing, theological concept with an exciting renewal process. But the Holy Trinity is the renewal of our human nature. It is the pattern for the wholeness, health, and holiness of our being and our doing.
Lord God, You are the mystery of all mysteries, and at the same time, closer to us than our own human family. Open our hearts and minds to Your triune presence within us and among us, and to see the glory of our own wholeness, health, and holiness in You. In Jesus name...
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