A Trinity We Can Work With
A sermon based on Romans 8:12-17
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on May 31, 2015
Today is Trinity Sunday. And you know what? It is hard to find a good Trinity joke. I finally found a funny story on line that mentions the Trinity . . . I’ll let you decide if it is a good one.
Once upon a time, centuries ago, a very pious anti-Semitic king declared all Jewish people residing in his realm were to be exported. Naturally there was a big uproar. So the pious king made a deal. He and a member of the Jewish community would have a religious debate, if the Jewish representative won, they could stay, otherwise they had to leave. The Jewish residents had no choice so they picked an old man named Moses to represent them. Moses slowly walked up to palace gate and sent word to the king he’d debate but only if neither side was allowed to talk. The pious king looked out, saw the old man hunched over at his gate, and smugly sent word that he agreed and to come into the courtyard.
Moses and the pious king then sat in the courtyard and began the silent debate. At first they just sat staring at each other. Neither moved for a long time. Finally the king raised his hand and showed three fingers. Moses slowly raised one finger. The king then waved a finger in a circle around his head. Moses pointed to the ground where they sat. The pious king carefully pulled out a blessed wafer and chalice of wine. Moses pulled out an apple. The king stood up and said, “I give up. This man is too good. All Jewish residents may stay.”
An hour later the king’s bishops and priests met him in the palace and asked what happened. The king said, “First I held up three fingers to represent the Trinity. He responded by holding up one finger to remind me that there was still one God common to both our religions. Then I waved a finger around me to show him that God was all around us. He responded by pointing to the ground and showing that God was also right here with us. I pulled out communion elements to show that God absolves us from our sins. He pulled out an apple to remind me of original sin. He had an answer for everything. What could I do?”
Meanwhile, the Jewish community crowded around Moses. “What happened?” they asked. “Well, first he signaled the Jews had three days to get out of here. So I pointed out that not one of us was leaving. Then he said the whole city would be cleared of Jews. Well, I let him know that we were staying right here.” . . . “And then?” asked a woman. “I don’t know,” Moses replied. “He took out his lunch and I took out mine.” 1
The issue of the Trinity started off the confusion in this story and actually reminds me of almost all religious discussions I’ve had that start with the Trinity. They all seem to end up in confusion. And the Trinity is really weird to think about, at least on the surface when we couch it in traditional theology-speak. The common phrasing is something like the Trinity is the “belief that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are three persons in one Godhead. They share the same essence or substance. Yet they are three “persons.” 2.
In our experiences as human beings that description alone –which I took directly out of a theological dictionary on my desk– sounds like gobbledygook. Three persons in the Godhead sharing same essence . . it’s confusing!
Most of you know that I left Church as a teen because I believed with all my soul that God is love and that churches I experienced back then seemed to worship a god who was judgement and condemnation, not love.
After I left church, in my teen years and early twenties, I harshly judged and condemned all churches and all Christians as having a lack-love God. I was wrong, of course, but I had not been able to find churches like this–and there are many–that believe in and worship the God who is love. It took me twenty years of “wandering in the desert” without a church to finally find how very wrong I was.
In those days of wandering, even as a teen, I became quite adept at pointing out what I considered the flaws of Christianity to Christians who tried to convert me and save my soul from their god of judgement and condemnation. I found that one of the Church doctrines that flummoxed most of those who were “witnessing” to me, was the Trinity Doctrine. They could not explain it, and tended to leave the discussion more confused than me, because I did not need to explain it, I just put the burden of proof on them to make sense of what they claimed was a basic doctrinal belief.
When I did come back to church, when I thankfully found the love side of Christianity, I knew the areas I found hard to understand, and by then I was a lawyer. And you probably know this . . . lawyers don’t like to lose debates. So I steeped myself in getting a grip on the areas of confusion in Christianity, including the Trinity doctrine – one of the most arcane sounding theological ideas.
If you do even the slightest bit of research into the Trinity doctrine you will pretty quickly find it is not expressly in the Bible. The word “Trinity” is never mentioned in Scripture. You can find references to God being called Father and Son and Spirit but not three-in-one. You can even find a few rare instances of them all being referenced in same section of scripture, like in today’s reading we heard reference to Spirit, Father and Christ, but no author in the Bible calls them the Trinity, let alone describes them as “three persons in one Godhead . . . shar[ing] the same essence or substance [as] three ‘persons.’”
Nothing in the Bible says Christians have to believe the Father, Son and Spirit are three persons in one God head. It’s just not there. Well, when I discovered that, I figured that was an easy debate win. Just say “Hey it’s manmade, makes no sense and is not even referenced in the Bible.” And I know it is heretical to say so, but that is actually a fair tact to take. If at the end of the day the Trinity makes no sense, we can let it go. We do not have to get our heads around it and believe it. Jesus did not start his following with the Trinity Doctrine as a litmus test to get in.
When the church became nationalized in Rome in the 4th Century they sorted through ideas and arguments the early church fathers had developed about the faith. Early on the newly nationalized Church accepted the Trinity argument and it was then that it pretty much became a doctrine of the church and a litmus test for orthodoxy . . . or heresy–depending on whether you accepted it or not. But neither Jesus, Paul, the Gospels, the Epistles or any other part of the Bible set out the Trinity doctrine, let alone name it as a test of faith.
So my early impression of the Trinity as a new Christian and a then practicing lawyer was to basically Judo-flip a common Christian bumper sticker, and argue that the Bible doesn’t say it, I don’t believe it, so that settles it.
But I did not give up on the Trinity because I discovered that it was itself actually an argument created by a lawyer. Seriously. Tertullian, one of the early Church Fathers lived in the third century and he practiced law in Carthage a part of the Roman Empire in Africa. He and other Christians faced condemnation and resistence from monotheists who argued that texts like we heard Deb read from Romans, and the practice of baptizing in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost evidenced Christians worshiped three gods not one God. Christians were “tri-theist” not monotheistic, the argument went . . . and still goes. I have actually heard that argument made by a Muslim friend. But really Islam and Judaism, like Christianity understand God as transcendent and immanent, that’s twofold . . .a God who is more than everything, yet in everything. 3
The difference is that Christians add to that two-fold nature an understanding that the decisive revelation of God occurred in humankind in and through Jesus the Christ–and we understand that third-fold (Christ) is still efficacious, still capable doing godly things in the world. We, like other monotheists, claim God is transcendent in the Father Creator, as well as God is immanent in the Holy Ghost, the Spirit that moves in creation now. What we add is that Jesus is the Son, the Christ that reveals God in humanity.
I sometimes like to think of it this way, that for Christians the Creator provided the engine of the universe, the Spirit is the internal spark that ignites and causes a people piston to move, and that Christ is that identifiable movement in humanity. It’s all one process, one engine with a spark and a resulting godly animation of us.
But Tertullian did not have a combustible engine to use for an analogy. What he had was theatre and he used actors and masks as an analogy. A Christian lawyer who knows theatre? Well, now you know why I like this guy, Tertullian. I not only understand his need to argue, but what he is talking about. See the word we translate into English as “person” in the Trinity in Latin is something else. It is “persona” which in Tertullian’s day literally “referred to the mask worn by actors in theatre. Actors [back then] wore masks . . . to play different roles.” 4 In fact the Latin root of the word persona means “to sound through.” 5
We have probably all seen those happy and sad drama masks with huge smiling or frowning mouths. Ancient theatres did not have microphones so they left the mask mouth open to send the sound through–some even had megaphones built in. So persona, as Tertullian used it, meant the roles God is experienced as – sounds through– on the stage of life. Really. For Tertullian Personas are roles, not persons per se. And so the Trinity model was originally meant to argue that just as one actor’s head could wear three different masks and be experienced in three different roles, so too can God be experienced in multiple roles.
This model was intended to defeat assertions that Christians were not monotheistic. Christians experience God speaking in the transcendent role of God as Creator, and in the immanent role of God as Spirit, and, of course, in the incarnational role of God as Christ in human form–first as Jesus and now as us acting as the Body of Christ’s hands and feet and voice in the world. To put it quite simply, when it comes to the Trinity we can choose to not understand God as three persons in one God, but instead understand three roles God generally has for us in our theology. This was Tertullian’s original point in the Trinity model he created.
This way of hearing the Trinity allows us, if we need to, set aside the impossible non-Tertullian sounding three persons in one person logic and make sense of the idea of the Trinity by asserting we can have belief that the Creator, Christ and Spirit as three personas of one God that share the same essence or substance, but are experienced differently.
Today is the day on the Christian calendar that we celebrate the mystery and the glory of those different experiences. God who is beyond our comprehension and beyond our world, the Creator role of God. God who is also here and everywhere drenching creation like a sponge soaked with Holy water, the Spirit role of God. And God who was incarnate in a man we know as Jesus, who showed – and shows– us the we can incarnate God in our humanness now, and be a part of the Christ role of God.
Obviously we could make an infinite number of subsets of how these roles get played out on the stage of life in each bit of creation and events, but we’ve simplified it calling the roles Creator, Christ and Spirit.
I have been reminded for the past few weeks of the glorious lush place God made of this beautiful planet we call home. If we stop and take in –even if only for only a moment– the world around us in virtually every sub-set of creation, from bees to blossoms to leafy trees and flowing streams, there is both this otherworldly Glory in nature, and also in the very worldly earthbound holiness. It is Divine! Creator and Holy Spirit vibrate in each nook and cranny when we look for it.
And as we move and have our being in it we can choose to be more than just surrounded and soaked by God, we can choose to also add more to the Divine vibrations. Our actions can incarnate God. In other words, we have a role we can choose to Godly play on this stage we call life. We can act like Christ, be like Christ and so be a part of God’s actions in creation.
It’s pretty remarkable, we don’t have to be emperors or generals or rich or powerful or perfect or even strong and healthy–we can choose in any given moment to participate in Godly activity. We can be more than a passive God drenched particle, we can be active particles of God in this precious time and creation that we are blessed to live and move and have our being in.
So today we celebrate the Trinity, the Triune nature of our God, its mystery and its glory and its presence. And we remember that we are not only soaked by it, but can be –INDEED ARE CALLED TO BE– an active positive part of it. See, it’s a Trinity we can work with! How awesome is that?
Let us go and be Christ in the world! It’s our calling.
2. Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms, “Trinity, doctrine of the” p 288
3. Borg, Marcus, Speaking Christian, p. 213.
4. Ibid at 214
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