One God, Three Roles Transforming the World
A sermon based on Matthew 17:1-9 *
March 2, 2014 at Mount Vernon, OH
by Rev. Scott Elliott
I attended a great play last night, The Marvelous Wonderettes. The play reminded me that I have not always been middle-aged and gray-haired for that matter. I have photographic proof that back in the days of polyester plaid pants, sideburns, huge Afros and platform shoes I was an undergraduate student studying drama at a small college in California called Stanislaus State.
As a drama major I had the opportunity to be in a lot of plays. In fact thirty-five years ago one Winter term I was simultaneously in three very different plays. Nancy was there she can tell you it was pretty crazy. One production was Shakespeare’s Scottish Play. I played the role of MacDuff, a father who lost his family to Macbeth’s reign of terror sets out to end that awful reign.
In stark contrast to the evening rehearsals of that dark Shakespearean tragedy, during the day I was in a children’s play. I had the delightful role of Christopher Robin, the precious precocious son of A.A. Milne whose gentle words and compassionate example demonstrate to Winnie-the-Pooh and others who enter the Hundred Acre Wood how to live and play.
And just to make matters even more interesting on the weekends I was in a little known musical called The Boccaccio Rhythm Theatre. This play was a series of short bawdy sketches. To give you an idea why you may never have heard of this show, in one scene I sang a ballad to a beautiful queen that began with these memorable words: “You haven’t been riding since Tuesday. I haven’t even seen you since then.” The show was a series of stories, the actors were a whirlwind ensemble that blew in and out of scenes in a rather fast paced play.
Like most actors . . . I can only recall how great I was in each of these plays. I have no recollection of being confused during the rehearsals or performances about my roles. In other words, I will deny any stories you may hear suggesting I appeared on stage mistakenly cooing “Oh Pooh” to Macbeth, or accosting Eeyore with the blood curdling Shakespeare line “Turn, hell hound, turn.”
Today is what is known as Transfiguration Sunday. The Lectionary text tells the story of Jesus transforming before the disciples very eyes into a sort of preview of what he would become after the crucifixion– after the resurrection. Our tradition tends to consider this story the Sunday before Lent as precursor to that journey to Palm Sunday, the handing over of Jesus to Rome, the torturous death on the Cross on Good Friday and the glorious resurrection on Easter Sunday.
For other traditions, like the Orthodox churches, a feast is celebrated in August with emphasis on this text and the revelation of the Trinity.This text, you see, is pretty unusual in that it has long been understood to refer to all three parts of what we call the Holy Trinity. God the Father calls out to Jesus the Son from the Holy Spirit appearing in the form of a cloud.
Most folks are not aware that ‘the Trinity” is a doctrine that is not really in the Bible, but rather has its origins with (wouldn’t you know it) a lawyer in the third century lawyer named Tertullian who put together the initial Trinity concept as an argument to defeat claims that Christian could not be monotheists and believe in Christ as God and the Father as God at the same time. Tertullian’s point was to show that Christians were not polytheistic, and to preserve monotheism in the Christian tradition. His argument has evolved into a rather esoteric sounding doctrine that there is One God made up of three separate persons, the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
We talked a little bit about this in Adult Forum a few weeks ago. It often seems that we are asked to imagine a three-headed divinity and that’s hard to conceptualize. People have come up with a lot of complicated, even mind bending ways, to think about the Trinity and its impossible sounding 3-in-1 nature; but today I going to suggest some practical ways of conceptualizing the Trinity.
Marcus Borg argues in his wonderful book, The God We Never Knew, that to understand the Trinity (and I quote):
we need to realize that the Latin and Greek words translated as ‘person’ do not mean what ‘person’ commonly means in modern English. For us “person” suggests a separate being (and thus suggests to many people that the Trinity is like a committee of three separate beings). But ‘persona’ the word used by Tertullian referred to the mask worn by actors in Greek and Roman theaters. Masks were not for concealment, but corresponded to roles.”1
In other words, the persons in the Trinity originally were meant to be thought of as three roles; sort of like that Winter Term three decades ago at Stanislaus when this one person standing here before you literally had three very different roles, a father, a son and a really bad ballad singer – which to make the analogy work you’ll just have to use your imagination and pretend was a Spirit of some sort.
Or to make it fit our everyday lives, it’s like being an employee, a parent, and a spouse, those are three different roles that many of us act in our daily lives, as one person.
So if we consider the Trinitarian roles how Dr. Borg suggests they were created to be considered, in today’s verses we can see how God acts as the One in the role of Father –the Creator– who claims Jesus as Son. We can also hear how God acts as the One who is Jesus, the Christ, the very embodiment of God in humanity on that mountain top; an example in the Gospels of how to live and love and be. And we can hear God appearing on earth outside of Jesus, in an immanent, present form of God acting on earth as the Holy Spirit, in this story perceived as a cloud. Today’s scripture can be read to justify Tertullian’s model of experiencing God as a Trinity of roles. Father/Creator; Son/Christ Human embodiment; and Holy Spirit/ vehicle for God to otherwise be active on earth. But notice how God’s being is present all at once, acting as the voice, the cloud and through Jesus. All three roles are experiences of One God.
In the Christian tradition the three general roles by which we name our experiences of God’s thinking, feeling and acting in relation to the world are generally referred to along the lines of Creator, Christ and Holy Spirit and are collectively known as the Trinity or The Trinitarian God.
We need to remember, however, that Trinity was designed as a model, a way, of picturing how our One God does things, it’s Tertullian’s clever metaphor for explaining the otherwise unexplainable. The model can be applied in a myriad of different ways: For example, a traditional way to think of the Trinity is expressed by Daniel Migliore: “[t]he love of God comes originally from the one called ‘Father,’ is humanly enacted for the world in the sacrificial love of the one called ‘Son,’ and becomes a present and vital reality in Christian life by the one called ‘Spirit.’”2
That is fine, but there are other ways to consider the Triune nature of God, for instance our Puritan ancestors thought of God the Father as choosing who would be saved; God the Son as accomplishing their redemption; and God as Spirit making it effective. 3
Another example is modern theologian John Cobb’s view that one could think of God as being experienced as the Creator who has made all things; Christ as the embodiment of God in creation; and the Holy Spirit as God’s future Reign on earth that we are aimed to bring about. 4
Or as I suggested in Adult Forum another way is to simply think of the Trinity as God experienced in the past (Creator), present (Christ) and future (Holy Spirit). 5
There are many ideas and symbols and ways to use the metaphor and model of the Trinity to understand God and how we experience God. But what is most important when thinking of the Trinity is to never forget that any experience of what we might call one or more members of the Trinity is always an experience of the One we call God. 6
Today on Transfiguration Sunday we fittingly celebrate communion. Where we pray to God the Creator in thanks for the life and lessons and love of Jesus –God’s embodied example given to show us The Way. At this table we call upon the Holy Spirit to be active in the bread and cup and in each of us, so that we might experience the loving Christ as we remember and reenact Jesus’ loving, open and inclusive table, The Way that he started in response to the call from the Creator to love all creation – and in particular all humans. The bread and cup through each member of the Trinity can be in a sense experienced as transfigured from ordinary food and drink to vehicles that let us mindfully celebrate, honor and remember, through the power of the Holy Spirit working to transfigure us. We remember the sacrifice Jesus made for us by laying his life down in such a powerful way that he lives on even today; his life of love and broken body and spilt blood long vindicated by God. The bread, body, cup, wine, blood become for us mindful metaphors: The Bread of Life. The Body of God. The Cup of Christ’s Blessing. The Spirit of God. The Life-blood of Creation.
We experience Communion as a meal, a re-enactment and presentation of God’s open table first given to us by Christ where today through the Holy Spirit’s magnificent works anyone – anyone– is welcome just as they are.This table provides a sacrament that mediates experiences of God’s presence; even as we are reminded this morning of experiences of Jesus mediating God’s presence through his transfiguration and a life lived in communion with God.
In fact this table reminds us not just of actions by Jesus two thousand years ago, but that humanity is capable of great things though a life transfigured and lived focused on God now, here in the present.
We remember that when we are mindful of God, when we answer God’s call to righteousness, justice and love that amazing things can and do still happen, through us, and through our predecessors– saints of the church.
Of course there have been many great saints in history some are remembered by name in books, but, most are unnamed continuing ripples in time, waves on the ocean of history moving through generation to generation to generation. In a very real sense transfiguring the future through words and deeds in the past and in today. Jesus certainly did this. St Francis, Martin Luther, Harriet Tubman, Sister Teresa, Martin Luther King all did this too. But most waves of affect that are passed on through the generations have been started with lesser known saints. People like us acting in our communities in response to God’s call to righteousness, justice and love on earth; people living and working to transfigure the world one step, one person, one moment at a time.
I have no doubt God is saying of such folks– like God said of Jesus in today’s story– “These are my Daughters and my Sons, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased!” May we all be such children of the living God, God of the past, present and future – our Trinity of hope– that can transfigure, and is transfiguring, the world. AMEN.
* This manuscript is based on a sermon I originally preached in 2008.
1. Borg, Marcus, The God We Never Knew, San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, (1997), 98.
2. Migliore, Daniel, Faith Seeking Understanding, (Grand Rapids: William Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004), 69.
3. Noll, Mark, The Old Religion in a New World, Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans (2002), 38
4 This interesting view of the Trinity was culled from John Cobb’s Christ in a Pluralistic Age, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, (1975) 259, 261-262.
5 .This notion finds support from Christian theologian John Riggs, whom I understood in 2005 to explain in a course on Baptism and Supper at Eden Theological Seminary that the Trinity boils down to explaining Christian understandings of the One God in the past, present and future.
6.Cf., Borg, 98. Prof. Borg asserts that the “persons” of the Trinity in the ancient Greek and Latin texts refers to masks worn by actors to “correspond to roles,” not to individual persons. “To speak of God and three persons is to say that God is known to us wearing three different ‘masks’ – in other words three different roles.”