26 May 2013

Love Poured Forth

Andrei Rublev's "Trinity" icon, 15th century.
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31 and Romans 5:1-5

Trinity Sunday, 26th May 2013

According to the liturgical calendar, today is Trinity Sunday, the first Sunday after Pentecost.  It’s the Sunday we lift up the Triune nature of God:  One in Three and Three in One. If you want to see eyes glaze over fast, spark a conversation on the Trinity.  If you want to see a congregation quickly doze off during a sermon, try preaching on the Trinity. 

 I don’t mean to be flip about it, just honest.  This central doctrine of orthodox Christianity is a tough one to wrap our heads around.  Logic and reason make certain demands.  How can one be three?  How can three be one?  One substance, three persons or manifestations of the one:  Father, Son, Holy Spirit.  Mathematically it doesn’t all add up. Maybe the problem is math itself, using numbers to characterize the Living God.  Such reflections can be abstract, cold, calculating.  And let me tell you, the theological literature on the Trinity is pretty abstract and, at times, cold and calculating, and depending upon the theologian, pretty boring.

            Yet, the doctrine is central to Christian orthodoxy.  It’s one’s the theological claims that sets us apart from other world religions.  And other religions look at us with great puzzlement, as a result.  Take Islam, for example.  Early on Muslims and Christians actually worshipped in the same buildings.  It was difficult to tell Muslims apart from Christians. There are many affinities between Islam and Christianity and Islam itself has great respect for Jesus and his followers. But when it comes to the Trinity, from their perspective it looks like we are polytheists, that we have three Gods, not one God, such as Allah.  Allah is one. God must be one.  How does one have three in one and three in one?

            It’s tough for them to understand.  It’s tough for us to understand.  I know many Christians who overlook this aspect of the faith and don’t affirm every article in either the Apostles’ or Nicene Creeds (or they recite the creed with their fingers crossed). When these creeds were written, for example, the church was wrestling long and hard over the theological question of the Trinity.  It wasn’t abstract for them.  It was real and critical.  The church expended a lot of emotional energy and considerable intellectual acumen in the hope of getting this right.  It’s difficult for us make sense of this.  Some Christians give the Trinity lip service, but, to be honest, this image of God is not all that important for them.  Many Christians are really more Binatarian in their thinking – focusing on God and Jesus, not sure what to do with the Spirit.  Other Christians are Unitarians – it’s all about God, Jesus wasn’t divine and the Spirit is not a separate entity of the Godhead.  Unitarians, however, are not really considered orthodox by a majority of the Church. It’s a subject for debate and disagreement.  There was a time when Unitarians were refused admittance to Princeton Theological Seminary.  One of my friends at Rutgers College was denied admittance to Princeton Seminary because he was a Unitarian.  He went to Yale Divinity School instead.

            So, can you see why preaching on the Trinity is problematic?  And there’s another reason.  The word Trinity is never found in the New Testament.  It’s not there.  We have Trinitarian formulas, as in Paul’s benedictions.  But there’s no reference to the Triune God.  That comes centuries later.  The first of the early church fathers to use the word "Trinity" was probably Theophilus of Antioch (d.183-185) writing in the late 2nd century. He defines the Trinity as God, His Word (Logos) and His Wisdom (Sophia), and refers to the Trinity in a discussion of the first three days of creation.  The Word (or Logos) was with God at the beginning, according to John’s Gospel (John 1:1-5).  And so was God’s Wisdom or Sophia.  We heard echoes of this in the reading of Proverbs 8, with reference to Divine Sophia whom God calls forth in the creation of the world.

Beyond Paul’s benedictions we have texts like Romans 5, especially verses 1-5.  While we don’t have a systematic definition of the Trinity here, which comes centuries later, all three persons of the Trinity are featured here.  And what we find here in the text, I think, paints for us unique and distinctive image of God.  It’s the one thing I want to lift us here.

Look closely at the text:  We are justified by faith – justified meaning declared righteous, meaning forgiven, cleansed by God, made one with God.  And it’s done; it’s already achieved through Christ.  We are justified, therefore “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”    Peace with God.  And we have more than peace.  Through our Lord Jesus Christ we have gained accessed to something.  We have obtained access to God’s grace, “in which we stand.”  We stand in grace, through Jesus Christ.  Not only do we have peace and grace, we are given a promise: the hope of sharing in the glory of God.   All this is true because we are now with God through Christ.  We stand with Christ before God. 

            And because of this, other things are granted to us, especially to those who suffer:  suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.  The follower of Jesus is able to move through sufferings because she knows that she’s not alone, that we stand in God’s grace, at peace with God.  There’s a kind of spatial dimension to Paul’s message here.  We live in this knowledge that saves.  And such knowledge yields hopes.

            And hope does not disappoint us—why?—“because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

            And there you have all three: God, Jesus Christ and Holy Spirit.  God at work through Jesus Christ offering something to us.  Jesus Christ sharing in the glory of God that is offered and promised to us.  We, standing in grace, surrounded – by God, in three manifestations, yet related.  The use of the word “related” is very intentional here because this is the one thing I really want to lift up today.   Because essentially what we are given here is an understanding, an image of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit relating and working for one another, serving one another, relating to us, and working for us and even serving us.  What we’re being offered here is an image of God as essentially a relationship. God is a Divine Relationship, literally a Holy Communion, a Holy Community of persons in relation, persons motivated by love.  It’s love that pulls them together.  It’s love that defines them.  And it’s love that is being poured forth from them, through the Holy Spirit, to us.   God’s love has been poured into our hearts.  This implies, therefore, that through this love we too are part of the Divine Relationship, we get to partake of the Holy Community, we get to share in Holy Communion.  We exist in that relationship.  When we pray, when we worship, when we share in the sacraments, when we love, even when we suffer, the love of God is pouring through us and we discover the power and the beauty of the simple word “with,” we are doing all of this with God.

            Many theological works on the Trinity are cold, obtuse, and technical, which is a shame, really.  The Trinity is not a puzzle to be solved, but a mystery to be celebrated and encountered. Our analytic minds have reduced the mystery into a puzzle to be solved, we’ve dissected it and torn it apart instead of celebrating and embracing the mystery.   And what are we celebrating?  “We have a God who is relational - who expresses a dynamic living pattern of relationship. And - WE are made in this image! WE are made relational. WE are made to be a dynamic living caring pattern of relationship with others and with All.”[1] And it’s only through our ongoing encounter and relationship with God does the mystery take on life and relevance.

            There was one theologian, however, who wrote a magisterial work on the Trinity that was different.  It was Augustine (354-430) and the title of his book, simply, was The Trinity (De Trinitate).  It was written while the battles over the nature of God were still raging around the Roman world.    It’s a long and complicated book.  It was his contribution to the debate.  He had some ideas to share, but he also knew his limitations and approached the subject with great humility.  He wrote:  “Dear reader, whenever you are as certain about something as I am go forward with me; whenever you hesitate, seek with me; whenever you discover that you have gone wrong come back to me; or if I have gone wrong, call me back to you.  In this way we will travel along the street of love together as we make our way toward him of whom it is said, ‘Seek his face always.’”[2]  Wise counsel for every Christian in every age.

            That phrase –Seek his face always—is a quote from Psalm 105.  Augustine cites this psalm at the beginning of his work on the Trinity.  He cites it again half way through, with a special accent on always.  He quotes it a third time toward the end, this time in full:  “Let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice; seek the Lord and be strengthened; seek his face always” (Psalm 105:-34).  And then he cites it a fourth time in the concluding prayer, this time adding passion, urging the reader:  “Seek his face always with burning desire.”[3] 

            What it’s striking here in this demanding theological text is that Augustine is not interested in intellectual acrobatics, great feats of technical theological engagement.  This is not a cerebral, academic exercise for him.  He’s seeking understanding, but also something more.  Augustine is not looking for a theological concept or an explanation of the Trinity.  He’s searching for the living God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Most of al, it’s a desire of the heart. It’s a desire to participate in and live in and with the living God, to enter the relationship.  It’s love that drives him forward.  It’s love that draws him searching toward the Trinity. 

            And “Finding means more than simply getting things straight or discovering the most appropriate analogy in human experience for the Triune God.  There can be no finding without a change in the seeker.  Our minds, Augustine says, must be purified, and we must be made fit and capable of receiving what is sought.  We can cleave to God and see the Holy Trinity only when we burn with love.”[4]

            And if Paul is right – and I trust that he is – God is already at work in us preparing our hearts and minds.  Love is being poured out through the Spirit all the time, right now: a love that draws us into the Divine Relationship, into Communion, into a relationship, a space, a place where we know grace and peace.   When we are alive in that relationship, when we view God relationally, when we see the world relationally, then love pours forth into our hearts and into “the street of love” and into the hearts of the people we love and have difficulty loving. The Trinity is relational and relevant and personal.  There’s nothing abstract about any of this.  The images we have of God and the images that have us make all the difference in the world.

[1] The words of Alexander Shai, founder of Quadratos:  www.quadratos.com.  On relationality and the Christian experience, see also Kenneth E. Kovacs, The Relational Theology of James E. Loder:  Encounter & Conviction (New York:  Peter Lang, 2011).
[2] Augustine, The Trinity 1.3.5., cited in Robert Louis Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought (New Haven:  Yale University Press, 2003), 37.
[3] Wilken, 106.
[4] A summary of Augustine, The Trinity, 9.1; 1.1.3; 8.4.6, in Wilken, 108.

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