Our Relational, Trinitarian God
For this blog, I’ve opted to send out the audio clip and the text of the sermon I preached this last Sunday, Trinity Sunday, at my home congregation of Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in Duluth, Minnesota.
Aside of a bit of good-natured ribbing of my truly remarkable pastor, who conveniently (and legitimately, it must be said!) had a wedding out-of-state on one of the most difficult days on which to preach, the sermon fusses with the perplexing mystery of the claim that Christians believe in a Triune God.
Though we might not exactly know how to wrap our minds around the Three-In-One, it could be even said that Christians are best understood not as monotheists (believers in one God), and certainly not as Tritheists (believers in three gods), but rather as Trinitiarians, believers of the Three-in-One God.
I’m not at all saying I figured it all out, but I gave it a proclamatory whirl.
May 27, 2018 Trinity Sunday
Grace to you and peace from our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
So I have always admired Pastor Carlson, not least of all for his obvious, deep, and wide intelligence.
The man, to put it mildly, is positively one of the sharpest knives in the drawer, in every possible way.
So out of deep respect for the guy, when Pastor Carlson asked whether I could preach while he was gone, obviously I said, “Here am I! Send me!” “Terrific!” he said. “How about May 27?” And with my “Done!” the deal was sealed.
But….see it was only then that I looked at the texts for today, and it was only then that it clicked that May 27 is Trinity Sunday, annnnnnnnd it was only then that it clicked here was yet another demonstration of how smart Pr. Carlson is.
What savvy congregational pastor, I ask you, slated to preach on Trinity Sunday, wouldn’t skip town if given the chance!
Sisters and brothers in Christ, in more ways than I can count, our pastor is brilliant, I tell you.
Now, of course that isn’t why he left; he is legit gone for a wedding in Colorado, so I’m kidding about everything but…the Trinity-Sunday-is-tricky part.
In fact, I’m reminded of Walt Bouman, my systematic theology professor, who, when we got to the unit on the Trinity, told of the time when he was in confirmation and the pastor was teaching about the mystery of the Trinity. Walt raised his hand and said, “I’m sorry…I still don’t understand,” to which the pastor bellowed, “Just shut up and believe!” It’s worth noting that the pastor was Walt’s own dad!
So what I’d really like to do is begin this sermon by saying, “Grace to you and peace from our risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,” and then say, “God is the Trinity. Shut up and Believe.” and close it with a quick and righteous “Amen.”
But then I don’t think I’d be asked to preach here again, and, for that matter, if the bishop found out I’d probably never be allowed to preach again anywhere.
So I’m going to give the Trinity a proclamatory whirl, gulping all the while.
Anybody who says that they understand the Trinity should not be trusted.
To this degree, then, at least this much can be said for Walt’s father: he was at a minimum intellectually honest. Rather than explain it, he (more or less) said that belief in the Trinity is less about a dogma, less, that is, about accepting some clearly delineated, detailed explanation of faith, and more about faith itself.
The reason, that is, that this text from John is selected for today is because we just don’t have many passages in Scripture that pull together references to God the Father and God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, like textual one-stop-Trinitiarian shopping.
There’s no point-to text that explains the Trinity, and insofar as that is true, fact is, we’re theologically punting, a bit, we’re conjecturing, we’re piecing together clues to be able to say something faithful about God.
We’re not exactly guessing. But we are surmising, we are standing like Isaiah before the throne and we are trembling a bit.
Because it’s pretty important that what we say about God is faithful.
Especially these days; there are so many false gods, deceiving gods, dangerous gods clamoring for our fidelity, for our trust, for our loyalty, that it is absolutely essential that we who say that we believe in the God have some clarity about who this God is in stark comparison to loud, obnoxious, threatening, powerful, death-dealing wannabe ones.
Trinity Sunday, you see, helps us to better grasp the First Commandment to love our God and have no other ones, by better grasping who our God is.
So here is where, given all of that tension about the Trinity—there’s nothing to say and there’s so much to say—that here is where we will begin, and here is where we will end:
God is relational.
What did God do straight away?
God created and God had a heck of a good time doing it.
There’s this great passage by a glorious albeit late theologian, Father Robert Farrar Captain, about the Trinity. Capon wrote:
Let me tell you why God made the world.
One afternoon, before anything was made, God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost sat around in the unity of their Godhead discussing one of the Father’s fixations. From all eternity, it seems he had had this thing about being. He would keep thinking up all kinds of unnecessary things—new ways of being and new kinds of beings to be. And as they talked, God the Son suddenly said, “Really, this is absolutely great stuff. Why don’t I go out and mix us up a batch?” And God the Holy Ghost said, “Terrific, I’ll help you.” So they all pitched in, and after supper that night, the Son and the Holy Ghost put on this tremendous show of being for the Father. It was full of water and light and frogs; pine cones kept dropping all over the place and crazy fish swam around in the wineglasses. There were mushrooms and grapes, horseradishes and tigers—and men and women everywhere to taste them, to juggle them, to join them and to love them. And God the Father looked at the whole wild party and he said, “Wonderful! Just what I had in mind! Tov! Tov! Tov!” And all God the Son and God the Holy Ghost could think of to say was the same thing. “Tov! Tov! Tov!” So they shouted together “Tov meod!”^ and they laughed for ages and ages, saying things like how great it was for things to be, and how clever of the Father to think of the idea, and how kind of the Son to go to all that trouble putting it together, and how considerate of the Spirit to spend so much time directing and choreographing. And forever and ever they told old jokes, and the Father and the Son drank their wine in unitate Spiritus Sancti,+ and they all threw ripe olives and pickled mushrooms at each other per omnia saecula saeulorum. Amen.
From The Third Peacock: The Problem of God and Evil
I love that!
What do you get?
Shared joy and shared love and really, really good food and beverages.
I don’t happen to like olives and pickled mushrooms, but I’m sure somebody does, and I know for a fact that God also created mortadella, pecorino, a little roasted garlic spread, and fine fine crispy hot bread, so it’s all good.
See, being alone wasn’t, and isn’t, godlike.
Nor is being selfish.
Nope: God is relational, God is bent on creating bursting, joyful life for all.
See, the tired old attempts to explain the Trinity as a Hot Dog, bun, and ketchup, or ice, liquid water, and vapor, and so on and so forth…Sigh and Arg. I’ll take Capon’s vision any day: pine cones and grapes and dancing and love.
Perhaps another way of thinking about it is this: I am daughter, I am mama, I am friend. I do not act with each of these elements of my relationships in the same way, but nonetheless, each relationship and each expression of me in each of those relationships is me.
Find some relationship-magnet, and pull away my mama-ing, or my daughter-ing, or my friend-ing, and I would not be me.
And note, although I’m one person, I express myself differently according to the relationship at hand. Different elements of my essence are manifest when there is the different claim of the relation. Relationships, that is, are dynamic, are changing, are unique, and we adapt according to the person or people at hand; caring about the other means meeting the other where they are, which creates a relationship of trust, which is reflected back into the person initiating the relationship, which in turn is plowed back into the other person, which circles back again, which affects how I am in my other relationships, which is received differently in these other relationships, which shapes me which shapes them….
There is a reason, that is, that Capon uses the word “choreographing.” There is a Dance-like element to the relationship between Father/Son/Holy Spirit, and the Trinity and the rest of creation. Another fancy word used to describe the Trinity is perechoresis, a Greek word that is related to choreography, which means to move around and move forward together in the same space.
Anyone able to find one English word that says the same thing gets a homemade rhubarb pie, I’m telling you what.
The assigned texts for the day lift up another element of this dynamic relational business: we are not complete unless we all are complete.
“8Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!””
Isaiah wouldn’t have to have been sent if God were solitary, if God had not called anyone into being. Rather than “who will go for us,” God would have had to have asked…by way of talking to Godself….“to whom should somebody go, ‘cause…there’s nobody around?” And the whole point of going was to drop some knowledge of God to make the whole people whole.
And what is the passage from Romans if not about family? Children, heirs, birthing imagery, hopes for wellness and wholeness and redemption for all of Creation. That’s the stuff of actual ‘relations,’ of real ‘relatives.’
And then there’s this passage from John.
What person who goes to a baseball game doesn’t know this passage from John?
16“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
Of course, only on rare occasions does someone hold up instead a placard emblazoned with only verse 17: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
See, and here’s this word ‘saved.’ You’ve heard me say it before but it is so essential that I promise you if Pr. Carlson ever invites me back to preach another time, say on Ascension Sunday or some other ridiculously hard-to-figure out day when he was smart enough to get out of Dodge, I’ll circle back to the word once again.
The Greek word we translate here as “saved” is soteria.
Soteria means, in Greek, health, healing, and wholeness.
Read it again this way, then. “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be healthy, and healed, and whole through him.”
That changes the tone, not to mention the temporal gist, of the passage, doesn’t it.
Suddenly the threat that people intentionally seek to inspire by highlighting verse 16 “So that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life,” is less about what happens when you die, and more what the Trinitarian God hopes for the well-being of the world while we live.
God as Trinity cares about the whole world now.
God as Trinity wants the whole world now to experience salvation, soteria, health, healing, and wholeness.
Because God is relational.
Moreover, we are related to God—children, even, as we hear today. We are children of God, and in that way, we are quite literally embodied expressions of God.
Where we go, what we do, how we treat people, for whom we vote, whether we comfort, whether we speak up and act, whether we abide the systems of oppression or turn them upside down, whatever we do as Christians is identified by others as what our God would do too.
And so, in a few words, who is our Trinitarian God again?
A God who is relational. Loving. Abundant. Life-creating and sustaining. Unabashed in concern for the well-being of the whole world.
In short, you can get a sense of the Trinitarian God with this upshot: God creates with breath, God redeems from death, God yearns for health.
Creation, sustenance, redemption.
That’s what our Trinitarian God is about.
And, moreover, if we call ourselves Christians, we align ourselves with that same Trinitarian agenda, and are ambassadors of it all: breath, health, and resistance to all forms of unnecessary, offensive, life-taking forms of death.
And joy. Don’t forget the joy and the delight of the Triune God.
That is crazy but true: we who are gathered here, we are each ambassadors of the Trinitarian essence of soteria, of health, healing, wholeness, and joy for all creatures, and for all of creation.
We are inherently relational too, you see, because we are made in the image of this Trinitarian God.
It’s not just about us, our private selves, and our personal health, healing, and wholeness. It is about the world’s.
We are not well unless all are well.
And well does not mean rich.
Well does not mean privileged.
Well does not mean rigidly perfect.
In fact, wealth and privilege and morally superior illusions of perfection are themselves in as much need of redemption as poverty and as oppression and as deep, deep brokenness.
And so in pursuit and in honor of the agenda of soteria, of God’s salvation for the whole world, in the name of the Trinitarian God we too can seek to create personal and systemic relationships of love and generosity and equity and wholeness, and in the name of the Trinitarian God we too can seek to redeem —even by leaving behind or by upheaving with grace—broken personal and systemic relationships of pain, suffering, and inequity, and in the name of the Trinitarian God we too can invite and welcome people into the way of soteria, of health, healing, wholeness, and joy.
As the sermon (finally) wraps up, I realize that it’s not like there aren’t reasons to still raise your hands after all of this and say, “I…still don’t understand.”
And if you do, I promise I won’t tell you to shut up.
But I will invite you to believe through faith this: The Father loves the world, very much. Jesus is risen and redeems this beloved world. The Holy Spirit, she blows through us and through the world to let us know that now that death doesn’t win, there’s more to do with our lives than preserve them.
So, created in the image of this Trinitarian God, we are sent, we are called, to go on out and be ambassadors of soteria, of salvation, of unabashed, unrestrained, unrestrainable, and really incredibly unfathomable Trinitarian joy and love for the world.
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Contact Anna at firstname.lastname@example.org to visit about personal or congregational consultations, as well as to speak about booking her to present at your next event.
She also runs The Spent Dandelion Theological Retreat Center, where you can come to Retreat, Reflect, and Restore at her North Shore home. Visit www.spentdandelion.com to learn more!